Po­etry’s provo­ca­teurs

A se­lec­tion of po­etic jour­neys across the world and through the mind

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS - STOD­DARD MARTIN

Mu­sica Transalpina Miche­lene Wan­dor Arc Publi­ca­tions, £8.95 Moon Wheels Ruth Fainlight Blood­axe, £8.95 Run­ning Late Dan­nie Abse Hutchin­son, £9.99 Wide Skies, Salt and Best Bit­ter Peter Phillips Hear­ing Eye, £6.95 Galatea Me­lanie Chal­lenger Salt, £8.99 Stranger to Noth­ing Philip Levine Blood­axe, £9.95

What is ar­rest­ing about Miche­lene Wan­dor’s new col­lec­tion are its sus­tained evo­ca­tions of Re­nais­sance artistry, in the Man­tua of Sala­m­one Rossi, the Venice of Vi­valdi, the Rome of Benvenuto Cellini. Spare, imag­is­tic, mar­vel­lously ca­denced lines con­jure up ar­chi­tec­ture, feel­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence of sound, per­for­mance, chis­elling, cre­ation.

Wan­dor’s range is so wide that she brings her com­poser’s skill also to bib­li­cal tales, throw­ing arpeg­gios of words across the page in The Masks of Es­ther, ex­tend­ing witty play through Emilia’s Poem or The Mar­riage of True Minds or Have you heard the one about Shake­speare and the Dark (Jewish) Lady of the Son­nets? She re­calls Pound in some of her prosody and con­tent, but she achieves what that pathfinder failed at: virtù with­out mean­ness or hate.

The new po­ems in Ruth Fainlight’s vol­ume pass swiftly in her clear, lap­idary style: shrewd aperçus tightly packed, all ap­pre­cia­ble. Then we are struck by some shock­ingly mov­ing im­age, such as a clerk help­ing sec­re­taries to a ledge in a burn­ing sky­scraper, be­cause free fall seems prefer­able to help­less suf­fo­ca­tion.

The vol­ume in­cludes work re­trieved from the poet’s out-of-print books, re­mind­ing us of how fine she has been for how long — and how at­tached to Mediter­ranean land­scape and myth. Trans­la­tions from Por­tuguese and Span­ish sep­a­rate old from new, in­clud­ing a mem­o­rable ver­sion of Sophia de Mello Breyner’s evo­ca­tion of By­ron in Palazzo Mocenigo, wait­ing for the muse.

Fainlight’s res­ur­rected po­ems con­tain remembrances of her mother. Dan­nie Abse’s new vol­ume is ded­i­cated to the me­mory of his wife, who died in a car crash af­ter “three score licit years.../ in per­durable love, age­ing to­gether,/ lag­ging some­what, slowly run­ning late.”

It flick­ers with other “phan­toms/ who were com­ing/ came and now have passed” and casts light on the au­thor’s own achieve­ment of four score, of­ten with the grumpi­ness of one who has “reach[ed] the last out­post of Pre­tend”.

Th­ese po­ems are bril­liant, sav­age, witty — the work of an old mas­ter like Yeats walk­ing a Celtic shore, watch­ing be­tween ex­al­ta­tion and anger “the pur­pu­ral sky sur­ren­der/ its swags of gold into the thiev­ing sea”.

There is much walk­ing on shores in the vol­ume by Peter Phillips. It be­gins as a paean to Nor­folk — skies “drained of am­bi­tion”, crea­tures hu­man and oth­er­wise: cows that “trail past like philoso­phers/ learned in the truth of cows”; spir­its whose wild­ness con­sists in “stand­ing on mud­flats still clammy/ with the taste of tide”; sybarites who long to con­sume “a heap of roast pota­toes/ ...so much bet­ter than a pile of peas”. There is com­edy in the or­di­nary, and this homme moyen sen­suel is full of it. Yet just as you are tempted to laugh at him, he hits you with the un­ex­pected — how it might feel to be a fox in the city feast­ing from dust­bins, evad­ing drunken driv­ers, crawl­ing off to die af­ter hav­ing legs crushed in a trap.

The tragic is not al­lowed to last long: the last sec­tion con­tains a prayer to be rein­car­nated as a bra.

Phillips at times re­calls Leopold Bloom. Me­lanie Chal­lenger’s new work is puffed by non-fic­tive Harold of that name: “No po­etry in English since D H Lawrence matches [her] con­trolled ex­u­ber­ance of form, dic­tion, met­ric and vi­sion, fused by Eros with au­then­tic splen­dor.” Af­ter such praise from a high priest, what need for mere re­view­ers?

This one agrees, but be warned: this po­etry is dense-lay­ered, thicks­cented, chal­leng­ing, wildly pas­sional to use a Lawren­tian word. Death and sex meet here, blood and ooze. Mind is alive with body, flesh with spirit. This is erec­tile writ­ing in a fem­i­nised sense of Hem­ing­way’s term: in­spi­ra­tion flows at the speed of mul­ti­ple or­gasm — hymns to the earth mother, in­vo­ca­tions of a god un­known. “Let there al­ways be this heat,” the au­thor in­cants; “Let there be no death of feel­ing.../ Au­re­ate/ An­ni­hi­lat­ing...” One can but stand in awe and muse.

Philip Levine, Detroit-born lau­re­ate of hard-bit­ten re­al­i­ties, takes us from ban­tam-weight box­ers to pigs be­ing slaugh­tered, Viet­nam war­riors to the 871,251 di­fun­tos of 1930s Spain, down a camino real of lost lives.

His own van­ish­ing youth i s prom­i­nent, rid­ing the rails with Ker­oua­cian con­tem­po­raries in quest of a fa­ther gone when he was five, or a na­tive city im­plod­ing to echoes of Gins­berg’s howl. Ul­ti­mately the real be­comes meta-real, the jour­ney a trip to­wards meta­phys­i­cal in­ti­ma­tion. Watch­ing the growth of this spirit via his metic­u­lously traced progress per­suades me he should re­main a stranger to no one. Buy his book.

Stod­dard Martin is a writer and pub­lisher.

Re­mem­brance and re­flec­tion, from Fainlight (left) and Abse (above)

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