The decade’s best poetry books: my picks, part two.
See part one here!
Shag by Sue Vickerman (Arrowhead Press, Darlington, 2003).
I’m revisiting a lot of previously-documented discoveries with this list, and Sue Vickerman is another one! She’s a former winner of the Biscuit Poetry Prize and a novelist and short fiction writer as well as a poet — Shag is her first pamphlet collection and it’s full of absolute gems. Vickerman’s poems are straight-talking and confident, acutely observed — but they also posess an intrinsic beauty and warmth. Her wording is never flowery, complex or showy — every single word here is well-placed and necessary. But the poems are never sparse, either — there’s some deft wordsmithery at work here that gives the poems a simple beauty and originality: “Aberdeen was gentle / as an egg-box, pencil-shaded, hesitant outlines / smudged by weather” (Low Pressure). Every poem in this slim collection takes you to a new place — from birdspotting on bleak northern beaches to bedrooms in the Shanghai Hilton to rainy warehouse yards in Toxteth — and every poem is a new vignette or story to immerse yourself in. This is only a pamphlet, but if my first collection was as impressive as this, I’d be more than happy.
The Unswept Room by Sharon Olds (Jonathan Cape, London, 2003).
Sharon Olds is one of those poets who needs no introduction — I’ve also discovered that she’s in that rather exclusive club with poets like Ginsberg and Bukowski. Marmite poets, in that you either love or hate them — I’ve yet to meet anyone who says “yeah, Sharon Olds is OK,” but I meet plenty of people who vehemently detest her or obsessively love her. I’m obviously in the latter category — I love the bravery and audacity of her poems. Some people can’t stand Olds’ apparent need to lay her past and personal life bare (she has freely admitted that her work is pretty much 100% autobiographical), or the way she returns again and again to the same anecdote or memory in many different poems. I, however, like this decision to use poetry as a way of understanding the past, of exorcising demons… and I have been particularly fascinated by her changing perception of a significant event as the years (and books) pass. The treatment of a memory in her 1980 debut Satan Says is often vastly changed when she returns to re-examine it in a later collection. I have enjoyed the journey Olds has taken me on in her work, and The Unswept Room is my favourite of all the stops along the way. Favourite poems include Pansy Glossary, in which the pansy becomes a metaphor for womanhood in its many shifting forms; Bible Study: 71 B.C.E, which I like because it sees Olds doing something she doesn’t often — putting herself into the shoes of someone else; and Still Life In A Landscape, when Olds recalls the day her family witnessed a fatal car accident. Those of you who already know Olds’ work will have made up your minds about her already, but if you haven’t, and you’re looking for a good place to start… The Unswept Room is it.
Poems for the Retired Nihilist, edited by Graham Bendel (Fortune Teller Press, London, 2005).
I love this little anthology, mainly because it’s pretty darned weird. Picture the scene: Barbara Cartland alongside Charles Bukowski, Lawrence Ferlinghetti sharing page-space with Sylvia Plath. Not only that — some of the poems here are actually song lyrics, snatches of prose or cut-ups. Some are old favourites while others will doubtless be surprising new discoveries. Every turn of the page reveals a radically different piece to the one you just read, which makes the book feel pretty damn bonkers. However, it is also brilliant. Printed in a limited run, it’s a low-fi, big-hearted anthology unlike any other, and regardless of your poetic tastes (from Betjeman to Richard Hell — I’m serious) you’ll find something to love in here. The book thumbs its nose at both ‘Favourite Classic Poems’ -type anthologies, and the more contemporary ‘poetry’s current edgy young things’ collections that come out every so often. What this book essentially says is: poetry is everywhere, poetry probably isn’t anything you think it is, poetry is awesome. If you can find a copy (I suspect it may now be near out-of-print), snap it up.
More soon! In the meantime… tell me what your favourites were, and why!