A democratic eye bounces off the page in this collection of poems from Susan Millar DuMars’ twenty five years of published writing. She sees love in the quotidian detail, gives voice to women on the edge, notices that which we would pass by and, moreover, she deals with subjects that are normally hidden and forbidden.
From mating bees to Samuel Beckett to boats across the sea, John Duffy does not leave a corner of our earth untouched. Duffy’s latest collection A Gowpen is crammed with a myriad of imagery. The ‘gowpen’ of the title is Scots for the action of cupping your hands together. To take a gowpen of something is to allow others to share with you. From the outset, we are welcomed thus with charity and sincerity, a gesture repeated in many of the poems in this collection. There is a warmth in his admiration of the kindness that humanity can offer – perhaps a quality that is desperately needed in our current climate.
Sheri Benning’s Field Requiem is crosshatched with both Biblical and grid references. In the terrifying enormity of the Canadian prairies, which this collection both hymns and mourns, the reader may manage to avoid locating the exact locations (and some may, in any case be fictionalised, wisely), but the layer of the religious aspects cannot be skimmed. The New Testament reference above takes the reader to The Parable of the Minas, which is perhaps less self-evident in its truths than some others.
Far-reaching in his enquiry, Michael Symmons Roberts in Ransom, his eighth published collection of poetry, addresses some fundamental issues about human nature – who and what guides us, and in turn keeps us in thrall. Some poems have a more traditional meditative rendering while others tend more toward the performative, riffing off contemporary themes about living in the city. Yet, all are united by the ubiquitous theme of ransom. Jeanette Winterson has monikered Roberts as a religious poet for the secular age. Reading through the sequences in this collection, I can see why for it understands ransom as levied on us by how we live now, the creeds we might follow, our education, to say nothing about the cultural and ethical legacies of the past.
Single Window is Daniel Sluman’s third collection. In this book-length poem, Sluman meditates on a year of his life (2016-17) when chronic illness confined he and his wife, Emily, to a sofa in their living room. Written in free verse, with powerful use of white space, the words are interlaced with photographs by Emily Brenchi-Sluman. The coupling of word and image in this work not only becomes a documentary but is a powerful nod to the shared nature of their experience.
Victoria Kennefick’s latest collection, Eat Or We Both Starve, is a considered and powerful meditation on what it means to hunger and, subsequently, to consume. Kennefick weaves historical figures, literary references and personal memories into her work in a painstaking attempt to examine hunger in its myriad forms – be it physical, sexual, relational or spiritual. At times, the poems are so interconnected in theme that the entire collection feels concentrated into one sharp burst of writing. Yet it is clear that Kennefick’s process has been refined and reoriented, as many of the poems contain a wisdom and strength – the voice of an embodied womanhood.
Joelle Taylor’s T S Eliot Prize nominated C+nto & Othered Poems is her third collection of poetry, following Songs my Enemy Taught Me (2017)… C+nto shares some similarities to Songs in its unflinching attention to the body and its enemies but this new collection returns to her roots both artistic (Taylor was a playwright before she found recognition as a poet) and personal. As in Songs, these are poems of resistance, this time set to the beat of the 90s gay bar jukebox. They remember these places as sanctuary and lament their passing in a time when queer community seems made and unmade on twitter threads rather than dancefloors.
Writing that is enquiring, taking very little for granted, and making space for readers is always a joy to behold. All the Names Given has these virtues in spades, posing some searing questions not only about the nature of ancestry, family, identity, colonial legacies, racism, how and where we fit within a larger social world, but what these mean for the living?
In Jack Underwood’s timely second poetry collection, A Year in the New Life, shortlisted for the 2021 T.S. Eliot prize, he considers his place in the world having become a father. Underwood exposes his innermost deliberations and fears, placing them within a world that is becoming increasingly alien for all of us.
Bette Howland (Picador, 2021) pbk, £14.99 Originally published in 1974, this is an account by the author of the time she spent as an inpatient in a psychiatric ward of a hospital in Chicago, having taken a life-threatening overdose. It piqued the interest of Brigid Hughes, editor of Public Space magazine, who came across it Read More