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.
Kevin Young’s accomplished collection of poems, Stones, moves with deliberate pace, an anodyne for those who have lost someone they will always love. The language is delicate and gentle—yet provocative in word and manner. In his review for The New York Times, David Orr describes Stones as a book about how families absorb and repurpose loss. Stones embraces grief by examining the root likeness of our ancestry—the way we grow into and out from our inheritance.
There’s an old adage that our pupils teach us far more than they are taught. The former teacher in me doesn’t quarrel with that, and nor, apparently, does Hannah Lowe. Drawn from her own ten years’ teaching in ‘an inner-city London sixth form’, the book erupts with classroom vibrancy, without confining itself to in-school tales.
Kayo Chingonyi steps back into a place where the imagination and memory become one. Born in Zambia, brought up in London, and now teaching at Durham University, his collection explores the multiplicity of identity and the emotions that flow into it.
Some reckon that to be competition-fit a poem requires an arresting title. With a back catalogue encompassing collection titles as extraordinary as Trembling Hearts in the Bodies of Dogs, People Who Like Meatballs and The Magnitude of My Sublime Existence, Selima Hill brims with relevant expertise. The contents list in this, her latest collection, is a poem in itself.