Previously featured back in 2018, the pandemic and its effects on all our lives have led us to return to this little red volume. Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen our lives change in a way few of us would have anticipated.
For the health of ourselves and all those around us, our world must necessarily become more isolated. However, isolation is another sort of challenge. How do we do what we need to do to stay physically well, while also staying mentally well? And how do we manage the anxiety and fear that’s unavoidable in a time of uncertainty? The Poetry Pharmacy has some great tips for how to go on in times of trouble.
This collection, curated by William Sieghart, the founder of National Poetry Day, is a volume of hope, comfort, and reassurance – a validation of the feelings many of us may be struggling with, and the encouragement that we’re not alone. Divided into chapters such as “Loneliness”, “Purposelessness”, and “Need for Reassurance”, the book is a reminder that, though we may be physically isolated from each other, we’re connected by our experiences, worries, and hopes for the future.
Poetry is truly an antidote to isolation, and we urge you to embrace it this month in particular. It’s NaPoWriMo so while you’re spending a little more time indoors why not whip out a notebook and try your hand at a few poetry prompts? Or perhaps you prefer reading to writing? In which case, sign up to our Poems For Breakfast to receive a fresh poem in your inbox every morning.
In this age of globalization, migration, refugee crisis, Brexit, and an increasingly mobile population, it is a luxury to feel like you belong somewhere. This is the theme that pervades Anthony Anaxagorou’s After the Formalities. Anaxagorou is of British and Cypriot heritage, and the collection insistently calls out the perceived otherness of having a background of multiple nationalities. The formalities of the collection’s title here are the politenesses, the performance of social graces, before being hit with what the real line of inquiry is: where are you from really.
Poems like ‘A Line of Simple Inquiry’ trace the experience which is all too familiar for anyone who might be perceived as being from somewhere else: the scrutiny and “taxonomy of difference, along with the need or entitlement to ask so politely”, the fussy side-stepping and hedging of “your people, as in extraordinary, as in don’t take this the wrong way, as in don’t take this to heart, but it’s all so fascinating”. More appallingly, ‘Uber’ recounts an encounter where the speaker’s Mauritian cab-driver is verbally harassed by two men on the day of the EU referendum in 2016.
This is the potency of language: to hurt, to be violent, to ostracize, to alienate. And Anaxagorou’s poetry is a counter-attack with deftly controlled short lines, verb-fronted sentences, brutally incisive observations. This is a poet who knows the strength words can have. In his elegy to his dying grandmother, ‘Biographer’, Anaxagorou describes how she “taught me to write. to sip sound. use language for closeness. for closure.” Just as importantly, though, he is aware of where language falls so very short. The collection is arguably at its strongest when allowing for this space in language. In ‘Things Already Lost’, Anaxagorou’s son is curious about “where water ends when it / disappears along with dirt” in the bath, whether the trail a snail makes “is a thing / it makes or it leaves”. There are no answers to these questions, reflected in the wordlessness of the poem’s last line: “when a motorcycle is down / most of us will stand one of us kneels / nobody’s sure where to touch”. Even in its silence, Anaxagorou’s poetry is strong, balancing always on the edge of what is said, what is unsaid, and the power of both of those things.
February: The Love I Do To You by Mariah Whelan
Valentine’s Day this month, and what’s more romantic than a sonnet? The poetic form most often associated with romance, Shakespeare’s sonnets drip with eroticism, Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella gushes with adoration, describing an ethereal world where love reigns over all.
Mariah Whelan’s ‘The Love I Do To You‘ is a different kind of sonnet sequence. Taking the genre and its expectations, this is a modern love story which opens with running away from a city and running away from a relationship. The book follows ‘He’ and ‘She’ as they tell their alternating sides of the story. Their lives weave in and out of each other while they try to stay geographically and emotionally apart, the relationship tangling across borders and oceans and years.
It’s as much about trying to find one’s place in the world as one’s place with someone else. The sense of place is striking throughout the book, the use of maps and each title situating the poems geographically. While ‘He’ and ‘She’ travel from the north of England across Asia, Whelan evocatively conjures the Tyne in Newcastle, a seedy bar in South Korea, a fish market in Tokyo slipperingly and viscerally described. You feel the characters exploring their internal worlds as they explore the external, the feeling of being a tourist in one’s own life, seeking to belong.
This is a sonnet sequence which explores love from a less idealized angle: across countries, beyond the cosy confines of a relationship, through one-night stands, trying to figure out being exes and friends or friends with benefits or whatever two people can become after the happily ever after turns out not to be a bit more complicated, but the intimacy remains. Food for thought, this Valentine’s season.
January: Happiness by Jack Underwood
Jack Underwood’s ‘Happiness’ is a collection which came out in 2015 but which we’ve been returning to here at OPL towers throughout these dark months. January is so often a time to look ahead. There is a lot of pressure to get things right, to try to plan and prepare for the future with clarity, optimism and hope. The book is good antidote to that, full of human fallibility, uncomfortable in places, searching for happiness and finding it elusive, impossible, and far more complicated than we could ever imagine.
There is clear evidence in the poems of feelings related to happiness. There is satisfacion: the certainty of an onion sliced in half, “calling one half Perfect / the other also Perfect”. There is love in the dread of failing as a future father, in serving the perfect boiled egg. There is glee in ‘The Spooks’ which imagines “inject[ing] blood into the banana” and watching someone bite into it and try to fathom how on earth the “strange rust” got there. But where happiness appears, it is uncertain and ungraspable. The eponymous poem meanders around different kinds of happiness: goofy, domestic, unfamiliar, personal, simple, various. It is immediately followed by a poem about sadness, as if confirming the fact that happiness can never be understood without its opposite. The poem explores how sadness can feel huge and indestructible, but also private, passive and small, a reaction to someone else’s alien, unknowable happiness as we listen “to our neighbours’ voices having the voices / of their friends around for lunch”. Death, too, haunts happiness. Later in the collection, ‘An Avoidance’ dwells on the death of a friend, the regret of not having “pulled up a white plastic patio / chair,” and saying “I know you don’t want to be here / either. Instead I let a week pass. It was so easy.”
What shines in these poems is the weird complexity of the world, the aching constance emotions, and their huge, absolute consequences. Happiness is not simple, pure or knowable. It is glimpsed and odd, coloured by the clamour of our lives.
New years is such a time for absolutes: resolutions, a whole new you. But poetry like this is a reminder of the sheer randomness of living, the precariousness of existence, how little control we have over even the ordinariness of our lives: “But imagine you knew the objects to hand / were your last objects: like a TV remote: / the rubber buttons at the edge of your nail, or / you’re rubbing its smooth back in your palm; / you’re clicking open the back and rolling / the batteries, like two little buddies in there – / you are alive.” This last statement is an assertion constantly on the brink of being undermined. You are alive, for now. The world is tangible for now. Find truth and joy where you can because nothing is permanent and, as the title poem states, happiness “is not always usual, and does not wait to leave”.