As I write this, the UK has just begun its second lockdown, we teeter on the brink of the result of the US election, and we are all entering the darkest corner of the year. It’s bloody chaos, to be frank, and we’re all working to keep our head above the water. It’s easy in these circumstances to lose sight of the things that make us truly human – not just surviving, but embodying our personhood and immersing ourselves in the experience of being alive.
So thank goodness for this newest installation of Bloodaxe’s ‘Staying Alive’ series. This collection is comprehensive in reminding us of so many facets of our humanity. Yes, there is grief and hope, the big extremes we’ve all been rollercoastering between this year. There are poems like Danusha Laméris’s ‘Insha’allah’ which describes the careful, determined prayers we cling to day on day. Galway Kinnell’s poem ‘Wait’ advises on what to do in the face of crippling sorrow. But there is also small stuff, the everyday stuff of the human experience. There is a whole section called ‘Ten zillion things’ to celebrate the senses, and sections on painting and music. There is slow-dancing, quince jelly and olives, arguments, a childhood determination to own a macaw, waking up to snow. The wonderous multitude of existence is here, and this is just a snapshot.
The anthology also features a huge range of voices from different backgrounds, genders, cultures. Attention is paid to giving platform to new, up-coming voices (Danez Smith, Raymond Antrobus, Ilya Kaminsky, Mary Jean Chan to name just a few) as well as more established names (Audre Lorde, John Agard, Gillian Clarke, Seamus Heaney…). The spectrum of experience captured is also vast, but what holds the anthology together and its real strength is the extreme attentiveness to how the poems are put together. Astley is minutely aware of how one poem’s themes and mood will melt into the next, the poem complimenting or clashing meaningfully with the following. Whether it’s repetition of a turn of phrase or an image, or emotions which enact a sort of call and response or echo with one another, the collection runs like a symphony with repeated strains and new notes being brought in. Anthologizing like this is skilful and rare.
‘Staying Human’ is the fourth in its series, and they’re all staggering in their contents and compilation. But now more than ever: we don’t just need to stay alive, we need to stay human.
October: The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris
“God knows the world needs all the good it can get right now” opens the Goldfinch spell from The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris. And thank God for a book like this at times like these. If you follow OPL’s work at all, you’re probably aware that we’ve run a series of workshops and projects around The Lost Words, this book’s predecessor which kicked off Macfarlane and Morris’s mission to reconjure nature and words from nature back into the lives of children and adults alike. The Lost Spells is its brand new little sister, a pocket-sized, portable talisman to take with you into the world and remind yourself of the power and wonder of the natural world wherever you are.
Talisman feels like the right term, here. The poems are not only attentively attuned to their subjects, they really do magic up their energy. We meet the playful, tongue-twisting, gymnastic rapping of the Jackdaw, are lullabied by sleepy silver birches. Swifts and seals, moths and foxes are breathed into the spells that conjure them, but also in Morris’s stunning paintings. There is magic in this book, but the magic is resolutely of this world: it is something we can all encounter just by stepping out our front doors. You don’t need to visit a nature reserve to happen across a fox or a jackdaw.
But things are disappearing. The sadness in the poems for the snow hare, the curlew, the moths, reminds us that despite their beauty, they are endangered. Ecological impoverishment is happening and it is up to us to do something about it – and Macfarlane and Morris both know that the only way to save it is by first making us all care. “We rarely save what we do not love and we rarely love what we cannot name,” says Macfarlane. The Lost Spells gives us names for these plants and animals, and a vocabulary to love and revel in them. The spells are good, hold goodness, and we need all the good we can get – and not just because it is wonderful but because it is absolutely crucial to the survival of the natural world.
This month, celebrate this book and wider mission with us by having a go at a few of our projects inspired by The Lost Words! Why not download one of our free activity packs and get out into the green spaces around your home and get creative? If you are or know a 7-14 year old in Oxfordshire, you can then submit your own Lost Words spell to our competition, judged by Robert Macfarlane himself (deadline November 2nd!). We’re also running one of our Lost Words workshops at Hill End for families on October 17th – register and join us to spend the afternoon celebrating and writing about nature.
September: The Air Year by Caroline Bird
‘Do you remember the one about the fighter plane during World War II, riddled with bullets from enemy fire, and the plucky pilot who took five packs of Wrigley’s peppermint gum from his pocket and told his crew to chew’ begins the prose poem ‘Urban Myth’ from Caroline Bird’s sixth collection, The Air Year, currently shortlisted to win this year’s Forward Prize.
Surreal, darkly comic scenes are a hallmark of Bird’s poetry and this book is no different. Readers will find titles like ‘Nancy & the Torpedo’, openers informing you that ‘you thought you could ride a bicycle / but, turns out, those weren’t bikes / they were extremely bony horses’, or speakers conversing with Alcestis in a ‘hotel called Naphthalene Heights’.
Bird’s poetry is undeniably funny. But, like any good surrealist, it’s driven by serious sentiments. In The Air Year, Bird’s speakers grapple with unrest & indecision; feeling like ‘a windmill in a vacuum / packed village’, they find themselves stuck in the liminal, ‘locked in the amber of the and’. (Does this sound familiar?)
The poet riffs her titular theme elegantly. Air is everywhere. Whether it’s fallen through, hovered in, inhaled through kisses, or pursued ‘down a steep flight of throat into a windowless cell of breathing walls.’ But in ‘Traditional Vows’ we learn that The Air Year signifies the transient year prior to marriage. And though the collection is certainly not restricted to romantic relationships, it explores a world where ‘love consists mainly of rope bridges’ and of ‘untrained air where love is born’.
Readers will fall in love with Bird’s writing for her fresh and strange imagery. She’s as capable of conjuring off-kilter scenes (‘The greengrocer started throwing apples at children as a gesture of goodwill’), as she is in capturing everyday moments (‘toothpaste tastes of morning / breath’). Perhaps they’ll love her more for how she plays the poetic line to fuse this (‘Hello single / strand of hair across my forehead / like a crack in the universe’). And who could hesitate to love the poet whose punch line to the joke I started with is to reveal it’s an analogy for a failing relationship, ending ‘with a wad of sweetness freshly printed from the panic of our mouths’?
Oxford comes into its own in the summer and one of the big reasons for that is the river – that first dip of the year, the water winking at you, those breath-snatching first steps and then plunge. There is nothing quite like it. Swims by Elizabeth -Jane Burnett is undoubtedly about that: the joy and freedom of wild swimming, feeling yourself melt into the ebb and flow of water.
Burnett takes us through the rivers, lakes, and open seas of the UK, “to be where people had not planned you to be.” We learn how submerging yourself in these waters is more than something you do but is something you become. When Burnett swims, there is a merging of one’s humanity into something bigger, and the poem with its flowing lines becomes the vocalization of this experience. The self is the water is the poem is the river. These poems feel like a river-swim: the rough and tumble, the flow, rising and merging. “Imagine every full stop / replaced by perhaps,” the poet asks. This is writing that does just that, leaves space and openness between its lines, room for breath and softness.
What is important here, though, is that the rivers are not romanticized. What is in the river is the dissolving of problems, the fish, insects, sweet wildflowers, but also the “electrified chicken wire to keep the salmon in,” “radioactive caesium.” Burnett explains, “I can no more take this out of the poem as out of the water.” In celebrating the experience of river-swimming, the impact we as humans have had on the rivers cannot be ignored, and there is an unapologetic fight to be fought to here. There is destruction everywhere: pencil-pushing, ineffective bureaucracy satirized in the ‘The Teign.’ There are plastic bottle caps and poisons in the water. A collection like this is timely not just because it is river-swimming season, but because Oxford has its own very active campaign to protect our rivers in the form of the #EndSewagePollution Mid-Thames Group. This is a campaign against pollution in the Thames but particularly to make dumping untreated sewage into the rivers illegal, and there is a (socially distanced) protest on this very subject on August 8th at 10am.
It’s a cause worth fighting for, as Burnett demonstrates in this book. The final sentiment of the collection is a reminder of how embedded these bodies of water are in our lives and minds: “Swimming is continuous, only the rivers are intermittent.” Whether we are in the water or not, it is a part of us. So it’s more important than ever to add your voice to the campaign, go to the protest on 8 August, and importantly: don’t forget this month to pay our river a visit, remember that you do not “end where you thought you did / not with skin but water.”
To anyone who claims poetry in the modern world is irrelevant, I urge them to read A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson. The collection won the T S Eliot Prize last year but has an up-to-the second significance in the current climate of Black Lives Matter protests and demands for justice, representation, and equality for Black people. Even the poems around nurses and caretakers (‘Grace’, about a fiercely kind Jamaican senior nurse, and ‘On Nurses’ which explores the suffering and strength behind the kindness) have a special resonance in the current crisis.
The collection is undeniably an exploration of racism – explicit and subtle, from police brutality to microaggressions at a literary party. It evokes Black British London, the Grenfell fire, but also the feeling of stepping off the Windrush, being in the belly of a slave ship. The poetry traces the roots that run between these moments in history.
But the collection is also woven through with meditations on paradise: what that is, where it can be found. There is a paradise within all of us, the final, title poem suggests, and that paradise is our humanity, our joy and generosity in the world. We carry it, we can meditate on the hope it gives us, but there is always the threat that it will be taken away which is why it must be carried “concealed… / That way they can’t steal it.” The thieves are obvious in these poems: racism, cruelty, injustice, violence. But the poems also luxuriate in the paradise, the moments of sensory delight, of courage, of care. There are unapologetic battle-cries, poems with jagged and blunt edges, but the collection is at its strongest when it taps into the unique humanity of its subjects: the nurse Grace singing “pop songs on her shift, like they were hymns”, an old-before-her-time 12-year-old girl who lost her father in the Grenfell fire drinking coffee over breakfast and caring for her “weak with grief” mother, even the poignant agony of Noah watching from his ark while the rest of the world drowns. The delicacy of those moments drops like an anvil. These blows hit even harder than the more directly militaristic poems. This is what poetry can do: it doesn’t just tell hidden stories, it invites us in to feel with them until our hearts hurt too, charging us to love and get angry and find the fight to wake up the next day and carry on, to remember what we’re fighting for – for each one of our portable paradises.
There is no shortage of poems about the British countryside so it is always refreshing to discover a collection that finds a new way of looking at the landscape. This month’s Book of the Month is ‘The Soil Never Sleeps’, by Adam Horovitz, which does exactly that. Instead of passively observing, Horovitz spent time at four farms, understanding the work that goes into the making of the landscape. Alongside the inevitable crickets, skylarks and skimming swallows, we hear the low growls of quadbike engines, the hum of milking-machines, and conversations about farming in rural pubs and across farmhouse kitchen tables.
It is Horovitz’s observation of the small details that makes these poems sing – opening the book at random, I find “tractor scars in turf”, a bottle-fed lamb reaching to suck spilt milk from a watch-strap’s end, and piglets being born, emerging into the world ‘like slow bullets’. We see the ‘sunken cityscapes of insects, microbes, worms and roots’, and the grass, pumping down carbon from the air to sequester in the soil.
Some images do feel a little overused and lose the power in repetition – ‘vinegary’ silage, makes at least three appearances. And some poems also suffer by comparison with other poems on the same subjects – a poem about electric fences brings to mind Philip Larkin’s “Wires”, and (as stand-alone poems) these slightly pale in comparison.
But the power is not in the individual pieces, but in the way that the reader is encouraged to understand the farmed landscape. We are shown the “carefully disguised science” of farming, and this collection succeeds in planting new “seeds of ideas” about soil, farming, landscape, connections, and growth in all its forms.
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.
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”.