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W. N. Herbert, Omnesia: Alternative Text, 176 pp, £9.95 paperback; W. N. Herbert, Omnesia: Remix, 176 pp, £9.95 paperback, Bloodaxe Books.

I was attracted by the idea of Omnesia, “a book in two volumes and neither”. As Herbert says in his introduction, the two “Hopefully … make one sense read in isolation, and a further read together.” Reading them, I admired Herbert’s intelligence, imaginative energy, originality and range but was disappointed in the end. The fundamental idea would have emerged more clearly if both books had been leaner. And again and again I felt that poems read like brilliant drafts rather than finished work. “The Lamb”, present in both volumes, can show what I mean.

It describes the slaughter of a lamb … Continue Reading

Dannie Abse, Speak, Old Parrot, 80 pp, £15 hardback, Hutchinson

One of the finest poems in Speak, Old Parrot is “Scent”, another elegy to Abse’s late wife, though this one feels almost like an elegy to the elegiac mood. The poet describes himself hesitating at the gate-post, smelling a shrub she once planted. Its scent is so alluring, so delinquent, that he imagines Adam smelling it in Eden and falling on Eve with delight or, in our world, scholars in Athens and Alexandria being distracted from their scrolls by it. But what does he care for that, he says; for him the smell means only the wife he has lost. … Continue Reading

Jamie McKendrick, Out There, 64 pp, £9.99 paperback, Faber and Faber Ltd

McKendrick’s poetry is brilliant at making you feel the prosaic physical substance of things. It’s learned, crammed with fascinating snippets of information. The tone tends to be dry, sceptical, downbeat. He’s a wit whose mind keeps leaping off in unexpected directions. All these qualities gave me great pleasure in themselves. More, they act as foil to and somehow a validation of brief bursts of soaring or piercing lyricism.

Here’s the title poem:

If space begins at an indefinite zone
where the chance of two gas molecules colliding
is rarer than a green dog or a blue moon
then that’s as near as we … Continue Reading

David Harsent, In Secret: Versions of Yannis Ritsos, 80 pp, £9.99 paperback, Enitharmon Press.

Ritsos is one of the great twentieth century poets and has been quite widely translated. Harsent doesn’t try to compete with the scholars of Modern Greek on the level of close translation. His outstanding achievement is to make the poems live and breathe in an English so natural and so finely honed that one seems to be reading poetry in the language of its original composition.

Many pieces reflect horrifying and depressing aspects of twentieth century Greek history and of Ritsos’s own experience, but their tone is never really gloomy.

This is partly a matter of style. They don’t press feelings on … Continue Reading