Liz Almond, Yelp and Brian Johnstone, The Book of Belongings

Liz Almond’s new collection introduces us to a wide world, full of sensual pleasures but also of cruelties, pains and dangers, which she suggests we must actively face and face down if we are to live life to the full.

“Rosita Rules the Roost” illustrates some of the strengths of her writing: a powerful, instantly gripping opening, visual clarity and force, the rhythms of emphatic speech:

She howls her way up the cobbles,
demented, bereaved, demented
leans on her whittled stick –

A list of its opening lines would give an immediate impression of the sheer vitality of this work, and of how dominated it is by verbs of action. I was going to say that Almond’s poetry is filled with life by how much and strongly she forms her lines around verbs, but in a sense that would be the wrong way round. She uses verbs like that because that is how her poetry sees the world: as a place where everything is active and alive:

Effortlessly, instinctively, my hibiscus
unfurls her new petals
wet as wings

One feels that in some ways she wants to live as effortlessly and instinctively as the hibiscus, but a human must think and respond to the contradictoriness of the world, as Almond does, both in the tonal complexities of individual lines and in more explicit and sustained reflection. It’s in the first form that I enjoy the effect most, for example in these lines where sensuous relish and satirical wit combine:

The man who’s easy on the eye
has surface shimmer like gold leaf

Wit and humour pervade these poems, sometimes appearing as rueful or tart accommodations to life’s constraints, sometimes as expressions of an exuberance of imagination that can be positively surreal. The range of human interests, the vivid, light-filled scenes of southern Europe, the Middle East and India, the sharp eye for cultural exchanges and misunderstandings and the warm humanity of the poet’s feelings all make this a collection to relish. Admittedly I sometimes felt the poems lived most fully in their parts and that as wholes they could be a little too loosely woven. In some I felt a slackening of  rhythmical or syntactical drive, and in others I felt that at the end of the poem the poet didn’t quite know how to develop the energies she’d brought into play in its main body, but the collection remained one I admired and enjoyed.

The Book of Belongings contrasts sharply with Yelp in style, sensibility and world – as one might guess from the two titles alone. A dominant theme is loss. The language is restrained, even subdued, practising a taut economy that gives every word weight, and the poems are carefully considered and shaped, both as metrical and stanzaic structures and as fields of force, in which in which every word plays a precisely calculated part. This gives all the most successful poems great power and sharpness of focus, together with a strong sense that what you are reading is not a momentary impulse, however illuminating, but the fruit of distilled meditation, with a weight of experience and thought behind it.

The economy and integration of the poems makes it difficult to illustrate their qualities by quotation. One of the most impressive, to my mind, is the title poem, in which Johnstone imagines a Bosnian survivor looking through a Red Cross album showing items found with the dead in mass graves, to see if she can identify any of her own relatives. This, the last poem, is both a natural culmination of the whole volume, and one that quietly but profoundly modifies and deepens its perspectives. It typifies the procedure of many others, in which lost lives are evoked by the objects or other traces that survive them. As you start to read it, it seems a simple continuation of these others, until the identity of the speaker gradually sinks in. As in many of the poems, the subtlety and precision with which it is orchestrated and the restraint of the language suggest the tact with which the poet approaches other people’s lives and emotions, and the dignity with which he invests them. It seems to me a gesture of very beautiful modesty, and a manifestation of a beautiful sense of human proportion, that Johnstone has made this poem his climax. As title poem it speaks for the whole collection with its elegiac meditations on belongings that have become relics, and therefore its meditation on the transience of possession. It is the epitome of loss. At the same time, because the losses it evokes are those caused by a traumatic and appalling war, we are tacitly asked to reflect on how much worse such violent losses are than those that have been meditated on elsewhere in the book. Johnstone shows himself a strong finisher in poem after poem, but nowhere more so than here.

I wrote these comments for the Manchester Review, and again I want to thank the editors for permission to publish them here.

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