Edmund Waller – a memory

It’s 1963 or 1964 in South Africa. I’m fourteen or fifteen. I’m standing in my father’s narrow, shabby and dusty study – feeling an acute sense of privilege and awe. This is his retreat, where he works away from the noise of family life and where he keeps his treasures – relics of his life in England, our childish drawings, our milk teeth. There are two crude, tight-packed bookshelves – one made of metal – and his greening academic gown with its moulting rabbit skin hood hangs on the door. There’s a pile of yellowing newspapers several feet deep in … Continue Reading

Clive James, The Fire of Joy – review

Clive James, The Fire of Joy: Roughly 80 Poems to Get by Heart and Say Aloud, Picador, 2020, 320 pp, £20.

You can find my review for the London Grip by clicking here.

Robin Robertson, Grimoire – review

You can find my review in London Grip by clicking here.

Shanta Acharya, What Survives Is the Singing – review

The title of Shanta Acharya’s What Survives Is the Singing suggests a central difference between it and the other two books (Wing, by Matthew Francis, and The Martian’s Regress by J O Morgan). In them, general ideas arise by implication from particulars. In it, general ideas are the overt driving force. This approach limits the reader’s freedom of imagination and response. Its advantage is the sheer intensity of passion or acuteness of realization it can produce. One very strong poem is ‘Can You Hear Our Screams’, a haunting catalogue of femicide violence starting with the rape and murder … Continue Reading

J O Morgan, The Martian’s Regress – review

The Martian’s Regress by J. O. Morgan imagines Earth’s utter devastation by human greed. Within the book’s loosely framing fiction, humans abandon earth to settle on Mars. They’ve undergone profound physical adaptations before they send an expedition back to their old dead planet. The frame gives broad imaginative continuity, but its looseness and the freedom with which Morgan uses different tropes of science fiction allow him to extrapolate and satirize human characteristics and behaviours in radically different ways. This gives imaginative variety, and means that individual poems happily stand alone. Parodies of such different genres as cautionary tale, myth and … Continue Reading

Last Dream, Geoffrey Brock’s Pascoli translations – review

PN Review subscribers can link to my review of Last Dream, Geoffrey Brock’s translation of a selection of poems by Giovanni Pascoli, by clicking here.

Matthew Francis, Wing – review

Two loves dominate Matthew Francis’s Wing: nature, and the English language. There’s very little self-reference: when Francis writes in the first person it tends to be in terms of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ except in the second section, where the speaker is the seventeenth century natural philosopher Robert Hooke, author of Micrographia: or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses.

In earlier books Francis has recreated lives in or journeys to places that can be purely fantastical or are so exotic as to seem fantastical to a traveller visiting them. The ‘Micrographia’ section brings strangeness home with the … Continue Reading

Pindar’s Odes

The introduction to Andrew M. Miller’s translation of Pindar’s Odes[1] tells us that he is ‘generally reckoned the greatest lyric poet of ancient Greece’. I don’t think many non-Classicists read him now, though he, or the idea of the Pindaric, had a huge influence on poetry in different European languages over centuries in which Sappho was barely a name. Nowadays, positions are reversed: only crumbs of Sappho’s work survive, but her fragments are much translated and widely loved. Her brilliance was acclaimed in her own day, of course, but it seems to me that for later generations the … Continue Reading

Hugo Williams, Lines Off – review

In different ways, Edge, Afterwardness and Flèche are all written in overtly poetic forms and styles. Williams, too, writes with polished skill in his Lines Off, but achieves the hallucinatory vividness of his poems with an art so understated as to seem almost artless, except for the symmetrical patterns the poems fall into.

Understatement reaches an extreme in this stanza from ‘St Pancras Old Church and Hospital’, one of many poems presenting Williams’s experience of kidney dialysis and a life-saving transplant:


I passed my days
lying down with a machine,
till someone unknown to me died
and allowed me to … Continue Reading

Mary Jean Chan, Fleche – review

Mary Jean Chan’s Flèche describes the speaker’s struggle to assert her gay sexual orientation despite social prejudice and her mother’s horror. This story is interwoven with themes of cultural change and intercultural migration as the poet travels from Hong Kong to America and England. The whole book is framed by metaphors drawn from the sport of fencing – flèche itself and the section titles ‘Parry’, ‘Riposte’ and ‘Corps-à-Corps’. A more deeply imagined inner structure lies in a series of accounts of eating, drinking and cooking that runs through it, and particularly in an implicit parallel between Chan’s gnawing erotic need … Continue Reading