Dear Big Gods by Mona Arshi – review

Clifton’s poems [in Herod’s Dispensations] draw strength from their grounding in fact and from the directness with which he offers his voice or the voice of apparently real characters (like whoever speaks at the start of ‘Zhoukoudian’). Arshi writes with equal power but in a wholly different way. She creates micro-worlds of dream-like intensity, surreal distortion, fantasy and myth. This applies even to poems apparently based on real events, like the account of hoe a boy (her brother?) was attacked by wasps. Other poems in which she seems to speak to or about her brother after his death combine … Continue Reading

Harry Clifton, Herod’s Dispensations – review

The most spell-binding passage in Herod’s Dispensations is the first part of ‘Zhoukoudian’. This describes the finding of a ‘Peking Man’ hominid fossil in the Zhoukoudian cave system in China in 1929. The writing is a metrical and syntactical triumph, creating a suspense-filled imaginative hush within which glimpses of immediate life, vast reaches of time and metaphysical assumptions about man’s place in the universe play into and against each other. In the first few lines, time is the layers of geological time the archaeologists are digging through, the historical time that separates 1929 from now, and the immediate moment of … Continue Reading

Text / occasion – Pascoli, “Il gelsomino notturno”

On the level of discursive interpretation, the lovely ‘Il gelsomino notturno’ by Giovanni Pascoli offers significantly different ideas depending on whether you know about the circumstances of its composition. Here it is, first in Italian and then in the plain prose translation accompanying it in The Penguin Book of Italian Verse, introduced and edited by George M. Kay:

E s’aprono i fiori notturni
nell’ ora che penso a’ miei cari.
Sono apparse in mezzo ai viburni
le farfalle crepuscolari.

Da un pezzo si tacquero i gridi:
Là sola una casa bisbiglia.
Sotto l’ali dormono i nidi,
come gli occhi sotto le ciglia.

Dai … Continue Reading

Greek Lyric Poetry by M L West

It’s an interesting experience coming to M. L. West’s Greek Lyric Poetry after reading Stanley Lombardo’s and Anne Carson’s Sappho translations. With Lombardo and Carson, in any of the longer fragments and even in short phrases you find yourself reading English words that immediately strike home as living poetry. To be sure, something similar can happen in short snatches in West’s translations, as in these lines addressed to a bridegroom:

How handsome you are with your gentle eyes
and your lovely face all radiant with desire.

West was of course an extremely distinguished classicist, and I can’t judge the relative accuracy … Continue Reading

Ian Humphrey’s Zebra – review

Ian Humphreys’ Zebra has come out to a deluge of praise and it’s easy to see why. Above all this book leaves you with the impression of his uninhibited zest for life, his high spirits, humour and resilience.  Singing what it was to be gay and of mixed race in the eighties, he can briefly touch rueful, even bitter notes, but they’re soon absorbed in the prevailing exuberance. This even applies to two elegies which I suspect may be for people who died of AIDs. The first of these – ‘Clear-out’ – is grim in its setting and prevailing imagery … Continue Reading

Vidyan Ravinthiran, The Million-Petalled Flower of Being Here – review

You can link to my review in PN Review 250 by clicking here – full review only available to subscribers.

John Heath-Stubbs, Selected Poems – review

John Heath-Stubbs, Selected Poems ed. John Clegg, 128 pp, £9.99, Carcanet Press

John Heath-Stubbs was a prolific poet whose career can be seen as developing in two parts. In his own introduction to his Collected Poems, he ‘half-repudiated’, as John Clegg puts it, the poetry before 1965. Clegg thinks he was wrong. I think he was essentially right and that by giving over half this selection to the earlier poetry Clegg diminishes his achievement.

Admittedly the early poems show remarkable gifts. Many are not easily forgotten once read. This is already true of Clegg’s first, ‘Leporello’, published when Heath-Stubbs was twenty-three. However, … Continue Reading

Tishani Doshi, Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods – review

Tishani Doshi can be uneven but she’s a highly talented, accomplished author who writes memorably in both passionately engaged and humorously detached modes.

Various poems respond to misogyny and the horror of sexual violence. One such, ‘Everyone Loves a Dead Girl’, shows how strength and weakness can be intertwined in her work. The title ripples with multiple suggestions, some sad, some bitingly ironic. The first two lines combine narrative drive with lingering reflectiveness:

They arrive at parties alone because they are dead
now and there is nothing to fear except the sun.

The delicate placing of ‘now’ after the line-end pause puts … Continue Reading

Ruth Padel’s Emerald – review

Ruth Padel, Emerald, 80 pp, £10, Chatto & Windus, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Rd, Westminster, London SW1V 2SA

In Emerald, emotional intensity flowers out of artistic restraint and its carefully measured statements achieve wide resonance. The book brings together poems prompted by the death of the poet’s mother and poems about the cutting and mining of emeralds or more generally about greenness. Grief and loss lie alongside beauty and hope, mundane experience is juxtaposed with travel, history, scientific analysis, fairytale and myth. Modes of discourse shift accordingly, though it hardly ever feels as though contrast between modes is the point. The shifts … Continue Reading

The Divine Madness of Love – Stanley Lombardo’s Sappho

For me, Stanley Lombardo’s translations of Sappho are a fire-new revelation[1]. Not reading any dialect of Ancient Greek, I’ve been wholly dependent on translations for my sense of her work. Several have moved me over the years, of course – haunting versions of fragments 16, 31, and 168 in particular. Apart from these, and Michael Longley’s lovely incorporation of Fragment 104(a) into his elegy “Evening Star”, I’ve read her as if through distorting glass. I’d admired the intricacy of Poem 1 in a cerebral way but it never came alive for me as poetry. Then I read this:… Continue Reading