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

John Ridland’s translation of Pearl – review

Pearl: A New Verse Translation in Modern English by John Ridland, Able Muse Press, 467 Saratoga Avenue #602, San Jose, CA95129, USA; pbk 154 pp.; £16.95

Pearl is a poem of 1212 lines written by an anonymous author in late fourteenth century England and surviving in a single manuscript. It’s one of the high points of medieval English literature. The author is usually thought to have written Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and two other poems preserved in the same manuscript.

Pearl presents itself as the speaker’s account of a dream in which he has been granted the vision of a … Continue Reading

Jamie McKendrick, “The Carved Buddha”

The Carved Buddha


Within the lotus bud of sandalwood that needs
to be pried open by a thumbnail the Buddha sits
cross-legged on a flower exuding the odour of resin
under a light coating of gold leaf.

It belonged to Mrs Ogilvie from Aberdeen;
when she opened the perfect fit of the upper lid
I knew that nothing made by the hand of man
could hold a candle to it. Its beauty blazed

but quietly, a tiny inexhaustible thing.
I instantly forgot the ban on brazen
idols, and remembered the mustard seed.

You could not guess what the small plain
capsule concealed, and … Continue Reading

Bakkhai by Euripides, translated by Anne Carson – review

Bakkhai by Euripides, translated by Anne Carson. Oberon Books, 521 Caledonian Road, London N7 9RH, 72 pp. £9.99.

Oberon Books specialises in theatre, drama and the performing arts. I think the truest home of this stripped-for-action dramatic text is probably in the theatre, but Anne Carson is a poet and her Bakkhai has much to offer the private reader, whether on its own or as a complement to another version. I’ve read several. For some things I think this is the best.

Bakkhai, or The Bacchae as it’s commonly called, was first performed in 405 BC and is the last play by … Continue Reading

Jamie McKendrick’s Anomaly – review

Anomaly by Jamie McKendrick. £14.99 (hardback). Faber & Faber. ISBN 9780571349210

Most lovers of poetry on the page will enjoy Jamie McKendrick’s sharp eye, irreverent intelligence and linguistic flair, but the urbane, sophisticated poems of Anomaly will have a more particular appeal for those who enjoy a play of thought too mobile and finely poised to lock itself down into conclusions. In this way Anomaly marks a change from McKendrick’s previous collections. None of the new poems have the emotional intensity of some of his earlier ones but this is not through loss of poetic power. In many of those earlier … Continue Reading

Helen Dunmore, Counting Backwards: Poems 1975–2017

Helen Dunmore, Counting Backwards: Poems 1975–2017 Bloodaxe Books, 416 pp, £14.99


PN Review subscribers can find my review here.

Ruth Padel, “Salon Noir”

This is a remarkable poem. You can link to an earlier version of its text than the one in Emerald by following this link to the website, where there’s also an interview with Padel.

The poem opens “When we went down into the cave / this summer”. I’ve had a nagging sense of something oracular and dramatic lurking behind those breathless rhythms and it suddenly hit me what it was – the opening of Ezra Pound’s Canto I:

And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and … Continue Reading

Frieda Hughes, Out of the Ashes – review

Out of the Ashes, by Frieda Hughes. Bloodaxe Books. 240 pp. £12

Handsomely produced, like all Bloodaxe books, Out of the Ashes is a generous selection from four of Hughes’ previous collections, not including the US-published Forty-five or the illustrated Alternative Values. Hughes’ introduction sets the poetry in the context of her life, explaining some of her purposes and procedures, and at the end there’s a section of notes to particular poems.

My own response is mixed. As I read poetry, syntax and metre are the bones and muscles that give a poem living shape and make it move. Perhaps it’s Hughes’ … Continue Reading

Derek Mahon, Against the Clock – review

Against the Clock, by Derek Mahon. Gallery Press. 80 pp. €11.95

Life on Earth is my favourite among Mahon’s later collections. Nothing in Against the Clock seems to me as electrifying as that volume’s “Homage to Gaia”, but this too is a remarkably rich work by a mature master.

In the title poem, Mahon is seen spurring himself to write hard and as well as he can against the deadline of death. He describes how he encourages himself to take example from great poets who, whatever their faults in life and art, kept going to the end as writers. Then he describes … Continue Reading