In his marvellous essay on writing about 9/11, ‘Can poetry console a grieving public?’, Mark Doty sets out the difficulties of writing about public tragedy. Can one bear witness to ‘the inchoate stuff of experience’ ─ intensely felt private pain or even anger ─ and yet also keep faith with ‘language’s project of discovering and articulating meaning’ which is, of course, the poet’s task as writer?
A Portable Paradise is one robust response. Divided into five sections, book’s first section comprises eleven poems on the Grenfell Disaster which circles around the burning tower and its traumatic legacy. In a mixture of prose and poetry, ‘Haibun for Lookers’, there are searing images of confusion, chaos and desperation as Grenfell inhabitants are trapped by the destructive flame racing up the building like a malevolent giant snake, its light ironically mirrored by light of mobile phones from spectators below. In the days after, little gestures and small rituals that the living use to shore up against deep despair are particularly poignant. A daughter brings breakfast, ‘combs her mother’s hair and lays clothes on the bed’; she reads while hearing ‘Umm Kulthum singing about her heart on the radio’. In ‘The Portrait Museum’ makeshift posters capture portrait snapshots from ordinary life; these are ‘flimsy faces of hope for the living’ who ‘refuse this first day of mourning’ ─ but they are gradually blown away. ‘The Missing’ is heart-breaking; the dead are imagined to float,
a conveyor belt of pure air,
slow as a funeral cortege,
past the congregants…
mutter[ing], What about me Lord,
why not me?
But such an ‘airborne pageantry of faith’ is not abstract but built up from a small range of individuals, imagined in all their quotidian diversity. Two simple lines at the poem’s end bring home the mythic power of the Biblical Rapture but reimagined as anguish:
They are the city of the missing.
We, now, the city of the stayed.
Valzyna Mort’s third collection Music for the Dead and Resurrected was published in November 2020 amidst ongoing protests in her native Belarus regarding the fraudulent election of Alexander Lukashenko in August of that year. The majority of these poems take place in and around Minsk, the ‘city of iron and irony’ where Mort was born. Born Valzyhna Martynava, her pen name ‘Mort’ befits a collection dedicated to the dead. In an interview with NPR, Mort describes the deaths of her family as an ‘archive of silence’, a silence representative of the failings of ‘official’ country narratives in omitting civilian tragedies. Lines like ‘As the whips of silence rises, language tucks in its tail’ indicate the submission forced by the lack of representation and its necessity, as well as showcasing Mort’s prophetic tonality.
In one poem ‘Self-Portrait with Madonna on Pravda Avenue’, Mort writes about seeing Raphael’s Madonna inside of a classroom:
Her docile features didn’t seem beautiful.
Like hush money,
she was handing the child a breast.
The reference to hush money alludes to corruption, a common feature in societies of political tumult. Throughout the collection, an atmosphere of distrust acts as a bass note, keeping the lyrical melodies of her images in line. This distrust presents itself often as a linguistic unease — the search for the right words as a simultaneous search for a sense of self — significant as the poet also writes in Belarusian, a language considered vulnerable by the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger...
This is an excerpt of a review by Cheryl McGregor of Valzyna Mort’s Music for the Dead. For more information on Cambridge's workshop at StAnza21, please click HERE. To read the whole review, go to the DURA webpage.
The forthcoming War of the Beasts and the Animals is Maria Stepanova’s first collection to be translated into English, and the second of three of her books to introduce themselves to the English-speaking world this year. In her native Russia however, she has won several prestigious awards for her poetry, essays and journalism.
The translator’s forward, in which Sasha Dugdale explains the challenge of translating something so culturally and linguistically specific, is in itself a fascinating read for anyone interested in the art of poetic translation. She describes their work together as ‘a triangulation rather than a translation. It is the result of a dance between the original poem, Maria and I’.
The collection opens with two long poems; ‘Spolia’ and ‘War of the Beasts and the Animals’. Similar in form, they are both chaotic and deeply layered. In both poems, Stepanova sifts through language, culture and identity in an attempt to make sense of them all. She reaches no conclusions, but something fascinating is revealed in the attempt. In her poetry, Russia is a country torn apart and remade line by line, a patchwork of truth, myth and dogma stitched together with shreds of memory.
This is an excerpt of a review by Ellie Julings of Maria Stepanova's The War of the Beasts and Animals. For more information on Cambridge's workshop at StAnza21, please click HERE. To read the whole review, go to the DURA webpage.
Jericho Brown’s The Tradition is a sharp shock of a book. Daring and lyrical, this collection examines issues of identity, race and sexuality, all set in the backdrop of modern American society. Brown’s defiant ‘I’ provides an anchor for this collection, grounding it with a deep sense of intimacy. Addressing himself by name in the poem ‘Dark’, Brown shifts to second person to confront his personal struggles with illness during the writing process:
Consumed with a single
Diagnosis of health. I’m sick
Of your hurting. I see that
You’re blue. You may be ugly,
But that ain’t new.
This Pulitzer Prize-winning collection stands as a bold testament to recovery, from both illness and violence. The poems began as an experiment to create a new form, blending sonnet, ghazal and blues to create the ‘duplex.’ Cutting up printed lines omitted from previous collections, Brown sprawled these fragments throughout his home and worked to piece them together to create something new. Innovation and breaking with tradition are thus at the heart of this collection.
Featherlight lines flutter and flow across the page, highlighting Brown’s eloquence even when depicting violence or pain. Although lithe in appearance, the collection is laden with symbolism and a richness of language. At times the poetry moves with a soothing lilt, others it is short and sharp, both exemplified in the poem ‘After Avery R. Young’:
Hooking and crooking or punching the clock,
It’s got to get done. That
Expectation. Stunning. Incantatory. Blk.
(‘After Avery R. Young.’)
While A Map Towards Fluency might be Kelly’s first poetry collection, it shows an impressive imagination and originality. The poet is both partly deaf and partly Danish, though entirely unable to understand her mother’s native tongue, and she has incorporated both of these aspects of her life into her poetry, which focuses on the power of words and the idea of fluency.
As a Dane myself, I am particularly fascinated with her use of my mother tongue. A Map Towards Fluency includes everything from Danish insults ‘Se, en anden giraf!’ (look at that giraffe!) to declarations of love ‘Jeg elsker dig.’ (I love you). Kelly’s fascination with the Danish language can be observed in the poem ‘Ø’, despite it only incorporating a single Danish word. In ‘Ø’, Kelly talks about her yearning to be able to speak her mother’s native tongue.
I dream of Ø, wishing
it in my blood
as the English sound
that comes so easily, it is thoughtless [.]
The poem also dwells upon Kelly’s difficulties with the pronunciation of the Danish language. It is an emotionally charged poem, full of frustration and dissatisfaction.
Surrounded by a sea of white
Ø is what it means
but I can’t possess
even this small word [...]
This is an excerpt of a review by Maria Sjostrand of Lisa Kelly's A Map Towards Fluency. For more information on Lyall at StAnza21, please click HERE. To read the whole review, go to the DURA webpage.
Gerry Cambridge, nature photographer, essayist, editor and award-winning poet, journeys the shifting landscapes of life from Arbroath to Glasgow, youth to middle-age, natural and domestic, in this, his eighth poetry collection. His meditations on regret, loss and acceptance (among others), are captured with his characteristic photographic precision, and rendered sharply by the elegance of his own typography.
Cambridge alludes to the influence of Walt Whitman in The Light Acknowledgers. Light, as enlightenment, is the metaphysical conceit at the heart of this collection, which is paced in six sections, the first of which is entitled ‘a box of light’, and directly resembles the design of the book. Poems riff on poems, while some are companion pieces to Cambridge’s debut collection, The Shell House.
The opening poem ‘From A Stopped Train Outside Arbroath’ sets the tone with the ‘astonishing’ observations of the speaker (Cambridge) during a moment of pause, juxtaposed with the movement of light:
beamed across the world
and built again by photons with minute precision
on every attentive
or uninterested eye.
On the following page ‘The Nature Photographer’, elegantly contained (as many of the pieces are) in two stanzas, remembers the narrow focus of youthful self-absorption:
neck-cricked for the perfect angle, […]
in the small bright rectangle.
This is an excerpt of a review by Wanda Macgregor of Gerry Cambridge's The Light Acknowledgers. For more information on Cambridge's workshop at StAnza21, please click HERE. To read the whole review, go to the DURA webpage.