Book review: Being Human

BEING HUMAN BY NEIL ASTLEY Bloodaxe Books Limited, 512pp, £12

It is a peculiar business, this matter of being self-reflective, sentient creatures plonked down, unasked, on this planet - what one poet calls, in one of the many serendipitous phrases which shine from these pages, the "sweet accident of being here and human".

Neil Astley's indispensable, endlessly surprising trilogy of big bold anthologies fairly covers the territory. The titles sum it up rather well: Staying Alive, Being Alive, Being Human. Doesn't leave much out really. The newest and last of these contains all the manifold virtues of the earlier two: another startlingly varied, unexpected and entirely accessible collection of contemporary poems - 500 per volume, no small undertaking - exploring the stuff of life, what Louis MacNeice called "this mad weir of tigerish waters/A prism of delight and pain".

This book is broadly themed along aspects and stages of the human journey. In each section are some artful call and response arrangements, poems written in answer or tribute to another. There are thoughtful segues, such as a heartbreaking sequence of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath addressing each other across the grave. There are amusing little groupings where the run of titles could almost make mini-poems of their own: A Long Way From Bread; Bread; Don't talk to Me About Bread. The editor proposes that the main thematic link throughout the collection is that of our relationship with time - which frankly covers pretty much every human act, physical or mental: the drawing of a curtain against the dusk, the baking of a cake, the enquiries of an angst-ridden philosopher. All we have, after all, is ourselves in time - which is what poetry reveals as perhaps no other form.

Astley - an unceasing and dedicated champion of contemporary poetry - explains that such was the overwhelmingly enthusiastic reaction to the first anthology, Staying Alive, that the next two simply grew out of the demand, this one additionally containing readers' own suggestions of poems. (These are mostly not identified. It would have been interesting to know which these were, and why readers so passionately put them forward - but perhaps that is for yet another anthology).

Endorsements have rained down from every quarter. Indeed, the publishers clearly liked the glowing quote from Meryl Streep so much they used it twice. Slightly confusingly, her excited comment about the book having a "heartbeat" is used on the cover of both Being Alive and Being Human.

Who are the poets and why these poems? They range from a scattering of the greatest poems and poets of the 20th century to the brand new, including international work never before published in this country. There are vivid voices from Sweden, Turkey, China, Indonesia, Albania, the great Estonian Jaan Kaplinski and hundreds more. It is an intoxicating cultural mix.

Scottish writers are very well represented. Here is John Burnside, with his exquisite September Evening: Deer at the Big Basin ("When they talk about angels in books/I think what they mean is this sudden/arrival: this gift of an alien country/we guessed all along.) Turn the page and there is the old familiar beauty of WB Yeats' The Wild Swans at Coole. Here is Stewart Conn, Edinburgh's first Makar, with his lovely Carpe Diem, a quiet glimpse of a loved one gardening, his work sandwiched inbetween the revered Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai and an Australian, Emma Lew, unknown to me.

Indeed many of the poets will be unknown to many readers and that is one of the special joys of the collection. The appetite is endlessly whetted, curiosity constantly piqued. The book is already big, and Astley does not include biographical information on the poets - simply place and date of birth, and sometimes a little more in his disciplined one page introductions to the sections. (I particularly enjoyed the opening to the section "Fight to the Death". Astley crisply states that this is "a sequence beginning with poems on depression, illness and suicide, followed by poems on death and grief". You will be relieved to know that the book finishes with hope and love.

It is like wandering in an exotic land with marvels all around, new and astonishing sights, then suddenly turning a corner and bumping into best mates - Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay, Kathleen Jamie, Douglas Dunn are among the 19 Scots included - and memories of dear departed friends - Iain Crichton Smith, Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan. I must confess to shedding a tear upon turning a page to find Morgan's Trio, his gorgeous snapshot of a young man and two girls laughing on Glasgow's Buchanan Street, one of the loveliest of hymns to simple human radiance.

Occasionally, the happily dizzied wanderer, ambushed by pleasure, comes across a mighty titan, a colossus - yet put on no pedestal but just there, taking their place in the trajectory of the human journey: TS Eliot, Robert Frost, Rainer Maria Rilke. Seamus Heaney is here and a young Northern Irish poet, Alan Gillis, rewinding time from rubble and a shattered window until we see the "shy young man/taking his bomb from the building and driving home."

Unknown Finns and Afghans are here and so too is Philip Larkin. His poem, Mower, is what we might call his To A Mouse moment, when a hedgehog is caught and killed in the blades of his lawnmower. It gives us the gentle exhortation which lies at the heart of this whole collection, all we really need to live by: "we should be careful/Of each other, we should be kind/While there is still time."

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