Poetry reviews: Jenni Fagan | Stewart Conn | Jay Gao | Marcas Mac an Tuairneir
Four new collections by four very different poets offer a diverse array of delights, writes Stuart Kelly
Diversity in poetry used to be quite a simple set of binary propositions. You were traditional or experimental, free verse or fixed form, politically outspoken or quietly private. Diversity actually means rather a lot more nowadays, and that is all to the good. These four collections have travelled with me up and down to Edinburgh during the Festival – a 90 minute trip for me – which means I can read them heading north and re-read them heading south; and all four have been companions I relished being with for longer than a single sitting.
Jenni Fagan’s The Bone Library begins in a slightly different tone to her previous work, in that it integrates scientific language. This is not new in Scottish poetry – Hugh MacDiarmid’s “On A Raised Beach” famously began “All is lithogenesis or lochia”, yoking “made of stone” with “birth fluid”. Fagan’s opening poem starts “My darling ossein, I have know your organic extracellular matrix / since the first seconds it began to form, still…” The clash of “first” and “seconds” is clever, and the balance between “form” and “still” accomplished. It is a book with recognisable anger, but I think excels in moments of tenderness – as in, to a child, “you were the only one who ever taught me // the meaning of love”. It has the same jagged rhythms are before (“I’m only half human / it’s not my best side”) but aside from a degree of shoutiness, tends to shine most in its wit: “If I’m the mistress-piece, // then where / is my Victorian apartment?”
Stewart Conn is a much quieter poet, but his wryness is uplifting. These are mostly snapshot poems, little epiphanies, such as the collared dove which “On Easter / Sunday, before dawn, I look out. / The nest is empty, the bird gone.” Is this symbol or simply reportage? Two poems, read in parallel, show the importance of curating a collection. “Merry Spectres” is a neat elegy for old fashioned ghosts, but reads very differently when followed by “Household Ghosts” about his father’s frightening “figments of his imagination”. The collection also includes a semi-satirical piece as a kind of coda; what Thomas Beecham used to call a lollipop in the Proms. In “Bowing Out” Conn writes, “Yet pitfalls are rife: no assurance a rave review / these days will shift more than a copy or two”. Well, I hope this might nudge it into double figures.
Jay Gao is a poet of Chinese heritage from Edinburgh, now resident in the US, and Imperium is an askance and enthralling book. It takes patience, but the work is rewarded. If Fagan has a punk aesthetic, and Conn tends towards a half-heard piano sonata (music, alongside birds, feature across his poems), Gao is full on 12-note serialism. The reader may wish to skip to the middle of the book, and an astonishing prose-poem called “Nobody” which most clearly riffs on “The Odyssey”; but translated into a world of humid hotel rooms, anonymous bars, colonial exploitation, where “light jazz stumbles in from the reception like released, newly-anaesthetised, hostages”. Gao deals with multiple identities, aware of “margins as wide as the edges of a tempest”. The title poem takes the form of truncated questions, with a claustrophobic threat cloistered within it; two works deploy Kenner and O’Rourke’s “Travesty Generator”, a Pascal-based algorithm to generate poems from previous texts. Are they travesties (a problematic word) or instances of apophenia, where connections can be seen in randomness? Either way, the fragmentary nature of the results is haunting, and I am 80 per cent certain the text that has been de/re/transformed is Gao’s own.
Finally, Marcas Mac an Tuairneir’s Polaris is as much a work of art as a collection of poems. It asserts that there is never a single reading of a poem by foregrounding a multilingual approach – the Gaelic poems are given an English “gloss”, although I find Mac an Tuairneir’s versions of his own work actually, heretically, slightly better than Sorley MacLean (Somhairle MacGill-Eain)’s translations of his. But this isn’t a bilingual book: poems occur in Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic, Manx, Cornish, Ukrainian, Polish, Welsh, Jèrriaise, Scots and Polari, the code-language used by homosexuals. Collectively the poems read like a long-form retelling of history that prioritises marginalised and overlooked voices; including, movingly, the Jewish community in Scotland. Ranging from prehistoric times (with overtones of Charles Olson’s magnificent “Maximus Poems”) to the very contemporary, this is a truly expansive and immersive work. There are concrete poems, some of which seem (to my eye) to have an affinity with tartan, and “erasure poems” constructed by excising parts of a pre-existing text. “Còdan” os particularly striking, with the Gaelic remnants of the text decipherable, once one grasps the phonetics, even to someone who does not know Gaelic. This is a truly remarkable polyphony.
Not everyone will like all of these collections, but anyone will find something in them that persists for them. Am I allowed the slight indulgence of feeling that they show there’s a twitch in poetry’s old corpse yet?
Jenni Fagan, The Bone Library, Polygon, £10; Stewart Conn, Underwood, Mariscat, £7.50; Jay Gao, Imperium, Carcanet, £11.99; Marcas Mac an Tuairneir, Polaris, Leamington Books, £12.99