I review poetry collections for a few different publications, including Wild Court, The High Window, The Journal and London Grip. Always happy to look at a collection I might be interested in, so feel free to drop me a line if you have a book you’d like to share.

Tagging The Maze: On The Coming Down Time by Robert Selby in The High Window

‘Sometime in the late nineties, I found myself working in a library, the first in what you might think of as white collar opportunities after I finished my degree in American and English Literature. I’d specialised in poetry (writing it and writing about it) but the years after my degree had been rootless, and the job represented the first time I’d given myself a bit of direction. In bored moments between tasks, I launched myself into internet poetry. It didn’t take me long to find Angel Exhaust, the journal of avant-garde poetry loosely associated with the later poets of the British Poetry Revival. I knew some of the names in Angel Exhaust from Conductors of Chaos, the Iain Sinclair-edited anthology from the mid-nineties. I didn’t always understand what I read, but I stuck with it as I felt it represented a logical conclusion to the work I’d pursued through my university career. You’re young: you choose a fork in the path.’

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Bloom by Sarah Westcott in Wild Court

‘The poems in this luminous book, Bloom (Pavilion Press, 2021) are tight, fragmented things, varying in shape and typesetting, in a style both abstract and committed: the world placed firmly underfoot even as the work revels in strangeness and uncertainty. The first poem, ‘Apples’, strains at the edges of form, and the spare lines of the opening (‘Have you looked, / Have you looked deeply’) give way to prose vignettes on this question about the power of observation. ‘I look into the eyes of a dog and it is a violent act,’ Westcott writes later. ‘The dog eye is a landscape I cannot reach and the dog is running here. Language: a barrier, a raft of sticks, a child with a nest in his hands.’ This becomes a key theme of the collection: the power of the imagination in what we see, and how we create as much as we understand.’

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Map of a Plantation by Jenny Mitchell in Wild Court

‘The title of Jenny Mitchell’s follow-up collection to 2019’s Her Lost Language begins with a gesture to objectivity. Map of a Plantation (Indigo Dreams, 2021) – we’re offered a sense of distance, a dispassionate realm of depiction, the chart not the territory. In reality, anyone who has ever looked at an atlas will know that maps are never simple depictions of space, but only another kind of text; subjective and skewed, they are easily-disputed mechanisms of power.’

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Bad Idea by Robert Sheppard in The Journal

When reviewing poetry, you can be forgiven for looking for the open goal, the snagging hook. And so, somewhere in the multiverse, I’m opening my review of Bad Idea with the lines ‘What could be worse than a long drawn out process like Brexit? A sonnet sequence about Brexit!’ and feeling pretty smug with myself. Job done. Pass the Saboteur award.  

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The Political Economy of Tango in the Twenty-First Century by Richard Schwarz in The Journal

Where to start with this collection by Richard Schwarz? Begin with the beginning, then, or at least the title, which is very good in this case. The Political Economy of Tango in the Twenty-First Century: it’s both fun and recondite, the kind of thing John Stammers might have written. It leads one to expect a kind of dance irony and seriousness, of concrete detail and an embrace of theoretical flights, so it’s a shame when this isn’t really borne out by the contents of the book. 

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Cuckoo by Nichola Deane in London Grip

‘The main thing you notice about Cuckoo, Nichola Deane’s debut collection from V Press, is the names. The work teems with characters, from poets (Auden, Lorca, Ahkmatova, Edward Thomas), to artists (Klee, Cornell, Hockney) to politicians (Thatcher and Pinochet, somewhat gruesomely), to members of Deane’s family. The effect is of some extended crowd scene, where the sense of scale offers parity between the familial and personal, and the historical and artistic.’

Contains Mild Peril by Fran Lock in London Grip

‘Grief and cerebral rage combine in this, the seventh collection by Fran Lock. The work is by turns intimate and associative, possessed and deadpan, and culminates in the prose poetry sequence ‘dead /sea’ which may not book Lock a slot on Poetry Please, but confirms her reputation as one of the most daring and intelligent poets of her generation.’

Heredity/ASTONYME by Naush Sabah in Wild Court

‘If poetry ever had ‘must have’ purchases, then Naush Sabah’s debut release from Broken Sleep Books proved to be one of these over the summer. The pamphlet, the chapbook, the little magazine: these are as essential a part of the medium of poetry as the poems themselves. Heredity/ASTYNOME is a dream in this regard: a fine object of paper.’

Belladonna by Suna Afshan in Wild Court

‘A single poem in four parts, ‘Belladonna’ deals with the intensity of a female relationship on the cusp of adulthood, where innocence is quickly frayed and the (blood) rites of passage beckon towards experience. ‘Remember Belladonna’s saunter? Her sway/ Warped our innards like wax crayons in heat.’ The ancient and the contemporary rub against one another in dynamic contrast. ‘Ritualistic ablutions’ edge up against packets of prawn cocktail crisps, Milky Ways and Lucozade. If something about a long poem dealing with themes of religion, sexuality and decay sounds familiar, then the tone (and even line numbers) make clear that Afshan is tilting at Eliot. When poets approach high modernism, it can be as either cathedral or bus shelter: there for chilly reverence, or to be scrawled over with disdain. Afshan’s intentions are more nuanced here: by placing Eliot in the context of twenty-first century writing, she is self-consciously positioning the ceremonial next to the disposable, as though inviting us to an auto-da-fe at Villa Park.’

I Never Think Dark Will Come by Susan Jordan in The Journal

‘Things abound in the first book by Susan Jordan, which takes as its focus the corporeal and tangible. ‘Let us praise little things, the use we make of them,’ Jordan declares in ‘Laudemus’ (the Latin for ‘let us praise) and it’s an instinct that drives most of the collection, so much as that, at times, the work resembles an arcane catalogue of trophies, offered to the reader with a sense of totemic resonance.’

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Operations of Water by Ian Seed in The Journal

‘There’s a famous story about the novelist Saul Bellow when, stuck in a rut with an unfinished novel, an American in Paris, he walked beside the Seine and became inspired by the freedom of the water. This relationship between the written word and liquid forms is at the heart of Ian Seed’s latest poetry collection, Operations of Water. It’s there, foremost, in the title of the collection, which draws from the final long poem: the tension between the two nouns exploring the contrast between technical manipulation and a sense of flow. It’s in the ziggurat of water on the front cover, which embodies the title of first poem in the collection, based, like much of the work, on the new sentence ofL=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry.’ 

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Substantial Ghosts by Doreen Hinchcliffe in The Journal

‘The reader is offered an odd encounter towards the end of Doreen Hinchliffe’s Substantial Ghost, her second collection after Dark Italics in 2017. In the poem, ‘Twin’, Hinchcliffe describes the narrator visiting an apparent twin’s bedroom, after fifty years. (‘Inseparable, we move and one, each/ Of us the other’s half, reflected back.’) The poem is striking for the way it teases at questions of autobiography and identity, and seems to undercut the completeness of a narrator, who up until this point, had seemed fairly knowable: offering a portal to a different kind of poetic self.’

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Home Turf by Ann Matthews in The Journal

The work deals with time and space, with each poem representing a place Matthews has lived. With its focus on the play of words (bold letters in the text spelling out the addresses) and the mathematics of form (poem lines equate to a street number or name), and the way that some of the poems occupy the spaces of floorplans: this is a piece of work in the Oulipian mode. Matthews is also channelling the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, citing Lyn Hejinian on the nature of form at the outset, and employing the New Sentence to loosen the sense of linear causality about the work. ‘not all of these memories are mine/ they are stolen, you say, from/ photographs’ Matthews offers us, at one point, and this is the main theme of the work as a whole, to interrogate the reliability but also direction of memory, to chop time’s arrow into pieces, and let it scatter into angles of a new form.   

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Her Lost Language, by Jenny Mitchell in The High Window

‘The weight of history and its eventual impact on family provides the over-arching theme of the debut collection, Her Lost Language, by London-based poet, Jenny Mitchell, joint winner of the Geoff Stevens Memorial Poetry Prize. Invoking voices marginalized and erased, Mitchell positions herself as the conscience of after-empire: resilient, haunting and implacable in her accusations.’

The Aesthetics of Breath by Charles Lauder in The High Window

‘In some ways this manifold debut— taking in, as it does, historical figures, family lives, the problem of evil, and how an element of fantasy and danger is never far from our perception of those we treasure and love— might strain at the edges and become less a sum of its parts, and more of, well, a collection. What draws it together is the consistent awareness of a sense of self. ‘Between lives no light defines us / no mirror reassures us’ as Lauder presents it in ‘Incarnations’: how we are different people in different contexts and how we remain enigmatic and unknowable even to those closest to us. This necessary blurring of character is, ultimately, what charges the writing, exploring the simple, everyday doublings wherein lie ordinary hypocrises, dreams and nightmares, as well as betrayal and infamy. The lies we tell, the love we offer, and the poetry we read: all are the aesthetics of breath.’