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The best recent poetry – review roundup
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The best recent poetry – review roundup

Fierce Elegy by Peter GizziView image in fullscreen

Fierce Elegy by Peter Gizzi (Penguin, £9.99)
“Love”, “wounds”, “sky”, “moon”, “mirror”, “tears” – the most cliched words in poetry. But what of it, Gizzi asks, if the spectre of death continues to make us into cliched subjects? “If I write about the moon, / it’s because it’s there.” Lyrics of resignation are juxtaposed with ecstatic lines that reimagine silence as “conversations with the dead”. Spare and raked of impurities, these poems reside in an airy purgatory of the soul: “To have died in youth and remain. / To be good with that. / To forget now who was speaking.” Although composed in an “old language” that reminds us of tradition, in its beautiful, fiery insistence this collection redeclares the elegy as the undying practice of the living.

Adam Gboyega Odubanjo FaberView image in fullscreen

Adam by Gboyega Odubanjo (Faber, £12.99)
“Life isn’t half as good if everyone gets one.” This highly anticipated collection from the acclaimed British-Nigerian poet, who died in 2023, is a monumental polyphonic odyssey that tells the story of “Adam”, the name given to an unidentified boy whose torso was discovered in the Thames in 2001. What Odubanjo accomplishes in just under 40 poems extends beyond mere persona; Adam is an avatar, “playing who so ever [he] wanted to be that day”. In Odubanjo’s lushly intellectual and disarmingly jovial poetics, autobiography parallels archival material. His unmistakable voice fuses Yoruba, English, Nigerian Pidgin: “everything on credit highlife lovely / every ting na double double everything / london be de place for me / where i dey chop money”. Reading this collection is an experience of exquisite heartbreak.

Bark, Archive, Splinter by Jay Gao (OutSpoken Press, £8)View image in fullscreen

Bark, Archive, Splinter by Jay Gao (OutSpoken Press, £8)
Books designed to be read in landscape format are uncomfortable. Yet, Gao’s pamphlet, with its hypermetric eco-conscious lines that “[spin] an agrestal tale”, justifies the 90-degree rotation. Even rotated, the poems threaten to spill over the book’s top edge. Time is nature; and nature, time. But in Gao’s implosive imagination, nature is also linguistic. Here, “woody debris litter the ground like consonants”, trees are saved from “redacted narratology”, sentences are “rotted sustenances”. Gao loosens the knotty cogitations of this work with a playful ear that hears “for” in “forage”, “agent” in “argent”, “denotes” in “detonates”. And, just as the mind might lose focus, Gao reorients with resplendently compressed damnations of anthropocentrism, phrased as inquiry: “So how long to give a plant its green card”. This pamphlet is a risk-taking and worthwhile forest of poetic deliberation and craft.

Polkadot Wounds Anthony Vahni Capildeo Carcanet, £12.99View image in fullscreen

Polkadot Wounds by Anthony Vahni Capildeo (Carcanet, £12.99)
The title alone illuminates a fundamental tension in Capildeo’s poetics: seriousness (“Wounds”) realised via a delectably buoyant whimsy (“Polkadot”). “The sun is a girl in the north and a man in high boots in the east and a vicious blond in the betweenlands”, says a poem in the book’s first section, entitled “Landskips”, which at every turn refuses the easy, numbing music of pastoral, preferring other languages (“Hola, digame”), portmanteaus (“pleasecomeflying”), even typographic sforzandos (“her car, heads into the woods / ARE YOU THERE?”). Many of these poems are dedicated to others, dead and living, revealing a metapoetics of entanglement and community, those whom the poet wishes they could “walk to the lighthouse with”. Thematically, formally and linguistically, this is a dizzyingly restless collection, but Capildeo renders “life like life itself”, converting readers into those “who [love] the rollercoaster”.

Goodlord by Ella FrearsView image in fullscreen

Goodlord by Ella Frears (Rough Trade, £14.99)
What terms do we agree to? And when does the breaking point come? Calling to mind Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day, a dreamy poetic opus written in 24 hours, Goodlord is a moreish contemporary epic as email. Ava, an estate agent and the recipient of the 200-page email, is the threshold between the “faceless” landlord and the speaker, who details the dilapidated flat with a “dodgy lock”, “rising damp”. “It’s always been a triangle – us, / and you, the shapeless, shadowy form that is / our landlord.” The sex and romantic lives of the characters that crop up are fluid, cycling unpredictably between intimacy, comedy and violence. “I watched her sob into her yoghurt. // That evening she agreed to his new terms,” says the speaker, as a friend tearfully accepts an open relationship. Goodlord offers something like the antithesis to a celebrity home tour. In Frears’s poetic architecture of contemporary metropolitan living, precarity of circumstance is linked to precarity of mind.

Skeletons Deborah Landau Corsair, £10.99View image in fullscreen

Skeletons by Deborah Landau (Corsair, £10.99)
“She tended to ruminate, spawning sad / kinda plaintive poems as if the poem wanted a friend to / eat dinner with”. Well, yes! What other kinds of poems could the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 US presidential election, and the concomitant collective and domestic “existential gloom[s]” that descended, leave behind? Landau’s skeletons are not only epigrammatic acrostic poems, but entire short stories, nuptial arrangements, drunken erotic meanderings. The demotic is Landau’s sweet spot: “The long and short of it is a podcast can only take you so far.” Whether humour or misery or pleasure is explored, the collection reminds us that “these bones were made for us”. A deeply contemporary and human book from a poet asking if we are “done with life”, because she is “still so into it”, and it shows.

Source: theguardian.com