The best recent poetry – review roundup | Poetry

The best recent poetry – review roundup | Poetry

A Year of Last Things by Michael Ondaatje (Cape, £14.99)
After a break of nearly 20 years, Ondaatje has returned to poetry, ruminating on sliding doors moments in life, “as those torn lines remind us / how to recall”. Through his characteristic mix of lyric and prose poems, he articulates feelings we struggle to acknowledge, especially the fact that nothing lasts: one poem is called The Great Impermanence. “So many things to learn, keep on learning / during these last days, watching us / with an awareness that we perhaps / have not learned but shall.” This is a generous, moving book.

The Silence by Gillian Clarke (Carcanet, £12.99)
The latest collection from the former national poet of Wales opens in 2020’s first lockdown, finding uplift outside the window: “the blackbird’s Latin all day long / [ …] / his song on the spire of the beech: / veni vidi vici, veni vidi vici, / this is mine mine mine.” Clarke’s skill lies in using simple language to record moments of great beauty, no less lovely for sometimes being familiar. She reminds us of the comfort to be drawn from paying attention to nature: “After long isolation, in times like these, / in the world’s darkness, let us love like trees.”

Joy in Service on Rue Tagore by Paul Muldoon (Faber, £14.99)
Following 2021’s Howdie-Skelp, Muldoon is in a playful mode. The book is buttressed by long sonnet sequences, at once enigmatic, wise and vitriolically angry, notably in Near Izium, which focuses on the Ukraine war: his most powerful political poem since Meeting the British. Elsewhere he creates sense and nonsense through his unmatched ear for unexpected rhyme, avoiding whimsy by pinpointing instances of tender clarity amid the levity: “We mourn all those poor souls who’ve drowned / because our own inconstant beacons // have led to their running aground.”

May Day by Jackie Kay (Picador, £10.99)
Kay’s eighth collection weighs the loss of her parents against a celebration of collective power and the joy of protest marches, themes most successfully intertwined in the title poem: “What can I say but flame the alarm / before our world goes up in shame.” While her language at times could work harder to dodge cliche (a “gunmetal grey” river “stretching away under a lead sky”), Kay’s impeccable musicality is a delight, as is her Glasgow: a backdrop to hymns of secular solidarity, “a place of welcome / to the citizens of the world”.

I Cannot Be Good Until You Say It by Sanah Ahsan (Bloomsbury, £9.99)
The clinical psychologist’s debut collection is a restless interrogation of various facets of their life and work: their relationship with Islam; queerness; danger in the therapy room. “White makes a muslim of threat. / Dogma makes a threat of queer. / A lie has a way of remaking itself.” Studded with Quranic quotations, Ahsan’s lines often break in ways that make the poems feel unsettled, but that still deliver moments of grace: “desire is a dragonfruit / we are almost tasting / you and the You that we don’t know.”

Grief’s Alphabet by Carrie Etter (Seren, £10.99)
An impassioned reckoning with the aftermath of Etter’s adoptive parents’ deaths. Etter has the ability to floor you as she explores guilt (“The errant daughter an ocean away”), and makes everyday observations that are anything but banal: “I collect and collect: the novel from her bedside, / bookmark never to advance.” She is particularly good at showing how finding a language for grief is close to impossible; one poem runs in its entirety, “F Is for Fuck This.”

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