The best recent poetry – review roundup | Poetry

The best recent poetry – review roundup | Poetry

36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem by Nam Le
A winner of the Dylan Thomas prize for his short story collection, The Boat, Nam Le’s first poetry collection focuses on themes of anti-Asian racism, the after-effects of war trauma, Vietnamese diasporic identity and marginalisation from multiple perspectives. Constructed as a book-length poem, the 37 works here, each named after a type of violence or mode of intellectual inquiry, interrogate the complexities of intergenerational trauma, the challenges of assimilation in western society and the effects of cultural imperialism. Both personal and political, these incendiary poems offer a searing indictment of historical, cultural, linguistic and racial violence. “Your blood contains it. / What happened to them – / Your parents, theirs, all their kin”. One of the most powerful and memorable debuts I’ve read in recent years.

Three Births by K Patrick (Granta, £12.99)
This artful, sensual debut by one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists explores the fluidity of the body, queer love and desire. There is a refreshing insouciance to K Patrick’s writing, as in the opening poem, Pickup-Truck Sex, where the speaker confesses: “The ability to be both bodies is my fan- / tasy. Do you think that’s arrogant?” The poems celebrate fleeting moments of joy – “When I am alive it is / extraordinary” – as well as melancholia: “it feels good to be obvious after years / of misery, mystery, misery, mystery”. At times, the writing is reminiscent of a Woolfian stream of consciousness in its cerebral interaction with objects, people, places, nature and celebrities such as George Michael, Daniel Craig and Kylie. Patrick is unafraid of the vicissitudes of emotion, setting the atmosphere ablaze in a display of manic irony that is simultaneously hopeless, poignant and visceral: “I am a small, bossy son of God … Father, father, father, I’ll always go one step / further … do you appreciate the absolute beauty of my life …?”

After You Were, I Am by Camille Ralphs (Faber, £12.99)
From the outset of After You Were, I Am, the reader embarks on an astonishing adventure, as Camille Ralphs weaves an intellectual sprightliness throughout this three-sectioned vessel. The voyage begins with George Herbert (godson of John Donne), and we sojourn through a metaphysical reimagining of the Book of Common Prayer, then sail onwards as Ralphs gives new voice to the persecuted men and women from the Pendle witch trials of 1612, finally navigating our way to the pirate port of the Elizabethan occultist John Dee. There is an eerie, quivering, steampunk depth to Ralphs’ poetry. The writing grounds itself in a type of earthy empathy for “the workers of this world”, as well as historical figures, but effortlessly straddles the spiritual and fantastic, too. This is poetry that delights in etymology and alchemical wordplay. “In the beginning was you, Word. I new it.”

Wrong Norma by Anne Carson (Jonathan Cape, £14.99)
Described by the author as “a collection of writings about different things, like Joseph Conrad, Guantánamo, Flaubert, snow, poverty, Roget’s Thesaurus, my dad, Saturday night”, Carson’s latest work displays her brilliance and originality through a series of hybrid, free-flowing texts interspersed with images and digressions. Throughout, these prose poems evince clarity, precision and attention, juxtaposing classical myth with musings on the contemporary world and the nature of selfhood, the “burden of being a subject-in-process no matter who we are”. Each vignette conveys a sense of surprise and freedom, as in the opening piece 1=1: “a bolt of pure aliveness like entering the water / on a still morning with the world empty in every direc / tion to the sky. That first entry. Crossing the border of con / sciousness into, into what?”

Poems 1968-2020 by Nikki Giovanni (Penguin, £12.99)
This is a generous and comprehensive selection from one of the foremost poets of the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s. Nikki Giovanni’s earlier work here is fiery, defiant and polemic, with poems such as Black Power (For All the Beautiful Black Panthers East), Reflections on April 4, 1968 and The Funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. This activism continues to the present day, as seen in Black Lives Matter (Not a Hashtag). Her poetry centres on race, gender and sexuality in Black experience, Black love, struggle and joy. Reading her work is akin to having an intimate conversation with a trusted friend. These are warm, accessible poems that celebrate, move and inspire, as well as calling out racial injustices (“if they take my life / it won’t stop / the revolution”). As she concludes: “the words and the stars / and the music are all that matter”.

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