Then the War: And Selected Poems 2007-2020 by Carl Phillips (Carcanet, £14.99)
Phillips’s new collection arrives carrying a Selected Poems on its shoulder. The 208 pages form a wonderfully compendious introduction to this major US poet. For those who have admired his work in the three decades since his debut, they are glowing confirmation that, as he enters his 60s, Phillips is writing better than ever. The poems that open Then the War are extraordinary ecological lyric verse, subtle and transformative. Invasive Species gives the plant switchgrass a voice: “Little song years remastering truth / now begins its own truth little song / deep in the night”; a poem about leaves is called Little Shields, in Starlight. This metamorphic fluidity allows us to understand our natural environment in a new way, and ensures these poems remain fully populated, by parents, lovers and friends. Phillips himself is in the frame in the reflexive sequence Among the Trees, a series of encounters with the natural world – and with love. The selection from earlier books that follows now reads as part of a single project of the utmost immediacy.
Lurex by Denise Riley (Picador, £10.99)
Lurex is Riley’s first collection since the stunning elegy Say Something Back in 2016. It continues her robust, knotty work of setting down the sinews and resistances of actual experience. Never hung up on the merely ornamental, her poetry describes the physical world, or worlds of emotion, in terms that equal their seriousness. Even when she’s evoking, in Fishers of Men, the much-pictured scene where Christ summons fishermen to become disciples, the alliterative to-fro thump of consonants creates a mimetic storm on Galilee: “A bruised sea, barracked by storms […] / where water slaps the air, where air /drills into water.” Slow Burn is a furious take on ageing: for “A halfhearted recruit to the sect of post-sexuals […] / Evenings float under television, rather than into amnesiac scholarship.” Furious too is the poem 1948, in its indictment of what it meant to be born out of wedlock – “how it fell out / for surplus postwar children. / The indifferently falling rains of them”. No cosy resolution here: Riley is arguably Britain’s major living modernist poet, and her every line proves the importance of this hard-won way of telling.
Ephemeron by Fiona Benson (Jonathan Cape, £12)
A new collection of Benson’s wise and vivid work is a real occasion. Divided into four sections, Ephemeron highlights her unusual range. Insect Love Songs, a commissioned series of ecological poems, is followed by two sequences of confessional poetry and a long sequence, Translations from the Pasiphaë. These tales from Greek myth are at their strongest where most viscerally inhabited, and visceral they are: a keel-hauled teenager turned to “pulp, // unrecognisable, a raw lump”; Minos, consumed by sexually transmitted disease, “raving that he ejaculated scorpions / centipedes and serpents into maidens”. They extend the fine, terrifying poetics of Robin Robertson, her editor and its dedicatee. But the book’s most exciting work, fully inhabited and multi-faceted, is contained in the sequences Boarding-School Tales and Daughter Mother. Avoiding the contiguous snares of sweetness or scatter-gun emotion, they transcend their context of social privilege to enter into the high stakes of real life, in which every daughter must learn “how if you are female or small, you must run”.
Why I No Longer Write Poems by Diana Anphimiadi, translated by Natalia Bukia-Peters and Jean Sprackland (Bloodaxe, £12.99)
This collection by a leading Georgian poet is part of the Poetry Translation Centre’s programme commissioning British poets – here, Jean Sprackland – to work with literary translators. In this case, that’s Natalia Bukia-Peters, who also provides a knowledgeable Introduction setting this work in the national context of epic poetry, and of a vocabulary of myth. For this is gorgeous, fabulising verse. Medusa tells us: “This is what happens: I breathe, I exist. / My heart is a choking tumour, near the breast.” Dance Lessons enjoins: “Step: as if the moon / exploded, and your /feet were the pieces,” and the writing does feel constantly in motion. Bloodaxe is especially to be commended for publishing this important work in bilingual edition.
Hurricane Watch: New and Collected Poems by Olive Senior (Carcanet, £25)
Senior, currently poet laureate of Jamaica, has been producing poetry of beauty and historical resonance for nearly four decades. Hurricane Watch shows her continually remaking the story of cultural exile and belonging. That she plunders a range of traditions to do so itself tells that story. Meditation on Red excavates a Devon graveyard to rediscover Jean Rhys; Crusoe’s Parrot represents a writer in exile; African Gods in the New World brings a pantheon to life; elsewhere are birdcalls and counting rhymes. While the 2007 collection Shell honours the people enslaved on plantations alongside the Chinese and Indian plantation labourers who replaced them, and celebrates indigenous Caribbean peoples, the eight-part Ode to Pablo Neruda is a poem of poetic vocation shared across two continents “allowing me to explore boundlessness”. Leaving Home sums up this courageous work of self-discovery: “ … to aim / for the opening, to say: I am leaving. To walk to the edge of your feeling.”