Paul Farley’s fifth collection “The Mizzy”, shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize, is full of characteristic encounters with the symbolic, immaculately rendered. While “Glade” opens “the long loan book of recurring dreams”, picking a “Gentian Violet” conjures up DH Lawrence when the roadside flower “cultivates more dark to flare against”. Elsewhere are raindrops, several appearances by the god Pan, a childhood playground, a series of British birds including the mistle thrush that gives the book its title and — changing the setting — a St Lucian hummingbird and “The Sloth”.
There’s much to admire in this fluent writing, “where buddleia / holds the signal at maroon for summer”, and wine produces “a blushing through the gut”. But what unifies the book is a specific sensibility, the downbeat tone of the white western male babyboomer who’s never had it so good and doesn’t quite know what he is supposed to feel about this. Poetry can do things, this fastidious tone says, but not too many. We have outlived our own agency, “The working week gone west, cut loose / like a city from its port.”
The Book of Taliesin translated by Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams
The medieval Welsh Taliesin tradition includes prophecy, praise song, prayer, invective, flyting and riddle. Often highly political, it asserts community and religious identity. But it also has its feet in the mythological past, for while the real Taliesin lived in the sixth century, the poems collected in the 14th century Llyvyr Taliesin were written over the course of seven centuries. Suggestions of shamanism, and roles in both Arthurian myth and the Mabinogion legends, mean the idea of Taliesin has haunted modern poets, from David Jones to Gwyneth Lewis. Only a Welsh medievalist, though, would have had a chance to read the poems. Now Lewis has joined forces with Rowan Williams to produce a comprehensive set of translations, “The Book of Taliesin: Poems of Warfare and Praise in an Enchanted Britain” (Penguin, £20). As befits such experienced poet-translators, the results are vivid and contemporary — as well as authoritative. The Book of Taliesin includes 60-odd pages of introduction, and even a guide to pronunciation. Compressed by highly wrought traditional forms, these voices from long ago address us today with urgency: “if the world fell, / On to what would it drop?” asks “The Small Song of the World”. “With the sea on fire, / The world’s dwellers will burn / Till all have perished. / The desert will burn […] The flood will overflow,” says “A Prophecy of Judgement Day”, a lament that speaks for our own climate emergency. This is an evocative, provocative resource.
After Ce?zanne by Maitreyabandhu
The Taliesin poems come from a world with pre-modern ideas about personhood. But of course poetry since the Romantics has been fiercely interested in the self. The last half century, in particular has famously seen the rise of confessional poetry and, less famously, a revival of verse novels. All the same, a verse biography is something new. But Maitreyabandhu’s After Cézanne moves from the life to the work and back again to examine the post-impressionist painter’s development. Packed with full-colour plates, with an introduction by art historian Christopher Lloyd, it also draws on the poet’s own art school training. The writing is quiet, subtle, and makes the kind of surprising turns that are the mark of fine verse. This is no conventional, monolithic account turned into rhyme, but a sequence of lyric poems written in different voices to, about and “as” Cézanne. After Cézanne places their conversation in chronological order and interleaves the paintings. — Guardian Books
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This allows us to hear — and see — the building reverberation of particular themes in the painter’s life and work: like the apples that are the subject of so many of his still lives and that, we learn, he was given by his school friend Émile Zola. Colour combines with contemplation in Cézanne’s work “worshipping / pine shadows and grapes”, and also in Maitreyabandhu’s profound and beautiful homage to “some other-seeing beyond / the binaries, a thirdness to the world.”
Afterwardness by Mimi Khalvati
Colour combines with contemplation in Mimi Khalvati’s Afterwardness , too. This sequence of 55 sonnets is autobiographical. Real-world colours surround the poems’ narrator (“In Cardiology, the corridor / is a blue stream of lino”), and “Outpatients” goes on, giving the unnoticed and the everyday significance, to see the waiting patients as fishermen, as Orpheus, as “Ali Kemal — that murdered politician / Who was Boris Johnson’s great-grandfather.” A poet of consummate artistry, Iranian-born Khalvati starts this portrait of her life of exile with her child self “flying away from all you know”. She ends it, after saying goodbye at the airport, with “Vapour Trails”. The symmetry is elegant, and the collection is a sophisticated, original exploration of a self made in and by the new language, English, that the child on the plane learns: “a via negativa / cruising at altitude on plumes of breath”. — The Guardian UK