David Wheatley

If Soil Be Soul…

  • Simon Armitage, 
  • Michael Haslam, 
  • Helen Dunmore, 
  • Ocean Vuong

The Unaccompanied

By Simon Armitage

Faber & Faber 74pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

doubt if anyone has ever published a ‘keenly anticipated’ eleventh collection, but having reached that career milestone Simon Armitage finds himself very much betwixt and between. On the one hand The Unaccompanied is rich in propulsive, streetwise lyrics that read like 1990s Armitage revisited, but on the other there are poems of ageing and death. A sober note is frequently stuck. Where a poem about the closure of a garage, ‘Emergency’, might once have facilitated some zeitgeisty banter, it is now the pretext for a state of the nation address (‘What is it we do now?’). Britain is Poundland, full of tat and straining for cod-epic grandeur.

Armitage’s sense of himself as a public figure yields several jokey poems about the life of a jobbing writer. Wan smiles are extracted from a poem beginning ‘It’s good to be back in the city of ___’, but it’s far from certain that the poem rises above the condition it describes of generic, fake intimacy. Similarly, there is now a whole subgenre of poems devoted to Christ reborn in the modern age, but readers familiar with James K Baxter’s ‘The Maori Jesus’ may wonder if they need Armitage’s ‘The Holy Land’ too.

Better are the excellent ‘Harmonium’, about a shared father–son moment, the Christmas vignette ‘Violins’ and the childhood memory of ‘Privet’, which ends with the poet lying on his back, ‘released to the universe, buried in sky’. If Armitage carries on at his current rate of production, his ‘by the same author’ page will soon have to be laid out in the same shrunken typeface once used to list the works of the volcanically productive Ted Hughes. Nevertheless, a decent handful of these lyrics will more than earn their place in his next set of selected poems.

Scaplings, Star Jelly, and a Seeming Sense of Soul

By Michael Haslam

Calder Valley Poetry 44pp £7 order from our bookshop

In Michael Haslam we have a genuine major poet of the north of England. Haslam is the most Bunting-esque of contemporary poets, rooted stubbornly in the beloved landscapes of West Yorkshire. Scaplings, Star Jelly, and a Seeming Sense of Soul takes its title from the small lumps of offcut gritstone used as wedges in walls. Seamus Heaney was much praised for the onomatopoeic boggy plash of his language, but in Haslam we are veritably up to our knees in vowel music: ‘If soil be soul and sediment be sentiment, then mood be mud/lumbrilical and umber and the word be worm and warm in worn-out/slumber’.

Texture is everything in Haslam’s writing. Each of the book’s thirty-six sections sets off into the landscape, tracing with marvellous intricacy the contours of experience: ‘and ugh how tough the gusset cleft of russet bracken clough’. One poem addresses the peculiar phenomenon of star jelly, a sticky substance deposited on the ground during meteor showers. Wordsworth had his leech gatherer, but Haslam is a poetic slime collector, a connoisseur of the uncanny. Sex, love and ageing are frequent themes: ‘Time comes round, drained and changed, the ground estranged.’ The lyric impulse nevertheless prevails, in writing that gives us ‘secular ground/made sacrament in image’. The result is a delightful and outstanding collection.

Inside the Wave

By Helen Dunmore

Bloodaxe Books 64pp £9.95 order from our bookshop

According to Greek myth, Helen Dunmore tells us, ‘unheroic souls pass the afterlife in the fields of asphodel’. It is a resonant myth to harness in a collection touched, as Inside the Wave is, by illness. Lamplighters feature in several poems, custodians of the space between light and dark, and Dunmore is given to haunting the same territory herself. ‘My people are the dying’, she writes, while elsewhere we find an elegy for Gerard Manley Hopkins and a version of Catullus’s celebrated elegy for his brother.

Although not couched as an elegy, ‘Hornsea, 1952’ is a delicate sketch of a mother and child in a wintry seaside town long ago. The mutability of the sea is bracing yet a source of comfort too, as when in the title poem Odysseus watches a wave ‘About to topple/About to be whole’. A poem about IKEA helps to lighten the mood, but this is a book shot through with foreboding. The last poem, ‘September Rain’, finds the poet in ‘deep deep water … Out of my depth, waiting’. These are uneasy yet companionable poems, watchful and urgent.

Night Sky with Exit Wounds

By Ocean Vuong

Jonathan Cape 80pp £10 order from our bookshop

‘An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl’, writes Ocean Vuong in ‘Notebook Fragments’: ‘Thus my mother exists. Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me.’ The evacuation of Saigon comes up in Night Sky with Exit Wounds, and many of the poems in this, Vuong’s debut collection, achieve lift-off amid comparable scenes of drama and desperation. This is an intensely corporeal book: in ‘Headfirst’, for example, the body ‘is a blade that sharpens/by cutting’. ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ describes the poet’s father abusing his mother, taking a chainsaw to the kitchen table, then adjourning to the bathroom to masturbate, from which Vuong learns that ‘a man in climax was the closest thing to surrender’.

It would be quite a challenge to tell Vuong’s story without high drama, though some will read these poems and see confessional theatre. ‘Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong’ reads like the voice-over for a movie trailer (‘Ocean, don’t be afraid’). Vuong gives every appearance of having studied his Thom Gunn carefully. Gunn wrote a sequence about the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who turns up in Vuong’s ‘Into the Breach’; also Gunnish is a six-page ‘Ode to Masturbation’. Written in very short lines, it is an enjoyable study in small, precise movements, returning an intense if short-lived pleasure. Some poems tend to the throwaway and silly, but this is a book full of promise.

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