Patricia Lockwood is an artful provocateur, cartoonish and ebullient; among her masks are the ingénue and the shock jock. The best poems in this, her second collection, develop like a firework display, with the tautness of her lines keeping her unlikely stars – the Loch Ness monster, a hornet mascot and a stuffed-owl bride among them – under tighter control than is immediately apparent. Her tone is mostly conversational, though the ghost of regular metre sits behind much of her music, and on occasions a more pronounced regularity erupts: ‘The body of the mail still waits for your knife./Why haven’t you written. Why don’t you write.’
‘List of Cross-Dressing Soldiers’ is a moving look at fraught affection among (male) soldiers, Lockwood’s brother included, its repeated jibe ‘bunch of girls, bunch of girls’ becoming tenderised without losing its bite. The poem’s details are pitch-perfect: ‘he came/back and he was heaped up himself like a dune’; ‘They grew their mustaches/together. They lost their hearts to local dogs’. Lockwood’s titles are a smutty litany, their potential to shock essential to what follows: there is challenge but also tuning of the ear involved in titles such as ‘The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer’. In this case, the notion that ‘Every deer gets called Bambi’ leads to the chillingly apt ‘deer understand what women/are like: light-shafts of long blond hair and long legs’, the damp-mouthed fawn slowly becoming a nubile martyr of the pornography age.
‘Rape Joke’, included here, brought Lockwood to internet-wide attention in 2013. It’s a canny, low-style tour de force; unlike most of the book it’s laid out as prose and is characterised by a surreal matter-of-factness: ‘The rape joke is that you were 19 years old … The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend … The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee.’ Not every gamble here pays off, but when Lockwood’s image-making clicks into gear she is explosive company.
Daljit Nagra, by contrast, appears to have had some of his ebullience surgically removed. Gone, almost entirely, are the high-velocity capitalisations and interrobangs of his previous work; if his trademark punctuation symbol was once the exclamation point, it has now been replaced with the question mark. This may be for any number of reasons, but perhaps one answer lies in the seam of shame that runs throughout British Museum. The opening poem, ‘Father of Only Daughters’, and its companion poem, ‘Shame’, are hymns to the ‘second-chance life’ that sees the narrator, after an arranged marriage that ended in ‘desertion’ and ‘flying upstairs/on the wings of my shame’, confessing: ‘I rightly deserved to/swallow my tongue’.
Aside from these moments of self-chastisement, Nagra seems intent on turning the mirror on Britain and its institutions; poems about the BBC and the British Museum are focused on the nuances of nationhood and the attempts to operate in the ‘daily middle-ground of worthiness’. Speech is such a critical tool in Nagra’s writing that his question ‘When did we lose our voice or, poles apart,/a way to recover the centre?’ feels as much existential as political; the collection as a whole feels like his way of talking himself into a new diction. There is an attempt to regain some notion of ‘the centre’, one that can include ‘Black Country or Cornish’. Nagra looks backwards into a history that isn’t ‘educated to swoon’ at the usual suspects and finds solace and renewal in Julian of Norwich or the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The political and personal are at the root of this chastened, searching book and both combine in the collection’s finest poem, ‘Naugaja’, about a village and its people who ended up making the journey to Britain only to ‘become bleary … under years of the Singer machine’. It ends with a forceful assertion: ‘a generation past with plough and scythe/we were formed by the seasons and the local gods/in a primal village. A village my ancestors called/Naugaja.’
Michael Symmons Roberts is hunting for Utopia in Mancunia. After the gush of fifteen-liners that made up his previous book, Drysalter, there is pleasing variety here, but it is the couplet that proves to be Symmons Roberts’s most effective mode. ‘The Fall of Utopia’ is a centrepiece of sorts, the narrator having ‘seen for the first time/that face staring back not as me, but mine’, resolving to ‘steer this vessel made of grief/through latticeworks of rocks and reefs’. It is in this voice – questioning, unsettled, ominous – that the most powerful poems unfold. He throws his voice well and among a crop of dramatic monologues the most memorable is ‘What’s Yours is Mine’, its genuinely unsettling burglar signing off with ‘I saw a blue heart-shaped soap/clutched in a woman’s hand and something in her/would not give it up to me for all the world./I have it somewhere. Let me find it.’
At times Symmons Roberts’s well-honed phrase-making tempts him to lapse into a too-writerly mode. A few poems feel like elegance strung on a thought: articulate and well achieved but without much surprise for the reader. A series named for interesting job titles – for example, ‘Superintendant of Public Spectacles’ – mostly falls prey to the curse of diminishing returns. The angriest poem here, ‘In Paradisum’, is also one of the best, its repeated, dehumanising phrase ‘three thousand refugee children’ feeling at once an exposure of derisory quotas and of the recognisable, shame-making compassion fatigue that means that ‘Lily and Paulo snap back/into three thousand refugee children’. There is plenty of inventive eschatology here, poems in which ‘everyone has run off to the woods/to watch our gods and goddesses//disport themselves’, but the real achievement is often found in calmer moments, where ‘I put the phone on speaker to rest my arm’, or such affirmations as, ‘I find my company of one feels right’. On these occasions, though quieter than Lockwood’s or Nagra’s, Symmons Roberts’s voice reverberates the most.