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21st Century Poetry Reviews of Staying Human, Shadow of the Owl and The Wreck of the Fathership

by Andy Croft

THREE strong new titles from the consistently brilliant Bloodaxe Books. Staying Human (Bloodaxe, £12.99), is the fourth of Neil Astley’s block-busting and best-selling Staying Alive anthologies of “real poems for unreal times.”

Bloodaxe has done more than any publisher over the last 40 years to internationalise, democratise and diversify the British poetry scene. Their list is wide and their anthologies are packed with unexpected and new voices. This one includes over 500 poems from all over the world.

It’s a book to dip in and out of, but worth buying just for the contributions of Sasha Dugdale, Roger Robinson, Anne Stevenson, Amarjit Chandan, David Constantine, Hannah Lowe, Martin Espada (Puerto Rico/US), Tatamkhulu Afrika (South Africa), Justyna Bargielska (Poland), Matthew Dickman (USA), Bejan Matur (Turkey) and Nikola Madzirov (Macedonia).

It’s a collection dedicated to exploring shared identities, understanding collective problems and addressing common enemies. Although there are arguably not enough poems here of either humour or anger, this is from Remco Campert (Netherlands): “The day before yesterday there was war / yesterday was the same… money prowls round the world / and finances itself with war… poetry is the brushwood / in which I’ll hide / when the soldiers come / in their screaming tanks.”

And this from the Scottish-American poet Deborah Moffatt: “Better to sleep on stone, however hard, / better to eat thistles, though we choke, / better our frozen silence than their fiery rhetoric, / better thorns and nettles than pomp and glory, / better to die in a barren wilderness / than to survive in a nation born of vanity.”

Staying Human includes two poems from Shadow of the Owl (Bloodaxe, £10.99) by the late Matthew Sweeney. Written in the final year of his life (Sweeney died from Motor Neurone Disease in 2018) it is a collection of characteristically foreboding parables of helplessness and wonder.

Sweeney solemnly records receiving, in the months before his death, some sinister but ultimately harmless visitors – including a pirate, a snow leopard, a crocodile, malevolent dwarves playing Baltic jazz, a bear on a pogo stick, an agitated heron, a blue dog and the invisible owl who flies in and out of the pages. It’s a beautiful book, a reminder of the poet we have lost, and a courageous affirmation of the power of the imagination in the face of death.

Among several extraordinary hospital poems (Coloured Hair in the Garage, Mouse Sandwich and The Sickbed) is The Tube, in which Sweeney stubbornly refuses to board the train waiting to take him “to the black camp”: “I want to stay off that train as long as I can, / despite all the exhortations to board now, / I want to be myself till the last minute.”

WN Herbert’s new book, The Wreck of the Fathership (Bloodaxe, £12.99) is a series of studies in public disaster and private grief.
Written while working as Dundee’s first Makar (official laureate) from 2013-18, the book cleverly and movingly folds together several overlapping narratives – the illness and death of the poet’s father, the referenda on Scottish independence and the EU, the election of Trump and Johnson, the sinking of the Mona lifeboat in 1959 and the long, slow shipwreck of the post-war consensus.

It’s a hugely entertaining and inventive collection, borrowing wildly from Captain Beefheart, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Leonora Carrington, McGonagall and Burns (“Here’s tae the deid an here’s tae thi livin: / thi former, mind, ur mair forgivin”).

There is a splendid sequence about Czar Trumpo as Caligula’s horse, the Orange Monarch of the Irn Bru Glen, Gibberer-in-Chief and Tangerine Taoiseach of the Clan Orang-utan: “Orban, Erdogan, Putin, Xi – / These are the guys that think like me. /Grab Le Pen and come what May, / The world is mine to sign away… Let the squirrel dance with the polecat, / the muskrat with the skunk; / now the Republican frug with the Fascist / like a hooker must with a drunk.”

And this is from The Fall of Brexitopolis: “This is the way the empire ends. /The proud nose shall be rubbed in its own hallucinatory piss…. Where there is plenty we shall restore rationing. / Where there is home we shall bring deportation… The sick shall queue to die, their trolleys / nose to tail on the orbital motorways… the last poet swinging from the last lamppost / shall switch off the final streetlight…”

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