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21st-Century Poetry Winter warmers

ANDY CROFT recommends three uplifting collections to ward off post-festive blues

JOHN GOHORRY'S Thirty-three Ostrich Cadenzas (Shoestring, £6) tells the story of the Japanese ostriches who escaped from a farm after the Daiichi nuclear reactor meltdown in Fukushima in 2011.

It begins as a sort of extravagant black comedy. The ostriches take over the deserted town of Okuma, where they drink in bars, mate in bookshops and establish the utopian “Autonomous Ostrich Republic.”

When the “moonsuits” arrive with their Geiger counters, the ostriches are sent to the Tokyo Agricultural University for tests and experiments.

They believe that they are going to be students, only to discover that they are the ones being studied as they die slowly and painfully of radiation poisoning: “Heart, liver, lungs, gizzard, their organs/are spread on the dissecting table;/the birds have become their emissions,/evidence only of states of contamination.”

Meanwhile, of course, the real ostriches in the story are busy building more nuclear power plants...

Gohorry is also included in Write to be Counted: An Anthology of Poetry to Uphold Human Rights (The Book Mill, £8.50). Edited by Jacci Bulman, Nicola Jackson and Kathleen Jones, the book, a money-raiser for PEN, is an eloquent record of the helplessness and guilt with which most of us read the latest news of human rights abuses all over the world. As Gohorry pus it, “the Senecan pageant rolls on,/its bloodthirsty improvisations/remorseless as clockwork.”

It’s an uneven collection but there are some wonderful individual poems here by Alison Barr, Clare Shaw, Dick Jones, Catherine Graham, Merryn Williams.

This is from Lynda Turber’s This is the Shoe: “This is the shoe that was found on the beach at Lesbos./This is the child who wore the shoe/that’s buried in sand on Lesbos./This is the boat that sank with the child/the father and mother the sister and brother/beneath the waves of Lesbos...”

And this is from Paul McGrane’s Welcome to my Country: “Dear prospective citizen... I hope this soil will not for long/be foreign to your feet/that my weather/will be your weather/that my cities will offer their freedom/my countryside the right to roam/I’ll be standing in Arrivals/with your name.”

Ten Poets of the New Generation (Bloodaxe, £9.95), edited by Karen McCarthy Woolf, is the third anthology from the “Complete Works” mentoring scheme, in which young poets from diverse backgrounds work with well-known British poets like Hannah Lowe, Bill Herbert, Michael Schmidt and Mimi Khalvati. Previous anthologies have included work by Shazea Quraishi, Malika Booker, Warsan Shire, Edward Doegar and Sarah Howe.

It’s an important intervention in contemporary British culture. Since the beginning of the project, the number of poets from black and Asian backgrounds published in the mainstream has increased from less than 1 to 14 per cent.

And it is a strong book by any standards, containing some wonderful individual poems, notably Degna Stone’s The River Gods, Will Harris’s Bee Glue, Omikemi Natacha Bryan’s Crownsville, Leo Boix’s Ode to Deal, Yomi Sode’s The Outing, Ian Humphreys’ Zebra on East 55th and 3rd and Raymond Antrobus’s Jamaican British: “Half-caste, half mule, house slave — Jamaican British./Light skin, straight male, privileged — Jamaican British... In school I fought a boy in the lunch hall – Jamaican./At home, told Dad I hate dem, Al dem Jamaicans — I’m British./He laughed, said you cannot love sugar and hate your sweetness,/And took me straight to Jamaica — passport British.”

 

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