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Here are some more of the poetry books that found their way into my collection during 2009 (by which I mean I either bought them myself or someone bought them for me – I don’t want anyone imagining I procured them by nefarious means…).  I may have left some books out – it’s all a bit of a blur.  And there are other very interesting-looking collections that were published during the year that I haven’t quite got to yet (like Harvey Molloy’s ‘Moonshot‘. Jessica le Bas’ ‘Walking to Africa’, Michele Leggott’s ‘Mirabile Dictu’ and Selina Tusitala Marsh’s ‘Fast Talking PI‘).

This is a list, rather than a bunch of reviews, because when I try to review something I struggle to get past ‘I liked it’, ‘I didn’t like it’ or ‘I liked it a lot’.  You can assume the following are books I liked, really liked or really, really liked.

‘Shields Sketches’ (Hub Editions), ‘No More Hiroshimas’ (Spokesman Books) and ‘Marsden Bay’ (Red Squirrel Press) by James Kirkup, whom I blogged about in November

‘In Person: 30 Poets’ edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books) – a wonderful DVD book (six hours of poets reading their own poems + a book containing all the poems) featuring great poets like Fleur Adcock, Maura Dooley, Selima Hill, Jackie Kay, Adrian Mitchell, Yang Lian and Benjamin Zephaniah.

‘Earth Shattering: ecopoems’ also edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books) – poems about environmental destruction, climate change, species extinction and so forth, but not all gloomy.  Poets range from Gerard Manley Hopkins and Wordsworth to contemporary poets such as Denise Levertov, Oodgeroo and Susan Griffin.

‘Skin Hunger’ by David Lyndon Brown (Titus Books) – poems about love, sex and death. Here’s an extract from “Icarus Reflects”:

“Look, it’s me

as a courtesan,

lagged in feathers

in a long lobby,

pitied and feared

for my mordant quips

and eloquent tailoring.”

‘A Book of Luminous Things’ edited by Czeslaw Milosz – this one’s been around a while, but I’ve only just got to it and it’s just as the title suggests.  It includes work by many classical Chinese poets, as well as modern American and European poets.

to be continued…

While I was in South Shields (in the North-East of England) in August, I was lucky enough to attend a memorial reading of James Kirkup’s poetry at the local museum.  James Kirkup was a prominent British poet who was born in South Shields in 1918 and died earlier this year.  My interest in him was sparked by my friend Jean, who sent me a book of his poems after noticing we were both born in South Shields.

James Kirkup wrote dozens of poetry collections, several volumes of autobiography, plays, haiku, tanka and many translations.  He was the UK’s first poet-in-residence at an academic institution (at Leeds University in 1950) and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.  He held numerous awards, including the Atlantic Award for Literature from the Rockefeller Foundation, the P.E.N. Club Prize for Poetry, the Scott-Moncrieff Prize for Translation and the Japan Festival Foundation Award. 

James Kirkup lived in Japan for many years, but spent the last part of his life in Andorra.  He was a conscientious objector during the second world war and one of his collections is titled ‘No More Hiroshimas’.  In “Not Cricket”, he writes about those experiences:

 

“I, too, remember brutal overseers

In the labour camps of Britain, men

Who could only relish power

If they could degrade, mock, punish

 

With violence as sad as any commandant’s

With anger that reveals the heart of war.”

and in “White Shadows”, he commemorates a man “annihilated in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima” who left only his white shadow:

 “Your shade – poor forked human creature – fled

Like a mist of dew on morning glories.  Your breath

Evaporated, taken away, lost soul, before

You even had time to scream.  Your shade was white.”

 Another collection, ‘The Body Servant’, contains a sequence of poems about parts of the body:

 “CHEST

Box, barrel, bastion

of the heart and lungs,

rigid with side-

winding ribs, yet

accordion-pleated,

bagpipes, bellows of bone

breathing like the sea…”

James Kirkup was gay and the publication of one of his poems in Britain’s Gay News in 1976 led to Britain’s last successful prosecution for blasphemy.  Amazingly, it is still banned in Britain today.  If you want to read it, you can find it here http://www.annoy.com/history/doc.html?DocumentID=100045, but the poet would probably rather be remembered for such poems as “A Correct Compassion” (dedicated to Mr. Philip Allison, after watching him perform a Mistral Stenosis Valvulotomy in the General Infirmary in Leeds), which begins:
“Cleanly, sir, you went to the core of the matter.
Using the purest kind of wit, a balance of belief and art,
You with a curious nervous elegance laid bare
The root of life, and put your finger on its beating heart.”

The memorial reading I attended was organised by Red Squirrel Press, who published one of Kirkup’s collections (Marsden Bay) recently and who have a reprint of one of his other books coming out soon.  At another Red Squirrel Press event, publisher Sheila Wakefield kindly pointed us to some places where we’d be likely to see red squirrels – fast being edged out of their habitat by the American grey squirrels (though I gather this is as much about diseases as it is about competition) – but alas, they proved elusive on our searches.  Next time, maybe. 

More about James Kirkup and Red Squirrel Press here: http://www.redsquirrelpress.com/index.php?marsden

and a nice painting of him here:

http://www.leeds.ac.uk/library/spcoll/leedspoetry/kirkup.htm

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