The Best Recent Poetry – Critics Summary | Poetry
The Owl and the Nightingale translated by Simon Armitage (Faber, £ 14.99)
This new book follows earlier versions of Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Simon Armitage in arguing for the readability of long poems in Middle English. The Owl and the Nightingale is a comedic argument in 900 rhyming couplets: the joke – that different orders of birds disrespect each other, just like humans from different communities – has all the time to run out, all the more that this translation must work within the rural setting of the poem, which to contemporary perspectives might seem lacking in sharpness. Much of the reason we want to keep reading is because of the way Armitage uses language. Simple and terse, it retains the time signature and rhyme scheme of the original, while making it easy: it doesn’t. This utterly poetic feat, rather than Faber’s somewhat twee illustrations or arched self-references, ensures that this graceful and elegant translation is a hit.
Winter Recipes from the Collective by Louise Glück (Carcanet, £ 12.99)
A small volume of just 15 pieces, but like all of the Nobel Laureate’s work, it strikes above its apparent weight. Glück has always been a meticulously accurate truth-teller; his lucid poems claim a simplicity that is truly the simplicity of something more completely elaborate than the rest of us can handle. It’s a hallmark of great late writing, as is the courage to go in the dark: “Down and down and down and down / this is where the wind takes us. This new collection once again examines close relationships without the sweetener of correct feeling, recording the universal stages of human life through a woman’s experience. We find the stylized and half-dreamed landscapes of Glück, rustic equivalents of a painting by Edward Hopper, and his astonishing poetry, such as “the world passes, / All the worlds more beautiful than the others”.
Orcadia Deep Wheel by Harry Joséphine Giles (Picador, £ 10.99)
Orcadia Deep Wheel is a book of surprises. The first is that it is a novel in verse: a kind of storytelling that traditional adult poetry often resists. What such resistances overlook is all that the form can hold, given the ability of poetry to say many things at once. It connects questions of identity and belonging, alongside exams of deep space and Orkney, into a single, concise but scintillating narrative. Giles also makes a language change like the stormy Orcadian seas. Each page of this bilingual book contains both conventional strophic verses in “a poetic register of the Orkney language”, and a prose poem version where the same material is told in idiomatic English which packs and unpacks the many meanings of the language. Orcadian. When, for example, “stoor” becomes “stormstrifestrainspeeddust”, or “Øyvind birls a pod in his lang / finger an waatches the ship link” is rendered as “Øyvind whirlrushdancespins a pod in his long finger and watchs the ship glidetorestconnect”, English itself is returned to the reader as “something strange and rich”.
Five books by Ana Blandiana, translated by Paul Scott Derrick and Viorica Patea (Blood Ax, £ 14.99)
Romanian Ana Blandiana is one of Europe’s greatest living poets, and she is well served by this substantial volume containing five previously untranslated collections. Throughout his life as a writer, they created a layered portrait of a complex but cohesive poetic identity. The collection opens with poems of resistance to the tyranny of Ceausescu’s regime, which in 1984 electrified Romanian society and became its first samizdat literature. There are also two collections written under Ceausescu, in which the embodied experiences of women overlap and symbolize the national experience. The Architecture of Waves, published in 1990 when Blandiana was 48, was her first book to appear uncensored. Also included here are two collections from the past five years, one of which is a copy of a book for her husband. Its title, Variations on a given theme, economically sums up the repetitive nature of mourning: and economy and concentration are the key words of this work of unfailing testimony, to both intimate and international realities.