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Book Reviews

The Hundred Years’ War, edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe, £12.99)

the-hundred-years-war-anthology-001Marking not only the centenary of the Great War, but acknowledging that conflict – be it global, civil or religious war – has been a constant for the last century, Neil Astley’s major new Bloodaxe anthology takes us from the trenches to post-millennial terrorism.

As a discourse on both people’s inhumanity and the struggle to retain humanity in terrifying and desperate circumstances, The Hundred Years’ War is best read in sequence – though at nearly 600 pages this presents a daunting challenge. Daunting, but rewarding.

Opening with a 100-page selection from the Great War that eclipses the recent Faber 1914: Poetry Remembers anthology, the expected works by Owen, Sassoon and Rosenberg are supplemented with French, Italian, German and Russian perspectives: poems by Albert-Paul Granier, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Wilhelm Klemm and Aleksandr Blok are hugely powerful and will deservedly find a larger readership. In particular, the twelve no-punches-pulled lines of Klemm’s ‘Clearing-Station’ are an unflinching distillation of his subject.

Poems on Ireland and the Spanish Civil War (Machado’s ‘The Crime was in Granada’, a threnody to the murdered Lorca, is a poignant inclusion) take us up to World War Two. Of the English poems in this section, the weary pragmatism of Keith Douglas and the brutal directness of Randall Jarrell are startlingly distinct voices. Pieces by Brecht, Akhmatova, Zbigniew Herbert and Miklós Radnóti widen the demographic and deliver unforgettable images and eye-witness accounts.

World War Two accounts for almost a quarter of the book. Smaller sections follow on the Korean War (William Childress, Keith Wilson and Thomas McGrath provide American viewpoints, but the weight of this section is borne by Ko Un) and the Cold War.

 Vietnam, The Troubles, and the continuing Israel/Palestine/Lebanon situation offer a broader spectrum of work. The excerpts from Mahmoud Darwish’s ‘A State of Siege’, a piece written more than a decade ago, could have been shaped from this week’s news coverage. Naomi Shihab Nye’s ‘For Mohammed Zeid of Gaza, Age 15′, in which she rails against the throwaway term “stray bullet” sets up a forceful precedent for Brian Turner’s ‘Here, Bullet’ later in the anthology. Turner, of course, writes from the perspective of a US soldier serving in Iraq. Ditto Kevin Powers. Their pieces dominate the Iraq Wars section, although Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef is well represented. Still, the book isn’t about us-and-them dynamics and Astley keeps what Owen called “the pity of war” foremost in mind for the majority of his selections.

The Hundred Years’ War is balanced, sober and reflective. Astley provides a general introduction as well as introductions to each section. Annotations on the poets’ lives and personal experiences of war are informative and unobtrusive. This could easily become the keystone war poetry anthology for this generation.

 Neil Fulwood


It Goes With the Territory: memoirs of a poet by Elaine Feinstein (Alma, £20)

it goes with the territoryElaine Feinstein is the author of sixteen collections of poetry, three collections of poetry in translation, fifteen novels, two short story collections and seven biographies but has chosen “memoirs of a poet” as the sub-title of this book rather than a “writer”, giving away immediately her main interest and leading us to the world in which she made an unlikely entry so many decades ago. Against her was that she was Jewish, provincial, female, unconnected and married with three children before she could really call herself a poet. In her favour, however, was that as a teenager “while other girls dreamt of princes and Hollywood stars, I dreamt of dead poets.”

Elaine went to Cambridge where she wrote for Granta and set up Prospect, publishing Harold Pinter, Denise Levertov and Donald Davie, amongst others, and made friends with Allen Ginsberg. Her influences as a poet were from the west, the Black Mountain poets and Charles Reznikoff and, later, from the east, when she made another reputation as a translator ,particularly of Marina Tsvetieva. Along the way Elaine brought up her children, met internationally famous poets such as Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who kept her up all night drinking, and Joseph Brodsky, who she fell out with over translation.

Her novel Russian Jerusalem manages to bring together all her favourite Russian interests, from Isaac Babel on, and her memoir reveals not a few scrapes as she tries to work with refuseniks in broken down flats in Moscow suburbs. Some of her work reveals profound melancholy, and one reason, outlined in her memoir, was often her difficult but fifty-years long marriage to Arnold Feinstein, a scientist, who was unfaithful and, at times, threatened by her successes. Yet she loved Arnold despite everything, which led to her most recent book of poems Talking to the Dead, a group of elegies for him. The book more or less ends with Arnold’s death in 2012.

It Goes With the Territory will be of particular value to those concerned with the history of twentieth century poetry, but of a wider value to those concerned about how women moved into the world of men in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ross Bradshaw

Bloomsbury and the Poets by Nicholas Murray (Rack Press, £8)

9780992765460For some years Rack Press has been producing quality content poetry pamphlets. Two bookshops stock them – the London Review Bookshop and Five Leaves (not that we are boasting or anything). With this title Rack takes a step forward, with a spine, a barcode and a title guaranteed to sell well in Bloomsbury bookshops at any rate.

The book is short – 52 pages – but packs in a lot of information for people who want to know more about that interesting area ten minutes from St Pancras. An area that Christopher Reid described as “a district of literary ghosts/that walk in broad daylight”.Ian Nairn was pretty dismissive though, saying that “As anything more than an area on a map, Bloomsbury is dead. Town planners and London University have killed it between them – a notably academic victory”. Maimed, but not killed, in my opinion. You can still buy hardware, books and wholefoods in Marchmont Street, sit for free in most of the parks, but the houses that literary Bloomsbury used to inhabit have long become university departments, pack ’em in lodgings, or upmarket hotels. And everywhere is under pressure from the landlords who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

There’s some proletarians over at Somers Town and odd patches of Council housing, but if a poetry bookshop was to open – like the Poetry Bookshop of Harold Monro of a hundred years ago there would not be many places in the modern Bloomsbury where “The shop was located in a rough area where the policemen preferred to patrol in pairs and the street urchins ran along behind Rupert Brooke when he arrived in his characteristic broad-brimmed hat chanting ‘Buffalo Bill! Bufallo Bill!'” Brooke was only one major figure who read in the dingy back room of the Poetry Bookshop, but the area has many links with good (and some delightfully awful) poets of the past, including the room where Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath spent their wedding night in a single bed and the house where Andrew Marvell died.

Ross Bradshaw

Survivors: Hungarian Jewish Poets of the Holocaust, edited and translated by Thomas Orszag-Land (Smokestack Press, £8.95)

SurvivorsI J Singer, the lesser known brother of Bashevis Singer, also a Yiddish novelist, wrote in an essay in 1942 of the “tsvey toyznt yoriker toes”, the two thousand year mistake – the thought that Jews could be accepted in Gentile society. Whether Jews sought assimilation or separation, whatever they did, the Gentile world would not accept them. He held this position only briefly, drawing the conclusion that only Jewish nationalism would resolve this situation. This is not a view I share, yet looking at the last hundred years of Jewish life in Hungary, it becomes harder to argue – over that country if nowhere else.

Partially as a direct result of previous oppression, Jews were over-represented in the failed 1919 Hungarian revolutionary government which was followed by two years of anti-Semitic “white terror”.  Jews were just too left wing. The impact of the Holocaust is well known, some 600,000 Jews being killed, with the direct involvement of Hungarian fascists. Many were Christians as the Hungarian laws defined Jews by ancestry rather than religion. This number included the poet Miklos Radnoti, a Catholic, whose poems are included here. Some Christians were just too Jewish. In the wake of the 1956 uprising against the Communists there were further pogroms. And now we have Jobbik, which sees Jews everywhere, including, again, those whose families are long converted to Christianity. It wants them out.

It is with Jobbik in mind that I read this new collection of Holocaust poetry by Hungarian Jews, some of whom were not, unfortunately, as the title suggests, survivors. The poems are more than ably translated and the collection edited by Thomas Orszag-Land, himself a hidden child in Hungary during the Holocaust. The stand out poets are Radnoti and – new to me – Andras Mezei, who did survive the war. But it is a collection that is hard to read, remorseless in tone. In a rare positive moment Mezei concludes a poem “For love redeems the fence of death”, but it really is hard going. Perhaps it has to be.

Ross Bradshaw

Light at the End of the Tenner by Andrew ‘Mulletproof’ Graves (Burning Eye, £10)

Light at the End of the TennerAlready a local legend on the performance scene, Mulletproof’s first full-length collection stakes an immediate claim to cool based on the cover alone. A striking image by Mark Dickson is capped with this quote from Jim Bob (of Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine fame): “Like finding a great lost Roger McGough collection in a box in the loft.”

It’s a good call: the poems on offer here are as grounded in reality and conversational in their aesthetic as anything by McGough. But the ghost of Adrian Henri suggests itself in ‘Wings’, ‘The Love Tree’ and ‘It’s No Longer Tomorrow, Yet…’ – the latter the most nakedly experimental piece in the collection. In fact, Light at the End of the Tenner is thronged with ghosts: Soviet cosmonauts, rock ‘n’ heroes, suicidal comedians, B-movie casualties, and Jimmy from Quadrophenia riding Ace Face’s Lambretta over the cliffs and into eternity.

 Mulletproof’s subjects are certainly eclectic. From a geriatric Elvis swapping Graceland for a trailer park to deer armed with Kalashnikovs squaring up to their erstwhile hunters (“no more roof rack mortuaries / or tailgate processions // just the sun shot green canopy / and the assurance of a fair fight”), the poems bristle with attitude as they blaze their way through half a century of pop culture, span the globe and (quite literally) shoot for the moon.

But Mulletproof’s hometown is always the anchor. ‘Radford Road’ is an impressionist portrait of Nottingham in all its on-the-streets glory, while ‘Rammel Nitrate: Nottinghamshire Kisses and Laced History Lessons’ whizzes slap-bang through the county’s history, picking out a through-line of what made it the place it is today, while ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Rumour’ sees Alan Sillitoe’s racing-throwing anti-hero eternally on the run.

Clocking in at a chunky 116 pages (steroid poetry in a culture where most collections barely tap out at half that length), Light at the End of the Tenner captures on the page what anyone who’s seen Mulletproof live cherishes about the man: flair, fury and flippancy in roughly equal measures.

 Neil Fulwood


Ghost Writer by Andy Croft (Five Leaves, £7.99)

The narrative of Andy Croft’s verse-novel is basically Hamlet relocated from Elsinore to a dingy flat and playing out against a backdrop of left-wing politics and the Spanish civil war instead of the wasp’s nest of court intrigue. Oh, and written in Pushkin sonnets as opposed to the iambic pentameter. But apart from that, we’re definitely in Hamlet territory as reluctant hero Tod Prince (geddit?) struggles against the nefarious machinations of Claud King (geddit? part two), tries to romance the headstrong Fee (geddit? part three) and deals with unwanted ghostly visitations.

Tod’s a down-on-his-luck writer who hopes his long-gestating biography of 1930s poet Rex Dedman – who, as his name would suggest, is now deceased – will be a critical and financial success. Claud, publisher and rival for the affections of Rex’s wife Trudi, is working on his own memoir and tries to coerce Tod into a version of events designed to bolster his revisionist take on Rex’s life and smooth over a particularly gnarly secret that both men were party to back when they were fighting to protect Spain from Franco’s fascism.

Different stories emerge as first Rex then Trudi visit Tod from beyond the grave, with each character’s version of events taking on a different colouration (think Rashomon conflated with Land and Freedom) but amidst the deceptions, betrayals and bed-hopping, who’s telling the truth and how is Tod meant to arrive at a definitive narrative?

Ghost Writer is an absolute tour de force. By turns a mystery, a love story, a ghost story, a war-time thriller, a political treatise and a satire on the literati, Croft covers more ground in 140 sonnets than most novelists could manage in a 600-page door-stopper. The fact that he keeps the whole thing ticking along so wittily and so readably is the clincher.

Neil Fulwood
See below for Neil Fulwood’s review of Andy Croft’s later book 1948

1948 by Andy Croft (Five Leaves)

Q. What do you get if you cross George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four with the Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico?

A. Andy Croft’s 1948

Granted, that’s a glib opener for a review, barely scratching the surface of this inventive verse-novel. Let’s dig a little deeper: imagine a complete up-ending of Nineteen Eighty-Four where Winston Smith is a journeyman copper, O’Brien his world-weary boss, and Julia so impossibly chaste that there’s barely a suggestion of sexcrime on young Winston’s radar. Moreover, Croft swaps Orwell’s dystopian future for a rigorously imagined alternative history where a Labour-Communist coalition is the ruling party, the Royal Family have made a swift departure for the colonies, and America is threatening economic sanctions. Nonetheless, London is hosting the 1948 Olympics but murder, dockyard strikes and a glamorous Russian agent threaten to disrupt the opening ceremony.

Okay, that’s the Nineteen Eighty-Four part of it. Onto the Ealing: imagine Passport to Pimlico as a film noir directed by Edward Dmytryk or Jules Dassin, all fog and shadows, car chases, dames, handguns, and the occasional cosh applied to the back of the head.

Now take one final aesthetic leap and imagine the whole wacky confection drizzled with humour and served up as a sequence of 150 Pushkin sonnets. Picking perhaps the most obscure sonnet form available, Croft dazzles with his wit and wordplay, a feat made more impressive in that he doesn’t just narrate the entire seven chapter novel in verse: the dedication, contents page and acknowledgements are also sonnets. This is the kind of showmanship that could easily have been too clever for its own good, but 1948 remains entertaining and immensely readable throughout. If you’re a fan of Orwell, Ealing, contemporary poetry, or just plain curious about the kind of eccentric talent that throws all of these cultural touchstones into the blender, this is essential reading.

Neil Fulwood
Neil Fulwood has published three books on film. He is a member of Nottingham Poetry Society.

Division Street by Helen Mort (Chatto Poetry, £12)

How to Thrive in the Digital Age by Tom ChatfieldStill only in her twenties, Helen Mort follows up her Tall-Lighthouse and Wordsworth Trust pamphlets with her first full-length volume. The opening poem, ‘The French for Death’ riffs on her surname and establishes a mordant sense of humour that infuses the collection. The humour is welcome; without it, Division Street might have been a hard slog.

The title poem references a street in Sheffield: “You brought me here to break it off / one muggy Tuesday. A brewing storm / the pigeons sleek with rain.” Location and personal experience stud Mort’s work like pins in a map. In ‘Take Notes’, there’s a sense of curtain-twitching parochialism: “… the checkout girl in the superstore / who didn’t look at me, only what I bought. / You pointed out each lit window in town. / Take notes, you said, one day you’ll write this down.” ‘Take Notes’, along with ‘The Girl Next Door’, ‘Thinspiration Shots’ and ‘Beauty’, forms a loose quartet on the nature of female identity and the struggle against objectification and expectation.

Always, though, there’s the sense of place: ‘Coffin Path’, ‘Brocken Spectre’ and the wonderfully surreal but understated ‘Items Carried Up Ben Nevis’ are anchored by the rugged physicality of the landscapes they describe, while ‘Scab’, the collection’s eight-page centrepiece, shows that the scars of the miners’ strike are still keenly felt and a part of Mort’s heritage: “A stone is lobbed in ’84”, the sequence begins: “hangs like a star over Orgreave. / Welcome to Sheffield. Borderland, / our town of miracles – the wine / turning to water in the pubs, / the taxman ransacking the Church, / plenty of room at every inn.” The sequence moves from alternative parable to Jeremy Deller’s 2001 re-enactment of the battle of Orgreave to the blunt interruption of the poet’s university days by the past: “One day, it crashes through / your windowpane; the stone, / the word, the fallen star. You’re left / to guess which picket line / you crossed …”

Division Street is rich in hard earned and unblinkered experience. It’s a rite of passage with not a single duff poem, announcing Mort as a major new voice.

Neil Fulwood

Pelt by Sarah Jackson (Bloodaxe)

Pelt by Sarah Jackson“Today, I find I can see through my eyelids.” Which is a good thing, as I need to read Jackson’s debut collection (published by Bloodaxe) with my eyes shut, and I can’t put it down. Her poetry is deliberately unheimlich (the opposite of what is familiar), it profoundly disturbs at the same time as it draws us in. We can hear “The Ten O’Clock Horses” coming down the street, we can feel the “devastating wind” in that deserted hotel in Bulgaria. We reach the end of the book and realise we have to ask ourselves the same terrifying (yet exciting) questions about ourselves and the world around us, which are not quite explicit in the poems but at the same time shout clearly in our minds. And then we start reading again. Longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and winner of the Seamus Heaney award for a first collection, this promises great things to come from Sarah Jackson.

Pippa Hennessy

At the Time of Partition by Moniza Alvi (Bloodaxe)

Moniza Alvi - At the Time of PartitionMoniza Alvi’s new book-length poem At The Time of Partition (Bloodaxe) was the first book I bought last month from Nottingham’s wonderful new independent Five Leaves Bookshop. Short-listed for the TS Eliot prize, the poem weaves family stories from a terrible and life-changing period for the millions were caught up in the new divide between India and Pakistan. I’ve long been an admirer of Alvi’s poetry, from her first collection,A Country at My Shoulder (1993), onwards. She has a distinctive ability, in evidence here once more, to explore identity and capture key moments in people’s lives, examining them through the minutiae of everyday events: ‘the pleating of a sari/… The sweeping of the hallway.’ Her powerful new work focuses on a family’s decision about whether they should stay in India or cross the thin line to the new country, Pakistan. She unravels the questions, doubts, rumours and heart-breaking consequences that are all bound up in this momentous decision with a deftness and delicacy which should bring her many new admirers.

Sue Dymoke