Ten: The New Wave

Ten: The New Wave is the successor to 2010’s Ten: New Poets, both books being a response to the Arts Council’s Free Verse Report’s 2005 finding that “less than 1% of poetry published by major presses in the UK [was] by black and Asian poets”. According to Fiona Moore’s write-up of the panel discussion at the book’s launch, the situation has since improved but is still materially and embarrassingly short of being representative (and, speaking as a straight, white, able-bodied man, yet another example of the over-privileging of people like me in the UK poetry world). Ten: The New Wave is a further step towards rebalancing this. It’s also hands-down the best poetry anthology of 2014 so far.

There are ten poets represented (the clue’s in the name). I’d love to spend time looking closely at each of them but there’s only space here for some hurried introductions. Nonetheless I hope this might give some sense of the sheer quality of work in Ten: The New Wave (and maybe persuade you to buy a copy and spend time getting to know the poems properly).

Warsan Shire’s poems transmit a restrained but disturbing energy, often through everyday details that somehow become appalling in context. The sequence “Men in Cars” presents scenes of sexual exploitation (and in at least one case, sexual assault) through a lens of numb detachment that’s occasionally fractured by a simple detail (“I close my eyes and I say Just do it and he does, I catch my own reflection in the rearview mirror, my head bobbing like a saint on a dashboard”; “the gold ring on my finger stares back at me”; “his silver tooth blinking under the streetlamp”). Both “Midnight in the Foreign Food Aisle” and “Haram” deal with the cultural inter-reactions of sex and language (“Uncle…after years of fucking / women who cannot pronounce your name, / you find yourself…praying / in a language you haven’t used in years”; “Anything that leaves her mouth sounds like sex. / Our mother has banned her from saying God’s name.”). There isn’t a single dud among the poems here: every one leaves you with an unheimlich shudder.

Eileen Pun’s “Some Common Whitethroat Chit-Chat” pretty much compels you to read it aloud (even if you’re on a rush-hour bus at the time) but there’s no way to convey this in an extract so you’ll just have to buy the book and read the whole thing. The sound-world of Pun’s poems is weirdly compelling and unmistakably her own, as in “Lesser Whitethroat”: “Wherever you find doorways, slip in as if indigenous – / or a hole – / keep your breathing pressed, / less, lesser, less… / Yes!”.

But these poems are equally confident in their imagery and subject matter (and there’s a memorable and perfectly-judged reversal of tenor and vehicle in “Studio Apartment: Sunday”: “He begins peeling a clementine. Now, this is very much / like the introductory part of an evening spent kissing – citrusy”).

Adam Lowe’s “Afterlife @ Aftershock” will stay with you for weeks afterwards: its overlaying of underground club and ancient underworld is note-perfect and delightfully unsettling. Even better is “Vada That”, a poem written in Polari that sustains (and draws energy from) its linguistic premise throughout:

She’ll cruise an omi with fabulosa bod,
regard the scotches, the thews, the rod –
charpering a carsey for the trick.

Best of all is “Buzzing Affy”, a spectacular version of Sappho’s Hymn to Aphrodite that begins “Sister, on your precious throne of metal bling” and doesn’t look back. These poems make language crackle and fizz in a way that’s thrilling and ever-so-slightly dangerous at the same time, and that doesn’t dull with repeat readings (in fact the opposite).

Sarah Howe is represented by a selection from the sequence “A Certain Chinese Encyclopedia” (not to be confused with her tall-lighthouse pamphlet of the same name). This is a thread of fourteen poems structured around an epigraph from Borges, of which six appear in this anthology (and on the basis of the epigraph I’d guess that “The present classification” from last year’s Dear World and Everyone in It might be a seventh).

“Tame” is a deceptively-simple fable about a woodsman’s daughter turned into a bird, reading like a Chinese folk-tale refracted through Ovid’s Metamorphoses (and pulling off Ovid’s technically-vertiginous paradox of being knowing/literary and emotionally immediate at the same time):

.                         Some will say the fable ended there. But those
.             who know the ways of wild geese
know too the obligation to return, to their first dwelling place. Let this
.            suffice: late spring. A woodsman
snares a wild goose that spirals clean into his yard – almost like
.            it knows. Gripping its sinewed neck

he presses it down into the block, cross-hewn from a lychee trunk.
.            A single blow. Profit, loss.

I’d heard “Innumerable” (a multi-layered prose-poem around the Tiananmen Square massacre) at a reading a few weeks ago and was thrilled to meet it again in this anthology. “On the news that evening I tried to pick out my waving self among the banners’ swell, the toybox people chanting and abuzz. A few days later there were different pictures on the news.” I could happily write a whole post on a close-reading any one of these six poems but for now can only urge you to buy the book and read them for yourself: they are the real thing.

Inua Ellams is a successful playwright as well as a poet, and it shows. The control of tone and voice in his seven poems here is extraordinary. It also allows him to sustain tricky formal conceits through whole poems without losing momentum, as in “Short Shorted / Odogbolu 1995” that begins all but three of its 44 lines with “That”:

All this is fact /

That Jebo had a knack for melodrama.
That his slight weight barely marked
That boarding school ground.

“Ghetto van Gogh” is a sharp vignette midway between a prose poem and a theatrical monologue, its payoff coming as much from the skill with which the twist is presented as from the emotional punch of the twist itself. “The / Forced” starts as a prediction and ends as a brutal incantation that fuses Anglo-Saxon alliterative patterns and hypnotic internal rhymes into something close to a magic spell:

One decade from now, when police who are vicious
as they are duplicitous have beaten you senseless,
have dumped your swollen self in a concrete cell,
when you deny them the satisfaction of betrayal
/ no be by force o, it wasn’t by force / you will cry
your throat dry as cracked feet, sob uncontrollably
as blood bubbling your torn nostril bursts, you will
call for your brothers, but for now you are free.

Edward Doegar’s “April (after Li Po)” is a concentrated blend of simplicity and tonal playfulness:

The wind taps at the blinds
A tethered boat

On the fridge a reminder
To pick up milk

I step from the porch into rain
A blessing

Knock out the middle couplet and we’d be stuck in the familiar post-Cathay defaults for English-language versions of (especially) Li Po and Du Fu. But interpolate the fridge and the milk, and suddenly that step from the porch (a faint echo of Pound’s “Jewelled Stairs’ Grievance”) and its “blessing” feel less expected. This depends on a finely-judged shift of tone and register, done here without the slightest showiness. That same lack of showiness is evident in the sure and quietly-moving “The Waiting Room”, which conveys the universal worry, urgency, detachment and dislocation of relatives waiting in hospital.

Rishi Dastidar has an enviable sense for figurative language. Here’s an unnamed female speaker addressing her male suitor in “Licking stamps”:

But still, really, the martial metaphor?
I don’t want things like “fireworks”
or “starlight” either. The oil spill is better,
but then that’s making sex with me
topical when it should be newsworthy.

Elsewhere, “The sky is as cold as a week-old gazpacho made out of tinned tomatoes” or “the sun has come out…the way the light comes on when you open / a fridge, and two slices of last night’s pizza / are waiting to be breakfasted upon.” There’s a serious playfulness running through these poems – not just in their imagery (and repeated foregrounding of the artificiality of that imagery) but in their choice of subject matter and details (“The gap was filled by two physicists / talking about the end of time.”). It’s only on the second or third reading that you realize how many serious themes have been gently and unshowily touched on while you were being entertained by the surface display.

Kayo Chingonyi’s “calling a spade a spade” is one of the most memorable and inventive sequences I’ve read all year. Here’s the opening of “The N Word”:

You sly devil. Lounging in a Pinter script
or pitched from a Transit van’s rolled-down window;
my shadow on this un-lit road,  though you’ve been
smuggled from polite conversation.

The sequence starts powerfully and doesn’t relent: a nativity play, a cricket match, university drama (“An all-white production of for colored girls“); professional theatre (“My agent says I have to use my street voice. / Though my talent is for rakes and fops I’ll drop / the necessary octaves”). The anger here is controlled, sublimated and devastatingly-effective, and Chingonyi conjures layers of complexity from a catalogue of systematic racism. It’s a disturbing, difficult and life-affirming sequence, and one that keeps getting better with each re-reading.

Reading Jay Bernard’s poems I kept thinking of Charles Olson’s assertion that “form is only ever an extension of content”. In “Yes, they hate each other” the repetition and variation builds to a kind of verbal fugue that expresses the poem’s relentless subject matter perfectly:

My parents sleep beside each other and
they haven’t spoken for a year.
They haven’t spoken for a year and they sleep beside each other.
My parents haven’t spoken and they sleep, wrapped together
in the same duvet though they haven’t spoken for a year.
My parents do not speak, they don’t meet eyes, but they sleep
in the same sweat, the same bundle, the same double bed.

Elsewhere, “The Basics” weaves ten interrupted tercets together into a fractured whole:

and upstairs in an empty classroom
a teacher begins to wonder
why it matters that –

while the widower cooks in yellow gloves,
wipes the table down
with two different kinds of –

then a parent sits up in bed
and screams at the teddies
lined up along the –

Bernard is a seriously skilful and versatile poet whose formal experimentation never feels gratuitous. In each of these poems you’re left with the certainty that there’s no better or more congruent way of saying what has just been said.

Mona Arshi’s poems are crafted, restrained and genuinely moving. Here’s the ending of “Phone Call on a Train Journey”:

.      Could you confirm you were his sister?

When they pass her his rimless glasses
.     they’re tucked into a padded sleeve;

several signatures later,
.     his rucksack is in her hands,

(without the perishables),
.     lighter than she had imagined.

That “without the perishables” fixes and reconfigures the whole poem. Likewise, here’s the end of “The Daughters” (which begins “My daughters have lost / two hundred and thirty-six teeth / and counting”):

when they are older I will teach them
that abundance and vulcanisation
are bad words.
When they sleep, they sleep heavy;
I go into their rooms and check their teeth.

There’s a precision in these poems that conveys more intensity and verbal energy than pages of pyrotechnics ever could, and it leaves you wanting to read more of Arshi’s work.

This post has turned into an unsatisfactory rush through the book’s ten poets, spending too little time on each of them. But I hope it gives some small sense of the concentration of great writing that Ten: The New Wave condenses into its 150 pages. It’s a testament to the quality of the poets and to editor Karen McCarthy Woolf that you finish this anthology wishing it had been longer. If you care about contemporary poetry and vibrant writing, you need to read this book.

Ten: The New Wave, Bloodaxe, 2014.

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