The best recent poetry – review roundup

Learning to Sleep (Cape, £10),

Learning to Sleep (Cape, £10), John Burnside’s first poetry collection since 2017, is a reckoning with the many sleep disorders (including severe insomnia and apnoea) that have afflicted him for a number of years. The absence of rest, and its physical and mental impacts, is made tangible. “Ode to Hypnos” begins: “Here is the angel of slumber, come from the woods / to press a bloody talon to the glass”, and that uneasy note infuses the book. Though Burnside may not wish to “harbour the dead”, ghosts roam through these poems, including the poet’s mother and Rimbaud, reluctantly appearing in a town in Lincolnshire. Burnside deftly provides some light within this gloaming: “and we, who believe / in nothing but superstition, / bring out the dead in our hearts / to be born again.”

A Year in the New Life (Faber, £10.99)

In A Year in the New Life (Faber, £10.99), Jack Underwood’s follow up to Happiness, the arrival of a child is his main concern: “also verb meaning to become aware / of one’s overwhelmedness as in we were daughtered”. He avoids bland affirmations, delighting instead in lacerating comedy – see the exchange between children and adults in “Fifteen Babies in My Garden” (“‘We were just talking about the ruinous / and beautiful ways we’re going to break / your dumb old heart, and totally fuck / your life up’ and they all start laughing”). There is also an interrogative mood, where love is both “precision gratitude”, and something that costs: “I am nearly beautiful, pressed against an edge / I cannot name.”

Lyonesse

Penelope Shuttle’s wonderful 13th collection is two books in one. The first half of Lyonesse (Bloodaxe, £12.99) maps a mythical, submerged stretch of land between Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, where lions and ballgowns jostle for attention with sunken gods and pre-Raphaelite artist and muse Lizzie Siddal. Shuttle uses this terrain to explore loss, both personal and environmental. The second half, “New Lamps for Old”, focuses more directly on life after bereavement and its shifting sensations: “and shame / and a pinch of quietest doubt / fear is part of it and dream / dreaming especially is an important part”. Throughout Shuttle’s language has a vivid, smile-raising immediacy: “venture towards the happiness wherever daylight invites us”.

The Wild Fox of Yemen (Picador, £10.99)

Winner of the 2020 Walt Whitman award, Threa Almontaser’s debut, The Wild Fox of Yemen (Picador, £10.99), is a bracing examination of living between cultures, Yemen and the US. As she writes in “Guide to Gardening Your Roots”, “Some days one flag blows more strongly than the other and it feels too much like betrayal.” Almontaser’s language is full of bravura moments. There is also a keen awareness of the ways different tongues can erase: “Languages slip into our mouths like secondhand / smoke. But English grinds Arabic to white sand.” Almontaser’s achievement is to make us see through this sand and smoke.

Ballad of a Happy Immigrant

Also trying to find a place within a different country is Leo Boix, one of the leading lights of the British Latinx writing community. His Ballad of a Happy Immigrant (Chatto & Windus, £10) is a moving account of his journey, as he traces his grandfather’s time in Liverpool, and then his own in Britain after arriving from Argentina. The poems crackle with collisions of Spanish and English; as well as having a subtle mastery of forms, Boix is playfully inventive, such as in his “Autobiography in Three Columns”. He never shies away from dislocations he has faced – “Come back a man or never come” is the insistent refrain of the title poem – but optimism wins: “blood / of my own blood, / a line as thinly stretched / as the flimsy boat / somehow kept afloat”.

Rishi Dastidar is co-editor of Too Young, Too Loud, Too Different: Poems from Malika’s Poetry Kitchen (Corsair).

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