“Who wanders lonely / as a cloud / with three golden retrievers?” wonders Jason Allen-Paisant, retreading Wordsworth. The answer, where he is concerned, is “Not me no not me / I could never understand this poetry”. In Thinking With Trees (Carcanet, £10.99), the Caribbean-born poet meditates on the Romantic inheritance while inserting himself, often uncomfortably, in the suburban pastoral spaces of dog walkers in Leeds. Nature must be internalised to become poetic currency (“All I can handle is the landscape within me / not secrecy / spread out on a canvas”), and the framing of the landscape is driven by tensions between present-day experience and cultural memory. Walking out into an English autumn, Allen-Paisant enters “a world / unpossessed and full”. The poet scrupulously decouples nature from any sense of private ownership, opening himself up to more generous, alternative worldviews. This is a bold and impressive debut.
Lucy Newlyn’s The Craft of Poetry: A Primer in Verse (Yale, £14.99) is a peculiar volume: half Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts, half Raymond Queneau’s Exercises de style. On one level a memoir of the poet’s childhood in the Yorkshire Dales, it is primarily a tour of poetic forms and tropes, approaching the becks and Wensleydale cheese by way of the canzone, the pantmous, anadiplosis and polysyndeton. Sometimes, the poems embody without explanation their chosen trope, as when “Onomatopoeia” ends with “the lap-lap-lapping of a river-sound: / the purest expression of your purest wish”. Elsewhere the explanations of complex verse forms are more externalised, but the best moments occur when the superstructure falls away and we find ourselves in direct contact with the thing itself, “Far from the village on the high bleak fell … / where wind keens low and all the earth is still.”
The idealist young Wordsworth dedicated a sonnet to the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, who also features in Nuzhat Bukhari’s debut collection Brilliant Corners (CB Editions, £10). An “ungrateful immigrant”, the poet inspects a daffodil adorned with a stubbed-out cigarette and ponders how “the underbrush of the English lyric catches my feet”. Brilliant Corners is full of inglorious comedowns for imperial legacies and tormented meditations on art’s relationship with a fallen world. Tantalus becomes the “conflict mineral” tantalum, stowaways hidden in airplane landing gear fall on suburban gardens (“The Undocumented”), and Ethiopia’s Christian relics are pillaged by Victorian imperialists (“The Gap”). The lesson we learn is the grim absurdity of looking for lessons in atrocities: “sometimes I think wisdom from history is like that odd shoe / you find in the street & wonder how the person got home”. Mention should also be made of “Pathology”, one of the most devastating elegies for a father you are likely to read anytime soon.
In Forty Names (Carcanet, £10.99) Parwana Fayyaz, a Forward prize winner in 2019, presents an elegising litany of loss. The memory of “a scorpion that my mother saw / crawl across her pregnant belly” strikes an ominous note, and in the poems that follow Fayyaz describes grandmothers, aunts and cousins living in the shadow of war and violent patriarchy, a world “where women exist in corners”. There are tales of bravery, too, as of the friend who writes poetry her husband cannot read: “writing poetry, no one could punish her. / The rock did not fall” (“The Silent Poet”). Fayyaz writes sensitively of the “woman I might have become if I had never left Afghanistan”, and in “Reading Nadia with Eavan” she celebrates the work of the murdered Afghan poet Nadia Anjuman with Eavan Boland. These are poems of testimony, finding sanctuary for their stories in small but life-saving moments.
In “Self-portrait, with shyness”, Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe imagines the beloved making “a slight incision by my breast” and inserting a pulsing object, whose throbbing rhythms become her own (“how it swells in my belly, how I sing”). In Auguries of a Minor God (Faber, £9.95), her outstanding debut collection, Eipe sings of joys and wounds felt deeply under the skin. With her frequent use of Sanskrit and Malayalam scripts, Eipe expands the alphabet of anglophone poetry in the most literal way, but in “A is for [Arabs]” she harnesses an alphabetic structure to drive an ambitious whirlwind of a long poem. Encompassing narratives of border crossings and immigrant life, multiculturalism and western racial paranoia, the poem is brought up short by the Christchurch mass shootings of 2019. This event is marked by an extended dialogue with Qur’anic texts, forming an incantatory memorial for the victims. Auguries of a Minor God is a startling gesture in the face of a threatening world, and one that feels, in Wallace Stevens’s words, “like / a new / knowledge of reality”.