Salt by David Harsent review – studies in human fear and frailty

These poems, rarely more than five lines long, ‘form a ricochet of echoes’

If poems are like other people’s photographs in which we recognise ourselves, David Harsent’s writing catches us at our most vulnerable, vicious and unnervingly visceral. Reading through his back catalogue gives you the measure of his oeuvre: A Violent Country, After Dark, Dreams of the Dead, Mr Punch, Night. Stalking through an often nightmarish territory of half-apprehended horror and bleakness, the narrators of his poems survey human fear and frailty against the backdrop of an elemental, unforgiving world. Like a scene from a Hitchcockian movie, the worst always seems to be held just out of shot, all the more present for its apparent absence. Redemption and absolution are rarely on offer. Harsent may have a beautiful technical facility for language, its measure, weight and texture, but the ends to which it is put are ...

Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi review – unflinching reflections

For all its lyrical elegance, there is no hiding the anger and defiance in this debut collection

Eminem ruined everything,” laments the speaker of “Self-Portrait as a Garage Emcee”, a playfully candid narrative poem in Kumukanda, Kayo Chingonyi’s debut collection. Ostensibly a hymn to the poet’s teenage love of mixtape assembly, R&B and modern rap, “slick lyrics I could earn stripes by reciting”, the nostalgic story soon morphs into a barbed reflection on racial difference and societal prejudice. “In time, I could rattle off The Slim Shady LP line for line”, boasts the poet, “though no amount of practice could conjure the pale skin / and blue eyes that made Marshall a poet and me / just another brother who could rhyme”.

Kumukanda, we learn, is the name given to the tribal rites of passage that young Zambian boys must undergo before they become men (Chingonyi, born in ...

Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi review – unflinching reflections

For all its lyrical elegance, there is no hiding the anger and defiance in this debut collection

Eminem ruined everything,” laments the speaker of “Self-Portrait as a Garage Emcee”, a playfully candid narrative poem in Kumukanda, Kayo Chingonyi’s debut collection. Ostensibly a hymn to the poet’s teenage love of mixtape assembly, R&B and modern rap, “slick lyrics I could earn stripes by reciting”, the nostalgic story soon morphs into a barbed reflection on racial difference and societal prejudice. “In time, I could rattle off The Slim Shady LP line for line”, boasts the poet, “though no amount of practice could conjure the pale skin / and blue eyes that made Marshall a poet and me / just another brother who could rhyme”.

Kumukanda, we learn, is the name given to the tribal rites of passage that young Zambian boys must undergo before they become men (Chingonyi, born in ...

British Museum by Daljit Nagra review – a questing, questioning third volume

The poet breaks new, more political ground in a significant departure of styleWhen Daljit Nagra’s mischievous and distinctive first book of poems won the Forward debut prize 10 years ago, it prompted a frenzy of interview requests and newspaper features. “Immigrant’s Son Wins Forward” hollered one tabloid, while broadsheets wondered at the animated new writer publishing his debut with the esteemed Faber and Faber. At best, this was indicative of a mainstream British culture eager to package the writer as multicultural or postcolonial; at worst, it was an example of the social divisions and cultural unease that still plague our political climate with increasingly disturbing ramifications. Witty, sardonic and self-aware, Nagra was one step ahead. “Must I wear only masks that don’t sit for a Brit” his comic alter ego scoffs in one poem: “Did you make me for the gap in the market?” Look We Have Coming ...

A Herring Famine by Adam O’Riordan review – poems of craft and guile

A promising poet’s second collection delivers work full of subtle music that wears its heart on its sleeveParadox is one of the cornerstones of poetry. Emotion jostles with meticulous craftiness, approaching complexity and formal pattern with a deceptive ease and rebelliousness. A poem might comfort, flatter or deceive just as readily as it offers an unflinching truth. It depends on tension as an arrow does its quivering bowstring, going nowhere fast without it. Adam O’Riordan’s first collection, In the Flesh (2010), demonstrated many of these qualities. Its best poems were those with a metaphysical cast of mind: “NGC3949”, named after a galaxy in Ursa Major that mirrors our own, connects with another case of cosmic mistaken identity, spotting “a lover’s shape” in a crowded bar. In poems of poised lyricism, the book revealed an obsession with the line between beauty and violence, but also a fear of erasure, finding consolation in poetry’s ...

The Blind Road-Maker by Ian Duhig review – songs of the forgotten and voiceless

A hymn to an 18th-century Yorkshire civil engineer, and to the ‘Ashtrayland’ version of modern England As a dictionary plunderer who knows a lot about a lot of things, Ian Duhig’s eclectic enthusiasms and often laugh-out-loud wit make him poetry’s answer to Stephen Fry. Popular but complex, comic yet serious, no one could accuse his verse of being dull or predictable. “My experience of poetic ideas is that they don’t stand there waiting calmly until you’re ready to receive them,” Duhig once said, “you have to rush out and welcome them immediately.” The presiding spirit of The Blind Road-Maker, his seventh book of poems, arrives in “The Ballad of Blind Jack Metcalf”, a hymn to the 18th-century Yorkshire civil engineer, blind from childhood, who learned to read by “feeling headstone faces”. Metcalf ends up figuring as a kind of alternative self to Duhig, having built the Leeds road ...

Loop of Jade by Sarah Howe review – the winner of the TS Eliot prize

This playful, memorable and affecting poetry collection reconciles the tensions between opposing worlds

Poetry, as RS Thomas once claimed, is that which arrives at the intellect by way of the heart. The poet’s task is to find the effective middle ground; to perform that lyric trick whereby thought and emotion seem to effortlessly combine. Seek to provoke only feeling, and crude sentimentality ensues; indulge in the cerebral, and the poem might be interesting enough, but it will remain lifeless – a kind of versified intelligence. In Loop of Jade, Sarah Howe’s debut collection, winner this week of this year’s TS Eliot prize, the poet attempts to merge personal accounts of her dual Anglo-Chinese heritage with her scholar’s penchant for the intellectually abstruse. The result is a book of poems that are as playfully and frustratingly recondite as they are memorable and unusually affecting. ...