The best recent poetry – review summary | Poetry

WHAT by John Cooper Clarke (Picador, £16.99)
A poet with a big heart, boundless humor and incomparable style, Clarke has written some of the most catchy contemporary ballads about social injustice. Many of WHAT’s poems satirize modern dysfunctional Britain with deadly wit. In Clown Town, he captures the forgotten post-industrial landscape that has “degraded since the ’70s boom” and is now filled with “soft-shoe houses.” Across the street from Clown Town, Dream Home Ghetto depicts soulless frenzied developments where “the whole town is on vacation” and “there’s a social blockade / where the brakes are set to scream / you can keep Utopia Parkway / and stick your Cameo Beach.” bars to “lower the chops,” Clarke uses his dandyesque rhymes to shed critical light on many types of discordant social divisions. Hailed as the original “people’s poet,” his down-to-earth poetry can be catchy and moving, ironic and absurd. Lighter pieces include a poem for Sir Tom Jones, which is “Back in town in the black Rolls-Royce / The choice of the funky, hunky housewives”.

Girls Who never dies by Safia Elhillo (Bloomsbury, £9.99)
In a time of renewed Islamophobia and misogyny, Elhillo’s penetrating poetry breaks through the fog of prejudice. Writing as an investigative memoirist, Elhillo peels back the complex layers of intergenerational scars to give voice to Muslim women who have experienced sexual and emotional trauma: “Because I am their daughter, my body does not belong to me. / I was raised like a fruit, unpeeled and then peeled. Raised / to bleed in a man’s bed. Of Sudanese-American origin, his poetry questions troubling constructions of identity, body, language and nation with an intelligence that is both playful and deadly: “I say those who named my country and do not know not who / I am referring to – British, Ottomans, Egyptians, crossing the threshold / and declaring: This land. Black.” Mixing tenderness and profanity, Elhillo questions man-made taxonomies, hierarchies and customs – tidy and resilient, the book fearlessly shines a light on dark, contemporary places.

Skin by David Harsent (Faber, £12.99)
Architect of sound, Harsent has constructed a captivating body of work that is unlike any other poet of our time. Formally avant-garde and musically hypnotic, his poetry spanning five decades – often cast in complex narrative sequences – reveals our most intimate desires for people and places, combining photographic memory with a taste for dreaming and improvisation. Skin, his 13th collection, contains 10 memorable sequences about silence, our proximity to the dead and the deep struggle between light and darkness. At the heart are our debts of pleasure and sorrow as we age. “They think you think / you are old beyond your years,” one speaker proclaims, “Words left to silence; images that will not hold (will never hold). Harsent keeps lines and people together in “fierce harmony”; its inventive and incessant poetic forms carry “a fugitive geometry” which harbors the enigma of the “seen-invisible, / myself, entered into a hare and fallen to the ground”. The book’s metaphysical scope recalls Shakespeare’s dialectical sonnets, Wallace Stevens’ philosophical soliloquies, and Beckett’s ghostly investigations into love, pain, and silence. “The empty skylight,” observes Harsent, “a song line engraved in the bones.”

Absence by Ali Lewis (Cheerio, £11)
An atmosphere of all-consuming emptiness hangs heavily in Absence as Lewis unpacks the absurdity of human drama with intellectual curiosity and a quiet sense of humor. “Everything is so insistently next to everything else,” Lewis writes in Leisure on a Red Background, a deadpan poem named after the vibrant postwar artwork and sorry by Fernand Léger. Many of the book’s ekphrastic poems use paintings as portals to emotional release, as in The Resurrection of Lazarus (after Duccio): “Since I reckoned with sorrow, / I noticed the trees: / the way they slide / their leaves, as if they were falling asleep. There is tenderness in Lewis’s taut, lyrical voice, but also a sense of the limits of redescription. Alongside strange tales from Genesis and Exodus, the book investigates a love-hate relationship, as in the Formally Cunning Hotel, which recounts how “She hated the way he repeated himself/along the long corridors like a bad hotel carpet. Absence is a diverse beginning that is not afraid to confront “a formless nothingness: the unthinkable / after having imagined”.

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