One of the worst things about being a reviews editor and running Stride magazine is putting books you want to read and keep on the bookshelf into padded envelopes to mail out to other writers for them to review. With some titles it simply can't be done - all the books mentioned here deserve more than the quick round-up this is likely to be, but simply the fact that they are still here you should take as high recommendation indeed.

I was looking foreard to Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge's I Love Artists. New and Selected Poems (University of California Press) a lot, but it wasn't what I expected, and I was put off by a rather fey interview she gave (I think to Bomb magazine) where the interviewer suggests that 'poetry is an engagement beyond emotion, not made'. This is of course, at odds with Berssenbrugge's own sense of construction. In 'Nest', for example, she states 'My origin is a linguistic surface like a decorated wall, no little houses at dusk, yellow lights coming on, physical, mute.' These poems are lyrical, long-lined explorations of emotion rooted in language. They proudly present indecision and confusion alongside observation and lyricism, as something to explore and (re-)present to the reader. What I first took as vague and ethereal, over time has become rich and ordered, a physical musical wordscape; a private, magical world that engrosses and delights.

Andy Brown has also defied expectations over the last few years, with his move away from overt experimentation to a studied lyricism, to poems of observation and epiphany. Presumably the Breughel painting on the cover, which gives the book its name, is a coy reference to Brown's poetic relocation? The selected works in
Fall of the Rebel Angels. Poems 1996-2006 (Salt) are quiet and playful, any experiment pretty much hidden away in their making (Brown has said he still uses various processes as he writes his poems). Here are invented birds, fictional travellers and their tales of distant lands, lists of apples' names, celebrations of birth and childhood, and a challenge 'To All You Squabbling Poets' where Brown's apparent move toward the mainstream is explained: 'We are bored with all your ballyhoo & noise!' Honesty confesses me to say I miss the ballyhoo & noise of Brown's earlier poems, which are represented here only by 'Three Poems after OuLiPo', and wish more of the poems were obviously experimental in their observation and approach. Whilst I may not miss arguments between the poetry cliques and mafias, I do miss the sense of debate and exploration that Brown previously brought to his work and writing. It will be interesting to see what another decade brings for Brown and his writing: angel or devil?

In his time, Andrew Jordan has played both devil's advocate and chief shitstirrer within the poetry world, as well as eco-saint and eco-warrior in battles surrounding road development and the destruction of ancient landscapes. Ha Ha (Shearsman) brings all these strands together, and is a long overdue collection. The title itself clearly flags up the punning and playful language Jordan uses in his exploration of place and our relationship to it: a ha ha is both physical object and forced laugh, a device designed to create an uninterrupted view, but also to facilitate possession and ownership of land. For Jordan, landscape is what has happened and what happens still in particular places; in his poems he offers a personal, felt, obsessive, magical response. Jordan loses himself along ancient trackways, following real or imaginary markers, vague directions from strangers, and personal inclinations, toward epiphany and linguistic resolution. These poems are neither spiritual nor physical maps; they cleverly manage to avoid any new age mumbo-jumbo in favour of political and social immersion and contextualisation. Jordan's hard-edged poems are both a clarion call urging us to reconsider our own place, and a celebration of lost tribes and landscapes.

The Sorrow Psalms. a book of twentieth century elegy (ed. Lynn Strongin, University of Iowa Press) also remembers and celebrates the lost. This is a wonderful anthology, which considers personal and communal mourning, conjuring up specific loved ones and also offering philosophical conjecture of how and why we live. Lamentations, memorials, abstracts, utterances, songs and theological ponderings are all here, by both famous and unknown authors. Evocations of invidual's relatives and others we will never know are juxtaposed with poems that grapple with the atroticies of Auschwitz, the notion of an afterlife, of memory and transcendence.

Instead of lyric, S.A. Stepanek tackles spirituality head-on, charging at it like a bull running at a matador in a bullring. His book-length poem
Three, Breathing (Wave Books) is a breathless, noisy, declamatory and self-indulgent work that insists on taking you along with it. Throughout it's 89 non-stop pages Stepanek builds up relentless short-lines to build a house of questions and observations which he finally dismisses and knocks down, bowled over by confusion:

     and yet, in the great church  
   the stars are at the periphery
                   and we are gone

Whilst there is something engrossing and captivating about this confused and confusing invocation of doubt, delight and despair, in the end it's too raw, unfocussed and personal, too much like a list, too much of a rant, to hold my complete attention, although it has kept me intrigued for several months.

Jessica Smith has a different approach to Stepanek: instead of fragmented thought, she scatters the very words themselves across the white page. In most of Organic Furniture Cellars. Works on Paper 2002-2004 (Outside Voices) the reader must assemble and order the very linguistic bones of her poetry if they want anything more than isolated words or phrases. Smith has bravely taken the idea of the page as a canvas for words further than many have previously dared. The poems make us aware of the placing of the words as much as the words themselves; since these poems subject is place and memory, fragmentation is an appropriate response and tool. If the occasional use of words above and below a drawn line seems a little tired, and if the final poem, 'Archipelago''s descent into concrete poetry or visual process is an unsuccesful experiment, the bulk of this work intrigues and convinces.

Joshua Marie Wilkinson's
tug your careless body out of the careful dusk (University of Iowa) is subtitled 'a poem in fragments', although it's easier to read the book as seven fragmented poems than one long fragmented piece. In no sense is this work haphazard or unformed, yet I find it impossible to articulate the subject or subjects this poem might be about, working around (or avoiding), or even pointing towards, apart from the idea of thought itself. Moments of transience jostle with epiphanies and ponderings, gnomic utteracces and snapshot images to make a lively, compelling, bewildering book.

Brian Henry's
Quarantine (Ashanti Press) is a much more chiselled and ordered sequence or series of poems than Wilkinson's, complete with its own appendix - another sequence entitled 'Contagion'. The title sequence considers the narrator's self-absorbed death as the conclusion to remembered life, a body who demands to be somebody but 'who wants to be spared / a memory this story'. These brief poems are syntactically flat and delivered deadbeat, interrupted only by italicised storytelling, added to only by 'Contagion', whose 40 poems act as a kind of gloss on the 40 poems of 'Quarantine' itself. This is intriguing if mannered work, although I felt down by the get-out ending: '...and though I call myself dead / I have not died the words still move across / my face everything right now in the telling'. So that's alright then, it was just a dream, it's just a poem.

There's more self-obsession and meditation in Catherine Bowman's Notarikon (Four Way Books), although these are rationalised and constructed to alphabetical, syllabicall and stanzaic restrictions and processes. It's just the kind of thing that enables the lyric to be contemporary, to be propelled into the 21st century, as juxtaposition, collage, observation and encounter are pulled into use. Bowman's '1000 lines' poem is the remarkable centrepiece of this powerful collection, whilst Peter Larkin's Leaves of Field (Shearsman) contains a trio of long sequences rooted in the natural world. Using his trademark juxtaposition of prose poems and short lyric verse, informed by eco-criticism and the natural sciences as much as cutting-edge poetries and poetics, Larkin offers the reader a radical contemporary version of landscape poetry.

Meanwhile, Iain Sinclair and John Wilkinson's worlds and poetry remain more urban and political, caught up in critique of and resistance to politics and social change. Sinclair's
Buried at Sea (Worple Press) reads, it has to be said, as a bit of a hotchpotch that teeters on self-mockery with its constant reference to a role call of usual suspects in Sinclair's world: Patrick Keiller, Alesteir Crowley, Patrick Hamilton, Conrad, Raworth and many others are namechecked, referenced or quoted here in this mishmash of diaristic lyrics, occult asides and brief critical prose fragments. Sinclair is seems, is turning autovampiric, sucking the blood out of himself, publishing work with little or no bite. The book isn't helped by the jokey colour picture on the cover of a toy parrot, nor by the occasional lo-fi images inside.

John Wilkinson, meanwhile, takes us for a
Lake Shore Drive (Salt) along the edge of contemporary poetry. His work is frightening and relentless, a compelling mix of unforgiving metaphor and allusion underpinned (underPrynned?) with political and social critique and a harsh, minimalist music that keeps the whole thing relentlessly rolling along. There are few writers, let alone poets, who have such a knowledgeable grasp of sociopolitical and economic theory, such a wide frame of cultural and scientific reference, or such a way with words. Whether singing Monk's or Miles Davis' praises, exploring the madness of urban environments, or deconstructing film, Wilkinson's poetry is to be savoured.

      © Rupert Loydell 2007