Shakespeare haunts Zaffar Kunial's dazzling, haunting new collection, England's Green.
Zaffar Kunnial’s England’s Green (Faber & Faber, £10.99) fizzes with tiny, unexpected microcosms like the “xgl” from the middle of the word “foxgloves”:
“Alone it becomes a small tangle,
a witch’s thimble, hard-to-toll bell,
elvish door to a door. Xgl
a place with a locked beginning
then a snag, a gl
like the little Englands of my grief.
Or his delighted and delightful response to “A Small Ad” from the Brontes’ Little Books:
Six young men wish to let themselves out
[ + ?] hire for the purpose of cleaning out
pocket[s] they are in reduced CirCuMstanCes.
I read cleaning out in its helpful sense:
lint, sand, fluff... Words have pockets.”
Dazzling playful, reminiscent of Queen Mab, England’s Green is haunted by Shakespeare in iambic pentameter lines, in words, “A drum, a drum.” (Pressings) and minutely observed flora – here in his beloved cricket green, “Since I retired, despite my runny hay fever/ I love this long grass, gone to seed, green ears… a dotty cabbage white in a groundless shiver –/ the alive among the dead in the fine chaos…”
Green, a stunning elegy for his mother, “Green she is when I find her. Or find her grave…”, moves through geographical (his absent Pakistani father) and literary connections towards its sure-footed end, “Between buses I feel the lock of the hour. Not there, not there. However short the life that began with her a green gate will always open from a hinge in the air.” The “lock” of the hour highlights time, one of the great players here and also Kunnial’s Irish watchmaker ancestor, another dismantler and polisher of minute components.
Kunnial himself, thrillingly innovative while steeped in English poetry, has many components and one of the most exciting voices in British poetry:
“Used to think I could hear
Opening. No, I would think
and then hear them again
at the end of the o.
No, I would think. No.”
Mark Roper’s trademark spare, spiritual response to the natural world is intensified in Beyond Stillness (Dedalus, €12.50) as a personal health crisis mirrors the environmental crisis. Where Does It Hurt asks the earth for forgiveness, “Open, Beetle, your lovely back,/ try to show us what we lack… Grass, prepare your sharpest blade./ They say it’s time our debts were paid./ Third planet from the sun,/ what have we done, what have we done.”
Roper’s vicar father, always central to his poetry, appears in Gulf almost as a double, also anxious about forgiveness – when Dives pleads with Lazarus “that he may dip the tip of his finger in water” in Luke’s gospel:
“You told me how hard you found it
to preach on this text – the gulf
you had to gloss between
I remember your hesitation, that moment
you shared it with me. I remember
I remember those later, astonished words –
I fell down. I’ve never done that before.”
Drive details a stunning redemption, its short lines mimicking quick intakes of breath, “The flowers ran/ almost unbroken the full four hours… a stream of gold… Such a long winter… in both my eyes/ pieces of membrane/ come loose,/ stars and circles/ across my gaze/ which I ‘would/ learn to live with’./ Into those eyes/ the dandelions poured and poured… – how wonderful their abundance,/ how wonderful/ the home my sight/ could still provide.”
Roper has an unerring sense of the gulfs between the miracle and damnation, life’s beginning and its end:
“As I dragged the dead hare
from the road, a crack of bone.
Its shadow waits on the moon
but the hare is nailed to earth.”
Sara Berkeley’s The Last Cold Day (Gallery, €12.95) also centres on the climate crisis:
“Flight’s delayed five hours,
storm in New York. Poor humans,
we are trying so hard,
but time is contracting, the future
I’m sorry about your baby’s sold out dreams.
Thirty years will drown the Keys…”
This is a book of almost apocalyptic journeys, alive with colour and movement across huge vistas, “October’s aflame, and my world too./ My world is on fire, snatches of panic/ as the red trucks siren by, the yellows,/ the orange haze and bursts of gold/ exploding out of the funeral pyre.”
In Covid Migration, Dublin-born Berkeley prepares to migrate again – a three-thousand-mile journey to the Hudson Valley, “Outside my door/ the garden is too proud to beg for rain./ Seared California, burning with desire,/ ash cloaked, feverish.” Berkeley’s painterly poems summon the vastness of America, “Basin and range./ Sage and Mormon tea./ Wyoming… billboards for fireworks, Jesus, and guns,/ and on the blue freeway signs… small towns/ all bound by the same chains:/ Subway, Arby’s…What kind of fear is at work here?” But despite the terror and panic of tearing herself away, “…one day/ the new roads look familiar,/ you turn into your driveway/ and you’re home” (Slow Fox Farm).
It’s Berkeley’s occupation that leaves her in no doubt about what the final journey is. “When I show up for death/ I take off my thousand pound weight/ so I go in light/ and I wait/ there by the bedside/ for death to look up” (Hospice Nurse). These central, monochrome poems with their clipped lines denoting her accompaniment of the dying, add tremendous weight to the drama and colour of the surrounding poems, “How is it/ to knock on strangers’ doors/ and enter where you are called for?/ It’s still warm/ in the rooms of the dying,/ but I am cooled from inside.”
The poems in Tom French’s Company (Gallery, €12.95) while wide-ranging in subject and mood, are drawn together in their common theme of human connection. “Company”, a sequence of ekphrastic responses to the eponymous American midwestern primitive painter in Emma Schrock (1924-1991), Painter, shows French at his precise and lyrical best. One can almost smell the paint in a scene reminiscent of William Carlos Williams:
“Those could be two funerals converging.
The yard is tidy. The day’s work is done.
Each of the horses’ faces has been touched
with the tiniest of brushes dipped in white.
Cattle are cooling themselves by the pond.
The scene is greenest where the white house stands.”
French sees “two funerals” in the painting, perhaps a reverberation from the pandemic featured in Distance: “The silence in the air/after the question is posed —/ ‘Can snowploughs/ be adapted to dig mass graves?’ —”. Not only humans are in need of company: ‘An aquarium in Japan wants people/ to FaceTime their eels/ ’so the creatures will/ remember we exist/ and not become a threat’.”
French’s wry narratives find their place in elegant stanzas, echoing like empty rooms in Refreshments, where a man rows across the sound to his local to find it’s at legal capacity:
“so they put him out in the function room
built to accommodate hundreds, alone,
where he drank his drink and took his leave
and rowed home lonelier than he’d been before.”
The sparse Fan acts a terrific coda, French illuminating just how much poetry depends – like Williams’s proverbial red wheelbarrow – on connections:
“On the sealed white envelope
I find among her things
is my mother’s hand’ –
Martina Evans, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a poet, novelist and critic