Forward Prizes 2016: The Felix Dennis Best First Collection Shortlist

Reviewed by Becky Varley–Winter

Nancy Campbell, Disko Bay
Ron Carey, Distance
Harry Giles, Tonguit
Ruby Robinson, Every Little Sound
Tiphanie Yanique, Wife

This year’s Best First Collection shortlist draws from a pleasingly wide pool of publishers and new voices from across the UK; it is difficult to do justice to every collection in full, but I will aim to give a taste of each.

Ruby Robinson’s Every Little Sound draws on the idea of “internal gain”, meaning “an internal volume control which helps us amplify and focus on quiet sounds in times of threat, danger or intense concentration”. Of all the books on the shortlist, this collection draws me furthest into one atmosphere, close and hushed and mysterious, as if the poems are breathed under covers in the dark. Robinson’s best work has the open-endedness of lived moments, observing unexpected feelings and sensations and letting them spool outwards. In ‘This Night’, the speaker is “more in love tonight, with ideas / and arbitrary things, / than I am with you”:

The moon is crazy,
tapping on this glass roof,
this fragile skull. The night is long.

The doubling of glass roof and skull, and the embodiment of the moon’s ‘tapping’, telescopes between external and internal mental landscapes in which subjective and objective realities combine. In ‘Internal Gain’, the hush is matter-of-factly invaded by wildness:

a leopard was upon me warmly on my bed,
breathing as any human would.

My room was vibrating with electricity sockets
and light beams
and I could hear every little sound
my mouth made.

Formally, the collection features several prose poems, skilful use of full stops and subtle use of rhyme, poems often structured by repetition, such as the long ‘Apology’ which keeps circling back to the phrase “I’m sorry”, addressed to the poet’s mother:

I’m sorry it’s taking over half a century to link your purple-patched
brain scan to the basic biology of stress. The piano thunders on,
sustain pedal wired to the facial muscles of all your neglecters,
aching like hell behind their stamina and machinery.

Robinson’s portrayal of “neglecters” as puppets wired up to a thundering piano creates an uncanny sense of cruelty as a painful mechanism, a kind of impulsive twitching. These poems create static warmth even in their minute descriptions of numbness, as if chafing frozen hands to life.

Ron Carey’s Distance is similarly intimate, his dedication stating that “we measure the distance we are from others in time and space. These poems help bring us a little closer together”. His poem ‘Churchfields’ celebrates familial gatherings and their intimations of mortality and immortality, “alive and smiling in the yellowed / teeth of time.” I especially love the eerie, surprising beauty of his ending, describing sleep as jewelled medicine:

Night comes and at the ruined Church hooded
Clouds gather for vespers. In the burnt arms
Of Summer, a child licks the ruby spoon of sleep.

This achieves a condensed beauty somewhat akin to a Symbolist poem. Carey’s use of capitalised letters at the start of lines gives his poems a defiantly old-fashioned air, but aptly so, as he reflects on history and the passing of time. In ‘The Electrification of Rural Ireland’, he writes:

Miss O’ Mahoney misses the ghosts
And the smell and comfort of candle-dark.

“Candle-dark” is not without light, and ghosts can be comforting rather than frightening. Steady affection emanates through Carey’s book; in ‘Lineage’, he writes “Thank God for all of this. / The white ages splattering the stone weighed walls.” Not that all of his poems are happy – some, such as ‘Chicken’, record more unnerving childhood experiences – but his collection is consistently fully realised and deeply felt.

Tiphanie Yanique’s Wife explores the status of “wife” through various voices, beginning with the fact that, historically, a “wife” was a man’s property:

You love her
until you are a part of her
and then, just like that,
you make her less than she was
before –

In ‘Blood Wedding’, she states bluntly “There is always blood at a wedding”; two people cannot weld together without a certain amount of (real or anticipated) hurt, “A kind of reaching / for the knife via one’s own chest”. Blood and fire runs through her collection, as if the body is a burning leaf with red caught inside it. The poem ‘My brother comes to me’ seems to reflect on a battle for custody:

A blood stain has spread permanently on my brother’s white shirt
I am at the steps of the house, like a bride
I am fifteen and calling to my brother, “Come to me”
Her teeth are bared They are not pearls
I am your mother,” she shouts
We are all crying and our tears are all different
Our mother’s hair is a flame above us

This is one of the most powerful poems of the collection for me, in that it creates a real moment rather than playing with more detached universals (all wives are this, all husbands are that); I also like the way that the lines feel rapidly squeezed-together as if under great heat and stress.

Yanique’s shifting voice draws on myth; in ‘Chiron and Astraea’, she writes:

After the wings, hooves, tails, fins and tongues of flame
I grow the head of an eagle, the body of a stallion.
The Cathedral flows among the graffiti.
Every year October is lost again.
I forget you don’t breathe water.
I drag you under.
You bear it.
We eat only bones.
The baby bears the scars of its own blossoming.

I can’t immediately make sense of every line here (“The Cathedral flows among the graffiti”– Is this suggesting that the spray-painted slogans are a kind of hymn?), and admire the closeness of love and death in “I drag you under. / You bear it”. In the final prose poem of the collection, ‘To Capture Ghosts’, Yanique writes: “Futures are only a hill away if you take off the condom or the cape, or whatever we humans cover ourselves with when we’re afraid.” Her collection is unafraid, bearing marks, stains, and scars, and comes through its own bloodletting. In ‘Everybody needs a white husband’, she wryly asserts the authority of women’s bodies, disavowing shame:

Just make sure your kinky pubic hairs leave imprints on his face.
Everybody knows that’s a symbol better than a wedding ring.

Nancy Campbell’s Disko Bay also relates myths and histories, in this case located in “the frozen shores of Greenland”, the landscape at the heart of her collection. I must confess to feeling more slowly drawn in by this work, although it is skilfully constructed, because Campell’s voice feels cool on first reading, and I tend to want more agitated lyrical connections between poet and place. This is a flaw in me rather than the poetry, as lyricism is not the main goal; many poems in this collection relate the stories and myths of others. ‘Kinguleruttui / The Survivors’ exemplifies Campbell’s clear, stark retellings of Greenland’s history:

[…] Where could we hide the dead
when our sons were buried alive on the barren rock?
They were left to die, smothered in stones to keep them still;
the winter was their warder. […]

Poems like ‘Oqqersuit / The Message’ are touching (“It’s warmer than you think, for I have dressed / that wild inquisitor in my own breath”), and the cumulative listing of ‘Conversations’ has a quietly insistent power and truthfulness:

I think it’s a combination of things
it’s climate change yes
and it’s forestry taking out too many trees
and lorries tearing down the slope with the logs on them
and the streams running straight down the hillside now
and the farmers not allowed to look after the riverbanks like they used to
not dredging, not taking the gravel out onto the bank
and all the weeds in the river
and they’re building on flood plains which they were never allowed to do before

I don’t think it is one thing
I think it is a combination of things
a combination of everything

Finally, Harry Giles’ Tonguit is verbally and formally exuberant, featuring poems in both English and a freewheeling version of Scots. Form mirrors content, including concrete poems, such as ‘Piazza dei Miracoli’, made in the shape of the leaning tower of Pisa. It’s about slowly-impending collapse, delivered with cheerful fatalism: “what burnt and ropey / limbs will brace our / breath? Brave smiles!” This reminds me of The Italian Job, with its cliffhanger ending, although I crave undefended emotion amid the critical-yet-stoical tones of Giles’ voice on the page. ‘Here Be’ provides this: it’s a poem about adopting a dragon that becomes an allegory of love. Unmanageable risk is part of the appeal: ‘Her wings are impossible, / the aerial views in her gift are impossible’. The dragon’s role is ambiguous: she sometimes seems like a lover, sometimes a pet, sometimes a child, sometimes a figure of death, as well as a poetic muse.

Giles’ poems in English relish description, but tell their stories fairly straightforwardly. His ‘magpie’ Scots allows more musically-associative meanings in, even though, as he points out, English is equally a ‘magpie’ language. His final poem, ‘Gloamin’, turns the page lengthways:

thare’s a bird, alane alane n mettin the may sun wi the dirl o his weengs,
mair aiver as the east, he preens, speeds by, sneds he ben heid, a feather hairp,
kent tae luvers by his blinkers, his fell fling, his acrobat towe-tap greenin, his twa black feet
n aw is fleetin but him, the camera shutter, the lip-fou rainbowe warld ithoot end or dule

the bird’s body is tenderly detailled – “his twa black feet” – and I enjoy the slippage in words like “alane”, sounding like “a lane”, and “warld”, sounding like “world”, “war”, and “wild”, the way that “feather hairp” contains both “harp” and “hair”. The title of the collection, Tonguit, implies joy in reading aloud, drawing on Giles’ background in performance.

No one quality unites these five first collections, aside from the fact that prose-poetry and unrhymed forms feel fairly dominant, making me a little wistful for rhyme at times. However, this is strong work. I tend to enjoy poems that range beyond statements into stranger, dreamlike presences, and there is much to admire here.