Thursday, December 20, 2012

My Favourite Books of 2012

Les Murray – Fredy Neptune (Carcanet 1998): if the very idea of a novel-in-verse puts you off reading it, don’t let that put you off getting hold of this one. Fredy, minus a sense of touch, travels through some of the darkest moments in 20th century history: it’s both a great, pacey narrative and an intensely emotional journey. Look out for continual killer one-liners.

James McGonigal – Beyond the Last Dragon: A Life of Edwin Morgan (Sandstone Press, 2012): a fascinating prose biography of one of the last century’s greatest poets, which also manages to convey its subject’s infectious enthusiasm and sheer energy for poetry, experiment and translation. I also appreciated it because JM picked out Morgan’s brilliant and underrated poem, The New Divan, as one of his favourites.

Nuar Alsadir – More Shadow than Bird (Salt, 2012): a step into the numinous and mysterious where nothing quite comes the way you expect. Sparse but beautiful language and an acute sense of line. I reviewed this book on Surroundings in May of this year and would still recommend it.

Ghassan Zaqtan – Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems (Yale University Press, 2012): a complete new collection and selections from two others from this celebrated Palestinian poet. The poems seem to speak to one another even across collections, not just as echoing phrases but with ever-deepening resonance. I reviewed this in this winter’s Poetry Review (vol. 102:4).

Deryn Rees-Jones –Burying the Wren (Seren, 2012): yes, believe it or not, a collection that was nominated for a major poetry prize (The TS Eliot) this year, and deservedly so. It’s beautifully written, ingenious, ambitious and moving. And, unlike some books that contain line-breaks and white space, this one really feels like poetry, in the true sense (whatever I mean by that. Don’t ask me to explain! I know it when I experience it).

Ben Lerner – Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press, 2011): A novel in prose about a poet, which spends some time reflecting on the place of artistic endeavour in society. That, to some, might sound unpromising. But it is somehow hard to put the book down after the first few pages. The main character tells the story in a haze of drugs and tranquilizers so that you’re always on the alert, suspecting things probably aren’t the way they seem to be. It’s funny and serious, comic and tragic simultaneously, and always feels on a knife-edge, even before the explosions.

Jules Supervielle – Homesick for the Earth (Bloodaxe, 2011): I hadn’t known much of Supervielle’s poetry before reading these ‘versions’ by Moniza Alvi . My French isn’t good enough to vouch for them on issues of accuracy etc, but they read really well as poems in English (although the French is on facing pages). He is especially good at finishing poems with great final lines - surprising and yet bewilderingly inevitable.

Jane Yeh – The Ninjas (Carcanet, 2012): This collection is vastly entertaining. How about that? About how many poetry books could I honestly use ‘vastly’ in this context? The poetry is humorous, a touch surreal, imaginative and shows powers of oblique observation. There's also a little bit of chill mixed in. There are robots, androids, witches, ghosts, jellyfish, great paintings and, of course, ninjas. Shades of early Selima Hill too, and I mean that as a compliment.

ed. Geoffrey Brock – The FSG Book of Twentieth Century Italian Poetry (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012): I should confess that I am in this book, although only with a ten-line translation of a poem by Salvatore Quasimodo on pp. 232-33. It is simply a treasure trove of amazing poems. It might seem expensive but, given that an average 70-page collection can set you back around a tenner, this anthology’s 736 pages isn’t such bad value at £29.95 or so, and it is a beautiful, sturdy hardback that will last you all the years it will take you to read it and read it again and again.

I’ve only included books I have actually finished, which means some very promising books on my 'still to finish' and 'still to begin' piles will have to wait until next year. Included in this is Adonis's astonishing close-on-400-pages 'Selected Poems' (Yale University Press), which I have been reading slowly and carefully and am now more than halfway through. Amazing stuff, unlike anything I've ever read.