Carolyn DeCarlo’s poems are a strong opener to the book. In the richly sensory “Spy Valley”, the voices of the kākā “cleave the / valley like lightning, crackling in the air”, and you, too, “open wide”. Human follows animal; DeCarlo’s work often explores the space in-between. The speaker of “House” wonders if the cats living beneath the deck have “person-brains”: with their civilised “pitched roofs”, it’s not a far-fetched thought. The poem mixes strangeness with mundanity — right until the end positions us as animal, skittering across these creatures’ roofs as birds or rodents “tap dance” across our own.
“Hostage” startles differently. “I want to live in beauty”, thinks a woman in traffic, and we are masterfully carried from this innocuous beginning to a darkly comic end. There is a humorous realism in how the poem tracks thought; the disturbing intruding on the everyday. Yet DeCarlo’s poems feel rooted in reality, even “The Year I Let My Heart Go Asunder” with its speaker who positions herself as a giant. Her size gifts her power: “When I stand, I am wondrous.” She is at peace with the sea; she can control the gaze of “the men in their cars and their ships and their helicopters”, but not destructively. Her power is such that it does not need destruction:
I push them, but not with my hands
just with my mind,
not hurting them but just bending —
bending them with my mind until they go.
DeCarlo’s dry observations linger in the mind, but it is the “Winter Swimmers” sequence that best reflects her interests as a poet. As present and ancient seem to mingle, these poems of nature and liminality make me wonder who (or what) these swimmers are. The first in the cycle ends with the hint of revelation, “a white glint beyond the deep”. The last considers what could be the source of that revelation: trilobites swimming “five hundred million years away”, as if history were only a faraway place.
We meet a different voice in Sophie van Waardenberg, one which charms with its honesty and immediately wins you to its side. Certain words emerge again and again: care, heart, bruise, home. Youth, travel and connection form the backbone of many poems; which might also deal with Love Actually (“do not blame me for loving the 2003 film love, actually”) or in the case of “red brick, stamford street”, avocados:
at night when we tell our mothers of these london avocados
twins cradled in dark forest cardboard
we realise how odd we all are, how unfurnished, how children.
we show them the gum knotted into the carpet of our recycled bedrooms.
how nobody has quite cared for us. how we are home soon and past mattering.
These poems speak of comfort and longing, isolation and togetherness, with a warmth and skilful lightness. In “we are working on standing still”, van Waardenberg turns a description of a photograph into a snapshot of the bond between two people. A poem that feels both intimate and large, “it is only the morning” enchants with its magic and its matter-of-factness: “you must broaden your ideas / as to what a melody may be.” Yes, there is Bach: but might not your mother in the morning, or a super blue blood moon, be its own sort of melody?
But love is not easy work, especially in “complaint”. “I cannot decide which way to love you”, writes van Waardenberg, and there is a finality to this indecision, as though in accepting this she accepts the inadequacy of all she has just written. Yet the inadequacy of words is also the theme of “grace wakes late”. Taking place “in the morning, all sentences / dulled by light”, the speaker considers her worries for the future, her clumsy youth, and her inability to articulate everything Grace is. It is okay to live messily, van Waardenberg seems to say. It is okay not to know what you want, to only be able to hold close those small moments of tenderness and respite. They are enough, at least for now.
Bringing New Poets to a bold finish is Rebecca Hawkes, whose writhing portraits of hunger, desire and possession fully embrace the primal and weird. Often toying with form, she is unafraid to delve into grime and fluids and meat; the things central to all animals, us included. Hunger takes central stage in “gremlin in sundress”, narrated by the titular monster: “gimme violent light / on your body gimme martyrdom / & scurvy gimme divinity I want all of it nonstop.”
This frankness about desire strikes me as both funny and slightly sinister. Games of hunter and hunted play out across these poems, though Hawkes blurs the roles. “If I could breed your cultivar I’d have you in my garden” starts with an attempt to catch the interest of her companion. She fails; Hawkes writes (in one of her grippingly strange metaphors) “the blush raged across my body / like a barbarian horde / touching everywhere it passed through”. But she is no shrinking violet, instead imagining the other person at her mercy — “quiet as a magnolia cutting, propped / in a jar”. There is humour to these explorations of intimacy: In “Dairy queen”, the speaker longs for the other shedhand on her milking shift, but her fantasy is somewhat ruined by his unsexy “bleach-blonde dreadlocks” and “Grinch fingers”. More earnestly, the poem also touches on the fear of being judged too messy to love:
I am troubled that some sadnesses are more adorable than others
I am tired of loving people for theirs
I resent asking to be loved in spite of mine
Some of the most engaging poems are the most surreal, like “Meanwhile”, which reads like a series of reincarnations split up by the phrase “you wake up”. Again we circle back to hunger: The poem ends on the image of you after your wisdom teeth operation, helpless and literally defanged. What do we do about vulnerability, the risk of falling victim to our own desires? Circe, the glamorous oppressor from “Any machine can be a smoke machine if you use it wrong enough”, has the answer: “If you admit you need something that badly / then it can be taken away from you”.
Looking across this book, what stands out to me is how many of these poems involve the unsettling of boundaries; whether in the form of DeCarlo’s slippery division between human and animal, or Hawkes’s changing power dynamics between predator and prey. I could mention here the cliché about art reflecting our uncertain times, but prefer to think about the ways in which these poets hint at a wider consciousness: of narratives about the body (DeCarlo), media portrayals of love and coming-of-age (van Waardenberg), and discourses on desire and femininity (Hawkes). There is also a clear awareness of craft, with the poets exhibiting a grasp of structure and balance that equally allows for surprise. With Ben Kemp, Vanessa Crofskey and Chris Price confirmed for AUP New Poets 6, I look forward to conversations about culture and experimentation with text in addition to the compelling images that made AUP New Poets 5 a strong collection.