Music for the Dead and Resurrected by Valzhyna Mort (Bloomsbury, £9.99)
“Do you know what a ghost looks like? / It looks like blood.” Valzhyna Mort’s newest book in English could not feel more timely, despite UK publication lagging behind that of the US. Mort, a poet and translator from Belarus who now lives in the US, gives us wrenching poems of war, and of the struggle of living under the threats of imperial forces. Here, the languages of home and conflict twist together: “My motherland rattles its bone-keys. / A bone is a key to my motherland”; “On the borderlines of my motherland / wet laundry claps in the wind like gunfire.” Mort communicates the terrible psychological impacts of war and oppression in the grand tradition of Soviet-era poets such as Mandelstam and Akhmatova – “an air-raid warning rings / like a telephone from the future”. Each rich, dazzlingly intelligent poem brings to life the agonizing toll history takes on the innocent.
Out for Air by Olly Todd (Penned in the Margins, £9.99)
“It felt like we’d have slipped right off Archway Road / Despite only a plum roll gradient and millimetric scuff / Of rain, such was our shared vertigo.” Where Mort’s writing gives us a grand sweep of politics and history, Todd’s poems are fueled by a very specific type of experience – the motion and exploration provided by his former day job as a professional skateboarder. These energetic, rhythmic and staccato poems slip through New York, the Pacific coast, London and the north-west of England, capturing the thrill of movement and the precise joys of place: “Afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason / … little deco tea tools / And a window over sunny Jermyn Street’s / Hand-viewed work leavers.” This playful writing delights in the navigation of our contemporary environment, whether through a well-timed “kickflip” or a nocturnal adventure with friends.
Hiding to Nothing by Anita Pati (Pavilions, £9.99)
Pati’s excoriating debut collection is one of painful yet necessary release: “my chest frays open, / bivalved wires spitting, bloodish”. These vivid poems explore suppression and silencing – the violence of empire, the toxicity of whiteness, the pressures placed upon the female body. At the center is a long sequence, Bloodfruit, which draws on anonymous interviews to trace the shame and distress brought about by infertility, baby loss and difficult motherhoods. These confronting, polyvocal dialogues ring with the energy of long-held suffering, finally released into a shared language – “I don’t deserve to be happy; I don’t deserve a family … / Too fat to be a mum. / Too poor to be a mum. / Too ugly to be a mum. / Too old to be a mum. / Too fucked to be a mum”. “When you’re a white / woman with a brown baby, you’re / a slag; when you’re a brown woman / with a pale baby, you’re the nanny.” This visceral, affecting and politically astute collection announces a courageous new voice in British poetry.
Emblem by Lucy Mercer (Prototype, £12)
Mercer’s first collection has been hotly anticipated since she won the inaugural White Review Poet’s prize in 2018, and it doesn’t disappoint. Emblem is a poetic conversation with the 16th-century emblematist Andrea Alciato, bringing image and text together and illuminating a forgotten form. The collection traces themes of motherhood and selfhood. In the poem Obscurity, an emblem depicting a blooming black-and-white flower meets the lines “When my son laughs, his face like the many / star-buds of the Hoya wax flower / suffuses together in a shining epicenter” – the glowing vocabulary of a mother’s love refracted and made brighter by the image that supports it. Mercer pursues the intellectual potentialities and paradoxes of emblems: “some pretend the picture is / speaking – but a picture never has – and never will – speak… some think the mind thinks in language – but the mind only has images to translate”. These are surreal, startling poems that shift our understanding of what language might be able to express.
The Golden Thread by Amali Gunasekera (Bloodaxe, £10.99)
The Golden Thread positions Gunasekera, who grew up in Sri Lanka and is now based in Cumbria, as one of our deftest writers of environmental flux and change; “didn’t you know that beneath all the prevarication / and red herrings the one thing the world is really / after, is resurrection, to die again and again, to find / that pure place of arriving again … ” Her poetry is never sentimental or trite, constantly innovating with the language of environmental description at the same time that she explores her personal experience. “Spring arrives like using the cause of sickness to / heal the sickness. The wind rose, cherry blossoms / ruptured making the grass wince with cargo … ” This collection makes “the green mind” visible to us: the breathing, thinking agency of the more-than-human world.