Even at its best, the poetic mainstream we call the lyric tradition can run the risk of appearing po-faced. So it’s a joy to come across a mistress of the art taking rumbustious pleasure in revisiting the matter of poetry itself. Anne Carson’s new version of Euripides’ The Trojan Women (Bloodaxe), with artist and cartoonist Rosanna Bruno, is resolutely subtitled A Comic; and a graphic novel is exactly what it is.
But of course the words are Carson’s. Simultaneously straight-talking and experimental, the Canadian has been reclaiming the classical tradition as an essential resource since the 1980s. In recent years, she’s collaborated with a number of visual artists, including her husband, on projects as diverse as the book-box elegy Nox, a dream-like Antigonick, and Norma Jean Baker of Troy, a performance piece mashing up Marilyn Monroe and Euripides. Now she makes time for literary play, her Troy “crouched on the plain like James Baldwin / with its eyelids drifting down and drifting up”, but her writing remains as fierce as ever. At this #MeToo moment protesting against the objectification of women, her Trojan women are drawn as literally animal, the spoils of war, a “mob of dogs and cows you see downstage […] leftover females”.
Carson’s purposeful play bypasses nostalgia for the kind of traditional forms on display in another creative revisioning. Gillian Clarke’s new translation of The Gododdin (Faber) subdivides the medieval Welsh epic into a hundred short lyrics named after the dead warriors they eulogise. If this loses some of the cumulative lamentation of the original stanzas, it follows Memorial, Alice Oswald’s influential 2011 rewriting of Homer, in underlining individual deaths rather than glorifying war. It also leaves space for Clarke’s characteristic lyric gift: “Power in the front line, / sunlight on the grass […]/ until green grew the grass / on the grave of Gwrfelling Fras.”
Some poets draw you out into the world, and some pull you into their inner world. Rachel Boast’s fine new collection, Hotel Raphael (Picador), confirms her as that rarity who manages both, threading places and emotions alike through her own experience of them: “The moment draws in / its full breath | I am here / for certain only between / nuances of time”. Her markedly old-fashioned literary sensibility, informed by Romanticism even, sometimes leads to a little too much fine writing. But the slightly suffocating inwardness is redeemed by the force of poems such as “Hand, Match, Ashtray”, which address a chronic health condition with fierceness and delicacy.
The appropriation of male tradition by today’s female poets is brilliantly refreshing, but original work affords plenty of chances for reinvention too. Irish poet Martina Evans’s second collection, American Mules (Carcanet), builds on the success of her 2018 debut, enriching her striking powers of social observation. In “Western Heroes”, the cowboys’ onscreen horses have “thin obedient ears, large eyes / pooled under soft fringes”: every single adjective attentively exact. Evans’s great gift, though, is for storytelling combined with a music that says to the reader or listener, these things are connected – here’s how.
Between finely perceptive poems about houses and families, the bulk of her book concerns working as a radiographer. Without straining for effect, she mixes pity with horror – and a repeated theme of fallibility. “Barium Swallow” opens, “What was I doing there – the family fumbler, / the dreamy one”, a question it’s hard not to echo as we follow the narrator “into the smoky Mater staffroom from ENT theatre”. A dreamlike sense of estrangement is focused on to never quite having the right footwear for theatre – those eponymous American mules.
Andrew McMillan’s consummate pandemonium (Cape) enters hospital by a different door. The young celebrant of sexuality who burst on to the literary scene with 2015’s physical has undergone a deepening and darkening. His new collection includes “George”, a tender lament for a stillborn nephew: “how should we think of you / dear nephew / except in your entirety […] you were complete and ready”.
“Uncivil” records life in a tough district of Manchester. But the book’s dominant story is of a turbulent relationship with a sometimes suicidal partner, who is unable to cope with “so much life arriving / every day”, “too bright”. McMillan’s verse isn’t confessional but it is a work of personal witness, whether metaphorical or reflexive. At its best, its grace transcends context, as in the beautiful self-portrait “swan”. That lyric “I” is the only capital letter in the volume, which can grate a little. Yet even this is, in the end, a tribute to the lyric tradition’s continuing capacity for serious material.
Fiona Sampson’s Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning is published by Profile.