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This review is taken from PN Review 150, Volume 29 Number 4, March - April 2003.

MERE EXCELLENCE? New Poetries III: An anthology, edited by Michael Schmidt (Carcanet) £9.95

`Mere excellence has never been more mere,' says Michael Schmidt, castigating blasé poetry editors, whose expectation that each poet should sport an identifiable `handle' results, sadly often, in ready-made fridge-magnet poetry. But not here, he implies, in this book of mere excellence. Such words could bring to mind Neil Astley's almost embarrassingly enthusiastic trumpeting of `real' poems in his Staying Alive anthology if it were not for the more modest exploratory nature of this offering from Carcanet, with new poetry from a dozen poets, some very new indeed, barely adult, barely heard of.

Caroline Bird's slightly bitter, funny, clever Alice-in-Wonderland perspectives recede and zoom in with startling speed. Upon the dazzlingly cluttered surface of her poems she can overplay her skilfully executed gymnastics. But something more disturbing seems to lie beneath, or is it the `seems' itself that disturbs? So it's a great editorial decision then to place her before Linda Chase, whose appreciation of the visual aspects of printed poetry, as in the whiteness between the lines of `Big Blue Sofas', is generous, roomy and physical: `You gather my breast from where/it has slid down along my ribcage.' Light and dark are a continuum. `It is black and blacker. It is light and lighter', and the inversions she explores have ample space to manoeuvre.

Swithun Cooper has an Edward Learish tinge, with puns so dreadful (`Oeuvre and Out') we can only groan. He conducts with great verve an impressive exploration of rhyme and form, but is he bound by them, instead of binding them to him? Of all these poets, he is the one that seems the youngest. In `Reading Jane Eyre with my Daughters', Julie Crane moves, moving us with her, behind the words and the surfaces with emotional honesty and insight. She stretches long sentences expertly over the lines of her poems, like the years in her last poem, `My Father's House' , `stretched out / Like rolling hay, like acres, a sure land.'

Ben Downing teases out the meanings of `cleaving' in `Prothalamion' finally alloying them `in love's crucible'. He invites his titles into the poems ` Saudades / / Is what my student said he'd feel for me'; and in `The Mixer' he invites us in too, responding to the sub-titled quotation with: `How true.' Obviously erudite, he writes obliquely of our time in a manner so calm and measured, the odd modern word slipping so smoothly into his easy, loping, timeless diction, that there is scarcely a flicker: `the passive Frisbee of velleities'. And it is good to discover another brilliant and intriguing poet in David Morley. Leading us to the threshold of an unknown world, `Srindrift across Stalmine, a place you won't know', where he himself is on the periphery: `fresh scrap fenced from a dealer, half-sorted, half-known', he circumvents the charge of voyeurism by stringent challenging choice of language. In `toddler dressed-down with case / for the rending detail', who is in control, who is the victim?

With the next writer, Togara Muzanenhamo, another adventurer emerges. His prose poems, set against a rural Zimbabwe, have travelled far. Captain of the Lighthouse's Tafara (Zimbabwean) plays at being a British sea captain, `Aye-aye me lad'. `Excursions' traces two parallel journeys - one in an iron African bus, the other in an air-conditioned German car. The dust the electric car windows shut out indicates the distance between them, and the closeness.

Ian Pindar comments on modernity in `Greek': `Left alone, you grow from the experience / A black beard... Entertained long ago by a Greek.' Could he be talking of modern poetry? His work is disaffected, numb, alienating. `Countries open and close their borders / In time for the favourite soap operas.' Sue Roe displays brave bewilderment in `The Spitfire Factory': `I don't know how to record / this, or any of it' and a sense of exhaustion `how much we'd have to say before we could say it', ending neatly, disappointingly, back in the Spitfire factory. She works with sub-conscious forms of expression as if they are conscious and legitimate, thus, wonderfully, legitimising them.

Who is Anthony Rowland writing for? Czechs do not need to know this is a Czech afternoon, others need to know more. Is it too simple to create a Dutch setting by throwing a tulip and a Gogh, albeit in unusual circumstances? I wonder if he is verging on poetic tourism. Tricks repeat as well: in `Vienna', the iron Jew `is still, scrubbing', and in `Mistle from 1900', `the hills are still / quilted with flowing stone'. But `Clouds glipped with sun' is great, and `pith of thrips' gripped me. This is a poet in love with `p'.

In contrast, James Sutherland-Smith is wonderfully accomplished, knowing just how much information to release. His roasting piglet poem is fantastic, funny and horrific - echoes of Charles Simic? `Rainoo Repeats Her English in Bombay' gets the mixture of pathos and common sense just right - so difficult to do - on how language corrupts and changes, like people. Jane Yeh has a lavishly entitled Potter poem on Ook the Owl who occupies himself between takes doing left-lifts in his trailer. Witty and original in perspective, if not diction, she appears attached to litany: `It is dusk and the seventh / / month of repetitions' (`In Convent at Haarlem'), perhaps too attached?

So are they mere? Or excellent? Both I would say, some nearer excellence than mere.

This review is taken from PN Review 150, Volume 29 Number 4, March - April 2003.

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