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This review is taken from PN Review 202, Volume 38 Number 2, November - December 2011.

Worlds to Swing siân hughes, The Missing (Salt) £12.99
ellen phethean, Breath (Flambard) £7.00
hilary menos, Berg (Seren) £7.99

The title of this review - of a trio of first collections - draws on a phrase from a tender, intense poem by Hugh MacDiarmid, with a girl 'Singing till a bairnie / That was nae langer there'. The poem is called 'Empty Vessel'. Siân Hughes' The Missing begins with the desire to 'let you into my world'. Its opening stanzas are not empty vessels, but crammed, often whimsically, with objects, overflowing from line to line: 'her memoirs, bath books/ ... and all the stuff in the attic'. Yet a poem crowded with grotesque incident, in which a man in drag fakes pregnancy with 'a striped pillow', can swing suddenly to fellow-passengers, 'too quietly dressed now, shy, undramatised'. Dramatisation - with extraordinary control - allows Hughes' poetry to enfold the crises of her world. Dangerous childbirth is compared to a farm catastrophe: 'the vet / running in - rope in one hand'. The panic surrounding her own child's illness is conveyed through the repeated words of another frantic mother: 'I kept telling them something's wrong'.

Hughes' careful control is at its height in 'The Send-Off', whose pared-down couplets appear to be a dialogue with a living child. 'Sorry we were late. / I brought you a flower. No, it's dead.' But the child is dead, 'The Send-Off' her burial. The poem is, by turns, oblique and directly tender: 'My darling, sleep well in your bed'. It is modern in its understanding of genetic flaws, 'trisomy twenty-one', timeless ...


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