by Eli Lambe

Against the advice of the preface, in which the founder of the Forward Prizes cautions “This is not a book to be devoured in one sitting, nor should it be read against the clock.” I gave myself roughly 30 hours from receiving the book to submitting this review. Nevertheless, my brief time with this collection has so far left me feeling inspired, tearful, and in awe. Reading these current, provoking and mournful pieces – in bed with a purple unicorn hot water bottle against my aching back, at work waiting for the busiest shift to start, and at my mess of a desk – has been its own measure of relief. I am ready to go through this collection, pencil in hand, and ruin this book. I am ready to go back to the poems I had to read in public, and to read them again aloud at home.  

Till he mother fell down under the weight of her dead son. So young, she muttered, so young.

The collection itself is full of form-defying and challenging pieces – including some which at first glance look like prose, or critical writing, reveal themselves through pauses and internal conversation to be rhythmic and uniquely poetic. Malika Booker’s ‘Nine Nights’ produces these internal rhythms within the storytelling: “Till he mother fell down under the weight of her dead son. So young, she muttered, so young.” Nisha Ramayya’s ‘Secretions or Obstructions’ blends metaphor and instinct with critical analysis to deconstruct and examine whiteness and the construction of the non-white or foreign “stranger”. It is at once cutting and cutting-edge.

A great deal of the pieces are memorial – remembering familial, national and cultural moments through careful exploration. The Beatles sit alongside the Vietnam War, family tragedies rub shoulders with collective grief. Alan Buckley’s ‘Scum’ confronts the journalists covering the Hillsborough disaster, challenging “That word you want to use. It’s on your lips. / Say it to our faces, one by one.” Nick Makoha’s collection mourns home, childhood and the ‘cracked republic’ of Uganda. Ocean Vuong’s ‘Telemachus’ remembers the death of a father in the Vietnam war, merging our understanding of the singularity of personal loss with the shock of geo-political horrors. Harmony Holiday’s ‘The City Admits No Wrongdoing; draws us into the life and abuse of Billie Holiday.  There are poems remembering lovers. There are poems remembering the living, the dead and the impact of both.

That word you want to use. It’s on your lips. / Say it to our faces, one by one.

Despite this common theme, the diversity of the collection is a great and apparent strength – writers of different backgrounds bring their voices into the conversation taking place. Diversity here does not only come from writers themselves, but also the diversity of form expressed in the poems offers a rich and rewarding experience for the reader – at no point does the collection repeat itself or plateau.

In this collection, poetry is experimental, exploratory and expansive, and meets the challenge presented by the title.  Whilst much of the shortlist features themes of remembrance and looking back, each poem also pushes the art form, politics and understanding further forward. These poems re-issue the challenge to create and, in doing so, change what that creation can look like.  

Featured image by Forward Prizes via Twitter.

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