Book review: Newly published poetry

To order any of the books reviewed or any other book in print, at

discount prices* and with free p&p to UK addresses, telephone the Country Life Bookshop on Bookshop 0843 060 0023. Or send a cheque/postal order to the Country Life Bookshop, PO Box 60, Helston TR13 0TP * See individual reviews for CL Bookshop price.


Black Cat Bone
John Burnside (Jonathan Cape, £10, *£9.50)
Rachael Boast (Picador, £9.99, *£9.49)
The Death of King Arthur
Simon Armitage (Faber, £12.99, *£11.69)
The Best British Poetry 2011
(Salt, £9.99, *£9.49)

John Burnside has won two major awards, the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize, for Black Cat Bone, his 12th collection of poetry. For those new to his oeuvre, this latest volume is
as good as any.

An outdoor tone is set by the jacket, with a detail of a Pieter Bruegel winter landscape-there are references to Flemish painting, oblique and otherwise, recurring throughout. Unhappily, the one poem explicitly predicated on a Bruegel painting is probably the weakest in the collection, faltering in comparison with Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts, the quintessential Old Master poem with which
it must be compared.

Readers have come to expect rich and unexpected language from Mr Burnside, and these poems frequently astonish with rebarbative word pairings: ‘nectar and blood’, ‘chill and slender’, ‘ammonite and bronze’, ‘hyacinth and vellum’, ‘tender and wild’. Some pieces seem to strain towards drama at the conclusion, which is the case with the fine opening poem, The Fair Chase, about a hunt (a preoccupation: Mr Burnside’s last volume was actually entitled The Hunt in the Forest). But there are many more delights than disappointments here. Poem titles such as Creatureley and Bird Nest Bound provide a flavour.

Rachael Boast’s Sidereal-its title referring to things stellar-is a strikingly assured poetic debut. Here are poems about walking in nature, gardening and finding out about people in remote country settings. ‘There was something/of the falling of rain/about you,’ she writes in the multi-part Tentsmuir. The volume’s biblical under-current is signalled in endnoted references to, for example, the Book of Job, in The Canal at Claverton, a characteristically intriguing and intricate piece.

Simon Armitage is the kind of jaunty, modern-minded poet who turns up on Radio 4 a lot, but he has shown he is equally at home in the medieval realm with his translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2007, bookclub price £9.49) and now The Death of King Arthur. This new translation is more action-packed than Sir Gawain, with lots of gore and slightly crazed sustained alliteration (which I’m having a whale of a time reading to my aghast sons).

Finally, may I recommend a non-mainstream anthology, The Best British Poetry 2011? This is an even-handed pick of new work from all the ‘little magazines’, their editorial foibles and favouritisms ironed out by editor Roddy Lumsden. An appendix comprises revealing biographical and anecdotal information provided by the poets-perhaps too revealing, in some cases.