The best recent poetry – review roundup

Ben Wilkinson
Photograph: Matthias Schickhofer/Alamy Stock Photo

“I bring you no fireworks”, claims Alan Buckley’s poem “Flame”, musing on a matchbox’s instruction to “use sparingly”. Touched (Happenstance, £10) is a debut collection that understands the value of subtlety and restraint, exploring personal trauma and the “fragile, desperate weight” of our lives through poems that speak elegantly of hard-won insight. “You shouldn’t ask how we’re doing this, but why”, proffers a fire eater in “Psychotherapy”. Taking as its subject a trip to the dentist, “Clinical” wonders “when the numbness will go”. Wisdom, like rhyme, is an optional ingredient in poetry, but when it is authentic, its effect can be both memorable and moving. Buckley has the confidence and skill to speak to us directly, even while his poems chart themes of uncertainty, memory and loss.

Another collection that sifts lived experience for personal truths is Grace Nichols’s Passport to Here and There (Bloodaxe, £9.95). Nichols is known for her social commentary, a key voice in the literary interchange between the Caribbean and the UK. This new book contains poems that capture a conflicted view of an adopted England – the “pop-up picture book” of a London that also harbours dungeons and “huddles of the homeless” – as well as documenting the poet’s own history, including a preface outlining Nichols’s upbringing in Guyana. These warmly nostalgic but undeceived works are, by her own reckoning, attempts to “preserve experiences, people and places in an effort to save them from time’s erasure”. When the project succeeds, it manages to conjure for reader and poet alike, as we witness the poet’s father, “a seriously stylish / conducting headmaster, / waving his cane like a wand”.

If Keats’s famous adage that beauty is truth rings false to modern ears, Seán Hewitt’s collection of exquisite lyrics, Tongues of Fire (Cape, £10), gives us hope. This debut manages to enchant the reader with poems that read most often as spells, prayers and incantations, paying an almost religious attention to the natural world, where “woods are forms of grief / grown from the earth”. The speaker in many of these vertiginous, dreamlike pieces can often seem intent on seeking out resilience and solace, as “St John’s Wort” uncovers “the will to lift the mind / outside oneself”. If many contemporary poets are increasingly concerned with the human fault in our climate crisis, Tongues of Fire looks to nature’s cycles as holy writ, advising that we “approach one by one / to witness how a fragile thing is raised.”

Greek-Canadian poet Evan Jones’s Later Emperors (Carcanet, £9.99) is an ambitious collection of four sequences, variously giving voice to Roman emperors, Byzantine historians, and the Greek philosopher Plutarch. The result is an unexpectedly contemporary volume that makes startlingly plain how civilisations are so often doomed to repeat themselves, be it through corruption, ambition, ineptitude or desire. “Look at me, Maximin shouts, look / what I can do”: we draw our own parallels when the poet reflects that “his body is taut but has no purpose / than to flex and recover”. Elsewhere, the poems are able to speak with a philosophical directness in adopting ancient voices, but also with the intimacy of the diary entry or letter. Wearing learning with familiar ease, Jones illustrates how “all glories turn to dust, but we hold onto them as ideals”.

• Ben Wilkinson’s Way More Than Luck is published by Seren.