Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head by Warsan Shire (Chatto, £12.99)
Shire’s first full-length collection builds on her much admired pamphlets Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth and Her Blue Body. Intergenerational trauma arising from the legacy of war, colonialism and the ongoing refugee crisis are addressed with a painful and urgent clarity. In her notable poem “Home”, Shire writes, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. You only / run for the border when you see the whole city running as well. / The boy you went to school with, who kissed you dizzy behind the / old tin factory, is holding a gun bigger than his body.” The need to reclaim ownership over one’s body is another key theme, especially in the wake of sexual trauma. In “Backwards”, a specular poem in which the latter half mirrors the first, Shire invokes the creative powers of the writer to transform one’s past: “Give them stumps for hands if even once they touched us without consent, / I can write the poem and make it disappear.” Vital, moving and courageous, this is a debut not to be missed.
Vinegar Hill by Colm Tóibín (Carcanet, £12.99)
Tóibín’s debut collection consists of lyric and narrative poems that traverse multiple physical locales and emotional landscapes, from Enniscorthy to Budapest to Los Angeles. A renowned novelist, Tóibín brings his keen eye for vivid narrative detail. In a candid poem about his visit to the White House on Saint Patrick’s Day in 2010, he writes: “We had expected to learn something in that house about power / And politics. Instead, we witnessed what it is like / To wear your welcome out. It does seem tempting, even still, / To imagine the line of waiters as a metaphor … / For soft power […] how to take a firm stance / On foreigners.” There is a lingering melancholyin Tóibín’s work, particularly in his sparse reflections on ageing and death: “In the book that points the way, / I found words and signs that served only / To mystify me further. It is not easy / For anyone being in the world”. Much of Vinegar Hill offers the pleasure of a slow, meandering walk, as if the reader and poet have companionably “decid[ed] to take / The slow way home”.
Unexhausted Time by Emily Berry (Faber, £10.99)
Berry’s third collection marks a departure from its predecessor Stranger, Baby, which was a polyphonic meditation on loss, survival and grief. While related themes emerge, to read her latest work is to be immersed in a shimmering world of dream logic, where lyric fragments cohere and disassemble like the passage of light over the course of a single day. Here, Berry’s writing mimics time’s uneven flow: “The past is our country: pawned, / broke down and unforgiveable, governed / by people we cannot trust, and we live in it.” Ellipses abound, revealing an omission of thought or feeling, thereby heightening what does appear on the page: “When someone leaves you, / they flow out of you like milk, / and if you allow it, you can feed people …” . Those familiar with Berry’s debut Dear Boy might observe how Unexhausted Time moves similarly between the “apparently personal” – a term coined by Sharon Olds – and surrealist scenes. Berry writes: “I agree, sometimes there is a soft core /of rot inside everything. But the poem / was blood temperature, and getting / hotter.” Wise and mesmeric, Unexhausted Time feels like a balm for mind and soul in difficult times.
Some Integrity by Padraig Regan (Carcanet, £11.99)
This scintillating debut is Whitmanesque in its freewheeling explorations of subjects ranging from mushrooms to Rembrandt to the landscapes of Ireland. Regan notes in an interview how “queerness is never a subject matter, but a way of looking, a perspective, a formal approach, a syntax”. In a poem suffused with eroticism, the speaker brings a queer perspective to bear on their appreciation of the carnivorous pitcher plant, “who accepts / whatever comes its way – the living, / the dead, & all their mixed excretions”. The mouth recurs as a motif that gestures at the link between hunger and desire, as in the following prose poem: “… if I licked this stone / in search of salt & oil or / bit down expecting the / soft resistance of well- / cooked pig, I would be / disappointed. I don’t / know if that would stop / me.” Ultimately, there is a deft precision to Regan’s work that is captivating. To read Some Integrity is to come away convinced that each poem is “a space … shaped to hold / the desire [the poet has] nowhere else / to put but here”.
• Mary Jean Chan’s Flèche (Faber) won the Costa poetry prize.