(Faber & Faber 2010)
This slim volume of around fifty poems, most of them short or very short, won the Costa Book of the Year last year. Thinking that I needed to read a bit more poetry, I picked this up on the basis of its excellent reviews, and the poem ‘La Serenissima’. The collection as a whole rather disappointed me, though there were some poems which I did like. There was a sense of mortality about many, particularly with respect to Shapcott’s diagnosis and treatment for cancer, references to which crop up in a number of the poems.
Several poems are printed in the form of the sonnet – octet followed by sestet – though they don’t follow the traditional metre or rhyme scheme. Often the meanings seem to be deliberately obscure – what is the connection between a burning city and St Bride’s church, Fleet Street, in ‘St Bride’s’? Is it the retaliatory raids on German cities during the Second World War? or London’s former existence during the Blitz? Or is that the point of the poem? That the connection is Shapcott’s, and it’s not an obvious one?
The repeated “little auntie” in ‘Somewhat Unravelled’ – a poem about dementia, elderly confusion, and its strange concordances – is probably meant affectionately but comes across as patronising. Shapcott also refers in several poems to the cells in her body, which again is probably understandable, but in my opinion its recurrences rob the image of its power. There were odd juxtapositions, too – ‘Religion for Girls’ and ‘Religion for Boys’, for example, are placed on adjacent pages, and one might expect similar but different poems as defined by the titles, but ‘Religion for Girls’ seems a misnomer. Perhaps Shapcott is in fact doing a good job by subverting expectations like this.
I did like ‘Night Flight from Muncaster’ in which the reader is invited to imagine himself or herself as an owl, testing the air for the first time, and ‘La Serenissima’, in which the whole world has turned watery, even the liquid in the poet’s body ebbing and flowing with the water of the city.
However, there were too few of these – most of the poems evoked nothing so much as “so what?” from me, and I felt rather cheated: perhaps that’s my fault. Oh, and my copy of the book (a paperback which I bought only a month ago) is so poorly bound that already pages are coming adrift.