Poetry is very hard to review and even harder to anthologize. Many editors are guided by tradition. The same old poems turn up time and time again. Most poetry doesn’t sell well, so what editor would take a risk on including poets most readers have never heard of? This means that finding fresh, good poems is really hard and can be expensive.
Enter Neil Astley, an extraordinary man and the founder of Bloodaxe Books. He has spent a lifetime devoted to other people’s poetry. Unlike many literary men, he has an open mind, vast experience, breathtaking vision and colossal self-assurance.
It was in this book that he first gave us the benefit of that unusual combination of qualities. Staying Alive is a large book, well-organised, stimulating, surprising and accessible. It was published in 2002 and is still fresh.
It was followed in 2004 by Being Alive and in 2008 by Being Human, both equally good and equally vital. Many people buy all three.
These poems are varied and various, consistently good, and striking without being difficult or obscure. I particularly like the way Neil places poems with contrasting viewpoints side by side. It is typical of his approach, inclusive, balanced and pluralistic. If reading so much poetry can lead to this kind of enlightenment, let’s all read more poetry.
Here is one that plays with the contrasts and contradictions within a single word and is almost therefore representative of the whole collection:
It was your lightness that drew me,
the lightness of your talk and your laughter,
the lightness of your cheek in my hands,
your sweet gentle modest lightness;
and it is the lightness of your kiss
that is starving my mouth,
and the lightness of your embrace
that will let me go adrift.
Translated from the Gaelic by the author.