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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Etter

The Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection 2016 Shortlist: The Full Review

This summer The Guardian commissioned me to compose a review of the five books comprising the shortlist for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection, one of the three Forward Prizes, at approximately 900 words. In the end, on account of space, the review was edited down to under 500 words; that condensed review appears here. For the full-length review, read on!

The Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection 2016 Shortlist

The annual Forward Prizes in poetry celebrate the judges’ choice of best single poem, first book, and overall book and this year showcase a strong range of poets. The Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection provides an interesting introduction to emerging British talent.

In her shortlisted work, Ruby Robinson explores the effects of familial relationships on one’s sense of self as well as one’s relationships, especially intimate ones. Composed of free verse and occasional prose poems, Every Little Sound (Liverpool University Press, £9.99) proves stylistically original in its diction and syntax. Surprising word choices reinforce the speaker’s (and poet’s) grappling to render experience in language, as in the concluding stanza of ‘Unlocatable’:

And what use am I,

half-witted, unpicked, flaked

out, half a leg, a spewing mouth, brittle hair,

scooped-out heart crazed on the floor,

wracked with side effects?

This image of the dismembered body points up another quality of Robinson’s work: an everyday surreality that often appears menacing. The place becomes manifest as contemporary England with references to Proper Job beer, London Road, Radio 4, and Dairy Milk. Nor is this off-kilter world limited to the speaker of the poems, as evidenced in ‘Watching TV,’ where the violence appears in ‘burnt eyeballs’ and livestock in flames. The focus on a body part rather than livestock generally increases the immediacy, just one recurring element that makes Every Little Sound an intelligent and disturbing debut.

Mingling English, a ‘mongrel and magpie’ Scots, and Orcadian, Harry Giles’ Tonguit (Freight, £8.99) begins with a bold ars poetica. ‘Brave’ energetically lists the reasons the speaker sings and details the Scotland he sings of, ‘whit wants independence fae Tories,’ ‘whit cadna hink o a grander wey tae / end a nicht as wi a poke o chips n curry sauce,’ ‘whit dreams o bidin in London,’ and so on. ‘Tonguit’ means ‘tongued’ and is pronounced ‘tongue it’, and the importance of the poems’ performativity as social acts pervades the volume. In a number of works, Giles transforms found texts into poems, and his choices speak to the collection’s contemporaneity and investment in politics, from a ‘sampling of every mention of death’ in Game of Thrones to an adaptation of a speech by David Cameron. Adding strength to strength, the array of approaches to form appears broad, with open field, concrete, and prose as well as the expected free verse poems. Tonguit is an unusually adventurous and promising collection.

Largely in first-person, conversational poems, Tifanie Yanique’s Wife (Peepal Tree, £8.99) explores a variety of domestic relationships: husband and wife, parents and children, siblings. Some have the vigour of bardic declarations, while others operate as an address from one character to another, as in ‘Zuihitsu for the Day I Cheat on My Husband, to My Fiancé,’ ‘A Note to the Couple’s Therapist,’ and ‘The Husband Speaks from the Mountain,’ notable also for their intriguing titles. As the book progresses, the poems begin to seem repetitive, but overall Wife proves compelling in its urgency and emotional power.

In Nancy Campbell’s Disko Bay (Enitharmon, £9.99), the eponymous first section evokes the difficulty of life for Greenland’s first settlers as well as its present inhabitants. Campbell’s versions of three Qavak songs are as violent as they are sexual, life lived in close proximity to death. The predominance of traditional forms in this section (sonnets, pantoums, a sestina) strengthen the sense of song’s cultural importance, passing on legend and myth.

The second section, Ruin Island (a small island off the coast of Greenland), portrays the difficulty of early life there and conjures legendary leader Qujaavaarssuk. He does not stand separate as a hero, but suffers alongside his people and shares his last food with them in a time of famine. As a hunter remarks in Ruin Island’s final poem, “Nothing is too harsh / when you are accustomed to it.” The last section, Jutland, mingles narratives, proverbs and riddles to conclude the book on a richly ambiguous note. Over the course of the volume, Disko Bay’s wide array of poems and perspectives render an affecting, nuanced portrayal of Greenland’s people and culture over time.

The table of contents of Ron Carey’s Distance (Revival, €12) suggests an autobiographical journey: Time Travels contains poems of past experience growing up in Ireland; The Beloved, poems of romance; New Oceans, poems of narratives involving bodies of water, including an engaging series set in Belize; and lastly, The World Will Break Your Heart, miscellaneous poems. Humour and moments of magical realism enhance the work, as when at the end of ‘Kilkee’ a boy ‘put his finger into the ring of the sun / And pulled it down the sky until it entered the water / With sharp, protesting shouts of light.’ Occasionally weak phrases disrupt the poems, as with ‘the yellowed teeth of time,’ ‘gristle, roaring with calories,’ and horses that ‘run like mad things,’ but usually the language is precise and direct, the poems’ revelations understated and unsentimental.

The judges of the Forward Prizes have selected a strong shortlist for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection, to be sure. You can hear all the poets discussed here reading from their work at the prize ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, 20 September in a lively celebration of British poetry.

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