I had a burst of reading poetry books the past week or so, including David Harsent, Galway Kinnell, and John Taylor (along with the books by Jill Alexander Essbaum, Edwin Morgan, and Daljit Nagra that I posted comments on already). Now I'm reading Sean O'Brien.
I also read Sarah Maguire's The Pomegranates of Kandahar (as well as her Spilt Milk, which has been on my shelf for ages). I was not very impressed by the book as a whole, but it had a couple of lovely poems, including this one, which so powerfully captures the layers of meanings that a landscape (or in this case a seascape) can have for people who look at it from different perspectives:
Merely an idea bruising
the far horizon, as a cold mist tightens into rain –
but at dusk we still wait
by the Bay of Tangier, on the old city walls, gazing northwards
till the night comes on,
and a necklace of light gathers the throat of the sea.
The young men burn –
lonely, intent on resolving that elusive littoral
into a continent of promises
kept, clean water, work. If they stare hard enough, perhaps
it will come to them.
Each night, they climb these crumbling ramparts
and face north
like true believers, while the lighthouse of Tarifa blinks
unrolling its brilliant pavement across the pitiless Straits.
I did find it a bit odd that the first two poems in the book that really struck me were both mentioned on the back cover, the second being "Landscape, with Dead Sea" (she's got a thing for shores and seas—or maybe I do).
All in all, Maguire's work strikes me most when something begins to push the poems to go further, whether it be the historical and geographical elements that drive "Landscape, with Dead Sea" or the anaphoric negations of "The Jardin des Plantes": "Do not go to the Jardin des Plantes." (That poem, like "Europe," is available as part of a .doc file here, though it takes some searching to find it.) In "A Village of Water," a village slowly and cinematically overflows, "as though / it had rained all night." The poem might be about the disappearance of a village because of the construction of a dam, but it leaves the literal meaning open enough to give the poem the feel of a parable. "From Dublin to Ramallah" is dedicated to Ghassan Zaqtan, "because they would not let you travel from Dublin to Ramallah," and again the external motivation lifts Maguire's writing to another level.
And then there's this, from "In Passing" (my apologies to Maguire, as these lines are supposed to be staggered):
I stepped on the platform
just as a goods train passed through.
The length of it winded me—
boxcar after boxcar after boxcar
furiously intimate, close enough to touch:
the whiplash of turbulence,
the aftershock of silence.
I'm deeply impressed by some of Maguire's poems, but in the end I'm not that impressed by her collection. It's up for the T. S. Eliot Prize, but so are Edwin Morgan's A Book of Lives, Matthew Sweeney's Black Moon, and Ian Duhig's The Speed of Dark, all of which are much more impressive overall. (And those are the only others on the list that I have yet read.)