Remedia Amoris – Elizabeth Thomas

This made me chuckle,

Love, and Gout invade the idle Brain,

Bus’ness prevents the Passion, and the Pain:

Ceres, and Bacchus, envious of our Ease, 

Blow up the Flame, and heighten the Disease.

Withdraw the Fewel, and the Fire goes out;

 Hard Beds, and Fasting, cure both Love and Gout. 

  Elizabeth Thomas (1675-1731), taken from No Bliss Like This compiled by Jill Hollis.

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No Bliss Like This, compiled by Jill Hollis

To paraphrase the film (500) Days of Summer, this isn’t love poetry. These are poems about love.

Female poets are a bit on the underrepresented side in occidental culture; and when you consider how underrepresented poets full stop are at the moment, then you realise that that’s a helluva lot of underrepresenting going on. To remedy the belief that women didn’t bother with poetry until Plath and Duffy came along, Jill Hollis compiled this rather marvellous selection of poetry written by women on themes in and around love – spanning from the 16th Century to the present day.

The book does not follow the traditional anthology structure of one poet at a time in strict (estimated) chronological order; instead Hollis has loosely grouped poems together that complement each other, either because of their similarity in themes, imagery etc – or because of their complete and utter difference. In this way you’re never really bored if you’re just sitting down and reading through, but it doesn’t really matter if you read them out sequence either; with some anthologies it almost seems as though they are made deliberately hard to dip into, as if to test your faith and commitment to the ancient and noble art of poetry. I can speak from experience when I say that it’s a very good book just to have on you and read randomly from when you’re waiting for someone to show up, or the pasta to boil.

Hollis has also picked a very good range of poets from the better known names, such as Emily Brontë, Carol Ann Duffy, Sylvia Plath and Queen Elizabeth I, to ones which were very popular once upon a time but have, for whatever reason, fallen out of favour of late, like Aphra Behn, Lady Mary Wortley Montague, Dorothy Parker and Stevie Smith. Of course, this is an extremely small selection of the poets featured – there are some more obscure, and even more famous too – but hopefully you get the picture. It’s quite extraordinary to have so many different poets from so many different eras, with all their attendant stylistic kinks and hallmarks, and for it to work. Owing to the nature of the chronology in this book (i.e. non-existent) if you aren’t so keen, or willing to try out, a certain person or style then it simply doesn’t matter. Something or someone completely different will come along in a page or two.

As to the actual poems themselves, I feel Hollis ought to congratulate herself. Using “love” as a vague theme could have been an unmitigated, fluffy, pink, marshmallowy disaster. Luckily this fate is avoided thanks to a thematically and tonally diverse selection of poems, that takes the sarcasm, sincerity, humour, heartbreak, beauty and seedier aspects of love as we know it in its stride. Sugary, sticky doom is also averted by a determination to not focus exclusively on the happy, rosy stages of love, but to also look at lust, infidelity, falling out of love, sex, lying, marriage and curing/not wanting to be in love – as well as ideas about the peculiar and intense nature of love.

“Adore” is a rather precious word for the emotions I have towards this book. Equally, “respect” and “admire” are far too mummified terms. It is as though it is more than a mere compilation of words, wit and wisdom written by 500 years’ worth of women; towards it I feel emotions that are more akin to seeing to seeing an old friend again. A warmth and recognition, slightly tainted by a bittersweet something. I’m not giving this book a number rating, but you should be able to tell that I would gladly recommend it to anyone.

Over and out.

Rain – Don Paterson

Strange that this guy is highly-lauded in the literary world, but hasn’t made a ripple outside of it. I blame microscopic poetry sections in bookshops.

People invariably groan when it comes to poetry – generally because of a bad experience with an apathetic/indolent/disenchanted teacher when they were in secondary school. Well, the fight back begins here: Viva la révolution!

In related news, this is a generally good collection of work by Don Paterson. My particular favourites are The Error, which speaks volumes about what it means to be human, and the title poem Rain – which is just a bit of understated genius. On the minus side in a collection of 29 poems, (well, technically 28 as one of them’s a blank page with a title), at least seven and a half are “after” someone else. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great poems amongst those – look out for The Wind and The Landscape –, it’s just a little confusing as a reader because you don’t know if what you like is Paterson, or if it’s Robert Desnos or Antonio Machado.

Overall, it’s a curiously uneven collection. Half of it is sheer brilliance, a mixture of imagery and emotion, as with The Rain at Sea and The Story of the Blue Flower; unfortunately the other half is either so-so or obscurely-put. For example, there is a rather long poem dedicated to a Georgian electronica musician called Song for Natalie “Tusja” Beridze which appears to have very little point, and is frankly a little baffling for an audience that doesn’t know as much about electronica and the related software as Paterson clearly does. There’s also The Day, which I suspect is meant to describe a divorce but gets a bit bogged down in Plathian imagery and Satrian existentialist angst.

I think this collection deserves a 3.5 out of 5; unfortunately because what’s good is so very very good, what isn’t really jars. Over and out.