Show Hide image

The New Statesman's Poems of 2014

New voices join old friends in our selection of the best poems published in the New Statesman over the past 12 months.

Driftwood Houses
Clive James

The ne plus ultra of our lying down,
Skeleton riders see the planet peeled
Into their helmets by a knife of light.
Just so, I stare into the racing field
Of ice as I lie on my side and fight
To cough up muck. This bumpy slide downhill
Leads from my bed to where I’m bound to drown
At this rate. I get up and take a walk,
Lean on the balustrade and breathe my fill
At last. The wooden stairs down to the hall
Stop shaking. Enough said. To hear me talk
You’d think I found my fate sad. Hardly that:
All that has happened is I’ve hit the wall.
Disintegration is appropriate,

As once, on our French beach, I built, each year,
Among the rocks below the esplanade,
Houses from driftwood for our girls to roof
With towels so they could hide there in the shade
With ice creams that would melt more slowly. Proof
That nothing built can be forever here
Lay in the way those frail and crooked frames
Were undone by a storm-enhanced high tide
And vanished. It was time, and anyhow
Our daughters were not short of other games
Which were all theirs, and not geared to my pride.
And here they come. They’re gathering shells again.
And you in your straw hat, I see you now,
As I lie restless yet most blessed of men.

 

An earlier version of this poem was first published in the New Statesman of 18 April 2014.
Clive James is a poet, critic and broadcaster. His most recent book is Poetry Notebook: 2006-2014 (Picador).

 

First World War Hero
Dannie Abse

Often away on business though no-one
seemed to know what Uncle’s business was.
He’d return from Timbuktu, North Pole or Mars,
cigar-smoking, proud of his new bought Bentley.

Not always a Bentley. Sometimes a cavalier Rolls
or some other post-war car made in Heaven.
“Sam juggles cars like he juggles lemons,”
Dad grumbled. We owned an Austin 7.

Once, with three lemons, Uncle entranced me.
He danced over watchful one-eyed daisies
juggling a choreograph of lemons. Funny, freckled
red-haired Uncle. Such beauty of balance!

He could do it with whisky wizardry,
kneeling on the floor, singing a Fred Astaire song
but Mother disapproved of war-hero Sam.
“Generous with other people’s money. Scab. Cheat.”

“Not a cheat,” Dad frowned. “A juggler, yes,
a meshugana charmer and chancer, yes. Always
was, always will be till his name’s on the slab
he’ll throw up Sour till it comes down Sweet.”

No exemplar, but misled, I was in awe of Sam.
They said at Ypres he had killed ten Huns.
Asked about his medals he fled into silence,
then winked, “They gave me them for juggling lemons.”

That was whisky-glib years ago. Now no more
cars, leaping lemons. At Sam’s funeral, drama:
Aunt numb and an unknown woman weeping
comforted by a freckled, red-haired son.

In the trance of Belief there are spaced-out gurus,
wild messiahs, and can-do men like Sam,
tight-rope stars, in god-fearless equipoise,
they speak to a child and to the child in man.

 

First published: 8 August 2014.
Dannie Abse, a Welsh poet and former doctor, died on 28 September 2014, aged 91. His final collection of poems, Ask the Moon, is newly published by Hutchinson. He was awarded a CBE in 2012.

 

 

The Hinds
Kathleen Jamie 

Walking in a waking dream
I watched nineteen deer
pour from ridge to glen-floor,
then each in turn leap,
leap the new-raised
peat-dark burn. This
was the distaff side;
hinds at their ease, alive
to lands held on long lease
in their animal minds,
and filing through a breached
never-mended dyke,
the herd flowed up over
heather-slopes to scree
where they stopped, and turned to stare,
the foremost with a queenly air
as though to say: Aren’t we
the bonniest companie?
Come to me,
You’ll be happy, but never go home.

 

First published: 28 February 2014.
Kathleen Jamie’s most recent collection of verse is The Overhaul (Picador) and her essays are published in Findings and Sightlines. Her poem commemorating the Battle of Bannockburn was inscribed on the monument at the site in 2013.

 

Ex-Industrial (a trailer)
Helen Mort

Zoom in: near sunset in a town where everything’s ex-this,
ex-that, an artificial pond poured in to fill the gaps.
Just out of shot, your neighbour the ex-smoker smokes
behind the flats and feels ex-touches shivering down his back.

Interior: your ex-face in that photo on the shelf
is less than half the shadow of your former self.
Crowned with a plastic rose, the TV’s talking to itself.
A coat pools on the floor. Real shadows take the walls by stealth.

Zoom out: that man-made lake again. The fishermen
and geese have left, the sun slinks off towards the west.
The camera pans across the water, comes to rest –
and there: the sun beneath the surface holds its breath.

 

First published: 6 December 2013.
Helen Mort was born in Sheffield in 1985. Her debut collection, Division Street (Chatto & Windus), was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Poetry Award and the T S Eliot Prize. She is the poet laureate for Derbyshire.

 

Scar
Philip Gross

             : a heart-
        shaped scorch-
    patch in the bracken.
Today a spat of Valleys rain has stopped it there

but each Easter makes tinder of this hillside,
a swathe of crisp brown question-marks,
fire in them itching to run where it will

and how could you resist it, being fourteen
and full of the slack of the day, of the nothing
to go home to, with a lighter in your jeans,

the others looking on? A fair wind, luck,
and there’ll be sirens this evening, smoke-
signalling We were (are still) here

where they’ll already be too late,
those flatfoots in vizors and fire suits,
cartoon spacemen in the wrong film. Watch

them chasing the last of the flame-snakes,
wriggling here, there. Different greynesses
into the night sky: smoke and steam.

That’s a good day, when everyone wakes
to sodden rakings-over, world restored
to black-and-white, shoots shrivelled

to wisps, bared rocks and birch trunks
scorched, a stink as alkaline as birdlime,
valley like a morning-after ashtray

(yes, you in the dinky estate by the station,
we’ll rub your noses in it), like a riddled grate
of clinker, where coal was. Not far

beneath the skin of new-turfed green,
        dug under but still
            smouldering, the
                heart. The scar.


First published: 18 July 2014.
Philip Gross’s collections include The Water Table, which won the 2009 T S Eliot Prize, and Later (Bloodaxe). “Scar” will appear in A Fold in the River, a collection set around the River Taff in south Wales, to be published by Seren in 2015.

 

Grip Stick
Mark Granier

The man emptying bins on the prom might 
be my age,
though healthier looking, tanned, bare-armed
in a hi-vis jacket and black ski-cap.
He plucks at stray bits of litter with that familiar
metal rod with its Dalek pincer – the same

as the one I bought for my mother in Fannin’s
some years before she died – a gadget
so starkly ingenious surely it’s a branch
of a family tree of similar inventions, of Bakelite,
whalebone, leather, wood . . . going back, back

to that afternoon in her nursing home
a year and a half ago, when I hold her hand
and feel it loosen then go slack, and call
the nurse, who says quietly “yes, she’s going . . .”
and I look out the window

to see the usual glorious rubbish, clouds
not stopping their tumble over Killiney Hill’s
huddle of slates and satellite dishes, while I am
abruptly in a different country – the vast
landscape of her open palm –

tiny in the grip of what gave way.

 

First published: 6 June 2014.
Mark Granier is an Irish poet and photographer. He is the author of three collections of poetry: Airborne, The Sky Road and Fade Street. His fourth, Haunt, will be published by Salmon Poetry in 2015.

 

Aubade
Roger McGough

Needler Hall, the University of Hull

Woken at four to the sound of jazz
coming from his room on the floor above,
as he opens the door and slips out.

The flop of moth-eaten brocade slippers
along the corridor. The knock. “Come in.”
He stands in the doorway plain as a wardrobe.

“Sorry to . . . Unearthly hour . . .”
He stays just on the edge of vision,
“Thought you might be able to help.”

There is no escape. The curtain-edges grow light
and the room takes shape. “Work has to be done.
What year was the Beatles’ first LP?”

“Nineteen sixty-three,” I mumble.
“ABBAB. Excellent.” And he is gone.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.

 

First published: 4 July 2014.
Roger McGough is the president of the Poetry Society and presents the BBC Radio 4 programme Poetry Please. His most recent book is It Never Rains (Penguin).

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

LINDA BROWNLEE / CONTOUR BY GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

“Trump is a great opportunity for us writers": Zadie Smith on fighting back

The author of Swing Time on Michael Jackson, female friendships and how writers can bring down Donald Trump.

In a packed college lecture hall at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 22 November, Zadie Smith joined me on stage to talk about her fifth novel. Swing Time is the story of an unnamed narrator and her childhood friend – “two brown girls” – which begins at a church hall dance class and never quite lets them go, throughout their divergent lives. Despite being a little jet-lagged from her flight from New York – where she lives with her husband, the poet and novelist Nick Laird, and their two children – Smith spoke with the cool, lucid intelligence familiar from her essays and criticism as well as her fiction. “You’re so quiet compared to American audiences,” she said to the crowd. “American audiences say thing like, ‘Uh huh! Yeah!’ just randomly in the middle of things.” Met with reverential silence, she was free to navigate fluidly between racial identity, female friendship, Barack Obama’s legacy and her love of Mad Men.

New Statesman Swing Time is about many things, but it is dance that gives the story its rhythm and arc. What’s your own relationship with dance?

Zadie Smith For me, it’s a joy. I’m a 41-year-old woman; I don’t dance that much any more. My children don’t enjoy me dancing in any context, but I love to watch it, and I found out writing this book that I love to think about it.

 

NS As a child, the narrator is absorbed by classic musicals and through them she discovers a handful of black dancers – the Nicholas Brothers, the young Jeni LeGon – who take on huge significance for her. Did these figures have that kind of impact on you?

ZS No, Jeni LeGon is someone I only found out about writing this book, so I had to construct what it would have been like to know about her aged five or eight; it’s like a fake memoir. But I loved that kind of early dance, and I recognise the instinct a lot of black and Asian children of my generation might have: the sense of counting the brown faces wherever we saw them, in a slightly desperate way. I definitely did that, in my everyday life, switching on the BBC and hoping to see Daley Thompson, or whoever – this kind of search for a reflection.

 

NS There were major black stars in the 1980s: the narrator’s friend Tracey idolises Michael Jackson and Prince.

ZS Michael Jackson’s a really interesting example, because he’s such a traumatising figure for a whole generation of kids! You were offered him as this wonder – this incredible black dancer – who then you had to watch throughout your childhood become un-black. You had to have this magical thinking and believe that he had a mysterious skin disease that does not manifest in that way in any other human on Earth, and that all this surgery also had nothing to do with it. It required a great deal of denial, and I think it did something very odd to a generation of children. He certainly loomed large in my mind as a figure of such penetrating self-hatred and self-disgust. Perhaps I have a suspicion of role models exactly for that reason, that you’re offered something – a model of behaviour or thought – but it can only ever be narrow. And then, when it goes traumatically wrong, as it did in poor Michael’s case, you’re left slightly rudderless.

 

NS You wrote that the Nicholas Brothers remind you of a line that a mother tells her daughter, that she needs to be twice as good as the other kids. This sentiment crops up in NW and in Swing Time, too.

ZS When I meet black British kids of my generation, that’s what all their mothers said to them. But with the Nicholas Brothers, I was also thinking about talent, because the novel is about different relations of power: in friendships, in families, between countries.

One of the things power is based on is the feeling that someone has a natural right to a certain amount of things. If you’re born into a situation, what accrues to you because of that? If you’re born into an unfortunate situation, what do you deserve in replacement for that? Politics lies along those lines. But talent is interesting because people on both sides of the political divide tend to think of it as a natural bounty not to be interfered with. The Nicholas Brothers are so extraordinarily talented that it’s a kind of offence to our most democratic thoughts. Why do these boys dance like that? How is it possible to have those kinds of gifts in the world, and what should you get because of them?

 

NS Did the Nicholas Brothers get the recognition that their talent deserved?

ZS Well, it was complicated, because they would do these extraordinary routines, but the studio always ensured they weren’t integral to the plot, so that when the films went south of the Mason-Dixon line, you could just cut the offending scene. So that was their experience – a very painful one, I think. But they were extraordinary professionals and Astaire spoke so well of them.

When I was a kid, what preoccupied me even more than the movies themselves was the idea of what was going on behind the scenes, between these black actors and the directors, the producers, the other actors. Because even though someone like Fred Astaire was a supporter of these artists, he didn’t actually actively help them on set. There’s a moment in Easter Parade when a maid comes in with a pug in her arms, and that maid is Jeni LeGon. Astaire knew who she was and how talented a dancer she was and yet he allowed her to appear for 35 seconds in a movie, passing him a dog.

 

NS In Swing Time, the narrator goes on to work for a pop star who is busily incorporating African imagery and clothing into her routines. What’s your take on this idea of cultural appropriation?

ZS Aimee, the pop star, says something that I don’t disagree with, which is that art involves an act of love, and of imitation. I would maybe use the word “voyeurism”. I think of myself explicitly as a voyeur, somebody who wants to be inside other people’s lives. To write On Beauty, I wanted to know: what’s it like to be a middle-aged, white male academic? Or in The Autograph Man, what’s it like to be a young, Chinese-Jewish guy who collects autographs? I guess sometimes the reader thinks it’s not appropriation when I’m writing about an older, black American woman – but I’m not an older, black American woman. It’s all voy­eurism on my part. But the way it’s argued a lot of the time, on both sides, is so vulgar.

Also, I feel that the identity facts of your life are so profoundly contingent – where your parents happened to be on the day you were born – that I can only take identity ­seriously as an act of commitment and love. I don’t think it runs through your blood. It is a compulsion. You have chosen to become, for example, British, even if you were born British and your great-grandfather was British. Being British is a kind of engagement; you have to commit to the idea of a culture.

 

NS In terms of identity, the narrator defines herself by the light other people cast on her. She’s almost a negative space.

ZS I felt that I wanted an “I” who was like a void, partly from my own sensibility – I recognise myself as a person of some passivity – but also in response to the performance of a certain kind of persona, particularly among young people. My students have a very firm sense of their “I”, or say they do, and they take that “I” on to the various social platforms and into their lives. It’s a type of presentation. But the kind of person that I was thinking about is asking, “What did I do here, there and then? What does it mean?” She’s working out, “Who am I?” but it comes from action, not from a series of staged performances. I knew it would be a slightly unnerving experience, because we’ve got so used to opening a book or reading a blog or watching Instagram and being presented with this full technicolour person with all these qualities. I felt that maybe in my novel, I could try something else.

 

NS When asked about the target audience for their book, writers usually say that they don’t write for an audience, or they write for themselves. But you have said that Swing Time was written explicitly for black girls.

ZS That’s how I felt when I was writing it. I did have somebody I was trying to speak to, and that might be no different to writing the kind of book – as writers often say – that you might have hoped to read when you were young. I was aware of an explicit imagined reader. I can’t deny that was in my mind. These are not normal times, and I think even writers as domestic or comic as I generally am find themselves in a more political place than they would in peaceful times. Being in America the past few years, I felt I had a lot of things that I had to get on paper, to get off my chest.

 

NS One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the relationship between the two girls. Do you think there’s something particularly fraught and complex about female friendships?

ZS I feel that perhaps in the past – because so much was written by men, because the women were with the children – relations between women have been depicted with very simple concepts like envy, or the idea of the bitch fight. And now that women are writing so much more frequently and the men in their lives are helping with the children, I think you’re getting for the first time in a very long time a different depiction of intimate female relations.

One of the things that strike me is that the much-vaunted envy between women is also a kind of radical imagination, in that women are always in each other’s business; they can imagine each other’s lives with great intensity. When I was writing this book, I was with my daughter at a children’s party, parting from another girl who wanted to know every little thing about where we were going next. I compared that with my son, who, if he’s saying goodbye to a friend, is just like, “See ya!” and doesn’t even remember they exist until the next morning.

That ability of girls to project their imagination into somebody else’s life can have toxic elements, but also seems to me an extraordinary fictional instinct, and might explain the domination of women in the novel historically, when so many other art forms were practically blocked for them. The novel, to me, is a woman’s art. I don’t say men don’t have enormous achievements in it, of course, but it has a strong female element, exactly because of that projection, which can be called empathy, I suppose, but is also a deep curiosity and voyeurism.

 

NS We tend to associate male relationships with power struggles, but aren’t female friendships equally involved in exchanges of power and power games?

ZS Right. I think it can be sometimes invisible to men, because the form of the power game can be so inverted. There is a very funny Amy Schumer sketch of four women meeting in a park in New York and competitively downgrading themselves: “You look nice!” “No, I look like something pulled out of the trash.” On it goes until they explode. All women will recognise that, and it’s a compulsive English habit. I do it all the time. Someone says to me, “You look nice.” I say, “Oh, Topshop, 15 quid.” That habit maybe doesn’t look like power from the outside, but all women know exactly what they’re doing when they’re doing these things.

 

NS In your fiction, mother-daughter relationships seem equally fraught.

ZS Even though I know a lot of women have difficult relationships with their mothers, what’s amusing, and kind of moving, too, is the amnesia. When they have children, women cannot imagine the idea that maybe this lovely two-year-old will one day do ­anything to avoid calling you between Sunday and Sunday – they can’t conceive of it, even as they’re doing it to their own mothers. I guess I never had that illusion about motherhood. I always thought, “This is going to be terrible,” so anything that’s good is a kind of bonus. I was very surprised when my kids started saying the normal things that kids say, that they love you.

Then there are the sweet delusions of what you want and what the child wants. I can’t tell you how many times people in New York have said to me things like, “I’m going to go and get a massage, because if I’m happy, the child’s happy.” You want to believe that you want the same things at the same time, but exactly the opposite is true. The child wants everything, and it’s the mother’s decision how much she’s going to give. I find that battle kind of comic and sweet and interesting, and certainly having children has reanimated it in my fiction.

 

NS What was your involvement in the recent BBC television adaptation of NW?

ZS When they started, I was pregnant and I just couldn’t engage with it at all. So I just said, “Do whatever you like.” I saw it only two weeks ago on my laptop – very anxious, with my husband, Nick, late at night – and I was just so happy and amazed at that scriptwriter [Rachel Bennette] and all the things she cut so effectively. I’m not in the habit of being moved by my own material, but the power of it struck me, particularly the section with Felix. You see so many people stabbed, all the time, in movies and on TV, and you never really understand the weight of the life being lost – and the actor playing Felix managed to die.

I’m going to try to adapt Swing Time for TV, probably with Nick, because he’s much more of a plot guy. I’m excited. I love telly.
I don’t have original taste – I love all the usual suspects. I think Mad Men is stunning.
I felt like it was a dream life that I was in, and when it was gone I felt really depleted, like I couldn’t have that dream every night, with all those beautiful men and women in it.

 

NS You’ve long been associated with the idea of “multicultural London”, but what comes out strongly in your recent work is a sense of division. Do you feel more pessimistic about London as a mixed community?

ZS Particularly in America, I’ll be asked, “Are you a supporter of this thing multiculturalism, and now can you admit that it’s failed?” What’s being said is that the conditions of your childhood were a kind of experiment, and it turns out it hasn’t gone well, so we’re going to revoke that – it’s over now. I find it kind of unnerving, because millions of people around the world are still living with each other in mixed situations, and I also don’t accept the premise that a homogeneous society is by its nature more peaceful and more likely to succeed. The Romans, the Greeks, the Northern Irish, England for 400 years . . . There’s no reason to believe that. I never felt that a heterogeneous society was perfect. But I think there are promising things in my community, and I don’t accept the idea of an experiment shut down, finished: these are people’s lives.

But what certainly is the case, I feel, is that you cannot, on the left or on the right, assume that a historical situation will remain in perpetuity. If you value things in that ­society, you have to restate them, reimagine them, and the kind of housing crisis we have in London now makes various conditions I grew up in impossible. There will always be rich and poor but, as [Thomas] Piketty makes the case, the gap is so extraordinary now. To have allowed it to get to this almost feudal situation, I don’t see how it can’t create deep cracks within civilised life. The ­division in London is a financial one. It feels extreme and it has extreme consequences.

 

NS In 2008, you wrote an essay full of cautious hope that Obama’s mode of speaking might be the thing required to pull the country together. How do you feel looking back at that moment now?

ZS On the morning of this election, I heard a young black girl on the subway ­speaking very loudly about why she’d voted for Trump. One of her reasons – a kind of “Face­book fact” – was that Obama created fewer jobs than Bush, which I believe had been going round the right-wing sites. In some of the big car towns, Obama saved so many jobs – but it’s hard to sell the counterfactual idea that there would be 800,000 fewer jobs here had this not happened.

But I think another counterfactual will be in his favour soon, and that is all the ways in which Obama is calm. Recently in New York, we had a small terrorist attack in Chelsea. Try to imagine Donald’s response to that. And so I think that over the next four years, all the ways in which Obama has not done many things that would have led us into terrible situations will become very clear, very quickly. It’s a painful way to secure your legacy, but that’s the way I see it.

 

NS As a New Yorker, what has your experience been over the past few weeks?

ZS I left the morning after it happened, because I had to go to Europe. When we turned up at my son’s daycare, the teachers were crying. My friend told me that the pizza delivery guy came that evening and burst into tears at the door. It was traumatic.

My gut feeling is that the job of American journalists and writers is going to be to somehow defy the normalisation of what’s happening. I think there are positive signs. It blows my mind that a man who is meant to be preparing to be leader of the free world watched Saturday Night Live [in which Alec Baldwin played Trump] and tweeted three times about it. So, in one sense, it’s a great opportunity for all of us artists, comedians, writers, because he’s so easily wound up! It gives the press an opportunity to be a real fourth estate and do something significant. Which could perhaps lead to impeachment. It’s promising, from our point of view.

“Swing Time” by Zadie Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage