Last words

Poetry - Sex, death and armpits. Adam Newey on collections from Catullus to Dorothy Molloy and R S T

Just occasionally, a new collection of poetry appears that makes you recalibrate your scale of judgement, makes you realise that what you had counted as good was merely mediocre. Such a work is Hare Soup by Dorothy Molloy (Faber & Faber, £8.99), a slim assemblage of tales of childhood abuse, raw religion, bad French hotels and French peasant food, the rough clamour of love and exigent death. They are often alarming in their casually enacted brutalities, but Molloy views all with a detached, ironic eye, frequently amused or delighted, and always with an intense sensuality. The small poem "Eternity Ring" is fairly typical:

I can't get this blasted thing off:

the ring set with stones that eats into

my flesh. I've tried fretsaws
and slashers
and pneumatic
drills; Fatima,

butter and soap. Lard.
I rode a tank over my knuckles,

I dropped a bomb, onto my hand.
The ring is still grand.

The phrasing is never less than fresh, the voice confident and assured, remarkably so for a first collection. And, sad to report, a last collection, too, because Molloy died just as this book went to press. She was 62 and though she came to poetry relatively late in life, she did so with a voice that was instantly and memorably her own.

The work of the gloriously scabrous Roman poet Catullus (c.84BC-54BC) very nearly didn't reach us. Seemingly lost for more than a thousand years until a manuscript turned up in Verona - Catullus's home town - in the 14th century, it was promptly lost again, though not, fortunately, before having been copied. Since then, the Latin text has been emended, euphemised, bowdlerised and generally made as acceptable to genteel literary tastes as possible by a succession of translators and publishers. In Poems of Love and Hate (Bloodaxe, £8.95) Josephine Balmer, though by no means the first to approach Catullus's gutter Latin without flinching, has done an unusually good job of rendering it in readable, witty English:

I thought, so help me God, that
I couldn't tell
if Aemilius' mouth or arse made
that smell;
for mouth, arse, who can separate
foul from clean -
but on balance, yes, the arse is

less obscene
since it lacks teeth . . .

This volume contains the entire shorter poems (a second volume of the longer mythological and ritual verse is planned), of which probably the best known are those that deal with the poet's love-hate relationship with his married lover, "Lesbia". These are alternately tenderly lyrical and bitingly scornful, and sometimes both at once:

My Lesbia, Caelius, that Lesbia -
yes, that Lesbia, Catullus' only one,
whom he loved more than himself,
his own, his all,
now she's at the crossroads, on a
back-street crawl,
skinning the sons of Rome's greatest
scions.

Elsewhere there are viperish caricatures of various acquaintances, especially other poets ("disease of the age, unreadable poets"), and bitter meditations on politics, sex, death, incest and armpits. Balmer's introduction gives scholarly pointers to the dense references and hidden biographical hints, as well as elaborating on the technical problems involved in the translation. The world of Catullus is incredibly rich and fascinating, and the late Republic was never more alive than in these skilful, naturalistic renditions.

Collected Later Poems 1988-2000 (Bloodaxe, £9.95) is surely the final word from R S Thomas, who died in 2000. Two years ago, Bloodaxe published Residues, a collection of unpublished poems discovered after the poet's death. The current volume collects his five last books, and complements the earlier Collected, which covers the years 1945-90. This is preferable to attempting a Complete Poems, because it preserves those poems the poet wished to preserve, in the order in which they were published, and (aside from Residues) does not seek to rehabilitate those leavings and scrapings for which the poet - whether through design or lack of time - had found no public home. There is a stillness, a bleak calm about these later poems, edged with loss and regret but holding on to a fierce, almost stubborn rectitude. Thomas, who was an Anglican priest, casts about for God but is ever rooted in a natural world that is "not oriented manward". Bodily decay, bereavement, expectation of death - all are stoically borne in these gauntly delicate poems; and, just occasionally, there is a more hopeful vision of something

repairing
the soul's tissue, leading
the astonished self between
twin pillars, where life's angels
stand wielding their bright swords
of flame.