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22 October 2017

Tara Bergin’s poetry is a perfect guide to these frightened, frightening times

The NS reviews Bergin’s The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx, along with collections by Nick Makoha and Stephen Romer.

By Paul Batchelor

Tara Bergin’s first book of poems, This Is Yarrow, was one of the strangest and most assured debuts of recent years. It introduced the reader to an uncanny world we almost recognised, or almost wanted to recognise. Refreshingly, and sometimes unnervingly, Bergin didn’t seem to expect the reader to identify with her. Her new collection, The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx, pushes further into this territory.

The opening poem, “The True Story of Eleanor Marx”, begins with a riddling promise both to say and not to say: “I’m not going to tell you anything/That my psychoanalyst wouldn’t tell you.” Eleanor was Karl’s daughter and, having translated Madame Bovary, she committed suicide, apparently in imitation of the novel’s heroine.

Her identity in life and death seems alienated and overdetermined, making her an apt subject for Bergin, whose poems often seem poised between lyric and dramatic monologue. Several are occasioned by the horror of enforced sociability, such as a visit to the hairdresser (“I… listen with great care/to all the things she has to tell me”), but even intimate exchanges are laced with weird imperatives. “Strange Courtship” begins,

These are the rules.

White lilac means: “I am falling in love with you.”
Mauve lilac means: “Are your feelings still the same?”

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In these examples, it is the performance of gender, with all its attendant anxieties, that drives Bergin to write. Other politically loaded relationships are examined in “In Memory of My Lack of Feelings”, which begins by noting drily: “What the Landlady says is that the pilot light has gone out./Do you know what that means?/It means the whole building is freezing.” The poem’s scope widens with the lines, “Society has gone out, do you know what that means?/It means we all work here in the cold.” (Margaret Thatcher as the landlady from hell? Sounds about right: it’s still her country, even if she doesn’t live in it.) Bergin’s Gothic imagination – precise, claustrophobic, yet full of vertiginous perspectives – makes her a perfect guide to these frightened, frightening times.

One of the poems in Kingdom of Gravity, Nick Makoha’s ambitious, powerful debut collection, begins: “Sad is the man who is asked for a story/and can’t come up with one…” Makoha, who was born and raised in Idi Amin’s Uganda, has plenty of stories, but having something important to say can be a curse for a writer – if the content overpowers the attempt to shape it, the work will feel, at best, like a commentary. This never happens in Kingdom of Gravity.

First, Makoha’s gifts for phrase-making and sound-patterning (“An Acholi soldier laughs/in hyena soliloquy”) assert the value of poetry by ensuring memorability. Second, and more important, the poems convey the immediacy of having been formed by the same pressures that occasioned them. The book is full of references to passports, visas, tickets and tax cards, and the poems are vital documents, as well: responses, interventions, or transactions, produced by necessity, as proof.

Makoha’s imagery is vivid (men who “hold a rifle/as they would a woman”), and he demonstrates a mastery of tone and line. He can write with aphoristic concision, something he may have learned from his mother, who, in “Stone”, coins a phrase for the culture of bribery: “In Uganda, a bribe stops men/doing nothing. It rolls away the stone.” And he can strike an expansive note just as convincingly:

When the hills were on fire,
there were no angels to guide us.

Only the equator was able to divide
the land equally. Even the night took sides.

Elsewhere, brutal content and formal delicacy are combined to great effect, as in this half-rhyming couplet: “From the clays of the body, blood now blossoms./The ruins of our land have become your museums.”

Stephen Romer, whose Set Thy Love in Order: New and Selected Poems brings together three decades of work, is an altogether different kind of poet, but the half-rhymed couplet was once one of his staple forms, too, as here in “Adult Single”:

As if a diary redeemed the time
I bring it up to date in a solemn

trivial rite, as if the recent past
were mastered like the latest

headlines, as if, once and for all,
I could get things under control

by jotting them down on this hurtling train…

The poem offers a characteristic blend of self-examination and what feels like a classically trained sense of beauty, clarity and proportion. There is something Bergman-esque about Romer’s work, though we’re talking Wild Strawberries rather than The Seventh Seal: the poems often seem mysteriously imbued with a sense of existential angst that never fully declares itself.

Romer is a master at capturing the bitter­sweet, rueful glance over the shoulder. “Suddenly” is about finally pulling free of a painful break-up – until the ending makes us suspect that this is wishful thinking: “I am no longer waiting. I could greet you,/and go about my business,/now that I have some business./We could even reminisce. A breeze!”

The book’s 13 new poems show Romer’s work growing more subtly and mysteriously affecting as his subjects become more elegiac: “The gardens, bereaved of our mothers/breathe gently under grey in the sadness/of the morning, and tranquilly they overrun/bounds of the former dispensation.” With the lightest of touches, Romer sounds out the language, matching music and association. 

Paul Batchelor is the author of the poetry collections “The Sinking Road” (Bloodaxe) and “The Love Darg” (Clutag Press) 

The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx
Tara Bergin
Carcanet, 88pp, £9.99

Kingdom of Gravity
Nick Makoha
Peepal Tree, 82pp, £8.99

Set Thy Love in Order: New and Selected Poems
Stephen Romer
Carcanet, 168pp, £12.99

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This article appears in the 18 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions