Catherine Byron relishes the death-defying roller-coaster ride offered by Carol Ann Duffy's choice of poems that face the final curtain
Stopping For Death: Poems of Death and Loss. Selected by Carol Ann Duffy. Viking Pounds 8.99.
An anthology that is as unputdownable as a thriller? A poetry anthology? Stopping for Death is that rare thing, a collection of poems by 70 different poets (plus three by Anon) that is a page-turner. As a straight read-through, it is extraordinary; dipped into, it is ensnaring, inspiring.
Even when poems that are in it remind me of unmissable poems that are not - the usual reviewer's gripe with anthologies - I find I am filled with gratitude for the reminders. Henry Normal's regret at never seeing "a hearse with fluffy dice" takes me off to my poetry shelves to root out Kit Wright's "Bump-starting the Hearse". Vicky Raymond's zany archaeology in "Beaker Burial (To be sung wistfully, in the style of the late Bud Flanagan)" sends me to Frances Horovitz's prescient last poems. Thank you, Stopping for Death: you have started so many poetic hares for me, and then taken me right back on board.
"Because I could not stop for DeathHe kindly stopped for me The Carriage held but just ourselves And Immortality." It is Emily Dickinson's poem that gives the book its title, and its whole-poem, six-stanza epigraph - a brilliant start, and one that sets up the anthology's roller-coaster ride up and down this, the most tremendous topic of them all.
Carol Ann Duffy, recently voted the listening public's favourite living poet - by a poll less publicised than the one that came up with "If" as the nation's favourite poem - has a deep generosity in her own work, and a delight in particularities of voice. Rarely have I felt so keenly the advantage of having a fine poet take me by the hand through her reading. She has gathered here the work of others with an eye and ear and soul as alert as in her own writing.
As in my other favourite anthology, The Rattle Bag (edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes), the poems are arranged alphabetically, but this time by surname of poet, rather than title of poem. This helps greatly with the practicality of the book as a resource for teaching at all levels of age or expectation; mysteriously, perhaps because these anthologies are the work of our finest poets, the alphabetical, apparently arbitrary ordering of poems makes for heartstopping serendipities of juxtaposition.
Stopping for Death opens with John Agard's poem for the widow and children of Walter Rodney, victim of a car bomb in Guyana. Three poems by three very different Anons follow hard on its heels, irreverent, wry, and timeless. At the heart of the book a cluster of poems, by poets whose names just happen to start with L, M and N ponder one after another the right time and place to die, the wake, and the funeral that will follow. From Michael Longley's "detour Down the single street of a small market town...face to face with grubby parsnips,Cauliflowers that glitter after a sun shower," to Grace Nichols' "fat black woman['s] brilliant tropical death ...In the bloom of her people's bloodrest" to Roger McGough's "Let Me Die a Youngman's Death", and several more, this cluster forms a mini-anthology within the seamless whole.
The pen drawings by Trisha Rafferty, and her cover painting, are some of the finest and most integral illustrations I have come across in a poetry collection. At first sight, the presence of at least one drawing on every double-page spread suggests this book is designed for children, though there is no statement to this effect. I'm glad. This is a book for everyone, a source and resource book of personal and professional nourishment for all of us engaged in what Keats called "this Vale of soul-making".
I've had to prise my review copy back, temporarily, from a colleague who is running a writing project in a young offenders' institution. One of us will have to buy a copy - or several, so we can share this find with the world.