Life well-versed in rhyme and reason;Poetry books

20th August 1999 at 01:00
Kate Clanchy finds the only end-of-the-century anthology you'll need, and, below, Sian Hughes reports back from minefields of emotion

Where did rhyming get its reputation for easy reading? Rhyme is tortuous the way life is tortuous, throwing coincidences across our tongue, encrusting each line with reference points until every railway station, flavour of ice-cream or chain store connects to countless other sounds.

As Sophie Hannah's "In Wokingham on Boxing Day at the Edinburgh Woollen Mill" makes explicit: "Chains are the most distressing shops. They crop up everywhere." That is why I love Hannah's poetry: her rhyming is as convoluted and densely patterned as her subjects are intractable.

Fans of Hannah's first two books will be pleased to find Leaving and Leaving You (Carcanet pound;6.95) rich in her favourite themes, of impossible love and obsession, handled with an awareness of human lunacy in these matters that never strays from the compassionate.

"Minus Fingers" is a characteristic list, with all the fluent trickery we have come to expect, turning the material of its first section ("What stylists, after wash and cut, Do to their client's hair") on a pivot that converts them all to Falstaffian insults: "You've got no notes to make a tune, No fragile fluid spheres To demonstrate how fast, how soon Everything disappears." None of this arms us against the final chilling image - not simply the less-than nothing promised by the title (the reverse of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways"), but the fist implied by the counting down of fingers to a closed hand.

Amanda Dalton's first full-length collection, How To Disappear (Bloodaxe pound;6.95), centres on a sequence of poems that tell the story of a modern day Miss Havisham, whose response to a wedding day let-down is to live the remainder of her life in a precarious nest of umbrellas in her garden, decorated with wedding gifts and eggs.

Those who heard the broadcast version of this extraordinary story last October on Radio 4 will be pleased to find the printed version no less direct and effective. The success of this piece, as with many of the poems here, lies in the straightforward telling of uncomfortably credible horror stories. There is the man who is afraid of artificial light, the one that claims too often not to be afraid of stairs, the almost fisherman's tale of a death joke we are almost told. Described as reminiscent of "ghost writing", Dalton's work occasionally opens the curtain on a piece of dialogue - such as the list of useful lies in the title poem: "I love you. I'll be back in half an hour. I'm fine." - and the ghosts materialise in full colour.

Where Hannah answers the tangled miseries of everyday life with complex internal argument and layering of sounds, Dalton looks in the face of despair and tells its story with unnerving calm. Both at their best can move through minefields of emotion with instinctive grace. Close the books and you can still smell the gunpowder.

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