New blues, new rhythms

15th September 2000 at 01:00
HOW TO AVOID KISSING YOUR PARENTS IN PUBLIC. By Lindsay MacRae. Puffin, pound;3.99. THE WORLD IS SWEET. By Valerie Bloom. Bloomsbury Children's Books, pound;6.99. WICKED WORLD! By Benjamin Zephaniah. Puffin pound;4.99. TALKING DRUMS. Edited by Veronique Tadjo. Aamp;C Black, pound;9.99. THE AMMONITE'S REVENGE. By John Cotton and Fred Sedgwick

Tricky Sam, pound;1.50 (from 52 Melbourne Road, Ipswich, Suffolk IP4 5PP)

With a title suggestive of Woody Allen in junior mode and a zany cover design to match, Lindsay MacRae's new collection is an engaging successor to her previous You Canny Shove Yer Granny off a Bus! (more Billy Connolly, that). It's a most accomplished collection, full of surprises and carefully arranged changes of mood. Although it has its fair share of versified throw-away jokes leading up to punchlines signalled by the deliberate collapse of rhyme, you turn the page only to discover a poignant and memorable poem about subjects such as a family funeral, a grandmother's loss of memory, or a child's-eye view of its single mum's succession of boyfriends or uncles, handled with real sensitivity. At the heart of How to Avoid Kissing Your Parents in Public is the offer, through poetry, of hope and reassurance: "I am the story's happy endI am the lamp left on at night.". A particularly fine poem, "Father's Day", addresses the situation of limited access ("It's about eating ice cream really - as he wanders the street with you weeping And you'd like to weep too But you can't.") As another poem asks, "Will we see the funny side?Laugh when times get tough?" and the answer implied is Yes, though with full and intimate knowledge of the pain. Lindsay MacRae has the gift of applying a lightness of touch without making light of her subject matter.

Valerie Bloom has that magic touch which, as another poet once described it, can make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. Several of her poems in The World is Sweet are in a Jamaican dialect that combines a natural lyricism with an infectious beat, but this is far from being the only measure of her freshness. The "occasionalapostropheOf despair" which bubbles from a goldfish's mouth, from its "O sad as tears", is typical of her imaginative accuracy, while her "Snake" is a match for any word gamester: "Sneaky Mr. Forked tongue Twrd. Caught my Sr. When he Kr. Gave her a Blr."

Benjamin Zephaniah is a one-man rhythm section, and the poems in his new collection, Wicked World! exploit the full resources of the title's adjective from injustice to mischievous relish. Many of them celebrate international variety, diverse cultures, and universal brotherhood. "The British" is literally a recipe for "unity, understanding and respect" to "serve with justice' after allowing time for the mix of nationalities to "be cool".

In the main, Zephaniah's delivery moves to a fast, insistent beat, but Wicked World! also contains a few impressively quieter, particularly arresting, moments. The historicalpolitical parable "Whosland", for example, ends with thought-provoking irony: "'What did you call this land before we arrived?' said the captain 'Ours said the village elder, 'Ours'."

There's just space to recommend two other very different but equally attractive collections. Talking Drums, Veronique Tadjo's selection from Africa south of the Sahara, illustrated by herself, offers an excellent range of real poems - some incantatory and riddlingly playful and others, particularly in the hard-hitting last section, a mix of anger, disenchantment and tenacious hope - which, like all the best poetry, will extend its young readers' imaginative horizons.

John Cotton and Fred Sedgwick are two good poets whose appearance in anthologies always ensures quality. Although The Ammonite's Revenge is a stapled pamphlet, its 27 pages offer more than many bulkier collections and are full of delights.

Typical, in its deceptive simplicity, is John Cotton's "Waiting for a Letter": "Nothing in the mail box, Nothing through the door, Only a rusting spider That was there before." "Rusting" is so absolutely right, and being absolutely right in that way is what poetry is about.

John Mole

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