Poetry

19th January 2001 at 00:00
CROSS-PHASE. The Oldest Girl in the World. By Carol Ann Duffy. Faber - pound;4.99.

POINTS OF VIEW WITH PROFESSOR PEEKABOO. By John Agard. the Bodley Head. pound;9.99.

LET ME TOUCH THE SKY: selected poems for children. By Valerie Bloom. Macmillan. pound;9.99.

It's just over a year since Carol Ann Duffy's first collection for children, Meeting Midnight, was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children's Book of the Year award, a rare achievement for a poet and a measure of the regard in which she is held as a writer for adults.

Her latest book, The Oldest Girl in the World, is the title that really deserves to be nominated. Unlike its uneven predecessor, it is completely in tune with the imagination of childhood.

Entirely contemporary, it is inhabited by the characters and properties of folklore, a rich compendium in which the traditional informs the up-to-the-minute demotic: "I saw a Giantess,tall as a tree You'll do for a doll, she bellowed, just the toy for me!Into the box! Scream hard! Scream long! I stared at her mad pond eyes then skipped away.Dream on..."

Those "mad pond eyes" are typical of Duffy's way with the exact suggestive phrase, the sudden dramatic frisson, just as the syncopation of that short extract demonstrates her gift for breathing new life into the old forms of ballad and chant.

There are also several narrative fantasies, my favourite being "The Babysitter" in which "a sparky little girl called Bobbie B May" finds her prayer that Elvis Presley should come to babysit answered in time for Christmas. Lucky Duffy, too, to have the talented Market Prachatick as her illustrator. The engaging collaboration between poet John Agard and illustrator Satoshi Kitamura continues in Points of View with Professor Peekaboo. The professor is a zany eco-philosopher, a savant of the surreal, and tirelessly committed to his eccentric fieldwork.

Zen wisdom ("Familiarity with a yo-yo breeds respect for the law of gravity"), relish for the given world ("Thank youlittle thingsthat enchantthe bigger view") and simultaneous enquiry into the identity of nature and the nature of identity ("O answersare follywhen questions bring bliss ... Without questions, can I exist?") combine in an often funny, inventive and rhythmically set of poems linked by a continuous narrative.

Valerie Bloom's Let Me Touch the Sky is a jamboree to be relished for its rhythm, colour and community spirit. It's full of clap-your-hands, get-up-and-dance poems, many of them in Jamaican dialect (there's a glossary) and dealing humorously with the fun, routines and minor tribulations of family life as in the delightful "Haircut Rap": "Well, ah feel me heart stop beatin'When ah look pon me reflection,Ah feel like somet'ing frizzle upRight in me middle section."

A poem like "The Aviary" shows that Valerie Bloom can also write well in a more traditionally descriptive vein without any loss of energy, and some of her four-line squibs are likely to receive the mock groan of delighted approval: "Henry the Eighth had six wives,The reason was quite strange,It wasn't that he loved them all,He just loved to chop and change." Boom Bloom!

JOHN MOLE


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