Poetry books

22nd January 1999 at 00:00
In the final poem of her new collection, the Romanian poet Nina Cassian imagines the process of "youthing" in which "your skin gets smootheryour appetites increase" and "that dream of death becomes more and more remote". It is an apt poem for a writer, who, after 40 years at the forefront of the Romanian literary scene, was forced in 1985 to take on a new country and a new language and, after a struggle that made "Hercules (seem) a honey child", found renewal.

Take My Word For It (Anvil pound;7.95) is not just a new collection of translations: many of the poems were conceived and written in English. While some poems render her wide-ranging, sometimes surreal images with a translator's stiffness, others, particularly her love poems, play with English sounds and rhymes with the exuberance which, judging by her Romanian version of "The Jabberwocky", she enjoyed her native tongue.

Though Elizabeth Jennings has never been in exile, she has also suffered a series of dislocating "storms". Her latest collection, Praises (Carcanet pound;6.95), shows that she also has arrived, through her Christian faith, at celebration - though her carefully formal meditations on faith and childhood in an English landscape contrast wildly with Cassian's erotic epiphanies.

In Five Fields (Carcanet pound;6.95), Gillian Clarke is briefly shaken out of her native Wales in a series of poems written in Manchester. Mostly though, the poems are on familiar Clarke territory: fields where small violences remind the poet of larger disasters, rooms where "Cut Glass" is full of memories of her lost mother, a garden where the crops are markers of lost generations.

Clarke's poems are always clearly and forcefully rendered, never hesitating to drop into plain-speaking to make her liberal message clear.

Paul Muldoon's new collection, Hay (Faber pound;7.99), though it is also concerned with time, ageing and the pivotal moments of a life, is, by contrast, lucid, diffuse and wilfully oblique. Muldoon's life is represented through his record collection, his love poems encompass everything from the "Song of Songs" to Wordsworth's "Prelude", the poet becomes "his own stunt double" and disappears into a metaphor of Siamese twins, and "The Point" is not Yeats's Thor Baylee sword but the pencil that his "classroom foe O'Clery I rammed into my thigh I with such force that the point was broken off".

That is, the point is in the serendipitous puns, errata, cross-references, misreadings, which allow Muldoon's language to be read sideways, like his concrete poems, and live and echo in the mind.

Carol Ann Duffy may yet have the final word on women, exile and ageing. In The Pamphlet (Anvil pound;5), she offers tasters of her new dramatic monologues: there's Mrs Faust, Mrs Icarus, a Queen - each with her own astonishing narrative and distinctive rhythm - and best of all, Circe, dealing with exile with a vigour to warm Nina Cassian's robust heart: "I was younger then. And hoping for menNow, let us baste that sizzling pig on the spit once again".

Kate Clanchy

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