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Katherine Venn’s Holiday Poetry Reads

08/07/2013

Poetry is perfect to take on holiday, or travelling generally: something to be dipped into, pondered while staring at the sky, chewed over slowly, read aloud to the person flopped onto the grass next to you… or perhaps just to anchor you in calmness while the plane takes off.

Simply because of its length – it’s a mighty 252 pages – a few years ago I took Alice Major’s The Office Tower Tales on holiday to France, where I simultaneously devoured it and fought off my family’s attempts to wrest it from me. I’d recommend it to anyone looking to try out poetry as some summer reading both because of its size and weight – you’ll feel like you’re reading an airport thriller – and because it has such a strong narrative pull, which might be helpful if you’re usually a bit wary of poetry.

The central conceit of the book is that, in a sort-of reworking of the One Thousand and One Nights and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, three office-workers – Aphrodite from reception, Pandora from accounting and Scheherezade from public relations – meet at their break to drink coffee, eat muffins and talk about their lives. There are seventeen tales in total, each with a prologue that sets the scene and introduces both the three central women and the things they’re concerned about; some of the tales also have an epilogue.

It’s a brilliant idea and superbly executed; each tale is by turns moving, comic, wistful, tragic – and each feels like an utterly true evocation of white-collar working women at the end of the twentieth century. I loved how the writing was deeply real and honest while at the same time incredibly poetic, riffing around unexpectedly beautiful, interlinked images. I also appreciated how Aphrodite, Pandora and Scheherezade were not at all just a conceit, but very real, central characters – as hackneyed as it sounds, I was sad to say goodbye to them at the end of the book.

My brother picked this up on the first day of our holiday, and said that it was the only poetry to have engaged him since Simon Armitage (high praise for him, not much of a poetry reader); so although it is, as my mum pointed out, very much written about women and their concerns, its appeal isn’t limited. I would recommend this book to pretty much anyone, whether interested in poetry or not – it’s that good, and that accessible. And of course if you’re a convinced poetry reader, getting to know Alice Major (if you don’t already) is going to be a real treat.

Here are the first three stanzas to the opening prologue:

April’s entrance. A city on the plains
gives frost the silver brush-off, lays
its welcome mat for pilgrim robins.
The planet’s orbit spins into the phase
of northern warmth

like a coffee mug revolving
slightly off-centre in a microwave,
absorbing heat into its porcelain bones —
morning sun the caffeine we all crave.
Black-billed magpies,

rhomboids with long tails, usher spring
along the green carpet of the river
like resident Black Rods. April scripts
her throne speech, while leafing alder
rustles sceptres.

Come to think of it, I don’t think my mum’s ever returned my copy of this …

And this summer, when I head off to Dorset, I’ll be taking Philip Gross’s Deep Field, which has been languishing on my shelves unread for an embarrassingly long time. Philip’s a mesmerising reader (and a wonderful human being) and I’ve been a fan since a friend gave me one of his earliest collections when I was a teenager. The last collection of his I read, The Water Table (which won the T S Eliot in 2009), was everything you could want from poetry: musicality, precision, a sense of time and place, an expansive vision – in fact, that’d be a perfect one to take on holiday too, especially anywhere watery. But dammit, it appears to have disappeared from my shelves as well, and so this year it’s Deep Field’s turn.

Katherine Venn is co-ordinator of the literature programme for Greenbelt Arts Festival. She blogs at settheweatherfair.wordpress.com.

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