Results of the Costa Book Award in the year 2006.
Letter to Patience is a book-length poem in iambic pentameter, set in “Patience’s Parlour” a small, mud-walled bar in northern Nigeria in 1993—a time of political unrest.The writer of the letter has returned to Britain, with his Nigerian wife and children, to nurse his dying father.
He writes to Patience, the bar’s owner, a woman in her 30s who once lectured in politics at Ahmadu Bello University, across the main road from her bar. She gave up her job partly because of junta pressures on radical academics.The town is volatile—the bar was attacked by the so-called Ayatollahs and would have been burnt had it not backed onto the property of her Hausa landlord.
There are also thoughtful and elegant digressions thrown up by the multiple narratives. The book is not merely biography or an essay on colonialism and post-colonialism, it is an epic portrayal of a beautiful and troubled country and one man’s search for meaning in difficult times.
Split between dark and light, this book records the dichotomy of human experience with unflinching force and clarity. It deals with break-up, depression, illness and death. But it also reveals an intense involvement with nature and a capacity for healing and love. There are intimate personal poems reflecting on relationships with people and creatures; poems which enter the lives of real and imaginary characters, Keats and Medea and Blodeuwedd, for example; and also poems which engage with paintings and political events.
Set in a territory which connects child with adult, myth with reality, the personal with the universal, the book shows a poet fully open to the richness and possibilities of the world but also aware of its violence and pain, not as a remote observer but as someone who is a part of it.
Dear Room is a worthy successor to Billy’s Rain (1999), whose preoccupations and occasions it continues and ramifies, charting the “angles, signals, orders, murmurs, sighs” of love, separation and loss. With grave good humour, ruefully exact timing and a scruple reminiscent of Thomas Hardy, these poems register the goodbye look of things, and ponder the difference between a good memory and an inability to forget. By turns candid, caustic and drastically self-accusing, the many tenses and afterlives of desire are parsed—in sawn-off monologues, short stories in verse, thumbnail dramas, splintery photographs. In poem after poem Hugo Williams joins a sense of things missed and missing to a redemptive act of imaginative capture, and Dear Room uncovers an ethics of the present, reminding us in the words of Philip Larkin that “days are where we live”.
Seamus Heaney’s new collection starts “In an age of bare hands and cast iron” and ends as “The automatic lock / clunks shut” in the eerie new conditions of a menaced twenty-first century. In their haunted, almost visionary clarity, the poems assay the weight and worth of what has been held in the hand and in the memory. Images out of a childhood spent safe from the horrors of World War II—railway sleepers, a sledgehammer, the “heavyweight / Silence” of “Cattle out in rain”—are colored by a strongly contemporary sense that “Anything can happen,” and other images from the dangerous present—a journey on the Underground, a melting glacier—are fraught with this same anxiety.
But District and Circle, which includes a number of prose poems and translations, offers resistance as the poet gathers his staying powers and stands his ground in the hiding places of love and excited language. In a sequence like “The Tollund…[more]