Annal: 2009 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry

Results of the T.S. Eliot Prize in the year 2009.

Book:The Water Table

The Water Table

Philip Gross

A powerful and ambiguous body of water lies at the heart of these poems, with shoals and channels that change with the forty-foot tide. Philip Gross’s meditations move with subtle steps between these shifting grounds and those of the man-made world, the ageing body, and that ever-present mystery, the self. Admirers of his work know each new collection is a new stage; this one marks a crossing new clarity and depth.
Book:The Burning of the Books and Other Poems

The Burning of the Books: and Other Poems

George Szirtes

The title-poem of George Szirtes’ The Burning of the Books and Other Poems is the core of this collection of narrative sequences by a writer who came to Britain as a child refugee after the Hungarian Uprising. Book burning is often associated with the Nazis’ actions in 1933, but the practice has a long history, right down to our own day. In this particular case the burning refers to the library of Kien, the scholar in Elias Canetti’s novel Auto da F. The poems follow and expand from the events of Canetti’s book in a variety of forms not previously used by Szirtes.

Book:Continental Shelf

Continental Shelf

Fred D'Aguiar

From memories of a childhood in Guyana through an elegiac exploration of the shootings at Virginia Tech University in 2006, this poetry collection journeys from youth to maturing and from continent to continent. Celebrating individuals and the histories embedded in places, this compilation recollects the smell of bitumen, the local hero who came in last in the National Cycle Championship, and the 33 unique individuals who perished in Virginia. Powerful and intimate, this examination argues that alongside grief there is still delight in the world.

Book:One Secret Thing

One Secret Thing

Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds completes her cycle of family poems in a book at once intense and harmonic, playful with language, and rich with a new self-awareness and sense of irony.

The opening poem, with its sequence of fearsome images of war, serves as a prelude to poems of home in which humor, anger, and compassion sing together with lyric energy—sometimes comic, sometimes filled with a kind of unblinking forgiveness. These songs of joy and danger—public and private—illuminate one another. As the book unfolds, the portrait of the mother goes through a moving revisioning, leading us to a final series of elegies of hard-won mourning. One Secret Thing is charged throughout with Sharon Olds’s characteristic passion, imagination, and poetic power.

The doctor on the phone was young, maybe on his…[more]
Book:Over (Jane Draycott)

Over

Jane Draycott

The third full collection of poetry from a critically acclaimed British poet begins with a series of 26 poems based on the International Phonetic Alphabet. From there, the poems travel to a variety of locales, including a California ravine, a Venice piazza, the Atlantic Ocean, and outer space. An extract from a new translation of the medieval dream-vision Pearl is also included. Focusing on the themes of love, time, myth, and history, this highly anticipated collection explores the diversity of thought and landscape through the voice and reflection of a distinctively female perspective.

Book:A Scattering

A Scattering

Christopher Reid

Lucinda Gane, Christopher Reid’s wife, died in October 2005. A Scattering is his tribute to her and consists of four poetic sequences, the first written during her illness, and the other three at intervals after her death. A Scattering is described by Adam Newey in The Guardian as “A beautiful book... [that] performs the miracle of bringing the dead back to life.”

Book:The Sun-fish

The Sun-fish

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

The Sun-fish, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, reinforces convictions that Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s transforming and transporting ways of seeing are like no other: silk scarves fly at her face ‘like a car wash’; there’s the ‘whisper of a cashmere sleeve’, the nuns’ ‘leathery kiss’ and a lighthouse ‘scraping the sea with its beam’.

By now familiar motifs—waves, tides, dividing lines, arches and doorways, journeys, a high tower and water, water everywhere, reprise previous effects and reach forward into new domains. Poems about men and the men in her family, a “woman’s story and the stories of women”, elegies, homages and her family’s history, are developed through mist or the gap in a tale. Other poems tease out the tricks of light, at dawn or dusk, to open the lock of language.

The title sequence is both alluring and hypnotic. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s poetry is one of the marvels of our time.

Book:Through the Square Window

Through the Square Window

Sinéad Morrissey

Sinéad Morrissey’s fourth collection explores fertility, pregnancy, and the landscape of early childhood in poems that are by turns tender, exuberant and unsettling. Pitched against the envious dead, these diverse narratives of birth and its consequences are rooted in literary and historical contexts—from Aristotle’s theory of spontaneous generation to Lewis Carroll’s Alice—that amplify her theme. Infancy is for Morrissey the rich and contested territory in which what it means to be human in a precarious world is disclosed.

Book:Weeds and Wild Flowers

Weeds and Wild Flowers

Alice Oswald, Jessica Hagerman

Weeds and Wild Flowers is a magical meeting of the poems of Alice Oswald and the etchings of Jessica Greenman. Within its pages, everyday flora take on an extraordinary life, jostling tragically at times, at times comically, for a foothold in a busying world. Stunningly visualised and skilfully animated, this imaginative collaboration beckons us toward a landscape of botanical characters, and invites us to see ourselves among them.

Book:West End Final

West End Final

Hugo Williams

Hugo Williams’ new collection summons the poet’s past selves in order of appearance, as in an autobiography, showing in poems as clear as rock pools that the plain truth is only as plain as the props and make-up needed to stage it. Childhood and school time offer up the amateur theatricals of themselves, in poems of vertiginous retrospect; other poems itemize the professional selves of the poet’s actor-father Hugh Williams (by now as familiar and frequently depicted as Cezanne’s mountain), while the narrator—‘waiting to step into my father’s shoes as myself’—teases out the paradoxes of identity and inheritance. After this searching portraiture of the poet’s parents, the chronology opens onto the broad secular thoroughfares of adulthood, including a limpid arrangement of pillow poems which tell the same erotic bedtime story in twelve different ways. Other poems strike out decisively along roads not taken: meticulous misremembering, sinister and fecklessly unfinished narratives about the parallel…[more]

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