Last week, the Poetry Book Society in the U.K. announced the winner of the 2014 T.S. Eliot Prize, given to an original work published in English in Ireland and the United Kingdom. It’s Britain’s most prestigious poetry award; this year, winning the prize meant 20, 000 pounds (about $35, 000); the 10 shortlisted poets got 1, 500 pounds. The T.S. Eliot Estate has become the sole sponsor of the prize.
This year’s winner was David Harsent for Fire Songs; this is also the fifth year Harsent has made the short list. The competition was strong; seven of the nominees had been shortlisted for the prize before, and three of them had actually won it. One of the three previous winners was Hugo Williams; he was nominated for the 2014 prize for I Knew the Bride, his eleventh collection of poetry.
I had just finished reading I Knew the Bride when I read about the prize winners. If Harsent’s work could beat the volume by Williams, it must be something extraordinary, because I Knew the Bride is marvelous.
The poems in the collection are roughly divided into those that look backward and those that focus on the immediate. They are at once beautiful and provocative; 18 of the poems are grouped together as “From the Dialysis Ward.” Poets have written about dealing serious illness, but I’ve rarely seen the jagged beauty I find in these 18.
This is the poetry of pain, sharp pain, sometimes met with despair and sometimes with humor, but always with the determination to get through it. Williams is suffering from kidney disease, and has been on another kind of list – a list for a transplant. That’s why, perhaps, the dialysis poems also convey a sense of urgency. (He was unable to attend the prize ceremony because he was recovering from the operation.)
If I’m Early
Every other day I follow the route
of the Midland Railway
to where it cuts through
St. Pancras Old Church Cemetery.
I might go into the church
and heave a sigh or two
before continuing via a gate
set in the cemetery wall
to the Mary Rankin Wing
of St. Pancras Hospital.
As a young man, Thomas Hardy
supervised the removal of bodies
from part of the cemetery
to make way for the trains.
He placed the headstones
round an ash tree sapling,
now grown tall, where I stop sometimes
to look at the stones
crowding around the old tree
like children listening to a story.
That image – the headstones crowding around “like children listening to a story” – is a kind of signature for Williams. He excels at creating images like that, images that startle and grab you by the throat until you realize how exactly right they are. Even immortality, he suggests, is not permanent.
The title poem, “I Knew the Bride, ” is about his younger sister, Polly, who died from cancer in 2004. It’s a longish poem, and makes much about the idea of hair; he’s taking on his sister’s journey from childhood to death and he punctuates it with references to her hair, including the loss of it at the end of her life. But it finishes with an image that takes your breath away. Here, the actor and singer Jeremy Clyde (one half of the 1960s singing duo Chad & Jeremy and a friend of Williams since early childhood) reads both this poem and one of the dialysis poems at the T.S. Eliot Prize ceremony (the reading of the poem starts at about the 3:00 mark).
The heart cries out at this, and indeed at all of the poems in this collection.
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