REVIEW: The Europeans – David Clarke & Shrines of Upper Austria – Phoebe Power

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No doubt the poets of the future will look back on the era we currently suffer through and wonder how any of us wrote any poems at all, let alone ones about politics. The ongoing and ever-evolving horrors of Brexit have infused themselves into our lives almost completely and I would find it impossible to write about a subject so contentious, difficult, and evolving every day. These two poets have written interesting, intriguing and passionate books with Europe as their central theme, in these books we travel out towards dark Austrian lakes and back again to dodgy and dingy British pubs in the rain.

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“And yet we cannot fault the service
in the Hotel Europa.”

The Europeans – David Clarke

Published by Nine Arches Press {Link}

“The Europeans
had much to say of poetry and much silence to say it into.

I became convinced they knew something
they would not tell me, but I did not dare
to ask the veterans on the parched square”

 – The Europeans

David Clarke’s second collection probes the politics of English and European identity from a variety of angles. The collection explores these ideas from a particularly working class “non-metropolian” perspective which at times views the continent with suspicion and exoticism.

Travel is a major concern in the collection, and Europe itself is often seen as a hotel, in the opening poem:

“And yet we cannot fault the service
in the Hotel Europa. Even though it’s just after
or before a war and long-retired
waiters have been pressed back into the ranks

of the white gloved.”

– An Invitation

In this poem we see the community of the European Union as a Hotel, something European Nationals buy into like a service, which works as efficiently as it can, built as it was in the chaos of Post-World War Two Europe. This poem enjoyably captures a relaxed and intriguing continental atmosphere. Clarke is adept at turning phrases and bringing surprise into the poems.

In the poem “The Europeans” quoted at the beginning of this section, Clarke explores the idea of Europe as the standard bearer for culture, placing isolationist Englishness as a counterpoint to this. The idea of Europe as a cultured and free place is explored against the constrained and uncultured Englishness that the poet experiences in their daily life.

The pub is a symbol of Englishness that the poet keeps returning to, “In the Snug” takes on Far Right attitudes, and, seemingly, Nigel Farage:

“Little man, you are my grinning birthright,
frog-faced in your better bookie’s coat.
You lean against the ale-damp bar of England

and stroke the giggling landlady’s chubby hand,
Cooing words that stick in bigot’s throats.”

-In the Snug

If the Hotel is the poet’s metaphor for the European community, efficient, interesting and liberal, the Pub is poet’s metaphor for Englishness, isolated, bigoted, intoxicated and divorced from reality. Alongside Pubs, the rain is a consistent theme and an easy shorthand for a lot of English experience. It’s not all bad though, in one of the closing poems of the collection “Land of Rain” Clarke explores a nostalgic view of rain and a desire to return to those earlier memories, even if they were rainy.

The poems in this collection have a confidence that one would expect from a second collection. I enjoyed the questions it was asking of the reader and it was commendable that the poet decided to explore these big ideas, however in exploring this big ideas and the anger surrounding them, I felt the poems themselves lacked an emotional engagement, outside of the anger that runs through the collection. There were a handful of personal moments, but overall the book was about exploring these large questions about Englishness and Europeanness, ultimately though enjoyable, I feel the collection could have done more to explore the poet’s personal connection with the subject matter.

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“if you wanted you could stay / till the flame burned down.”

Shrines of Upper Austria – Phoebe Power

Published by Carcanet {Link}

“There’s a Schloss in the town
I’m living in, named for
my constituency

‘Cumberland, a lake-rich
county of England’,
where I vote by proxy”

-In and Out of Europe

In Phoebe Power’s debut collection, which won the Forward Prize for best first collection, and was also nominated for the T.S. Eliot Prize, there are an incredible array of poetry on display. We see and hear the Austria of today through a poet travelling through the region, the Austria and the Britain of the past through the voice of a grandmother who married a British soldier after the Second World War. The collection also brings in themes of climate change as a contemporary concern and the deep cultural connections between the UK and Austria, through similarities in language and the Schloss Cumberland which is mentioned twice in the collection:

“it’s a fake fairy castle
like disney logo

there’s one bit that’s old
curly locks on the door
white roses im Garten

goats who spoke to me loudly
and a hidden lake.”

-Schloss Cumberland

Like the Americanised ideal of the European castle that the Disney company built outside of Paris, during earlier moments in European cultural history, people have brought ideas from other places and these have been successfully transplanted and warmly received until their foreignness is not even seen any longer. This is one of the many subtle ways that Power brings forward the argument of unity within Europe.

As a German speaker I gained an enormous amount of pleasure from the use of German within the poems, especially using words which have shared roots in both languages. The use of “Garten” in the above quote does this perfectly, we can see from the context and the sonic similarities that “Garten” means Garden and using the German word instead stresses our shared linguistic history and makes the reader feel that they are participating in this other language as they read the poems. For me, this use of language added an extra level of enjoyment as I could feel the different words working together well, I appreciate however that those who do not speak German might find the use of the language in line amongst English with no demarcation of difference a little strange and that this might take readers out of the moment somewhat. A recurring word in the collection is “See” meaning lake. It is easy for readers to connect the German word with the English “Sea”. In a way this particular choice of bringing in the German word, gives the lakes a larger presence, linking it to the English word “Sea”. The lakes of Cumberland are contained in some way, but the huge See of Upper Austria seem to ebbe and flow more like the open water of a sea. There is a glossary of words and phrases at the back of the collection, giving it another function as a phrase book of sorts, if you’re travelling in Austria and keen to go to a Konditorei (cake shop) for Kaffee-Kuchen (coffee and cake) the book will be useful.

The sequence “from A Tour of Shrines of Upper Austria” gives us a series of impressionistic poems describing the religious shrines. Each one is a small and detailed world in itself (much like the poems in the whole collection) and we gain not only a sense of the places themselves but also of the traveller discovering them:

“Behind, the painting:
Mary gets a crown, ascension.
seven stars of straw
tucked in the top iron frame.

first I’ll draw
then photograph

if you wanted you could stay
till the flame burned down.

I have to kneel
inside to take a good picture”

-“From A Tour of Shrines of Upper Austria”

The shrines are beautiful, idiosyncratic places, each putting its own local customs and saints on display. Each shrine is like it’s own little member state of a union, welcoming  visitors, with a shared belief but also a variety of interpretations.

This sequence happens early on in the collection as a way of opening up the door for the grandmother to appear, the voice of someone who grew up in Austria, but moved to Britain after World War Two. Through the collection we gain an ever deeper sense of the relationship between the grandmother and the poet (there are two voices present in many of these grandmother poems). This sort of personal exploration is bold and exciting to explore as a reader. It’s a beautiful way of documenting a past which generations currently living feel ever more distant from and gives the contemporary exploration of Austria more purpose and poignancy.

Reading the collection is a breathtaking and eclectic experience. This book deserves the high praise in prizes and nominations it received. Like the shrines that give the book its title, the poems are idiosyncratic, intriguing, emotional and important.

Books reviewed:
The Europeans – David Clarke
Published by Nine Arches Press {Link}
Shrines of Upper Austria – Phoebe Power 
Published by Carcanet {Link}
Books photographed by reviewer on backdrop of the book: Maps by Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski {Link}
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