The Norwich leg of the tour was opened by Martin Figura who started with poems related to water (in celebration of this year’s National Poetry Day theme). These poems were taken from his recent pamphlet Arthur, a narrative sequence about a boy ‘born between the wars in 1923’. He followed this with a poem entitled ‘Failure’ written in the specular form invented by Julia Copus. What was particularly impressive about Figura’s take was that the form was unobtrusive and the emotional resonance of the piece relied on the repetition. Figura also read a series of new poems based on the idea of machines (‘The Difference Machine’, ‘The Machinery of Government’, ‘Life Support Machine’ etc) that, taken together, built a wonderful sense of anticipation for Figura’s future publications. As well as these there were also poems from the collections Whistle and Ahem which walked the line between levity and gravity that Figura has made his signature in recent years.
Sean Borodale prefaced his reading by saying that he didn’t plan on writing Bee Journal, the book that was shortlisted for the 2012 T S Eliot Prize, but when he went to collect the bees they became an obsession that spilled over into his writing. The poem that reflects on this process ‘24th May: Collecting The Bees’ is suffused with the wonder and passion that was evident across the entire reading as Borodale read entries from the journal covering different points in the life of the hive (stopping now and then to share information about the life of a beekeeper). There was an immediacy to the work, likely a product of the fact that Borodale writes ‘on location in the spirit of documentary’, that was breathtaking.
Helen Ivory read from her most recent collection Waiting For Bluebeard. She began by speaking a little about the historic moment that informs the book and reading ‘Moon Landing’ a poem that examines the era immediately preceding the author’s birth:
‘My pregnant mother watches with the millions
in their front rooms as she waits
but I will not budge’ (‘Moon Landing’)
This reluctance to enter the world foreshadows the experiences related in the book and reflects on the process of ‘disappearing’ that the protagonist undergoes. There is a chilling undercurrent to the poem that was carried over into a number of the poems that Ivory read including ‘What the House Said’ and ‘The Family A Night’ which subvert notions of the domestic idyll to chilling effect. The poems Ivory read served as a moving reminder of the power of ‘telling it slant’.
George Szirtes made his second appearance on the T S Eliot Prize Anniversary Tour to a hometown audience (a testament to his importance to the Norwich literary scene is that both Helen Ivory and Martin Figura have studied with him in the past). This homely atmosphere was the perfect way to close the night. Szirtes book-ended his reading with poems from his T S Eliot Prize winning volume, Reel. The first poem ‘Meeting Austerlitz’ drew on the East Anglian setting to pay homage to that most East Anglian of writers, W.G. Sebald. This was followed by some poems based on myths which Szirtes introduced by saying ‘I suppose I made them up, but they’re all true’ a remark that drew a great deal of amusement from the audience. There was a feeling in this reading that Bad Machine allowed Szirtes to experiment in ways that he hadn’t in the past. This is clear from the use of forms that draw on other art works as well as those that use repetition as an organizing principle so that the poem builds when read aloud. ‘The Best of All Possible Worlds’ is one such poem as is ‘Allotments’ (an elegy that cannot fail to move those who read or hear it because of its understated manner). Szirtes finished by returning to a poem from Reel called ‘Water’, artfully returning us to where we started.