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Review: Yelp!, by Liz Almond

Liz Almond's Yelp! has a Paula Rego picture on the cover - Girl Lifting Skirt to Dog - an enigmatic, brooding image, which intrigued me sufficiently to head straight for the poem of the same name. Writing poems in response to paintings can be a 'workshop exercise' and the results are often rather dull and literal. But, reading this poem, I felt this was a writer with a sharp and bold imagination, who can take an image as a starting point and transform it into something else entirely:

Slowly I lift my skirt, my matador's cape,
part of my suit of lights in which I ape
teasing him with what I don't know I have:
an orchid peeping from black foliage,
or ipomoeas on the rampage
when Dog plunges his wet nose in,
relieves his pricked up ears of fleas
crazed by blood, my own grazed knees.

Adopting the more conventional approach of starting at the beginning and working my way through, I was struck by the sensuous physicality of these poems, many of which are concerned with journeys - physical, geographical, spiritual, but also journeys into the body and into the deep imagination.

Reading this book is to travel high above the earth, to interrogation centres, to dirt-poor villages and to the Aegean. In each destination, she finds a new way in; a fresh register. She's particularly adept at contrasts, which heightens the dramatic tension. In Yamal 202,

Ghamsar, day of the rose harvest.
A whole village gets up before sunrise
To gather roses drenched with dew
For proper distillation.
Not far away, some controlled explosions
Look like bunches of white roses
Thrown in an arc across the night,
Stems shooting out their stars.

Almond is a poet who bristles with curiosity about the wider world and who writes with a clear eye and a cocked ear; the resulting poems are gratifyingly concise, crisp and resonant. Perhaps my favourite in the collection - and there were many I returned to several times - is Wasp, a poem so beautifully observed and multi-faceted - a nature poem that also encompasses memory and mythology - it made me want to go and find a wasp's nest and have a proper look.

I follow the buzz
to a piece of antique rosewood
where some primitive paper-making
is going on in secret.

I envy your utter concentration
As you build each fluted papier-mache cell
The colour of preserved lung.

You interrupt my breathing.
I hold on as you lower your dangerous abdomen
Down into the cell to test your building technique.

There's such an assured voice at work in this book, such a sense that the poet has located her essential, urgent, subject areas and has found such joy / pain / intrigue in them she's committed to sharing them with us. It's a book full of blood-red, luminous gems.