Julia Copus’s new collection The World’s Two Smallest Humans exists in four parts, each in their own way circling the theme of loss. Two parts – ‘The Particella of Franz Xaver Süssmayr’ and ‘Hero’ – take on historic themes, the first inhabiting that of a man in 1791 ‘translating direct from the silence’ of Mozart’s shorthand for The Magic Flute while also caring for Mozart’s wife, Constanze. The second channels history too, in this case an Ovidian past made new, rejigged for a few pages in contemporary idiom.
Both brief sections work well. But the collection really gets going in the two other larger sections – ‘Durable Features’ and ‘Ghost’ – where Copus’s lucid lines come into gripping focus. In ‘Stars Moving Westwards in a Winter Garden’, the notion that ‘grief…will pass – ripen and wither’ is aired, and we see it again in ‘Impossible As It Seems’, as the speaker realizes that the ‘world is teeming / with similar gaps, backdrops / for lovers parting’. In ‘A Soft-edged Reed of Light’, the tension between known disappointments and old hopes is skilfully balanced, the idea that ‘All things are possible’ wanting to be believed in the teeth of experience.
In the final section, ‘Ghost’, these themes achieve an even greater poignancy. The section charts a course of IVF treatment, rendering the experience with raw and uncomfortable candour. Copus skilfully evokes the clinical ‘floodlit floor’ of the treatment room (‘Inventory for a Treatment Room’) and even manages some wry comedy at the ‘Polish embryologist…looking for all the world like one of the girls / serving on the bakery at Sainsbury’s’ (‘Egg’). Near the end, however, comes the heart-breaking title piece, ‘Ghost’, as the treatment fails. As with the idea that everything is possible, ‘the silvery ghost of a second line’ is ‘willed into being’ on the pregnancy test even though it fails to appear. The usual adjectives of appreciation seem rather inappropriate to such subject matter; but if not ‘enjoyable’ in the usual sense, then The World’s Two Smallest Humans is enjoyable in as much as you witness a master poet at work. With a characterful blend of the heart-felt and the experimental, delivered in language that is never less than pin-sharp, it is one of the most striking volumes of the year.
Opposite from it in every way is the debut volume from Sam Riviere, 81 Austerities. Where Copus tugs at the heartstrings, Riviere wows with firecracker poems that revel in their own self-awareness. In a busy, restless style, the eighty one poems here – complete with Index and self-mocking final piece commenting on what’s just been – burst on to the page with relentless irreverence.
We have everything. Sideways openings: ‘I hate when life like an autobahn explains itself’ (‘I’m a Buddhist This is Enlightenment’). A whole heap of arch self-reference: ‘this will probably sound cheesy and weird’ (‘What Do You Think About That’); ‘there is no purer form of advertising / than writing a poem’ (‘Year of the Rabbit’). And some fizzy pop culture nods: a ‘stupid café…staffed by what seems to be jack sparrow’ (‘No Dreams’). As the last quote suggests, most of the collection exists in a punctuation-free zone. The reader might be forgiven for wondering at times whether, as in ‘One Note Solo’, it is all a ‘conceit…daring to see / how stupid people…can be conned by confidence’. Though arguably that is the point in a collection that thrives on teasing convention, whether of form, technique or subject matter. And Riviere certainly has poetic confidence aplenty. While not for everyone, 81 Austerities is nevertheless a playful and exuberant debut.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.