Neil Young reviews ‘The Nagasaki Elder’ by Antony Owen

 

 

Antony Owen’s fifth collection, The Nagasaki Elder (V Press), is one of those compelling slim volumes that reminds you what poetry can do when it confronts the big themes of our times – or any times. Those themes don’t get any bigger than war, and its obscene effects on civilians sacrificed on the altar of geopolitical manoeuvres. What marks out Owen’s work as exceptional is the illuminating perspectives he brings to a subject that is already so well travelled, and with such agonising acuity, by poets stretching from Sassoon to Tony Harrison, and – more contemporaneously – Martin Malone.

It is rare now to find a poet so publicly committed to exploring this territory, and those who attempt it often do so in so didactic a manner that the poetry can easily be dismissed; but Owen is too agile a poet for such pitfalls. Each poem urges the reader on to the next, and in doing so he reanimates the micro-worlds of Nagasaki & Hiroshima, in its daily routines, its landscapes and natural environments, so vividly, that the eradication of such a vast and complex realm and its people – within minutes – strains believability.

From the outset, Owen displays a knack for lyrical twist that will be repeated throughout the collection. “On a playground where children vanished into black magic” he opens in ‘The queen of new Hiroshima’, and we are alerted to a world in which the real, the hyper-real and the otherworldly are inseparable. As a scene-setter, this poem could hardly be bettered, going straight for the political jugular as “we see empires/are realms of pot-bellied maggots in human thrones/stacked thirty foot high”. Elsewhere, it is his ability to ‘tell it slant’ – as Emily Dickinson exhorted poets – and hit the reader with an image from an unexpected angle that is most affecting. In ‘The last fare collector of Hiroshima’ “They found her fingers in a jelly of yen/her skin one with the standard issue fare-bag”.

Such graphic descriptions could risk wearying the reader, if overused, but Owen is quick with surprises. Variation of tone, form and movement of theme come together in a mosaic. He can grasp the fantastic – or fantastical – and tender in a breath: “Remember, my sister/we are made of beautiful atoms/ up there in the doll-eyed darkness”. And he has an unerring eye for reminding us that the past – especially this past – is contemporary, or, as Louis MacNeice put it “the future is the bride of what has been”. Owen moves seamlessly from harrowing, but often beautiful, evocations of Nagasaki and its people to the Luftwaffe bombing of home city of Coventry, and in doing so parallels the atrocities unleashed on civilian populations. In ‘Koventrieren’, he summons a word introduced to the German language to mean ‘to completely destroy a city from the air’, and honours his subject with memorably heart-rending lines: “If only you had laid him three yards to the left/you would both be arm in arm down High Street now”.

This sequence of poems is more than elegy, though. ‘A park near Chernobyl’, ‘Collateral damage’ and ‘Before the new bombs fall’ bring us up to date with the toxic extremities created very often, not by remote regimes, but elected western governments. We need only remind ourselves that not a few months ago our current Prime Minister Theresa May was cheered for boasting that yes, she would push the nuclear button, while her rival, Jeremy Corbyn, was decried for insisting the opposite.

When such a perverse, dehumanised version of public discourse becomes not only tolerable but the norm, we need all the dissenting, eloquent voices for humanity that we can get. Owen is at the forefront – a poet who, admirably, balks at the personalised meanderings of poets with little to say beyond their own orbits. Rather, he has immersed himself in the tough mental and emotional toil of getting to know Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and its people. He writes universally, but with an insider’s eye. In doing so, he has written a collection that is both timely and timeless.

 

 

 

 

The Nagasaki Elder by Antony Owen (V Press, £9.99)is available here: vpresspoetry

Neil Young  is co-founder of The Poets’ Republic magazine. His publications include the chapbooks: Lagan Voices, The Parting Glass – fourteen sonnets, and Jimmy Cagney’s Long-Lost Kid Half-Brother.

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