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The best recent poetry – review roundup

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Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky; The Million-Petalled Flower of Being Here by Vidyan Ravinthiran; Significant Other by Isabel Galleymore; Truth Street by David Cain

“The deaf don’t believe in silence,” proclaims a supplementary note in Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic (Faber, £10.99), shortlisted for this year’s Forward prize for best collection. “Silence is the invention of the hearing.” Falling somewhere between poetry collection and morality play, this unusual book’s episodic vignettes form a narrative that explores how we think about silence – as rebellion, but also as fearful failure to act: “We lived happily during the war / and when they bombed other people’s houses, we / protested / but not enough”. Kaminsky, who lost most of his hearing at the age of four, left the former Soviet Union as a teenager and was granted asylum in the US; his tale of upheaval in an occupied territory speaks to our current political anxieties. But Deaf Republic imaginatively succeeds through its use of deafness as extended metaphor, when voices clamour and truth becomes “fake news”. Like the townsfolk he writes about, who invent a sign language as a riposte to atrocity and unrest, Kaminsky’s fluid yet fragmented verse drama is a novel response to conflict and miscommunication, hoping for peace rather than “silence, like the bullet that’s missed us”.

Also on the shortlist is another collection that approaches divisive politics with humanity and warmth: Vidyan Ravinthiran’s The Million-Petalled Flower of Being Here (Bloodaxe, £9.95). Formally assured but far from formulaic, this book of sonnets for the poet’s wife is testament, at its best, to the ways in which poetry can reach from the particular to the universal. Moving and inviting in their conversational ease, Ravinthiran’s sonnets stretch from the grounding details of life for a mixed-race couple in England today – “over the years we’d find the money / but in that area no one smiled at us” – to thoughtfully touch on themes of identity, class, work and community. If references to the Tough Mudder endurance event, Super Mario and Brexit seem strenuously current, they also authenticate poems that manage to be both hard‑thinking and sensitive, wondering at “the ways we love and hurt one another”.

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