Staying Human: New Staying Alive Poems,
Edited by Bloodaxe Books, Neil Astley, £ 12.999
Rosemary Goring Reviewed
What are we going to expect from poetry? That it will convey what we could not convey ourselves? Seeing ourselves as others see us? That it can bring feelings, opinions, impressions, thoughts into words that we can not possibly articulate? All these things and more, the best poems do. It is not a vaccine, but it may find its way into the bloodstream and make life more bearable, less stressful, more meaningful, less anxiety-ridden, more rewarding. Poetry does not improve or cure anything.
That, at least, is the conviction of Neil Astley, who has taken poetry to people who previously ignored it as meaningless, maybe more than anyone else on this polluted and confused world. He has selected poems in Staying Human that deal explicitly with what it means to be human. While in his introduction he does not use the word ’empathy,’ it is his guiding principle.
An example is An American Nurse Foresees Her Death by Amit Majmudar, which is inspired by Yeats’ An Irish Airman Foresees His Death. Majmudar, I heard from the website of the Poetry Foundation, living in Ohio, and being the son of immigrants. He is “a diagnostic nuclear radiologist.” in addition to being a highly regarded poet and novelist. His poetry is not ostensibly about him, no more than Yeats was about him. Majmudar, however, has introduced herself to the PSA of a nurse who every day goes to work thinking that it may be her last. In that respect, she’s like an Irish airman in World War I whose chances of survival were slim. “Mujmudar writes, “Once the change is over, if it is over at all, / I set the alarm for four thirty in the morning.”
The battle that is fought here is against an unseen enemy, but it seems real to the poet. It is one of some 500 poems included in this detailed, sympathetic, Catholic anthology. Astley proclaimed them “real poems for unreal times,” which was also his rubric for Staying Alive (2002), which did much to revive an art that spoke only to members of a self-selecting and frequently complacent culture with its immediate sequels, Being Alive (2004) and Being Human (2011). Astley admitted in his introduction to Staying Alive that “most of us could name only one or two modern poems that have touched us deeply and unforgettably.” His intention was to change that. But, beautifully realized, his bigger ambition was to explore what poetry is and how it can help us. It was, in short, “a book about staying alive.”
It’s undeniable that there is a metaphysical dimension to Astley’s adaptation. He has provided us with poems that illuminate all facets of human life in the Staying Alive collection. There is joy and sorrow, there is love and its loss, there is birth and death, there is war and peace, there are epiphanies and nightmares. However, above all, there is joy. In a closing segment entitled “The Future?” Majmudar’s poem appears with the question mark striking a tone reminiscent of Attenborough about where we are going from here and whether our life is in danger. Originally, Astley says, the emphasis was on environmental destruction, but he extended the section to include poems such as the Hands of Gerda Stevenson and the two Seen From a Drone poems of Imtiaz Dharker, which react to the current crisis of the coronavirus. They are likely to join even more. A moment and the sensation of being in limbo, they catch. Life has come to a halt as we know it, but what comes next is anybody’s guess.
Staying Human opens fittingly with Tom Leonard’s Being a Human Being, which stands as a slogan for what follows, “Don’t be complicit/ Don’t accept the silence of everyone else, it has to be right.” In the second segment, “Ten zillion things,” which is celebratory at its heart, the recently deceased Derek Mahon appears: “Best skies at first light,” he writes in Rising Late, “but I don’t dawn/ no more.” This is poetry’s incestuous essence. O’Hara’s Five Poems, by John Burnside, Clare Pollard, Nick Flynn, Ian McMillan, and Anjum Hassan, take up The Day Lady Died. It’s as if a cairn is being created, first as a tribute to