Poetry - Rotten Days in Late Summer

dried flowers half submerged in pond water (book cover image)

Tony Cross is reading all the books and poems shortlisted for this year's Forward Prizes for Poetry. Here are his thoughts on Rotten Days in Late Summer by Ralf Webb...

This is the debut collection of poems by Ralf Webb. It consists of individual poems and then three suites*: 'Love Stories', which scattered amongst the other poems describe the course of relationships from beginnings to ends; 'Diagnostics', which are poems focused on the death of his father from cancer and how the grief affects the family; and 'Treetops', which is a long poem that describes mental health struggles, grief and that feeling of being overwhelmed that comes from the shear amounts of stuff and information we are surrounded with in the modern world and how hard it is to reach out for help.

One of those suites alone would be worth the price of admission but together they make for a powerful collection.

This collection is also the poetry of normal - ordinary? - life. I always dislike using both normal and ordinary in these circumstances because who decides on normal and ordinary? It also comes with the impression that the writer sees their life as better than normal or ordinary. These are poems of people who go door-to-door selling, schoolteachers, factory workers and students.

And whilst there is a lot of serious poetry about serious issues this collection also has humour scattered throughout. "Apparent Retrograde Motion" has a lovely line about 'on form' that made me laugh as it reminded me of being in the presence of people exactly like those Webb is describing.

I find with poetry my feeling of connection to it, my subjugation to it if you like, comes not from subject matter (although that sometimes helps) but from the language. It's hard to explain, which when writing reviews is something of a terrible sin, what it is about the language that will draw me in. Part of it is the sound and rhythm. Part of it is simply the choice of words. I have, elsewhere, used the word 'rightness' to describe this. I have also made the comparison to music. Poetry has its bum notes. This collection doesn't have any bum notes.

I'd love to know the process of how the poet creates their poems. Music might be the obvious comparison to reach for - and all art aspires etc - but sometimes I think sculpture might be a better comparison. The poet, faced with the solid block of the English language, chips out what they want from it. Perhaps it is none of these things. Perhaps it is just writing.

If I've not made it clear I liked this collection a lot. Again, there are lots of notes and highlights in my copy, which is always a sign that I'm enjoying what I'm reading. Recommended.

"It was inconceivable, until it happens, and then
seems as inevitable as losing a chess game:
the fissured head of superior pieces,
having made a sacrifice of weaker blood,
ratchet themselves into tighter positions
and advance, lunatics, into fatal gridlock." (p33)

* I have no idea if suite is the right word, but I feel it fits.

Follow Tony on Twitter @Lokster71

About The Forward Prizes

The Forward Prizes are a celebration for those who love contemporary poetry, in association with the Forward Arts Foundation. The winners of this year's prizes will be announced at a ceremony on 24th October. Here are the shortlists:

The 2021 Forward Prize for Best Collection

Kayo Chingonyi – A Blood Condition (Chatto & Windus)
Tishani Doshi – A God at the Door (Bloodaxe Books)
Selima Hill – Men Who Feed Pigeons (Bloodaxe Books)
Luke Kennard – Notes on the Sonnets (Penned in the Margins)
Stephen Sexton – Cheryl’s Destinies (Penguin Poetry)

The 2021 Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection

Caleb Femi – Poor (Penguin Poetry)
Alice Hiller – bird of winter (Pavillion Poetry)
Cynthia Miller – Honorifics (Nine Arches Press)
Holly Pester – Comic Timing (Granta Poetry)
Ralf Webb – Rotten Days in Late Summer (Penguin Poetry)

The 2021 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem

Fiona Benson – ‘Androgeus’ (Times Literary Supplement)
Natalie Linh Bolderstone – ‘Middle Name with Diacritics’ (National Poetry Competition)
John McCullough – ‘Flower of Sulphur’ (Poetry London)
Denise Riley – ‘1948’ (Poetry Ireland Review)
Nicole Sealey – ‘Pages 22-29, an excerpt from The Ferguson Report: An Erasure’ (Poetry London)

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