Poetry - Ransom

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Tony Cross is reading all the books shortlisted for this year's T.S. Eliot Prize. Here are his thoughts on Ransom by Michael Symmons Roberts...

This is Michael Symmons Roberts' eighth collection, which makes him one of the most experienced poets on the T S Eliot Prize shortlist. Let me confess that I have read nothing else he has written, but this collection does make me want to read more.

The collection is divided into four parts. Two of those – Vingt Regards and Takk – are suites.

Vingt Regards riffs off two things, Messiaen’s ‘Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus’ and Marcel Carne’s ‘Les Enfant du Paradis’. Both of which were made – or at least begun – in German occupied Paris. Messiaen’s twenty pieces of music are meditations on the baby Christ. This section was one of my favourites in the collection.

‘Takk’ takes its name from a coffee shop in Oxford. It is the poetry of a person staring out of the window whilst contemplating their place in the world. Christ gets a cameo appearance here to. It feels like someone imprisoned in their own head getting a glimpse of an outside world.

Reflections crop up a lot. One of my favourite poems in the collection ‘From an Open Field’ features a feral parakeet that

“…seduces its reflection
In the glass of a long-scrapped
Half-rotted shed.”

You sometimes feel this collection paints us as prisoners trapped in a cage of perceptions and distractions of our own creation. But occasionally, we see – intentionally or not – a sight of the infinite. Whether that is looking through a café window or standing at the door during the night.

You also get the feeling that Michael Symmons Roberts doesn’t approve of the digital traps we have set ourselves. Screens, whenever they crop up, seem to be blank and unimpressive things. Again, I’m always in danger of reading too much into a line here or there, but this collection seems to be about seeing the real world, not the digital one. Of looking for the infinite.

But I am a bear of little brain and perhaps I am wrong.

The other poem that I liked a lot is ‘Episodics’ which is a fourteen-part long poem about his father’s death. I found the final line incredibly moving. But the whole thing is superb writing. I mentioned in a previous poetry review about the spell-like effect poetry can have on you if you let the words sweep you along and ‘Episodics’ does that.

My other favourite poems in the collection were ‘Fireflies’ and ‘Custody of the Eyes’. I think I will try and learn ‘Fireflies’ off by heart. But it is a collection worth reading. There’s a cleverness to it that doesn’t swamp the emotion. Some of this stuff sticks to you.

Follow Tony on Twitter @Lokster71

About the T.S. Eliot Prize

The T.S. Eliot Prize, for the best new poetry collection written in English and published in 2021 in the UK or Ireland, is run by The T.S. Eliot Foundation. This year's shortlist "celebrates ten books that sound clear and compelling voices of the moment" and includes one debut collection; work from six men and four women; one American; one poet from Ireland; as well as poets of Zambian and mixed-race ancestry, including Jamaican-British and Jamaican-Chinese.

Raymond Antrobus - All the Names Given (Picador)
Kayo Chingonyi - A Blood Condition (Chatto & Windus)
 - Read Tony's Review
Selima Hill - Men Who Feed Pigeons (Bloodaxe) - Read Tony's Review
Victoria Kennefick - Eat Or We Both Starve (Carcanet) - Read Tony's Review
Hannah Lowe - The Kids (Bloodaxe)
Michael Symmons Roberts -  Ransom (Cape Poetry)
Daniel Sluman - single window (Nine Arches Press)
Joelle Taylor - C+nto & Othered Poems (The Westbourne Press) Read Tony's Review
Jack Underwood - A Year in the New Life (Faber) Read Tony's Review
Kevin Young - Stones (Cape Poetry)

The winner of the 2021 Prize will be announced at the Award Ceremony on Monday 10th January 2022. For more on the shortlisted poets, including videos, readers’ notes and reviews, visit the T.S. Eliot Prize website.

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