Tiresome Condiment Anecdotes

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The first time I read Elaine Feinstein’s poetry I was in a filthy temper because the mustard in a bratwurst I’d been holding at an angle had escaped onto my trousers earlier that afternoon, and then a thunderstorm had rolled over and soaked me through, and the mustard stain had started to fluoresce alarmingly, as though it was under UV light, raising the suspicion (later confirmed) that it was completely indelible. I took shelter in Manchester Central Library (this was about 8 years ago, before the refurbishment and the sinister nonsense) and crossly pulled a poetry book from the shelves. In retrospect, it was lucky the book turned out to be Feinstein’s Talking to the Dead – the books to the immediate right and left, Emerson and Ferlinghetti, would have been one thing if I was in the mood but on that afternoon would certainly have propelled me into a fury, not just with their own sillinesses but with poetry as a whole, that might have lasted for months or years.

Instead, I was confronted with something sane, level, measured: descriptions, slow and precise, of places I was familiar with (Bremerhaven in North Germany and Cambridge) and therefore felt capable of judging as spot-on. Among them walked characters, living and dead, rendered as competently and believably as the places. The best cure for anger is presumably someone saying sensible things to you in a quiet voice; in any case as I read the book through my rage dissipated immediately.

I’m not sure when I first read Sujata Bhatt; I think it must have been shortly afterwards. I’m certain the collection I started with was Pure Lizard, and also from Manchester Central Library, because by mistake I spilt coffee on it and it was in a very poor state when I returned it. I can’t remember what mood I was in, but I remember how it left me, in a sort of breathless cackling joy: she’s a great poet of strange sideways movement, unexpected pauses, angular half-fables (I remember especially the wonderful ‘Two Monkeys’ from that collection).

Anyway, both poets were refreshment in a tiresome year of my life, and I’ve been reading both with pleasure ever since (both have enormous back catalogues full of good bits), and they both have new collections out from Carcanet (Portraits and Poppies in Translation respectively) which look excellent, and they're both reading in the shop on the 18th March, and since then I have always gone for wholegrain mustard on my bratwurst when it is available, which it certainly isn’t always.

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