Poetry Picks 2017

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Peter Guillam climbed once again the familiar staircase in the familiar Mitteleuropa backwater where George Smiley had holed up for yet another go at retirement. The door was ajar; Smiley was in the bedroom packing his suitcase.

‘I recognised your footsteps on the staircase’, he explained. ‘Peter, I’m either 127 or 117 years old, depending on whether you go by the chronology in Call for the Dead or The Honourable Schoolboy. By my count, this is the ninth time I’ve been called out of retirement for a Circus emergency. Whatever the problem is, can’t you solve it yourself?’

Peter shook his head glumly. ‘Do you remember a few years ago, when the LRB Bookshop invited you to present the prizes at their annual poetry awards? They called back – this time with an ultimatum. They’ve only gone and asked Karla if he’ll do it – and he said yes!’ Smiley stared vacantly into the mid-distance. ‘You remember Karla, don’t you George? Your nemesis? The gent with the big bald nut who was always fooling around with your lighter?’

When Smiley spoke, his words seemed addressed to no-one in particular. ‘Karla is a fanatic’, he said levelly, ‘and that lack of moderation shall be his downfall.’

‘Lack of moderation is a great menace at the LRB poetry awards’, agreed Guillam. ‘I’ve certainly made a fool of myself in the past from too many tins. But do you mean you’ll do it, George?’

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The crowd at the LRB Bookshop were rough, ready, rowdy, and writhing with anticipation. As far as awards ceremonies went, this was 'the big one'. The T.S. Eliot Prize entitled you to hot ham for a year at participating restaurants; Forward Prize winners were allowed to come round William Sieghart’s house when they fancied and use his shower or washing machine if their own was broken; and the Costa award was good for two stamps on your loyalty card. But it was the LRB Bookshop Awards alone which could make or break a reputation. The assembled poets wriggled like mice in a compost heap. Was it their names in the envelopes? Would this be their year? There was only one way to find out.

A handsome young bookseller strode to the head of the throng and demonstrated the proper working of the microphone. And then, to a smattering of applause, George Smiley ascended the stage.

The speech he gave is still analysed in Sarratt today as a masterpiece of the genre. ‘Good evening’, he began. ‘Can everybody hear me? Then I’ll begin. Our first award this evening is for Best Tome. The judges were unanimous: the award goes to Heather Cass White’s magisterial edition of Marianne Moore’s New Collected Poems, which has sorted out – perhaps forever – the text of the single most tangled Modernist. The poems finally stand in their best texts and right relations. In short it’s a treat.’

There was sustained stomping and hollering. Smiley fidgeted and cleaned his glasses with the end of his tie. ‘I’ll return, to present the final prize’, he announced after a pause. ‘In the meantime, I’m going to leave you in the capable hands of some characters from my shadowy past, with whom I must make a reckoning. The next prize will be presented by the lovely Ann.’

‘Everybody’s love to Ann’, whooped a familiar voice from the back of the room. Smiley looked around for a moment, puzzled, but eventually took his seat at the back of the stage, as his estranged wife stepped up to present the prize for Best Pamphlet.

‘Loads of good stuff this year’, she said. ‘It was almost impossible to decide – the pamphlets from Edward Doegar, Martha Sprackland, Katy Evans-Bush, Nicki Heinen and Padraig Regan were all firm bookshop favourites. In the end we got our final list down to two and then couldn’t decide between them – so Best Pamphlet 2017 is awarded jointly to Will Harris, for All This is Implied, and Rebecca Tamás, for Savage. They could hardly be more different: it will be thrilling seeing what these two poets go on to.’ Will and Rebecca (who’d ill-advisedly both chosen seats at the back, closer to the free wine) were borne on the shoulders of the hurtling throng until they reached the stage, where Ann handed them each one half of a shiny silver trophy. She shook Rebecca’s hand vigorously, and curtsied whimsically to Will, then dispatched the lucky pair with the faintest quiver of her wrist, and announced the next award.

‘The award for Best Debut will be presented by – oh, this is a surprise – Bill Haydon.’

‘That’s right!’, cried Haydon as he bounded energetically onstage. ‘Thought I was dead, eh? But it wasn’t me – it was my brother, Geoff Haydon. All of it was a hoax of Karla’s. He’d outsmarted the lot of you, all along.’ Smiley cradled his head in his hands and emitted a low moan. ‘And now here I am to present the award for Best Deb…’

A shot rang out, and Haydon slumped forward. Jim Prideaux stepped out into the spotlight.

‘Finally I’ve revenged myself for Operation Testify, and brought my character arc to a close’, cried the elderly owl-botherer. ‘They can hang me now; in the meantime, I’ll present the award for Best Debut. This was another hard one. The judges enjoyed Rishi Dastidar’s sparkling conversational up-to-the-minute Ticker-Tape; Claudine Toutoungi’s Smoothie blended a roving intelligence with a sense of humour and an eye for the grotesque; Chrissy Williams’s Bear was unique, a doorway into another world; Joey Connolly’s Long Pass was intricate and expansive and strange. But our favourite was Polly Atkin’s Basic Nest Architecture: set in the Lakes, which many people might have felt were over-poeted already, she manages to make the environment absolutely her own; it’s precise and assured and sad and superb. Congratulations Polly! Congratulations everybody!’

These final congratulations were shouted rather than spoken; two burly policemen had appeared onstage, and dragged him away from the microphone off to the chokey. George Smiley glanced at him as he was hauled past, but there was no flash of recognition from Jim’s blue eyes, serene in the security of his final accomplishment.

Who should step up next but Ricki Tarr and his handler Faun, to present the award for Best Collection. ‘I’ve got a story for you, and it’s all about spies’, he began. ‘It happened six months ago.’

‘June’, said Smiley from the back. ‘Best to keep things precise, eh?’

‘Well, yes, OK, June. Things were pretty quiet in Brixton, when out of the blue came a flash requisition from the Hong Kong residency. They had a low-grade Soviet delegation in town, chasing up electrical goods for the Moscow market. One of the delegates was stepping wide in night-clubs. Name of Boris. Mr. Guillam has the details.

He was a real oddball; I couldn’t make him out. He’d been boozing every week without a break; hadn’t slept, and the residency’s watchers were folding at the knees. All day he trailed round after the delegation, inspecting factories, chiming in at discussions and being the bright young Soviet official. Evening time, he’d go back to the Alexandra Lodge, an old shanty house out in North Point where the delegation had holed out. He’d eat with the crew, crab and seafood mostly…’

‘Crab is a type of seafood’, corrected Smiley.

‘Fine, just seafood then. He’d eat with the crew then ease out a side entrance, grab a taxi and belt over to the main night spots on the Kowloon side. His favourite haunt was a rickety joint called the Cat’s Cradle in Queen’s Road, where he bought drinks for the local businessmen and acted like Mr Personality. He might stay there till midnight. From the Cradle he cut back through the tunnel to Wanchai, to a place called Angelika’s where the drink was cheaper. Alone. So what’s it all about? It’s the little things I’m noticing – just things like the way he sat. Believe me, if we’d been in that place ourselves we couldn’t have had a better view of the main entrance and the action, he was right-handed and covered by a left-hand wall. He was waiting for a connect, or maybe working a letter-box or even trailing his coat and looking for a pass from a mug like me.’

There were cries of ‘Get to the point’, and Faun delivered a deft kick in the shins which sped things up substantially.

‘Anyway, when I got back to my hotel I found I’d lost the envelope with the Best Collection winner.’

Smiley sighed, and handed Tarr a spare envelope he’d assembled earlier.

‘Cor, thanks, Mr. Smiley. You’ve been a friend to me and no mistake. Brought me up when I was in short pants, didn’t you, Mr. Smiley? I remember the first lesson you taught me in Sarratt. “Ricki”, you said, “scene-setting and atmosphere are all very important but do get to the point.” And I’ve never forgotten that. It was after lights-out, when you met me coming down the stairs trying to cadge a bun from the elephant’s kitchen. “Good old George”, I said to myself, and…’

‘Get on with it’, the crowd hooted, so Tarr cut short his anecdote and slit open the envelope.

‘Loads of good stuff this year’, he said hurriedly. ‘Super collections from Emily Berry, John Hall (featuring a collaborative poem with Emily Critchley which is about my favourite poem of the year), Fleur Adcock. But the winner by a nose is Tara Bergin, for her second collection The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx; she goes on not sounding very much like anyone else, building gossamer-fine poems which turn out to be unbearably taut and haunting. Tara Bergin, everyone! Incidentally, the title of this book reminds me of a very interesting story, which is all about spies, and when I’m finished with it then…’

But before he could get started on his interminable anecdote, he was dragged off by Faun’s billhook, to be thumped backstage and carted home to his safe-house.

A voice came over the shop tannoy. It was the handsome bookseller who’d demonstrated the proper operation of the microphones. ‘Now, to present the Smiley’s Choice Award – please welcome once more… your host, Mr. George Smiley!’

Smiley stepped back up to the microphone. But an odd shimmer had come across his features, and instead of reaching for the envelope, he reached for a little flap of skin just above his shirt-collar, and tugged hard, and in a single horrifying movement – the audience gasped as one – peeled off his entire face. It was a rubber mask. Underneath grinned the horrifying bald mug of…. KARLA.

‘I fooled you all’, he cackled, rubbing his hands together. ‘It was I all along: Gerald the Mole, Bill Haydon and his brother, the Tinker and the Tailor and the Soldier and the Spy altogether. I ran the Circus for many years; at certain high-level meetings, I was the only participant. I was responsible for the cracking BBC series and the dire Tomas Alfredson film. It was all me, Karla, head of Moscow Centre, the greatest spy of them all! And this is my triumph! This is my day of glory! This is my…’

But an odd shimmer had come across Karla’s features, and instead of reaching for his ceremonial sceptre and assuming his place on the Spy Throne, he reached for a little flap of skin just above his shirt collar, and tugged hard, and in a single horrifying movement – the audience once again gasped as one – peeled off his entire face. It was a rubber mask. Underneath grinned the familiar white-haired mug of… SMILEY.

‘I’ve done it,’ he gasped to Peter Guillam, who’d rushed onstage in the confusion. ‘I’ve defeated the Karla within me, made peace with my past and completed my own character arc. Now I can go into the West and retire, until John le Carré decides to put me in another book.’

Haloed by the spotlights and with a beneficent smile on his face, he staggered off into the wings.

(Peter Guillam stayed onstage to announce the Smiley’s Choice Award. It went to Alex Wong’s Poems Without Irony, which was technically published last year but arrived too late for consideration in the 2016 Poetry Awards Ceremony, and was the best debut collection I’ve read for many years; astoundingly well-crafted, surprisingly, formally invigorating. A wonderful poet, and a book which will stay with you for a long time.)

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