Prickly Moses: Poems
Princeton University Press, US$19.95 pb, 57 pp
Too often poetry is valued as if it were prose, exclusively by virtue of its subject matter. Such discussions miss the poetry itself, which my wife calls ‘the speech that brings us to silence’, a kind of accuracy beggaring what we say about it. Simon West is a poet who understands this distinction. His essays collected in Dear Muses? (2019) explore ‘the uneasy way my allegiances lie with my language as much as they do with the places in which I dwell’. He knows how complicated such terms as language and place must be, so his landscapes – particularly riverine Victoria and Italy – never seem limitations. ‘The task of the poet is to scrutinize the actual world.’ I read him for the pleasures of both world and word.
West is by any measure an important poet. His third collection, The Ladder (2015), was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. His fourth, Carol and Ahoy (2018), signalled a change of emphasis in his writing, more openly acknowledging that poetry, as he put it in an interview, helps us ‘to make sense of ourselves and the world’. Without seeming the least bit confessional, his new book, published in the United States, confirms and deepens this ambition by its scrupulous seeing as well as by the accuracy and grace of its lines. If West is a nature poet, he is an unsentimental one. ‘Nature is that which does not flatter man or heed his self-importance,’ he has written, and Prickly Moses is as much about noticing, paying attention, as anything else. It is a poetics of patience. Stay with it, as the poet stays with his apparently common subjects, and you will be rewarded.