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The best from Britain
James Fenton has long been one of England's most celebrated poets. His workprickly, spiny, short on sentimentfeatures a bleak realism that's balanced by a rapscallion sort of humor. His Selected Poems spans 30 years, providing a wonderful overview of his distinguished career.
Fenton, who is 58, got his start as a reporter in Southeast Asiaan experience that informed his earliest poetry. "Children in Exile" focuses on a Cambodian family suffering from the displacement of war: "I hear a child moan in the next room and I see / The nightmare spread like rain across his face / And his limbs twitch in some vestigial combat / In some remembered place." A haunting image like this one, couched in a quatrain, described in rhyme, is made all the more forceful by its formal setting. This use of traditional structures often heightens the irony of Fenton's verse. "God: A Poem" is a classic example: "I didn't exist at Creation / I didn't exist at the Flood / And I won't be around for Salvation / To sort out the sheep from the cud" Playful yet perverse, the lines are a crystalline representation of Fenton's singular aesthetic.