Reviews: Losing It by Ranjit Bolt and The Emperor's Babe by Bernardine Evaristo

Peter Forbes takes a look at two romps in light verse: Losing It by Ranjit Bolt, and The Emperor's Babe by Bernardine Evaristo

Losing It
Ranjit Bolt
154pp, John Murray

The Emperor's Babe
Bernardine Evaristo
261pp, Hamish Hamilton

Verse has staged a comeback in recent years - that is, the stuff that scans and rhymes, rather than poetry, which can be loaded with significance, symbols, metaphor and the meaning of life but doesn't have to rhyme and scan. Wendy Cope has a lot to do with it, and there are many expert practitioners of verse around these days: James Fenton, Tony Harrison, Sophie Hannah, John Fuller, Kit Wright. Light verse has come in out of the cold.

But if Wendy Cope is light verse, Ranjit Bolt is verse lite. Losing It reminds us why light verse became unfashionable in the first place: because it tends towards archness, whimsy, inconsequentiality, the banal tricked out as something portentous. The temptations of verse can be a snare, and one usually best resisted is to make a novel out of the stuff. There have been many attempts in recent years - Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate , Les Murray's Fredy Neptune , Craig Raine's History: The Home Movie , Derek Walcott's Omeros . Of these, only The Golden Gate achieved the difficult feat of being both a page-turning novel and a bravura feat of satisfying verse.

Losing It isn't much like any of these. As a frothy tale of a girl's attempt to lose her virginity, it brings Pope's The Rape of the Lock to mind. More recently, John Fuller's The Illusionists mined similar territory: sweet heroine at large in London's demi-monde. But compared to these, Bolt sets himself an almost impossible task technically. Pope writes in iambic pentameter couplets, Bolt in tetrameter couplets: the rhymes come round two metrical feet quicker and there isn't much space for word-painting or time to breathe. Pope can manage effects like this:

They shift the moving Toyshop of their Heart;

Where Wigs with Wigs, with Sword-knots Sword-knots strive,

Beaux banish Beaux, and Coaches Coaches drive.

Bolt sounds like this:

His ears, his nose, his everything

Was either squashed instead of flat

Or the exact reverse of that.

Coy prevarication is one of the vices of light verse, and Bolt falls for it. Throughout Losing It , verse does not improve on prose description; it trips it up, pads it out and sometimes garbles it: "At 4am her self-esteem/ still harped upon a single theme". I don't doubt it played upon other instruments too.

John Fuller, probably the most ingenious writer of verse today, used tetrameter in The Illusionists , but in his stanzas (linked sonnets, the same form as The Golden Gate ) most of the rhymes alternate, meaning they are far enough away for comfort. Here's Fuller: "Poets adore a divertissement: / They are the hooligans of wit / Not intellectual policemen, / And all the poems they commit / Make shocking reading . . ." Bolt isn't hooligan enough - he's too genteel. But if you're addicted to verse (it does happen) and like the idea of 154 pages of poetically postponed consummation, Losing It might just "pop your cherry", as Bolt would have it.

The Emperor's Babe is a different olla de piscibus. It doesn't rhyme, and the verse is mostly in lolloping four-beat accentual syllabics, the most natural rhythm for blank verse that doesn't want to sound too much like prose. The idea is a smart one. Evaristo had a Poetry Society placement at the Museum of London, where she became fascinated by the history of Roman London, particularly the fact that black people lived in London during the Roman era. Her protagonist, Zuleika, a beautiful and (inevitably) feisty Sudanese woman, is married to an older wealthy Roman who is always away. When the Emperor Septimus Severus comes to town they have an affair.

Evaristo's London of AD211 sounds uncannily like our London, with "Wild@Heart, the trendy 'flower boutique' // on Cannon Street". The Roman colour is applied with brio: "the house of Venalicius plc - the elite multinational slave-trading agency, / based in marble chambers at Poultry". Are the parallels between the late-Roman world and ours as strong as Evaristo makes out? The orgiastic decadence, transvestites and all, seems to translate. Evaristo's street life is vividly conveyed, and the work has excitement and charm. Sometimes it is just too remorselessly excited, and the Roman colouring trowelled on a bit too emphatically; whenever a word can be cod-Latinised, it is. But then, apart from anything else, The Emperor's Babe might just stimulate an interest in Latin; it certainly makes you think about how much we've borrowed from it. As for the action, it is reminiscent of the world of the Spanish film-maker Pedro Almodóvar:

A.M.O.R. It was tattooed on the fingers

Of drunken machistos who loitered

Outside bars and wolf-whistled at cute

Young chicks, whilst grabbing their dicks . . .

Zuleika cuts a swathe through this world, along with her friends Alba and Venus (a transvestite née Rufus). "We'd prowl the darkened alleyways, our noses / Sniffing out the devastating odour of sex". The town is packed with attractions: Mount Venus, where Nu Vox play "the latest Latin jazz, badly", gladiatorial fights to the death with The Bad Boyz, and an open-mike poetry reading including "Calpurnius Tiro, / the 'mud, plough and sow' poet, / reported to be popular with sheep / and farmers nationwide".

The low jinks gain a more sombre tinge as the story unfolds, but the abiding impression is of a Romano-British adulterous mélange, the corruption economically detailed by Auden in "The Fall of Rome" ("Fantastic grow the evening gowns; / Agents of the Fisc pursue / Absconding tax defaulters through / The sewers of provincial towns") fleshed out and explored with relish rather than disgust. It is a highly enjoyable romp and represents the triumph of rampant low life over Bolt's twee politesse.

Peter Forbes's translation of Primo Levi's The Search for Roots is published by Penguin on June 28.

Peter Forbes

The GuardianTramp

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