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Monthly Archives: April 2013

Benjamin and Blake In Cambridge

Benjamin and Blake In Cambridge

I have just been reading Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘Unpacking My Library, a Talk about Book Collecting’, published in Illuminations (Pimlico 1999). Writing about the palpable nature of book collecting he says ‘what I am really concerned with is giving you some insight into the relationship of a book collector to his possessions, into collecting rather than a collection. If I do this by elaborating on the various ways of acquiring books, this is something entirely arbitrary. This or any other procedure is merely a dam against the spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions.’ This emotional and physical connection between the collector and his possessions is something recognised by any book collector. Are there not many of us who still sniff the pages as we open up a well-known copy that has been on our shelves for years as if in imitation of Edward Thomas who shrivels the ‘grey shreds’ of southernwood before sniffing them and thinking, trying ‘Once more to think what it is I am remembering.’

The mysterious relationship between object and ownership! Benjamin points to the ‘most profound enchantment for the collector’ being the ‘locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed, as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them.’ This talismanic sense of the importance of the object took me back to my little 1905 Pocket edition of George Gissing’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft where he referred to his small library, battered from many house-moves, in terms of each book’s individual nature: ‘I know men who say they had as life read any book in a library copy as in one from their own shelf. To me that is unintelligible. For one thing, I know every book of mine by its scent, and I have but to put my nose between the pages to be reminded of all sorts of things. My Gibbon, for example, my well-bound eight-volume Milman edition, which I have read and read and read again for more than thirty years—never do I open it but the scent of the noble page restores to me all the exultant happiness of that moment when I received it as a prize.’

Benjamin suggests that ‘Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the [book] collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories. More than that; the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order? You have all heard of people whom the loss of their books has turned into invalids, or of those who in order to acquire them become criminals. These are the very areas in which any order is a balancing act of extreme precariousness. ‘The only exact knowledge there is,’ said Anatole France, ‘is the knowledge of the date of publication and the format of books.’ And indeed, if there is a counterpart to the confusion of a library, it is the order of its catalogue.’

And so where to put my recently acquired copy of Ben Watson’s Blake in Cambridge  or ‘The Opposite of David Willetts’ (Unkant Publishers 2012). Do I catalogue it on the shelf alongside E.P. Thompson whose superb book on William Blake occupies the centre of the Zappa expert’s focus? Or does it sit better on the shelf with J.H. Prynne since the last chapter of Ben Watson’s scurrilous, energetic, vital prose is devoted to ‘A Mixed Cheer for Kazoo Dreamboats’? Any informal and non-library cataloguing system says much about the library’s owner. In what might appear to be some confusion on my shelves I think I know where everything is according to my individual association. At the moment Ben Watson is staying upstairs with Prynne rather than downstairs with Blake.

Ian Brinton

Andrew Duncan

Andrew Duncan

Two new books from Shearsman bring some lost or uncollected work of Andrew Duncan back into the public eye and both are startlingly immediate to the eye and mind.


Threads of Iron is Andrew’s lost book: not because it was never published, but because it never appeared as intended. Instead, the original was split into two and was published in two parts by Reality Street Editions (in 1991) and by Shearsman Books (in 2000). Another part of the manuscript was cut and became Sound Surface; this latter manuscript is part of In Five Eyes, published simultaneously with this volume.


Three of the poems from Threads of Iron were first published in Grosseteste Review 15 (1984-85), Tim Longville’s last issue of the finely produced magazine that he had started along with John Riley and Gordon Jackson in 1968. ‘The Poet and the Schizophrenic’, ‘Visitors to Art Galleries Considered as a Branch of the Fine Arts’ and ‘Turkish Music’ appeared alongside work by William Bronk, Tom Lowenstein, Andrew Crozier, Nick Totton, Philippe Jacottet, Rosemarie Waldrop, Stephen Rodefer, Ian Patterson, John Wilkinson, Peter Riley, Peter Robinson, Michael Haslam, Rod Mengham, Roy Fisher, Anthony Barnett, John James, David Chaloner and more…and more…


and they were followed by ‘A letter to Andrew Duncan’ by J. H. Prynne, a short extract from which appears on the back cover of this Shearsman publication:

‘Seeing this sequence as a large, articulated work, put into its sections and with the culminations of a sustained amplitude, I esteem its achievement very highly.’


As a matter of further interest and connectedness it is worth noting that the first issue of SNOW is due out on Friday:

SNOW 1 is published on Friday and will be sent out to contributors and those

who have already bought the issue by Saturday.

SNOW is 80 pages. All contributions are previously unpublished.

Prose and poetry by Michael Haslam, Rosa van Hensbergen, Peter Hughes,(Petrarch), D S Marriott, Alistair Noon, Joseph Persad, Denise Riley,

Peter Riley, Keith Sands (Mandelstam), Nick Totton, Juha Virtanen,

Nigel Wheale, James Wilson.

An etching dated 1975 by Gisèle Celan-Lestrange; a 1983 letter by J H Prynne

substantially about Paul Celan and translation; music scores by India Cooke,

the late Leroy Jenkins, Dave Soldier; film, photography and other work by

Sung Hee Jin, Alexis Nishihata, restaurateur Alex von Riebech, Aya Toraiwa;

a drawing of Hélène Cixous reading at the 1979 Cambridge Poetry Festival.


SNOW is available only direct from the UK publisher. Issue 1 is priced at

£10 incl. mailing or euro12 or US$19 incl. airmailing. Payment can be made

to PayPal ID or by sterling cheque payable to Anthony Barnett.



Anthony Barnett, Ian Brinton, eds.

Allardyce Book

14 Mount Street, Lewes, East Sussex BN7 1HL


In The Footsteps Of The Silver King

In The Footsteps Of The Silver King

As an admirer of Paul Kareem Tayyar’s energetic poetry, I looked forward to reading his latest novella, In The Footsteps of the Silver King (Spout Hill Press 2012) and was not disappointed. The narrative moves from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Oregon and to Iran in a transformative quest for the narrator’s dead father’s World Games silver medal. It effortlessly draws the reader into American popular culture and history from the perspective of the son of an Iranian who immigrated in the mid-70s. The novella offers a reading of recent American history that is witty, engaging and heavily anchored with cultural references. Characters that the narrator meets are representative of the highs and low of Californian life and intimately connected to the politics, culture and sport of the period.


Miller was getting romantic, a sportscaster-poet channeling his

inner Kerouac to give us a sense of the moment. I couldn’t blame

him. “And there’s a hanging curve just off the corner. Ball. 1-1.”


One sees that baseball in America occupies a similar place to cricket in England with the same fascination with radio commentary and importance of playground. Indeed, this is a playful novella that asserts the pleasures of the physical and is driven by considerable wit and charm. In short, it is a joy to read.

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