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Monthly Archives: January 2014

Amiri Baraka (Le Roi Jones 1934-2014)

Amiri Baraka (Le Roi Jones 1934-2014)

When Le Roi Jones’s volume of poems, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, appeared from Totem / Corinth in 1961 it had a Basil King drawing on the cover and it had a poem titled ‘Way Out West’ half way through it.

 

As simple an act

as opening the eyes. Merely

coming into things by degrees.

 

Basil King was over here in England at the end of last year and he talked and read, along with his wife Martha, at Kent University amongst many other places. Basil had also worked alongside Le Roi Jones in the late 1950s when he provided the covers for the magazine which Le Roi edited along with Hettie Cohen, Yugen. Yugen closed down in 1962 after number 8 but not before the starting up of The Floating Bear, a newsletter, edited by Jones and Diane di Prima.  The Addenda to that issue number 8 of Yugen gives its readers the following information:

 

The newsletter, The Floating Bear, and its editors, Le Roi Jones and Diane di Prima, were cleared in April of obscenity charges stemming from their publication of a section of Jones’ System of Dante’s Hell and William Burroughs’ satire, The Routine.

 

That little note at the end also gives an update on what Le Roi Jones was up to, including editing Corinth’s fiction anthology, Avant Garde American Fiction, ‘which will include such prose writers as Fielding Dawson, Burroughs, Kerouac, Rumaker, Selby, Creeley, Douglas Woolf, Irving Rosenthal, Herbert Huncke, Paul Metcalfe, Diane Di Prima, and others’.

Had he had lived Amiri Baraka was due to come over to London this year to attend the University of Canterbury’s one-day conference, Baraka at 80, to be held at the ICA on 12th April.

 

The very last sentence in that last Yugen issue is:

 

‘At all other places they cremate them; Here we bury them alive’.

Farewell to a most important poet, dramatist, short-story writer, editor and major figure throughout the past fifty years.

 

Ian Brinton January 10th 2014

 

 

Catherine McNamara’s Pelt And Other Stories

Catherine McNamara’s Pelt And Other Stories

Catherine McNamara’s Pelt And Other Stories: Tales of Lust & Dirt (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2013) examines the post-colonial relationships ‘between the world of tin and the world of glass’, in a sequence of gripping stories from a world of places. McNamara is an Australian, currently living in Italy, having previously lived in West Africa. Her stories are compelling, rich in detail, exploring implied and overt tensions that linger in the mind.

 

McNamara is impressive at showing the diversity of African women, struggling to move into new relationships, replete with the impact of lust and dirt. Her fiction allows the reader to see the new disquiet, connections, exploitations and displacements, between Africa and Europe. There is a strong sense of characters taking provisional positions, travelling far from home, in the hope of a better future.

 

The title story, ‘Pelt’, follows a Ghanaian woman flaunting her pregnant body before her lover’s estranged wife. The reader sees her German lover, Rolfe, stumble with the return of his wife, Karina, from Namibia. He has not told her of his new love. The story is rich in attitudes, connections and commercial detail, allowing a wider vision of the characters to emerge. The Ghanaian is a confident woman, aware of her physical attributes, in relation to her lover’s wife, and is clearly determined to use her womanly guile to secure a higher status in a highly stratified society. Despite some insecurity, she triumphantly swims in the hotel’s pool towards the Europeans in an act of self-assertion and transcendence. Rolfe begs her to go home.

The story is highly successful at implying the African’s assault on European decorum and her struggle towards a wider social acceptance.

 

Here’s an example of the fluency and fullness of McNamara’s writing from the story, ‘Young British Man Drowns In Alpine Lake’:

 

He nears Corinne’s face one more time. He is gleaning it for ashen

traces. Of which there are, for one who knows her. He cannot see

how the colour of her lips has dropped a shade towards the blue

end of red, a drop in blood pressure as much as a realignment of

pluck, and that her huge white forehead, template for her sticky

righteousness, lies galvanized beneath its compelling shirr. They

say the hydraulics of the face are spellbinding. Corinne’s face is

giving him so much information I am appalled.

 

 

 

The steamy African backdrop impinges upon McNamara’s characters in ways that are perhaps subtler than, for example, Stefan Zweig’s African stories from colonial times. Africa is a place open to wider connections, subtler relationships, more diverse sensibilities, and the stories, some first published in Tears in the Fence, offer a range of examples.  Luca, a married Italian engages his West African lover, formerly a sex worker, to look after his elderly parents. Janet is seemingly happy to be used this way and finds his parents to be lost and disintegrating in the African mud. The story effectively shows her desire to please and to continue to rise socially as much as Luca’s abandonment of his parents. McNamara cleverly uses detail to reveal character. She is thus both succinct and thought provoking.

 

There is much more to savour in these stories that repay rereading as quality stories always do. I thoroughly recommend this engaging and enlivening collection.

 

David Caddy January 7th 2014

Melissa Lee-Houghton’s Beautiful Girls

Melissa Lee-Houghton’s Beautiful Girls

Poet and short story writer, Melissa Lee-Houghton’s fourth poetry collection, Beautiful Girls (Penned in the Margins, 2013) retrieves the narratives of mental asylum girls in a sequence that marks the physical and social disintegration of lost selves. Here those with personality disorders know heaven as ‘the place between the sky and the planets’ and seek comfort as best they can. The poems draw the reader into their world.

 

The girls had been abused, the girls had been misunderstood.

The girls had been put there under false pretences. The doctors

fell in love with the girls. The nurses fell in love with the girls.

Madness was attracted to the girls, as they were to madness.

 

The narrator’s tattooed body, cut, hungry, forgotten, needy and dependent, is shown in relation to drugs, locale, family and others. The poems have a painful physicality, vulnerability and a movement towards healing that is always one step further on. There are some extraordinary poems, such as ‘Codeine’, ‘Belly’ and ‘Dimensions’, which define the comfort of body pain and hurt through absence and fear. ‘Erasure’, Lee-Houghton writes, ‘is never complete’ in a chilling riposte to healing. These are exceptional poems. Reading the sequence as a whole, individual lines stick out and carry more weight into the next part. Lines, such as, ‘The girls wished they were not girls’, with its idea of the trapped body, ‘I cannot cry; these girls are beautiful and dying’, and ‘We don’t have to worry about our insides / or being mistaken for someone else’ echo in other poems that show scarred, fractured and careless bodies and work cumulatively to reinforce the acute physical malaise.

 

When they told me I was mad, nobody wanted to touch me

in case it infected them too. The doctor had my mother

and father put their arms around me so I couldn’t move

and I squealed and they shouted, is this necessary?

They didn’t want to hold me and I didn’t want to be held.

 

The collection pivots upon two splits. One is the narrative between the self, including body image and pain, and others, including the sense of community between the girls. The other involves the narrative voice dipping away from controlled and beautifully sustained poetry into sloppy prose with odd and perfunctory breaks and endings. The latter mars what is an exceptional and, at times, extraordinary work.

 

David Caddy January 4th 2014

British Women’s Experimental Poetry

British Women’s Experimental Poetry

 

Women’s Experimental Poetry in Britain 1970-2010: body, time & locale

by David Kennedy and Christine Kennedy,

Liverpool University Press.

The opening chapter to this important book makes no compromises and takes no hostages: ‘There is, then, a large body of women’s experimental poetry in Britain that has never received its critical due and continues not to, with the result that it is forever in danger of being forgotten or overlooked.’ Very appropriately this statement is followed by a quotation from that splendid survey of new British poetries which Robert Hampson and Peter Barry edited for Manchester University Press in 1993 with its subtitle ‘The scope of the possible’.

This whole book is a serious survey of what needs to be more widely read and the poets looked at range from Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Wendy Mulford (both with their Cambridge connections from the early 1970s with the publication of Language-Games in 1971 whilst working on modern literature at Girton College and the founding of Street Editions in 1972)

to

Geraldine Monk’s ‘recognition of common humanity, emotional geography, other selves and historical echoes’ which ‘are crucial to the book-length sequence Interregnum.

to

Denise Riley’s related questions concerning how the self is to be given language and the provenance of the words used. In this chapter Clair Wills is quoted as suggesting that the Reality Street publication Mop Mop Georgette is ‘an extended meditation on what is inside and outside the self, and the purpose of lyric.’

to

Maggie O’Sullivan’s reading of ‘To Our Own Day’ which left Charles Bernstein with the experience of each listening bringing ‘something new, something unfamiliar’ and wondering at how ‘such a short verbal utterance could be so acoustically saturated in performance.’

to

Caroline Bergvall, Elizabeth Bletsoe, Andrea Brady, Jennifer Cooke, Emily Critchley, Elizabeth James, Helen Macdonald, Anna Mendelsshon, Marianne Morris, Redell Olsen, Frances Presley, Sophie Robinson, Harriet Tarlo, Carol Watts.

This is an expensive book (£70) but I gather that it is to be reissued as an e-book. In the meantime badger your library to get hold of a copy; I promise that you will not regret reading this remarkably clear account of what has needed to be pulled together for far too long. To refer back to the beginning and to Veronica Forrest-Thomson it seems quite appropriate to quote from J.H. Prynne’s words placed at the end of the Street Editions 1976 publication of On The Periphery: ‘With great brilliance and courage she set fear against irony and intelligible feeling against the formal irony of its literary anticipations.’

Ian Brinton January 2nd 2014

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