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Monthly Archives: August 2014

Gestation by Patricia Debney Shearsman Books

Gestation by Patricia Debney Shearsman Books

When I first came across the poetry of Frank Samperi, friend of Louis Zukofsky, I was struck with an overwhelming impression of whiteness on the page; space as if words were like bird-tracks in snow; words so laid out that they seemed as if they were yearning upwards to get to a rarefied world beyond the page. I remember being struck by Will Petersen’s short collection of Samperi’s poems, Of Light, published in Kyoto in 1965

going out
to
the backyard
to shovel snow

away from
the
cellar door
an old man

looked up
at
a shadeless
window

blinding
in
the sun
setting

behind the
homes
beyond
the freight yard

Patricia Debney’s new Shearsman Chapbook, Gestation, reminds me of those Samperi spaces. The nine sections explore fragmentation, delusion, and parental ageing and they form part of what will be her next collection, Baby. I think that what I was most struck by in these spare pages, these gaps for reflection, these spaces within which one is asked to pause and contemplate, is the bodying forth of a sense of identity: ‘Somewhere…….begins……the point when…….you know me…….a lifetime after…….I dig in……..hermit crab……..to your shell’. I have avoided quoting this poem as it appears on the page for fear of losing that enormous sense of margin which we are given and I urge you to go and buy a copy of this book to see the context for yourself. The opening of section five gives us a movement of growth which echoes the return of Persephone in the Spring. In Debney’s poem ‘the body grows / what the body grows / I am root vegetable / in rich soil / rain falls / a kind of sun shines / and I push past / the first feeble skin: / shed like dust brushed / away, blown glass’ . If I were still teaching I should want to place this exquisite passage alongside the description David Almond gives of the return of Persephone in his novel, Skellig:

She took wrong turnings, banged her head against the rocks. Sometimes she gave up in despair and just lay weeping in the pitch darkness. But she struggled on. She waded through icy underground streams. She fought through bedrock and clay and iron ore and coal, through fossils of ancient creatures, the skeletons of dinosaurs, the buried remains of ancient cities. She burrowed past the tangled roots of great trees. She was torn and bleeding but she kept telling herself to move onward and upward. She told herself that soon she’d see the light of the sun again and feel the warmth of the world again.

I recall asking Charles Tomlinson if he liked Samperi’s work and in an unpublished letter from February 2006 he wrote

You say you love the white spaces, but my world is so full of spaces of one kind or another, I love a bit of syntax. There’s something unsatisfying, I find, about poetry which welcomes what to me seems like a sort of arbitrariness in the way Samperi lays out things. Where is the anchor? With respect for syntax one knows where one is. Maybe I’m just too old to adjust to those spaces that refuse to notice that syntax exists.

Nearly thirty years earlier Donald Davie had written to Michael Grant about a similar topic concerning some of Grant’s poems which had been sent to the Grandfather of Grammarians:

Well! As you warned me, and as I suppose both of us knew in advance, your poems do indeed live at the opposite side of an impassable gulf from mine and from me. After all, what have I been from the first if not Doctor Syntax?—whereas your writing depends upon suppressing syntax, or leaving it carefully indefinite.

Both Davie and Tomlinson belong in a world which is rooted in a different approach to poetry from that presented by both Frank Samperi and Patricia Debney. Without wishing to present myself as sitting on a fence….I have a high regard for the work in both camps!

Ian Brinton, August 30th 2014

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Some Poems 2006-2013 by John Seed (Shearsman), The Ascent of Kinder Scout by Peter Riley (Longbarrow Press)

Some Poems 2006-2013 by John Seed (Shearsman), The Ascent of Kinder Scout by Peter Riley (Longbarrow Press)

When Allen Fisher wrote a review of the Crozier/Longville anthology A Various Art (Carcanet 1987) he opened it with a serious reference to narrative and history:

Where a history accounts for a group of people’s activities as depending more on culture than on force as a means of social control, it can be said that their appearances are a matter of inescapable political significance.

With the publication of these two chapbooks from Peter Riley and John Seed, both contributors to that seminal anthology of poets defying the mainstream ownership of poetry-reading, I am reminded of that political significance.
Although Clio as the Muse of History, the derivation of whose name suggests recounting or making famous, dominates the second half of John Seed’s selection of poems the opening echo is of the American Gary Snyder. Not only is there the placing of words within a very particular context but also that focus of Snyder’s which merges the here-and-now and the historical and geographical ‘there’ of the East. The opening poem is titled ‘From Genthe’s Photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown 1895-1906’ and the lines giving us a picture of ‘near-to-far’ would be at home on Sourdough:

Drift of dead leaves

piled against a closed gate

no footprints in grass grown wild

suddenly an old man…

is this hard wind blowing all the way to T’ai-shan

white clouds drift there without end

The other voice to be heard here is, of course, more distinctly English and that sudden appearance of an old man calls to mind a leech-gatherer in ‘Resolution and Independence’. This awareness of social outcasts takes these poems forward to the ‘trampers’ who ‘arrive in twilight…’selling brooms lines door-mats’. The force behind Allen Fisher’s comments in that 1988 review from the last issue of Reality Studios can be felt when we read

calculate disturbing forces
obstruction’s rough palms
surplus population in any parish
chargeable becomes removable
audits the last place wanted

Peter Riley’s ‘Note’ at the end of his volume gives the reader a very precise historical context for the work:

The Kinder Trespass of April 1932 was a protest by
about 400 people against the permanent closure of
large areas of the wild uplands of Derbyshire for the
exclusive use of grouse-shooting parties which took
place on about twelve days per year.

This has an echo for me of that fine E.P. Thompson book about the Black Acts of the Eighteenth Century, Whigs and Hunters. Riley’s account in prose and poetry is of an ascent from Hayfield

A stone path up the ridge end, ghosts fleeing in the wind, calling, most of them scout leaders and members of Class 2B 1952, most of them long dead, half-remembered and gone.

This is a beautifully haunting book which places our very personal sense of the ‘now’ in which we live against a ‘then’ in which historical moments took place. Twenty years have passed between the Kinder Trespass and Riley’s climb ‘to find out what there was, at the end of a climb asking to be walked, at the end of a history under erasure.’ All history is a record of loss and all historians tread the underworld in the hope of bringing a Eurydice back: task doomed to failure by the very glance backwards which is the historian’s concern. Peter Riley’s conclusion is more uplifting, however, and he closes this lovely little volume with three simple words, ‘Persistence, optimism, grace.’ This doesn’t make ghosts disappear but keeps them firmly in their place!

Longbarrow Press, 76 Holme Lane, Sheffield S6 4JW (www.longbarrowpress.com)
Shearsman Books Ltd, 50 Westons Hill Drive, Emersons Green, Bristol BS16 7DF

Ian Brinton, 22nd August 2014

The Point of Waking by Cora Greenhill (Oversteps Books)

The Point of Waking by Cora Greenhill (Oversteps Books)

Cora Greenhill’s The Point of Waking has more than a whiff of D.H. Lawrence and that is no bad thing. She draws upon female saints, goddesses, mythology, circle dances and Christian worship as part of the backdrop to her book. Cretan agriculture has been in decline for some decades now and she registers the changes. A profusion of herbs and flowers, sheep stuck at a well bottom, women toiling in the garden, displaced people and creatures, populate the book’s foreground and give it a wide-eyed focus on contemporary Crete.

Greenhill’s poems explore the wild places and natural world of Crete in a deliciously sensual and lived way. Her suggestive vocabulary and cultural accretions energise moments of being and life’s cycles to produce a pungent and elemental poetry.

The slub and slap of the waves were only
a restless ally to my toss and turn
that clammy night, and dawn had a dull veneer.
Stubbornly aching back and blear
from broken sleep, still I stumbled to the water,
as I had resolved, to swim. On surfacing
I catch a flash, a splinter of sea, a glint
like glass in air. Then, alchemically distilling
his perky form from black pumice, bright fisher king
surveys his day – with me alighting in it.

Her poems are wonderfully grounded in the physical, the working and dancing body. She reveals a pointed picture of modern Crete with its multifarious and changing tourism, migrants and refugees from Africa, Serbia, Pakistan, and is alert to both ritual and the stories of labouring men and women as they harvest olives, herbs and other crops. A poem rich in detail about a Pakistani illegal, who walked through Iran to Greece and hides in the mountains ends: ‘The thyme is on fire, seething / with bees’.

The raw and cooked are nudged along through nuanced and succulent language. The poems probe, elevate and mark boundaries.

The yellows: rabbit brush, cliff rose and snakeweed.
Browns were onions, oak bark and tea.
Deep red was juniper, but most precious of all
was a pink from a shrub called purple bee.

These grains were so few, they were kept in a skull
of a grasshopper the wind had spun in. And we’d ask
and ask, what were rabbits, what were bees,
what was a snake, and what the colour of grass?

I am proud to have published several of these sensual and deeply felt poems. They are quirky and live on in the memory.

David Caddy 13th August 2014

Openings, A European Journal by Jeremy Hooker (Shearsman), Silent Conversations, a reader’s life by Anthony Rudolf (Seagull Books)

Openings, A European Journal  by Jeremy Hooker (Shearsman), Silent Conversations, a reader’s life  by Anthony Rudolf (Seagull Books)

I have recently been reading two fascinatingly different accounts of a personal life, a life lived with intensity and passion. Anthony Rudolf’s examination of his collection of books and papers, an extensive and serious library which must be the envy of all bibliophiles interested in Modernsim, owes much to Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘Unpacking My Library’ (Illuminations). It also raises the ghost of Marcel Proust:

‘Moving indoors, Proust plays the ‘proprietor in a room filled to overflowing with the souls of others and which preserves the imprint of their dreams…’ As a proprietor myself, I intend to begin sorting out the books in my sitting room.’

Anthony Rudolf’s account of his library is a personal document and the importance of this reckoning-up is emphasised from the very start:

‘Now that I am approaching seventy, when I am supposed to have put aside childish things, the experience of literary time and its double, literary space, remains a major consolation.’

Throughout the five hundred or so pages we see history come to life as Rudolf comes across book after book on his shelves, under the desk, in a pile on the floor; each one has its own provenance; each one reminds both writer and then reader that these documents were written by real poets, travel-writers, translators, philosophers. This ‘silent conversation’ is the reflection of a collector, a person who seeks in Walter Benjamin’s words ‘to renew the old world’; and this collector gives us the history of the acquisition of his books so that the names and faces of those now gone appear again in front of us.
Jeremy Hooker’s journal reminds me more of Edward Thomas’s first book, The Woodland Life. It is also more immediately personal as we are presented with autobiography and the world of poetry weaving in and out of each other:

‘21 April 1983
After the Poetry Festival at Cambridge from Thursday evening until Monday night.
Mieke—how aware of each other we were at once, how easily and naturally we talked and touched. We stayed up alone together all night on Saturday, at Göran Printz-Påhlson’s, talking and making love. I walked back across Cambridge to Glen Cavaliero’s on a grey, wet morning, streets almost empty, birds singing loudly and sweetly in gardens. Went to bed at 8 and slept on and off until 1, waking to the strange sensation against my neck of the tiny silver dolphin on a chain which she had given me, and the questions often in my mind since then—Is it true? Is it possible? Can we be so suddenly in love?’

Anthony Rudolf’s book is almost like an encyclopaedia and I found myself wishing that there had been an index at the back so that I could quickly make reference to names that appear in different sections. I also found myself just questioning slightly the accuracy of all the information given when I read the comments about Andrew Crozier:

I always respected and admired him, though it took a while before I appreciated what a treasure he was. His widow Jean sent me Star Ground, a finely produced posthumous pamphlet containing three unpublished poems, one of which is the poignant and beautiful title poem dedicated to her and ending: ‘Frost heaves all night / To rise like waves / Spent on the margin / On the enduring /Particular resistance of our love.’ These are plainly the last words of a man who knows that his brain tumour is going to kill him, perhaps soon, as it did.

That little pamphlet, Star Ground, was in fact a republication of Crozier’s highly acclaimed poem from the 1970s, ‘The Veil Poem’ alongside the last major sequence he wrote, ‘Free Running Bitch’, published in Iain Sinclair’s 1996 anthology Conductors of Chaos. The title poem is a one-page, last-page, conclusion to the Silver Hounds chapbook.
Perhaps by virtue of being a diary, a journal, Jeremy Hooker’s Openings is much more readable to my mind and I became bound up in a chronological movement of reflections in which a lover, the author’s children, parents and geography weaved in and out of each other’s lives:

Did I expect to be as “free” as Sue says she is, and to grieve no longer? I must learn to watch these feelings pass. And to love the children less selfishly.
A love like M’s that draws me out…I’ve so much to learn, so much to unlearn.

Ian Brinton 11th August 2014

Ancient Sunlight by Stephen Watts (Enitharmon Press 2014)

Ancient Sunlight by Stephen Watts (Enitharmon Press 2014)

(10 Bury Place, London WC1A 2JL; http://www.enitharmon.co.uk)

When Henry Williamson wrote his collection of fifteen novels, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight he was looking back on a world gone by. Some of the early fiction in the sequence dealt with his own First World War experiences in the Machine Gun Corps and later, in 1917, the Bedfordshire Regiment. The language Williamson uses is often unashamedly nostalgic reflecting the views of a young man brought up in Brockley, South East London, who yearns for the more leisured spaces of rural England. That language, that Orphic turn of the head, is a record of loss and I am reminded of Geoffrey Ward’s words from PN Review 192 (March-April 2010):

In the beginning was the word. Trouble being, the word was always late for the event.
Words can describe, evoke, suggest, delineate, propose, haunt—do all manner of things—except be the thing or feeling or concept to which they refer. The verbal sign, while conjuring in the ear or on the page a simulacrum, (perhaps a beautiful, a crafted and convincing replicant, but a simulacrum nonetheless) can never be other than: a word. This is not a problem in everyday transactions, and indeed our development of language is possibly our greatest and our defining achievement. We certainly handle words better than we handle each other or the non-human world. But living in particular spaces, whereby the hieroglyphs that spell ‘save the planet’ are not the same thing as a saved planet, the injunction ‘pass the salt’ no guarantee of approaching salinity, there is, built into writing, a certain lateness. There is something of death in all its usages.

One of the early poems in Stephen Watts’s Ancient Sunlight, recently published by Enitharmon, suggests something about the act of writing poetry itself in his ‘A Little Message to my Friend Rumi’:

I am writing you this because I don’t want to lose
my sanity.

I am writing you this because I want to be insane.

Everything amounts to the same. There is no best
or better answer. All of language
is a disadvantage.

On the front cover of this delightful collection there is a comment by Iain Sinclair: ‘Integrity and clarity of address illuminate every line of these poems.’ These are poems to return to time and again partly for their quiet acceptance of the inevitability of time’s movements and partly for their poignant awareness of those temporal seismic shifts, shifts which invariably leave an echo, a scent, a lingering in the air that the poet can attempt to hold for a moment.

It is too long since you were with us, though I know
you never left. Even so
in these years lacking alchemy & language all of us
feel bereft, feel we need the conjure of your poetry
your verve, its jest

So many of these poems appear as ‘pilgrims and holy wanderers from / the nomad world.’ Read them; keep them; read them again and then sit, quietly, reflecting on the fragility of a language that can weave the ghostly return of a world long gone. The names of streets, areas, cities rise up within these pages and Stephen Watts, conjuror, gives us Brick Lane, Broslehan Street, Lamb Street, Prague, Frith Street Kraków, Soho Square and Moravian Hills. And then I reflect upon the memory that Geoffrey Ward had already written an earlier version of those words at the beginning of this short review. In 1989 he had published a piece in the issue of Archeus devoted to the work of Andrew Crozier:

Language is doomed to unpunctuality, words chasing, describing, shadowing a reality they can do anything but actually be. But if words miss their goal they pursue in the meantime their own life in the mouth or on the page, powerful figures of speech that predate our individual use of them, constraining or permitting meanings always aslant or surplus to requirements.

As if to hold those words of Sinclair firmly on the front cover the words on the back, by Robert MacFarlane, close this volume with generous accuracy:

‘I am moved and fascinated by Stephen Watt’s poetry in ways I find hard to explain and extraordinarily powerful to experience. He is among the most fine and subtle writers I know on the relations of landscape and mind.’

Ian Brinton 9th August 2014

Radioactive Relicts by Peter Hughes

Radioactive Relicts by Peter Hughes

Petrarch Sonnets 117-136
Litmus Publishing

In his Keynote Speech given at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in China, Shijazhuang, P.R. China, on 18th April 2008, the visiting speaker, Mr. J. H. Prynne addressed the issue of ‘Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” Poems’. At one point he looked at the idea of ‘surprise’:

Poetry is surprising, and good difficult poems sometimes surprise us so much that we can hardly breathe. A translation cannot be successful if, in order to make a foreign poem understandable, it makes it ordinary and rather predictable in its use of words. Thus, the language used in the translation of a difficult and surprising poem must also be difficult and surprising.

Prynne went on to refer to the letter Keats wrote to John Taylor in February 1818 in which he asserted that ‘I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity—it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance’.

I was drawn back to these ideas when I started reading this new Litmus publication of Peter Hughes’s Petrarchan Sonnets 117-136, Radioactive Relicts. For instance the opening lines of number 131, a version of ‘Or che ’l ciel e la terra e ’l vento tace’:

walk in local darkness hearing nothing
except the distant tinkle of the rich
the rest of us stare into burning sticks
till our eyes begin to itch & tingle

the nymph Callisto prowls the April night
shifting her weight from paw to monstrous paw
her body made of empty space & stars
paraded as a banner for all those…

Henry Howard’s early version ‘A Complaint by Night of the Lover not Beloved’ is worth looking up here in any collected edition of the poems of the Earl of Surrey:

Alas! so all things now do hold their peace!
Heaven and earth disturbed in nothing;
The beasts, the air, the birds their song do cease,
The nights car the stars about doth bring
Calm is the sea; the waves work less and less…

These two versions of the original are very much of their time but I have to record how much I am cast under a spell by Peter Hughes’s delicate handling of language: listen and look at the way in which the ‘tinkle’ of line 2 becomes the drawn out ‘itch & tingle’ of line 4 where the words seem to add power to that use of ‘rich’. Callisto prowls the night not only as a great, if supposedly untouchable, beauty but as an echo of a folksong memory of the fleeting presence of Simon and Garfunkel! And for those who might be wondering what happened between the mid-Sixteenth Century and now spot the Matthew Arnold quotation; he certainly will have read his Surrey!
This new publication is yet more evidence, for those who still need it, of the outstanding lyric quality of these translations. Buy a copy now from LITMUS publishing (www.litmuspublishing.co.uk)

Ian Brinton 3rd August 2014

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