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I recall asking Charles Tomlinson if he liked Samperi’s work and in an unpublished letter from February 2006 he wrote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