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Monthly Archives: October 2014

Uncertain Measures by Aidan Semmens (Shearsman), What The Ground Holds by Rosie Jackson (Poetry Salzburg)

Uncertain Measures by Aidan Semmens (Shearsman), What The Ground Holds by Rosie Jackson (Poetry Salzburg)

In the fifth issue of Perfect Bound (1978), the Cambridge journal that Aidan Semmens edited with Peter Robinson, I find the following lines of a prose poem;

‘The remarkable amount of flotsam in the river could be small craft that have sunk. The water is only slightly ruffled by the breeze. It is so straight it could be a canal, with regular lines of trees along the sharp, precise banks.’

We could be casting a sideways glance at the opening of Our Mutual Friend or, as I prefer to think, we could be gazing at a landscape which anticipates the ‘ritual’ one with which this new Shearsman collection opens:

‘our origin myths are not set in stone
but gradually shift
in emphasis and tone from
generation to regeneration
mutating settling encrusted
with efflorescence of ore’

The obsession that Dickens had with the past ensured that bodies never remained underground for long and even in the late Great Expectations the sound of the returning Magwitch’s footstep can be heard on the bottom stair. Palimpsest-like Semmens’s earlier working out of perspective concerning an industrial landscape peers up at the reader through a new development and this newness bears an eerie reflection of a world that we might expect to discover in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:

down a winding path
in a shadowy scene
a woman and a man are pushing
a wagon loaded with industrial implements

(‘The Vanishing of Workers’ Settlement #3’)

However, the power of this poetry does not rest satisfied with imagery and threading its way through the texture of the verse are comments which hang together to provide analysis:

‘things have been falling apart
since the onset of modernity
fragmentation as the condition of knowledge
the extortion of desire extraction of obedience’

The myths of Demeter and Persephone seem recently to have become archetypes of the buried self and the emergence of newness from the controlling overlord of consciousness is seen as a regeneration that works; unlike that of Orpheus and Eurydice. It is there with vividness in David Almond’s 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.’

It is there in the opening lines of Rosie Jackson’s ‘Persephone’:

‘I can’t tell you the terror of being down there.
All those miles of earth on top of me—
the stench, the dark—
and him on top
paddling my thin body like a piece of dough.’

However, here the focus is on the rape, the invasion, the claustrophobic sense of proximity to a body which has been imposed upon you. Perhaps it is no accident that the word ‘paddling’ echoes the sexually obsessive Leontes in The Winter’s Tale when he imagines the supposed adultery of his wife with his oldest friend in terms of ‘paddling palms and pinching fingers’. The emphasis upon rape is taken up in the second poem of the volume, ‘Persephone Blames the Dress’, where the silk of the garment seems to be a co-conspirator in the downfall of the girl. Not only does the material fall to the floor ‘like water seeking some underground pool’ but the moment Persephone puts it on the thunderous steps of a Classical Bromion can be heard and the victim is being hunted down: she ‘started’, ‘slipped’, disappeared between toppled birches’. The silk ‘snagged as I pulled the neck down’ and the stanza concludes with the ‘sound of something tearing.’
Rosie Jackson’s chapbook is titled What the Ground Holds and it could, of course, be seen as what the ground does not hold: Persephone returns. The collection also features Lazarus who ‘longs for light, just a slither / from the far side of that impossible stone’ and Orpheus who slips ‘easily through those seedy chinks / that lead downwards’ towards a Eurydice who will be forever barred from return. Most importantly, and to my mind successfully, there is ‘Visiting the Underworld, 1964’ in which the poet rattles down with her father ‘to these tunnels of hot darkness’. Within the confines of this workplace ‘we kneel on all fours / feeling our way, getting a taste / of what real men do’.

Some years ago, in Tears 45, Jackson had written ‘The absence of the lost one is subsumed into the present of the poem, as if the very act of the poem’s utterance reverses or undoes death, even as it laments it.’ I suspect that a reading of ‘Poems 1912-13, Veteris vestigia flammae’ may not quite support this.

Ian Brinton October 30th 2014

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Ephemeris by Dorothy Lehane

Ephemeris by Dorothy Lehane

Nine Arches Press

Dorothy Lehane opens her recently published book of poems with a quotation from that old Black Mountaineer Buckminster Fuller:

‘I live on earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category—a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process—an integral function of the universe.’

Let me add another quotation to this and it comes from Part One of Fuller’s Critical Path essays:

‘In scientific prognostication we have a condition analogous to a fact of archery—the farther back you are able to draw your longbow, the farther ahead you can shoot. For this reason we opened this book with our “Speculative History,” taking us back five million years through four ice ages, and at least three and one-half million years of scientifically proven presence of humans on Earth. We are confident of the validity of our speculative prehistory because it is predicated on naked humans’ physical limits of existence and on environmentally permitted and induced human behaviour and on human artefact-altered environments and their progressive circumstance- delimiting and capability-increasing effects. It is also synergetically comprehensive.’

Lehane’s second poem in this volume of energetic sparks is titled ‘Buckminster Fuller’:

‘heck, pioneer, maverick
Buckminsterfullerene: clean coal,
giant trilby, the dome geodesic

spacer molecules
unitary air is in the air

primitive bacteria are alive with you
man is not consciously cell
nor quasi-paradox

consumption with depression
meaning inertia’

We may indeed not be ‘consciously cell’ but Fuller claimed, soon before the publication of Critical Path that in July 1980, at eighty-five years of age ‘I have consumed over 1000 tons of food, water, and air, which progressively, atom by atom, has been chemically and electromagnetically converted into all the physical components of my organism and gradually displaced by other income atoms and molecules.’ The Foreword Fuller wrote to this, his most important book, concludes with a quotation from e. e. cummings, a poet’s advice: ‘A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words.’ And Fuller then goes on to add ‘I’m not claiming to be a poet or that this book is poetry, but I knew cummings well enough to be confident that he would feel happy that I had written it.’ Dorothy Lehane is a poet.

I like the movement of sound in that early poem, the clicking echo between the slangy ‘heck’ and the claim for amateurism in ‘maverick’. I like the movement of eye between the human and the mathematical as ‘giant trilby’ sits beside ‘dome geodesic’. I like the merging of plurality into oneness as ‘molecules’ and ‘bacteria’ are recognised as part of the life within. The consumption of language, reading words and digesting meaning, makes us who we are and is provocative of movement not ‘inertia’. From its Greek origin onwards synergism suggests propulsion towards work. Odysseus was the only one who could string and draw that bow: get out of the way suitors; wrong time, wrong place!

In her introduction to the second issue of Litmus Dorothy Lehane directs our attention towards poetry which is ‘inherently neurological’ and yet which ‘doesn’t labour to assign literary parallels for scientific theory, nor promote heavy use of devices such as metaphor’. The work to be found within the hundred or so pages of this startling new issue of what already promises to become a major magazine player for the forthcoming years presents ‘subtle coded work operating at the limits of collaborative engagement’.

Bucky would, I suspect, have appreciated Dorothy Lehane’s poems and would also have had respect for ‘the neurological issue’ of Litmus: dip into it and see!

Ian Brinton 27th October 2014: centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas.

Give Forest Its Next Portent by Peter Larkin

Give Forest Its Next Portent by Peter Larkin

Shearsman Books

In Robert Browning’s poem from the 1864 sequence Dramatis Personae, ‘Gold Hair’, the poet refers to the ‘beautiful girl…/ Who lived at Pornic, down by the sea’:

‘Yet earth saw one thing, one how fair!
One grace that grew to its full on earth:
Smiles might be sparse on her cheek so spare,
And her waist want half a girdle’s girth,
But she had her great gold hair.’

The word ‘sparse’ is derived from the Latin verb spargere, to scatter, and can refer to being widely spaced or spread out as well as distributed in all directions. In the section from this new book from Peter Larkin, ‘Sparse reach Stretches the Field’ (2011) the word is used on some twelve occasions and refers to an outward thrust of growth ‘stretched at drawn-out fully sparse’. In the earlier section of this lovely collection of writing, ‘exposure (A Tree) presents’, following on from an epigraphic quotation from Roger Langley (‘The Tree. It shows what we would call / constraint. It bursts through rock in calluses’) we are given a piece of prose which is unmistakably Peter Larkin:

Already unsealed from itself but poor enough to steal attached life to a kit of relation, a blunt jerk towards additions of acceptance, copiously sparse, rooted from edge.’

The words push outwards, unsealing, becoming movements which steal in stealth with an unstoppable ‘blunt jerk’: they are rooted from edge, prayer-like upwards and stretching towards what lies beyond the page.

‘Prayer takes the flightpath of a world not yet cleared of trees but they already betoken its etiolation the by-tallness of placing ascent to
obtrude through seems already stretching past the flattened way firs obsess a periphery beyond what is their focal legion, patrolling a prayer
at its slender successors of margin’

(Section III of ‘praying // firs // attenuate’, 2014)

When I wrote a short review three years ago of Harriet Tarlo’s anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry, The Ground Aslant, I referred to Peter Larkin’s work in comparison with the prose poems of Francis Ponge and suggested that the French writer’s eye had been attracted to contrasts, edges, contours, meeting places: those areas which define where one thing ends and another begins. Ponge’s interest in edges, boundaries, ‘bords de mer’, dispelled the vertigo of gazing at the overwhelming bulk of phenomena: the grand ocean of Victor Hugo’s language is dispelled by a focus on the particular and seashores offer a framework akin to the pages of a published piece of writing. Or as Charles Tomlinson put it in a poem composed in December 1952, ‘REALITY is to be sought, not in concrete, / But in space made articulate: / The shore, for instance, / Spreading between wall and wall; / The sea-voice / Tearing the silence from the silence.’

The taut and straining movement of Peter Larkin’s work inevitably brings to mind the complexity of language used by Gerard Manley Hopkins and I looked up the 1873 ‘Journal’ to find

‘At the end of the month hard frosts. Wonderful downpour of leaf: when the morning sun began to melt the frost they fell at one touch and in a few minutes a whole tree was flung of them; they lay masking and papering the ground at the foot. Then the tree seems to be looking down on its cast self as blue sky on snow after a long fall, its losing, its doing’

As Larkin suggests

‘Nothing squats in the midst of guileless void unless hollows a layer of intricate tackle out of the way of itself cunning of branch at a longitude of members if this is to allow itself at last there will be fewer withheld packets countering as sheer twist the vertical risk of thickets’

Note please the absence of a full-stop at the end of either of these quotations. Life continues to push outwards and ‘sparse’ will lead to ‘great gold hair’.

Ian Brinton, 23rd October 2014

The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British & Irish Poetry

The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British & Irish Poetry

Edited by Peter Robinson

As the editor makes clear in his introduction this Oxford Handbook is a ‘collaborative effort at sketching a map of the always partially unknown’. Its range is enormous and will serve for many years to come as a perspective upon the various aspects of the poetic scene and not the least of its values lies in its ability ‘to sketch a space for curiosity and mutually enhancing accuracy of distinction that may help to mitigate the widespread self-confusion by means of other-denigration witnessed on all sides.’

The substantial 750 pages are divided into five sections: Part 1 ‘Movements Over Time’; Part 2 ‘Senses of Form and Technique’; Part 3 ‘Poetry and Places’; Part 4 ‘Border Crossings’; Part 5 ‘Responsibilities and Values’. The contributors range from Martin Dodsworth and Jeremy Noel-Tod to Peter Carpenter and Adam Piette; from Rod Mengham and Peter Middleton to Andrea Brady and David Herd. The separate subject areas range from ‘The Unburied Past: Walking with Ghosts of the 1940s’ to ‘A Dog’s Chance: The Evolution of Contemporary Women’s Poetry?’ and from ‘Auden in Ireland’ to ‘Multi-ethnic British Poetries’. There are 38 separate articles of substantial length and all I can do here is offer a pointer towards one or two of the immensely informative and exciting contents.

Rod Mengham writes about ‘The Altered Sublime: Raworth, Crozier, Prynne’ in which he quotes from Fredric Jameson on ‘Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’. Highlighting Jameson’s observations concerning former sources of the sublime, such as the unconscious, becoming incorporated progressively into the processes of commodity production he notes how the unconscious becomes saturated by the languages of media and advertising agencies. Although Mengham concentrates specifically upon Prynne’s sequence The Oval Window we cannot ignore of course that earlier poem from Brass, the title of which refers to Alain Poher, the president of the French senate who became president of France in April 1969: ‘No / poetic gabble will survive which fails / to collide head-on with the unwitty circus’. Mengham also brings to our notice the essay by Heidegger on ‘Poetry, Language, Thought’ as the authentic gauging of the dimension of dwelling as the primal form of building:

‘Nor is poetry building in the sense of raising and fitting buildings. But poetry, as the authentic gauging of the dimension of dwelling, is the primal form of building. Poetry first of all admits man’s dwelling into its very nature, its presencing being. Poetry is the original admission of dwelling.’

One is tempted at this point to look up Prynne’s essay on ‘Huts’ which appeared in the journal Textual Practice in 2008. The article proceeds to look carefully at Andrew Crozier’s ‘The Veil Poem’ in which the focus is upon an embracing of material existence, human relationships and natural cycles despite their mutability.

Adam Piette’s contribution is on ‘Contemporary Poetry and Close Reading’ in which he takes us back to William Empson’s elaborate reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 with its ‘unpacking of connotations’ in the reference to ‘Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang’. As Piette reminds us Shakespeare’s metaphor works because churches themselves are metaphors, being built to resemble stone forests. This timely reminder of the importance of close textual analysis is followed by an expert reading of Denise Riley’s ‘Song’ and the article closes with another timely reminder which must never be forgotten:

‘Close reading helps readers to construct a poem out of the distracted elements of their own lives and the lives of others; and it is through such loving attention, or heartbeat sensitivity to the elemental story in poetry’s forms of language, that poems begin to act upon the world.’

Ian Brinton 20th October 2014

Atmosphered by Eléna Rivera (Oystercatcher Press)

Atmosphered by Eléna Rivera (Oystercatcher Press)

In her act of translating those fragmentary pearl moments which had originally belonged to Isabelle Baladine Howald, to which I referred in the last blog, Eléna Rivera revealed herself to be a poet: one who understands the contours of language. In translating the opening movement of ‘August’ she had written ‘Word is too brief’ as though to call up in front of us that memorable line from Bunting, ‘Pens are too light take a chisel to write’. In this companion Oystercatcher volume of her own poems, Atmosphered, that hard-edged clarity, graven, is evident from the opening ‘Holes. / In the ambit. / Cherished. In the box / Holes. In the container / Not alone in this.’

It is one of the abilities of poetry to bring a fresh sense of life to language. Communicating through sound as well as sight poetry weaves its traces in tone as well as stone, engaging our eyes with what Prynne referred to as the ‘pearl-bright moments of words moving along the currents of our changing times.’ It could almost be with that in mind that we read Rivera’s delicate tracery of thought:

‘My limits, my language—Mine?

mobile beyond all reason

Metamorphic above a given location

“A reed shaken by wind”

The intricacy of moving forward’

When contemplating our own limits, our own language, we have to question its provenance: whose language is it that I am using? As a friend of mine once put it the ‘awful thing about words is that you don’t know whose mouth they have been in before!’ Words are mobile, they are constructed of those standing emblems on a page ‘shaken by wind’, they move, as Prynne put it, ‘along the currents of our changing times’. However, in the breath of the poet they are also the ‘intricacy of moving forward.’ Currents and changing may well be inseparable from continuity.

These poems are delicate reassertions of an ongoing domesticity of existence:

‘Return. Returns.
The pain of—
Keep cleaning the closet—
Recurrence, vexation, pullulation,

or simply: Keep dusting’

The security offered by language is the flipside of the coin. Repetition of the well-worn epithet, worn thin by usage which may be increasingly commercial, may be unnerving to the acute sensibility of a user of language who has weighed out those tones and contours but

‘Ambushed
by the image,
that meeting place in language—
Snowed in—
Couldn’t move away’

Read these poems, they are striking and memorable!

Ian Brinton 16th October 2014.

Parting Movement, Constantly Prevented by Isabelle Baladine Howald

Parting Movement,  Constantly Prevented by Isabelle Baladine Howald

Translated by Eléna Rivera (Oystercatcher Press)

A delightful arrival from the Oystercatcher: a moving sequence of poems under the three headings ‘August’, ‘September’, ‘October’ contained beneath a cover which merges the almost tangible sense of loss in the ‘Creation of Adam’ on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with ‘Venetia, Lady Digby, on her deathbed’ by Van Dyck. Both paintings deal with stasis and movement, a recognition of the living and an awareness of the irretrievable loss of parting. The cover is of a statue, stone and movement, and is followed by an epigraph, “I have to find my place again and you have to move.”

The personal intimacy of these poems rests with the awareness of the gap between people:
‘Knowing you was never something I tried to achieve, even as
a child.
That’s the way I conceived of things right from the beginning.’

They remind me of Rosemarie Waldrop’s ‘Conversation’ recorded in Contemporary Literature, Vol 40, No 3, Autumn 1999:

‘what matters is not things but what happens between them. Or if you take the linguistic model, it is not the phoneme but the connection of phonemes that makes language, the differences in the sequence…The gaps keep the questions in relation.’

As Nikolai Duffy put it in her Shearsman publication Relative Strangeness, Reading Rosemarie Waldrop, ‘For Waldrop, poetry is the taking place of language in the spaces between words. Throughout her writing there is the sense that language can be experienced only as fissure, gap, aperture, an empty middle into which the possibility of meaning both enters and escapes.’
In ‘Projective Verse Charles Olson writes ‘At root (or stump) what is , is no longer THINGS but what happens BETWEEN things, these are the terms of the reality contemporary to us—and the terms of what we are.’ In ‘Aesthetic’ Charles Tomlinson writes about reality taking place in the space between things. In Howald’s ‘August’ the dominating sense is movement and stillness: fullness and emptiness: ‘The room resonates, without the furniture.’

Fragment 22:
‘A day of arguing, he had wanted to leave; in his backpack, his alarm clock, a flashlight.’

The clock presents an urgency of now whilst the flashlight suggests a stare into the future.

The fragments from ‘September’ give us a world of Beckett’s ‘Play’, the touching urns and the fragmented relationship conveyed lyrically to us as dismemberment, and Dante’s Canto V from Inferno with Paolo and Francesca:

Fragment 6:
‘I speak to him, he rarely answers but he listens.
In a certain way I love him, even if I never knew anything about
him, never wanted to know anything.’

The poet gives us a world of the suspended moment, as with Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ or that painting by Van Dyke:

Fragment 11:
‘Constant parting movement, constantly prevented.
Slight gesture toward turning round, finally not doing it.’

Another echo for me is Anthony Barnett’s translation of Anne-Marie Albiach’s ‘An Object of Anarchy’:

‘A memory in the body, attempts the awakening of coded signs in a partially blind work.’

Ian Brinton 15th October 2014

Sarah Crewe at the Tears in the Fence Festival

Sarah Crewe at the Tears in the Fence Festival

I am thrilled that Sarah Crewe will be reading at the Tears in the Fence Festival, on Friday evening, 24th October. (https://tearsinthefence.com/festival)

Sarah is rapidly emerging as a strong poetic voice. Her uncompromising poetry has a distinct musicality, draws the reader into strange worlds and creates a wonderful fusion of vocabulary and identity to probe, irritate and celebrate. She gives voice to a range of identities and produces a wide range of poetic effects. Ian Brinton has noted her eerie and uncomfortable voice. S.J. Fowler has described her work as a stone’s throw from Maggie O’Sullivan and Geraldine Monk.

Her collections include Aqua Rosa (Erbacce, 2012), flick invicta (Oystercatcher, 2013), sea witch (Leafe Press, 2013) and Signs of the Sistership, with Sophie Mayer (KFS Press, 2014). Her work has also appeared in Shearsman, Tears in the Fence, Molly Bloom, Peony Moon, Litter and Litmus magazines. She co-edited the anthology Catechism: Poems For Pussy Riot (2013) with Mark Burnhope and Sophie Mayer, and the anthology Glitter is a Gender (Contraband, 2014) with Sophie Mayer.

Her poetry, rooted in the Port of Liverpool, which features as a backdrop to her contrary visions of the social world, is characterised by its stunningly luminous language use. She inhabits and lavishes
concentrated sound and language work with vibrant identities.

My wife is the Devil!

tap.rain metal reverb.lost boy daddy-o.
kiefer/brandon/russell raise wax stained
glasses to my branded breath.tap. did
someone say brandy?don’t mind if i do.
tap.you heardme.in part-pantheon
homage to the wettest element.tap.in
boldest broad daylight.my echo runs
12 feet deep.tap.a slash could make
this city toxic.dix-huit soixante-quatre.
tease my tongue i’ll scratch your skin.

Note the distinct and precise notation, recalling early Bill Griffiths, and the unencumbered fluidity of this poem.

Her musical sense is gritty and sparkles with variant female figures, identities pouring forth in splendour to arrest and beguile the imagination. She has a strong sense of the value of Liverpool’s women over time, her heritage, political warriors and goddesses, and speaks from a space of pride and indignation. Her work inspires, has presence and force. Her poems matter and resonate in their intensity.

tap.the sandstone blast sets off my eyes.
cyan circle matches my lips.tap.it’s winter
but you wear a spring dress with heels.I
stroke at the walls while you wait
on barbed wire.

I can’t wait to welcome Sarah Crewe to our Festival.

David Caddy 7th October 2014

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