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Monthly Archives: October 2014

Lee Harwood’s The Orchid Boat

Lee Harwood’s The Orchid Boat

Enitharmon Press (www.enitharmon.co.uk)

I recall a moment, a few years ago, when I was at a dinner given for a colleague of mine who was moving to another school. Some of us were talking about how much we were going to miss this particular colleague and one person said ‘You cannot register absence in presence’. It was a clear statement which focussed upon the meaning of the word ‘loss’ and it brought to mind a wonderful early poem by Lee Harwood which I had used in the classroom, ‘As Your Eyes Are Blue…’. It is a poem of parting and the vividness of the experience is heightened by the inclusion of direct speech, echoes in a room after the parting has taken place. In an interview with Kelvin Corcoran, published in Not the Full Story (Shearsman 2008) Harwood referred to ‘little intense scenes shifting round…You do get these moments of goodness, whether it be in some of the pastoral scenes or a landscape of suburban railway tracks and oil refineries.’ When talking about his education at Queen Mary College, University of London, Harwood placed the reading of literature firmly in the world of the objective:

‘I did a degree in English literature and language. I had this terrific thing of walking from Mile End tube or Stepney Green—I was living in Stepney anyway—to lectures and then coming out of the lecture and walking back along Mile End Road. So all that business of maybe going to a place like Cambridge where you would float out of your lectures in your gown and walk to the quad, and you could keep on living in that world was avoided. It was knocked out of you because you immediately had reality in your face and you didn’t go to high table. You had bubble and squeak at the local transport café. I think that gave me a lovely sense of the importance of literature but also in the world, not in some isolated, privileged world. So you’d always have the measure of what you’d read, of the poetry existing in a working society.’

In the same interview he referred to a poem as ‘a bundle of stories’, ‘this building with fragments and suggestions’, ‘building up, like a chemical build up’, ‘a bundle of voices’, ‘getting to know the building bricks’, the ‘heaping up of fragments’.

This new volume from Enitharmon Press opens with precision:

‘A hot summer night,
the sound of rain in the courtyard.
A satin breeze sways the curtains’

We are given direct speech, itself quotation from a translation of an eleventh century Chinese poet; and we are given a picture ‘that maps / the wear of years’; a letter referred to ‘will reach the other side of the mountains’ and the present is placed as the poet plods ‘along the mountain path’

‘drifts of rain, streams sweeping across the path,
clouds so low you can barely see the path
as you stumble on loose rock.’

There are echoes here of Hardy’s ‘Poems of 1912-13’ and of Pound’s Cathay in which an ‘Exile’s Letter’ is sealed and sent ‘a thousand miles, thinking’.
In a landscape which merges Europe, China, Mexico, a history of the library in Alexandria destroyed by Christian fanatics, ‘A dense history of such deeds’, the poet recalls his father in 1940 having to shoot one of his own men who was begging to be put out of his agony, ‘his stomach ripped open beyond saving’. The moment of direct speech questions the narrative that we make of our own lives (‘We deceive ourselves with our stories’) and a clear statement follows…. ‘Not this one’.

Mark Ford wrote in The Guardian: ‘Harwood’s poetry is not only not “difficult”—it is open, moving and exquisitely delicate in its attention to landscape, mood, and the pressures of time and history’. It also looks forward as well as back:

‘I don’t intend to sit here waiting in my coffin,
gathering dust until the final slammer,
adjusting my tiara.

I’ll stamp my foot
and, checking the rear-view mirror,
head for the frontier.’

The Orchid Boat is a terrific new volume! As readers we are invited to look at the ‘Objects on a Polish Table’

1.

Four books, two newspapers,
an ashtray, a pack of cigarettes, matches.

2.

when visitors are coming
some poppy seed cake or doughnuts
or fresh baked makaroniki
placed on a plate on the table

a lace table cloth beneath the coffee cups

3.

a ceramic salt bowl with a lid

4.

an empty vase in the centre of
the oil cloth

Come and sit down

Ian Brinton 6th October 2014

Back Channel Apraxia by Juha Virtanen

Back Channel Apraxia by Juha Virtanen

(Contraband 2014)

‘It is the imagination’s peculiar function to admit, draw sustenance from, and celebrate the ontological priority of this outside world, by creating entities which subsequently become a part of the world, an addition to it. Hence the tensions between metre and rhythm, between credibility and dramatic cogency, in fact the stringencies of artifice and discipline generally which constitute the dimensions within which the imagination is realised and becomes intelligible, embody both the process and its difficulties, and the resistances proper to its substance. Just as for Marcel and Merleau-Ponty the existence of my body, as mine, bridges the gap between my consciousness and the world, so the substantial medium of the artist and the autonomy of his creation establish the priority of the world while at the same time making it accessible.’

J.H. Prynne’s essay on ‘Resistance and Difficulty’ appeared in issue number 5 of the Cambridge magazine Prospect during the winter of 1961. Interestingly Prynne wrote a letter to Charles Tomlinson in May of that year in which he commented upon what he saw as Charles Olson’s poetry being almost entirely lost to the world of self sufficient forms ‘where a disciplined emotion can command our insight without insisting on a participating involvement in the final construction.’ In this early critical stance one can feel the journey here away from self and on to a sea of language, or what Prynne would later refer to as a ‘great aquarium of language’ in which the ‘light refracts variously and can bounce by inclinations not previously observed.’

To read Juha Virtanen’s sequence of three separate, but intriguingly inter-referring, texts in this new publication from Contraband is to be immersed in a sea of language: a welter of textual presentation in which we bump up against diagrammatic forces and photographs in which words emerge on the seemingly fluid surface of the printed page. It is a journey, eerie and uncomfortable; a geography in which ‘Multiple fractal types: tectonic sig- / natures familiar as disintegrations / into subatomic matter’ place us in an environment of inherited language structures which are themselves splitting and re-forming. I urge readers to get aboard the ship and ‘set keel to breakers’ in order to be faced with ‘oligarch authority underneath // going under chemical change // exerted on the bodies by the // agents to enact with within // history as much in shadows // as with substance the engine // outside was outlined by rot’.

Nor is this floating language a ‘cruising yawl’ which swings ‘to her anchor’. There is no Marlow here to face the Accountant or the Lawyer, a guide to show us the heart of darkness and we recognise all-too-well the fracturing of language to which we are day-by-day exposed.

‘Fixed organ safaris mapped on the signal box now
convulsive as velocity in Kevlar ring fence formed
at the openings the sutures were such a wealthy dis-
play.’

The bullet-proof vest and the surgical strike are both show and fun: war-games for the wealthy, wounds for the healthy.

On the Contraband website, where you can buy this high-charge poem in three sections, Allen Fisher writes

Back Channel Apraxia has three distinct sections. ‘Some of its Parts’, the first, immediately engages the reader through graphic text shifts, interruptions, and at once thought-through and heart-felt resistance to a range of planetary and local conditions. The section is followed by ‘Orathera’, a textual immersion in which the verbal DNA sinks in and out of view. The last section, ‘10,000! YRS’, brings a high octane vocabulary, or many vocabularies, wonderful collisions and then openings through constructed clarities. The book has an eloquence that shudders.”

Ian Brinton 1st October 2014

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