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Monthly Archives: December 2014

Jon Thompson’s Landscape with Light (Shearsman Books)

Jon Thompson’s Landscape with Light (Shearsman Books)

This is a remarkable collection of poems and I recommend all our readers to order a copy immediately from Tony Frazer in the hope that it may arrive for the New Year. In moments of Spicerian click and snap the word happens and a reader ‘would not choose to blink and go blind /After the instant’. The camera’s focus is on landscapes of mood, cinematic realisations, and the results are some of the most rewarding and accurate film criticism I have read.
‘Fragment of an Unpublished Memoir by a Cinematographer’s Assistant’ gives us a glimpse of that landscape of the Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2007 film of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country For Old Men:

“…the riches of the world receding.
The desert was a landscape of mutability in a world of
immutability…”

Those receding riches do not merely refer to chance wealth acquired by a man who stumbles upon a drug exchange gone wrong but also include that throaty voice-over of the sheriff talking about ‘past-times’ and comparisons with the ‘oldtimers’. Within the eleven lines of the poem we hear that same nostalgic quietness in ‘I remember’ and ‘Mostly, I remember / the wide-open emptiness’.

With a similar sense of acute observation incorporating comment the Coen’s Fargo is presented to us initially as ‘Desire’:

In the flat uninhabited spaces, snow falls from an empty
sky. Here and there, the bare branches of an oak are
black against the steadily-falling flakes.

This blanketing of snow ‘accumulates like / loneliness’ with one snowfall ‘covering the last one, layering into / snowdrifts that become the landscape’. The plaintive musical score by Carter Burwell echoes behind Thompson’s lines as we recognise that everyone is ‘forced to forge new paths of exile through an unknown land.’

Walter Hill’s 1979 film of The Warriors is caught by the poet as we glimpse the ‘wheel purple against / the nothingness / behind it’ and yet feel the ‘awful urgency’ of that pace as the gangs of the city converge upon Pelham Bay Park.

Martin Scorsese’s Travis Bickle is the taxi-driver from the 1976 film whose monotony can be heard behind the lines

The days go on & on.
Night goes on & on.

Red neon signs
shimmer on wet streets.

Nightmare and surreal fantasy merge with the urban glare as you look in the film’s closing scene to see ‘your face with someone else’s eyes / in the mirror’.

As a last example of this tour-de-force of language moving at the speed of film we confront a whiteness different from that of the opening sequence of Fargo: a whiteness which is the ‘administration of days / which / will not suffer a whit of deviation / or allow more than a rectangle of sky’. This is the medication-time horror of Big Nurse’s ward in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

When I first started reading this book of poems I kept thinking of another book which hovered on the edge of my mind, just out of reach of both hand and eye. I now remember it: Jorge Luis Borges’s A Universal History of Infamy with its starkly evocative landscape acting as a backdrop to ‘The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan’:

An image of the desert wilds of Arizona, first and foremost, an image of the desert wilds of Arizona and New Mexico—a country famous for its silver and gold camps, a country of breathtaking open spaces, a country of monumental mesas and soft colours, a country of bleached skeletons picked clean by buzzards.

Ian Brinton 20th December 2014

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Chris McCabe’s Speculatrix (Penned in the Margins, 2014)

Chris McCabe’s Speculatrix (Penned in the Margins, 2014)

The apparatus of capital, sexual intrigue, notoriety and death, and the City of London echo through the taut and visceral musicality of the sonnets that are at the heart of Chris McCabe’s Speculatrix. Written from the perspective of characters in Jacobean plays and set where the play was first performed, they offer a commentary on the chaotic, threatened and threatening world of early modern theatre. A ‘speculatrix’, meaning ‘she that spies or watches’ or female spy, introduces the idea of being watched and watching with the sense of anxiety and tension that accompanies such activity. The poems adequately convey that twitchiness and probe deeper.

Each sonnet is prefaced by a short introduction on the character, which speaks, when and where, with the implied undercurrent coming initially from the play’s sub-text. Thus the Duke of Brachiano from John Webster’s The White Devil at the Red Bull, Clerkenwell, in 1612 ‘who visits the home of Camillo’s wife, Vittoria Corombona’ where Camillo is killed by Brachiano’s secretary in what is staged to be a vaulting accident. Vittoria is put on trial for Camillo’s death and sentenced to a ‘house of convertities’. Whereas criticism mostly views Vittoria as the White Devil, and the Duke her seducer, the narrative spins off into the world of the audience and actor where ‘all / that is left behind is to make our bodies act out the desires / they now have words for.’ The speaker gives rise to doubt as to whom is the white devil, who is in charge of whom, and where purity may be found. McCabe echoes Webster’s concerns with sexual intrigue, the configuring of the double negatives of the flesh, and financial power within a chaotic and disturbed world.

Vindice, whose wife is murdered on their wedding day, from Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy says:

I’ve seen skulls with better teeth than this excessive
in death as an eunuch’s archived Playboys
after the extraction the black sock in the ditch of the
mouth a debit of bones cindered in corsets as
Southwark’s abscess drains green in the
Thames

The sonnets mostly eschew the vernacular of Jacobean drama for a taut and spiky contemporary language use, with claws, worms, zombies and maggots to indicate decay, which probes the role of gender and the City in both the early modern and our own period. When the Duchess from Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi speaks she says: ‘you imagine me wanting / you watching this who’s watching who? / Speculatrix’ and the narrative immediately quotes from the play, ‘Now there’s a rough-cast phrase to / your plastique’ bringing the matter of how language is used to frame gender relations and definitions into play. Beneath the narratives are the cloak of disguise and subterfuge, and the constant threat of discovery, labelling, imprisonment and death.

McCabe tackles the theme of contemporary social unrest in London, with a poem about the August 2011 London riots, ‘Teenage Riot, Daydream Nation’, commissioned for a Sonic Youth tribute and inspired by the music of Louis Zukofsky’s “A”, which ends ‘In these acts there are no skies, there are only bricks’. Other poems in the collection concern the artist, Francis Bacon, poets Rimbaud, Barry MacSweeney, and Tim Allen and the Plymouth Language Club. This collection is one of the poetic highlights of 2014. McCabe gave an intense and exhilarating reading from Speculatrix at the Tears in the Fence Festival in October and at the book’s launch at St John’s Priory crypt, Clerkenwell. It is well worth reading.

David Caddy 19th December 2014

Ingrid Jonker’s ‘Die Kind’ / ‘The Child’

Ingrid Jonker’s ‘Die Kind’ / ‘The Child’

Nelson Mandela began his inaugural Presidential address to Parliament on 24 May 1994, speaking about the poet, Ingrid Jonker (1933-1965), as someone who ‘gave us the right to assert with pride that we are South Africans, that we are Africans and that we are citizens of the world.’ He continued in his measured voice and manner that ‘In the midst of despair, she celebrated hope. Confronted with death, she asserted the beauty of life. In the dark days when all seemed hopeless in our country, when many refused to hear her resonant voice, she took her own life. To her and others like her, we owe a debt to life itself. To her and others like her, we owe a commitment to the poor, the oppressed, the wretched and the despised.’ This extraordinary recognition of an Afrikaner poet was followed by a recitation of her poem ‘The child who was shot dead by soldiers in Nyanga’, written in the aftermath of the massacre at the anti-pass demonstration in Sharpeville on 21 March 1960. Violence erupted throughout South Africa. When a black baby was shot dead in her mother’s arms by police in the black township of Nyanga, Cape Town, Jonker was outraged and went to the Philippi police station to see the body. Mandela’s reading, which differs from the 1968 Jack Cope and William Plomer and 2007 André Brink and Antjie Krog translations, manages to get to the poem’s core without embellishment. I have to say that I prefer his version. It is starker and to the point. I suspect that he memorised the poem and deeply felt its impact throughout his legal struggles and subsequent imprisonment.

The child is not dead…
the child lifts his fists against his mother
who
shouts Africa!…

The child is not dead
Not at Langa nor at Nyanga
nor at Orlando nor at
Sharpeville
nor at the police post at Philippi
where he lies with a bullet
through his brain…

The André Brink and Antijie Krog version in Black Butterflies: Selected Poems (Human & Rousseau) is quite different, far more flowery and wordy. The lack of firmness in their version is in stark contrast to Mandela’s more direct and blunt account. Jonker’s audio recordings of this and other poems display a cadenced and musical voice, which Mandela’s English recitation captures more closely in simpler language. It is in the final stanzas that Mandela’s radically different translation hits home hardest. Whereas Brink & Krog translate the original:

Die kind is die skaduwee van die soldate
op wag met gewere sarasene en knuppels
die kind is teenwoordig by alle vergaderings en wetgewings
die kind loer deur die vensters van huise en in die harte van moeders
die kind wat net wou speel in die son by Nyanga is orals

‘The child is the shadow of the soldiers / On guard with guns Saracens and batons / the child is present at all meeting and legislations / the child peeps through the windows of houses and into the / hearts of mothers / the child who just wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga is / everywhere’

Mandela said

the child is present at all assemblies and law-giving
the child peers
through the windows of houses
and into the hearts of mothers
this child
who only wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga
is everywhere

I am happy with Mandela’s omission of a whole line. His version, much closer to Cope and Plomer, cuts to the core and uses the word ‘assemblies’ in terms of both protest and parliamentary gatherings. The poem ends powerfully with the child not needing a pass to be a South African, and it is this that aligned her with the banned Africa National Congress and Pan-Africanist Congress.

The full address is at http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/state-nation-address-president-south-africa-nelson-mandela

Ingrid Jonker, a central figure in the Sestigers group of bohemian poets and writers, petitioned the National Party government in 1963 protesting against its increasing censorship defying her father who was the chief censor. When her volume of poetry, Rook en Oker (Smoke and Ochre) was published in October 1963, Jonker offered to visit her father and bring him a signed copy. He told her to post it, adding that he had no wish to be seen with her in public. Her poem, ‘The child was shot dead by soldiers in Nyanga’, had an immediate galvanising impact. She was indefatigable in her opposition to censorship, the pass laws of apartheid, and decision not to change a word of her poem. She never compromised her thinking.

David Caddy 14th December 2014

Iain Sinclair’s 70 X 70 Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in 70 films

Iain Sinclair’s 70 X 70 Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in 70 films

(King Mob, 2014) http://king-mob.net/

Ian Sinclair’s selection of 70 films in celebration of his 70th birthday, based on films related to the locations and enthusiasms of his life, constitutes a kind of accidental novel in its autobiographical journey. Screened in unusual venues across London in the build up towards his birthday they include rare and less well known European art cinema and British films. There are films related to his time at Trinity College, Dublin 1960-1962, film school at Brixton, films that he has made, including those related to his books, and films connected to those parts of London, which have fuelled his obsessions. His sense of London’s geography was constructed through finding cinemas, and there are extracts from the most recent films shot outside London.

The book’s format consists of Sinclair’s introductory notes to each film, which contextualise its impact on and connections to his life and writing. Orson Welles, Hitchcock, Luis Buñuel, Jean-Luc Godard, Herzog, Fassbinder, Rosselini, Antonioni, Michael Reeves, Patrick Keiller, William Burroughs, the Beats, J.G. Ballard are well featured. There are substantial and illuminating interviews with his collaborators Chris Petit, Susan Stenger, Stanley Schtinter, Andrew Kötting, as well as critic Colin MacCabe, on Godard’s Le Mépris (1963) and the writer of The Long Good Friday (1980), Barrie Keeffe. The Whitechapel Gallery film curator, Gareth Evans, director John Smith and others provide introductory notes to specific films, which with the pages of still photographs enhance the impact of the whole.

The book’s strength lies in the stories behind the films, the quirky manner in which they came to be the way they are as well as the ways the selection adds to the contextualization and interaction with Sinclair’s writing. For example, Muriel Walker, who was part of the crew that made William Dieterle’s Vulcano (1950) and became actress Anna Magnani’s secretary, provides a fascinating insight into Rosselini’s lover and the film’s production. Her photographs and diary from the shoot were featured in Sinclair’s American Smoke.

Of John Brahm’s Hangover Square (1945), loosely based on Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel and subtitled a tale of Darkest Earl’s Court, he writes:

‘Brahm’s film is a minor classic, a shotgun wedding of
expressionism and surrealism: barrel organs, leering
pawnbrokers, cor-blimey-guv urchins. Linda Darnell
enthusiastically impersonates a knicker-flashing singer
with flea-comb eyelashes and hair in which you could lose a
nest of squirrels. There are two mind-blowing sequences:
the bonfire on which the faithless Netta is incinerated,
while a mob of Ensor devils howl and chant – and the
concerto, when a raving Bone hammers away at a blazing
grand piano.’

As ever, the reader wishes to see the film.

Sinclair refers to Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1979/80), based on Alfred Döblin’s novel, as the pivotal film in the curation, as it is ‘the physical object with the most mystery.’ He writes: ‘For me going to Berlin, quite late on, was an expedition made through the filter of, initially, Döblin’s book and then the film. When I wrote about the labyrinth of memory that is Berlin, in a book called Ghost Milk, it was a tribute to both those works and a way of seeing this city.’

Gareth Evans’ closes the book with an essay ‘On the Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes’ and notes that whilst the curated films map ‘the road taken with wit, idiosyncrasy, combative, collaborative flair and no end of passionate poetry’ they also offer ‘a way forward, posting a typology of possible futures – of multiple spaces, found or made, for the public gaze – for how and why film is seen’. He concludes with a line from Theodore Roethke ‘In a dark time the eye begins to see’.

There is much more to this wonderfully spirited book, not least a description of actor, Toby Jones, possessing the figure of John Clare, and I urge readers of Iain Sinclair and lovers of the possibilities of film to engage with this joyous celebration.

David Caddy 7th December 2014

Dorothy Lehane’s Places of Articulation (Dancing Girl Press, 2014)

Dorothy Lehane’s Places of Articulation (Dancing Girl Press, 2014)

http://dulcetshop.ecrater.com/p/20993248/places-of-articulation-dorothy-lehane

Hot on the heels of her debut collection, Ephemeris (Nine Arches Press, 2014), Dorothy Lehane’s Places of Articulation (Dancing Girl Press) continues her exploration of the physiological body by looking at various neurological conditions that effect speech. I admire Dorothy’s poetry because it is both experimental and about something worth exploring. Here she is broadly concerned with conditions of, such as irrealis and echolalia, or impediments to, speech from a neurological perspective. It is possible to argue that such impediments are also borne from social conditions, and indeed Lehane immediately locates aphasia in a social context:

erase bashful in stutter, or erasure
in cortex
yours, yours, a monstrous infancy
trespass careful, or fathers will

Lehane’s poem exploits the double meaning of aphasia as an inability to understand speech and an inability to produce speech, and is thus able to gesture at a range of possible associations and connections to produce a beguiling poem. Her pithy poems encompass concerns with phonetics, semantics, prattle, brain asymmetry, broken syntax, as they focus upon places of articulation and words formed and undone.

seems the world rebounds
words run their course
long organic death proliferates
for all the wrongs
said to be still surviving
your dead Latin
in your dead mouth

Lehane’s language work is strong. I would like to read more stretching of words to convey rupture, displacement and the struggle towards utterance. Sufferers of, for example, cerebral palsy and motor neurone diseases have speech disorders, show environmental and sensory awareness and do effect sonic and other responses within a wide range of understanding. Her poems are sinewy and effective. ‘Aleph’ is particularly strong with its musicality and rhythm effortlessly taking the sense, and reader, forward:

how poor in brushed poverty
acoustic ways to find all morning we kill

for a little letter privilege
fervent inceptions we strain to hear
by divine name this aleph so long to sage
recall in all its plexus in all its cursing

The final poem in the sequence, ‘goodnight, Malaysian three seven zero’ is a collage, rich in language play, of the last utterances of dying people. Part of the fun of the poem’s arc comes from assigning dying words to someone from the list of cultural figures footnoted at the poem’s end as it seamlessly unfolds.

This is another wonderful chapbook from the Dancing Girl Press.
Lehane is a poet well worth following.

David Caddy December 3rd 2014

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