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Monthly Archives: February 2015

From Fossils to Fibonacci: Nancy Gaffield’s Be-Hind-Sight Zyxt (Oystercatcher Press)

From Fossils to Fibonacci: Nancy Gaffield’s Be-Hind-Sight Zyxt (Oystercatcher Press)

As Nancy Gaffield’s new chapbook of poems tells us ‘each poem is an exploration / of language in place’. The phrase is followed by a reference to Gaston Bachelard’s influential 1958 volume The Poetics of Space in which he asserted that ‘Inhabited space transcends geometrical space.’ Early on in the book Bachelard quotes from Rilke:

‘House, patch of meadow, oh evening light
Suddenly you acquire an almost human face
You are very near us, embracing and embraced.’

And when I looked at this it was with a leap of recognition that I thought of Robert Duncan’s opening lines to ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’:

‘as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,

that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein…’

Combining the Fibonacci accumulation of numbers seen as space on the page, alongside a floor-plan of what appears as a horizontal cathedral, Nancy Gaffield offers the reader an Olsonian journey and provides us with a ‘presence of place to / share words and deeds’. As she says, ‘this is polis’.
Bachelard asserts that a house constitutes a body of images ‘that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability’ and goes on to suggest that, as a building, a house is imagined as ‘a vertical being’ which rises upwards differentiating itself in terms of its verticality. Nancy Gaffield’s poems are constructions which link our presence to our past:

build their shells around
principles of geometry
the fossil in this stone lived seventy million years
ago by turning in on itself this is slow life in a fortress town
that passes
its days dreaming from within its walls until the last
catastrophe petrifies them
in their stone coffins
a far cry
from the

Like a mathematical accretion from the thirteenth century the poem builds up before reaching the turning point of ‘passes’ prompting the lines to withdraw to the stone coffin of the printed page and its resonant echo that sounds so far from its original source. These poems are not merely skilful; they possess a haunting beauty that allows history to breathe. The advantage Herodotus has over Thucydides, according to Olson, is that the father of History says the voice is greater than the eye:

‘If you shout—if you tell your story—he listens to you. He doesn’t give you that nod and finger which destroys you, wagging, and saying, look, you ain’t there. He says, you say so? OK, I believe you. Truth is what is said, not what is seen. Your own report is good enough for him. You say you lived here? OK. You did. These things happened to you? OK. Sign here’

These new poems may concentrate upon what can be seen, sight, but their echo is what lasts with me, an ‘undercroft’, a ghost that lives in language, a fluid movement into which I can dive in order to experience the vertigo of the matter-of-fact ‘colliding with memory’. They are built to last!

Ian Brinton February 21st 2015

Contemporary Olson edited by David Herd (Manchester University Press, 2015)

Contemporary Olson edited by David Herd (Manchester University Press, 2015)

Contemporary Olson, based upon talks given at a University of Kent conference in 2012, re-assesses Charles Olson’s work and place in recent poetic history. Written by writers, poets and academics, this book of essays contextualises Olson’s thought and work, placing him in his period, and focuses upon individual poems and essays. Olson’s ideas, assumptions and practice are examined and contested with a critical eye. These engagements are divided into sections, knowledge, poetics, gender, history and space, based on key preoccupations within Olson’s work.

There are some terrific essays in this wide ranging volume and I shall try to give a flavour of some of its contents.

Peter Middleton’s essay ‘Discoverable unknowns: Olson’s literary preoccupation with the sciences’ delineates Olson’s concerns with the sciences and scientists and points out the poetic consequences of inscribing scientific knowledge and methods into the field of the poem. Reitha Pattison analyses Olson’s understanding of cosmology and clarifies the function of ‘cosmology’, ‘space’ and ‘breath’ in his prosody. She concludes that ‘Apprehending the extent of Olson’s insistence upon the concrete and literal condition of all cosmic forms in his prose permits a more accurate sense of the textual space the writer heralded in ‘Projective Verse’. Michael Grant and Ian Brinton translate Olson’s concern with space and breath into one of void and voice, and place his postwar image of hell in ‘Cold Hell, in Thicket’ in relation to T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, where there is a different understanding of the physically projected voice.

Some notable facts are explored and deepened, such as Olson’s work as a poet-teacher, which is founded upon intellectual and poetic exchanges not only with male poets, such as Paul Blackburn as read here by Simon Smith, but also some relatively ignored women figures, such as Frances Boldereff, a relationship examined by Robert Hampson. Rachel Blau DuPlessis notes how Maximus, in its detailed attention of the world of work, ignores female labour, and is framed by its masculinity. There is recognition of the importance of Olson’s typographic work for several subsequent women poets from Susan Howe onwards. Stephen Fredman in his reading of Olson’s poem, ‘The Lordly and Isolate Satyrs’, first published in Evergreen Review 4, locates him, through the central image of motorcyclists at the heart of a cultural moment in the late 50s and early 60s. It might have been interesting to compare that poem to Thom Gunn’s ‘On The Move’ and other motorcycle poems published in 1957.

Gavin Selerie outlines Olson’s British contacts, travels and legacy, including his visit to Dorchester County Museum, to research Weymouth port records, in the summer of 1967. Ed Dorn would similarly visit south Dorset for the summer a few years later. Elaine Feinstein recalls the moment when Olson’s poetics first intersected with British poetry. Iain Sinclair, in an outstanding essay, recalls the effect of encountering Olson in July 1967 and returns the reader to Olson’s position in Gloucester, Massachusetts, at the sea’s edge, and recounts his visit there watching Henry Ferrini’s DVD of John Malkovich reading sections of Maximus at the Writer’s Center. ‘The real punch arrives at the end as one of the extra features’, writes Sinclair, when Olson reads and is ‘absolutely mesmerizing and lifted everything from the theoretical pitch … to a different register. You witness the man, the energy of him as he grasps his own poem; the practical demonstration of projective verse, the full body reading.’

Ralph Maud also takes the reader to the Cape Ann coastline that was the vantage point of Olson’s major writing and first poem, and emphasises that Olson’s work should always be read as a work in progress, a draft that is designed to stimulate and enable thought. As Olson wrote:

It is undone business
I speak of, this morning,
with the sea
stretching out
from my feet

Here ‘undone’ is read as ‘ongoing’ with a necessity to engage once more. The contemporary relevance of Olson’s work rests precisely in the opening up of possibilities, which it continues to do. To my mind, one of the greatest testimony to Olson’s achievements, and this could have been explored more, is the impact of Olson as a poet-teacher, at Black Mountain and elsewhere, on the likes of Ed Dorn, Jeremy Prynne, and others. In particular, the practical, as opposed to theoretical, knowledge that Olson gave Dorn. This knowledge, in turn, helped shape a way of reading people and landscape, of asking and shaping questions, of reading signs and history. Much could have been made of the fact that both Dorn and Prynne departed from Olson’s direction as very different poets from the ones they were before their encounters. Prynne one suspects drew many lessons from Olson, one of which is surely seen in his acknowledgement that thought is always ongoing, subject to correction and error.

I am looking forward to reading many more essays, including those by Charles Bernstein, Ben Hickman, David Herd, who also provides an introductory essay, Anthony Mellors, Miriam Nichols, Sarah Posman, Kalien van den Beukel and Tim Woods.

David Caddy 18th February 2015

Nerve Cells by Colin Winborn (Knives, Forks, Spoons Press)

Nerve Cells by Colin Winborn (Knives, Forks, Spoons Press)

Some fifteen years ago, in Tears 42, Colin Winborn wrote an intriguing piece comparing lines by the metaphysical poet John Donne with lines from the lyrics of the Kentucky-born singer-songwriter Will Oldham:

‘…Donne reaches for a transcendent fusion of spirit and flesh, rising above the laity, [whilst] Oldham presses back to earth, refusing transcendence’.

The contrast suggested here came back to my mind when I started looking at Nerve Cells, published in 2012 by the wide-ranging and central small poetry press, Knives Forks and Spoons. There is an account of this press of course, written by Juha Virtanen in Tears 59 and I have included an update in the Afterword for the forthcoming Tears 61.

The movement mentioned by Colin Winborn is caught exquisitely in one of the opening poems of this substantial volume. A poem which clearly takes a Brueghel painting of hunters returning in the snow as its starting point opens with the lines

‘The hunters
returning see themselves
in faint silhouette, woodsmoke
curling inwardly’

The playing with light and self-awareness conjures up a moment from Dante’s Paradiso and that ‘quïete in foco vivo’ is taken up again by Winborn in the carefully cadenced piece ‘Edward Thomas’:

‘that dusky
brightness that child
crying for the bird of
the snow’


He paused
by the clearing
watched as the cold
rain unquoted

The delicacy of movement taking shadow beneath the watcher in the clearing notes the shift from a feathery lightness to a cold quota of the more tangible. With an echo of Robert Grosseteste writing about how light of its very nature diffuses itself in every direction in such a way that a point of light will produce instantaneously a sphere of any size whatsoever and confirming the Lincoln theologian’s attitude concerning light being the corporeity of form we read here

‘A thought divides
itself, multiplies

the world: Let
there be lights!’

Further comments upon this remarkable collection will appear in my forthcoming book about Dulwich College Poets since 1950. After all, the College was fortunate enough to have Colin Winborn on its staff in the first decade of the present century.

Ian Brinton 16th February 2015

Sally Flint’s The Hospital Punch (Maquette Press)

Sally Flint’s The Hospital Punch (Maquette Press)

Reading this little chapbook of poems, eleven in all, I kept thinking ‘Why am I moved by these glances into the life of a hospital?’ The answer when it came was something to do with the compassion and care threading its way through the tone of Sally Flint’s poems. It brought to mind the article I had read by Gavin Francis yesterday in the review section of The Guardian. The article revolved around that masterpiece from 1967 by John Berger, A Fortunate Man. Gavin Francis presented the reader with a brief account of Berger’s book, ‘a collaborative work that blends John Berger’s text with Jean Mohr’s photographs in a series of superb analytical, sociological and philosophical reflections on the doctor’s role, the roots of cultural and intellectual deprivation and the motivations that drive medical practice’. The article also quotes Berger as stressing that he is ‘a storyteller’:

‘Even when I was writing on art it was really a way of storytelling—storytellers lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people.’

Sally Flint’s pictures of the ordinary and echoing history of hospital workers, those whose lives are touched by the intimacy and importance of what they are committed to, strike a bell of familiarity: one almost gets to know the characters as one would within the margins of storytelling. In ‘The Hospital Punch’

‘Henry, the anaesthetist, who swayed
like he’d sniffed nitrous oxide all his life,
un-wrapped one of the biggest sterile bowls
used to collect swabs in theatre.
He carried it like a ceremonial platter
to the staff room, leered over his spectacles
and said, ‘What we need is alcohol.’’

Within the narrative a baby/child has died and Nancy, one of those who will be at this ceremony of recovery, is ‘swollen-eyed / as the grey-faced parents she’d consoled’. Within this world of professional commitment and loss boundaries are melted as Big Marlon, the porter, brings glasses ‘out of store’ and tips into the bowl a hip-flask of rum whilst whispering the half-bitten cliché ‘It’ll warm the cockles’. As the wake continues the question of bringing the dead back to life ‘wouldn’t sink’:

‘It was nobody’s fault, we chorused.
Life wasn’t ours to give or take,
except for the exceptions—
when we’d fought and won.’

This carefully-poised poem, poised between the banality of a moment and the stretching eternity of responses to death, the echoing in our minds of Donne’s meditation in which he says ‘No man is an Island’, concludes with a sharply-drawn picture which could come from Black Mountain Michael Rumaker’s story ‘Exit 3’:

‘Slowly, Henry began feeling
dents in the locker doors
when the junior doctor said he couldn’t stand
the heat. As the sun slipped
behind the hospital chimney
he swung at the window, made his fist bleed.’

This little press, Maquette, from the University of Exeter, is worth keeping an eye out for and they can be contacted at 7 Grove Terrace, Teignmouth, Devon TQ14 9HT. Later on today I am looking forward to reading the third volume that has appeared from the press, A Plume of Smoke by Jos Smith.

Ian Brinton 8th February 2015

Eidolon by Sandeep Parmar (Shearsman Books)

Eidolon by Sandeep Parmar (Shearsman Books)

Pound’s Canto 93 from Section: Rock-Drill is infused with light. From ‘Risplende / From the sea-caves / degli occhi’ to ‘lux in diafana’ and ‘light there almost solid’ there is a quality of ‘Manifest and not abstract’. Also we read ‘in sea-caves / un lume pien’ di spiriti / and of memories’ before encountering the Poundian line that is used by Hugh Kenner as his conclusion to The Pound Era:

‘Shall two know the same in their knowing?’

In Sandeep Parmar’s essay, ‘Under Helen’s Breath’, which acts as the conclusion to this splendidly vivid collection of poems she refers to Virginia Woolf essay ‘On Not Knowing Greek’:

‘Woolf’s point is that we essentially cannot know the Greeks because we are so culturally different and their age was not one of aesthetic ‘schools’ or developmental phases but one that was somehow locked crystalline into a monolithic antiquity.’

Parmar goes on to refer to a culture and context ‘lost like the shade and fibre, the milk and memory of a self-effacing tree’ and quotes from Woolf’s essay:

‘With the sound of the sea in their ears, vines, meadows, rivulets about them, [the Greeks] are even more aware than we are of a ruthless fate. There is a sadness at the back of life which they do not attempt to mitigate.

Sandeep Parmar’s poetry possesses some of that monumental light, that merging of the transient with the unchanging:

‘The wind lays down a road
across the waves
hiding us in a mooring of fog
flanks of earth lighten
like fantasy like Leda’s body
to make way for our white ship
of a hundred tiers
and some thousand men’

Some eighty years ago Llewelyn Powys wrote to a young poet, who had sent him a manuscript, ‘Try to leave Fantasy and get down to the reality of pots and pans, out of such inauspicious matter poetry will leap new born’. For me Sandeep Parmar’s poetry does this and with her pen she stirs to life a world that disappeared over two thousand years ago:

under the mountain

Helen falls between two limits
is without documents

She takes a cab—black as a Homburg in winter—
and peels the notes carefully
from her purse the hinges rusting shut
she rolls quiet as water
down a cool glass
as a crow at dusk
walking backwards
stealing spoons
from the verandah

The TV already on (it’s never off)
greets her with a brief message
from our sponsors

Ian Brinton February 1st 2015

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