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Monthly Archives: April 2015

Half a dozen, just like you by Simon Smith (Oystercatcher Press, 2015)

Half a dozen, just like you by Simon Smith (Oystercatcher Press, 2015)

When you have bought this new Oystercatcher Press collection, and I urge you to do precisely that, turn to the poem titled ‘SUNSPOT’, the opening lines of which set a tone which reverberates with the tones of what the poet has already read:

SUNSPOT

a colourless yard
bar a couple of daffodils left to yellow
& burn in the sun—left to sunlight

bleak grey sun cloudless
behind glass
the wreckage of a Victorian fuchsia

the back gate in all its glory
blue—faded to turquoise—paint peels

in a town so small you can walk across it in minutes
not hours or days or weeks—a city—

One of the echoes of this evocation of Paris draws us back, as readers, to John James’s ‘To a Young Art Student in London’ from his 1967 Ferry Press publication MMM…AH YES:

Nothing moving on the suburban streets of every European city—

you can only be sure of your own pattern of the force, revealed
in meteorite storms of colour

figuring the space round
your own iris,
next year’s buds
hidden in
this year’s plant, the tree’s
roots growing
where no eye can see

It is no accident that the figure of John James, poet of Bristol, Cambridge and France, should figure so clearly in this little volume of poems. ‘The Night Station’ is for John James, the Equipage publication In Romsey Town is mentioned as is that early Ferry Press publication already mentioned. Two years after the publication of MMM… AH YES, Andrew Crozier published his own poem to James in Walking on Grass:

Every time you see him John’s fringe has grown shorter
so he waves it at you, and with the steel-framed
sartorial spectacle of an illustrious trans
tight vested poet, and a pleated vent,
he’s on home ground.

And these poems by Simon Smith are on ‘home ground’. It isn’t just the opening poem dedicated to Flick Allen (the FELICITÉ of the cover); it’s the localising of emotion ‘Round the Corner’ in Ramsgate, the memory of another Ferry Press publication, David Chaloner’s Chocolate Sauce, the swift movement from a Paris courtyard to Charing Cross Road; the continued accumulation of experience held in a ‘carrier bag life’ which concludes for a brief moment, a gesture, at Canterbury’s Mrs Jones’ Kitchen on 2nd of May last year.
The other John that comes to my mind at this moment is Riley whose Correspondences were published by The Human Constitution in 1970:

‘I am always on the dark side of the window, looking at them all living in the lights. I’m in good company, but with ghosts, and on the other side human beings are so solid and bright.’
Susan to John, Whitby 3rd August 1961.

Or again, describing her journey through Crete Susan writes about Knossos and the underground storerooms where the pots ‘move in their stillness’. Referring to a refusal to search for aesthetic experiences she writes ‘you just walked into the experience and everything that happened was part of it and peaceful and O.K…I’ve stopped wanting to work myself up over things; if something’s going to interest me it can come and hit me in the eye.’

This little chapbook by Simon Smith lands a punch!

Ian Brinton 20th April 2015

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Belief is its own kind of truth, Maybe by Lori Jakiela (Atticus Books, 2015)

Belief is its own kind of truth, Maybe by Lori Jakiela (Atticus Books, 2015)

This engaging, multifaceted creative nonfiction memoir is exquisitely written and effortlessly draws the reader into a series of philosophical issues. Ostensibly the narrative concerns the narrator’s quest for her biological mother and medical history through the Catholic Charities following the death of her adopted mother. However, it soon develops a series of narrative threads moving back and forward in time, which concern nature versus nurture, motherhood, authenticity and mapping a life. What emerges through short, stabbing paragraphs of gritty, self-deprecating and emotionally charged versions of being raised by foster parents is the trail of how that narrator was formed and became the woman who writes.

The story of the search for her birth mother highlights Jakiela’s extensive narrative gifts. She is sharp, insightful, adept at the use of detail to show the wider social-economic or family context, brutally honest and concerned with using language to uncover deeper layers of meaning. Her use of language with its movement from staccato jazz to the darkly funny is reminiscent of Geoff Dyer in The Colour of Memory and Paris Trance. However, Jakiela offers another layer than Dyer in that she is concerned with probing the archaeology of words. This takes two forms. One is a concern with naming and names, and the other is a fascination with adding words to develop vocabulary and selfhood. Both concerns are shown in the narrator’s exploration of her daughter’s first word, ‘abre’ meaning open and her son’s first word, ‘duck’, which she views as ‘blood things’. There is also a sense that words carry possible transcendence through the uncovering of older meaning. Like Dyer, Jakiela wears her learning lightly and is a joy to read.

Years ago, I saw a palm reader in a basement storefront in New York. She held my wrists, turned my palms up, both hands. “This,” she said, tracing a finger down the lines of my left hand, “is what you were born with. ”Then she traced a finger on my right palm. “And this,” she said, “is the map you make yourself.”
The she asked for $50. She took MasterCard and Visa, not Discover.

Blood is a strong motif running through the memoir. There is a moving scene in her in-laws’ kitchen when the narrator has received a series of abusive messages from a woman purporting to be her birth sister following her efforts to contact her mother. This is cleverly juxtaposed through the décor of pears reminding her of Odysseus’s use of pears, his homelessness, her old classics Professor’s urging her to read the original, and cutting her palm when trying to slice a bagel in two. “Cut away from yourself,” my mother always said. She inspects the ragged cut between the heart and life lines, and the blood ‘coming up in spots, flecks.’ The scene builds up through a series of emotions. ‘Anger comes after grief and fear, a logical thing, but I can’t sort this. I want the truth and I want the lie I was born with. I want connection and I want to get as far away as possible.’

Underlying the narrative are some interesting premises, such as the desire to write to discover what one does not know, and the boundaries and limitations of one’s own life story. Jakiela is a knowing and explorative writer seeking to expand and grow. An adopted person’s story, she writes, ‘is someone else’s secret.’ Indeed this leads her to write an imagined and seemingly authentic account of her birth mother’s situation at the time of her birth. Her birth mother subsequently refuses to acknowledge and communicate with her daughter. Here lies the agony, the persistent unease, and joy of this well filtered narrative. From the darkness of a crippling past, Jakiela finds light.

Her quest for connection ultimately stems from her own selfhood, family and relationships, and an ability to draw from literature and upon the life experiences of other writers and poets, such as Anne Sexton, Gerald Locklin, whom her son is named after, and Lucille Clifton. Beneath that is a quest for the roots of words and an understanding of the role of translation.

My birth mother’s name is such an ordinary one, as ordinary as podium, as plant, as pen. “Do you ever wonder about that?” Lucille Clifton wanted to know, how something plain could have so much power. But in Grimm’s fairy tale, Rumplestiltskin demands the queen learn his name or lose her child. Ancient people believed to know someone’s name was to know that person’s essence. To change a name meant to change destiny. The name I was born with means work and strain. The name I was born with was a wolf.
Lori is a laurel tree. Lori is a celebration.
A name can be a transformation or a cage, both.

Lori Jakiela is a most accomplished writer. You will not be disappointed by the range and scope of this provocative memoir.

David Caddy 16th April 2015

Due North by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books, 2015)

Due North by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books, 2015)

As the author’s blurb on the back tells us this is a poem in twelve chapters ‘concerned with human movement northwards or out in the quest for work, subsistence, settlement and gratification, and in danger of getting trapped in various enclosures, including thought-traps.’ It is serious; it is where we are; it places ordinary people in the history and geography of their upbringing.

The opening chapter brings to my mind the early sections of R.F. Langley’s Olsonian venture ‘Matthew Glover’. Riley has ‘human groups moving / over the great grasslands with the herds’ across ‘vast green and red lands without division’ and registers for us those ‘footsteps measured in millennia’. Langley’s poem opened with movement and settling: ‘To start with throve heavy forest / this district, on its marl / thick blue marl’. And this in its turn brings to mind the thoughts of Mircea Eliade’s suggestion that a sacred place has a unique existential value for religious man as ‘A universe comes to birth from its centre’. As Peter Riley’s opening chapter puts it, wisdom is learned ‘in a form of desire, a distance to be gained’ and this in turn is accompanied by ‘Orphic stasis’; no looking back unless it be at the fast disappearing shadows of what one thought one might have brought with one.

The movement is ‘Not “travel”’ since there ‘were needs, and displacements’ and an ‘outpacing’ of the desert ‘trekking in a great curve across the African savannah / towards the northern swamps and forests / the great diadem that divides the sky / into days and days into hours, captured / in a circular stone hut’.

Music, history and personal reminiscence merge as ‘A precise liquid touch on the keyboard / small cloven hoofs on the packed stones’ and the ‘everyday which is where we live’ is also the place ‘in which we are trapped.’

This is a terrific book which contains the previously published The Ascent of Kinder Scout (Longbarrow Press 2014) about which I wrote a blog on August 22nd last year. This is a book to carry ‘in a side pocket through morning thoroughfares’:

‘Silence folded against the flank as the sky is folded
tight behind the morning fogs and closed shops
and there is no refuge to be had across the great
housing estates, sleeping citizens of eternity.’

Ian Brinton 14th April 2015

Rebels, Beats And Poets by Jim Burns (Penniless Press Publications, 2015)

Rebels, Beats And Poets by Jim Burns (Penniless Press Publications, 2015)

This sixth collection of informative essays and reviews showcasing Jim Burns’ encyclopedic knowledge of twentieth century bohemianism contains thoughtful insights into the current scene and is by no means set in the past.

His first substantial point is that literary criticism by highlighting a few writers and poets from the Fifties and early Sixties overlook the wider social and cultural circumstances and sheer excitement of the period through an excess of analysis. Burns opens out the artificial boundaries and distinct categories of official criticism to reveal a more confused, floating world of writers and poets, little magazines, small presses and the ephemera of bohemia. Here we glimpse through essays on political rebels, beats, jazz musicians, poets, writers, filmmakers, artists and photographers a somewhat looser field of connection and relationship as well as a deep enthusiasm to move forward to a better place. Underlining this is the contention that minor figures may well yield as much social, cultural and literary insight as some of the major figures. Burns is quite clear in understanding that, for example William Burroughs, whilst linked with Allen Ginsberg through friendship, is clearly drawing upon very different sources and techniques. His essay on Cities Of The Red Night portrays Burroughs as a moralist with the power to shock, provoke and disturb, employing humour, visual effects and shifting action from within the American tradition of outlaws and pirates.

His second provocation concerns the role of the little magazine. He echoes Samuel Beckett’s publisher, John Calder’s point that the Fifties sowed the seeds that sprouted in the much vaunted Sixties, and examines the world of Merlin, a short-lived little magazine in the Parisian bohemian world of the Fifties, which drew attention to Beckett’s writing. Merlin subsequently spawned a publishing house, which published editions of Watt and Molloy. In the essay, ‘What Will You Read Tomorrow?’ he laments the passing of the ‘alternative’ bookshops, which grew out of Sixties unrest and offered reading matter far removed from the big publishers and distributors. Given the decline of the independent and second hand bookshops, the narrowing range of Waterstones and Borders, and the fact that the Internet cannot always supply writing that is beyond the ordinary and fashionable, Burns sees a vital role for the little magazine as an outlet and resource. He writes:

And it seems to me that little magazines, for all their problems,
are a way of providing us with a system of exchanging ideas and information about the overlooked and the unusual. Isaac Rosenfeld once said of little magazines that they were outlets for ‘a small but vigorous and very vital, active and conscious group which knew fairly well the sort of thing it stood for even if it had no specific programme and whether or not it had any political allegiance.’ He also
said that one of the characteristics of a conservative age is ‘the shrinkage of extremes’ and he added: ‘I am used to thinking, because of my upbringing, of the writer standing at one extreme from society; I mean, of course, the serious writer, the conscious writer, then, as a man who stands at a certain extreme, at a certain remove from society.’
He asserts that the little magazine could provide the variety missing elsewhere, and the reassurance that there are other dissidents who don’t believe the big publishers and mass markets can supply everything that the imagination needs to keep it alive and alert to the world.

His essay on David Gascoyne’s life reminds the reader of the importance of the Parton Street Bookshop in Bloomsbury as a gathering place for young poets and their readers. It was there that Gascoyne met George Barker, Norman Cameron, Geoffrey Grigson, Roger Roughton and others, as well as where he bought imported surrealist publications. From there he would walk to Zwemmers Bookshop in Charing Cross Road to chat with Ruthven Todd and compare their imported stock. The key is that Gascoyne had a range of places to increase his reading and knowledge.

There are other fascinating essays on a range of subjects from the Paris-Amsterdam underground, Surrealistic Prague, to Henry Miller, B. Traven, and the Edward Dorn / LeRoi Jones correspondence, as well as the extensive Beat Scene interview with Burns by Kevin Ring from Spring 2014. This compelling volume of essays is a joy to read and contains much information and material that is hard to find.

David Caddy 13th April 2015

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