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Monthly Archives: May 2015

End Matter by Katrina Palmer (Artangel and Book Works, 2015)

End Matter by Katrina Palmer (Artangel and Book Works, 2015)

Katrina Palmer’s diverting book consisting of End Matter, such as appendices, addendum, attachment, epilogue, postscript, postface and maps serves as the documentary vestiges of a missing book. This book is immediately open to conjecture and the consideration of Portland, its history and stone. Following J.H. Prynne, the reader should be prepared to work outside the immediate text of End Matter in order to fully enquire beyond what remains of the missing book. End Matter accounts for the loss of Portland stone, one key to its history, through the work of the Loss Adjusters, responsible for accounting and balancing the material and historical shifts of the island. This peculiar angle offers great fun and some insight but crucially ignores the quarry stone owners, such as Portland Stone Firms active since 1700, and their exploitation of the quarrymen and their families. It does though afford a questionable narrative involving a writer in residence on the island, a rogue Loss Adjuster, a Carniter of the Court Leet, the deviant daughters of a quarryman and a convict in some unreliable stories. This offers Palmer the opportunity of filling out a fiction in the appendices and takes the form of Loss Adjuster reports:

Ostensible Format of Loss Adjuster’s Minutes For General Meeting No. –
Retrieved From The Memory Archive
Further To The Loss of The Rogue Loss Adjuster
Further to the Discovery of The Writer-in Residence’s
narrative: ‘The Rogue and The Carniter’

This is achieved very much tongue in cheek. Thus:

Data under investigation should be spoken aloud in the office, each Adjuster taking a paragraph in turn, interspersed with interpretation.
In this way a compressed and layered history can be formulated.

The Loss Adjusters are able to comment upon the illogicalities of the writer’s narratives, which offer a potted history of the island. In fact, the island’s history and that of the quarrymen and the stone buyers is quite complex and far from uniform. There is a local saying that the reason the Houses of Parliament exterior Portland stone is chipping away is that the owners when pricing the blocks, with a mark used to place the stone frontally, would turn them around and change the agreed price to make more money. There were decades of acute depression in the Portland stone market and times when the industry almost disappeared. However, the quality of the stone was always the preferred one for the country’s most important buildings such as Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral, the National Gallery, the British Museum, the Cenotaph, and the Bank of England.

Palmer’s angle is to look at loss and absence as the most striking feature of Portland stone through the work of the Loss Adjuster’s material representations of the displaced landscape and the compensation accrued in the form of buildings elsewhere. This avoids dealing with the social relations between quarrymen and the buyers of their labour, complicated yet further by the variable quality and uses of the stone and its exact constituents. However, this may be the missing book, and that is where the book’s attraction lies.
The narrative in the appendices offers an alternate reading of what may or not lie in the book of the reader’s imagination. If some readers know little of Portland they may think that there are tales of piracy, shipwrecks, sea fishing and romance connected with the island.

Palmer is good on the harbour, its forts, and the prison, opened in 1848 as a convict prison. The Adjusters note the equation of Portland stone removal and intake of prisoners on the island. There is an absence of the indigenous Portlander’s cultural distinctiveness. They are, in my experience, quirky and adaptable people. Consider the poets, such as Tim Allen, Jack Clemo, Cecil Durston, also a master stonemason, Richard Mason and Louisa Adjoa Parker, connected with or from Portland. End Matter, in the end, is a clever work of fiction rather than a deeper social-historical working of the island’s materials. The Loss Adjusters appendices have been made into an audio walk, with field recordings, and are available for download at http://www.artangel.org.uk/projects/2015/end_matter/about_the_project/end_matter and the Quarryman’s Daughters has been broadcast on BBC Radio Four. The book has some generous photographs and is beautifully produced. It is a notable work.

David Caddy May 28th 2015

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Two-Way Mirror by David Meltzer (City Lights)

Two-Way Mirror by David Meltzer (City Lights)

The opening stanza of one of David Meltzer’s poems for Donald Allen’s landmark anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-60, sets the scene for this delightful book:

An overdose of beautiful words
keeps rushing inside my mind
but won’t relate to thought or talk.
Like balloons, they will not last long
& insist on flying out of the hand
to die in the sky—released.

The poem was dedicated to John Wieners and that seems entirely appropriate; those things which insist on escaping are in the process of evaporating or stilling themselves on paper; they become part of a two-way mirror.

When this book was first published in 1977 Meltzer had already had at least two books published by the Oyez Press run by Robert and Dorothy Hawley. It was only the previous year, 1976, that Oyez had published William Everson’s (Brother Antoninus) account of the West Coast, Archetype West, The Pacific Coast as a Literary Region, and in the acknowledgements Everson referred to Robert Hawley in terms of ‘thoughtful conversation about the problem of writing in the West’ and the provision of ‘a ceaseless flow of materials’. It would seem then highly appropriate that Meltzer should discuss with Robert Hawley the venture of writing a poetry primer.

The original edition of Two-Way Mirror contained an insert which was directed at various educational ‘facilities’ and it included the following statement:

TWO-WAY MIRROR can be read by anyone who wishes to, but it is primarily a book of texts intended for people who might be interested in reading and / or writing poetry. ..Much of the book’s parts have been effectively used in poetry workshops that I’ve conducted in high schools, both public and private, in California. Much of my concern has been to reach and activate the capacity for poetry and poem-making latent but approachable in many young people.

This book is a delight to dip into and were I to be back in the classroom I would, without any doubt at all, use it time and time again. It is crammed with statements that breathe life into discussion.

• ‘Every word a tradition, a binding’

Such a simple phrase but I would want to expand on this to examine etymology, words, their contexts, their associations, their echoes. What a splendid way of starting a lesson about poetry! It is words that bind thought together.

• ‘A poem allows you sight of what is on the surface as well as what is beneath the surface or behind it.’

• ‘A poem restores your world to a level of revelation’.

And perhaps most pertinent of all:

‘A stanza can be one or two or three or four or fifty or one hundred lines long.
A stanza can be a word.
Any poem is like a painting. It’s built up out of parts. Strokes, layers, surfaces, textures, forms that interrelate and balance and together create a whole entity.’

Time and again when students are faced with complex poems the temptation is to shrug and walk away; Meltzer’s advice is central. After all a stanza is a room. Enter it, look around, move onto the next room and then walk back to experience being in the first one again. Reading is looking, thinking and responding. This book is a boost to self-confidence and, in turn, self-esteem and I wish that every secondary school in the country would buy this book! After that, I wish that every Head of Department in the country would make it essential reading for his colleagues and use its resources as topics for departmental discussion.

Ian Brinton 24th May 2015

Complete Poems by Jon Silkin eds. Jon Glover & Kathryn Jenner (Carcanet Press)

Complete Poems by Jon Silkin eds. Jon Glover & Kathryn Jenner (Carcanet Press)

In an Agenda interview from spring 1965 Jon Silkin referred to an idea of ‘density’ in poetry in such a manner as to shed some light upon his own powerful evocation of twelfth century York in his poem ‘Astringencies’ which had appeared in the 1961 volume The Re-ordering of the Stones:

There’s the density where you have, presumably, images that interlock and overlap to some extent and refer constantly to one another…you get this kind of density in a way in a long poem through the accumulation of narrative. Events impinge upon each other, or can be made to impinge upon each other. An event also becomes in a sense a metaphor in a long poem, and the various events by gradual association produce a density which will, I suppose, affect the language.

He also made the point that he liked the idea of poetry ‘making direct statements. It’s as simple as that really.’ Referring to his own preoccupations with language Silkin referred to the Hebrew classes he attended as a child:

‘I used to hear my grandparents speaking in Yiddish. I’d forgotten about this until a few years ago someone asked me if [Isaac] Rosenberg knew either language, and said he thought it important because it might account for the sort of bunched consonant effect in his poetry. I think that’s a pretty shrewd conjecture, and I think it might account for some of my intensifications of sounds in, say, ‘Crowfoot’. Sometimes when I’m writing I hear these explosive guttural consonants which I just can’t find equivalents for in English because there are none.’

It is this interest in the language of poetry that may well have prompted Jon Glover and Kathryn Jenner to comment on the ‘language of poetry, indeed any language’ not being applied to or stuck over ‘processes of life and death as a descriptor’ but being instead ‘integral to a whole substance.’
That poem ‘Astringencies’ is divided into two sections and the first, ‘The Coldness’ appeared as the opening poem in the Penguin Modern Poets 7 selection of Silkin’s work in which he appeared alongside Richard Murphy and Nathaniel Tarn. His inclusion in this influential series, which began in 1962 and ran to 27 volumes by 1975, will have brought attention to Silkin’s poetry from a far wider audience than would have been reached by the individual volumes published by Chatto & Windus. In this context Glover and Jenner point to an interesting and often overlooked fact about Penguin sales when they remind us that an agreement between Penguin and U.K. bookshops, including W.H. Smith, meant that to stock one Penguin meant that they had to stock them all, including Penguin Modern Poets.

In the late summer of 1965 Jon Silkin took up an offer from the North-East Association for the Arts to edit Stand from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His collection Nature with Man was also published in that year and the acknowledgement network of journals which appears at the opening of that volume represented Silkin’s habitual ambitious and exploratory use of magazines and broadcast media as a method of extending contact, recognition and readership. The editors of this fine new Complete Poems draw attention to this pre-book publication process of individual poems as being part of Silkin’s way of life:

While it was time-consuming and arduous, it was, for Silkin, a vital aspect of being a poet, and forming the identity and existence of a poem. In some ways it exemplified Stephen Greenblatt’s “New Historicist” negotiation and exchange: the poem did not exist without the process in which it was formed and used. Silkin often handed or posted drafts to friends with invitations to comment. For him the hard work was natural and necessary.

This method of sharing drafts of poems with friends is something that was close to the heart of many other poets in the mid-sixties and the recently formed new Poetry Archive at Cambridge University Library contains correspondence from a wide range of poets including Andrew Crozier, J.H. Prynne, John James, John Riley, Tim Longville, Michael Grant, John Welch, Peter Riley, Anthony Barnett, Paul Selby and John Freeman. Much of this correspondence focuses upon the whole idea of drafting and re-drafting: poetry in the process of becoming the finished work of art which finds its way into collections such as this admirable volume from Carcanet.

In her contribution to Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop’s critical survey of British Poetry Since 1960 (CarcanetPress 1972) Anne Cluysenaar suggested that Silkin’s view of life involved a highly complex, articulated, multitudinous structure which allowed him to englobe, without smudging, the veins of contradiction to which he was agonisingly sensitive.

Ian Brinton 15th May 2015

Fantasias in Counting Sophie Seita (Blazevox Books, 2014)

Fantasias in Counting  Sophie Seita  (Blazevox Books, 2014)

John Kinsella’s words on the back of this remarkable collection of performance textuality struck me very much indeed before I even started to trace a thread through the labyrinth of thought and humour which holds this provocative book together. Kinsella suggests that Seita’s theatrics ‘work the defamiliarised into the known: a fantasia of the writer’s making defaulting into non-ownership.’ As I became enveloped by the last piece in the book, ‘Talk between Nudes’ I could see what he might have been getting at as I found myself contemplating the way in which Wyndham Lewis may have written The Apes of God, that masterpiece of social satire from 1930:

Scene 1

[DE LEMPICKA’s decorous parlour. A long dining table, no chairs. To the right, a dressing table, to the left a floor-length painting that looks like a mirror. DE LEMPICKA wears a flashy grey table-cloth intricately wrapped around her intricate body.

It is perhaps that repetition of the word ‘intricate’ that heightens the humour: the self-awareness, the posing, the narcissism. The use of the word ‘floor-length’ with its audible hiss of a formal dress looks OF COURSE like a mirror and ‘flashy’ sets off the intricacy. These ideas are taken up in the next paragraph

The abundance of silk in the room effortlessly implies the taken-for-grantedness of cultured persons conversing in pleasant company.

Of course the word ‘conversing’ is right! They are not simply talking; they are cultured and what they immerse themselves in is effortlessness!
In October 2013, in Cambridge, J.H. Prynne wrote some words for Ian Heames’s publication of Will Stuart’s Nine Plays (Face Press 2014) and it is worth recalling these:

These are then radical experiments, radically unfamiliar in their effects and modalities, built up from speech registers redolent with common life and its credible lumpen similitudes; they are done with most palpable courage in the face of imminent damage to their own logic.

Sophie Seita’s ‘AN EXERCISE’, part of a sequence of poems titled ‘just pick a line’, opens with the concluding line of the previous poem, A DIAGRAM, sitting slapbang in the centre of the page opposite its title:

The one thing that interested me about the poem was that it was not yet there.

This is a delightfully provocative and uplifting statement and I found myself dwelling on the weight of that final word. After all, ‘there’ is such a placed word; it has such a self-justifying sense of itself; it is the final word of an argument which you think you have won…‘there’. It has also such a sense of the finished, the past, the unmoving. A few pages further on we read

Thinking about lines now
Thinking about lines now
Thinking about lines now
Thinking about lions now
Thinking about lie-ins now?

The reader says
lots of words sound like
other words.

It seems to me entirely appropriate that Sophie Seita should have become the translator of Uljana Wolf’s Babeltrack (Notes on a Lengevitch), part of which is published in the splendidly presented new issue of Cambridge Literary Review edited by Lydia Wilson, Rosie Šnajdr and Jeremy Noel-Tod. Incidentally this new issue, which is subtitled ‘The Children’s Issue’, is guest-edited by Eve Tandoi:

the dissolution of the linguistic sound system in aphasics provides an exact mirror-image of the phonological development in child language, writes Jakobson, as if aphasia made the child’s acquisition of speech possible in the first place and with it every production of sound in developmental stages, as if it held the mirror or provided rules, folie oder folly, as if we could find in this very bad sound-production disorder a blueprint for what is to come…

There is a memorable statement in the interview Caroline Bergvall gave for Scott Thurston’s Talking Poetics (Shearsman Books 2011) when she said that we are in a culture ‘where politically we’re encouraged to be non-intellectuals and by and large, non-critical’:

We’re being asked to swallow what’s happening, and to stick very close to each our own separate condition. We’re asked not to show broader empathy or engagement, nor to engage with what happens to others; not to be too polemical, unless we are directly connected. It’s so dangerous. We’re all connected.

So there!!!

Ian Brinton 12th May 2015

Map, (Poems After William Smith’s Geological Map of 1815) Edited by Michael McKimm Worple Press

Map, (Poems After William Smith’s Geological Map of 1815)  Edited by Michael McKimm Worple Press

In the early decades of the nineteenth century the civil engineer and geologist William Smith produced his maps giving a stratigraphic table for the rocks of Britain. As Michael McKimm tells us there are about 400 copies of this map, produced between 1815 and the 1830s, and one hangs on display in the entrance hall of the Geological Society of London. Two hundred years on from Smith’s Delineation of the Strata this anthology responds to that recognition of the way we relate to what lies beneath us in terms of both geological structure and historical fabric; it is an anthology of poems dealing with that world about which Charles Olson wrote in 1950 when he declared that ‘whatever you have to say, leave / the roots on, let them / dangle // And the dirt //Just to make clear / where they come from.’ As the editor puts it:

Their poems illustrate not only the vibrancy and variety of contemporary poetry but also poetry’s unique ability to take on uncharted territory with vision, to make connections…

The anthology contains a wide range of poems and I just highlight one or two as a taster of the delights to be found in this little volume from one of our very best small publishers.

John Freeman has four entries here and I am struck by the way in which ‘Strata Smith’ reminds me of early Dorn or Olson. I am thinking here of the early Dorn historical metanarrative, ‘Relics from a Polar Cairn’, which the American Black Mountaineer had sent to Gordon Taylor in December 1953 before it was published in Cid Corman’s Origin 13 in the summer of 1954. Comments on the poem appear in the second of my Black Mountain in England sequence of articles I did for PN Review ten years ago. Freeman’s poem opens up with that conversational informality which helps to reconstruct a scene:

We don’t know what they ate or drank. Three men
in a private room on a June evening,
the glass and china cleared from the table.
One man spoke, a second wrote, having ruled
a horizontal and four verticals
on a very large sheet of paper. The one
dictating went through, in order, with names
some of which he had improvised himself,
the twenty-three layers of various stuff,
including chalk, sand, clay and fuller’s earth,
always in the same sequence underground.
Each man took a copy before they parted.

This scene is placed for us, reconstructed along lines that might have stepped out of the pages of a narrative by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, and it is only by allowing the movement of the sentence to take us gently forward that we are able to register the stunning importance of the word ‘always’ heading that penultimate line. This map will change history. As Freeman puts it in the second section, ‘Nobody had ever seen this before. / There had been no understanding of what lay, / lies, beneath their feet and ours.’ The movement outwards from the local to the vast, as in some of those early Snyder poems based upon his experiences in Yosemite, is expansive as the poem concludes with days that ‘were getting longer and longer’:

that time of year when it seems light will go on
filling the whole world more and more brightly.

The anthology is too rich for me to give an account of each poem but there are delights from the well-known names of Philip Gross, Peter Robinson, John Greening, Anthony Wilson, Elizabeth Cook, Andrew Motion as well as so many more. Andy Brown, the editor of the very fine Kelvin Corcoran Reader The Writing Occurs as Song, (Shearsman 2014), gives us fossils as ‘a haunting from the underlying past’ and Helen Mort, the organiser of the recent John Riley Symposium in Leeds merges a past with a present in which she wishes to stay ‘until the very end’:

feeling the earth
move under me,

known by
nobody, part

of nothing,
whole

Get this important anthology from http://www.worplepress.co.uk

Peter Carpenter has got it right again!

Ian Brinton 10th May 2015

Simon Smith’s Navy (vErIsImILLtUdE, 2015)

Simon Smith’s Navy (vErIsImILLtUdE, 2015)

In these times of bewilderment and dislocation it is important to read poets who recognise the contours of the political landscape and it is vital to attend to voices that quietly insist upon pursuing truths despite being noised-out by the chatter from the island. Or, as one modernist poet put it in 1968:

And so slowness is
interesting and the dust, in cracks between
boards

The same poem, ‘A Gold Ring Called Reluctance’, written by a young poet in his early thirties continues ‘Fluff, grit, various / discarded bits & pieces: these are the / genetic patrons of our so-called condition.’
When Simon Smith was interviewed by Andrew Duncan for a book titled Don’t Start Me Talking (Salt 2006), a book incidentally that was dedicated to David Herd and Robert Potts, ‘visionary editors for a new sight’, he referred to poems being conceived as a type of dialogue with other poems. The precise background to Smith’s comment was his writing of Night Shift (1991), composed in ‘quite a strict or regular verse form’ in response, partly, to Peter Riley’s ‘Ospita’ and Tom Raworth’s Sentenced to Death and Eternal Sections:

‘There seemed to be some sort of dialogue going on between these poetries, formally I mean, and I found myself taking part in that dialogue, or should I say the poem found its way through this kind of engagement. The poems then ‘talk’ to one another within the sequence. Building poems in series like this is a feature of the so-called avant garde in this country—it’s a way of replacing linear narrative without losing scope, or compromising perception.

Simon Smith’s recently published volume Navy is an interesting movement forward from these ideas and it does not make for comfortable reading. The opening section of the book is titled ‘England, A Fragment’ and I am quickly made aware that this does not refer to a small part of the country but is itself a description of that which is in the process of falling apart.
The dialogue here is with William Carlos Williams and the use of the three-ply line stretches the eye down the page as we move from ‘dirt from under the nails / on Dover Beach’ to ‘a shrieking gull’. The whole sequence is threaded with fragments of poetic and musical reference and the Matthew Arnold backdrop to those opening lines soon becomes the early world of Olson’s poems as illustrated by Corrado Cagli. Debussy and Schubert are fragments stored against ruin but so is the early morning ‘station pie’ with its echo of Larkin’s change of trains at Sheffield in ‘Dockery and Son’. There is, however, another voice behind this moving and important poem-for-our-times and that is the hoof-fall of Ed Dorn’s ‘Gunslinger’. Through the world of East Kent the ‘UKKK’ are bringing ‘law to town’ and hooded men in pointy hats are on the move.
The epigraph to this terrific and terrifying volume includes words by that voice of sanity and careful consideration, John James:

‘but it’s wonderful to wake up & know that
despite everything
France is still there’

The book is, as a moment of connection to that early conversation, also dedicated to David Herd.

And to me; for which, Simon, many thanks; I am honoured.

Copies of this little collection can be obtained from the publisher at 58 Crescent Road, Ramsgate, CT11 9QY

Ian Brinton, 9th May 2015