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Monthly Archives: June 2015

Tom Chivers: from drainage to Dark Islands

Tom Chivers: from drainage to Dark Islands

I

Words around the grate

When Nine Arches Press published Tom Chivers’s The Terrors in March 2009 the blurb on the back was written by Iain Sinclair:

Dark London history, dredged and interrogated, spits and fizzes with corrosive wit. Language-receipts sustain the necessary illusion. IT MATTERS. It matters: the weight and pace of delivery, the balance of breath. Tom Chivers understands the risks he risks, the play in a taught rope. “I’ll ghost-write, if you ask.”

The poet addressed the reader at the opening of this startlingly powerful reconstruction of pages that owe much to The Newgate Calendar:

What follows is a sequence of imagined emails sent from the author to inmates at London’s Newgate Prison incarcerated between roughly 1700 and 1760. All mistakes, typos and anachronisms are deliberate.

An interest in how the past threads its way through our present was evident after Tom Chivers went up to St. Anne’s College, Oxford, to read English in 2001 and founded a magazine of contemporary writing, Keystone. The first issue of this little magazine contained work by Ric Caddel, the co-Director of the Basil Bunting Poetry Centre, David Caddy, whose influence on the work of Tom Chivers was immense, Lucy Newlyn, winner of the 2001 British Academy’s Crawshay Prize for her work on ‘Reading, Writing, and Romanticism: The Anxiety of Reception’ and Bernard O’Donoghue, teacher of Medieval English at Corpus Christi College whose collection of poems, Here Nor There, was a Poetry Book Society choice. The long poem which Chivers wrote himself for this first issue was titled ‘Effra’ after the lost river of South London which had two branches in the Norwood area, flowed under Half Moon Lane in Herne Hill towards Coldharbour Lane, Brixton before ending in the Thames near Vauxhall Bridge. It has been suggested that one possible derivation for the name of the river is from the Celtic word for ‘torrent’ and John Ruskin, who grew up in Herne Hill, referred to it in his autobiographical writing Praeterita:

Our house was the northernmost of a group which stand accurately on the top or dome of the hill, where the ground is for a small space level, as the snows are, (I understand,) on the dome of Mont Blanc; presently falling, however, in what may be, in the London clay formation, considered a precipitous slope, to our valley of Chamouni (or of Dulwich) on the east; and with a softer descent into Cold Harbour-lane on the west: on the south, no less beautifully declining to the dale of the Effra (doubtless shortened from Effrena, signifying the “Unbridled” river; recently, I regret to say, bricked over for the convenience of Mr. Biffin, chemist, and others)…

Ruskin also suggested that his first sketch revealing any artistic merit, done when he was thirteen in 1832, was at the foot of Herne Hill (where the Half Moon Tavern is now), showing a bridge over the Effra. He also suggested that the stretch of the river towards Dulwich was ‘a tadpole haunted ditch’ and the language here finds echoes in Graham Swift’s novel Waterland and Chivers’s own poetry:

Under tarmac, Effra
swills in drains,
only witness
to every crime,
and one eye to the Thames.

Let us forget
the river: block him up,
his seasons and his rages.
Let’s shout him out
And seal him up
Beneath the Railton Road.

Effra! Effra!
calling at night.

The river bore strange testimony and in the nineteenth-century a coffin was discovered floating in the Thames having sailed from West Norwood Cemetery although the grave itself was undisturbed. It was hinted that the grave had been dug too close to the course of the Effra which runs beneath the cemetery, and that the coffin had subsided into the river, flowing underneath south London before reaching the Thames at Vauxhall.
Tom Chivers combines a passionate interest in Medieval literature with a fascination for what lies buried below a surface. In 2013 he was commissioned for Humber Mouth Literature Festival to write Flood Drain, published by Annexe Press in the following year. The author’s note at the opening of the chapbook gives an intriguing picture of the poet’s awareness of the connections between the past and the present:

In the opening of the great medieval dream vision Piers Plowman, the narrator lies down ‘on a brood bank by a bourne syde’ and is sent to sleep by the sound of the stream which, as he says ‘sweyed so murye’. The poem registers a universal truth, that there is something mesmeric about running water, but it also prefigures the Jungian association of rivers with dreaming and the unconscious. The river, of course, can also stand for death or, as Styx, the underworld. In another medieval poem, Pearl, an unfordable river separates the dreamer from the ghost of his daughter and the promise of heavenly paradise.

The poet tells us that his poem ‘meditates on the dual themes of dreaming and drainage, inspired by a two-day drift down the river Hull’:

The city, recently announced as Britain’s Capital of Culture for 2017, is properly called Kingston-upon-Hull; but such is the ubiquity of the shortened name Hull that the river itself has got somewhat lost. Perhaps this is not so surprising; after all, the city faces out into the vast grey estuary of a much larger river, the Humber, leaving its eponymous stream to snake through the industrial landscape of wrecking yards and ruined docks undisturbed and unrecognised.

Just as in the early poem ‘Effra’ the derivation of the name is important. Whereas the lost river of south London may have taken its name from the Celtic word for ‘torrent’ or even, given the epigraph to the poem (‘Sous les pavés, la plage! Paris, 1968), the French ‘effroi’, the name for Hull has no definitive etymology:

Some claim it as Celtic for ‘deep river’ or Saxon for ‘muddy river’, but the most alluring explanation was offered by Nathan Bailey in his 1721 An Universal Etymological English Dictionary:

HULL…of hulen, Lower Saxon heulen, Teutonic, to howl, from the Noise the River makes, when it meets the Sea.

An interest in the world of medieval dream-poetry may well have merged with Chivers’s interest in contemporary poetry: the Gawain-poet’s Pearl is linked of course with Barry MacSweeney’s sequence of poems about which he talked on Radio 4 in 2009.
The movement of rivers to the sea lurks behind James Joyce’s injunction in Ulysses, ‘Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past’ and drains filter out those relics which lie stranded on the shores of a grating:

flat world in which everything slips
fix a chain & a windlass at the mouth of the new cut
disgorging of pipes / tubing / culverts & drains
into Sayer’s Creek
disgorge into estuary
deep slug of Humber
pours the gravy of Hull
in a sound like a sawmill
in a sound like vomiting
in a sound like the howling
of the Fever Hospital

Green City
City of Tomorrow

what is old /
what is new

(Flood Drain)

In his collection of short case-histories, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks wrote that ‘We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative—whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives, a ‘narrative’, and that this narrative is us, our identities […] for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative…’ With these thoughts in mind it is possible to understand why the History teacher, Tom Crick, in Waterland talks of the Grand Narrative as a ‘filler of vacuums’ and the ‘dispeller of fears of the dark’; the ‘dark’ is the absence of a narrative, either on an individual or a collective level. The dark is a terrible amnesia or a fragmented mass of information, unbounded by the comforting coherence of memory, that inner narrative ‘whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. As teachers / adults we tell stories to children and acknowledge that, as Crick informs his class of children in a Greenwich school, reality is a vacuum; defying the amnesia and chaos of the universe we construct narratives, tell stories, tales, look at the debris collected by the bars of the drains, convert detritus to words and, as the phenomenological world dries out, we create islands, even dark ones.

Ian Brinton 14th June 2015

Beat Scene 76, edited by Kevin Ring

Beat Scene 76, edited by Kevin Ring

This issue features an extensive profile and interview with James Koller by Peter Garland, Ken Kesey’s second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), Kurt Hemmer’s interview with Herbert Huncke, an essay on Kenneth Patchen as read by Kenneth Rexroth, Mark Howell’s recollections of meeting Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg, and Jim Burns on ‘Underground London – Bebop and Beyond.’ There are additional memories of Ken Kesey’s visit to Filthy McNastys pub in London, although it is unclear whether the article references a 1978 or the 1998 visit, the 1974 bootleg publication of Kerouac’s Old Angel Midnight and Bob Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder tour visit to Kerouac’s birthplace at Lowell. The review section includes the selected letters of Wendell Berry, (a friend of Kesey) and Gary Snyder, and Nobody Home: writing, buddhism and living in places, Gary Snyder in conversation with Julia Martin.

The James Koller interview covers his biographical, personal and poetic influences, his novels, poetry and work on Coyote’s Journal and Coyote Books, which published Beats and ethnocentric poets. Born in northern Illinois in 1936, Koller became part of the Fifties North Beach, San Francisco scene, and was friends with Joanne Kyger, Gary Snyder, Lew Welch, Philip Whalen and Robert Creeley. He published Charles Olson’s famous 1965 Berkeley Lecture in Coyote’s Journal. He was inspired by Pound, cites Carl Sauer’s The Agency of Man On The Earth (1956) as a bigger influence than Olson’s work, anonymous folk songs, native American songs, which he translated for Jerome Rothenberg’s 1972 Shaking The Pumpkin anthology, the ethnocentric epics and Icelandic sagas. This comprehensive interview helped me to locate Koller as a poet somewhere between Ed Dorn and Jerome Rothenberg, as well as bring to light such figures as Jaime de Angulo, a poet friend of Pound, and author of Indian Tales. Pound called de Angulo the ‘American Ovid’ and was also highly regarded by William Carlos Williams. He tutored Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan, and was written about by Kerouac.

The Kesey article could have examined Sometimes a Great Notion and Paul Newman’s 1970 film of the book, more fully. It tends to follow a populist version rather than literary one of Kesey’s life and work. In fairness, there was a great crossover between the Merry Pranksters, Beats, Diggers and Deadheads. A truer understanding of the flowering of the Beats would require a grasp of many factors, historically from the eclipse of the old Left to the birth of the Internet. The Internet evolved as a direct means of communication within the Deadhead community, and a reading of that community with its numerous and continual allusions to and from the Merry Pranksters and wider San Francisco North Beach scene has yet to be written. A fuller picture would also relate the activism of Diggers to poets, such as Kenneth Rexroth, Ginsberg, and Pound, their connection to City Lights Bookshop, the Planet Drum Foundation, founded by Peter Berg in 1973, to ethnomusicologists, such as de Angulo, Frederic Lieberman, Mickey Hart, as well as poets, such as Koller, Kyger and Snyder, as well as the Whole Earth Catalog, which featured Kesey’s Further bus on its July 1969 cover, and other ecologically aware publications and groupings, and so on.

Jim Burns unearths an underground Soho scene from the late Forties and early Fifties, centred around Club Eleven, a bebop club opened in 1948 at 41 Windmill Street, not far from the Fitzroy Tavern, with its similar clientele of showbiz types, Soho characters, dealers, and military absconders. Here though the atmosphere was provided more by the smell of marijuana than beer. Burns notes that this particular ‘Underground’ predated there more popular Sixties notion, and provides useful literary references to support his findings.

There is, as ever, much to ponder in Beat Scene.
http://www.beatscene.net/

David Caddy 11th June 2015

It Looks Like An Island But Sails Away by Ralph Hawkins (Shearsman Books)

It Looks Like An Island But Sails Away by Ralph Hawkins (Shearsman Books)

On the back of this deliciously fast-moving collection of poems by Ralph Hawkins there is a quotation from Peter Riley’s 2005 review of a previous Shearsman Books collection of his work, The Moon, The Chief hairdresser (Highlights):

Hawkins is a very literary poet, very aware of the written artefact as something with a long history and a mass of material accrued to it, and determined to re-invent the whole thing.

That review also contains the phrase about Hawkins’s ‘dazzingly virtuosic performance’, a quality that is also fully evident in this new book.
Two literary echoes came to my ears when I read this book: Ben Jonson and Sir Thomas Wyatt. Jonson’s Epigramme CXVIII is titled ‘On Gut’

Gut eates all day, and lechers all the night,
So all his meate he tasteth over, twise:
And, striving so to double his delight,
He makes himselfe a thorough-fare of vice.
Thus, in his belly, can he change a sin,
Lust it comes out, that gluttony went in.

Ralph Hawkins opens this new Shearsman with ‘Gut’:

Down in the tubes like corridors of blood he lived. His name was Gut and
his body had many rooms.

To the right was the Giant’s room and his name was Git. Is Git a short giant? If Git and Gut have children it will be a miracle as they don’t eat together. This would be a gustatorium. A windy palace of gables and false starts. Huge butterflies hung from Eve.

The dry and mischievous humour here is witty. As readers we move from the London Underground to the well-known joke about the difference between a penis that is flaccid and then erect. The word ‘gustatorium’ blows us towards those Tennysonian plains of Troy and ‘false starts’ take us back to the mordant humour of Jonson who could see himself as the lover who has gone beyond his sell-by date in ‘A Celebration of CHARIS in ten Lyrick Peeces’ or whose ‘Picture’ left in Scotland reveals ‘My mountaine belly, and my rockie face.’

John Muckle referred to Hawkins’s poems as a ‘version of New York school poetics’ and highlighted his ‘light-fingered touch’ where the very phrase suggests the snapper up of unconsidered trifles. ‘Since in a net I seek to hold the wind’ is a collage to live with:

a siskin and then a bunting
two killers in a red circle
the cop (un flic) knows everyone, is bad

I am not a catholic but it rains
Jean-Pierre holds his Stetson in a January wind

they rip buds and pick nuts

the (stolen) diamonds are stuffed into a holdall

you are my angel in the wind
noli me tangere
you restoreth my soul

four pills and a tube of ointment
is all it takes

Wyatt…taken from Petrarch…all diamonds are stolen and a poem is a fine ‘holdall’.

Ian Brinton 10th June 2015

Long Poem Magazine 13 edited by Lucy Hamilton and Linda Black

Long Poem Magazine 13 edited by Lucy Hamilton and Linda Black

Issue 13 assembles a wide range of contributors and offers a wide focused angle on contemporary English poetry. There are some seriously considered poems in this particular issue, which repays rereading.

Ric Hool’s homage to Northumberland ‘Revista Rudiments’ captures its unruly history, from when it was a northern outpost of the Roman Empire to the Meadow Well Riots of September 1991 and through the figure of Ranter poet, Barry MacSweeney. The narrator walks the ground, hearing the sound of the land, noting the birdsong and long stories with ‘a confluence of telling / Unthank opportunists / set up camp // plough-breaker Swarland /& / Wind-cutter Snitter. The poem reaches beyond evocation to deeper historical and geographical viewpoints, and the area’s distinctiveness. It is a powerful sequence open to a number of registers and echoes.

Ian Seed’s ‘Absences’ consists of thirteen sections of four three line stanzas derived from reworked cut-up fragments to produce a dreamlike narrative similar to but distinct from his prose poetry. The fragmented narrative has a cinematic quality and revolves around a series of journeys and encounters probing the nature of a series of opposites. The poem has great power through its refusal to predicate. It hovers in pared down focus on suggested or implied infractions, which work in a cumulative manner towards possible articulation. By holding back as much as stating the poem produces surprising effects and forces the reader to reread.

Alison Winch’s ‘Alisoun’s’ uses material from the medieval pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome and the figure of Alisoun from Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale in her exploration of female sexuality and reproductive power. This spirited ribaldry is counterpointed by material quoted from key medieval texts, by Marbod of Rennes, St. Thomas Acqinas, Galen and others, attacking or denying female disobedience positioned on the right side margin. The impact is one of contextualised commentary and playfulness. The poem has a wonderful sensuality and period feel. It begins:

Arse – myne! – that’s how you know me
that & my wenching – but dear Lord what an arse!
like the dimple blush of a just-plucked pear
plump on its honey bee haunches
when the kitchen is a light box of morning sonne.

Penelope Shuttle’s ‘Effarn: Nans Ladron’ (The Valley of Thieves), a version of some lines from Dante’s Inferno, is similarly playful and intertextual mixing English and Cornish vocabulary. The English is predominantly colloquial whereas the Cornish is more earthy and physical. This tactile quality gives the whole a more robust finish and serves to provide a local flavor and accent.

Albert Einstein and Emily Dickinson provide the epigraphs to Aidan Semmens’ beguiling poem, Unified Field Theory’, which is a companion piece to his ‘Clergyman’s Guide to String Theory’ published in Long Poem Magazine 11. The poem offers a slant angle on the nature of forces and relations of change around a city under military occupation or threat where the ‘wall’ is ‘to guard things that are useless / while things that are valuable are left unattended’. It concerns change where ‘beauty lies in the refusal of meaning’ and ‘nature becomes a synonym / for suffering and death’. The title tends to make the reader consider the way different interactions impose themselves or not on a conflict situation, where ‘nothing is affected by being known’. It would be interesting to compare and contrast ‘Unified Field Theory’ with ‘Absences’. The former may appear to offer clearer predication yet tends to typically offset each fragmentary meaning with contradictory material from another field, which serves to complicate as much as open out.
Ian Brinton’s essay on ‘John Riley: From Lincoln To Byzantium’ references the poet’s journey from the thirteenth century Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste’s thinking on light and matter, to his conversion to Russian Orthodoxy. Brinton articulates Riley’s quest for spiritual awareness in his major poem, ‘Czargrad’, through a reading of the poem’s literary and philosophical sources. These include Dante’s Paradiso, George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous, Pound’s essay on Cavalcanti, Charles Olson’s ‘Projective Verse’ essay, T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, and Bishop Grosseteste on ‘On Light / De Luce’. The most important of these sources to me is perhaps Oppen’s poem, in the way that it offers ways of connecting the parts of a disconnected world, as represented by New York, through a series of precise thoughts and images. The work has a similar clarity of vision and surely would have led Riley to thinking about the phenomenology of perception. The sources are supported through a reading of Riley’s correspondence and Brinton usefully quotes from J.H. Prynne’s response to the first two sections of ‘Czargrad’ published in Grosseteste Review 6. Like all good criticism, this essay makes the reader wish to return to the poem.

Alasdair Paterson, Geraldine Monk, Claire Trévien, S.J. Fowler, Mark Goodwin, Jay Ramsay, Greta Stoddart, and many others grace this splendid and varied issue.

David Caddy 7th June 2015

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