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Monthly Archives: August 2015

In Memoriam: Charles Tomlinson

In Memoriam: Charles Tomlinson

III

I first came across the poetry of Charles Tomlinson in 1970 when I was studying English in Cambridge at Gonville and Caius. My supervisor, J.H. Prynne, gave me a copy of ‘At Holwell Farm’ to write about as an exercise in Practical Criticism and I was immediately struck by a tone of measured quietness that I recognised as belonging, in my own mind, with the poems of Edward Thomas that I had studied for A level eighteen months earlier. In the way coincidences work, seeming sometimes to offer a haunting sense of woven tapestry, my English teacher at Sevenoaks had been a St Dunstan’s pupil just after the war. I was to learn some years later that my supervisor at Caius was also a St Dunstan’s product who had dedicated his first book of poems, Force of Circumstance, to his teacher there, Basil Harvey. I suppose that some of my liking for the Thomas poems also came from my living at the top of the hill overlooking Sevenoaks Weald where Thomas had lived in Else’s Farm in the early years of the twentieth century. But it was the tone of quietness which spoke to me most nearly.

‘It is a quality of air, a temperate sharpness
Causes an autumn fire to burn compact,
To cast from a shapely and unrifted core
Its steady brightness.’

Prynne pointed out the quotation in that first line and I recall hurrying back to my digs to look up the letter Keats had sent to J.H. Reynolds on 21st September 1819 from Winchester. After all, I had the two-volume Hyder Rollins letters which had been on the reading list Prynne had sent out to prospective undergraduates:

How beautiful the season is now—How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather—Dian skies—I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now—Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm—this struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.

The ‘composition’, of course, was titled ‘To Autumn’. Tomlinson’s image of the fire, presumably of leaves and weeds, struck another chord with me because it brought back the number of times I had helped my father rake together fallen leaves in Autumn before pulling them all together and lighting the slow-burning, smouldering, fire. That was in Keston, not very far away from the first school I attended which was run by Muriel Prynne, the mother of the teacher who introduced me to Holwell Farm!
Prynne’s first collection of poems contained ‘Before Urbino’ which opened with lines that were clearly written after reading Tomlinson:

‘House next to house; tree next to tree; a wall
Tokens a winding road. The air across
The distant slope is palpable with light,
A clarid flood of silence.’

On December 24th 2002 Tomlinson wrote me a card:

‘Prynne’s use of the word ‘clarid’ makes me think he had been reading Stokes as well as CT. I see there is at last a new edition of Adrian Stokes Stones of Rimini, a marvellous book on limestone & sculpture CT was also reading long ago. Details in TLS last week—plus news that CT has won the New Criterion Poetry Prize, N. York.’

In May 1961 Prynne had indeed written to Tomlinson about Stokes and I referred to this in some detail in my article published in Salt 2 six years ago, ‘Prynne in Prospect’:

‘Immediacy for Stokes is the simultaneous apprehension of a two-dimensional surface in space: this seems to me to be his primary concern. Elements of recession and protuberance, texture and contrast, are allowed to articulate our awareness, but not to violate its separateness and lucidity. Music and the dimension of succession generally is an arrière-pensée, draining the impact of this confrontation by insisting on the context of a linear dimension through time. Stokes manages in spite of this arbitrary self-impoverishment (he has lost, after all, effective use of two out of four dimensions), both to see with accuracy and to feel the full emotional relevance of what we see—the Cortile d’Onore at Urbino (seen almost completely through his eyes) was an extraordinary experience, and one in which I felt a full deployment of my entire capacities for response.’

Ian Brinton August 28th 2015

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Homage to Charles Tomlinson Part Two

Homage to Charles Tomlinson Part Two

In the early 1980s there was a short-lived review of modern poetry, The Present Tense, edited by Michael Abbott. The inside cover included a list of people to be thanked for help and advice and these included Neil Astley for issue 3 and Michael Schmidt for issue 4. Issue 2 contained poetry by Charles Tomlinson (‘A Defence of Poesie’) and issue 4 published his ‘Sonnet (after Mallarmé)’. Other poets who appeared in the four issues of this little Bristol-based magazine included C.H. Sisson, Anthony Rudolf, John Greening, Glen Cavaliero, Michael Schmidt and Martin Booth. In issue 3, Autumn 1982, I reviewed Tomlinson’s recently published collection The Flood and the following remarks are taken from that review. Whilst I may blush at some naïveties presented over thirty years ago I think that I still hold to the substance of what I wrote!

After referring to ‘Winter Encounters’, the poem featured in my first ‘blog’, I went on to look at Tomlinson’s questioning of the permanence of stone as his house in Ozleworth became flooded after constant heavy rain and the brook overflowing:

‘The close connection between the landscape and the people dwelling in it is emphasised by the civilised term ‘neighbourhood’ in ‘Winter Encounters’. In that poem there is a firm sense that the bodying-forth of the connections perceived within a landscape is linked to the constant values inherent within individual lives. However, in this latest collection I am impelled to recognise a new tone, a questioning sense that perhaps these objects seen are dissolving, no longer to be relied upon as constants. In ‘The Gate’ the poet’s eye is ‘teased; by a gate being placed on the edge of an unfenced field and the poet’s new eye melts a wall to nothing: a place ‘unspaced’ is, perhaps, in lacking its structure, non-existent. There is here a new way of seeing as the rigid becomes fluid and what is seen becomes almost dream-like:

‘…The mocked mind,
Busy with surroundings it can neither bound nor unbind,
Cedes to the eye the pleasure of passing
Where, between the gate’s five bars,
Perpetual seawaves play of innumerable grasses.’

Similarly the grass which appears ‘like scattered megaliths’ in ‘Hay’ dissolves into an atmosphere of scents:

‘A hedge of hay-bales to confuse the track
Of time, and out of which the smoking dews
Draw odours solid as the huge deception.’

The title poem appears near the end of the collection and the poet who wrote about ‘Stone Walls at Chew Magna’ opens now with

‘It was the night of the flood first took away
My trust in stone.’

The liquid element fills in spaces as opposed to delineating them and the poet vainly attempts to erect structures that will channel the water back to its origin as he ‘dragged / Sacks, full of a mush of soil / Dug in the rain, and bagged each threshold.’ However, naturally enough for this type of flood these measures are ineffectual and I recall D.H. Lawrence’s comment in ‘Love was once a little boy’:

‘The individual is like a deep pool, or tarn, in the mountains, fed from beneath by unseen springs, and having no obvious inlet or outlet.’

The flood in Tomlinson’s poem has ‘…no end to its sources and resources / To grow and to go wherever it would / Taking one with it. The welling up from the springs of imagination is not to be balked by sacks which are themselves filled with soil dug in the rain: here will be

‘…a swealing away
Past shape and self’.

When faced with the overwhelming scepticism concerning those meticulous details upon which the ordered mind has relied for so long then what has been said by others is something to be preserved. Carrying objects to the floor above the poet puts a stair ‘Between the world of books and water.’ In a confrontation between imaginative inspiration and the landmarks which give it shape ‘Water had tried stone and found it wanting’.
However, as with the grass inside the fenceless field the mind discovers new areas of contemplation: a reconciliation. The ‘vertigo of sunbeams’ reflected off the water onto the ceiling are, next morning, something to be praised. Perhaps stone was too unyielding for a poet taking stock of himself. Now no surface is safe from swaying and stone appears as ‘malleable as clay’. Within this Noah’s Ark there is a new morning and a new way of seeing, waiting patiently ‘upon the weather’s mercies.’

I apologise in advance for the incorrect left margin in some of the quotations: technical hitch!

Ian Brinton August 26th 2015

Homage to Charles Tomlinson

Homage to Charles Tomlinson

I

Winter Encounters

House and hollow; village and valley-side:
The ceaseless pairings, the interchange
In which the properties are constant
Resumes its winter starkness. The hedges’ barbs
Are bared. Lengthened shadows
Intersecting, the fields seem parcelled smaller
As if by hedgerow within hedgerow. Meshed
Into neighbourhood by such shifting ties,
The house reposes, squarely upon its acre
Yet with softened angles, the responsive stone
Changeful beneath the changing light:
There is a riding-forth, a voyage impending
In this ruffled air, where all moves
Towards encounter. Inanimate or human,
The distinction fails in these brisk exchanges—
Say, merely, that the roof greets the cloud,
Or by the wall, sheltering its knot of talkers,
Encounter enacts itself in the conversation
On customary subjects, where the mind
May lean at ease, weighing the prospect
Of another’s presence. Rain
And the probability of rain, tares
And their progress through a field of wheat—
These, though of moment in themselves,
Serve rather to articulate the sense
That having met, one meets with more
Than the words can witness. One feels behind
Into the intensity that bodies through them
Calmness within the wind, the warmth in cold.

The ‘encounters’ here are a mixture of the permanent and the transient and are perhaps best captured by the phrase ‘shifting ties’. Ties are those connections we feel towards each other as well as the way one thing is linked by complement to another. The solidity of ‘House’ is tied with the vaguer and more echoing ‘hollow’ and the human group of habitations in ‘village’ is tied with the landscape of ‘valley-side’. The way everything is linked together in this poem is held by the pairing of one thing with another and although the ‘properties are constant’ the way the pairing is perceived is dependent upon the fluctuating and shifting quality of light and season. The tie of one thing to another is seen as a parcelling and a meshing, itself a criss-cross weave of connections. At the heart of the poem there is a steady permanence with the phrase ‘The house reposes’. That reliable permanence of peaceful existence is delightfully caught by the relaxed meaning of repose and is given a solidity of structure by the geometrical presence of ‘squarely upon its acre’ and yet even this solidity is shown as dissoluble by the effect of ‘the changing light’ and one is aware that all the landscape is moving ‘towards encounter’. Distinctions fail because of course they don’t remain static and the ever-shifting encounters register life moving. However, even in this world of movement there are those reliable certainties which allow the mind to ‘lean at ease’ and one becomes aware of the attractive repetitive conversation between farmers as to the likelihood of rain, of the effects of tares growing wild in the field of wheat. ‘Calmness’ taking up from ‘repose’ has a settled strength which throughout the poetry of Charles Tomlinson becomes a matter of expressing a dearly held set of moral values, a code of mutual dependencies between man and his landscape which owe something to that measured world of urbane generosity which one comes across in Ben Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst’ or ‘To Sir Robert Wroth’.

Ian Brinton, 24th August 2015

Amy Hollowell’s Here We Are (Presses Universitaires De Rouen Et Du Havre, 2015)

Amy Hollowell’s Here We Are (Presses Universitaires De Rouen Et Du Havre, 2015)

Amy Hollowell’s 131 page poem, divided into many parts of varying lengths and fragmentation with titles in normal, bold and italics, employs rhythm and repetition, without juxtaposition, in a spirit of continuous venture.

I’m thinking that a poem could go on forever like a nap under / a vine
….
I’m thinking that it could be a burning with weekday thoughts / of hot elsewheres

Grounded in Zen Buddhist meditation and journalism for the International Herald Tribune, Amy Hollowell’s long poem is an exploration of what it is to be alive in the present. The multitudinous nature of the self, under pressure and implicitly alienated from the world is here construed as a narrative with a necessary imperative to focus upon what is not said as much as what is said. Hollowell sees the private and personal as ever present in the public and impersonal and seeks to bear witness to the self as a castaway and disconnected from itself.

Innumerable windows open/ on parallel worlds/ to find one
unknown holy word/ wholly held/ I am tabbed/ toggling/
in a swirl of/ jeopardizing peace talks/ and whirls of/ multiple
suicide attacks/ insane secrets of/ wonder and love/ recipes for
disaster/ enriched uranium/ or leek and potato soup/ Every
latest entry leads/ and ends the thread/ above pull-down
menus/ conceived to toggle through/ a holy war/ watched live/
or on demand/ and tracked by the N.S.A.

The desire to find an ‘unknown holy word’ is here contextualised within the self’s saturation by information technology, news feeds and computer usage in a world raging with religious and other conflicts. The spiritual is ‘unknown’ and not to be found in recipes or menus, and some way beyond colliding ‘parallel worlds’.

The poet-narrator depicts an alienation of the self from itself and other, registering the need for greater connection and an anchor. I am reminded of Walker Percy’s Love In the Ruins and the alienation experienced by its protagonist, Dr Thomas More, which reaches greater depths of disconnectedness in its sequel, The Thanatos Syndrome, although here the narrator does not succumb to drink or the Ontological Lapsometer. She rather mourns the emptiness and lack of the holy. When the narrator rests she wonders who she is and sees a lack in the stories that she speaks. It is this lack that occupies much of the poem. Here We Are probes the sources of narrative threads that a speaking self tells and questions who and what is this self, how it is constructed and maintained.

How to tell the story is actually as much about the story as what it, the story, actually tells.
The story is told in the telling and the telling is the actual story that
it tells and also the story that it actually does not tell.
What’s told is the telling. And the being told is the story of the
telling. While the actual story being told is only part of the story
actually being told
.

This ambitious poem aims to be as much in the present as possible, is mindful and thought provoking. The ‘So Saturday’ section shows Hollowell at her best:

You’re a get-on-with-it day and a lazing day
You’re a day of war somewhere and revenge
You’re a day at the races elsewhere and a heyday
You’re the illusive promise of a pay day a rest day a work day
a play day a perfect day
You’re a day to remember lest we forget
a rainy day
a sick day
a moving day
a day of departure or a day of revival
You’re a first day or a last
a free day or a feast or a fast day
a slow day a holy day a holiday
a birth day and a day to die

The book comes from the ‘To’ series, under the direction of Christophe Lamiot Enos, published in two volumes, one in English and the other in its French translation, and comes with a postface by Christophe Lamiot Enos with Amy Hollowell. Earlier volumes include Alice Notley’s Negativity’s Kiss (2014).

David caddy 20th August 2015

Sabots by John James (Oystercatcher Press)

Sabots by John James (Oystercatcher Press)

When Peter Hughes wrote to me last month to say that there was a new John James chapbook on the cards he intimated that it was ‘very unusual’ and was to be titled Clogs, ‘Pastoral dialogues from the deep south (of France)’. My reaction was one of keen anticipation on account of considering the Equipage volume from last year, Songs in Midwinter For Franco, one of the most important and moving sequences of poems I had read in a long, long time. I recall reviewing that volume for Shearsman on-line magazine and saying that what moved me was contained in the absence of the self-regarding nature that can act as an intrusive shadow looming over poems of loss. In those ‘Songs’ (for Franco Beltrametti who had been published alongside John James by the Tim Longville, John Riley & Gordon Jackson enterprise Grosseteste Books) there were references to a culture of reading and recalling as well as comments on the necessary sharp eye of the wine grower who looks out for a ‘bud break yet to come’. When I read Sabots for the first time this morning I was not in any way disappointed in my great expectations.
The opening dialogue between Peadar and Alphonse, both resident wine growers on the land of South West France, confirms that steady voice that John James has acquired over years of poem-making:

‘ah bon I don’t begrudge you in fact I marvel
at your calm in the face of our abjection it
besets us all this fear of fear & discontent
& there was I gathering in my grapes each year
till the Mairie dropped me with their flood defence
oh I sometimes think I should have seen it coming
but was too entranced perhaps by the reverie
induced by days of pleasure working in that field’

Reading these lines I was prompted to look up a book which I have admired since its first appearance in 1979 from the Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, John Berger’s Pig Earth, the first of three books with the overall title INTO THEIR LABOURS. In the final chapter Berger points to the survival of peasant communities:

‘Peasant life is a life committed completely to survival. Perhaps this is the only characteristic fully shared by peasants everywhere. Their implements, their crops, their earth, their masters may be different, but whether they labour within a capitalist society, a feudal one, or others which cannot be so easily defined, whether they grow rice in Java, wheat in Scandinavia, or maize in South America, whatever the differences of climate, religion and social history, the peasantry everywhere can be defined as a class of survivors.’

Within James’s dialogue Alphonse says

‘I thought in my youthful ignorance everyone
was like my parents bitches bore their tiny pups
kids grew up to be such dams but now a monster
grows to enormous size & threatens all of us.’

The pun on ‘dams’ is hallmark John James. As also is the convincing sense of the here-and-now, the immediate moment caught as it passes, as Alphonse confirms not only that ‘sooner will the hind graze on the air or barbel / lie on the bare stones of the beaches of the Orb / than I’d allow my steadfast gaze give up this place’. Looking back on that earlier review I had written I notice that I referred to a poem from James’s Dreaming Flesh (Street Editions 1991), ‘The Conversation’:

‘Threading its careful path through these poems is a meticulous concern for a palpable ‘now’, an attention to detail that echoes an earlier poem, ‘The Conversation’, in which the importance of Jeremy Prynne’s leafing through pages of a book ‘gave some new sense of strengthening regard for common things.’’

Section two of this sequence, allows historical and geographical presences of this land to speak and ‘Les Randonneurs’ trace a path through what changes in the unchanging. The wines of ‘Les Grillères’ for instance mutter

‘who lives here now as that spy George Borrow might say
the house & barns & spread of land all up for sale
the crumbling old stone wall is broken by sweet bay
some leaves for a civet to perfume the cheval’

Or, of course, ‘good apothecary’ to ‘sweeten my imagination’!

The third and final section is spoken by John Le Poireau as he, Alphonse and Peadar take up the final lines of Alphonse’s comment in Section One:

‘& we still have our strength & the power to walk
tomorrow let’s call on John Le Poireau & hike
three together on the trail to Pech Saint Vincent’

As if echoing the enduring world of Edward Thomas’s agricultural world when faced with the distant wars of northern France in 1916 the ‘leek-man’ says

‘La Tramontane will crumble the broken clods as we stumble
on the rising ground Le Marin will ruin the bread & weaken the vines
but this year we’ll beat the weedy grasses & the tares
not let them hamper our shins in passage through the ranks
let the moist soil cleave to our boot soles’

Sabots is an uplifting sequence of three poems which restores a sense of vitality and endurance within a world threatened by commercial bureaucracy and ‘targets’. It is a tribute to the quietly unchanging in a fast-changing world. It’s terrific!

Ian Brinton 17th August 2015.

Gordon Lish’s Cess: A Spokening (OR Books, 2015)

Gordon Lish’s Cess: A Spokening (OR Books, 2015)

In contrast to Alexandra Psaropoulou’s All The Stars, which I wrote about yesterday, Gordon Lish’s book, rich in language play, employs a loquacious first person narrative in two extended notes before and after a list of select vocabulary. It is implied that the narrator is loosely based on the author self, although this is more of a ploy to draw the reader more closely into the narrative world with its frequent call to check the factual details of the narrative online.

The first note delineates the biographical details of his mother and her sisters, Jewish immigrants from Austria, based in New York, and his own situation at Mills public high school, at Millbrae, California. Finding himself without a job and having to support a wife and three children he wrote to his winsome Aunt Adele asking for work not dissimilar to hers. Apparently, in 1963, Lish was refused tenure at the school due to his association with the Beat writers he published in Genesis West and Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady of the Merry Pranksters. The narrator’s aunt worked as a section leader in cryptology for the National Reconnaissance Office and replied with a long list of words with the instruction to solve this and perhaps we’ll talk. There follows 165 pages of rarefied vocabulary and the quest to find some links between them to solve the puzzle.

‘Into The Cesspool’ makes play on ‘cess’ meaning a tax or levy before herding readers into the full on verbal play of a ‘cesspool’. Here is a random sample of the list:

DERISORY
STEREOPHONY
VALETUDINARIAN
MONISM
PHATIC
NEGENTROPIC
SUMMATE
SPECULARITY
ACTANTIAL
DEFERRAL
REGIME
CLASSIFCATORY
SYNTAGM
DOXA
LOCUTIVE

On first glance some connections and associations emerge, a succession of words from severable to spall about breaking apart, and then there are words that are variations of more common words. Soon one is lost in the Collins or Oxford English Dictionary placing words into sets of words, the ponderables and possibles, both repeated, that make up the list. The selection is seemingly isolated from context until one picks up on the repeated use of interpellate, mischance, perchance, orison and onton, which is not in the dictionary, as a sign of humour and the list becomes a way into Adele’s character. Adele, the spy and cryptologist has a predilection for words from a range of discourses that can be at a stretch connected to a cesspool, cloaca being an archaic word for sewer and so on. She has a wicked sense of humour beginning her list with ‘FLUSH LEFT’ and ending with ‘ALL SMALL CAPS’, which turn out to be the key to the puzzle. ‘Flush’ here is employed for all its meanings and has a neat comic touch.

The joke may be on the reader as one skips to the final note, which is a tour de force of narrative ebullience. The narrator is considerably deepened and extended into a maniacal loudmouth. The sentences are rich in rhythms, asides and resonate with biographical detail creating a memorable persona. The reader tends to look back on the long list as a conceit, a way into the deeper layers of language, and wants more engagement with the nature and uses of language. This then becomes the point of the list an insistence on grappling with the use of words within lived experience and literature. The final note succinctly illustrates this with its combination of a probing, quizzical tone and continual search for the right word. The narrator drew lessons from his Aunt and her witty and joyous list. Who would not like to discover more about such words as fent, spall, fard, slub, doce, pelf, frit, sot, ort and orse?

Cess: A Spokening has a power and pointed veracity as a language game and fiction of distinction.

David Caddy 11th August 2015

Alexandra Psaropoulou’s All The Stars (Austin Macauley, 2014)

Alexandra Psaropoulou’s All The Stars (Austin Macauley, 2014)

The arrival of this concrete poem coincided with that of Gordon Lish’s latest work Cess: A Spokening (OR Books), with its one hundred and sixty odd pages of rarefied vocabulary set between two longish notes. There could not have been a greater contrast. This long poem won me over though with its insistent rhythm, well modulated in terse, irregular stanzas employing a limited range of vocabulary. Its engaging charm and childlike simplicity has a surprising forcefulness.

Divided into 38 parts and set in 36 point bold typeface within seventy pages of colour digital designs the poem holds its own above the setting. The designs are intrinsically part of the whole serving to reinforce the cosmic, elemental and lived part of the poetic journey towards spiritual fulfillment. The poem is centred on a first person narrative attempting to transcend dead-ends calling upon inner will and imagination to create, both internally and externally, and enact the vision of a life longed for. The opening part sets up the repetitive structure and subtle twists that continue throughout.

And all the stars
are in the sky
and the waves
are lapping
and the nightbird
is singing
And all the stars
are in the sky
above
And all our wishes
are true
And may all our wishes
be true

The poem’s highlight is not so much the quest for a creative vision but rather the virtues it makes from such a restricted vocabulary. In a way Psaropoulou is a modern Greek equivalent to the concrete poetry of Edwin Morgan or Ian Hamilton Finlay employing subtle and nuanced changes within a narrow pattern of repetition. The difference being that Psaropoulou uses more words and thus has more rhythmic pressure over the longer poem.
The digital work is necessary serving to echo, adding detail on the page, and locate the vision in the daily life of the poet-narrator. It is thus not otherworldly. Nor is it timeless. The modern world is present from the coloured lights in the garden to the busy road scene where the poet-narrator is situated carrying a large handbag between a Range Rover and a scooter, and the text set on the right hand page reads ‘Running / to let out // Running / to let the madness/ out of my heart’. The poem is centred by the digital design adding to the impact and engagement of the whole. At its heart is a portrait of the poet-narrator and her family having an alfresco luncheon with the left page text reading ‘And you must find / the happiness now’. This is an instruction of which the late Lee Harwood and you, dear reader, would surely have approved.

http://www.austinmacauley.com/content/alexandra-psaropoulou

David Caddy 10th August 2015

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