In November 1981 Robert Sheppard wrote about the poetry of Kelvin Corcoran:
‘This is the first substantial selection of his work to have appeared and there is in it a celebration of a “human / world as obvious as phenomenology”.’ After referring to both A.N. Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty Sheppard makes the point that these poems do not use philosophy as a dead-weight ‘to be lumbered from poem to poem’:
‘Each moves with a speed that allows the poem to “accurately accompany”—not describe or philosophize about—the process of things in the world, which is “obvious”, maybe, but never simple. These poems do not catalogue a world of “inert fact”, but a series of “unseparated events” that nevertheless demands human consciousness to participate in perceiving its unity…As Olson before him learnt from Whitehead, “There is nothing in the real world which is merely an inert fact. Everything is there for feeling.”’
(Rock Drill, Number 3)
Robert Sheppard’s selected poems from Shearsman Books, History or Sleep, is threaded with a sense of the other. Not ‘The Other’ with its sense of a doppleganger but the other which exists in a type of absence, an ‘autrebiography’ or ‘unwritings’. The book is haunted by ghosts: Stan Tracey, Thelonious Monk, William Carlos Williams, Lee Harwood, Bob Cobbing, Charles Madge, Félix Guattari, Mina Loy, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, J.F. Hendry, Bill Griffiths. The opening poem, ‘Round Midnight’, plays from the outset with the phrase ‘The varnished Bechstein’ which tricks the eye immediately into seeing the word ‘vanished’ before giving the reader ‘the ghost’s hands / are also at their keyboard’:
‘The jumping hands below his bowed head
flesh an illusion, filling
the punched hollows as he watches.’
In ‘Returns’ the palpability of what is gone (‘When I’m / writing I’m thinking of you / as palpable as memory, somewhere / the other side of sense’) gives us ‘The touch / of your hand’ which ‘becomes almost a memory as you enter / a blank scenario’. And ‘Internal Exile’ is prefaced by a quotation from Julia Kristeva:
‘Writing is impossible without some kind of exile’.
This is not quite the same as Geoffrey Ward’s little essay on ‘The Brows with Ivy and with Laurel Bound’ in which ‘Language is doomed to unpunctuality, words chasing, describing, shadowing a reality they can do anything but actually be.’ It is perhaps more like Andrew Crozier’s Utamaro Variations in which the sun ‘breaks through the leaves / in a spectral flare’. Or, appropriately given the title of Sheppard’s magazine Rock Drill, like Pound’s Canto 93 in which we read ‘Risplende / From the sea-caves / degli occhi / Manifest and not abstract’.
The poems are ‘Murmuring memorials over / The haunted shifting sub-soil’ of Sachsenhausen and the sections from Words Out of Time merge a past long gone, memories of that past and the inevitable re-writing of a history as the poet gazes at what he carefully unpicks as truths:
‘I don’t remember going to the Grenada in Portland Road, Hove, don’t recall the film on show, and don’t remember, on the same day, seeing a play, or its plot, or its title. A frame set up, years later, by others. Outside of it there are voices, whispering. Empty landing, tall doors never shut, banging in any wind. The attic, its sloped tar-hair padding, muting all street sounds. On one page, attempts at painting, soaked blots, dried solid.’
Sheppard’s poetry-frame sets up that haunting I referred to at the beginning of this little piece of review and what was becomes seamlessly what is and the ‘punched hollows’ of the gone are filled with a lyric intensity that twists ‘into a thin-throated flower’ that ‘wavers in the vibrant gulf’.
Some four years ago Shearsman published one of the best introductions to the world of contemporary poetry, When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry (—episodes in the history of the poetics of innovation—). In his introduction Robert Sheppard made his position clear:
‘I have long held the view that the power of poetry is precisely that it both reveals itself—its poetic artifice is its undeniable facticity laid bare—and conceals itself, leaving the reader feeling that he or she has not finished, could indeed never finish, the work of reading. The text is inexhaustible in terms of both form and content and in terms of the unstable relationship between them. The writer is also strangely both present—as artificer—and simultaneously absent, from the poem; once the poem is read the only agent in or around the text is the reader.’
Towards the end of this excellent selection of his poems the poet gives us ‘The Word’ in which ‘A fish winching / itself across a screen of smudged clarities’ takes its own place in the ‘spaces of the poem’. This is a selection of poems to return to time and time again. Reading is an energetic engagement and I urge you to engage with these poems NOW.
Ian Brinton, 23rd November 2015.