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Monthly Archives: February 2016

Meridian by Nancy Gaffield (Oystercatcher Press)

Meridian by Nancy Gaffield (Oystercatcher Press)

Peter Riley’s comment on the back of this new Oystercatcher delight from Nancy Gaffield points us in the right direction:

‘Each book by Nancy Gaffield seems a new venture—not a new poet, for there is considerable continuity of her way with words, but rather a new way of projecting the text, a new ancestry, and a new form of engagement with the reader’.

1. ‘A new venture’

An aphetic version from late Middle-English of ‘adventure’: a risky undertaking, a journey the conclusion to which is unknown. Nancy Gaffield’s ‘new venture’ starts with both literature and geography, the self and the place. The opening section offers a quotation from Lorine Niedecker’s ‘North Central’. This short piece of aphoristic poetry looks outward as the opening of both writing and a journey: ‘For best work / you ought to put forth / some effort / to stand / in north woods / among birch’. First published in Cid Corman’s Third Series of Origin (July 1966) the American tone is immediately set for this discovery of a British meridian: the Niedecker quotation is closely followed by a reference to Ordnance Survey Map 122 and a title ‘Peacehaven to Lewes’.

‘Everywhere there are signs / of the North / sudden turns / in weather / a fierceness / of light / trace landscapes / vacant lots / a pivotal place’

The poetry is placed on the page in the three-ply line so loved of Carlos Williams and I only don’t produce it like that on account of the fear that it will not appear correctly when placed on-line. Niedecker, Williams; and I recall writing about Gaffield’s Zyxt (Oystercatcher) last year and referring to Robert Duncan and Charles Olson.

2. ‘considerable continuity’

The continuity referred to by Peter Riley can be traced back to that previous Oystercatcher publication in which Gaffield said that ‘each poem is an exploration / of language in place’ following it with a reference to Gaston Bachelard’s assertion that ‘Inhabited space transcends geometrical space’. This new journey along a meridian takes the reader through those inhabited spaces: ‘vacant lots’, pivotal places, churchyards, epitaphs and fields which ‘lie fallow / waiting for the sun / waiting for the yoke.’ There is perhaps a new voice here as well, that of R.F. Langley whose early poem ‘Matthew Glover’ explored the ideas inherited from both Black Mountain College on the one hand and Carl Sauer on the other. Getting the outside world in has echoes of the advice offered by Olson to his Black Mountain student, Edward Dorn, to follow the model of history set down by Herodotus: ‘istorin, to find out for oneself; to absorb himself intensely and entirely in his subject, “to dig one thing” in a “saturation job” that might require a “lifetime of assiduity”. Carl Sauer was an example here: “to dig one thing or place or man” until the subject was exhausted, as Sauer had done with his early studies of the land and culture of the prairie, was to be “in forever”’. In Nancy Gaffield’s digging

‘Reliable markers include: long barrows, cairns, dolmens, ponds, springs,
wells, castles, churches, hill-forts, quarries, notches in hills, cross-roads. This
is a spatial practice.’

In Mircea Eliade’s 1959 book, The Sacred and the Profane the author suggests that a sacred place has a unique existential value for religious man, whereas for non-religious man space is neutral:
‘A universe comes to birth from its centre; it spreads from a central point that is, as it were, its navel…just as the universe unfolds from a centre and stretches out towards the four cardinal points, the village comes into existence around an intersection. In Bali…when a new village is to be built, the people look for a natural intersection, where two roads cross at right angles. A square constructed from a central point in an imago mundi. The division of the village into four sections…corresponds to the division of the universe into four horizons. A space is often left empty in the middle of the village; there the ceremonial house will later be built, with its roof symbolically representing heaven. At the other end of the same perpendicular axis lies the world of the dead.’

Along Nancy Gaffield’s meridian that human sense of place is sharply caught: it is there. Knowledge accumulates and ‘Landscape remembers’:

‘Danehill Anglo Saxon for swine pasture on the hill
is surrounded by woods
Cowstock Wood
Down Wood
Enholm’s Wood
High Wood
Withy Wood Sedge Wood
“thick and inaccessible” (the Venerable Bede)
Itineration a form of salvage’

3. ‘a new ancestry’

Nancy Gaffield is a reader of poetry as well as a walker of the landscape and one’s reading becomes a part of who one is. In this new volume we meet Helen Adam and John Clare, Walt Whitman and, perhaps, Philip Larkin’s sharp eye for the wreckage of the suburban:

‘The edges of arable land give way
to housing estates wasteland
this part of town
isn’t meant to be gawked at
newly-built business parks
abut abandoned warehouses
brownfield sites
ripe for development
in the distance the yelp of a dog’

It seems so entirely appropriate that the blurb for this excellent new Oystercatcher should have been written by Peter Riley whose own poem ‘From Romney Marsh’ recollected ‘my track across the land’.

Ian Brinton, 29th February 2016

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Country Life by Ken Edwards (Unthank Books)

Country Life by Ken Edwards (Unthank Books)

This is a strange journey into a twilight world of sea and land and ‘We may observe two figures moving in this landscape of cold, dark matter’. The friendship between two young men, based upon mutual dependence and then betrayal, placed against a socio-political background of unrest, dominates Flaubert’s great novel L’Éducation Sentimental. Having found its first contemporary counterpart in Julian Barnes’s Metroland it now finds its second in Ken Edwards’ humorous and moving account of youthful idealism in Country Life. The geographical landscape shifts between a coastal country which has echoes of Dungeness and city life, as Flaubert’s contrasted the world of the upper Seine and the Paris of the 1848 revolution.
In Ken Edwards’ narrative one dominant image is that of the nuclear power station:

‘South of the glory that is the illuminated nuclear power station, lies the Peninsula, a tiny settlement beginning to glow in the shadow of a Sunday evening, under the cold, dark mass of the sea.’

That little word ‘glow’ is mischievously uncomfortable as the world of nuclear power is juxtaposed with the homing sense of lighted rooms with their illusive hint of safety. As the two figures, Dennis and Tarquin, move towards the aptly-named pub ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ they discuss relative positions:

‘The question is, says the big lad with the spiky hair and glittering glasses, where are you in the human food chain? It’s that savage.
He has been talking non-stop since they came out to walk on the strand, here at the end of the world. The talk has been of human handwidth, negative space, power structures.’

Tarquin, the non-stop talker, gives the younger Dennis (a budding musician who is working on World Music Parts 1-25, ‘based on rhythmic patterns’ given off by the surroundings) a lesson in political hierarchies. After all, Tarquin has just finished a 550-page book on Neo-Marxist Aesthetics and the Marketing of the Moment:

‘Like, in the human food chain you might say, the fucking bosses, captains of industry as they used to call them—these days, CEOs of mega-corporations, or chairmen or persons or big-shot shareholders or hedge fund investors, you know what I mean, the Great White Sharks…’.

At the bottom of the food chain, according to the political wisdom of Tarquin, are the tiny ones which are eaten by everything else: krill.

‘Yeah, that’s right, krill. Food for everything else. you understand what I’m saying? that’s the kind of capitalist society we have. At the bottom of the food chain.
Right, says Dennis.
At the bottom. Then you’re fucking krill, man!’

This is an eerie world where the style of Paul Auster meets that of Douglas Woolf: the landscape, brutality and barely submerged violence conjures up the world of Auster’s The Country of Last Things while the quiet but determined humour of domestic engagement brings to mind Doug Woolf’s Ya! in which a father finds his daughter and they both roll out into the darkness. As his daughter, Joan, says “This is wild”, Al replies with a clear sense of what is important, “Yes, it is”. In Country Life an elderly woman clutching a plastic supermarket bag carrying the hopeful logo SAVERS PARADISE weeps quietly because she doesn’t know where she is. When asked by Tarquin and Dennis if she is from round here she nods “Yes, I…don’t know where. I am.” That full-stop after ‘where’ is something to hang on to. She thinks that she lives on the mainland, on an estate, and she thinks that she went to a hospital last week to see her dying husband who has ‘been resting in his grave all these years, the poor dear’. With that glimmer of recognition known only perhaps to the lost she says of her ‘home’ “I’ll know it when I see it…I came out too far.”
This is a world turned upside down with an amphibious life drifting along, a world in which the nuclear reactor ‘will produce enough controlled energy to satisfy the electricity needs of the entire region’:

‘Large magnetised rotors turn inside thick copper coils to generate the electricity that is fed to the grid. Turning each rotor is a large turbine. High pressure steam drives its blades and the rotor revolves inside the copper coils to produce the electricity. Each morning, central heating system boilers will be triggered by time-switches, kettles will be plugged in, radios and TVs will be switched on. The people will wake from their individual dreams, and re-enter a collective dream.’

Country Life has echoes of J.H. Prynne’s Kitchen Poems in which ‘we all share the same head, our shoulders / are denied by the nuptial joys of television, so that what I am is a special case of / what we want, the twist point missed exactly / at the nation’s scrawny neck’. And it draws to a close with a poetry reading given by Tom Raworth in a venue that one could be forgiven for thinking resembles the Lamb in Lamb’s Conduit.

This novel is wonderfully funny in places and it allows the reader to produce his or her own key to characters that play out their roles on a stage of such poignant shifting moments.

Ian Brinton 16th February 2016

CLASP: late modernist poetry in London in the 1970s Edited by Robert Hampson & Ken Edwards, Shearsman Books 2016

CLASP: late modernist poetry in London in the 1970s  Edited by Robert Hampson & Ken Edwards, Shearsman Books 2016

In Tears in the Fence 57 (summer 2013) the Australian poet Laurie Duggan reviewed Cusp, Geraldine Monk’s terrific piece of history and recollections which looked back at ‘British poetry in that age located generally between the bomb and the world-wide web’. The review concluded with the statement that ‘This history is of its nature a ragged one though the work produced has by now equalled, perhaps exceeded, the hopes of its authors’. Geraldine Monk’s book was published by Shearsman in 2012 and now, four years on, this new history of late modernist poetry in London in the 1970s seems like a sequel. It has an intriguing name which almost suggests that one can hold the past close to one. That said, I am reminded of an early paragraph in Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot:

How do we seize the past? Can we ever do so? When I was a medical student some pranksters at an end-of-term dance released into the hall a piglet which had been smeared with grease. It squirmed between legs, evaded capture, squealed a lot. People fell over trying to grasp it, and were made to look ridiculous in the process. The past often seems to behave like that piglet.

As Robert Hampson puts it in his introduction to this eminently readable burst of flame which sheds light onto an otherwise darkened area (darkened that is by the Poetry Police who seem to tell us that nothing has really changed since the world of New Lines more than half a century ago!):

CLASP is an exercise in collective remembering—with, as Lawrence Upton’s essay suggests, a consciousness of memory work as also a process of selecting, forgetting and inventing.

Hampson refers to a counter-culture in the 1960s which revolved around institutions such as the Institute for Contemporary Arts in Dover Street, the Arts Lab in Drury Lane, and the independent bookshops such as Indica Books on Kingsway, Better Books in Charing Cross Road, Bernard Stone’s Turret Books in Kensington and Compendium in Camden Town. These venues ‘not only provided access to books and magazines, but also acted as centres for information-exchange and making contacts.’ This was after all the world and time of Andrew Crozier’s The English Intelligencer so intelligently written about in Alex Latter’s recent account from Bloomsbury, Late Modernism and The English Intelligencer.
One comes away from reading this new collection of reminiscences reeling with the excitement and energy of a world brought back into focus; this is all heady stuff! It reminds me of a series of History books put out by Blackwells in the 1970s, They Saw It Happen. A flavour might be given here by mentioning Iain Sinclair’s account of his journey from London to Wales to search of the émigré member of the Carshalton Chapter, Chris Torrance. After reading J.H. Prynne’s short review of Green Orange Purple Red, published by Crozier’s Ferry Press (taking its name from the Woolwich mode of river-crossing), Sinclair ‘was out of the door, on the road, back home to Wales’:

‘I walked over the hills, through decommissioned mines, conifer plantations, midge clouds, sunburn, blisters, rusty streams, bubbling tarmac, to Torrance’s Neath Valley farmhouse. It was an excitement to make contact with what was already a very active network, the magazines and contributors with whom Chris had been involved, his transmigrations from Carshalton to Bristol to Wales.’

A brief list of some of the short accounts given in CLASP will tease you into getting a copy without delay: Robert Sheppard ‘Took chances in London traffic’, Elaine Randell was ‘Tangled up in politics’, Paula Claire was ‘Working with Bob Cobbing through the 1970s’ while Tony Lopez was moving from Brixton to Wivenhoe to Gonville & Caius. John Muckle’s ‘Inklings’ contrast with Peter Barry ‘Climbing the twisty staircase’ and David Miller reckoned it was ‘A good decade for getting lost’.

Ian Brinton 10th February 2016

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