RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Country Gambler by Erica McAlpine (Shearsman Books)

The Country Gambler by Erica McAlpine (Shearsman Books)

The distrust that William Carlos Williams had of the poetry of T.S. Eliot is well known and for confirmation one could certainly turn up that letter Williams sent to James Laughlin in March 1939 in which he damned the American ex-pat with the faint praise of being ‘a cultured gentleman’ before going on to add ‘and cultured gentlemen are always likely to undersell the market’:

‘I’m glad you like his verse but I’m warning you, the only reason it doesn’t smell is that it’s synthetic…He can write. Granted. But—it’s like walking into a church to me. I can’t do it without a bad feeling at the pit of my stomach: nothing has been learned there since the simplicities were prevented from becoming multiform by arrest of growth…’

But we had been made aware of Williams’ distrust long before. In fact from Spring and All onwards! A couple of pages before ‘By the road to the contagious hospital’ there is the prose note ‘If I could say what is in my mind in Sanscrit or even Latin I would do so. But I cannot. I speak for the integrity of the soul and the greatness of life’s inanity…’. Maybe it’s that word ‘integrity’ that prompts me think of both Williams and Gerard Manley Hopkins when I read the introductory poem to this fine first collection put out by Shearsman: ‘Sempervivum’.

‘Long-living plant, that flowers on the ground and
spawns in circles round itself, whose low and quiet
center stores a gravity not surpassed by
stone, down to the pith,’

As the stones from a sonnet by Hopkins ‘ring’ and the ‘weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush’ in ‘Spring’ so do the houseleeks of Erica McAlpine ‘put forth into these leaves’ a sense of energy that feeds on ‘both drought and faith’. The resurgence of life that Williams captures in that roadside to the contagious hospital can be felt throughout this sensitive and uplifting volume of poems. Both poet and reader are immersed within this energy and we can recognise that ‘it’s in our power / to spend the whole afternoon drinking our fill / of sun (soaking now through the canvas over /us)’ confirming us in the feeling that ‘These are the Happiest Days’.
When George Oppen referred to the ‘isolation of the actual’ in Of Being Numerous he was thinking of rooms and ‘what they look out on’ and basements, ‘the rough walls bearing the marks of the forms, the old marks in the concrete, such solitude as we know’. McAlpine reminds us that ‘life is brief’ and therefore brings sharply into focus the immediacy of what is involved in being ‘The Country Gambler’:

‘You’ll find me in the clover patch from August
to October, detangling tangled stem from stem,
inspecting each one over, knowing three
seems four when two stems meet and send a leaf
from under, or if they cross along the neck then
six can be the number. And some are tall,
and bent with rain, and overtop the grass,
while others, tiny, clump their leaves in bunches
thick as moss.’

If there is a tone of Robert Frost’s ‘Mending Wall here there is also that of John Clare whose ‘Clock a Clay’ (ladybird) makes its home in a ‘pale green pillar topt wi’flowers’ which bends at the wild wind’s breath ‘Till I touch the grass beneath’. In the hunt for a four-leaved clover ‘shade can turn the leafage blond’ and wind ‘can push the petal-ends to ground’, making them ‘hard to sort’. With another sly glance at an English poet there is perhaps here a tone of Edward Thomas’s searching for the seemingly long-lost possibility of Eden and Erica McAlpine agrees with Thomas that ‘I wouldn’t cut the searching short’. After all, ‘Nothing’s better than the luck you find’.

I have merely scratched at the surface of these poems and I firmly recommend that you order a copy now; they represent a significant beginning of a serious poetic talent.

Ian Brinton 22nd April 2016

Advertisements

Timeless Man: Sven Berlin by Sonia Aarons (Millersford Press)

Timeless Man: Sven Berlin by Sonia Aarons (Millersford Press)

The substantial biography of the sculptor, painter, writer and poet, Sven Berlin (1911-1999), records the whirlwind of a flamboyant, non-conformist, bohemian who upset the St Ives artistic community and paid a price for challenging their exploitative treatment of Alfred Wallis. Berlin was a self-taught artist and his erstwhile friends, Peter Lanyon, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, used this against him. He was a key and integral part of the St Ives arts community, being particularly close to the critic and artist, Adrian Stokes, the poet, W.S. Graham, and painter, Terry Frost and sculptor Naum Gabo. He was a hard-living, Romantic figure more in the mould of Augustus John than some of his genteel contemporaries. His article on Wallis in Horizon magazine and subsequent book, Alfred Wallis: primitive, published by Poetry London in 1949, made him an outcast from the art establishment and he moved to live among the New Forest Gypsies, with his second wife, Juanita, who subsequently became a successful writer in her own right. His fantasy novel, The Dark Monarch (1962), based on caricatures of St Ives, exasperated matters and he retreated again to the Isle of Wight after it was banned. The novel received four libel actions, including one from his friend, the poet, Arthur Caddick. He finally moved near Wimborne Minster, with his third wife, where he found some degree of recognition in later life.

Aarons has amassed a considerable volume of information about Berlin’s diverse artwork and writings, his connections and fluctuating career in and out of the public eye. What emerges is a telling history of how a notable figure can be ostracised and fail to recover with the result that their many talents can be obscured by time. He only had one item in the 1984 Tate St Ives exhibition. He was exiled by the art world. Yet he was a significant figure during the Forties to both Adrian Stokes and W. S. Graham, with whom he was deeply connected. The exchange of letters between Graham and Berlin are featured in The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters (Carcanet, 1999). Malcolm Mackintosh, a friend of the editors, Michael and Margaret Snow, produced a limited edition of Berlin’s poem ‘Jock Grim’ dedicated to Graham. Berlin’s wartime letters to Stokes were used for a diary-like novel about warfare experiences, I Am Lazarus (1961). Berlin’s main artistic theme became an intuitive movement towards timelessness exploring the vagaries of creation and destruction with reference to diverse life forms and situations. His relief carving, The White Buck, (1958) captures the agonising moment when a stag is caught between life and death. His drawings and paintings focused upon harbour and forest life, fishermen, shipping, animals and labourers. His expressionistic use of colour imparted a mood of mythological intensity, and was at some distance from art market requirements in the Eighties.

Aarons shows that even when his sculptures, drawings and writings were not selling sufficiently to make ends meet, he was still lauded in the media by the likes of John Arlott, John Boorman, Lawrence Durrell, Roy Fuller, Robert Graves, Adrian Stokes, Tambimuttu, Denys Val Baker and Philip Ziegler. Despite being ignored by the art world, he was a regular figure on local and national television featured in documentaries and current affair programmes. We effectively have a rebellious figure unable to find buyers for his sculptures being kicked out into the long grass where he continues to create and write whilst being part of the New Forest Gypsy community. His writings on fishing, Jonah’s Dream (1964) are well anthologized. He also wrote extensively on the New Forest, published three volumes of autobiography, collections of poetry, and Pride of the Peacock – The Evolution of an Artist (1972). His knowledge of gypsy counter-culture emerged in his novel Dromengro: man of the road (1971), as was as in numerous film items.

Berlin’s exile in a way makes his art and writings more acute, more distinct in relation to the now world famous Nicholson and Hepworth. The Dark Monarch furore and split with the competitive St Ives art colony has rather obscured his fine sculptures, in particular the enigmatic, The Timeless Man, Madonna, Serene Head, as well his Creation pictures. He was close to Wallis, Stokes and W.S. Graham, and thus well worth discovering.

David Caddy 17th April 2016

Tears in the Fence 63

Tears in the Fence 63

Tears in the Fence 63 is now available from https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, fiction, non-fiction and translations from Peter Larkin, Laurie Duggan, Geraldine Clarkson, Kathrine Sowerby, Mélisande Fitzsimons, Rethabile Masilo, Sally Dutton, Hugo von Hofmannsthal translated by William Ruleman, Cristina Navazo-Eguía Newton, William Ruleman, Nathan Thompson, Richard Foreman, Melinda Lovell, Charles Wilkinson, Caroline Maldonado, Colin Sutherill, Colin Winborn, Jackie Felleague, Basil King, Eilidh Thomas, Paul Rossiter, Alda Merini translated by Chiara Frenquelluci & Gwendolyn Jensen, Michael Ayers, Helen Moore, Rachael Clyne, Elizabeth Stott, Caitlin Gillespie, Alice Wooledge Salmon, D.N. Simmers, David Ball, Cherry Smyth, John Freeman, Linda Russo, John Brantingham, Roy Patience, Denni Turp, Lesley Burt, Natasha Douglas, Sarah Cave, Valerie Bridge and Steve Spence.

The critical section features Frances Spurrier on Eva Gore-Booth, Dorothy Lehane on Sophie Mayer, Mandy Pannett on Out Of Everywhere 2, Ben Hickman on Tim Allen, Ric Hool on Chris Torrance’s Frinite, Fiona Owen on Jeremy Hooker, Seán Street, Oliver Dixon on English Modernism, Joseph Persad on Maurice Scully, Mark Weiss, Ian Seed on Jeremy Over’s prose poems, Kat Peddie on Marianne Morris, Kelvin Corcoran interviewing Peter Riley on Due North, Belinda Cooke on Antonia Pozzi trans. Peter Robinson, Paul Matthews on Fiona Owen, Mandy Pannett on Pansy Maurer-Alvarez, David Caddy on The New Concrete, Anthony Barnett – Antonym: César Vallejo, Notes On Contributors and Ian Brinton’s Afterword.

Copies are £10. UK Subscriptions £25 for three issues or £40 for six issues.

9 April 2016

ANTONYMS Anew Barbs & Loves Anthony Barnett (Allardyce Book)

ANTONYMS  Anew  Barbs & Loves  Anthony Barnett (Allardyce Book)

Let matters become clear: I have an immense respect for the poetry and prose of Anthony Barnett and this must be evident to anyone who wishes to look up the review I did nearly four years ago for Poetry Review (Vol. 102: 3, Autumn 2012). My opening statement pulled no punches:

‘As poet and publisher for the past forty-five years Anthony Barnett has ploughed a solitary furrow, unerringly straight and hauntingly evocative, across the field of English poetry’.

As I read the recently published book of Antonyms, many of which have never been published before, my respect for the careful footfalls of this fine writer was only increased. I use the word ‘footfalls’ quite deliberately since it was in Samuel Beckett’s 1974 play of that name that May, perhaps named after the dramatist’s mother, ‘…must hear the feet, however faint they fall’; an echo perhaps of Beckett’s mother who had difficulty sleeping through the nights at home in Cooldrinagh and who had removed the carpets in some areas of the house so that her steps should sound her reality.
In Antonym xxxii, on George Oppen and J.H. Prynne, Barnett writes about a review he did on a critical appraisal of the American poet:

‘Here are some moderated bits from that review. If they appear impressionistic, a trait I am quick to criticize in others, it is because I do not know quite where to tread. “Think how careful George has been” I wrote in “A Note About George Oppen”, later allusively retitled “Note Through a Lens”, in which I related the reading, and the writing, of a poem with walking and wandering in the mountains. Of course, care is not enough. Without risk there is no meaningful, useful, process and progress.’

The reference to an appearance of impressionism is interesting because the accumulation of references, of focal points, throughout the thirty-eight short pieces of prose might indeed give the reader a sense that one was moving across a wide field of literature and music without ever settling long on any individual moment. However, nothing could be further from the truth! Each sentence has a clarity to it as if chipped from stone and the whole book has a sculpted quality to it which allows it to rest, still, on the page.

‘THE GRASS HAS BEEN MOWN on the path that winds alongside the brook. It makes it easier to walk and avoid the nettles on either side but somehow I wish they’d left it overgrown.’

Opening with this washed-clean writing in Antonym xxix Barnett moves forward, step by step, to glance at the difference between ‘three’ and ‘four’:

‘Three pigeons are drawing near to my feet. I’m sitting on a semi-circular wide-depth backless wooden plank bench. They are pecking at grass seed it seems, not particularly paying attention to anything or anyone else. A fourth pigeon has arrived and now they are moving away in concert, still pecking.’

That glance leads the writer to contemplate death:

‘Ever since I learnt that the figure four is inauspicious because in Japanese the kanji for four sounds exactly the same as the kanji for death—it’s like that in Chinese—I have, I have to admit, been superstitious…’

My reading has been taken from a landscape, slightly humanised by the mowing down of nettles, to the near-at-hand of the pigeons. The observation of one more bird arriving has prompted a reflection on the opposite of arrival, departure. The very human response to this accumulation of thoughts is to admit to an illogical sensation of superstition but watch how exactly this is arrived at as the repetition of the words ‘I have’ give us a stutter, a stumble forwards into acknowledgement. This is careful writing of the most serious kind. This language-sculptor’s care has affinities with the clarity of Samuel Beckett’s writing and it is a delight to read Antonym xxiv, ‘Beckett and Jazzality’ with its reference to Harold Bloom’s vivid account of the director Herbert Blau’s ‘apprehension before a performance [of Waiting for Godot] at San Quentin in 1957—the first play performed at the penitentiary since Sarah Bernhardt appeared there in 1913.’
One of the best recognitions of the individual quality of Barnett’s style of writing can be found in PN Review 212, from the summer of 2013, where Tim Harris opened his review of Barnett’s collected poems by referring not to impressionism but to Paul Klee whose ‘fine but strong lines…set out from some arbitrary point and sharply change direction’. Harris refers to ‘enigmatic structures that are at once sturdy and yet not quite stable’ which ‘seem to possess an infectious surprise at their own emergence from the fertile nothingness of the white paper.’
In a quiet tone of acknowledgement Barnett focuses upon losses and in Antonym xx a colourful beach bucket from childhood is washed out to sea:

‘I watched it sinking with the water spilling over its rim’.

In a quiet tone of enquiry in Antonym xxxiii he then focuses upon the act of reading:

‘I do wonder why I have a tendency to open a book or leaf through a magazine in the Chinese or Japanese or Hebrew or Arabic direction. Right handed. Holding it in the right hand and leafing with the left. I wondered whether this was a common phenomenon so I conducted a little survey. Not uncommon. Not so common. A vestige of the past.’

I recommend this book very strongly indeed: it is a treasure-trove, a trouvaille.

Ian Brinton 7th April 2016

A Touch on the Remote Linda Saunders (Worple Press) Delineate Gemma Jackson (Lightning Source)

A Touch on the Remote  Linda Saunders (Worple Press)  Delineate  Gemma Jackson (Lightning Source)

Two events, one past and one to come: on Monday 4th April I was fortunate enough to hear Gemma Jackson read from her recently published sequence of poems, Delineate, in the Templeman Library at the University of Kent. On Thursday 12th May I intend going to the launch in Bath of Linda Saunders’s Worple publication, A Touch on the Remote. Both of these collections of poems deal with loss, its historical and geographical context, and the bridging quality of language that can make anguish appear both in its immediacy and in its more lasting ache. I wish that I had known of these two publications when I wrote about the phantom limb syndrome for Dorothy Lehane and Elinor Clegg’s neurological issue of Litmus in 2014…my loss!
Gemma Jackson is just completing her third year of a course in Creative Writing at the university and Delineate is her first chapbook publication whereas Linda Saunders has already published three volumes of poetry and been included in the New Women Poets anthology from Bloodaxe. Gemma Jackson’s work jumps off the page and stage in the manner of performance poetry but it also possesses a reflective quality which haunts one long after the performance is over. The opening piece catches the tone immediately: ‘I was just a little girl why didn’t you / stop me little girl stop why stop just / stop stop stop just j us t stop I was I / I iiiiii’. This fumbling towards expression brought back to me Barry MacSweeney’s ‘Pearl Alone’:

‘In good moments
I say smash down the chalkboard:
let it stay black.
Shake my chained tongue, I’ll fake a growl – a – a – a – a – a ’

MacSweeney was concerned with giving utterance to the trapped mind and Jackson gives voice to the stratum spinosum which can appear as a stain of ‘Human / whispering on hems’.
Linda Saunders’ forthcoming book from Worple Press is divided into four sequences, ‘Listening to Stone’, ‘A Touch on the Remote’, ‘Inflections of the Light’ and ‘The Sculptor’s House’. The epigraph, standing as an introduction to these linked sections, is from Ezra Pound’s version of Li Po’s ‘Taking Leave of a Friend’ and it opens with the words ‘…Mind like a floating wide cloud’ in which the word ‘wide’ is suggestive perhaps of the distance envisaged in John Donne’s ‘A Valediction: forbidding mourning’. In Donne’s poem the geographical sense of distance between two lovers can be bridged by contemplating the use of mathematical instruments, ‘stiff twin compasses’, or by the width of hammered gold beaten ‘to airy thinness’. In the language of Saunders’ ‘Thin Air’ this palpability of absence becomes

‘It’s the utter thinness
of what or who has gone,
the air less thick with presence –’

It is not by mere chance that another voice behind these poems should be that of Basil Bunting whose Briggflatts closes with the statement

‘Fifty years a letter unanswered;
a visit postponed for fifty years.

She has been with me for fifty years.

Starlight quivers. I had day enough.
For love uninterrupted night.’

One of the most effective of these poems of loss is in the title sequence in which the poet seeks ways of touching an absent son ‘across the latitudes / and lapse of years’. The very consonantal emphasis on the ‘t’ in the first noun is softened into a resolution of absence felt in the cadence of ‘lapse’ and the stretching out of time in ‘years’, a word so close to both ‘tears’ and ‘yearns’. The poem I am thinking of is titled ‘Twice as Far = Twice as Fast’. After referring to the Big Bang theory of universal expansion the poem asserts that

‘It’s only that space is growing.
All the atoms remain the same,

but are moved farther apart
by space ballooning outwards.’

The conclusion is that ‘as distance increases so does the speed // of parting’.

As if nodding to Bunting’s stonemason who had scorned ‘Words!’ on the ground that ‘Pens are too light. / Take a chisel to write’, Linda Saunders places steps of stone throughout her four sequences: from the opening, ‘Underfoot, it’s limestone’, to the concluding poem titled ‘Stepping Stones’ we are lead with deft confidence through a terrain that is receding. Pound’s epigraph closes with the words

‘Sunset like the parting of old acquaintances
Who bow over their clasped hands at a distance,
Our horses neigh to each other
As we are departing.’

Linda Saunders’ ends her volume with a child who finds the ‘foot-shapes of stone’ and wonders ‘Where will they go?’ A question to which the notes at the end of Gemma Jackson’s sequence give one type of answer: note to page 19, ‘6570 – the number of days in 18 years’.

Ian Brinton 5th April 2016

Crimean Sonnets: Adam Mickiewicz A new version translated by Kevin Kackson (Worple Press)

Crimean Sonnets: Adam Mickiewicz A new version translated by Kevin Kackson (Worple Press)

In his introductory essay to this handsome little volume from Peter and Amanda Carpenter’s Worple Press, Kevin Jackson makes his credentials as a translator absolutely clear:

‘In my “imitations” of these short poems—they are by no means true translations, as my Polish is still at the toddler stage—I hope to have conveyed at least the substance of Mickiewicz’s intellectual range, though probably none of his lyrical grace’.

I have mentioned the Keynote Speech given by J.H. Prynne at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in Shijazhuang in April 2008 on a previous occasion and I go back now to that intricate talk about the difficulties of translating poetry. In terms of a translation the problems are first of all lexical, the tracing of semantic equivalences, idioms, registers:

‘If the vocabulary is rich in shades of alternative meaning, sometimes bringing in different fields of specialised usage and also historical or textual allusion in several different directions, the reader/translator pauses to consider the choice to be made. Which of the many pathways to follow?’

By terming his version of the Crimean Sonnets ‘imitations’ Kevin Jackson has released himself from a close study of the original Polish and has produced something new. It is on that ground that these eighteen sonnets stand or fall and, for me as a reader, they certainly stand. It is here that the short introductory essay is also of great value since we are given the background to Mickiewicz’s exile in Russia between 1824 and 1829. It was not a term of physical hardship and we are not looking at the world of Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn; however much the young Polish poet’s ‘soul might have been racked with unappeasable nostalgia and melancholy’ he had little to complain about ‘in material terms’. The food was good and the company seductive leading Jackson to suggest that ‘Mickiewicz’s exile was probably the cushiest and sexiest in literary history’. There is, of course, a wide range of poetry written in exile and Ovid’s enforced residence on the edge of the Black Sea in A.D. 8 was one of the most celebrated. As with the nineteenth-century Polish poet’s exile storms at sea, whether real or metaphoric, are central and the fourth section of Book I of Ovid’s Tristia opens with the poet ‘constrained, not by my will, to plough the Adriatic’ whilst facing waves which are ‘mountain-high, on prow and curving stern-post’. In 1825 when Mickiewicz travelled to the Crimea he seems to have revelled in voyaging through a massive storm and Kevin Jackson tells us ‘he had himself lashed to the mast like Ulysses to relish the spectacle while his shipmates languished below deck.’ The image is, of course, an interesting one for a poet and the Odyssean ability to be privileged to hear what the Sirens sing is perhaps part of what prompted Prynne, in his role as Late-Modernist poet, not only to title one of his poems from The White Stones ‘Lashed to the Mast’ but also to paste into the opening page of his copy of Ezra Pound’s Cantos a reproduction of a third-century B.C. Greek vase showing the exile on his way home listening to words that are for his ears only.
The first of the Crimean Sonnets opens on a landscape which reaches back to the traditional picture of the exile’s voyage by sea:

‘This steppe is like an ocean that’s run dry,
My wagon’s like a ship that ploughs the sea,
The flowers and the grasses seem to me
Like brightly-coloured waves as I pass by.
Night’s falling.’

I like the way that these opening lines move from the inherited image of the sea voyage to the more resisting flatlands of monotony. The simile of the first line rolls off the tongue so easily while the second has a sense of clog: the simile seems to move slower and slower with the repetition of ‘p’ sounds between ‘ship’ and ‘plough’. The sense of isolation and loss is finely caught with the image of flowers and grasses being associated with the pun on the word ‘waves’: we are no longer in the Romantic inheritance of exile but are confronted with a gesture of loss that will culminate in the falling of night.
One of the significant qualities of these ‘imitations’ is their simplicity and this could not be made clearer than by looking at the closing lines of the fourteenth sonnet, ‘The Pilgrim’:

‘O Lithuania! I throb with pain!
I miss your marshes where I used to roam,
I love them more than all this fertile loam
Which teems with luscious fruit and ripened grain.
I am so far away from my dear land!
So far away from her, my one sweetheart –
We’d walk all night together, hand in hand:
I broke my promise that we’d never part.
Does she still pace the paths we used to tread?
Does she still think of me, in her soft bed?’

There is a tone here of that late-Medieval song ‘Western Wind’:

‘Westron wynde when wyll thow blow,
The smalle rayne downe can rayne –
Cryst, yf my love were in my armys
And I yn my bed agayne!’

The simplicity of Kevin Jackson’s new poem goes some way towards giving an account of those concluding lines to Fulke Greville’s ‘Absence and Presence’:

‘For thought is not the weapon,
Wherewith thought’s ease men cheapen,
Absence is pain.’

Ian Brinton 2nd April 2016

%d bloggers like this: