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Monthly Archives: May 2016

UnNatural Music: John Lennon & Yoko Ono in Cambridge 1969 by Anthony Barnett Allardyce Book

UnNatural Music: John Lennon & Yoko Ono in Cambridge 1969 by Anthony Barnett Allardyce Book

In the closing lines of this attractively produced little piece of history Anthony Barnett refers to Yoko Ono as Eiko and thereby brings back into focus another little fragment of history. Some eight years ago I received an email from Michael Rumaker, Black Mountaineer who had been taught by Olson in the 1950s, in which he commented upon my determination to locate and read his first novel, The Butterfly:

‘You mentioned you plan to read my Butterfly this weekend with an eye to comparing it to Douglas Woolf’s Wall to Wall. I’m glad I have the chance to warn you the comparison will not stand up. Butterfly was my first novel and as with all first novels is riddled with flaws, and in this case, excessive emotion and not as direct as I would have written it in a later time. That, despite its being highly autobiographical, and also perhaps its being of some historical interest, since the character of “Eiko” is actually Yoko Ono (no secret anymore since Albert Goldman wrote about that fact in his 1988 The Lives of John Lennon) and the character of “Alice” is actually Joyce Johnson, former girlfriend of Jack Kerouac who was with him when On the Road hit it big).’

When Barnett’s recent publication was reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement on May 20th J.C. opened his piece with a fine piece of tongue-in-cheekery:

‘There is something appealing about a music memoir that opens “I do not have to tell you how disgraceful John’s attitude was and Yoko’s is”. The author of UnNatural Music is the poet Anthony Barnett who produced the Natural Music concert in Cambridge in 1969…’

The tongue-in-cheekery is of course that Barnett does have to tell us and what he tells is clear and to the point. His historical reconstruction, a past that never simply gets swallowed up in a present, is immaculate and the whole book is presented in a style that over many years Anthony Barnett has made his own: a type of signature publishing dish. Buy a copy NOW!
The historical reconstruction undertaken here is not simply about that concert in 1969; we enter into a spectral world of the past as the book opens with the words ‘For a while from 1965 I worked at Better Books, New Compton Street, round the corner from their Charing Cross Road shop. That section of New Compton Street no longer exists. A redevelopment covers it.’ We are immediately drawn into a world that will include Nothing Doing in London One, ‘which included a music score by John Tchicai’; the letterpress literary and arts loose-leaf folio review also included work by Samuel Beckett and Anne-Marie Albiach. In January 1968 Nothing Doing in London Two appeared with work by George Oppen as well as Yoko Ono’s ‘On Paper’. As Mr Barnett tells me the title page was ‘set in Castellar font, and the names in Plaintin font’. Needless to add that both are now collectors’ items!
Rumaker’s novel opens in a hospital which conveys a haunting sense of the prophetic for Ken Kesey’s later masterpiece, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:

‘The low stucco buildings of the hospital with their harsh green windows and heavy wire screening stretched out in all directions as far as the eye could see.’

Anthony Barnett’s magical reconstruction of long gone days comes off the page with similar focus.

Ian Brinton 29th May 2016

Long Poem Magazine Issue 15, ed. Lucy Hamilton & Linda Black Sure Hope 1, ed. Joseph Persad

Long Poem Magazine Issue 15,  ed. Lucy Hamilton & Linda Black  Sure Hope 1,  ed. Joseph Persad

In The Pavilion Hotel, 37 Leinster Gardens, London W2, Ken Edwards gave an interview on 15th February 1995 in which he talked about the world of poetry and the world of poetry magazines. Reality Studios had a ten-year lifespan and Edwards made it clear that he was interested in questioning the ‘basis of belief and acceptance of what writing is’.

‘So that is what I was trying to do in the magazine’.

Ken Edwards also made it clear that he did not want the magazine ‘to have a dogmatic line on anything, because I do not feel I have one…The thing is when you edit a magazine, people do come to you with preconceived notions of what you are doing, like if you publish soandso’s poetry, therefore you support this line and therefore soandso must be an enemy. Unfortunately, poetry is riddled with this kind of factionalising.’ One year later Iain Sinclair’s anthology Conductors of Chaos appeared and his introduction emphasised those points in vivid language as he suggested that poets ‘are a quarrelsome bunch; dealing with them is like dipping an arm into a sack of vipers’. In terms of the publication of an anthology (and the same could be said of a magazine) they demand ‘Who else is involved’.

This month two magazines have appeared and in their different ways they are exemplary in showing how the best can be achieved. Long Poem Magazine has been running for a few years now and it is produced with care and style. The editors, both poets in their own rights, were able to announce in the opening pages of this recently published issue that LPM has been awarded ‘an Arts Council grant to fund issues 15 and 16’. They also presented a clear sense of their own purposes as editors:

‘Since LPM’s inception, we have striven to publish an equal proportion of women to men, and to foster a sense of literary community and engagement across languages, cultures and countries—publishing translations from nine languages to date, with a tenth in the pipeline.’ The range of poetry is eclectic as work by the Russian of Anatoly Movshevich (translated by Peter Daniels) brushes shoulders with that of Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Ian Brinton) and the ‘Extracts from Uruk’s Anthem’ by Adnan al-Sayegh, translated by Jenny Lewis, are simply outstanding. I am reminded here of the published letter of Jeremy Prynne to Andrew George concerning the latter’s Penguin translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh in which he congratulated the translator on his ability to present ‘with great clarity and force… a poem of tremendous nobility and passion, evidently linked by many threads to the social structures of governance and adventure among men who still felt themselves close to the world of an elaborate pantheon of gods and supernatural agencies, but also displaying deep powers of psychological insight and human character and interaction’. To listen to Adnan al-Sayegh reading from his contribution to LPM at the launch was to be stilled for a moment, to be caught in a web of interwoven histories.
Submissions can be sent via http://www.longpoemmagazine.org.uk

Sure Hope 1 is a delight to read and its editorial note looks forward in the very best sense. As its title suggests it is here to stay for a while.

Sure Hope is a magazine of the arts, fairly convinced that writing, radically considered, remains an optimized framework for investigating the continued possibilities of hope, invisibility, equality, expansion, space, history, love…..It is hoped readers will enjoy what is presented, observing that these contents look out to broad horizons of conversation, life, and argument…’.

The range of contributors is impressive as Ian Patterson and Anthony Barnett rub shoulders with Justin Katko and Sophie Seita; Lisa Jeschke & Lucy Beynon appear along with Ian Heames and Luke Roberts. From the migrant camps of Calais we can read Harry Soolia as he chalks up the ‘intelligent and deliberate manipulations of opinions / tintin’s tears dripping from the feed’. This new magazine is worth supporting and submissions can be sent to troposphereeditions@gmail.com

Ian Brinton 23rd May 2016

Slant by Linda Black (Shearsman Books)

Slant by Linda Black (Shearsman Books)

Reading through the graceful poems, the delicate threads of line that constitute this collection, I am reminded of a little essay written by John Hall and published by Shearsman in Necessary Steps, edited by David Kennedy in 2007. Writing about ‘Occasions of Elegy’ Hall refers us to some roots:

The Oxford English Dictionary gives as the etymology for occasion: ‘ad. L. occasion-em falling (of things) towards (each other). It is not just the things that fall towards each other, though there is always, I would say, a sense of conjuncture or convergence that marks something as an ‘occasion’, even for those with their attention on the ‘everyday’. It is also that occasions are marked incidents that cause certain people to fall together.’

In the Dictionary the word ‘slant’ has of course plenty of references to the oblique (‘having an oblique or sloping position’) bringing to mind that occasional sense of one thing leaning towards another: movement and balance. The delicate threads of Black’s lines lean in such a way that stasis merges into movement: the gesture is that of thought becoming fixed for a moment, and it is recognizable in ‘Earth’s spread’:

‘—legend
quickens outward
inward to the fine grit
sand sieved & airborne
scuffs the surface
into drills blows in
three wishes bows out
definition beaten by whether…
O fragile web!

The forward movement of civilized growth, that which in narrative terms creates ‘legend’, has a primeval thrust of life which is caught with the word ‘quickens’. The word itself has of course echoes of the Credo where the ‘quick’ and the ‘dead’ merge and in this present context it is promoted, propelled forward, with the gesture of ‘outward’ as if from a centre. With a leaning gesture forward there is also an awareness of what space has been left behind by the movement: the opposite of ‘outward’ is ‘inward’ and the ‘fine grit’ or ‘sieved sand’ is like the prehistoric substance from which the perilous slanting forward derives. The ‘fossils’ and ‘scavengers’ and ‘bones’ which appear in the poem’s second stanza are ‘far far lower’ than where we are now but they provide the essential backdrop for this surge of slanting forward.

A central sequence of poems in Slant is ‘The Seven Lamps’ and as Carol Rumens says on the back cover ‘This work is a kind of translation, and Black finds enrichment for her own rhythms and vocabulary by re-grouping and personalising borrowings from the original texts’. In Ruskin’s fourth chapter of The Seven Lamps of Architecture he had presented an aphorism that could well be borne in mind when thinking about contemporary poetry:

‘But symmetry is not abstraction. Leaves may be carved in the most regular order, and yet be meanly imitative; or, on the other hand, they may be thrown wild and loose, and yet be highly architectural in their separate treatment.’

Ruskin went on to explain how his ideas differed from many architects since many of them ‘would insist on abstraction in all cases’ whilst he felt that a purely abstract manner ‘does not afford room for the perfection of beautiful form’ and that ‘its severity is wearisome after the eye has been long accustomed to it’. In Black’s poem (‘after Ruskin’) we find

‘Long low lines rise soon to be lifted
& wildly broken’

And we are confronted with ‘pavement’ which ‘rises / & falls’ as ‘arches nod westward & sink not one / of like height’

The conclusion to this second stanza of ‘The Seven Lamps’, a remarkable poem, is central to Linda Black’s whole volume as she comments upon ‘These inclinations’ (note the pun on subjective desire):

‘the accidental leaning the curious incidence
of distortion – differences’

The presentation of each poem, with italicised words leaning against the rest of the text, is part of the whole exquisite design and ‘A life of custom & accident’ is held in a delicate balance.

Ian Brinton 13th May 2016

Give me your painting hand: W S Graham and Cornwall by David Whittaker (Wavestone Press)

Give me your painting hand: W S Graham and Cornwall by David Whittaker (Wavestone Press)

This beautifully designed book is an affectionate portrait of the poet, W.S. Graham’s life in or near Praa Sands, Carbis Bay, Mevagissey, Gunard’s Head, Zennor and Madron, Cornwall. Whittaker provides a broad impressionistic view of Graham’s life and career, makes excellent use of his correspondence, charts key publications in his poetics and poetry, and his connections with numerous artists in Fitzrovia and Cornwall. The monograph includes more than sixty photographs and portraits of Graham and others in Cornwall, includes his major poems on Cornish artists Alfred Wallis, Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton and Bryan Winter, as well as a useful bibliography.

Early on Whittaker quotes a 1981 letter to Gavin Saunders, where Graham acknowledges that his early poems are as good as his later poetry ‘with their own particular energies’. Graham’s sense that his poetry was producing a meta-language with sound and vision uppermost has deep connections with Dylan Thomas and the neo-Romantic and modernist artists of the St. Ives community. The St. Ives connection might be said to be their joint concern with objects and process. There is the related sense that they are also variously concerned with self and place. The second is that to some extent they are mostly living and working as exiles. Although Whittaker does not make the first connection explicit or pursue deeper links, he certainly acknowledges the second. He sees Graham’s connection with artists beginning with his work on the translation of an essay on Paul Klee by Polish artist, Jankel Adler for Horizon magazine in 1942. Adler’s art, particularly his stylized faces, can be seen in the sketches and doodles that decorate Graham’s letters.

Graham first lived in gypsy caravans at some distance from the creative hubs of St. Ives working hard at his craft. From April 1945 Sven Berlin, a sculptor concerned with process, became an avid drinking partner and supplier of Benzedrine tablets, and commissioned a poem on Alfred Wallis for his Poetry London Editions book on the artist. The relationship between the two built around Wallis and the sea is clearly important to both figures. Graham used Berlin to get a copy of David Gascoyne’s Poems 1937-1942 and introduced him to Johnny Minton visiting from London, who in turn taught Berlin how to monotype. There was clearly a strong work ethic amongst the St. Ives community at this time, and the impact of Wallis as a fisherman and sailor resonated with both Graham. He was drawn to the process of journey and return, something that Wallis had done as part of his working life. Wallis’s paintings are significantly devoid of human figures. He was not painting his life as such. It is tempting to consider these early connections with the sea, its language and local idiolects, and ‘Unenglish’ landscape’ as the reason that Graham chose to settle permanently in Cornwall. This local material finds its way into his subsequent poetry.

Graham worked on his poetics ‘Notes on a Poetry of Release’ first published in Poetry Scotland in July 1946, which Whittaker quotes extensively from:

‘The most difficult thing for me to remember is that a poem is
made of words and not of the expanding heart, the overflowing
soul, or the sensitive observer. A poem is made of words. It is
words of a certain order, good or bad by the significance of its
addition to life …

Each word changes every time it is brought to life. Each single
word uttered twice becomes a new word each time. You cannot
twice bring the same word into sound …

The poem is more than the poet’s intention. The poet does not
write what he knows but what he does not know …’

About the poem, ‘The Nightfishing’, he wrote to Charles Causley that
‘Leonardo da Vinci has curious drawings in his notebooks of poured water and its currents and momentum and storms and driven tides and in a way I wanted to use those kinds of very physical phenomena in whatever real action was represented.’

Whittaker shows Graham living a materially meagre existence in remote Cornwall participating within a community of outsiders drawn to work individually on the edge of society. This community allowed access to intelligent explorers in the visual arts. Roger Hilton, for example, saw painting as a self-contained object with its own self-referential rules of coherence based on colour and form without external referents. Clearly Hilton’s approach has parallels with Graham’s poetics.

Whittaker delineates Graham’s friendships with successive generations of St. Ives artists, from Berlin, Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon, Bryan Winter through to Tony O’Malley and Bill Featherston and his various love affairs with Elizabeth Smart, Nancy Wynne-Jones, Ruth Hilton to produce a handy overview of the some of the important relationships in his life. Graham, who was not a loner, nevertheless appears as a lone figure, as distinct as his poetry. This is a useful celebration of W.S. Graham in Cornwall.

David Caddy 12th May 2016

Dianoia by Michael Heller (Nightboat Books)

Dianoia by Michael Heller (Nightboat Books)

The Scottish philosopher Sir William Hamilton proposed the term dianoiology for that portion of logic which deals with dianoetic processes of the mind: the thinking through of ideas. For a writer this may well involve what Michael Heller refers to as the ‘breaking apart’ of ‘clods of what was named’ because after all language is the ‘hardest / of earths, each word narrowing…’. So many of these poems in Dianoia deal with stasis and movement and they are deeply moving testimony to an artist who has spent a lifetime trying to let stillness convey fluidity.
In ‘Visiting Brigflatts with Ric’, written in memory of Ric Caddel, the opening lines plunge the reader into a memory:

‘Your car chugging up the pass
into snow’s unseasonal bursts,
all the while sun shining overhead,
then a plunge down to Bunting’s grave,
stone of Quaker plainness…’

The movement of that opening line followed by the unusual nature of the weather hardens out into ‘stone’ which in turn will become ‘austerity of row upon row.’ The picture we are given of Ric Caddel is of ‘an elm’s rooted trunk / or northern stone pillar’ but the metamorphosis of this poem’s language, the stasis of what is memorialised, is given fresh movement in the last line with ‘currents animating earth’. And there we have it! The poet at work!
In ‘Lecture’, we move between an account of the German artist Max Beckmann’s painting ‘Tot’ and the Number 30 London bus being blown up in July 2005. We move between the Japanese poet Bashō who ‘travels along paths and byways’ producing ‘spontaneous evocations in poetic form, haiku, linked haiku’ and the American poet George Oppen who writes of a highway accident with ‘The wheels of the overturned wreck / Still spinning – ’. As Heller looks closely at the photographs of both the London bombing and of a bus blown up is Israel he notes

‘No need here to go into “visual” languages, semiotics, etc. We’re talking about what gets communicated across the special loneliness between you and me and I and it.’

Referring again to Bashō and his journal writings in Narrow Road to the North Heller gives us one aspect of the artist caught in a moment: ‘that impression of spontaneity is part of the art of it’. He quotes the short piece of Bashō which evokes the memory of the heroic death of Lord Sanemori, an ageing warrior who dyed his hair to disguise his age, and whose helmet was carried to the shrine that the Japanese poet has just passed:

‘I am awestruck
To hear a cricket singing
Underneath the dark cavity
Of an old helmet.’

The living quality of stillness is central to Michael Heller’s art and in the opening page of ‘Lecture’ he focuses upon his own walking in which he is accompanied by all that makes him who he is. He walks with Bashō, ‘stopping at a shrine, experiencing awe and reverence, the surround of mountain peak and foliage, the pines he likened to solitary figures’. The image from the Japanese is part of who he is as he moves through a living world of gone things. Focusing on the July bombings in London he writes of the world of the here-and-now and how it impinges upon who we are:

The self. That’s what got me going here, the self alone against murderousness, the sudden “nearness” (I don’t know how else to put it) to random murder perpetrated by others against innocents.’

The Number 30 is the bus that often carried the poet from Islington to Bloomsbury, to the British Museum. ‘Had we arrived a day earlier…’. The sense of how we see ourselves in relation to the world around us is central to the vision:

‘…My sense that A can morph into B,
tenuous nets of companionship, that we ride
like they ride who elsewhere are killed.’

Heller writes that ‘We are exposed / to the possibility of unplanned ruin’ and he seems partly to echo Paul Auster’s comment at the opening of In the Country of Last Things:

‘When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you mustn’t waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it.’

The bitterness of the narrator in this apocalyptic novel from 1987 is, however, far different from Michael Heller’s determination to make the moment live, to give stasis currency and it seems appropriate to conclude not only with that image of ‘currents animating earth’ but also with the short poem Ric Caddel wrote for John Riley, the Leeds poet who was murdered in 1978:

‘What in the world we see
is what’s important. There
the days seemed shorter and our hearts
spun with the compass under

trees, magnificent pointers
out of galaxies. Continental drift,
an appointment we were late for,
an old friend missed.’

My review of The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller, ed. Curley & Kimmelman, has just appeared in the current issue of PN Review.

Ian Brinton 7th May

The Sleepwalkers by Will Stone (Shearsman Books)

The Sleepwalkers by Will Stone (Shearsman Books)

The detail of Medieval stained glass from Long Melford Church in Suffolk is disturbingly appropriate as I stare at what reminds me of John Webster’s famous lines concerning ‘A dead man’s skull beneath the roots of flowers’ from The White Devil. The stained glass head is more likely to be female but the principle remains: beneath the surface of humanity there is death. Or, as Zoe Brigley puts it on the back of this striking new collection of poems, ‘Bleak and beautiful, the poems elegize and bear witness, lamenting the emptiness at the heart of Western society.’
The sense of inevitability about man’s turning his back upon the light in order to indulge himself in darkness is there in the epigraph Will Stone uses for the second section of these poems:

‘Posterity will not be able to understand that we had to fall back into the same darkness after having known the light…’

The second poem in the section focuses upon a photograph in the ‘Karl Höcker Album’ which is owned by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. As Stone’s low-key and essential notes tell us: ‘This remarkable album of 116 photographs, discovered in 2006, had belonged to Höcker’, an SS officer at the camp. Whilst the photograph reveals a gathering of the important officers taking a well-earned break from duty at a rural retreat named Solahütte the poem also ‘refers to other images, notably one showing a line of young female SS auxiliary staff, known as Helferinnen, perched on a rustic balcony gleefully tucking into bowls of blueberries’:

‘Karl Höcker himself presides over the fun, egging the girls on for the camera. The second image shows them holding their bowls upside down with mock sadness; now all the delicious blueberries are gone. Meanwhile, thirty kilometres away, thousands of human beings are being gassed, shot, or, when numbers of arrivals exceed capacity, thrown alive into firepits. Höcker faced justice after the war, but denied any wrongdoing, even though witnesses testified to his presence on the ramp during Selections. He made the following statement in court: “I only learned about the events in Birkenau…in the course of the time I was there…and I had nothing to do with that. I had no ability to influence these events in any way…neither did I want them, not carry them out. I didn’t hurt anybody…and neither did anyone die at Auschwitz because of me.”’

The poem is powerful in the way it captures what Auden was to refer to as the great artists never being wrong about understanding how human suffering takes place ‘While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along’ (‘Musée des Beaux Arts’). In Will Stone’s vivid recreation of horror

‘Giggling typists and telephonists
look flirtatiously on from a sunny glade.
Some whistle, some wave, they are
just doing what comes naturally,
for they are young people with dreams
riding their float through the carnival,
lips stained with the blood
of blueberries.’

What gives this image such power is the combination of the word ‘giggling’, a slightly uncontrollable form of laughter associated with childishness, with an awareness of the position they are adopting ‘flirtatiously’. The ordinariness of the scene is captured with a Larkinesque matter-of-fact quality since, after all, they are ‘just doing what comes naturally’. And there’s the rub! As the reader places these lines next to those carefully chosen words of Stone’s notes there is a deeply disturbing jolt. Ah yes, gassing people, shooting them, throwing them into fire-pits, ‘just doing what comes naturally’.
Equally powerful is the first poem in this second section of The Sleepwalkers, ‘Reading Reck’ written in memory of Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen who was shot in Dachau in February 1945. Reck had met Hitler in 1920 and had noted that ‘There was a feeling of dismay, as when on a train you suddenly find you are sharing a compartment with a psychotic.’ Stone’s notes are again absolutely right in their precision and unfussiness. He quotes Reck, whose diary detailing life under a dictatorship was never unearthed by the Nazis, as describing a ‘feeling of oppression’ remaining after the young Hitler had preached at length:

‘It was not that an unclean body had been in the room, but something else: the unclean essence of a monstrosity.’

The poem focuses on Reck hiding his diary, like hiding his mind, ‘in the wood / glancing around him, a silhouette / with his hands in the earth, digging…’. We are given a picture of Reck ‘who found a fawn torn by a dog’ and who ‘cradled it as it died’ with, according to the diary, ‘tears in its eyes’. Walt Disney had released his film about a deer and loss / tears, Bambi, in 1942 and yet you will have to work out for yourselves whether the tears of sentimentality hinted at in Will Stone’s poem cast a glance at that world or the world of the later tears shed by a survivor from William Golding’s post-war landscape:

‘Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of a true, wise friend called Piggy’

In these wise and disturbing poems Will Stone compels us to stare unflinchingly at the skull beneath the skin.
I shall be reviewing Stone’s translation of Stefan Zweig’s Messages from a Lost World (Pushkin Press) for The London Magazine.

Ian Brinton 1st May 2016

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