RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: July 2016

Du Bellay by Philip Terry (Oystercatcher Press)

Du Bellay by Philip Terry (Oystercatcher Press)

The opening sonnet in Joachim Du Bellay’s sixteenth-century sequence of Les Regrets is immediately assertive:

‘Je ne veux point chercher l’esprit de l’univers,
Je ne veux point sonder les abîmes couverts.’

This tone of defiance eschews the world of sublime aspiration; it turns its back on any plumbing of depths; it draws no architectural designs from a skyscape. This is a mode of writing which is the product of ‘l’aventure’ and ‘accidents divers’. In Philip Terry’s fizzing rendition he doesn’t ‘paint my pictures in such rich colours’ and his sonnets enclosed in this fine Oystercatcher’s beak don’t ‘seek such lofty subjects for my verse’. In the world of ‘l’aventure’ he keeps his ‘eye on shit that happens’ since after all

‘I moan right here if I have something to moan about,
Make a joke of it or, if I wish to act the whistleblower, speak out loud,
In the sure knowledge that no-one ever reads poems.
I don’t tart them up to look presentable at award ceremonies,
Knackered times require knackered words,
But regard them as no more than minutes or blogs.’

These twenty-four sonnets are published ‘In Memory of Stephen Rodefer’ and they bring to mind of course those energetic masterpieces, Four Lectures, published by The Figures in 1982. The ‘Pretext’, an excuse perhaps for what comes first, gives the tone:

‘Then I stand up on my hassock and say sing that.
It is not the business of POETRY to be anything.’

Rodefer sees his job as ‘quality control in the language lab, explaining what went / Wrong in Northampton after the Great Awakening.’ The reference is to the religious revival in Northampton, Mass., led by Jonathan Edwards, 1739-40, in which Edwards held that true conversion was marked by, if not uniquely distinguished by, distinct bodily signs (of emotion and personal submission to God’s power), although later he qualified and even rejected this belief. Philip Terry’s poetic outburst is certainly palpable but it moves far beyond the physical into the realms of outrage:

‘It is not the rubbish-heaped banks of this Essex river,
It is not the exhaust-filled air, nor North Hill Barbers,
Which makes me pour out my misery in verse…’

It is instead the manner in which ‘Capitalism unrolls its business plans on campus.’ The campus, which is fast-becoming ‘a space allocation’ where every academic has ‘a workload allocation’ (represented by everything which ‘must be measurable and quantifiable’), presents us with a world in which ‘everything is run on a business model’.

‘We are now “stakeholders”, students “clients” –

This campus of the University of Essex was once the place of Donald Davie and Andrew Crozier and it hosted a trans-Atlantic push from Ed Dorn and Charles Olson. Now ‘We don’t spend our time here writing poetry’ and if you really want to know what goes on then here are one or two granites:

‘There is no time for teaching, we are too busy on curriculum review,
There is no time for real conversation, we are too busy on email…
There is no time for literature, we are too busy on transferable skills,
There is no time for thought, we think only of outcomes.’

In the ‘Preface’ to Four Lectures Rodefer’s poetry was ‘painted with every jarring colour and juxtaposition, every simultaneous order and disorder’ and that anarchic energy, that uplifting sense of anger and urban spleen, sparks off the pages of these twenty-four sonnets. Philip Terry’s collection is exhilarating to read and I recommend it to every teacher of English within the university system. It is, to quote Rodefer once more, ‘as deep as a museum and as wide as the world’.

Ian Brinton 31st July 2016

Advertisements

Pennine Tales by Peter Riley (Calder Valley Poetry)

Pennine Tales by Peter Riley (Calder Valley Poetry)

Peter Riley’s 1992 chapbook Reader opens with a quotation from J.H. Prynne dated from 15th September 1985:

‘It has mostly been my own aspiration, for example, to establish relations not personally with the reader, but with the world and its layers of shifted but recognisable usage; and thereby with the reader’s own position within this world’.

I was alerted to this when I looked this morning at Tony Baker’s fine little contribution to the compilation of essays on Riley’s work published as The Gig 4/5 in which he suggests that the ‘meaning of landscape as I read Alstonefield has surely something to do with my own relation to the place, recognized afresh in the light of the poem’. A finely-tuned awareness of the relation of people to their landscape threads its path through the twenty-four poems in Pennine Tales and it comes as no surprise to meet not only Prynne along the way but also Wordsworth, ‘poor Clare’, Michael Haslam and Thomas Hardy, ‘guide and spokesman’. As Peter Riley puts it

‘Sometimes
hundreds of us walk the tired dark page, water
with stars in it leaking into our boots, eradicating belief.
But a crowd worth joining.’

In a fine book about Hardy, written by Douglas Brown in the mid 1950s, we were pointed towards the ‘hard centre of controlled nostalgia, the profound awareness of lost stabilities and certainties, and the mordant humour insinuating actuality into time and place and person’. Brown was referring particularly to ‘The Dead Quire’ from Time’s Laughingstocks and other verses (1909) in which the ‘Quick pursue the Dead / By crystal Froom that crinkles there’ and the voices of time past drew toward the churchyard the music of that choir of singers ‘smalled, and died away’. The first of Riley’s lyric hauntings opens with the ‘last minibus’ leaving from the station

‘heading for the tops
full of ghosts, ghosts with notebooks, ancestors
from Halifax: farmers, publicans, clerks, looking
for me, wanting me back in the peace and jubilee
of diurnal normality. But they have caught
the wrong bus and will be delivered into nothing,
the nothing of death they came from, and came here
to welcome me to. Passing the abandoned chapel
they start singing hymns, and will soon begin to fade.’

That use of the word ‘fade’ echoes a later Hardy poem, ‘Exeunt Omnes’, which concludes

‘Folk all fade. And wither,
As I wait alone where the fair was?
Into the clammy and numbing night-fog
Whence they entered hither.
Soon do I follow thither!’

Hardy’s air of ‘blankness’ and recall of ‘littered spaces’ where the fair once stood finds its echo now outside the Hare & Hounds at 11.20 pm as the poet waits with Mike Haslam and stands ‘on the edge of the moors’:

‘There is nothing here but stone
walls and distance. We are alone. We are nowhere.
We are the length and breadth of a dark nowhere
which encompasses the world.’

But the mournful wisps of sound in Riley’s poems are heard against a larger background:

‘Come all you little vermin that dwell under stones
crushed underfoot of the earth and make together
a faint hissing and rustling in the night which
grows greater towards the central principle
and the separate sounds build to a chorus
saying that 500 years of degradation and humiliation
is as nothing to us, we can persist ten times as long
working towards a modern condition which
recognises at long last the day of the many’.

These Pennine Tales, ‘night music’, offer ‘some tremble between beliefs’ and as the music ‘draws / our thoughts into the distance’ Peter Riley, poet of people and landscape, registers a reaffirmed presence ‘at home, site of mind / heart decisions’. This is elegiac poetry at its very best.

Ian Brinton 29th July 2016.

(the book of seals) by Mark Russell (The Red Ceilings Press)

(the book of seals) by Mark Russell (The Red Ceilings Press)

The Red Ceilings Press (http://www.theredceilingspress.co.uk/) limited edition chapbook series is in A6 in format and a joy to read and collect. Recent publications in the series include Fidelities by Ian Seed, First & Last by Rupert Loydell & Nathan Thompson, Taxi Drivers by Paul Sutton and Unnecessarily Emphatic by Kathrine Sowerby. They are pocket size booklets are easy to carry around and read as part of your daily routine.

Poet and dramatist, Mark Russell’s 2015 chapbook with Red Ceilings Press, Saturday Morning Pictures has sold out. His latest, (the book of seals), effortlessly draws the reader into a disturbing dystopia, where the first person, singular and plural, narratives are imbued with insecurity, uncertainty and lost innocence. Each poem in the sequence falters under the strain of dislocation, denial of anger, seemingly self-inflicted disasters and drought. The social landscape somewhere in Eastern Europe appears close to a police state, divided, under arrest and dominated by fear:

fear of bottleneck fear of fire fear
of crème anglaise fear of the eggs
that bind it fear of blindness and
light fear of being a suspect fear of
fear of the fingers in the ears fear
of the dried river bed fear of fools
fear of three days and nothing to
show for it fear of now fear of then
fear of now now now

The fear of three days may be an echo of Othello’s demand to hear of the death of Cassio from Act 3 Scene 3 of Othello, or some revelation of three day shortage or darkness, or another connection going back to the Book of Revelation. The narrative uncertainties serve to propel the reader forward. Each poem, inventive and plaintive, works serially in an evocative and suggestive manner.

It won’t be long now.
Three days at most.
Time enough to tie up the runners.
Time enough to close the books.

It won’t be long.
We are surrounded.
We ask for torments.
We fear belonging.

The poems echo and interrogate recent protest movements, extreme migrant
experience and dislocation through circular repetition of limited data from the perspective of the victim. The first person narrative voice, knowing, dramatic and pleading, comes across with force and musicality.

when we can no longer take the
amount of blood on the walls stairs
and carpets on the windows and
mirrors in the cups and saucers on
the plates and forks and spoons
and knives when we can no longer
accept the amount of blood sold in
the marketplace when we can no
longer agree to the amount of
blood discussed at committee
meetings when we can no longer
drink another drop of blood

The ‘when we can longer’ refrain echoes throughout the poem, disintegrating into ‘when we can take no more’ and ‘we can take no’ and ending ‘when the / blood is blood nothing but its own / blood nothing but blood’.

This compelling sequence is a worthy addition to the Red Ceilings Press output and comes highly recommended.

David Caddy 28th July 2016

Brandon Pithouse: Recollections of a Durham Coalfield by John Seed (Smokestack Books)

Brandon Pithouse: Recollections of a Durham Coalfield by John Seed (Smokestack Books)

Brandon Pithouse is a quest to discern the accomplished fact of colliery life in County Durham from 1700 to 1990 now that there are more traces left by the Roman than the colliers. There is then a personal element to these largely documentary poems and prose pieces that draw upon a wide range of historical resources, documents written, printed and transcribed oral sources from recorded interviews on radio and television. These are offered against ‘organised amnesia’ and erasure. The sources have been cut, rewritten and spliced together in various forms of prose, poetry, with and without punctuation and arranged on the page in visual forms to slow the reader down to hear the testimony of multiple voices from a long history. The singular fragments, juxtaposed and in disjunction, accumulate to produce a deeply moving montage of statistics and documentary experience. The rhythms and cadence of the vernacular emerge in both pain and humour:

Anyway, we’re aall in the cage. It was about ’62, ’63, when they
were starting to close the pits, and we were aall in the cage this
day, and we’re crackin’ on about that. They’d just shut that one
where the lad was supposed to have hit Robens, was it Lambton D?
It was just after that and we’re coming up in the cage talkin’ about
it, which was next on the line.

We were in the top deck. Well the top deck has a bar runs across it,
and you can sort of lean on it, well S. was leaning on it. And our Len
says: ‘Aye, aa knaa two bliddy mair they should shut.’
S. says: ‘Aye what’s that?’
‘Thy bliddy ARM pits.’

The ordering of the montage serves to quickly establish the historical-geographical position and reach of the work within a locality. After an extensive list of what constitutes the work of a miner, we read

You walk into any pit house ten o’ clock at night
find the same thing
red hot fire
a tired-looking woman
heavy damp clothes hanging up
all over the place

And later we read of the worst of the work such as ‘putting’, the dragging of coal tubs using a harness called the ‘soames’ with a chain between the legs hooked to an iron ring attached to a leather belt.

When I was putting I used to have an Elastoplast the length of my
back on here the scab would be catching the strut it was that low
the seam was only 13 inches high in places just about high enough
to get a tub in and you had to push it in bent like that
catching your back scabs on your back

This is followed with some gallows humour:

Hangman to a murderer on the scaffold at Durham Gaol:
‘You can have a repieve if you start work, putting at the drift.’

Condemned man: Pull that lever.’

There are also quotations from James Agee, Book of Job, Sid Chaplin, Bill Griffiths, W. Stanley Jevons, J.B. Priestley as well as named colliers. Agee’s phrase ‘the cruel radiance of what is’ sums up a way of viewing the testimonies presented here.

Seed sees the volume not as a collection of poems but rather as ‘an investigation of what can be done with source materials. It asks questions of the reader.’ It is not trying to ‘aestheticise’ painful realities but rather to reconnect the reader to a world that ceased to exist in the 1990s. Brandon Pithouse, dedicated to the memory of poets, Ric Caddell and Bill Griffiths, is a work of recovery retrieving the core of colliery life pitched between historical record and literary investigation.

David Caddy 21st July 2016

Primers: Volume One Selected by Kathryn Maris and Jane Commane (Nine Arches Press)

Primers: Volume One Selected by Kathryn Maris and Jane Commane (Nine Arches Press)

This collaboration between the Poetry School and Nine Arches Press to find new voices in poetry collects together work from four poets, two of whom work through language and two do not. I like the idea of showcasing new and emerging poets in one book.

Primers: Volume One features introductions to each featured poet.
This is poor practice unless what is written is critically substantiated, and does not serve to limit the potential reading experience. It is far better to let the poems speak for themselves. In this case, there are some excellent poems on display, and they do not need any of the crassness offered in the introductions.

Geraldine Clarkson, widely published in a range of poetry journals, winner of the Poetry London and Ambit competitions, the Ver Poets Prize, the Magma Editors Prize and the Anne Born Prize in 2015, is surely almost an established poet. Here she ‘converts unspecified grief, salvation and joy into exhilarating, whimsical music by way of her dynamic and transformative imagination.’ I am not sure that Clarkson’s work can be so pigeon holed, as several of her poems, such as, ‘Podcarp’, ‘Camelament’, and ‘a young woman undressed me and’ with their distinct narrative voices are from a completely different ethos and tradition of poetry:

and raw: muhuuhu muhuuhu ph ph hmmmhu hm
she touched my lip with a shapely thumb
shhh, don’t fret. her voice like jinxed june breezes
in lime leaves. and then. her voice like rills rushing over flint
and dazzling in sunlight. we’ll get you undressed and then
we’ll see to that. just a moment now. and still
she continues to undress me

Maureen Cullen’s use of variant Scots dialect allows her to begin to work through language. The narrative voices though offer a limited range of focus and attention and are too reliant upon lived experience to elevate them beyond childhood and family memoir. These low-key poems are under-realised and a missed opportunity to extend or transcend the tradition. Katie Griffiths’ poetry far from being ‘steely and unsettling’ does at least offer a more angular approach and are less mundane. Sadly, they are intent on telling the reader and leave little for the imagination. Lucy Ingrams’ poems have been more worked upon and offer much greater rewards. The opening poem, ‘Signs’ shakes and rattles with voices working through language:

through wearing them naked as gooseflesh
still and looked for a text to hook yours to
red in the willow crowns plum in the birch
patterns of gnats looked for a language

larger than us tremor of catkins

It is this working through that is so evident in the work of Ingrams and Clarkson that makes their work and this Primers a joy to read.

David Caddy 18th July 2016

Trouble by Alison Winch (The Emma Press)

Trouble by Alison Winch (The Emma Press)

Trouble explores intimacy through a range of different relationships, from that of a lover, polymorphous lover, wife, granddaughter, during the breakdown of a relationship, pregnancy, and in moments of fantasy. The poems are played out against a past and present London backdrop filled with betting shops, a horny marriage counsellor, ballrooms, male attraction and power.

The wife narrator pretends to be ‘one woman’ and has in her head ‘a pack of spaniels so dense they are a mind. And they fawn over men.’
Driven to Eastbourne, which is like ‘a day trip to Seven Sisters, without the bookies’, her ambivalence is revealed:

We’re the youngest guests at the Queen’s Hotel
and you’re 52. It’s the summer solstice and we’re breaking up

except we’re making love on the fifth floor
in an evening light as yolky as an afternoon.

The sexy doom of the split
is like falling in love and a stay of execution.

At the collection’s core is the sequence ‘Alisoun’s’, which uses material from the medieval pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome and the figure of Alisoun from Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale to further explore of female sexuality and reproductive power. The spirited ribaldry is counterpointed by material quoted from key medieval texts, by Marbod of Rennes, St. Thomas Acquinas, Galen and others, attacking or denying female lust and disobedience positioned on the right side margin. The sequence has a wonderful wanton sensuality and period feel ‘Of Wykked Wyves’.

Spanking! he bondaged to feel the passiun of muscle my myt without murder – Dirty Dog!

he pelts my mind – Nicholas – as May’s cuckoo spyt pysse-drys to June

below the river’s a pour of mellow wine that cools the caterwaul cockles of my bihynde

There is, as Sarah Howe notes in her introduction, a great deal of tongue in cheek humour mixed with affectionate lyricism. Many of the poems, such as ‘from Expecting The Gourd’, are extracted from larger works. The poem deals with pregnancy in a direct and visceral way:

Note polycystic ovaries and oleander bushes. Remember the ovulation cycle, wonky uterus, the way you circled your tongue around the salt prod of his cock.

You’re puking cabbage-green skies like a drunk without romance
ulcerous anus, swollen tits, a snatch no one wants –

Winch’s language use and metaphorical thrust has an undercurrent of sexual desire and nourishment. The poems dealing with her dying grandmother are counterpointed with life enhancing images of pomegranate, magnolia, potato and hops. There is an overriding sense of female power and voice arising from various states of intimacy, and that chimes in well with other recent works by Dorothy Lehane, Sophie Mayer, and Sarah Howe. I greatly look forward to reading more of Winch’s poetry and warmly recommend this debut collection. The pamphlet has a great cover by Sophie Herxheimer and is beautifully designed by The Emma Press.

David Caddy 13th July 2016

My Life As A Mad King by Alasdair Paterson (Oystercatcher Press)

My Life As A Mad King by Alasdair Paterson (Oystercatcher Press)

Having published The Floating World (Pig Press) and Brief Lives (Oasis Books) in the Eighties, Alasdair Paterson returned to writing with on the governing of empires (Shearsman, 2010), Brumaire and Later (Flarestack Poets), in arcadia (Oystercatcher Books) in 2011, and Elsewhere or thereabouts, (Shearsman 2014). His latest collection, My Life As A Mad King, is a wonderfully playful, energetic sequence of villanelles. The madness of the king is mirrored in the gradual break up of the villanelle’s refrains, repeated rhymes and their repetition in the final stanza. The nineteen line structure of five tercets and one quatrain remains intact until the final ‘Villanelle the ultimate and’ which consists of twenty two words. Here each word per line, apart from the elongated seventeenth line, and their repetition encapsulates the essence of villanelle. The linguistic wordplay is highly controlled and compressed with the possible variants of each set played out within a confined word field.

A pandemonium of smoke and fire
a panoply of wine and roses
a pantomime of flesh and blood

A panjandrum of cap and bells
a pantaloon of shreds and patches
a pandemonium of court and spark

Paterson has the ability to tease and freshen language, and invest his word play with precision and dry humour. This is a work of quiet authority testing a difficult form. Indeed, beyond Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop’s famous examples it is hard to recall other memorable villanelles. Paterson deftly plays around with clichés and misplaces repeated lines, sometimes reduced to one word, in order to explore the boundaries of the form. His villanelles are rhythmic, ramshackle and fun, punning on rock album titles.

A banquet of greased beggars
a glass with added glass
a saucerful of secrets

A locket drenched in lachrimae
a joint spiced with jacquerie
a saucerful of sanctitas

The sequence culminates with the aged narrator losing his memory:

A man walks into an oubliette / I forget what happens next / forget what happens next / forget

And moves into the final villanelle with its chilling opening:

Crack

head

forget

Windows

fire

crack

My Life As A Mad King is a joy to read and yet another wonderful sequence from Oystercatcher Press.

David Caddy 12th July 2016

%d bloggers like this: