RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: August 2016

September in the Rain by Peter Robinson (Holland House Books)

September in the Rain by Peter Robinson (Holland House Books)

Haunting the accelerating pace of the years throughout the last century the words of L.P. Hartley’s narrator echo a deepening sense of loss: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. Of course they always did but the speed of change seems to have made that world of Edwardian England another country entirely.
Looking back at an early holiday in North Tyne during the middle of that twentieth century Peter Robinson remembers ‘fishing lines / tautening under a vanished horizon’ and recognises that ‘Nothing recompenses for the love withdrawn – ’. It is almost as if in this early poem, ‘Under their feet’, one can hear Arnold’s measure as he listens to the ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ of a sea which retreats ‘to the breath / Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear / And naked shingles of the world’. We walk with the past below our feet and discover monuments piercing the soil telling us how, in Charles Olson’s words, the ‘dead prey upon us’. The American poet cries out his urge to ‘disentangle the nets of being!’ and another early Robinson poem, ‘A short history’, introduces us to those trammels of the past as with a painterly eye we are presented with ‘first light / through gripping ivy’, ‘leaf shadow, / telephone wires on the ceiling’, ‘meshed stained-glass’ and ‘woven emblems’. Now in this powerful novel of reconstruction as dawn lightens on the road, where the two protagonists of September in the Rain have arrived in Como after getting a lift from an Agip petrol station bar, ‘Distances stood out pellucid and near’: the past nightmare is returning into clear focus with the ‘barred and meshed windows’ of a ‘dusty-grey frontage’ which houses la Questura, the police-station.

In The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act (1981) Frederic Jameson suggested that story-telling is the quintessential form in which reality presents itself to the human mind. Four years later Oliver Sacks wrote about The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and asserted that

‘We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative – whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives, a ‘narrative’, and that this narrative is us, our identities…for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative.’

And so, some forty-one years after a traumatic experience of sexual violation in a car during a wet night in Northern Italy, a violation committed by a man armed with a pistol, Peter Robinson’s inner narrative surfaces in this stunningly moving novel, September in the Rain. The long-reaching effects of the incident ensured that the narrator’s ‘one summer of half-innocent youthful confidence had gone for ever’ and as he confesses to us ‘There are things you can’t come back from, however much you may wish you could, or even pretend you have’.

The novel opens with a dramatic and highly visual effect which brings to mind the opening paragraph of that Black Mountaineer Michael Rumaker’s Exit 3:

‘The yellow breakdown truck pulls off and halts outside an Agip petrol station bar. Pushing the stiffly sprung door, the driver throws back his blue anorak hood and shakes off the worst of the rain. Behind him come the two of us, bedraggled from the storm, wet through, with limp hair and blank faces, eyes blinking in the neon as if startled out of a troubled night’s sleep.’

There is an immediacy, a palpability, to this first paragraph; it is as if one of the shades from Dante’s Inferno is piercing their changeless existence to loom out at us ‘as if we’re already dead, come back to haunt the scenes of our last moments like a pair of unappeasable revenants’. That echo of Dante’s infernal world continues later in the novel when the narrator talks to his sister:

‘Our talking over everything and everyone began to go round and round in circles, and our conspiracy of two turned in upon itself.’

Dante is by no means the only literary figure woven into the fabric of this artful tale and the narrator can reveal a distance between himself and the outrage committed so long ago by recognising the power of his own reading and thinking. The scene of rape in the car is contextualised by a reference to Ovid and the witness to the crime sees that ‘you would not die, not for now anyway, nor, for that matter, be changed into a nightingale’. The entangling self-knowledge which is one of the major themes of this disturbing narrative leads the narrator to recognise his own attempts at artistic and cultural distance. As his girlfriend shuts her eyes on the train-ride which will be taking them back to some kind of normality he is attempting to read Florentine Painters of the Renaissance

‘…my eyes enlarged behind the thick lenses, reading page after page, retaining nothing at all, yet seeming entirely lost to you in art’.

The writer’s awareness of the gap between emotional commitment to an individual and the larger world of cultural heritage which stretches back for thousands of years is caught for the reader in the paradox of the two choices at the New Wing at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases. The left doorway announces HEALING above the door whilst the right has RESEARCH: ‘I find myself wondering how I might even try and attempt the impossible—and go in through both doors at once’. September in the Rain is moving evidence of that attempt.
And as I Return to Charles Olson’s ‘As the Dead Prey Upon Us’ the poet recognises that ‘Purity // is only an instant of being, the trammels // recur’ and the reference in Robinson’s novel to ‘reddish smears from the wet clay earth’ (sharp perception of those moments of early horror) are hauntingly glimpsed towards the end of the novel as the narrator’s ‘envious eyes’ were ‘deflected to the red clay tiling of the kitchen floor, where tiny flecks of onionskin lay preserved in its more remote corners’.

Ian Brinton, 29th August 2016

Advertisements

Air Vault by Andrew Taylor (Oystercatcher Press)

Air Vault by Andrew Taylor (Oystercatcher Press)

In 1923 a doctor from Rutherford was convinced that something important depended upon a ‘red wheel / barrow’ and the picture that his sixteen words conjured into being was a firm belief that American culture was based in a realization of the qualities of a place in relation to the life which occupies it. Andrew Taylor’s Air Vault, where the mind is prompted to jump into echoing spaces, realises that

‘there is a poem in that
no, there is a poem in that’

John James’s poem of recollection from a 2012 Oystercatcher volume, Cloud Breaking Sun, was subtitled ‘Les Sarments’ with its reference to the twining growth of vine-shoots. Taylor’s ‘Poem beginning with a line of John James’ opens with an echo of that earlier ode:

As August counts itself out

As if to herald a clear sense of tradition Andrew Taylor not only opens his poem with the James quotation but has a clear sense of how the older poet had himself published a ‘Poem beginning with a line of Andrew Crozier’ in that 2012 collection. And it is in that earlier poem that we read the statement ‘I reach toward the poetry of kindred’.

The precision of Andrew Taylor’s writing is an infectious delight:

‘The respite of a rest area
temperature drops at midnight

Carried sandwiches foil & plastic
wrapped evening before

some kind of souvenir bread
like bread bought from a post office

Treated like a treat some things taste
better away from home

Mattresses floored a camp
shutters shut this is France after all’

John James’s ode counted August out ‘like a Rosary worn with kisses’ and autumn ‘arrives when you least expect it’. The patience of devotion is a reminder of Keats’s ‘last oozings hours by hours’ and is followed by the unexpected shift of time. Taylor’s jazzing rhythms give us ‘Fig’

‘drop with days between
a rustle’

and ‘Kenny was right’

‘Autumn falls early’

Jeremy Hilton referred to Andrew Taylor’s poetry in Tears 60 when he reviewed the Shearsman collection Radio Mast Horizon and noted the ‘expression of everyday life in all its vivid details’:

‘Colour, sound, speed and technology weave through the poems…This is a poetry of the present-time’ which carries with it a ‘full awareness not just of history but of the impact of historical changes on the lives of people’.

As I race along the tracks of this new volume I am confronted with that colour, sound and speed’: ‘Pitted repaired // there is a preference / for the plaque Michelin’

‘send a postcard
to arrive after return’ [.]

This is a world of evocative moments as the ‘square folds into quietness // after lunch’ and a ‘woodpecker feather // falls onto gravel’. The feather ‘finds a place in the notebook’.
The front cover of Air Vault invites us to peer into a room framed in blue and we have a snapshot of that poetry which reaches toward kindred: the domesticity of the scene has a privacy and austerity which is emphasised by the table-lamp on a chair and its reflection in the cabinet. Looking back at my copy of John James’s Cloud Breaking Sun I sit in front of the bold type of the introductory lines:

to the side of the terrace

the painted blue brick in the wall

warmed by the sun

spoke to me in the afternoon

it said

only you can do this

Wallace Stevens referred to Carlos Williams’s red wheel / barrow as a ‘mobile-like arrangement’ and Hugh Kenner suggested that the words ‘dangle in equidependency, attracting the attention, isolating it, so that the sentence in which they are arrayed comes to seem like a suspension system.’ I find this balancing of word in relation to word attractively present in the light swift movement of Andrew Taylor’s new poetry

‘Sunflowers bow
row after row

season seems
hardly done

time for Autumn
reflections

so soon?’

Ian Brinton 21st August 2016

City Trappings (Housing Heath or Wood) by Peter Larkin (Veer Books)

City Trappings (Housing Heath or Wood) by Peter Larkin (Veer Books)

The menacing satirical quality of George Cruikshank’s 1829 print of ‘London Going Out of Town or the March of Bricks and Mortar’ may well have reflected the view the artist saw from the windows of his house in Myddelton Terrace in Islington as extensive building works were in progress in the Camden and Islington area. St Paul’s Cathedral appears amid the smoke from chimneys on the left of the drawing and a variety of inanimate things come to life in an invasion of the rural surroundings. Haystacks are seen fleeing from the discharge of bricks as from a muzzle-loading mortar and the whimsicality of having the workmen, who are digging up the ground and tearing up the trees, possess heads made from beermugs does little to soften the impact of such invasive development.
The ‘Note’ at the beginning of Peter Larkin’s disturbingly powerful 21 poems recently published by Veer Books gives a clear account of the area of his focus:

‘These poems arise from an ambivalent fascination with new perceptions of the urban environment and wildlife, especially in terms of remaining pockets of ‘trapped’ or encapsulated countryside…’

The direction of Cruikshank’s invading army of bricks and mortar might suggest the partial urbanisation of Hampstead Heath during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and if so it is worth contemplating the poetry of response to this move. Leigh Hunt went to live there and his house became a centre for the leading literary figures of the day: both Coleridge and Crabbe visited there at about the same time as Cruikshank’s apocalyptic satirical vision. As Larkin goes on to say in his introductory comment these pockets of ‘trapped’ countryside are ‘often survivals of deer parks or chases which were never intensively farmed but are just large enough to drop containment on the far side of their horizon’. The growth of these ‘pockets’ of ‘encapsulated’ rural freedom may well have led to the formation in 1882 of the National Footpath Preservation Society whose main aim was to protect the commons from entire absorption by private landlords and railway companies. The city-dweller started to take his Sunday morning walking-tour and this became so popular that the subsequent decline in church attendance led to the Convocation of Canterbury meeting to discuss the “Sunday question”.
Section 3 of Peter Larkin’s sequence of poems sets a scene for ‘Population prescience’ and ‘con / fined deferral’ and the question is asked about the emergence of that which is not to be repressed:

‘….if emergence
is entrenched core, which
urban valve emulates
the flow?’

The first of the three epigraphs to the sequence comes from J.H. Prynne’s ‘In the Long Run, to be Stranded’ from The White Stones (1969):

‘called the city and the deep
blunting damage of hope’

Prynne’s city is an inalienable whole within which we live and the echo of damage is felt in Larkin’s section 4:

‘urban in-hollowing, full exposure to lateral concern is the
trapping itself: horizons glide and raise accordingly

nostalgia implode supplies a rind to content, at this point the
urban handle does turn: we are tipped for zones horizoning
us by event, by disconvention post-immaculate but purely
on implanted spot’

As Larkin looks at what might be perceived as ‘a universally normative urban inclusiveness’ he also wonders ‘how much idyll is untransferable’; that verbal echo of a nineteenth-century reminder of a long-gone world evoked by Theocritus casts its own shadow as we look at the second of the epigraphs to the poem. Christina Rossetti’s lines ‘And other eyes than ours / Were made to look on flowers’ can be juxtaposed with the prose section 7 in which we encounter ‘a green gap is a gate to walking the entrapment’ and the city ‘conspires protection under its feet / initial urban running ahead into the domain…’. In this world which is being explored by the poet of the Twenty-first Century Nature is ‘only portable / through a mesh of local / variation’. It might be worth recalling here another nineteenth-century voice, that of Richard Jefferies who published his Nature Near London in 1883 one year after the setting up of that footpath society:

‘Though my preconceived ideas were overthrown by the presence of so much that was beautiful and interesting close to London, yet in course of time I came to understand what was at first a dim sense of something wanting. In the shadiest lane, in the still pinewoods, on the hills of purple heath, after brief contemplation there arose a restlessness, a feeling that it was essential to be moving…This was the unseen influence of mighty London. The strong life of the vast city magnetized me…’.

Peter Larkin’s near-microscopic focus upon what he sees allows us to become aware of what might lie behind his ‘ambivalent fascination’ and the final poem offers us a ‘heath’ which is ‘prying into its lyrical tent’

‘where urbanisation dives
for no human help, spell
out the survival nodes

coalescent emergency ribbons
a green inference: less of ours
in the more to be given’

The pun on the word ‘spell’ opens up a conclusion which suggests that the ‘City Trappings’ do not solely represent imprisonment and the third of the epigraphs has a direct voice from Peter Riley which it would be foolish to ignore:

‘We’ll evict ourselves when we need to’

Ian Brinton 17th August 2016

Fifty Six: a poem sequence Carol Watts & George Szirtes (Arc Publications)

Fifty Six: a poem sequence Carol Watts & George Szirtes (Arc Publications)

The author’s note at the beginning of this wonderful adventure into a world of language and imagination weaves its charm:

‘Collaboration at its best is a magical form of encounter, a curious listening and discovery.’

This statement immediately recalled to my mind one made by Octavio Paz at the opening of his collaborative work with Charles Tomlinson published in 1981 as Airborn / Hijos Del Aire:

‘Since its origin poetry has been the art of joining together the echoes of words: chains of air, impalpable but unbreakable’.

Tomlinson’s account of the collaboration gave a precise point of origin:

‘These collaborative poems were the result of a meeting, early one summer in Gloucestershire, when, out of the many words we had thought and spoken, we chose “house” and “day” as the words for a future postal meditation in sonnet form. “House” arose because the stone cottage in which Octavio Paz and his wife were our guests was a place we all felt affection for, and also because at that time the Pazes had no settled house of their own. “Day” was our last day together, when the sky took on a Constable-like activity, the breeze moving clouds swiftly through the blue and involving the landscape in a rapid succession of changes. I think time was at the back of all our minds, and that “day” (time passing) thus came into a natural relationship with “house” (time measured by place).’

The echoing music of language in these recently published 56 poems by George Szirtes and Carol Watts is there from the outset: ‘words are outflung birds’ soon calls up a response of ‘wings, winds, blinds, pinks, mornings…’. As the growth of the sequence focuses on ‘coming in to speech’ and a ‘complicity with / what is out of reach & nonetheless a naming’ so it prompts an echoing call of ‘All else is translation’. The ‘Dead skin’ of language moves and stays still:

‘…out of the core
into its own marginalia, its reimagining
into the perpetual hover between desire
and its objects, into its own remaining’.

The poets tell us of an exchange which became much more than ‘a collaborative game for both of us’. In the process of a chant from one to the other, ‘speaking-singing’, other voices rise: ‘Chaucer surfaced, a whaling song, fragments of overheard conversation, the thickness of paint’. As the sequence glides forward

‘We became involved less in the mechanism, more in the rich ground that kept opening. The exchange is littered with fractures and hints, with associations that leap off in both linguistic and narrative directions.’

This litter, (‘Loved Litter of Time Spent’ as Andrew Crozier would have put it), contains tiny echoes of the song of the Rhine-daughters (‘la la’), of Pound’s Pisan Cantos with its rain-space and those small cries ‘you hear in the far distance / settling in the gaps’. The first poem consists of 28 lines and its responding poem has 27; the movement forward is decisive as a tide. Poem 28 has one line only ‘You took the words out of my mouth’ and the following poem endorses this point of change by simply saying ‘But the struggle to begin, neap tongue’. And with that the movement flows forward again page by page as ‘The tide that sweeps in draws back’. As we arrive at 27 lines (poem 55)

‘…Skin takes over the task
of telling, its folds & scrimping.’

The 28 lines of the 56th poem gives us a final literary echo of Auden’s ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ and the sequence concludes with

‘…It’s late
and the wind is caught in the mouth of the clock.
Bare branches. Clarities. The clear cold night.’

Having opened this short review with an eye cast back to the 1980s I will close it by referring to another collaboration between poets of distinction. In 2011 Shearsman Books published The Pistol Tree Poems of Peter Hughes and Simon Marsh. At the time Nathan Thompson wrote that this collaboration was ‘wide-ranging’ and ‘deceptively deep-thinking’ and that the poetry was ‘disguised as imaginative twitches at the mind’s eye-corners’. These glimpses of presence and loss prompted Marsh to write from Varzi in April 2010, a few days after the death of his partner Emanuela:

‘tiles of
primary brightness
cast in
muntin shadow
a tattered map
fallen
at my feet
whenever
we were lost
we held
each other’s breath’

His contribution closes with a single line taken from Emanuela’s prints, ‘& swap love for light’.
In Fifty-Six the concluding poem by Carol Watts leaves us ‘In light, / the action of. Continual beginning.’ This collaboration which is in front of us now is poetry of a very serious order; once read you will return to it time and time again.

Ian Brinton 11th August 2016

Astéronymes by Claire Trévien (Penned in the Margins)

Astéronymes by Claire Trévien (Penned in the Margins)

In July 1979 Charles Tomlinson composed ‘The Flood’ recording the night which first took away ‘My trust in stone’. The waters which invaded the Tomlinson’s home at Ozleworth filled in the spaces as opposed to delineating them and the poet vainly erected structures to channel the water back to its origins:

‘……………………..I dragged
Sacks, full of a mush of soil
Dug in the rain, and bagged each threshold.’

However, for some types of flood these measures are ineffectual and the poet who had tried on D.H. Lawrence’s hat when he was staying at Kiowa Ranch in New Mexico might have recalled a moment from one of that earlier writer’s essays:

‘The individual is like a deep pool, or tarn, in the mountains, fed from beneath by unseen springs, and having no obvious inlet or outlet.’
(‘Love was once a little boy’)

What Tomlinson discovered as his trust in stone was questioned was that there appeared to him a ‘vertigo of sunbeams’ reflected off the water onto the ceiling next morning. No surface was safe from swaying and that seeming permanence of the immovable appeared as ‘malleable as clay’.
The intriguing and magical world of Claire Trévien’s poems has a playfulness about it as the stone circles of Britain, Ireland, and Brittany appear in company with the language of the internet. It leaves one with a sense of ‘shaking hands with a ghost’: ‘They say that each time you blink / a stone will hide behind another’. In this shifting reality ‘men cut / and paste, becoming slighter’ and the result is that ‘Their arms are full of peepholes’.
Another figure of twentieth-century poetry whose awareness of the transient nature of a stone’s stability was Ken Smith whose ‘The Stone Poems’ sequence brings before us ‘stone on the move’:

‘Some arrive strangely by night
or happen as comets do. In New England
frost forces them out….

And some lie continually
in the field’s road
finding their ways back
into bleak malevolent creatures
wanting to sit in open fields.’

In Trévien’s world ‘Some places rehearse the same / landscape over and over’ and ‘Stromatolites / timehop to the Precambrian’. These stone beds suggest permanence but the poet scrolls ‘through the same living skin’ to ‘find your comments ossified’. I am left wondering about the tone of this last word: is there a questioning offered to Richard Fortey, author of Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants that Life has Left Behind, which might suggest that the book itself is by no means as permanent as its detailed title might lead one to imagine? As Trévien suggests ‘Tracks are left for the next / caretaker’: those marks may be fossil tracks but ‘We used to think / the earth was as old as a cooling-off period’ and now ‘I’ve changed my mind’. The delicate humour behind these shifting perspectives is playfully endorsed by a technique which the poet refers to in her ‘Notes’ at the end of the volume:

‘Several of the poems have been created using a technique I’ve not found a name for, which involves taking a word, slicing it in two and placing it on either end of the line.’

In ‘Expiry Date’, the poem dedicated to Richard Fortey, the first line reveals itself as opening with ‘Some’ and closing with ‘same’; the seeming permanence of selection and repetition is emphasised for us with the opening two letters and the two which close the line. The eighth line is more mischievous as the opening two letters give us ‘ha’ (‘have….’) and the closing two are ‘ts’ (‘…lists’).
The six poems which make up the ‘Arran Sequence’ weave a witty dance with these ideas of form:

‘Start on the first page, the scone-
coloured path to the croft’s collapsed slates.’

The reminder of ‘St…one’ is softly juxtaposed with the steady workings of time and those collapsed slates prefigure an image of ‘fern tentacles’ which

‘steer through bricks, a chimney of nettles gone
dry…’

As the boundaries of Time move around…the ‘Track Changes’ and cars which park ‘on the hardboiled / tarmac’ do not know ‘how quickly it’ll give out’ to leave us ‘footnoted history and an unwritten dance’.
Basil Bunting’s elegiac firmness of statement from the first section of ‘Briggflatts’ is seen as soluble. When he wrote that ‘Pens are too light. / Take a chisel to write’ he was asserting a permanence which is cast now into a different perspective. Tomlinson found stone too unyielding for a poet taking stock of himself and within his Gloucestershire Noah’s Ark in 1979 he found a new way of seeing, quiet in tone, waiting patiently ‘upon the weather’s mercies’. I think that he would have admired and valued these new poems by Claire Trévien.

Ian Brinton 8th August 2016

Correspondences by Nisha Ramayya (Oystercatcher Press)

Correspondences by Nisha Ramayya (Oystercatcher Press)

Drawn by Tantra’s radical Otherness, ‘its experiments, oddities, contradictions, and secrets’, Nisha Ramayya’s pamphlet offers etymological definition and investigative, immersive poetry in a work of crystalline beauty. Her writing and thought on Tantra has a magical quality.

Tantra is the practice of extending, of stretching to make
connections, of creating something from those connections.
Tantra is the weaving of multiple threads and the extrication of
one essential part from the whole.

Tantra, she writes, is ‘a process, a set of instructions and values, a dialogue, a desire, a promise’. She effectively investigates through etymological definition in various languages the possibilities of what Tantra may be to create a Tantric poetics in action. She allows a rich dialogue and process through both the openness of Tantra and its resistance to definition, and the various correspondences the poetry explores. She effectively takes the Sanskrit definition of ‘woven together’ and spreads the threads apart, opening up avenues of possibility, and enacts practical applications in the poems. Here’s the beginning of ‘Correspondence as Writing System’:

Correspondence is a garland of skulls that may be divided
absolutely into 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 or 10 or 50 or 51 or 108 or 1000 or
1008 skulls. This calculation is correct, repeatedly, to the point of
vivisection.

For example, a mother as not less than measure as not less than
authority as not less than light as not less than knowledge as not
less than binding, fettering as not less than death as not less than a
woman’s waist.

The long poem, ‘Her Voice as an Instrument of Thought’, at the collection’s centre, explores the verbal root of ‘mantra’ and stages of Vãc, the goddess of voice, speech, language, and sound, to which it is oriented. This combination of analysis and poetry opens up worlds of possibility for a Tantric poetics. The ‘vaikharī’ stage has ‘words with hard faces that you don’t want to look at in case you hear too much’ and is ‘speech for bodies and for differentiation’. The ‘madhyamã’ lies between the gross and the subtle and here ‘the lights in your house shine blue’. The third voice stage, ‘paśyanti’, meaning from a harlot is known as ‘the Visionary, and leading to the ‘parãvãc’ the supreme voice, the relentlessly throbbing of ‘I am’, the all-voice in the all-head’. The stages correspond to stages of knowledge, belief and practice, ‘which may be understood as a key.’

Ramayya’s tantric poetics allows for the possibility of voicing parts with sounds and text, and ‘the first stirring of the air or breath, articulate utterance’ as in ‘vaikharī’, and images and video, as in ‘madhyamã’, and so on. In this way, she takes something that might be considered ‘dark and dangerous’ from Aryan, Sanskrit and Vedic cultures to give utterance to distinct female voices as instruments of thought. What excites this reader is that her angular contextualisation combined with etymological definitions and variant root meanings opens up such possibilities as practice that can be feminist and oppositional within a range of cultures. It takes something that is emphatically different and makes a corresponding outward poetics.

David Caddy 2nd August 2016

%d bloggers like this: