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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

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