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Monthly Archives: September 2016

Woman in a Blue Robe by Yoko Danno (Isobar Press)

Woman in a Blue Robe by Yoko Danno (Isobar Press)

This is the last of my little reviews of the Isobar Press publications but I shall most certainly return to scrutiny of such a fine publishing firm when more titles appear.
In the third section of this compilation of poetry and prose we are introduced to the idea of a dukodemo, a door, an ‘anywhere door’:

‘…a door to wherever you like. But I can’t think of anywhere I’d particularly like to go. Then suddenly a door in my memory springs open. Yes, on that summer day in my childhood, I knew exactly where I wanted to go…’

Imaginative doors can open up new perspectives as Alice discovered when she peered into a garden that she was too large to enter or mislaid the key when she did indeed become the right size. In many of Charles Tomlinson’s poems his art is reflected in a moment of seeing: movement caught in stillness. Many of his poems deal with doors, gates, gaps, stone cromlechs. The eye, itself a window to the soul, reveals the self by studying the intricacies of form in the natural world. In 1992 he published a collection titled The Door in the Wall. The sub-title of my soon-to-be-published selection of the poetry and prose of John Riley is taken from one of the Leeds poet’s late pieces, ‘spring. diversion’: ‘the absolute is a room / without doors or windows’. There is a sense of mysticism here with the arrival somewhere being separate from the journey and this too reminds me of Yoko Danno’s work. The poetry in so much of this new volume has a spiritual quality to it and, make no mistake, this is not some easily achieved set of thoughts: the exploration of what lies beyond the door is caught with humility and grace. Read ‘Snow Adventure’:

‘By midday, warmed
by the piercing sunshine,

trees shed heaps
of snow from their limbs

as if slipping out
of padded
white kimonos,

stand naked
in the slanting rays
like antennas,

ready
for communication

with meteors’

When I first read this I was immediately reminded of the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at Tate Modern and the sinews and light of her landscapes. I was also reminded of Charles Tomlinson’s recollections of visiting O’Keeffe in the Winter of 1963. North of Santa Fe and further to the West it was thirty below freezing and it seemed as if a visit to the painter may have to be postponed:

‘But one had failed to take into account the desert sun. Once it was above the mountains, the snow began to melt until it lay only in the shadows, a white geometry at the edges of buildings reproducing gables and rooflines on the shining black streets…the snow was sliding off the roofs…the oranges and reds of the desert were seeping back now through the retreating white. Water sang and flashed through the arroyos under the road.’

Danno’s landscape moves in a similar way leaving those ‘antennas / ready for communication’.
There is a quiet edge of reality to some of these poems and I urge all to read ‘Alchemy Lesson’ which moves between the world of Zeus making love to Danaë in a shower of gold pouring through an open window to Hiroshima, ‘a city burnt / in a flash of light’ followed by a different downpour of ‘black rain’.
The ‘Woman in a Blue Robe’ has been going through ‘a list of my own names I want to discard. I don’t need a personal name any longer’. Names are milestones along a path and the quiet flavour of many of these pieces of writing suggest very much that room to which Riley was referring back in 1977.

Ian Brinton 27th September 2016

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Snow Bones by Masaya Saito (Isobar Press)

Snow Bones by Masaya Saito (Isobar Press)

The opening statement in this beautifully produced book from Isobar Press defines the title for us:

‘SNOW BONES: remnants of snow after a thaw; patches of snow seen stretching along ridges, in ruts, or in furrows, etc., after a partial thaw.’

The images that haunt these delicate insights into grief and certainty are often skeletons and often air; they are memories like ‘my footprints / each one, deep’ and they are gifts for a future as the poet records his mother’s cremation:

‘Out of the furnace

the bones still
preserve her shape’

The ownership of the dead is subtly nuanced throughout the history of Japan and the American scholar William R. LaFleur suggested that this is evidenced by the continuing practice of giving bodily residue, usually in the form of ash and/or very fine bones, to immediate family members for safe-keeping in one place or another:

‘Residue of the deceased sits on a home or temple altar’.

Saigyō, one of the major influences on Bashō, undertook a journey to the northeast of Japan in 1147 and paused at the grave of Sanekata, an exiled poet. In a 1982 translation we can read Saigyō’s words:

‘While in the province of Mutsu I came across an unusual looking grave-mound. I asked whose it was and was told that it belonged to a middle-captain of the palace guard. When I persisted in inquiring exactly who this person might have been, I was informed that it was Fujiwara Sanekata, and I was deeply saddened. Even before learning the details, I had sensed the pathos in this scene of frost-shrivelled pampas grass—so fragile it was almost invisible. Later in trying to express my feelings, adequate words were almost unavailable:

One part of him
escaped decay—his name
still around here like
this field’s withered grass:
my view of the relic he left.

The last of Saito’s four narrative sequences in Snow Bones focuses upon the death and burial of his father complementing the first sequence which recorded that of his mother:

‘Footprints
across the snowfield

my dead father’s’

These poems are not lamentations of stasis but delicate records of movement and as the poet prepares to leave that landscape in which much of his past resides he says, simply

‘In the snow country
my parents gone

a pendulum swinging’

The pendulum, hanging weight of a clock, was one of the first things Saito had noted as he stepped over the threshold in the first section:

‘The old house

tick
of a pendulum’

That steady record of time’s movement is a gesture to the future and as the son takes down the ‘thatch snowshield’ of the house in which his father still lives, ‘the house breathes’. The poet also looks through the window to see his father hoeing,

‘darker and darker’

This volume of poems in which the print on the white page appears like footsteps in snow is dedicated ‘for my parents’ and the prologue suggests a type of humility as the poet stands

‘A cold sunset

on the cliff, me
without wings’

The humility bears with it a sense of deep respect which is felt not only with ‘A visit to a grave’ from the last section but also with

‘a candle flame
shielded with my hand’

The pendulum will of course stop and the candle will of course burn out but the concluding words to this powerful and personal rendering of sorrow and loss suggest that whereas a beginning may feel like being ‘without wings’ a journeying involves

‘Driving away

in the rear-view mirror
a cold sunset’

In his ‘Knapsack Notebook’ of 1687 Bashō contemplated himself in a description:

‘A hundred bones, nine orifices, and something inside. This provisional thing is called “In-the-Wind-Flapping-Priest”. With the slightest hint of wind it gets moved and makes sounds. This something in me started mouthing haikai a long time ago and that has turned out to be the preoccupation of a lifetime.’

On the back of this new publication from Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press, Jim Kacian writes:

‘Those who know his work have been waiting patiently for more from Masaya Saito, and now, some thirty-four years after his slender and beautiful volume Ash, we are finally rewarded. Snow Bones is an altogether more ambitious work, with an intricate structure and a broader palette, but reveals the same intensity and attention to detail we would expect from this poet. The wait has been worth it’.

Ian Brinton 13th September 2016

Tears in the Fence 64

Tears in the Fence 64

Tears in the Fence 64 edited by David Caddy is now available from https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, fiction, prose poetry and translations from Jeremy Reed, Jim Burns, John Welch, John Freeman, Sally Dutton, Chris Hall, Michael Henry, Beth Davyson, Kinga Tóth, Paul Kareem Tayyar, D. I., Lydia Unsworth, David Pollard, Mike Duggan, Jeff Hilson, Sheila Mannix, I.S. Rowley, Richard Foreman, Jay Ramsay, Alison Winch, Andrew Taylor, Alan Baker, Sophie Herxheimer, L. Kiew, Ric Hool, S.J. Litherland, Rachael Clyne, Andrew Shelley, Tom Cowin, Morag Kiziewicz, Matt Bryden, Jessica Mookherjee, John Phillips, Ian Brinton & Michael Grant trans. Mallarmé, Terence J. Dooley trans. Mario Martin Giljó, Greg Bachar, Jennifer K. Dick, Matthew Carbery, Mark Goodwin, Aidan Semmens, Peter Dent, Sarah Cave, Julie Irigaray and Maria Isokova Bennett.
The critical section features John Freeman on Jim Burns: Poet as Witness, Andrew Henon on Timeless Man: Sven Berlin, Mary Woodward on Rosemary Tonks & Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Jeremy Reed on John Wieners, Norman Jope on Chris McCabe, Marsha de la O in conversation with John Brantingham, Neil Leadbeater on Jeremy Hilton, Nancy Gaffield on Geraldine Monk, Lesley Saunders on Alice Miller, Belinda Cooke on Carole Satyamurti, Steve Spence on Dear World and Everyone in it David Caddy on Andrew Lees’ Mentored by a Madman, Nigel Wood & Alan Halsey, Duncan Mackay on E.E. Cummings
, Notes on Contributors, and Ian Brinton’s Afterword.
The front cover is a black & white detail of a Sven Berlin watercolour (1982, private collection) and the magazine is designed by Westrow Cooper.

a book with no name by Ken Edwards (Shearsman Books)

a book with no name by Ken Edwards (Shearsman Books)

I have been anticipating this book ever since reading some of the texts on Intercapillary Space and in PN Review 230. It does not disappoint. The book comes with the back cover proviso that ‘It is not a book of poems. / It is not a long poem. / It is not a novel. / Nor a volume of short stories. / It is not a work of philosophy. / It is not an object – like a stone. / Yet it drops into the well of nothingness /and is never heard of again.’ The book ‘fuses the optimism of Beckett and the hyperrealism of Stein’.

The texts clearly make a sound, as indicated in the note, through a series of speech acts presented as prose poems, defined as continuous prose without line breaks. They are distinct from say the ‘non-generic’ prose of Richard Makin in his trilogy of novels, which read like knotted prose poetry without conventional novelistic devices, and the internal conversations of R.D. Laing’s prose poems, Knots (1970), on the other. In contrast, the text titles guide the reader into small areas of focus where the movements of attention are incrementally tiny, and call back upon themselves, as small acts, through the slow nature of the development. These small movements accumulate incrementally, as in ‘The facts’:

I have the facts. I have those. I have those facts. I have all those facts. I have all the facts. I have those I have. I have examined those. I have examined those facts I have. All those facts I have examined.

The small statements, each with their own distinct place within the developmental structure, become acts of possession and assertion along the narrative arc. Focus is thus upon the nature of each small statement as they occur. The poet, Lee Harwood, frequently drew attention to small movements within landscapes, climate, moods, and in so doing, also drew attention to the acts of being mindful. This attentiveness to the workings of the mind also occurred in Laing’s dialogues. Here Edwards is working with monologues and there is much less interest in any external world of relationships.

The impact is similar to some serial music, cumulative and entrancing. The reader is drawn into the artifice and drama of speech acts. There is sometimes a sense of inevitability to the conclusion, a sort of rounded closure, as if the text were on a loop. Other endings are much less predictable.

‘Live at Birdland’ subverts any sense of predictability that a list poem may engender by taking a finite set of verbs connected with the activities of birds. The title puns on the New York jazz club of that name and in particular, the John Coltrane album, ‘Live at Birdland’. Here the text progressions are gradual, slightly altered and repeated through the duration and eventually extended as in Coltrane’s music. So that after the verbs have been laid out the progression comes in the form of adverbs and repletion of verbs. Thus the birds that previously call, perch, jump, feed, kill, mate and so on, later do so erratically, willfully, lazily, strongly, madly, lazily and so on. The verb repetitions are innate to the activities of birds and this produces a trance like effect as if one had been intensely watching the activities of birds or indeed closely listening to some Coltrane. The singular image clusters serve to mark the poetic element of the prose narrative on the journey from a definitive opening to its seeming negation through the use of ‘Never’ in the final six lines. The overall impact of the piece is utterly beguiling and one is left enthralled.

a book with no name has a beguiling and absorbing quality. A poem, such as, ‘Dialectics’ based upon permutations from ten words produces a distinct music and elaborates a thought sequence around the propositional pronoun ‘this is’ and its negation with ‘not’. The gradual accumulation of the various propositions and their negatives produces a range of thoughts connected to the various definitions and possible use of ‘dialectics’. The concluding line ‘This is not the way it was supposed to happen’ employing all ten words for the first time together leaves the reader suitably engaged with the text and the subsequent development of the sequence.

I thoroughly recommend a book with no name.

David Caddy 5th September 2016

Seeing Sights by Paul Rossiter (Isobar Press)

Seeing Sights by Paul Rossiter (Isobar Press)

Two years ago I wrote a review of Paul Rossiter’s From the Japanese and referred to the quiet grace of the lyrical voice, a measured tracing of pictures in words to which I shall return. It is with considerable delight that I can now revisit that quiet world with this publication of all of Rossiter’s poems up to 1978 (excluding three pieces from 1969 set in Japan and published in that earlier collection which had so attracted me).

One of the influences behind the meditative tones of this poetry is of course Gary Snyder and a quick glance at the second section of ‘Bare Rock’ reveals an interesting comparison with Snyder’s 1959 poem ‘Above Pate Valley’ which opens with the poet finishing a clearing of trail ‘High on the ridge-side / Two thousand feet above the creek’. Snyder notes the small details which accumulate to give a picture of an individual within a landscape and concludes with a far-reaching context which stretches over distances:

‘……I followed my own
Trail here. Picked up the cold-drill,
Pick, singlejack, and sack
Of dynamite.
Ten thousand years.’

Rossiter’s precision bears excellent comparison with this:

‘Crossing a pass in late afternoon light,
pitching a small tent at sunset,

busy with guy ropes and sleeping bags
among slabs, boulders and scree;

as the light fails we heat water
over a bud of hissing blue flame,

and sit at ease, leaning our backs against
five hundred million years of stone.’

I am struck by the shift from movement to stillness as present participles settle into an immediacy of present tense: ‘crossing’ and ‘pitching’ has an energy which comes to rest with ‘light fails’ and ‘we heat water’. The movement is kept in focus with the participles becoming adjectives (‘sleeping bags’ and ‘hissing blue flame’) and the relaxation into an awareness of the poet’s place in the world is given quiet emphasis with the drawn out last line ending on that lingering ‘years of stone’.
In Part III of this collection there is a poem ‘after Du Fu’ and again it is interesting to see what Rossiter has done with earlier models of this poem of ghostly presence and absence. William Carlos Williams had translated the poem as ‘Visit’ and the meeting of Du Fu with his friend, the recluse Wei Pa, opened in a formal manner:

‘In life we could seldom meet
Separate as the stars.
What a special occasion tonight
That we gather under the candle-lamp!’

David Hinton’s version, titled ‘For the Recluse Wei Pa’, opened with greater immediacy

‘Lives two people live drift without
meeting, like Scorpio and Orion,
without nights like this: two friends
together again, candles and lamps’

Paul Rossiter’s version, ‘Visiting Wei Pa After Twenty Years’ has a visual quality to it which is missing from both these others and as such it brings alive a presence which, Haiku-like, is here, now and timeless:

‘fresh-cut green spring chives
still wet from the rainy darkness,
fresh boiled rice and yellow millet

each night
Scorpio rises as Orion sets

but tonight we’ve slipped past fate
and sit sharing the light of this lamp’

(Lines 2, 4 and 5 should be indented a little more like a WCW three-ply line and I send apologies to the poet!).

In terms of the reference to Scorpio and Orion one of these constellations sets just before the other rises and hence the delightful leap of slipping ‘past fate’; almost like stolen moments. Rossiter’s poem goes on to mention ‘half our friends are dead, / their ghosts cry out in our hearts’ and this enduring sense of memory and grief is then juxtaposed with the concluding gesture

‘tomorrow
the mountains will be between us

once again
travelling different paths’

The opening poem of this beautifully-crafted volume is a version of the Old English poem ‘Seafarer’ and once again the poet reveals himself to have a subtle understanding of how words can be like vectors:

‘And now I fashion a tale of my travels,
iron-hard days when my blood
beat like a hammer, and brine-bitter sorrow
drenched this rib-shackled ache of a heart.’

This language, like Snyder’s, conjures up a world ‘worn smooth by water, split by frost’: buy this book, read it slowly and let its quiet, patient intelligence work on you.

Ian Brinton 3rd September 2016

Something Other Than Other by Philip Rowland (Isobar Press)

Something Other Than Other by Philip Rowland (Isobar Press)

The line from John Berger which introduces ‘Birdsong’ introduces a note which goes on to haunt this serious, quiet and often profound collection of Philip Rowland’s poems:

The dead surround the living. The living are the core of the dead.’

Reading this line I was taken back to Herbert Butterfield’s truth from 1924 concerning the impossibility of history:

‘The ploughman whom Gray saw, plodding his weary way, the rank and file of Monmouth’s rebel crowd – every man of them a world in himself, a mystery of personality – these have left no memorial and all that we know about them is just enough to set us guessing and wondering. Things by which we remember an old friend – his peculiar laugh, his way of drawing his hand through his hair, his whistle in the street, his humour – we cannot hope to recapture in history [just as we] cannot hope to read the hearts of half-forgotten kings. The Memory of the world is not a bright, shining crystal, but a heap of broken fragments, a few fine flashes of light that break through the darkness.’

Those ‘few fine flashes’ are caught by Rowland in a poetry which aspires to a condition of music. The ‘Prelude’ which opens this beautifully produced volume from Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press, one of the finest contemporary poetry- presses, begins in a silence of anticipation:

‘in the hush before music
the music of who
I am not’

Amongst those ‘broken fragments’ one might discover the Quartet for the End of Time which Olivier Messiaen created for piano, violin, cello and clarinet whilst imprisoned in a Silesian camp in 1941. The first performance of this remarkable work pierced the darkness of an atrociously cold mid-January day in Stalag VIII. The audience included five thousand prisoners from all levels of society (priests, doctors, shop-keepers, professional soldiers, workers, peasants) and the composer, commenting later, is reported to have said ‘Never have I been heard with as much attention and understanding’. In Rowland’s ‘Birdsong’ the poet refers to Messiaen’s Quartet as ‘music directed towards eternity, timelessness’:

‘To praise – aspire – as though transcribing birdsong that the
dead might hear.’

From the silence, the ‘hush before music’, there is another music which is anticipatory; that music ‘of who / I am not’. And in this context another name comes to mind of course: the Black Mountaineer, John Cage whose 4’33” was premiered in New York in 1952 when a formally-dressed pianist went on to the stage, sat at a grand piano, opened the lid and sat quietly for four minutes and thirty-three seconds before rising, bowing to the audience and leaving. The work isn’t of course a silent composition at all. Although the pianist makes as little sound as possible, just the occasional turning over of the sheets of music, the audience’s attention is inevitably upon the sounds both within and outside the auditorium. The audience learns to attend to those noises, which might include their own memories of noise, which are routinely taken for granted and given no real attention. In 1992 Anthony Barnett suggested in an interview that ‘what you play acts upon the silence, determines the nature, the sound of the silence which follows’. Referring to the trumpet player Leo Smith, he said ‘each sound phrase has its corresponding silent phrase’. Rowland’s opening poem concludes

‘inhabiting repetition
listening for the sound
of our listening’

Those ‘few fine flashes of light’ which illuminate a past which we no longer inhabit, although we carry it within us, can bring into focus a ‘Man on a Ladder’:

‘wooden man
on a wooden ladder,
his narrow body
contoured and incised
with marks and lines
like language seen
from afar…’

They can also bring to mind the poet who died in 1978 in Leeds. Rowland’s ‘Found in John Riley’ attends ‘to objects’ which ‘flick away the one / fluttering down’ where the pun on the last word offers a vagrant movement through air. It was Riley who wrote in May 1977 that ‘the absolute is a room / without doors or windows’ and Philip Rowland writes ‘A Bach Fugue’ in which ‘dusk’ rearranges silence and

‘what’s left of the light the music absorbs’

Isobar Press can be located at http://isobarpress.com and I shall be writing a review of Paul Rossiter’s own Seeing Sights and the narrative haiku sequences of Masaya Saito, Snow Bones, over the coming week.

September 2nd 2016

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