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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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