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Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Ratio of Reason to Magic by Norman Finkelstein Dos Madres Press, Ohio

The Ratio of Reason to Magic by Norman Finkelstein Dos Madres Press, Ohio

In February 2006 Andrew Crozier wrote to me concerning the possibility of his poetry being republished and pointed out that he didn’t have ‘enough additional work to justify another collected edition’:

‘Furthermore, I incline to the view that when I have a worthwhile sheaf of new work it would be preferable to publish it as a separate volume rather than as an addendum to older work. The “new & selected” formula has always struck me as rather fainthearted.’

I never really understood what Crozier meant by this last statement and now seeing Norman Finkelstein’s The Ratio of Reason to Magic I understand it even less! This substantial new publication from Dos Madres Press is a landmark edition which places the poetry of Finkelstein within what Mark Scroggins termed the ‘idiom of hieratic quest and questioning, of wanderings within history, philosophy, and scripture both secular and sacred’. The selection is drawn from nine earlier volumes (nearly forty years of poetry) and in order to focus upon one aspect of this remarkable poet’s output I intend to just glance at one of the very fine new poems incorporated into the last section of the book, ‘Oppen at Altamont’.

In 1968 George and Mary Oppen attended the Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont Pass, near Livermore, in Contra Costa County and the first of Oppen’s ‘Some San Francisco Poems’ (published in Seascape: Needle’s Eye, 1972) opens with the image of ‘Moving over the hills, crossing the irrigation / canals perfect and profuse in the mountains the / streams of women and men walking under the high- / tension wires over the brown hills’. In an interview with David Gitin (Ironwood 5) Oppen commented on this image:

‘It was necessary to park one’s car and walk a mile. Nobody looked at my wife and me, and people had, what the poem says, before the music started, everyone turned sharply into himself or herself.’

Finkelstein’s poem opens with Heidegger’s concept of ‘Throwness’, that sense of dasein which presents us with the inescapable: we are thrown into the present and this leaves us with

‘The space of possibility
is always limited:
the past is
because it has been
insofar as we
have been thrown
insofar as we
are fallen
insofar as we
may project ourselves
forward

The movement forward felt in the short lines, the urgency, carries not only the speed that becomes ‘they are running / from or toward / the helicopters’ but also the Olsonian inescapability of the dead preying upon us. The entangled and entangling nets of being, the trammels which recur, lead us to the ‘fall of Saigon / re-enacted endlessly / in a musical’. The throwness is there in the music of the Stones:

‘And the music –
something we had never
heard before though surely
it had been heard before
long ago “the songs…
are no one’s own

The italicized words are taken from ‘Some San Francisco Poems’ and throughout Finkelstein’s re-creation of the importance of that attendance at that event we are given echoes from a long gone world which is our present. The ‘sickening acceleration / that no poem may stop’ does not prevent the poet as artist being in the privileged position of almost expecting ‘to see them / walking back toward the car’. The poet stills the moment…for a moment. In an interview with Kevin Power given some few years later and published in Montemora 4 Mary Oppen said

‘After we’d left the car we walked miles and miles. There were cars as far as you could see, up on the mountains in every direction representing millions and millions of dollars.’

They left Altamont before the murder of a concert-goer by a Hell’s Angels bodyguard took place.

Norman Finkelstein wrote the last essay in the Curley and Kimmelman collection from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller, which I reviewed for PN Review 229 earlier this year:

‘…Heller’s poetry, and his concomitant thinking about poetry, establish and maintain an ethics of meaning in the practice of the art. “What sets one free / within the sign and blesses the wordflow // without barrier?” asks Heller in “Lecture with Celan”. For the poet, it is a question which must always remain open, yet it is also one which he must perpetually seek to answer.’

Looking at this admirable collection of Norman Finkelstein’s poems we can see that search continuing.

Ian Brinton 27th October 2016

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The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan)

The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan)

I am no great reader of theoretical approaches to poetry but the name of the author of this one suggested something rather more exciting. I wasn’t disappointed! Of course when I first thought about reading this recent publication the well-worn quotation from Creeley to Olson about ‘form is never more than an extension of content’ sprang to mind. I have lived with this phrase for years and have often associated it in my mind with that early line from Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’:

‘Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy’

What I like about this new book by Robert Sheppard is the way in which I am taken back to the poems themselves (or the prose in the case of Veronica Forrest-Thomson) with that clear sense of what is at stake,

‘…the agency of form: how it extends, reveals or – in my terms – enacts, enfolds, and becomes content.’

This book is about how we read poetry and it is refreshing to hear Sheppard say that ‘form’ cannot be held any longer ‘to be a simple opposite to content, a vase containing water, or even a cloud permeated with moisture.’ As a former school-master I am delighted to read the reference to Wallace Stevens’s wry note ‘The poem is the poem, not its paraphrase’. That quotation itself should be given to all teachers of poetry to pin up in their classrooms!
There are chapters in this book dealing with, amongst many others, Tim Atkins and Peter Hughes, Rosemarie Waldrop, Geraldine Monk, Allen Fisher, Bill Griffiths and Barry MacSweeney. There is a chapter on ‘Translation as Transformation’ and it reads as if Sheppard had his copy to hand of Yves Bonnefoy’s The Curved Planks, translated by Hoyt Rogers with its terrific afterword about the French poet and the ‘Art of Translation’. Paraphrasing Mallarmé Rogers suggested that translations are not made with images , but with words, and goes on to refer to a letter sent him by Bonnefoy in which the focus is on the French word “bateau” which corresponds well with “boat”. In his poetry Bonnefoy often used the word “barque” but an English equivalent (“bark” or “barque”) simply won’t do since the word is far more unusual in our language. When Rogers settled for the word “boat” he recognised that the French “barque” was evocative because, as Bonnefoy put it, ‘between the consonants the vowel forms the same dark hollow we see in a boat between the curved planks of the prow and the stern’. In his translation Rogers settled for “boat” which itself has an accumulated lyric connotation through a precedent such as The Prelude with its episode of the stolen boat. In this chapter on ‘Translation as Transformation’ Robert Sheppard looks at the practice of rendering poetry from one language into another in terms of a textual engagement, a reading, a response to the original and suggests that ‘Poetry is what is found in translation, as we shall see’.
It was a delight to see a chapter on what I find the bizarre but intriguing world of Stefan Themerson, a world ‘like that of Lewis Carroll…in which logic and poetry wrestle’. In considering the building of cathedrals Themerson writes:

‘its tower
is the thought
of its buttresses’

An example of how Robert Sheppard prompts the reader into thinking closely about the poetry being read can be exemplified by the provocative consideration of Paul Batchelor’s Bloodaxe anthology of essays, Reading Barry MacSweeney (2013) and MacSweeney’s 1997 Bloodaxe publication, The Book of Demons where

‘…readers face two models of poesis, each of which may be seen doubly. The ‘Pearl’ poems, focused upon the figure of a mute young girl as reported by the suffering ‘Bar’, are either read as rich post-Wordsworthian pastoral or as sentimental bucolic. The second half of the volume, the contrasting ‘The Book of Demons’, is read either as the self-indulgent mythologizing of an alcoholic about alcoholism, or as evidence of MacSweeney’s deep, raw honesty about dependency and its attendant psychological horrors.’

Robert Sheppard’s book is one to keep dipping into: it prompts you to want to go back to sources whilst at the same time it offers advice about how to read poetry. It is no mere accident that the first chapter should look closely at Veronica Forrest-Thomson, the critic whose question was always ‘how do poems work’. Referring to the posthumous collection from 1976, On the Periphery, the question for Sheppard remains ‘how will the poems be made?’

Ian Brinton 21st October 2016

Disappearing Curtains Edited by Paul Buck

Disappearing Curtains Edited by Paul Buck

In that indispensable volume about British Poetry Magazines 1914-2000 edited by David Miller and Richard Price the entry for Chapter D, 129, ‘Curtains’ , gives clear background details concerning Paul Buck’s innovative and exciting publication which was to cast its brightness over the 1970s scene: ‘Most issues are unnumbered and have alternative titles based on the Curtains theme’.

The most recent copy which was presented to me by the editor, Paul Buck, at the Free Verse Poetry Fair a few weeks ago is titled ‘Disappearing Curtains’ and it has a sense of summing up. The editorial account of what it means to start up a new literary magazine is essential reading for anyone wishing to set out on the worthwhile venture:

‘A magazine serves more than one purpose. If I am to be the editor it needs to be a personal document, an exploration of my interests. As I am a writer then being an editor revolves around the notion of editing as part of the research for my writing. However, I do see it as a wider project, that is, the magazine as a communal…a community work.’

The BPM account stressed how the series was ‘especially strong in translation of contemporary French literature’ and a steady glance through French Curtains (1973), Curtains, le prochain step (1976) and bal:le:d Curtains (1978) most certainly confirms this as one reads Rosemarie Waldrop’s version of Jabès, Glendale George’s Giroux or Paul Auster’s Georges Bataille accompanied by striking illustrations from Jeff Nuttall. However, that brief description falls far short of giving true recognition to the astonishing range and expertise reflected in this series of magazines.
Between 1971 and 1978 Paul Buck edited at least eleven issues of the magazine and published work by Roy Fisher, Larry Eigner, Anthony Barnett, Kris Hemensley, Allen Fisher, Barry MacSweeney, David Chaloner, Michael Haslam, Mark Hyatt, Peter Riley, John Riley, Jeremy Hilton, John Hall, Cid Corman, Eric Mottram, John Freeman, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Gael Turnbull… and the list goes on. One of the delights for me was coming across the work of Paul Selby, the founder of Sweet Dawn Publishing, about whom I have written in Infinite Riches, a History of Dulwich College Poets since the 1950s. In Safety Curtain (1972) there are eighteen pages of Selby’s work before we read both Carlyle Reedy and Larry Eigner. The last contribution in that issue of Curtains is a review by Kris Hemensley of Joanne Kyger’s 1970 Black Sparrow Press collection Places To Go:

‘These poems are what one might have expected to come from Denise Levertov in the light of her statements of intent of a decade & more ago – and whilst this is no criticism whatsoever of Levertov’s prosaic mood at present – it is exceedingly fortunate in these generally sparse & even trite times that Joanne Kyger can offer the rich & the fantastic.’

As if listening carefully to his reviewer of years ago Paul Buck’s final curtain contains work by Francesca Lisette and Holly Pester as well as his own ‘Notes In & Out of the Disappearing Mist’.

Ian Brinton 11th October 2016

Baby Patricia Debney Liquorice Fish Books (Cinnamon Press; www.inpressbooks.co.uk)

Baby  Patricia Debney  Liquorice Fish Books (Cinnamon Press; www.inpressbooks.co.uk)

In Julian Barnes’s novel Flaubert’s Parrot the narrator, Geoffrey Braithwaite, refutes the role of historiographer and explodes what could have been a singular history into infinite fragments, interminable possibilities. Even where there are well-documented sources such as the Greek journeys of Flaubert and Maxime Du Camp the story-teller presents the reader with contradictions as accounts differ, journals disagree and, in conclusion, Braithwaite tells us “What happened to the truth is not recorded”.
Patricia Debney’s new collection of poems and prose focuses upon the edge of vision, that which can be detected out of the side of the eye, and the often quite imperative tone confronts us with a sense of responsibility for what seems to be hiding there:

Things Which Had I Stopped to Consider –
Really Consider – Or If I’d Been Older –
Might Have Been Clues

‘That time we took Violet the cat – who had six toes on each front
paw – up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. You said she would like to
get out of the city. We opened the car door and she ran away, right
into the rhododendron up the side of the mountain. We called and
called – Violet! Violet! – but she never came back.

The time you locked yourself in the bedroom. I screamed – don’t
do it, don’t do it
– but you still didn’t come out.’

On the back cover of this remarkably disturbing volume of memory’s fragments Simon Smith mentions the ‘desolation of Hopper’ and there is an eerie exactness about this reference. In the 1939 painting ‘Cape Cod Evening’ (National Gallery of Art, Washington) a man sits on the doorstep in front of a house and a woman stands with folded arms looking downwards at his hand which is offered out with something in it held there to attract a dog. There is a kind of serenity in the scene except that the dog is peering alertly away from the man and, with ears pointed and tail sticking out horizontally, is staring at something (some thing) off stage. It is a very unsettling painting as one becomes aware of the importance of whatever is there, just out of sight!
Carrie Etter’s comment raises to my mind another source for this collection of ‘fragments, prose poetry, and white space’ (Jane Monson):

‘In her compelling new collection, Patricia Debney deftly fractures narratives, lines, and syntax to evoke a daughter’s struggle with an unstable mother. Baby intelligently renders their fraught relationship in all its emotional complexity.’

I am drawn back here to Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved which opens with the uncompromising statement ‘124 WAS SPITEFUL. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.’ The epigraph Toni Morrison chose for her novel was from the letter Paul the Apostle wrote to the Romans and the nine sections of Debney’s poem ‘Armour of Light’ take their title from a reference to Romans 13:12. Whereas Morrison’s reference presents us with a contradiction concerning who is beloved Debney’s has a positive assertion of the day being at hand as the night is far spent. In these fragmentary shards of writing the poet sifts through ashes, picks ‘through remnants / of fires / in which not everything / burned’:

‘fragments
of bone
mostly yours
evidence
of kindling
not caught

and horded
secret hopes’

Just as History isn’t what happened but is instead what Historians tell us happened, the story of our selves is an accumulation of fragments upon which we place narrative sequence. Patricia Debney’s eerie and moving collection presents us with characters whose story is made up of what happens between the lines and just off the stage.

Ian Brinton 6th October 2016

Unknown Translations by Tom Phillips (www.scalino.eu)

Unknown Translations by Tom Phillips (www.scalino.eu)

I recall reading a poem by Tom Phillips titled ‘Wearing Thin’. It was published in a fine collection, Recreation Ground, put out in 2012 by Peter Robinson’s Two Rivers Poets and it opened with movement:

‘Going home, with decisions unmade
and threats of further paperwork,
you’re jostling for position
at a crossing point, taking
the lights’ delay as a reluctance,
the pavement for a starting grid.
As if the whole town could do its best
to hold you back.’

A similar restless journeying also leads the reader through this hauntingly beautiful new mindscape which Tom Phillips has translated from the Bulgarian originals written by Tom Phillips! When J.H. Prynne gave his speech in 2008 at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in China on the topic of the difficulties of translation he quoted John Keats’s comment ‘I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess’ before going on to add

‘I think that the excess he had in mind was to run past the normal bounds and limits, in making new combinations of words and thoughts that draw the reader into new kinds of pleasurable excitement. In a more technical way we can acknowledge that unfamiliarity plays an important part in pattern-recognition, and we can ask how this feature gains its effect. If two words are placed together that are not normally associated as from the same field of reference or meaning, a kind of semantic spark or jump may be created that is intensely localised within the continuity of the text process: it may be a kind of “hot spot” that burns very bright but which the reader can quite quickly assimilate within the larger patterns of composition.’

This placing of words together, prompting a brightness, is there within the pages of this new publication by Tom Phillips and his introductory note draws us into a world where language seems washed clean:

‘I started writing the poems in this book in Bulgarian because I wanted to practise a language that I have been studying since my first visit to Sofia in 2013. While I was learning vocabulary, noun by noun, verb by verb, adjective by adjective, I would find myself repeating seemingly unconnected series of words – “room”, “confused”, “hungry”, “flowers”, “silently” – and these sometimes came to suggest situations and images or at least to forge unexpected connections in my mind.’

Phillips continues by reminding us that it is very easy ‘to become trapped in your own voice, to repeat the things which have worked in the past, and pushing at the boundaries of your comfort zone – by, for example, attempting to write in a language whose traditions and riches you’re only just beginning to appreciate – is one way of finding an escape route’. To an extent he lets ‘language take the lead…’.
Unknown Translations, new journeys, are threaded with present participles: ‘children playing / by a war memorial’, ‘walking along the pavement, / past the market’, ‘in the park, the dogs are walking / like old men’. At the same time Phillips is fully aware of those trammels which recur and that ‘Purity / is only an instant of being’ (Olson). We carry our pasts like mollusc shells closely attached to us and ‘approach / a possible fate / under magnificent architecture / which the lightest breeze / can destroy’ (‘Old Directions’). That earlier poem from Recreation Ground concluded

‘As red turns to green,
you’ve almost reached the other side
before you’re pulled up short
by a misread fashion headline:
‘You Are What You Were’.’

The opening poem in this new collection offers ‘Sunlight in March’:

‘It’s clear to me that
in an unknown town,
I met another life
suddenly, unexpectedly,
like sunlight in March.’

Newness of both language and geography reveals a map of an unknown town and ‘then took me home’.

This is a refreshingly original little volume of poems and I recommend you to get hold of a copy before the poet melts back into Bulgaria.

2nd October 2016

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