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Monthly Archives: March 2017

Scaplings by Michael Haslam (Calder Valley Poetry)

Scaplings by Michael Haslam (Calder Valley Poetry)

In the introduction to issue 1 of folded sheets (foldan sceatas), September 1986, the editor Michael Haslam wrote about his new magazine venture:

“It just aims to sheaf and bind some disparatenesses, making postal ground out of what else might run the risk of being several desperate isolations, facing the claims coherence makes upon identity.”

The subtitled address on the front cover of this exciting new venture some thirty years ago told us that the folded sheets in question were “of what new poetry is posted here” and on the fly-sheet there was an announcement concerning this “unplanned serial publication of new poetry, or prose / (or prose that is comparable to poetry, is similarly motivated, or at least may be self-conscious of the wherefore of its personally spoken tone)”. The eight issues of folded sheets contained poetry and prose by Kelvin Corcoran, Ken Edwards, Peter Hughes, Simon Marsh, Chris Torrance, John Wilkinson and many other important writers of the time. Issue 3 also contained a sequence of six poems by Peter Riley whose Pennine Tales was published by Bob Horne’s Calder Valley Poetry last year and which I reviewed for this blog at the end of July. In Riley’s six poems from folded sheets we stand “Finally on the edge of night” and recognise the “dark mottled fall of light / Tensed between the houses, which is / Itself a meaning but not itself articulate”. In the ninth poem from Pennine Tales the poet stands above Hebden Bridge:

“Out of the Hare & Hounds 11:20 with Mike Haslam
and stand on the edge of the moors. Difficult
to believe that a small bus will come and
pick us up. There is nothing here but stone
walls and distance. We are alone. We are nowhere.”

This new publication from Calder Valley Poetry offers a type of echoing reply as from one walker, one traveller, to another. Its full title is Scaplings, Star Jelly, and a Seeming Sense of Soul and it opens with references to other travellers whose ghosts haunt the heady lyrical surge that moves from bank to bank of these 36 poems:

“The edifice of work and life, an old retaining wall
that long held back a seam of flaking shale
collapses as a crumpled face into a rubble pile.

From high imperium to small importance fall
impotence, imprudence, impertinence and all
the way from imputation back to impact
trail the files for miles and fail
for want of style to face the facts beyond recall.”

The echo here is of course that of a traveller “from an antique land” whose discovery “of that colossal Wreck” in the desert sands of 1817 prompted Shelley to think of how high imperium falls to small importance:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Time and decay haunt Haslam’s masterful lyric display of fingers up and down a keyboard of Scarlatti sonatas. As Peter Riley puts it on the back cover of this delightful collection:

“On each of these 36 pages Michael Haslam sets out (on foot) into the world immediately confronting him, and gathers from it the words, experience, memories, percepts that he needs to form a poetry of rich texture. He does this singingly, so that the words echo each other and form queues, and with the sharpest awareness of all the bright play offered by language when it is opened up, when it faces its own history.”

As travellers move about leafing their way through pages of long told tales, Odysseus (“Nobody”) “steers / his craft across the shoals of an obscure idea”. The scaplings of “wedge-shaped lumps of offcut gritstone” are inserted into the mortar of language to hold the “block flush with the wallface”. Bunting would have loved these poems and I think of Peter Makin’s central book on the shaping of that Northumbrian’s verse:

“the good poem is the one that, once one has started saying its lines, an inner necessitation makes one want to say on – so interesting are the relations between the lines – through to the end.”

As Riley put it “words echo each other and form queues”; the walkers of a landscape walk over ground which shifts and changes; one which holds its original face; palimpsest:

“I view us two that day we came along the long catchwater drain
the climate light and delicate, a touch intemperate, the weather cold.
I can’t recall the exact date. The ground it seems is owned by some
consortium of infrastructure funds. When water passed
to private hands the heart deflated and evaporated from the state.

Our land miss-sold, how gently by permissive footpaths now
across their land our right to roam’s controlled! Free hearts for health
and heath. The heather blossom’s old. The physis that’s the bios,
physics of our lungs and things we hold above the ground beneath.”

To buy a copy of Michael Haslam’s Scaplings contact Bob Horne at http://www.caldervalleypoetry.com or caldervalleypoetry@yahoo.com

Ian Brinton, 23rd March 2017

The Poetry of John James Conference

The Poetry of John James Conference

Last Saturday saw Magdalene College, Cambridge, host this conference to celebrate the poetry of John James. It was organised by the current Judith E. Wilson Fellow, Peter Hughes, whose Oystercatcher Press has published both Cloud Breaking Sun (2012) and Sabots (2015). I recall reviewing Sabots for the Tears blog in August 2015 and concluding that it is “an uplifting sequence of three poems which restores a sense of vitality and endurance within a world threatened by commercial bureaucracy and targets”.

The conference was itself uplifting and by the end of the day I realised that the speakers had taken us on a journey which involved close textual criticism, overviews of the place of John James’s work in contemporary poetry and personal reminiscence. Emphasis was placed on the role of music within the poetry and the importance of the visual arts to a man whose sense of the flâneur is still to be recognised in the laughter and wry awareness exhibited by the poet in the audience who turned to me at one point to say “Who is this poet? I must get hold of some of his work”.

The speakers included Rod Mengham whose Equipage Press has published both In Romsey Town (2011) and Songs In Midwinter For Franco; Andrew Taylor whose debt to James weaves its way through his own Oystercatcher volume Air Vault; Simon Smith, Ian Heames, Peter Riley, Drew Milne and Geoff Ward spoke and read and by the end of the day there was a feeling that the success of this event was partly to do with the range of focus: different takes on a common theme of respect for this poet whose first published volume had appeared half-a-century ago from Andrew Crozier’s Ferry Press.

The poem ‘Pimlico’ was read (first published in Tears) as was ‘A Theory of Poetry, twice, and there was a beautifully produced gift from Ian Heames of his own finely published copy of the original Street Editions in comfrey blue. There was a sense in the auditorium of what John James referred to in his ‘Poem beginning with a line of Andrew Crozier’:

“I reach toward the poetry of kindred
where we speak in our work as we seldom do otherwise”

My review of Sabots had ended with a simple statement about the book:

“It is a tribute to the quietly unchanging in a fast-changing world. It’s terrific!” The same could be said of the 2017 Cambridge Conference on the Poetry of John James.

Ian Brinton, 13th March 2017

The Meaning of Things: Poems and Prose by Elaine Randell (Shearsman Books)

The Meaning of Things: Poems and Prose by Elaine Randell (Shearsman Books)

There is an old saying about not judging other people until you have walked a mile in their shoes. In her reminiscences about her father, the concluding section of this powerfully moving new book, Elaine Randell puts it slightly differently:

“If anyone ever behaved badly or was criticised by my mother or me, he would always say, to know all is to forgive all, you have to understand why people do certain things and behave in a certain way before jumping in, Elaine.”

Elaine Randell’s career in social work and psychotherapy complements her substantial work as a poet which stretches back to Nos 3 & 4 of The Curiously Strong in November 1971 where she appeared alongside Barry MacSweeney in ‘The official Biography of Jim Morrison’, Just 22 And Don’t Mind Dying. Two years later a short book of poems appeared from MacSweeney’s Blacksuede Boot Press, Telegrams From The Midnight Country, and it is one of these short pieces that lingers in my mind as I read Randell’s new volume from Shearsman Books:

“See how the tree comes to
ward.
A heavy wind here pesters
loose wood.
Sky steps are light.
The birds fly up ex
static.”

In an interview the American Objectivist Charles Reznikoff suggested that poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling: it should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling. Of course the feeling is there in the selection of material: you pick certain things that are significant—that’s your feeling. You don’t go into the feeling; you portray it as well as you can, hoping that somebody else reading the poem will get your feeling:

“Now, as part of that, I should perhaps say that I try to be as clear and precise as possible….my own belief is to name and to name and to name—and to name in such a way that you have rhythm, since music (and I think George Oppen would agree with me) is also part of the meaning”.

I’m sure that Randell would certainly agree with Reznikoff and that early poem, titled ‘For You – Today’, would not look out of place in the 1934 Objectivist Press publication Jerusalem the Golden. For instance look at the three lines of ‘July’ in that Reznikoff volume:

“No one is in the street but a sparrow;
it hops on the glittering sidewalk,
and at last flies – into a dusty tree.”

Randell’s The Meaning of Things is divided into four sections the last being two autobiographical pieces of memory of the poet’s mother and father. In section II that naming and rhythm which mattered so much to both Reznikoff and Oppen is placed securely in ‘Easter 2014 Romney Marsh’:

“On such a day the skylark
heard above the tractor before seen
up that high.
Who could not be charged
by his ecstatic salute to life
upwards and yet further up he shows how to sing while flying
while
plummeting
vertically effortlessly hovering before parachuting back.
On such a day you had also heard this
known perhaps that despite their aerial activities,
skylarks nest on the ground not in trees which may catch the wind.”

Forty-four years ago in ‘For You – Today’ the second line opens with what might be perceived to be the second syllable of the word “toward”. However, by being placed where it is that word becomes a verb “ward” and the note of warning and care held in both sound and meaning of that small word leads the reader forward to the third line’s reference to “A heavy wind” and the repeated ‘w’s, agitated by the use of “pesters”, take us to the fragility of “loose wood”. In this new poem there is a contrast between the firm placing on a ground, “On such a day”, with the following nine syllables of line two ending in the open music of “seen”. The poem echoes the surge of movement and song as the lark moves “upwards and yet further up he shows how to sing while flying”.
George Oppen was a great admirer of the slightly older Reznikoff and in a 1959 letter to June Oppen Degnan, his half-sister and publisher of San Francisco Review, he wrote:

“Rezi wrote

Among the heap of brick and plaster lies
A girder, still itself among the rubbish.

Likely he could mull along and tell you what he had in mind. But how other than with this image could he put into your mind so clearly the miracle of existence—the existence of things. It is only because the image hits so clear and sudden that the poem means what it means. I don’t know that he could make it any clearer by talking about it.”

Elaine Randell’s new publication presents the reader with poetry and prose. The poetry stands clear on the page, THINGS. The prose, reminiscent of John Berger’s account of a doctor in the Forest of Dean in A Fortunate Man, gives us human voices that unsettle us with their convincing presentation of emptiness and perseverance, loss and determination. This is an important book.

Ian Brinton 4th March 2017

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