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Balkan Poetry Today, 2017 edited by Tom Phillips (Red Hand Books)

Balkan Poetry Today, 2017 edited by Tom Phillips (Red Hand Books)

In his editorial comments at the opening of this first issue of a new magazine, Balkan Poetry Today, Tom Phillips stakes out his purpose with clarity and determination:

Balkan Poetry Today is not designed to be a comprehensive survey. Nor is it a ‘greatest hits’ package. Not every country in SE Europe, not every language spoken there is represented in this issue (although many are) and readers already familiar with those few poets from the region who have been translated into English may wonder at some of the more notable absences. This, though, is a magazine, not a representative anthology, and our policy has simply been to publish the best work which we have been sent or otherwise come across rather than to fulfil the more ambitious task of charting an entire region’s poetic output.”

This is the beginning of an adventure and it carries with it the momentum of a serious journey. That setting of keel to breakers reminds me a little of J.H. Prynne’s ‘Tips on Translating Poems (Into or Out of English)’ which he wrote in Cambridge a little over ten years ago. The last of the 24 tips pointed to the importance of recognising that no translation work is ever fully completed since there “can never be a best or a right solution”. He reminded his readers that the best kind of poetical translation of a poem is another poem, “without any didactic extras” so that the reader “will be rewarded by enjoyment of a good poem which gives a strong experience of its foreign original”. Prynne concluded that this was the aim of all poetical translation and that it allowed the efforts of the translator “to bring very real benefit in understanding between cultures”.
This last point is one which was highlighted by Ana Martinoska in her introduction to the 2011 Arc publication of an anthology of Six Macedonian Poets in which she commented that “there are no nations or literatures that are small, insignificant or culturally less important than others” and that every culture and genre “should be presented to a broader audience without hesitation or fear of marginalisation”. Prynne’s last comment in his tips was “Translation is noble work!” and Martinoska referred to the translation of poetry as being “one of the best forms of cultural representation, as mediation among languages and nations, cross-cultural and inter-cultural communication bringing the world closer together, both in time and space”.
With this last statement in mind it is refreshing and heartening to read Tom Phillips’s words:

“It is, of course, conventional for any publication with the term ‘Balkan’ in the title to attempt a definition of the region. BPT has adopted a rather loose one with blurry edges – and one which includes the various and not inconsiderable Balkan diasporas. We are, in fact, pretty much leaving it to the poets themselves to decide whether they identify themselves as Balkan or not and to define where the cultural, geographical and linguistic boundaries lie. In practice this means that in this issue you’ll find work by a Romanian poet who writes in Czech, a Bulgarian who lives in Slovakia and a Croatian who writes multilingual poems in Croatian, French and English. In future issues we hope to publish work in transnational languages like Roma and Vlach. We use the word ‘Balkan’ in the broadest possible sense and with no intention of suggesting that ‘Balkan poetry’ exists as a single, homogenous entity.”

This first issue of an exhilarating new journal is sheer delight and one of the first poems that drew my attention immediately was ‘Private lessons in May’ by Aksinia Mihaylova (translated by Roumiana Tiholova):

“I’m trying to teach you the Cyrillic alphabet of scents:
that the geranium on the balcony across the street
is more than a mere geranium,
that the linden tree in June
is more than a mere tree,
but we aren’t making progress fast enough.
Your thumb is following the candle shadow
that the wind is making tremble on the open page,
as if drafting mobile borders
between you and me,
as if to protect you,
as if you are that boy,
who once lost his watercolours
on his way home from school,
and who’s still painting
the lost sky of his childhood and the hills
in the same colour.”

In 1923 William Carlos Williams had been convinced that “so much depends / upon // a red wheel / barrow // glazed with rain / water // beside the white /
chickens”. Wallace Stevens was to refer to those words as a “mobile-like arrangement” and Hugh Kenner suggested that they dangled in equidependency, “attracting the attention, isolating it, so that the sentence in which they are arrayed comes to seem like a suspension system.” The delicate movement in Mihaylova’s poem traces the act of translation itself, the spaces between one mind and another in a world of “mobile borders”.

Balkan Poetry Today is available in a limited edition print version via the Red Hand Books website: http://www.redhandbooks.co.uk/ and an e-book version will be available soon.

In a world of narrowing confines this new journal is refreshing: it opens doors on each page.

Ian Brinton 30th July 2017

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For The Future (Shearsman Books)

For The Future (Shearsman Books)

In June 2016 David Caddy wrote a fine review of this little book. In October Tom Phillips also wrote a review and this was sent to all the contributors whose work had made the book important. As a consequence of some computer difficulties suffered by Tony Lewis-Jones’s Various Arts website, based in Bristol, this review never saw the light of day and so it is with great pleasure that I include it here under his name as a guest-blogger. It is important that Tom’s work is seen at large not least because it can now be included in Michael Tencer’s Full Bibliography of the work of J.H. Prynne.

Ian Brinton 8th July 2017

Review: For The Future: Poems & Essays In Honour Of J.H. Prynne On The Occasion Of His 80th Birthday, Ian Brinton (ed.), Shearsman Books, 2016

Of course, the usual starting point for discussing Jeremy Prynne’s poetry is to say something about how difficult or daunting it is. Saying this, however, is tantamount to not saying much at all. As several contributors to A Manner Of Utterance – the 2009 collection of essays about Prynne also edited by Ian Brinton and published by Shearsman – pointed out, if you start from the assumption that Prynne’s poetry is ‘difficult’ and therefore like a puzzle which needs solving, you’re probably coming at it from the wrong angle. Indeed, as Prynne himself has demonstrated with his extraordinarily expansive critical investigations of poems like Wordsworth’s ‘The Solitary Reaper’, even relatively simple-seeming work has multiple complexities and, yes, ‘difficulties’ if you look at it hard enough.
As in A Manner Of Utterance, then, the poems and essays in this insightful and wide-ranging new collection edited by Brinton counter the notion that Prynne’s work is the literary equivalent of the north face of the Eiger and that all it does is make exhausting intellectual demands of its readers. To be sure, the absence of a recognisable and autobiographical lyric ‘I’, the polyphonic assemblage of idiolects and specialist vocabularies and the unexpected shifts in grammar are disorienting, unfamiliar and have been at odds with the predominant modes of poetic expression for the fifty years that Prynne’s been publishing his work, but as the poet Peter Hughes puts it in his contribution to For The Future, that work has a “peculiar mass” nevertheless – and with mass comes gravity and you are drawn in.

Hughes also likens reading a Prynne poem to arriving in a foreign country – “Everything is going on around you and you do your best to go with the flow and pick up what you can” (which seems like very sensible advice) – while for Peter Gizzi the poems in the 1969 volume The White Stones have a “necessary and productive restlessness”. For Anthony Barnett – the first publisher of Prynne’s Poems (the steadily evolving ‘collected’ whose latest manifestation appeared from Bloodaxe in 2015) – it is a question of refusing “to be intimidated by the so-called difficulty or those critiques on difficulty, positive or negative, that have infected our academic and popular literary cultures both.”

Despite its sometimes abrasive surface textures, then, there is an energy coursing through Prynne’s work which keeps you reading it even if “the figure in the carpet” isn’t always readily apparent. Some of the essays here, of course, do posit hypotheses about what the ‘figure’ might be in specific poems or collections. Matthew Hall, for example, makes a persuasive case for understanding 2002’s Acrylic Tips in the context of “the physical landscapes and colonial history of the Australian continent” while Masahiko Abe finds a way into 1989’s Word Order through Rosalind Krauss’ concept of the ‘grid’ (as she applied it to modernist/minimalist art). Michael Tencer, meanwhile, unpacks the allusive density of Prynne’s ‘Es Lebe der König’ and identifies the multiple sources which feed into one of the very few poems dedicated to a specified individual – in this case the Romanian-German poet Paul Celan. Harry Gilonis’ discussion of Prynne’s Chinese poem ‘Stone Lake’ also illuminates how the indeterminacy and myriad ambiguities of Chinese poetry in general might offer a way of understanding how Prynne’s English poems operate and how we might approach them as readers. With Chinese poetry, after all, the general assumption is that it takes a lifetime to understand a poem as fully as it’s possible for any individual reader to do so.

For The Future, though, is not a book of critical essays per se and while the insights into specific corners of the writerly labyrinth sent me back to Poems with the thought “Ah, so this might be a potential starting point …”, the memoirs about Prynne and the poems dedicated to him also shed light on the man, the poet and the teacher. Brinton himself, for example, details the protracted negotiations between poet, publisher and printer over the publication of 1971’s Brass – thereby illustrating the care with which Prynne approaches the physical appearance of his texts – while John James’ poem ‘Affection’ steers a course through the ethical and political concerns which animate the work of a poet whose avant gardism is not an affectation but the inevitable product of a heterodox set of ethical and political concerns about transaction, encounter, power and language. Above all, perhaps, what the many and varied contributors to For The Future do is provide a reminder that Prynne is also a generous and profound teacher (more than a few of the essays here are by former students who encountered him at Cambridge) and that, whatever response you have to his poetry, he’s the kind of writer whose work needs to be read – much like that of the Black Mountain poets he did so much to champion – if you’re going to have any kind of understanding of what poetry has done in the past and what it might do in the future. As Nigel Wheale writes in his essay here: “What comes across so vividly is the range of concerns vigorously worked through, worked over, in these books, an intellectual project uniquely ambitious.”
With both A Manner Of Utterance and now For The Future, Ian Brinton has served that uniquely ambitious project well. In so doing, he is also helping to restore the contours of contemporary English-language poetry to the shape they might have assumed had the silly/shameful ‘poetry wars’ of the 1970s not disfigured them or turned them into the boundary markers of the literary cliques which are, as Michael Haslam observes in For The Future, “the scandal of poetry in England”.

Tom Phillips, October 2016

Wound Scar Memories by Peter Philpott (Great Works Editions)

Wound Scar Memories by Peter Philpott (Great Works Editions)

Peter Philpott’s editorial introduction to Issue Number Three of Great Works, July 1974, breathes; there is a sense of a door and a window being thrown open:

“This is a magazine of contemporary writing. It contains work which is attempting to create new modes of experiencing the world and of representing that experience which is at this time of ours or the writer’s. Such research is necessarily largely poetic, as that is the use of language at the maxima of energy and novelty needed to transcend the lies and ignorance of our now natural way of life. This art may therefore appear arbitrary or inexplicable in its composition. Don’t be put off. What is smoothly presented to us as contemporary literature by the commercial, academic and leisure interests is the dried husk of art, an empty form that cannot generate life. It binds us in further with accepted answers and unprofitable easy technique.”

The concluding prose section to Wound Scar Memories continues this important conversation and offers the reader “some fragments out of the past which glittered and glistened in the same way as some things do now”. This is a world of linguistic interplay, “a funny sort of thing / – writing / down your words so they’re not yours / but belong more to whoever can read them”. It is also a world of compassionate humility which recognises “our capacity for delusion always infinite” and offers us room which is both geographical and literary:

“you’re hiding still on the edge of this town
little shitheap with lots of water I’d call the place
what you engage with is really just language
I know, you know, as does the world it says”

In an early account of his new collection from the Great Works Press, Philpott gave us some background to the four sections (three sequences of seventeen sonnets and a substantial 23 page piece of prose):

“The book starts from bringing the wonderful Tim Atkins and Peter Hughes versions of Petrarch (+ a sense of Petrarch himself, which came from being intrigued by their work) to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse in the summer of 2015, the village where he may well have written much of the so-called Sonnets. Playing with their words allowed other voices to come in, and I wrote 17 sonnetty things. Too pleasurable not to be suspect, so I wrote another, slightly tighter sequence, stripping back what goes on to an affair of pronouns (isn’t that what it’s all about?). I recoiled from the sparseness of this to more jokey material, by creating voices for a variety of Dark Age characters, starting with the usual suspects, ending up by burrowing down into the dirt even of Bishops Stortford. These last 17 sonnetty things depended too much on allusion to public but obscure material (who’s up on the anomalous elements in the names of the earliest “Kings of Wessex”?). So I then wrote some prose to discuss all this and what lies behind.”

What lies behind, or indeed below, is given a sense of perspective through a quotation from Robin Fleming’s book Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise 400 to 1070:

“People living and dying in eastern England in the generations after 420 were cobbling together distinctive little cultures all their own out of this cacophony of peoples and circumstances, and these cultures were heterogeneous, highly localized and very fluid.”

Wound Scar Memories is an astonishingly powerful collection: we are reminded not only of our debts to a past but of our fluid living alertness to a present that only fools will try to tie down to certainties:

“locality & the past & all our origins
calcify themselves with fear
yet old wood bursts fresh buds & blossoms

infinite variety includes what’s gone
all our parents – so many aren’t they?”

When, in September 2015, I reviewed the volume Peter Philpott’s published with Shearsman Books, Ianthe Poems, I referred to his lines as the “binding of a moment”, and that sense of immediacy, respect for the quiet reality of this day, is what threads its way through this new sequence. The lines of many of these sonnets have “tested again the self’s rickety old fences / as usual it mysteriously survives”:

“abysmal loss faces us, & portentous forces squat
flocking in uncontrollably or worse
not, negation & the loss of words
but only ones that have no purpose

ones that aren’t anything like us
we find ourselves now in the night
following only our own constraints
to open up a newer moment
against the stupid glitter of the rich
– now open it all up at once”

This use of the word “glitter” is not to be confused with that reference about fragments that I started with; the glittering and glistening of those fragments out of the past become what constitutes who we are. As I read through this book more and more I take on board the statement from sonnet 7 in the first section:

“unreciprocated desire is our human condition
coupled with chosen arbitrary restrictions”

The shining newness of moments is perhaps what Frances Presley was referring to in her comment on the back of that earlier Shearsman volume:

“Peter Philpott recuperates both our excitement with the world around us and with new poetic form.”

There will be a launch for this new publication at the forthcoming Contraband Poetry Night on Tuesday 4th July: The Crown Tavern, 43 Clerkenwell Green, EC1R 0EG, 7 o’clock.

Ian Brinton 2nd July 2017

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