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Monthly Archives: September 2017

A Dance With Hermes by Lindsay Clarke (Awen Publications)

A Dance With Hermes by Lindsay Clarke (Awen Publications)

The artist is an opener of doors and Lindsay Clarke’s hermetic sequence sketches for us images of gates and crossroads, gaps in landscape where the eye, itself a window to the soul, can reflect Janus-like upon the self through attention to intricacies of form in the natural world. In the ‘Note at the Threshold’ to this intriguing glimpse at the shimmering light of a Greek world Lindsay Clarke acts as our host:

“That they recognised so many impersonal powers at work through him suggests that the ancient Greeks well understood that the young Hermes who entered the Homeric world of the Olympian gods brought with him deep-rooted associations and attributes from a far earlier age. In any case, there is always an essential ambiguity in the nature of this god of the stone pile. He may be there as an invaluable guide across difficult terrain but he is not entirely to be trusted and may also choose to lead us astray. Hikers and climbers still add herm-stones to cairns, and Hermes still often faces us with choices at a crossroads; but as the image evolved in ancient times, instead of a rough stone pile, a monolith was erected in some terminal places, and a bearded head was carved on the standing stone, and out of its limbless pillar was thrust a vigorous penis. Here was Hermes as the god of fertility, drawing generative power up from the dark underworld – an ithyphallic alpha male, formidably guarding his herds beside the life-giving female presence of a spring.”

The herma marks that liminal space, that boundary between territories, that moment in both geography and imagination where one world becomes another. This is a junction, a cromlech, a door and the “sly / light-fingered god of crossways, transit, / emails and exchange…” acts as the door-keeper:

“…..the wing-heeled, shifty,
wheeler-dealing go-between, who’ll slip right

through your fingers if you try to pin
him down.”

There is a quiet lyricism in these poems and a tone of determination that places the evanescent within a topographical steadiness:

“Herma: a heap of stones such as a traveller
sweating in the noonday heat might make out
shimmering in the haze, then feel his dry throat
freshen at its signal that a spring is near.

And having drunk and put a random stone
on to the pile, might he then wonder whether
others who have placed an offering on that cairn
have also caught a glimpse of Hermes standing there?”

This lord of the threshold possesses a darker side and his rape of Chione introduces the world to Autolycus, grandfather of Odysseus the man of wiles. That figure of course also gives his name to the duplicitous snapper-up of unconsidered trifles in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale: woe betide he who encounters this singing knave as the Clown discovers to his cost!
In his ‘Note at the Threshold’, Clarke alerts us to an association between the Greek Hermes and the agent of transformation in alchemy, Mercurius Duplex. He offers us a “regular use of half-rhymes to suggest the elusive nature of the god – something almost grasped but not quite” and suggests that the format used for the opening poem, ‘Koinos Hermes’, “became more or less standard for the sequence of verses which followed hot on its winged heels almost by dictation”. This quality of elusiveness reminds me of the work of Edward Thomas and I am drawn back to those fine statements made by F.R. Leavis in 1932:

“Edward Thomas is concerned with the finer texture of living, the here and now, the ordinary moments, in which for him the ‘meaning’ (if any) resides. It is as if he were trying to catch some shy intuition on the edge of consciousness that would disappear if looked at directly.”

It is surely no accident that Jeremy Hooker, the man who wrote about Thomas in 1970 in an essay titled ‘The Sad Passion’, should have written the blurb on the back of this new book from Awen Press. In 1970 Hooker had referred to Thomas’s “quest for wholeness”, the relationship of a whole man to human society and its home on earth. Here, dancing with Hermes, he writes:

“This is an impressive collection, with an ancient and perennial wisdom”.

The Awen website can be located at http://www.awenpublications.co.uk

Ian Brinton, 23rd September 2017

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Temporary Measures by Paul Rossiter (Isobar Press)

Temporary Measures by Paul Rossiter (Isobar Press)

When Auden composed ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ it is possible that he was very unaware of how some of the lines would echo down the corridors of literary criticism. But they have done and they are worth recalling again:

“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.”

In Paul Rossiter’s new volume there is an inherent emphasis upon the particular, the moment, the making of nothing into happening. There is a quiet humanity of attentiveness in the observation of railway workers that brings to mind the objectivist world of Williams or Reznikoff:

“the railway workers
cross the line
stepping

casually
over one
live rail

(turning to
each other
and talking)

and then
the other – they
do this every

day, almost
not noticing
they’re doing it

carefully”

The poem lurking behind this machine made of words is, of course, Williams’s 1930 poem ‘As the cat…’ about which Hugh Kenner noted in The Pound Era “It is one sinuous suspended sentence, feeling its way and never fumbling”. The “stepping” of the railway workers is placed in a line of its own and is succeeded by a gap before the single word line which defines the nature of the stepping: “casually”. The movement forward, fraught with potential danger from a live rail, is itself suspended by the bracketed picture of the steppers who turn towards each other in conversation; feet, like words, are so sure of where they should be placed.
The majority of poems in this new collection by Paul Rossiter take place in the world of common experience, effortlessly unrestrained. In the early morning of ‘Waking’

“the unanswerable landscape reassembles
in an instant
to what we always knew

and we go down
from the empty places, to walk”

The walking will be through the “ruined valleys” and the existing will be in the “abrasive cities”. However, this is not a post-apocalyptic landscape and the poem concludes with “delight despite ourselves / with only naked consciousness to clothe us”. When Marianne Moore addressed the Grolier Club in late December 1948 she had something to say about poetry:

“Concentration avoids adverbial intensives such as ‘definitely’, or ‘absolutely’. As for commas, nothing can be more stultifying than needlessly overaccented pauses. Defoe, speaking in so low a key that there is a fascination about the mere understatement, is one of the most persuasive of writers. For instance, in the passage about the pickpocket in The Life of Colonel Jacque, he has the colonel say to the pickpocket: ‘Must we have it all? Must a man have none of it again, that lost it?’ But persuasiveness has not died with Defoe…”

As the notes on the back of this handsome volume tell us, these poems are mostly set in London, with excursions westwards in England and southwards to the Dordogne region of France. In addition they cast a glance at Tang Dynasty China with versions of Du Fu and Wang Wei and offer responses to “places and occasions” in Kuwait, Egypt, Cyprus and Greece. The poems contain the “memory of countless small devotions” and they work “moment by moment / arising from the world”. Paul Rossiter’s poetry gives life to the everyday with which our lives are filled; it survives as a way of happening, a mouth.

Ian Brinton 8th September 2017

Kotan Chronicles: Selected Poems 1928-1943 by Genzō Sarashina Trans. Nadine Willems (Isobar Press)

Kotan Chronicles: Selected Poems 1928-1943 by Genzō Sarashina Trans. Nadine Willems (Isobar Press)

On the back cover of this new Isobar publication Eric Selland registers the delight and importance of this translation of poems by the Japanese poet Sarashina:

“Such a rare treat – one of the few examples of Japanese proletarian poetry to appear in English. Sarashina’s work, like that of the American Objectivist Charles Reznikoff, is a poetry of testimony, one in which he documents the lives of those living in pre-war Hokkaido, often in their own words.”

The comparison with Reznikoff brings to mind of course the four parts of TESTIMONY: THE UNITED STATES, that extraordinary poetic narrative which recorded the social, economic, cultural and legal history of the United States. Robert Creeley commented on the first volume TESTIMONY describing the collection as “an extraordinary document of human event – terrifying, comic, and deeply, deeply moving.” Creeley went on to suggest his admiration for Reznikoff’s ability to locate given instances “sans distortion” and to place his narratives “in the intense particularity of time and place.” In 1977 Milton Hindus published his monograph on Reznikoff emphasising the important role of history in the American poet’s recitative:

“We all belong to history, but we do not all know it…Coming into contact with what one recognizes to be history in the high sense of the term can be an unnerving experience, which inspires to expression those who might otherwise be counted among the voiceless tribes”.

That word “expression” appears in the superb introduction which the translator has added to this selection of Sarashina’s poems. Connecting the Japanese poet with his proletarian peers, Nadine Willems writes

“As Sarashina’s work demonstrates so well, they remained sharp and sympathetic observers of the everyday life of the lower strata of the population in all its mundanity and desperation. The focus was less on engineering an ideal future society than on the expression of real life struggles in a changing and unfair world.”

Between 1930 and 1931 Sarashina acted as a substitute teacher in a primary school near Kussharo Lake and he identified closely with the seventeen pupils, most of whom were Ainu (an increasingly displaced people). It was from these children and the other residents of the kotan (village-community) that he learned the stories which he then re-formed into poetry. In one of the ‘Kotan School Poems’ he acknowledges this debt:

“Fourth-grader Sekko knows what’s not in any textbook
The deep-down layers of life”

The substitute teacher records his own humility and merges it with a sense of LIFE as his pupils ask him those questions to which there are answers before moving their thoughts outwards to ask questions to which there are none:

—What would you like to do?
—Go outside and play!
—OK. Let’s go
—Wow. Really?

—Sensei, what’s this?
—A spring gentian whose flowers are the colour of the sky
—Sensei, and this?
—That’s a dandelion bud
—Sensei, why does the sun shine?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Then why does it rain?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Sensei, why are you alive?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Then why do you get angry?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Sensei, why is the world here?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Why are we alive, sensei?
—So that you can all get along
—Sensei, who did you learn this from?
—From all you lot

—Sensei, Tā-chan thumped me

Nadine Willems’s introduction is a delight to read on account of its direct simplicity as she tells us of the political background to these poems. She points us to central issues concerning the Ainu people and highlights the close connection “between people and nature” which “mirrors the connection that exists between the physical and intangible worlds.” These poems take me back not so much to Reznikoff as to Tolstoy whose 1861 essay on ‘Schoolboys and Art’ makes such a fine comparison with Sarashina’s experience as a primary-school teacher. Tolstoy has taken a group of boys out after school and as they walk through a white darkness which seemed to sway before their eyes one little boy, Fédka, asks the teacher to tell them, again, about the murder of Tolstoy’s aunt:

“I again told them that terrible story of the murder of Countess Tolstoy, and they stood silently about me watching my face.
‘The fellow got caught!’ said Sëmka.
‘He was afraid to go away in the night while she was lying with her throat cut! Said Fédka; ‘I should have run away!’ and he gathered my two fingers yet more closely in his hand.
We stopped in the thicket beyond the threshing-floor at the very end of the village. Sëmka picked up a dry stick from the snow and began striking it against the frosty trunk of a lime tree. Hoar frost fell from the branches onto our caps, and the noise of the blows resounded in the stillness of the wood.
‘Lev Nikolaevich,’ said Fédka to me (I thought he was again going to speak about the Countess), ‘why does one learn singing? I often think, why, really, does one?’
What made him jump from the terror of the murder to this question, heaven only knows; yet by the tone of his voice, the seriousness with which he demanded an answer, and the attentive silence of the other two, one felt that there was some vital and legitimate connection between this question and our preceding talk.”

Kotan Chronicles is another wonderful production from Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press and I urge you all to put the date September 20th in your diaries for the launch:
Isobar Press will be launching Kotan Chronicles: Selected by Poems 1928-1943 by the Japanese pre-war proletarian poet, anarchist, and ethnographer Genzo Sarashina at the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation on 20 September with a talk and reading by Nadine Willems (translator) and Paul Rossiter.

Date: Wednesday 20 September, 6-8 pm.

Place: Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, 13/14 Cornwall Terrace, Outer Circle (entrance facing Regent’s Park), London NW1 4QP. The event is free, but a reservation is required.

Ian Brinton 4th September 2017.

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