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Monthly Archives: December 2017

The Tree Line: Poems for Trees, Woods & People ed. Michael McKimm (Worple Press)

The Tree Line: Poems for Trees, Woods & People ed. Michael McKimm (Worple Press)

Anthologies, like woods, are places to return to. Their contents linger in the mind as one feels the urge to revisit a particular location. From childhood’s world onwards trees can be very important as places of refuge, tree-houses, and doors of escape: Sherwood Forest is quite ingrained in the British consciousness as a mapped out world of freedom and secrecy. Anthologies are reflections of their editors and they represent a very particular bringing together of poems which repay being looked at again and again: they are books, like memories, to be carried around with one. This new publication containing some sixty poems is no exception and it could not come at a better time: look at the website and buy a copy for Christmas!
One of my favourites is Ern Strang’s ‘Prisoner Writing Home’:

“The view is open only so far
and does not include the sea.

Beside him, the bed
and a letter to his mother

or his father or his brother.
Does it matter?

There is one tree in the cell,
a thin sapling birch

that glints in the light
like church bells glint…”

In Dickens’s novel Little Dorrit we are introduced to the ‘little fiction’ by means of which Mrs Plornish escapes from the confined living premises of London’s Bleeding Heart Yard near Clerkenwell. This infernal region of London is made up of large houses which are divided up into tenements and Mrs Plornish brings up her family inside a cramped living-space from which she escapes by a leap of the imagination:

This poetical heightening of the parlour consisted in the wall being painted to represent the exterior of a thatched cottage; the artist having introduced (in as effective a manner as he found compatible with their highly disproportioned dimensions) the real door and window. The modest sunflower and hollyhock were depicted as flourishing with great luxuriance on this rustic dwelling, while a quantity of dense smoke issuing from the chimney indicated good cheer within, and also, perhaps, that it had not been lately swept. A faithful dog was represented as flying at the legs of the friendly visitor, from the threshold; and a circular pigeon-house, enveloped in a cloud of pigeons, arose from behind the garden-paling.

For the inhabitants of this claustrophobic tenement which exists below the level of the main streets of London this interior decoration is ‘a most wonderful deception’ and ‘it made no difference that Mrs Plornish’s eye was some inches above the level of the gable bed-room in the thatch’. A more recent adaptation of this theme is of course the film ‘Shawshank Redemption’ in which a man escapes from confinement by tunnelling physically through the wall which is decorated with a picture: imagination leaps through stone. In Ern Strang’s poem the tree’s shadow thrown upon a wall possesses the capacity to “grow / through concrete”.
On the opposite page from this poem there is Harriet Fraser’s ‘View from a Manchester flat’ in which a window

“…looked onto other windows
a straight-line scene, bricks, metal, glass,
littered corners, a sleepless hum of cars”

But as if to alleviate the sense of monotonous repetition in this outlook “there was, to make me smile”

“a single slender tree, a birch,
its branches close enough
if I stretched beyond the sill
to touch.”

That past tense of “was” casts its own shadow over the following lines and the poem moves inexorably towards a conclusion which possesses a sense of inevitability:

“One day, I came home and found it gone.
Sawdust and twigs, ignored discards,
and the hacked stump, a raw full stop
of life cut short.”

The “hack and rack” of “growing green” which asserts a sense of human responsibility in Hopkins’s ‘Binsey Poplars’ (‘felled 1879’) is felt here and the loss projects itself into a future in which the poet wonders how she could tell her children’s children “that once there were trees”.
To plant a tree is an act of faith and Peter Carpenter’s poem, ‘Tree in the Garden’, records the planting of an alder which his wife had brought back from a local shop some ten years ago. The tree has “come on / from a stave sheathed in cellophane / to something with a trunk the girth / of a telegraph pole…”. Now, next to the London Road it

“…gives its pick
and mix shadows, like Pisarro in Norwood.”

A palimpsest nature of the past glimpses at the viewer of Pisarro’s early gouache sketch of ‘The Avenue, Sydenham’, 1871. That sketch was made as an early study for the oil painting which hangs in the National Gallery and it reveals a female figure whose “pentimenti could be seen / still on the gravel, advancing towards me, / as a darker stain” (Peter Robinson, ‘Lawrie Park Avenue’ published by Shearsman Books in The Returning Sky, 2012) Robinson’s poem makes us aware of a stillness residing in a frame as an erased past shadows forth into the stillness of the poem’s present before concluding:

But lacking such things to do with the past,
like this figure he had painted out
who fills the air with an indelible stain,
there’d be no possibilities.

They thicken into leaf, his flanking trees.

Look, now, it’s as plain as plain.

Peter Robinson’s contribution to this new Worple anthology takes its title from Heidegger’s late work Die Holzwege (Off the Beaten Track) and it concludes with the line

“and how the tree survives on trust!”

This echoes perhaps a line from Heidegger’s essay ‘Why Poets?’ from off that beaten track:

“Mortals keep closer to absence (if we think of their essence) because they are concerned by presence, the name of being since antiquity.”

Ian Brinton, 13th December 2017, St Lucy’s Day.

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What Possessed Me by John Freeman (Worple Press)

What Possessed Me by John Freeman (Worple Press)

When I wrote about John Freeman’s work in my book last year about Dulwich College poets, Infinite Riches, I focused upon the strong influence of the post-war American poets. In an interview the poet had given to Gavin Goodwin (published in Tears in the Fence 59, 2014) he spoke eloquently about what had been his early reading:

“I’ve always been interested in the border country between speech, poetry, prose and verse; and since Whitman, Pater and the French symboliste poets there has been a great deal going on in this zone. But it’s much older than that, really. In my teens I lived close to the Old Vic in the years when it performed all Shakespeare’s plays, of which I saw a good few. The prose spoken by Hamlet and Falstaff thrilled me as much as the verse. Everyone knows, as Ted Hughes said, that the prose of the King James Bible, some of which I heard read out at school, contains some of our greatest poetry. Studying modern languages and having personal connections with France, I came across the prose poems of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and others. The exciting modern practitioners for me were William Carlos Williams and some contemporary British poets who were open to American influences, including John Riley and Jim Burns. I discovered Williams’s late verse in my gap year by taking a volume at random from a bookshop shelf, Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, and finding ‘Asphodel, that greeny flower’. From there I proceeded within a year or two to the prose poetry in Kora in Hell and Spring and All. What is liberating about Spring and All is the way prose and verse alternate, as they do in [John] Riley’s prose Pieces, and the rapid transitions within the prose, which allow for a condensed thinking on the page with the dutiful connective passages left out.”

The collection from Worple Press, What Possessed Me, reveals those influences threaded throughout a remarkable volume of honest and engaging writing. However, there is also another voice which can be heard firmly reiterating “endlessly / What no man learnt yet, in or out of school”: the reflective tones of a man who took Shakespeare’s Sonnets to war with him in 1917. Edward Thomas’s influence on Freeman’s work strikes me from the very opening poem, ‘Me and the Gatepost’:

“On the front of the gate are three numerals
in hard plastic, the colour of clotted cream,
with screw-heads aureoled in rust.”

Although of course we can hear the voice of Carlos Williams in these words distinct in terms of precision and colours we can also hear that quiet tone, that exactness which is a hallmark of Thomas’s work: this is language as painting and the next four lines of brush-work move us forward:

“……………The post leans
as if exhausted, while its thickness tapers
to the shape of a pitched roof, bleached, pale grey.
On the slant surfaces ravines have opened,
a wave of wood, a wave of shadow.”

As if peering through the immediate, the surface of the canvas, the poet’s mind is opened to the subtlety of memory and loss as he thinks

“…of the lavender, grey and blue,
growing to a sturdy hedge with gnarled stocks,
and the yellow privet by the other gate,
past which we push our bikes to the back yard.”

The placing of the word “growing” at the beginning of the line echoes Thomas’s own hymn to the artemesia, “Old Man, or Lad’s-Love”, where the poet shows us the “hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree,”

“Growing with rosemary and lavender.”

But the influence of Thomas is much more than this wistful reminiscence and the poem I am most reminded of is the first one Thomas wrote, ‘Up in the Wind’. John Freeman introduces a note of mundanity, a sense of exact recall in the portrait of his mother which rises to memory’s surface:

“Its fascination is unconnected
with my mother’s vigorous red arm
and its pointed funny bone, the funnier
for the spread thickness of the muscled flesh
surrounding it, resting on top of the gate.”

The publican’s daughter at The White Horse in Froxfield also possesses a physical sense of reality as

“Her eyes flashed up; she shook her hair away
From eyes and mouth, as if to shriek again;
Then sighed back to her scrubbing.”

The mother in Freeman’s poem is leaning on the gatepost talking with a reliable monotony and the poet’s recollection of a long-gone past has “nothing to do, I’m sure, with her voice, / going on and on, talking not to me, / luckily, but to a passing neighbour…”. In Thomas’s poem the daughter who draws the ale repeats what must have been told time and time again:

“…Here I was born,
And I’ve a notion on these windy nights
Here I shall die. Perhaps I want to die here.
I reckon I shall stay. But I do wish
The road was nearer and the wind farther off,
Or once now and then quite still”.

The words F.R. Leavis wrote some eighty-five years ago about the poetry of Edward Thomas hold true today and reading John Freeman’s quiet awareness of the importance of moments, glances, brush-strokes, I am reminded of them:

“A characteristic poem of his has the air of being a random jotting down of
chance impressions and sensations, the record of a moment of relaxed and
undirected consciousness. The diction and movement are those of quiet, ruminative speech. But the unobtrusive signs accumulate, and finally one is aware that the outward scene is accessory to an inner theatre.”

It is no mere chance that this book by John Freeman was awarded the Roland Matthias Poetry Award at the recent Wales Book of the Year Awards. I urge readers to contact Worple Press and get a copy NOW.

Ian Brinton, 12th December 2017

Ditch Vision: essays on poetry, nature and place by Jeremy Hooker (Awen)

Ditch Vision: essays on poetry, nature and place by Jeremy Hooker (Awen)

In the first essay of this remarkably wide-ranging book Jeremy Hooker refers to examining an entire life of a district. He looks at Gilbert White’s consideration of the “human (including antiquities) and nature where he found them, side by side; he did not need to go beyond the bounds of his parish to find the fullness of nature”. Hooker is looking at the idea of what might be contained in the word wilderness and recognises that there has been none in the British Isles since the Middle Ages:

“…even in the sense of the word given by Dr Johnson in his Dictionary (‘a desert; a tract of solitude and strangeness’), wilderness is nowhere to be found upon an American scale in these islands.”

I was tempted here to recall a passage from the ‘Anoch’ section of Johnson’s Journey to the Western Isles where the urban figure from the world of London finds himself sitting on a blasted heath and, in the words of the fine Shakespearean scholar, Wilbur Sanders, seems to find the sort of subversive drag upon his humane habitations as shook Macbeth’s footing so drastically:

“We were in this place at ease and by choice, and had no evils to suffer or to fear; yet the imaginations excited by the view of an unknown and untravelled wilderness are not such as arise in the artificial solitude of parks and gardens, a flattering notion of self-sufficiency, a placid indulgence of voluntary delusions, a secure expansion of the fancy, or a cool concentration of the mental powers. The phantoms which haunt a desert are want, and misery, and danger; the evils of dereliction rush upon the thoughts; man is made unwillingly acquainted with his own weakness, and meditation shews him only how little he can sustain, and how little he can perform.”

As Hooker suggests to us, the “wild…is not determined by the presence of wild beasts” and a focused scrutiny of our own immediate world can awaken in us an awareness of the non-human.
On a cold, bright East Suffolk afternoon, 12th February 2011, a number of people congregated in At. Andrew’s Church, Bramfield, for a memorial service following the death of R.F. Langley. Langley’s old friend from the Cambridge world of the 1950s, Jeremy Prynne, gave an address in which he was admirably clear about the importance of ditch vision:

“[For Roger] the smallest things were absolutely everything – if you knew the difference between a martin and a swift you knew everything – not just something – you knew the whole universal truth of things if you knew one thing deeply and exactly and carefully. What this means is that Roger’s special signature of stillness and silence were marks of the profoundest spiritual intensity.”

This is of course the quiet focus that Langley comments on in his interview with R.F. Walker (Don’t Start Me Talking, ed. Tim Allen & Andrew Duncan, Salt, 2006) when he refers to standing under a tree for an hour and a half having walked out of the village at dusk:

“And it just occurred to me that I ought to stand without moving at all for that length of time and see what happened. Not even turning my head. A lot of rabbits came up and sat on my feet. And moths whipping about within inches of me. A feeling that you might get through to what was really there if you stripped off enough…if you stand absolutely still, then you might not be part of any map at all. You ‘see’ the place when you haven’t got any designs on it…”

In October 2010 I remember writing to Langley about his early poem ‘Matthew Glover’ and at the end of that month he wrote back:

“The pleasure lay in writing about the little willow tree I knew and how it blew in the wind, the willow warblers I had watched in the bushes at dusk on the border of the parish. Nothing so personally particular in Olson. I would guess my deepest feelings have always been for Coleridge’s Conversation Poems, the Lime Tree Bower, the shock which begins where the particular strikes, beyond any general concepts, geographical, historical or whatever. The movement of the leaves as they are shaken in that particular little cutting by the water of the stream stirring the air around them, not even worrying too much about ideas of the One Life for instance.”

One of the most powerful things about Jeremy Hooker’s new book of essays is precisely that awareness of where the particular strikes; this is ditch vision. Given this concern it is of course entirely appropriate that the second essay should be about Richard Jefferies and it opens with a quotation from ‘Hours of Spring’:

“The commonest pebble, dusty and marked with the stain of the ground, seems to me so wonderful; my mind works round it till it becomes the sun and centre of a system of thought and feeling.”

When I opened this short review with a reference to the wide-ranging scope of Hooker’s new collection I was thinking about the quiet intelligence he brings to bear upon the poetry of George Oppen, Charles Olson and Lorine Niedecker as well as his passionate understanding of the work of John Cowper Powys. In ‘Notes on Poetic Vision’ he quotes a short poem by John Riley, possibly the last lines that the Leeds poet wrote before his murder in 1978:

“at the boundary of mind’s reach
at the edge of heart’s sensing
violence of colour
and the wind rising”

The last work of Riley’s that was published as a book was his translation of Osip Mandelstam’s ‘Second Voronezh Notebook’ (Rigmarole of the Hours, Melbourne, 1979) and with that in mind I want to conclude with a quotation from Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs of her husband:

Attention to detail, he noted in one of his rough drafts, is the virtue of the lyric poet. Carelessness and sloppiness are the devices of lyrical sloth.”

Read Jeremy Hooker’s new collection of essays for an understanding what that attention to detail can really signify.

Ian Brinton, 4th December 2017

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