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Monthly Archives: July 2020

Keeping in touch, virtually: two publications from the time of distancing

Keeping in touch, virtually: two publications from the time of distancing

Untitled, 2020, (The London Magazine: edited by Matthew Scott and available from Lucy Binnersley at the magazine’s headquarters at 11 Queen’s Gate, London, SW7 5EL)

Quarantine, (Muscaliet Press: edited by Moyra Tourlamain and available on the Press’s website at https://www.muscaliet.co.uk/the-quarantine-notebooks/)

Dated June this year Matthew Scott’s Preface to The London Magazine’s powerful collection of writings arising out of the Covid-19 lock-down opens with a quotation from Samuel Beckett: ‘a mind like the one I always had, always on the alert against itself’. That use of the word ‘alert’ places the importance of what will follow in a very particular time-frame:

‘To be alert to complacencies of thought is surely a good thing but Beckett’s phrase also seems to imply a mind at work against its own well-being. In my case, that quality of the mind working against itself has been a mark of this difficult period; clarity of thought becoming clouded by an oppressive form of uncertainty even more quickly than usual. This surely comes from being without many of the accustomed means to escape the narrow confines of the individual consciousness when it feels cooped up.’

Feeling ‘cooped up’ raises interesting issues about imprisonment and one aspect of the last few months has been the manner in which time seems to change. In ‘Faraway Close’, a title in which contradictories bump into each other, Elleke Boehmer writes about how, as one lockdown day follows another, time passes but ‘lacks texture’:

‘One week on, it is difficult to remember what we did last Monday or Tuesday’.

The Oxford Professor of World Literature proceeds to focus upon how lockdown ‘has made the idea of distant proximity immediate and present in ways I could not have anticipated’ and suggests that ‘we needed a new vocabulary for talking about being remote together, an oxymoronic lexicon for feeling each other across distance, for thinking as one across the miles, faraway but close’. The merging of distance and nearness must be ever present in the mind of the prisoner and Xavier de Maistre’s 1794 undertaking of a forty-two days’ journey around his room when he was under arrest in Turin is a disturbingly contemporary insight into the world of virtual reality:

‘I have undertaken and performed a forty-two days’ journey round my room. The interesting observations I have made, and the constant pleasure I have experienced all along the road, made me wish to publish my travels.’

The prisoner here delights in ‘being able thus to expand the soul’s existence’ in a way that might remind one of the world of Dickens’s Little Dorrit which is referred to Quarantine 6 as the wife of Plornish the plasterer creates her fictional reality by means of the decoration of her living room: she paints the outside of a thatched country cottage on the inside of her cramped walls in Bleeding Heart Yard near Clerkenwell. 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’: pictures can encourage the mind to escape from the narrow confines of physical space. However, whereas the uplifting sentimentality of a film such as The Shawshank Redemption which offers us full-length photographs of film stars acting as cover for a literal passage to freedom, what is remarkably moving about Untitled, 2020 is its quiet understanding of a more mundane and convincingly real human predicament. Matthew Scott’s Preface points out that we cannot all be like de Maistre (nor Mrs. Plornish) and the ‘pleasures of domesticity and the consolations of the ordinary are at least in part granted by our capacity to escape them from time to time.’
Peter Robinson’s contribution to The London Magazine’s collection involves both reminiscence and shrewd awareness. He vividly recalls for us his years involved with teaching in Japan and of living in Parma and ‘Parmese Days’ echoes Matthew Scott’s thoughts about the need for life outside confinement:

‘During the last few weeks, I have heard some writers say, whether on the radio or privately, that this lockdown has not radically disrupted their necessarily withdrawn working-from-home lives’.

As Robinson points out this is mostly not true for him since so much of his work for about nine months of the year ‘would normally include face-to-face meetings with colleagues and students’. For Simon Smith in Quarantine 9 (24th May)

‘it is evening
me tight up on the microphone & microscope
intent on the details
unseen to the eye
& the covenant that part
to inhabit the space between perimeter fence & watchtower’

whereas Suzi Feay writes a piece in Untitled, 2020 which strikes a convincingly understated awareness of these times as she notes that ‘when there’s nothing happening out there, occurrences in here loom larger’:

‘My subconscious, desperate for input, now goes into overdrive at night, instantly processing the skimpy contents of the day into dreams.’

And again Moyra Tourlamain’s poem ‘Lockdown let loose’ in Quarantine 10 brings into focus how

‘This bit’s pulling all the stops
Out of mind, heart
Skull and bones the next
Best foot forward to stay
In the same place.’

Ian Brinton 26th July 2020

We Were Not There by Jordi Doce Translated by Lawrence Schimel (Shearsman Books)

We Were Not There by Jordi Doce Translated by Lawrence Schimel (Shearsman Books)

When Jordi Doce considered the poems of Charles Tomlinson for an Agenda International Issue some twenty-five years ago he noted the voice behind the poems as being ‘wholly unique in its ambition’ before going on to say that the English poet’s ambition and ability was ‘to match and express preoccupations which have remained largely consistent through the years, always expanding and expounding themselves through the workings of an alert, intelligent mind.’ Let me be bold enough to say that similar words may be used about the Spanish poet who wrote that and suggest that his volume We Were Not There, published last year by Shearsman Books , plots an ambitious journey of discovery in which we are challenged to examine not only our changing world but also those senses ‘the air interrogated questioned by a blank page’ (‘Guest’).

The blank page offers an invitation to the writer to pursue a horizon of discovery as in ‘Exploration’:

‘To go there where no one has ever been.
The place of all places, they said.
A fire burned me from within and there was no respite.
Wastelands, wandering clouds, some trees.
I kept on traveling toward my own borders.’

As William Blake’s Infernal Proverb had put it ‘No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings’ and to travel towards one’s own borders suggests a journey that has no predetermined conclusion. Journeys begin with the opening of doors but anticipation is more like an imaginative fiction, a glance through the glass, and as Louis Zukofsky put it ‘To see is to inform all speech’. Doce’s ‘Fiction’ opens with sight:

‘I didn’t want to open the door
nor for it to open before me:

the keyhole was all I needed
to pass through to the other side

and see the house where time
was buzzing in the kitchen

and we heard, in the distance,
the sea’s obstinacy,

the obedient crunch of the sand –’

One of the most striking elements of this collection of poems is that feeling of collaborative concern, that awareness of commonality, the record of experiences that permits us to recognise our common humanity. Doce brings into focus ‘Then’, that awareness that ‘When the world became the world / the light shone like always / upon an indifferent clock’. That world possessed an air that ‘was full of beginnings’:

‘and a thousand times in a thousand different streets
someone tripped on a stone
and this stone opened their eyes;
it was the moment we all waited for
to make the same decisions,
to again kiss the same ground,
to say the goodbyes of the day before;
and that beloved everyday face
that pretended to listen
or invited a distracted caress
once again pulled away too soon.’

Writing about Tomlinson, Jordi Doce quoted the English poet as explaining in an interview with a Spanish newspaper that ‘Europe has been built by its poets, and not by its politicians. Homer, Dante, Rilke have done more for Europe than all bureaucratic dispositions and governments.’ It seems entirely appropriate that Doce’s own ‘Una página, un jardin’ (‘A Page, A Garden’) should have as epigraph Tomlinson’s own lines:

‘A sudden blossoming of each character,
Of living letters, sprung from nowhere…’

The movement from Spanish to French in the title of Doce’s poem is given gentle force as we then read that ‘You step upon the humble tiles / and another floor gives way, neither here nor there, between two worlds that intermingle / at the tips of the toes.’

It is those toe-tips that set out on the journey in a manner not dissimilar to the way a pen’s mark on a page commences a new determination and Doce’s use of an extract from Goethe’s Diaries as an epigraph to his volume alerts the reader to the connections between movement and stillness: in a world of restricted journeying we are NOW and in a world of LOCK-DOWN we are aware of liberty:

‘Now that half of my life has passed I find that I have made but little progress, and I stand here like one who has barely escaped drowning and who is drying himself in the grateful rays of the sun’
J.W. Goethe, 1779

Ian Brinton 18th July 2020

Happenstance by Duncan MacKay (Muscaliet Press)

Happenstance by Duncan MacKay (Muscaliet Press)

In writing about Eleanor Perry’s ‘Pataquerical Imagination’ in issue 70 of Tears in the Fence last autumn Duncan MacKay suggested that close reading and close listening ‘function in tandem’ and that they are indeed the ‘two complementary poles of our experiential poetic whole’. That wholeness of response rings out of the pages of Muscaliet Press’s new selection of MacKay’s poems, Happenstance, and as we read the poem ‘HER WORDS HIS’ we recognise a quality of poetic response to ‘displacements of faulty memory’ where ‘in transposition we refigure the word’. In terms of that refiguring it is interesting to note how MacKay’s interest in the poetics of J.H. Prynne had led him to quote from an interview given in 2011 in which the Cambridge poet spoke of the difficulties of translating his own work at the time of the publication of a bilingual English-Chinese edition of his selected poems. MacKay’s quotation comes from his article on Prynne’s Kazoo Dreamboats which appeared in Tears 65. Prynne had suggested that for the English Poetry Studies Institute in Guangzhou there might be some focus upon how to translate the words of the poems, ‘their activity of language, rather than to resolve what might seem to be the question of meaning and then to render the meaning of the resulting interpretation’. MacKay’s interest in Prynne’s poetry might also be detected in his own earlier collection of poems, Briefly Speaking (Blurb, March 2015) where in ‘A Poetry of Logical Ideas’

‘All now seemed
possible, making
connections, rather than
a stop
& start, but by
putting a twist
in &
letting go.’

In Happenstance there is a careful precision of language and it comes as no surprise that one poem should bear an epigraph from Leo Tolstoy: ‘It’s in the linkages’. ‘HER WORDS HIS’ is the poem preceding this reference and the echoes and melodies in it are worth pausing for:

‘Few we are & fall from each other’

The hint of loss in that word ‘fall’ is partly to do with the source of the phrase in Thomas Nashe’s ‘Litany in Time of Plague’ where ‘Brightness falls from the air’ but is also heard in the shift of vowels from ‘few’ to ‘fall’: a sound which precedes a hint of the loss of social being with the inclusion of the last three words. That opening line is followed by an indented phrase the appearance of which on the page defines its own visible presence:

‘dust on the shelf as dust’

Dust is not only a word associated with the permanence of loss as in a funeral service but remains as a reminder of what is produced in stillness and this quiet emphasis is taken up in the third line

‘among the self-effacing typed scraps photos black & white’

And this world of visual re-creation, like tears shed by Leontes at a tomb’s side, echoes again that late play by Shakespeare in which ‘who that was lost is now found’. MacKay’s interest in A Winter’s Tale is here an echo of the poem of that title which appeared towards the close of the earlier volume of poems where

‘As time drew on as I do
of each the light of stars
as rain of snow, those moments
just but always turning as of words’ [.]

Happenstance is a beautifully produced volume which I urge readers to buy and it is worth bearing in mind the words used by Robert Hampson on the inside cover:

‘A sustained exploration of writing as an enactment of cognition; perception through the materiality of language.’

The phrase used here anticipates MacKay’s forthcoming book on George Oppen’s poetry which will appear from Liverpool University Press. Oppen like Prynne is a figure in the shadowed background of Happenstance and ‘George & Mary answered for one another’ finishing sentences ‘the other had begun’ before occasionally speaking ‘the same words in unison’.

Ian Brinton 15th July 2020

Shop Talk: Poems for Shop Workers by Tanner (Penniless Press)

Shop Talk: Poems for Shop Workers by Tanner (Penniless Press)

Since the mid-2000s, Tanner (the ‘Paul’ was dropped in about 2009) has been publishing interesting, distinctive work in The Crazy Oik, Monkey Kettle, Penniless Press, Pulsar, The Recusant and elsewhere, as well as satirical cartoons and a novel. The earlier collections include graphics and prose heavy on bodily fluids and youthful opinion, but among them are poems that shine in their energy, wit and fast-paced depictions of bus-stop-level life ‘in the autumn of our country’ in Birkenhead and Preston. This latest collection has identified the strongest stuff and honed it well. The settings are a series of supermarkets and minimarkets, and the perspective is of a low-paid shelf-stacker/ till-attendant. The management are a pain,

they’d keep you behind, unpaid
for 15 minutes a night
just because they could,

but the customers are far worse. They queue-jump, moan, spit, make personal comments, demand unreasonable discounts or refunds, and are consistently abusive and occasionally violent. Their kids, meanwhile, trash the store. The shopworker gets riled, and can’t resist reacting with demurral, wisecracks or mere candour, and after comic and sometimes hair-raising escalations, ends up being warned, sacked or even assaulted ‒ or simply walks out. The pattern repeats with variations in the manner of a comic-strip or sitcom series: he’s back on the dole, then into another dead-end job, and up comes another snotty punter… The poems themselves set up each drama and conflict fast. Their line-breaks and cadences are functionally perfect. They zip along, low on pretension, fuss and adjective count:

She told me
her and her daughter
were going to wait outside the shop
after closing
and stab me

she even showed me the knife:

More impressive still, they build cumulatively into a disquieting picture of what post-community consumerism is doing to our sense of decent behaviour. Tanner’s particular focus is what it does to the poorest, who can treat shopworkers as one of the few groups they can successfully bully. And how, in turn, the resentment of such workers towards the non-working plays into the hands of the Right. Tanner’s character isn’t going to join a union, take up an Open University course, turn to crime or even go into a different line of work. Shop experience is all he has – along with (less commonly) the compensation of writing:

I could have told him
he was going the right way about
ending up in a poem

and the possibility of even that let-out veering, via the Orwellian, towards the traditions of Knut Hamsun and Céline. (The last poem, consolingly, does suggest a nascent solidarity.) At any rate, with both narrator and creator now well into their thirties, the comedy, I imagine, will continue getting wryer and bleaker:

they tell me
none of us is immortal
but sometimes working in retail
feels life-threateningly close to it.

The book’s back cover quotes fake reviewers carping about it in the same petulant, bad-tempered manner as the supermarket shoppers. Not this one, though: who thinks it’s a fresh, original, eye-opening and powerfully written collection; who’s a very happy customer.

Guy Russell 6th July 2020

This Small Patch by Tom Kelly (Red Squirrel Press)

This Small Patch by Tom Kelly (Red Squirrel Press)

Born in Jarrow, working at sixteen in the Merchant Dry Dock and still living not far away, Tom Kelly has been producing plays, music and film lyrics, short stories and poems for over thirty years in his native North-East. His lifetime’s knowledge of his locality continues, as the title here signals, to be his major source of subject-matter. This collection ‒ his eighth from Red Squirrel in the last twelve years, not forgetting earlier ones from KT, Here Now, Smokestack, and (long ago) Tears in the Fence ‒ also contains song lyrics, speeches from the 1930s Jarrow Crusade, and explanatory prose commentaries. The lyrics lose something on their own, as lyrics generally do, but it’s worth checking the Men of the Tyne songs on the CD, and the documentary on YouTube, where they come into glorious full effect. Of the poems, there’s none here as brilliant as the earlier, savage ‘The Wrong Jarrow’ and no line as arresting as ‘‘No’ is the password, stamped on their hopes’ with its terrific repurposing of ‘password’. Nonetheless the majority preserve a solid style and feel across time: the present historic, the asyndeton, the low-key language and deferred epiphany. Sometimes Kelly’s poems appear to stop before they’ve got going. Sometimes they feel like notes. Moments of pure lyricism are sparse, like moments of joy:

The film’s something celestial
fallen into our laps,

More often, ‘fine phrasing’ gets cut with grim bathos:

Tears hold their own in the corners of her eyes
wishing they could be used in the pawn shop.

Admittedly, it’s not the most rewarding style if you’re in search of linguistic fireworks and metatextual car-chases. Other writers identifying with the skilled working class ‒ Tony Harrison or Andy Croft, say ‒ forge arabesques of wordplay alongside precise rhyming in difficult formalisms to enact toil and struggle and craftsmanship. But perhaps Kelly’s offers an equally authentic way to approach the mental universes of these industrial lives of outward good-fellowship but constricted emotional display, whose laconic narrators resist at all costs the flashy, long-worded or bombastic, and retreat into collocation or summary at the moment of truth:

There’s just a great gap of love
you endured
and my gaping wound.

Certainly, the poems sent me away to investigate Tyneside history: from Bede, whose monastery was in Jarrow, through England’s last gibbeting, the abrupt end of shipbuilding in 1933 and the unspeakable deprivation that led to the march to London; the post-war recovery, and then the early-Eighties destruction. All of these are touched upon and intermixed with family histories and 1950s childhood memories in a nice counterpointing of the social and personal. The concluding section returns to the present, memorialising the decline of Working Men’s Clubs – a topic entirely new to poetry? – alongside family elegies and scary portrayals of the erosion of personal memory. The overall effect, though, remains uplifting: this is poetry as archaeology and conservation, an exegi monumentum not to the poet himself but to the community he’s part of, and all the better for that.

Guy Russell 2nd July 2020

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