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Monthly Archives: October 2021

Within the Inscribed: Selected Prose and Conversations by Michael Heller (Shearsman Books)

Within the Inscribed: Selected Prose and Conversations by Michael Heller (Shearsman Books)

This is, it must be said, a deeply intelligent and thoughtful book, of what are interviews and essays. This comes very late for Michael Heller (b1937) who has already behind him a copious collected poems This Constellation is a Name and a number of significant prose volumes, including a much admired study of the Objectivist poets Conviction’s Net of Branches (1985)This comes some years after a significant volume from Salt, Uncertain Poetries (2005). There are insights to be gleaned here not only on Heller’s writing but on poetics and practice more generally.

A full appreciation of what is going on here might very well spur further essays. So in that sense this short review is bound to seem a little superficial. The book is in three parts, one more general, one geared to specific readings and a concluding ‘Coda’ of just three articles. 

It is doubtless relevant and pertinent to note that Heller’s predominant influences have been George Oppen and Walter Benjamin, with whose work he has sustained a lasting relation (p117) and there was an Oppen correspondence. The book, regrettably, has no index but there is a bibliography of works cited, some six pages.

There is almost an unspelled out theory of poetic composition here, almost an ars poetica, but it is not stressed or emphasised, and we have reference to such notions as revelation and clarity, as well as the void, which language might ‘cover’ with some nods to Heidegger, in ‘revealments and concealments’ (p189). This is plainly not far from the notion of authenticity if not exactness. There is also Heller’s late encounter with Buddhism, something he shares for instance with Ginsberg. The notion of ‘now time’ is also picked up from Benjamin.

The book itself has a wonderfully perplexing epigraph from critic Geoffrey Hartman,- ‘the sacred has so inscribed itself in language that while it must be interpreted, it cannot be removed’. This suggests of course that interpretation can be a kind of usurpation or adaptation. Yet this intrinsic core of the sacred remains, although Heller, to his credit, does not harp on about this.

So in that sense, the first part is about poetics generally, and the second offers specific readings, of Oppen, another leading Objectivist Reznikoff, HD (her ‘Helen in Egypt’), Robert Duncan and Norman Finkelstein. Memorably Duncan asserts that he is waging poetry, not war. There does seem also to be an awareness of Harold Bloom’s notion of the literary agon. For Heller his engagement with Oppen seems to have been quite critical. Heller’s implication in secular Judaism cannot equally be discounted. 

For better or worse, Heller’s main engagement has been with the Objectivists and of course also Benjamin. He writes insightfully also about Pound and HD. Olson is mentioned only briefly, and there is certainly an awareness of Whitman as well as Ginsberg. Also the Oppen connection in which Heller was imbricated was personal. Heller may be very interested in the methodology of poetry but he is not trying particularly to sketch out any larger historical development.

Poetry as Heller asserts is ‘an articulation of that which was inarticulate’ (p45). He then discusses the ‘desanctification’ of Whitman and how this must be ‘re-examined in the light of present circumstances’, before going on to discuss some Buddhist possible extrapolations, whose foremost exponent might be Ginsberg. Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, might be seen to be reaching out to the West, in a way for instance that Hinduism does not.

And there is more besides;- Heller is very aware of Judaic thought for instance, and how this must relate to contemporary poetics. He speaks of a tendency to ‘turn the Torah of Israel from a source of authority to a source for inspiration’ (p59), of converting Law into lore. One might cover ‘the underlying void and expose it at the same time’ (p61). This he says leads to Oppen’s ‘speaking the estranged’. (p62) Citing the poet Bialik he asserts ‘between concealments, the void looms’ (p64); and he continues that ‘between a perfunctory use of language and a language of the mysteries’ ‘are at the heart of the sacred text’ (p65). 

There is an interesting engagement with Leiris, where we find commentary on ‘the refusals of the confessional writer to indulge’ in a more palatable artifice (p73), described in terms of ‘adherence to the rules of the game’. And, actually this is a signal characteristic of Oppen and the Objectivists that they tend to be disinclined towards confessionalism, introspection and subjectivity which are then bound up with purported solipsism or narcissism. 

Given that, the presentation of lyricism here is penetrating and thorough, as well as effectively honed. There is of course nary a hint of Lowell, say, and one feels that this is a work of communal engagement, not the solitary or personal insight. Given that, the sophistication of argument is high, and just about all the poets cited well worth the attention and effort. I would maintain then that this is criticism and comment of a high degree. But of course Heller is not discussing the ‘New Americans’ but the ‘Objectivists’ and their legacy. Yet given this process of constraint there is much here to stir a quite delving creative interest if not some soul searching.  

Clark Allison 10th October 2021

Forms of Exile: Selected Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva Translated by Belinda Cooke (The High Window Press)

Forms of Exile: Selected Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva Translated by Belinda Cooke (The High Window Press)

Marina Tsvetaeva is one of those poets whose biography (privilege, revolution, poverty, exile, return, suicide) tends to generate more word-count than their work. Presumably that’s not merely because of her life’s drama and passion, and because the distance between the lived and written personae appears so small, but because the work is so difficult. Nonetheless, translators do love a challenge and there are nowadays plenty of options in English – Feinstein, Alvi/Krasnova, White, Whyte, Naydam/Yastremski, Kneller, Kossman, McDuff, just for starters – giving us Tsvetaeva’s who are fatalist, formalist, bourgeois, Orthodox, faithless, feminist, tsarist, unstable, ironic, bisexual, cool, or all of these. As for this book, most of the translations in its second half – from After Russia and the Thirties – are already available in Belinda Cooke’s praised 2008 selection from Worple Press with only minor amendments here. (And many of those look like typos, of which this book has rather a few.) The new ones come from 1917-8 and the early Twenties. This means we get less of the joyously passionate Tsvetaeva and more of the grief, anger and despair:

O, from the open drop

to fall below – to become dust and jet-black.

This Tsvetaeva often has a contemporary demotic feel (‘I’ve had it with obsessing’), though she can equally (‘That which is called death’) be grammatically traditionalist. Like most of her anglophone incarnations, she’s cut down on the abundant exclamation marks, so that for example, ‘– увы!’ (lit: alas!) becomes the much more English ‘Sadly, […]’. Some insistent anaphora is also softened, lines are occasionally moved about, and there’s no attempt to imitate the original’s rhyme-schemes. Visually, these versions (mostly) preserve stanza-lengths and indentations but indulge greater variance in the line-lengths. They also keep many of the dashes and ellipses attendant on Tsvetaeva’s compulsive aposiopesis, but don’t fetishize doing so; so that this, for instance (to a now far-distant Pasternak):

Не рассорили — рассорили,
Расслоили…

(lit: not fallen out — fallen out,/ stratified…)

becomes

they didn’t make us quarrel 

  but they dropped us like litter,

they lay us apart, put us in separate layers of cake,

The repeated ‘they’s replace the original ‘ras-’ head-rhymes. The liquids and sibilants are reordered but still detectable. And the translation explicates (or interprets) the concisions, albeit at some length. As a good Modernist, Tsvetaeva gives the underinformed reader no quarter, so it’s similarly useful to have, for instance, ‘the Twelve Apostles’ glossed as ‘Prague’s/ […] clock of the Twelve Apostles’. Often, however, the sonics are quite untranslatable. ‘Poem of the Mountain’ relies on the ‘gor-’ head-rhymes in the Russian words for ‘mountain’ and ‘grief’/’grieved’, and subsequently for ‘city’, ‘hump’, ‘spoke’, ‘Gordian knot’ and so on, so that the speaker like a weighed-down Atlas keeps emitting ‘gor’s as groan-sounds themselves. Feinstein tried ‘the mountain mourned’, but are those ‘m’s just too soothing a noise? Cooke, whether sensibly or despairingly, just doesn’t go there. 

Plenty remains, in whatever event, for the British reader to enjoy (or ‘enjoy’). This is a book packed with love and death, Classical and Biblical allusion, poems about how important poets are (we all like those), monologues on the model of the Heroides, lips, sin, the ‘milky call’ of the Russian language, ‘roses of blood’, ‘God in a brothel’ and ‘this most fairytale of orphanhoods’. What more do we ask of the world’s famous poets?

Guy Russell 8th October 2021

Kelptown by Carol Watts (Shearsman Books)

Kelptown by Carol Watts (Shearsman Books)

Kemptown in Brighton is the point of departure for Kelptown, in which Carol Watts studies and investigates the effects of what we have lost because of global warming, a change in climate conditions and the consequent lack of connections with nature. The language of the poems has a fragmented quality that is emphasised by deliberately hallucinatory links that express the dire situation we are experiencing today. The picture of the spinach leaf with beating blood cells on the cover of the book symbolises this connection between human and nature that should be re-established to revitalise our world in a more hopeful vision.

     The collection is divided into four parts that trace a journey from observation and witnessing and apocalyptic descriptions of a world drowning in rising tides and burning forest fires to possible alternatives of ‘DeExtinction’ and community projects. This is not only a way to take care of the environment but also a practice that merges human and natural worlds in an empathy that might guarantee life to future generations. This serious vision needs urgent solutions, as Greta Thunberg remarks in her speeches collected in her book, No One is Too Small to Make a Difference. We seem to be blind to nature, and putting it first again might be the solution to environmental threats, as botanists and biology educators such as Susanna Grant, James Wandersee, Elisabeth Schussler and Dennis Martinez state. The relationship with nature that the poet describes aims for the level of equality that existed in the primordial indigenous world. As Rachel Carson observes in Man’s War Against Nature, published in 1962, the idyllic fruitful countryside suddenly changed: ‘mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens, and the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was the shadow of death.’ What Carson described in her book were the effects of chemical pollution, but a more lasting and durable process is exposed and explored in Watts’s poems. Since the 1960s the situation involving global warming, sea and air pollution and the waste production of the so-called civilised world has grown and worsened, causing the opposing calamities of floods and fires.

     In Watts’s poems, death looms; it ‘crowns this day […] catastrophes approach’ and are out of our control. Loss is at the heart of this situation and we need to re-enter our community and accept mutations to envisage possible alternatives:

ghost pulse    miniature scale

warning glitch    grief penumbra

airborne    a dream of fireflies

lost to colder climates

extinguishings at dusk    ash lit

border crossing    nocturnal

(‘Disappearances’)

     The fragmented discourses of Watts’s lines emphasise this absence, a loss we need to bridge to reach the DeExtinction she analyses in the last section of the collection. Her poems are in various forms and include personal artwork (for example, T.R.E.E., Total Rare Earth Elements) such as sketches, photos and responses to music, such as ‘Life Scores’, which was created in collaboration with the composer Dave Maric. 

This enriching collection has a complex, wide range of references that also include writers such as Emily Dickinson, Ovid, Pablo Neruda, William Blake and Andrew Marvell, and yet it addresses the major issues of today’s society in a simple way. The poet suggests that this time of loss can be a time of witnessing and exploration, an opportunity to search for and reach the essence of our being. The different moments are caught and described in their shifting temporality, in their minimal simplicity; they form revitalised life in the kelp forest that, like a reef, protects our shores, or in the rocks, trees, wildflowers and plants thriving in the countryside. The ‘ants, toiling butterflies, pollen rising in clouds’ confirm how nature renews relentlessly, that ‘No one dies out, but they enter community’, a statement that confirms a presence despite the loss.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 7th October 2021

Cut Flowers by Harriet Tarlo (Guillemot Press)

Cut Flowers by Harriet Tarlo (Guillemot Press)

The enthralling collection Cut Flowers by Harriet Tarlo cleverly combines form and content in hybrid structures in which the horizontal lines intersect with a vertical reading. This form allows different possibilities that coexist at physical and conceptual levels. The poems are also beautifully illustrated by Chloe Bonfield, though they were not created in collaboration with the artist. In her previous works, Tarlo collaborated with many artists. For example, in the exhibition ‘A Fine Day for Seeing’ at Southwark Park Galleries she worked with Judith Tucker in reference to the artwork ‘Dark marsh: silvered out’ (2021) in relation to her poem ‘Winter Saltwort’. The illustrations in this collection strongly express the essentiality of the writings, whose style is a minimalist one:

cut flowers why would they when

it came to it         lasting longer

long days             before dawn sees

a fair light            crows & robins upright

on the wall           look out, learn to travel in

deep time             blood fish & bone, find

new ventures        prepare, parse, prey for

vegetables

The poem can be read horizontally and the part on the left vertically as well, which is reminiscent of a mesostic or of a wordplay. This form gives the lyric a structure that is both open and closed that is reflected in the illustrations too. In fact, some of the pictures have geometrical closed shapes with grids and dots of sorts symbolising flower shapes, while others are delicately sketched minerals or barely traced wall structures that are open to multiple interpretations by the viewer.

The collection is divided into four parts, each featuring one of the four seasons, though this division is not especially strict. The sequences are more linked to the long-term practice of daily observation and diary annotations, with particular attention given to the weirdness and unpredictability of everyday events. The tone is not autobiographical, and the attention is on feelings. The language is mostly expressed using a tangential view that suggests rather than states:

they got darker than he meant them to

bleeding            into body, blurring into

portal                 light lost – Fall maybe or

out of                 all Four Seasons together

art scene             people can stand anything

these days          more than cube, depth

frame or             field could interiorise

internalise

The floral aspect could also be a reference to botanical catalogues and old prints of flowers and seeds such as the ones conserved at the British Library and the Natural History Museum in London. The body is a recurring image of loss and regaining, sometimes abused but at other times cherished and always explored in its diverse aspects. Tarlo therefore plays around with cut flowers, wildflowers, flowers in greenhouses and in garden centres, and city flowers that trigger ‘PAIN        ANXIETY  FERTILITY/WELL        BEING STRESS’. Cutting flowers could also be a reference to cutting living things, cutting lines off and to the practice of flower arranging and making decorations out of flowers, hobbies often associated with women. The changing of seasons, weather conditions and situations the poet explores suggest a changing of mind that subtly comments on the status quo. This is especially clear in the use of apparently isolated words listed in the left vertical part of the poems. These lines express political connections, for example to Syria, environmental concerns and concerns about violence against women. Therefore, the collection patiently traces a detailed quotidian observation of ordinary life with an eye on global issues. Different possibilities coexist in a comprehensive and yet fragmented vision that might be unsettling but is also illuminating. This view is skilfully expressed both in the structure and in the imageries and language of the poems and is exquisitely emphasised by the illustrations. Tarlo gives a unique interpretation of a botanical reality that is profoundly human and, at the same time, intensely empathetic towards nature.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 4th October 2021

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