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Monthly Archives: November 2021

Entanglements of Two: A Series of Duets Eds. Karen Christopher & Mary Paterson (Intellect)

Entanglements of Two: A Series of Duets Eds. Karen Christopher & Mary Paterson (Intellect)

My own collaborative writing often relies on processes and forms. Whether writing in response to agreed themes and/or what has just been written by someone else, it involves trusting the other writer(s) but also trusting the work itself as it emerges – which is often not what is expected. Editing and shaping is of course a collaboration too, and collaborations which are simply about the juxtaposition of each other’s discrete texts are as collaborative as texts where each author has written a line and passed the work to another.

There is little written about poetic collaboration. Robert Sheppard’s essays about poetics (1999) are helpful because of his open and inclusive approach, as is his anthology of collaboratively-created imaginary authors, Twitters for a Lark (2017) and what he has written about it on his Pages blog (and elsewhere). I have also found Dan Beachy-Quick’s Of Silence and Song (2017) and Dean Young’s Recklessness (2009) useful, but much of this is simply about the act of writing and not specifically collaboration. When I taught an Arvon course with Sheila E Murphy, she shared insights from the business world, where collaboration is considered in terms of productivity, team roles and social dynamics. I have been able to use some of this material when lecturing on collaborative project modules.

It is in the area of performance, however, where I have found the most material about the dynamics and process of, as well as reflection upon, collaboration. Karen Christopher and Mary Paterson’s new book, Entanglements of Two (2021), joins a number of informative texts such as Matthew Goulish’s 39 Microlectures (2000), Tim Etchells’ Certain Fragments(1999) and Twyla Tharp’s The Collaborative Habit (2009). Goulish and Stephen Bottoms also edited Small Acts of Repair(2007), a book about Goat Island, the performance group which Christopher and Goulish were part of until its 2009 demise.

At first I felt excluded from this book. I do not regard myself as a performer (although I give poetry readings and university lectures) and my writing and visual art practices remain focussed on what is produced, my texts and paintings. I may (and do) reflect upon them and how I made them, but interviews, notes, academic and non-academic considerations exist to inform future work and perhaps give readers/viewers a ‘helping hand’ towards understanding. They are context not the work itself. Brief stories and asides at readings, book jacket blurbs and painting titles seem very different from lengthy artspeak labels on a gallery wall, explanatory introductions and prefaces, let alone complete publications.

Part of me wants to simply watch a performance, read a book, or look at the work. If something is not discernible in the work, does it exist as part of that work? Is this book just an exercise in explaining process, some might say justification? But, of course, if we are interested we want to know more. And Entanglements of Two certainly offers more. There is lengthy and slow deliberation here, a reflective practice that seems at times to almost overtake the duets discussed, articulating what is otherwise unsaid.

Explorers traversing the Arctic and Antarctica often reported an extra person within their company. T.S. Eliot drew on this in ‘The Waste Land’: 

        Who is the third who walks always beside you?
   When I count, there are only you and I together
   But when I look ahead up the white road
   There is always another one walking beside you

      (1963: 77)

Although there are also associations here with resurrection and ghostly presence, it might also be taken as a metaphor for the new products of collaboration where 1+1 does not equal 2 but 3. Contributor Orit Kent discusses havruta, a Jewish way of  studying where reading and learning is undertaken in pairs, creating and discussing meaning together; David Berman uses ideas from quantum physics to explore ‘[b]ringing together different phenomenon’; whilst Karen Christopher and Sophie Grodin declare that ‘[w]ith the other, thoughts and ideas travel to places where you could not go alone.’ They go on to note that ‘[t]here is a struggle here between independence and interdependence.’ (115)

Entanglements of Two works, like much performance work, by slow and considered associative thinking. Back and forth ideas go, page and eye, words and reader, meaning and mind, reflecting upon ten years of duet performances whilst also – as the back cover puts it – ‘exploring the practical, philosophical, and aesthetic implications of working in pairs and offer[ing] wider reflections on the duet as a concept in artistic and social life’. The unit of two does not often always invite participation, it sometimes feels like a sealed unit, a couple. We cannot observe the duets, we have to (re)imagine the performances as we read the text. We are on our own: entanglements tie people together and exclude others; we have to choose how to untangle meaning for ourselves.

So far I think this book is

   A call to action.

   A learning tool.

   An analysis.

   A footnote.

   Smoke traces in the air, soon gone.

It is 

   A slow accumulation of knowledge and ideas.

   An attack on all sides.

   An elephant electrocuted in public for business purposes: 

   murder to discredit the competition.

   (The elephant in the room.)*

It is analytical obsession, talk that makes my head spin. In a good way.

Substitute ‘book’, ‘writing’ or ‘poem’ for ‘duet’ in the following quote: ‘[T]he duet is a form of responsibility. […] a duet generates its own forms of knowledge. […] a duet is its own form of research.’ (Mary Paterson, 185)


* The elephant, who is mentioned in Entanglements of Two, was called Topsy. She was electrocuted in 1903 and the event was filmed by Thomas Edison. The footage and information are available online.


Beachy-Quick, Dan (2017), Of Silence and Song, Minneapolis: Milkweed.

Bottoms, Stephen and Goulish, Matthew, eds. (2007), Small Acts of Repair. Performance, Ecology and Goat Island, London: Routledge.

Eliot, T.S. (1963) ‘The Waste Land’ (1922) in Collected Poems 1909-1962, 1-86, London: Faber.

Etchells, Tim (1999), Certain Fragments. Contemporary Performance and Forced Entertainment, London: Routledge.

Goulish, Matthew (2000), 39 Microlectures in proximity of performance, London: Routledge.

Sheppard, Robert (1999), Far Language: poetics and lingusitically innovative poetry 1978-1997, Exeter: Stride.

Sheppard, Robert (2017), Twitters for a Lark: Poetry of the European Union of Imaginary Authors, Bristol: Shearsman.

Sheppard, Robert, ed. Pages, (accessed 9 November 2021)

Tharp, Twyla (2009), The Collaborative Habit. Life Lessons for Working Together, London: Simon & Schuster.

Young, Dean (2010), The Art of Recklessness. Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction, Minneapolis: Graywolf.

Rupert Loydell 30th November 2021

The Lonesomest Sound by Mike Ferguson (Knives, Forks Spoon Press)

The Lonesomest Sound by Mike Ferguson (Knives, Forks Spoon Press)

In a previous short collection, Professions, Mike Ferguson took a series of individual professions – butcher, baker, fireman, policeman etc – as a starting point for a playful exploration of identity, language and a meandering discourse which was always entertaining and often informative. He’s extended that process here with a wider brief where he takes a phrase or word, for example, ‘Not Amused,’ ‘Tarrying’ and ‘In the Palm of a Hand’ and extrapolates in a manner which is equally effective. Each prose poem occupies less than a page and some are much shorter. If there is a more questioning nature to these pieces, and I think there is, then it’s all done with a lightness of touch which makes them such fun to read. 

          Inside a Cloud

         To cool a cloud of its atoms is to swagger in the atmospherics.

          An artist who makes indoor clouds has discovered the texture

          of transience. Is it a  cult of our new  technology to store such

          faith inside the Cloud? Swelling and thickening and rolling and 

          sculpting  invisibility of vapour. A realistic  rendering of clouds

          has an  abstract. This twee  metaphor of bedsheets  in the sky.

          You can fly a plane directly into and along yet only words shape

          within and with. Anisotropic here too – scattering – and future 

          mash-ups are being mapped as I compose. Thank you George.

It’s a beautifully put-together piece and in that sense is typical of the entire collection. Ferguson’s commentary on his own process (‘future / mash-ups are being mapped….’) is never intrusive and also suggests to me that the further into this way of working you delve the more you are forced to engage with the nature of the endeavour itself. I’ve certainly found this in my own work, though our practices are not entirely the same I suspect, and the trick, if it is such, is to embrace such ‘meta language’ while not being overwhelmed by it. Or to put it as Martin Stannard does on the back-cover blurb – ‘ that relationship between enjoyment and the serious might be what you perhaps most remember, and might take it into your future days.’  

     There are around 90 poems in total and there are recurring hints or themes which interrelate between titles/subjects but the main thrust of each piece is generated by the title. Literary references return – Beckett and Coleridge occur, often as amusing asides and there is some lovely wordplay amid the puzzlement and occasional abrupt moments. Memories are evoked – ‘American cursive in my mother’s letters will always remind how / close we were in writing across miles and time and belonging.’ – and then disappear while associations of words and themes keep sending the ‘narrative’ off into different spaces and occasionally into outer space. The actual choice of title in each case is intriguing and may be arbitrary or indeed indicate some form of pattern. Here are a few which I’ve picked at random (?) from the Contents page: ‘Now I Lay me down to Sleep,’ ‘Whiskers in the Sink,’ ‘Purple Turbines,’ ‘Electracy,’ and ‘About Writing Poetry.’ Subjects can be everyday trivia, if you like’ or puzzling encounters, all is grist to the mill. You could certainly spend some time, if you wished, putting together a speculative account of the author’s interests and passions or you can just go with the flow and enjoy these pieces for what they are, language games which intrigue and provoke thought and pleasure in just about equal amounts, I’d say. Not that thinking has to be ‘unpleasurable’ of course! Here’s a second poem for you to encounter:

          You Cannot Live on Beauty Alone

          Because what you hear as the sound of children playing is just the

          calls of  seabirds. A home resurrected  after drought and  lowered 

          waters is  still a relic.  Romanticism  was a power of light until Sara 

          intruded with her orthodox  diss. Beauty  in  loneliness can be self-

          indulgent. As Monroe purred, a career is wonderful, but you can’t

          curl  up  with  it on a  cold  night. I  think  Curley’s  wife  too   knew

          a dress and  sunlight  was never  enough.  Sustenance groomed  is

          still potatoes. Has anyone mentioned the folly of this?

The penultimate line is wonderfully puzzling yet you can just about link it to the previous line if you try. The final line is a wonderful example of juxtaposition, just leaving it all up in the air. The reader is as empowered as the writer. I simply love this kind of material. 

Steve Spence 28th November 2021

Selected Poems 1968-1996 by Joseph Brodsky (Penguin)

Selected Poems 1968-1996 by Joseph Brodsky (Penguin)

Brodsky, who died aged 55 in 1996, it can hardly be denied is a major Russian American poet. He took exile in the US from Russia in 1972, also translating some of his own works into English. He won the Nobel in 1987, and was US poet laureate in 1991. It is worth noting also that he has been praised for his essays including Less Than One (1986). 

Preceded by such high praise it can be difficult to an extent to form one’s own view of the poetry. This new Penguin Classics selection arranges the chosen poems near enough chronologically, but does not foreground the original collections in which they appeared, except maybe for A Part of Speech, from which the title poem is featured.

I would tend to the view that Brodsky’s writing is both fierce and unassuming. Two key figures to whom he relates are Akhmatova, of whom it might be said was a protégé, one of the ‘Akhmatova’s Orphans’; and W. H. Auden, another American émigré, whom he counted as a key influence.

On a stylistic note, Brodsky frequently, but not always, wrote in measured rhyme, a challenge no doubt for translators. A key poem here would be the early ‘Six Years Later’, as eg

                        her misty sadness cleared, and showed

            a cloudless distance waiting up the road (p3)

noting the rhyme of ‘showed’ and ‘road’. Yet this is somewhat atypical, albeit intriguing, well coined and accessible.

The volume is a mix of shorter and longer poems. Several are quite lengthy, one could cite ‘The Fly’, ‘Nature Morte’, ‘The Butterfly’, ‘In England’, ‘Roman Elegies’, ‘Eclogue IV: Winter’ (after Virgil), and ‘Vertumnus’.

In numerous respects I found ‘The Fly’ quite pertinent here. It is centre spaced; but I found a key expression here was ‘I am your cellmate, not your warden./ There is no pardon.’ (p110) There is this sense of affinity with even the most fleeting and vulnerable of creatures, and this could be compared too to the long poem ‘The Butterfly’. Brodsky may be fierce in so many ways, resolute, outspoken, chancing risks, but he is not above creatures or being at the lowest level. He seems unburdened by that sense of heavy responsibility linked to the Nobel and the laureateship. 

A poem which finds Brodsky at perhaps his most reflective and candid is ‘May 24, 1980’. It begins ‘I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages’ (p70) and ends

            ‘What should I say about my life? That it’s long and abhors transparence.

            Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelette, though, makes me vomit.

            Yet until brown clay has been crammed down my larynx,

            only gratitude will be gushing from it.’ (p70)

This bespeaks perhaps a strong dose of commitment and resistance.

Brodsky acknowledged among his influences W.H. Auden and Robert Frost. In his Nobel lecture he credited Anna Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, as well as Frost and Auden. Though this suggests a relatively orthodox strain of descent, Brodsky did meet some persecution from the authorities. An interesting footnote is that Walcott translated some Brodsky, and the poet also dedicated a poem to him. (‘Eclogue IV’)

Another very relevant poem is ‘A Part of Speech’, which includes the lines;-

                                         ‘Life, that no one dares

            to appraise, like that gift horse’s mouth,

            bares its teeth in a grin at each

            encounter. What gets left of man amounts

            to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.’ (p53)

Never look a gift horse in the mouth, shall we say, unless one wants a full accounting of the picture, and grinning to boot. Yet we have also the primacy of speech and the use of language as a means to relate if not also of self consciousness and understanding.

What to take from this. Perhaps ironically some of the shorter poems are as persuasive as the long ones. Equally Brodsky is not a rigorous formalist, pertaining eg to rhyme, but neither are his lines particularly loose. He had a difficult life; for example, being exiled for 5 years in Arkhangelsk, though he made the most of it. His travelling to the US in 1972 was not voluntary but owing to state expulsion. His situation must surely relate on a certain level to the conditions of earlier poets in Russia like Akhmatova who were treated by the state with suspicion, Russia verging on an authoritarian position relating to the arts.

I must say I find Brodsky significant predominantly as a key Russian poet, perhaps more so than an American. It would be impossible for him to shed that whelming weight of his past. And though he admired W.H. Auden their styles are radically different, wherein he is surely much closer to Akhmatova. That said, he is a key poet of the 1980s and 90s on the international scene, and one Russian poet who has decidedly made an impact abroad, choosing to be cellmate rather than warden (‘The Fly’).

Clark Allison 27th November 2021 

Bioluminescent Baby by Fiona Benson (Guillemot Press)

Bioluminescent Baby by Fiona Benson (Guillemot Press)

The mesmerising rhythm and sense of longing of Fiona Benson’s most recent collection accompany the reader in the world of arthropods. This elegant edition published by Guillemot Press includes woodcut illustrations by Anupa Gardner that counterbalance in an essential style the rich and sensual poems. The physical description of the insects and the parallel exploration of the potentials of language offer a transcendent quality that characterises the collection in a cycle of life and death that passes through mating. As Benson remarks in the acknowledgements, the poems were commissioned by Arts and Culture at the University of Exeter for 2019–2020’s Project Urgency. The poems are also part of sound piece collaborations with sound artists Mair Bosworth and Eliza Lomas.

     Compared to her previous collections, Bright Travellers (Cape Poetry 2014) and Vertigo and Ghost(Cape Poetry 2019), Bioluminescent Baby still lingers on the topic of love and procreation but does not investigate the traumatic experiences of miscarriage and abuse. Bright Travellers concentrates on motherhood and includes some poems on Van Gogh’s artwork. Vertigo and Ghost exposes the violence and abuse of classical myths in which women are often subjected to abduction and rape. The poem ‘Ruin’, which is about childbirth and motherhood, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for The Best Single Poem.

     In this new collection the life of the insects is subtly related to the human condition; they mutually struggle to survive in a limited existence in which procreation is crucial for the continuation of the species. The connection with the community is also important; it is the environment where they find each other and where they look for a companion that will guarantee procreation:

All night she signals him in:

come find me – it is time –and almost dawn;


the city’s neon signs:

where are you – it is time –and almost dawn


and it is time –and almost dawn and love,

my love, there is no finding then.

(‘Love Poem, Lampyridae, Lampyris noctiluca’)

     Courtship and love are recurring themes; they are fulfilling moments in life that donate physical and mental ecstasy, an intense pleasure that goes together with the instinct of survival.

     Each title refers to an insect and is subtitled with the Latin name, as in entomology treatises that date back to Aristotle, Pliny the Elder and Ulisse Aldovrandi. This practice grounds the poems in a scientific context and is emphasised by the keen observation and detailed descriptions of the insects’ habits. However, these descriptions often blur in an imaginary dimension that exposes the insides of the creatures, the inner secret part of them that yearns to evolve despite their brief lives:

four to six weeks

then death.

The forest is littered

with a million

small sarcophagi,

empty pyxes.

(‘Magicicadas, Magicicada septendecim, ix’)

     This process implies mutation and transformation: the ‘crisp larval skins [are]/discarded’. It is ‘not death’; the skin is shed like ‘an unzipped dress’ and she will become a luminous new creature ‘and dance with the others/in fluid spires’ (‘Mayfly, Ephemera Danica, i Subimago’). This capacity to mutate, to abandon the discarded skin, seems to be the rite of passage for further developments that will bring love and conception. Therefore, the cycle of life is denoted by change, an ‘endless mutating song’ that speaks of love:

like an effigy in flames

convulsively bright


you radiate.

(‘Notes Towards an Understanding of Butterfly Wings, 8. Notes: Hyperspectral 2’)

     The attention to the life of insects and to the natural world evoked in Benson’s poems can be linked to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, with whom Benson shares the sensual quality of her verses as well as experimentation with sounds and language structures. In both poets there is a sense of renewal that is envisaged in nature and cannot be defeated by death. This cycle of resurrection reproduces itself in a ‘gorgeous living chain’ in which DNA merges and replicates, and it is the antidote to ‘the catastrophic world’ we are currently living in.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 24th November 2021

Life Here Is Full Of Tomorrows by Mélisande Fitzsimons (Leafe Press)

Life Here Is Full Of Tomorrows by Mélisande Fitzsimons (Leafe Press)

In Mélisande Fitzsimons’ latest publication, thirty-nine characters give us brief, tantalising glimpses into their lives through the cryptic messages they write on the back of postcards. The voices are of different ages, social backgrounds and ethnicities, from people holidaying in Britain and overseas. Each text is paired with an image of the front of the card, witty juxtapositions which are very much part of the work’s appeal.

The vagaries of British weather feature in a number of the messages: pouring rain, wind, freezing temperatures, a few days of sunshine celebrated as a rare treat. One writer, staying in Torbay, records ‘happily watching people’s tents blow away…it’s great fun’. Another, writing from Ironbridge, complains of having to buy a hot water bottle and about the lack of tea cosies at the guest house. This message is matched with an image of a satirical nineteenth-century cartoon depicting the hazards of rail travel. 

Those voyaging further afield include a young clubber writing from Mallorca about getting wasted with her friends, including one of the boys getting his ‘knob’ (‘you should see the size’) stuck in the toilet door. A teacher with a group of art students on a trip to Charleville Mézières complains of Google bringing up Peppa Pig’s little brother when she searches for Georges Perec. The students are ‘philistines’, but at least she and her colleague get to see Rimbaud’s house.

The opaqueness of many of the communications creates a delicious sense of the absurd, often heightened by the disconnect between text and image. A card from Tenerife showing a young woman in a bikini waving at the camera is paired with a message about a dream of crochet unravelling. The last sentence reads: ‘I think it might have something to do with that article you sent me.’

One of my favourites is from a woman staying at a hotel on ‘a cliff just 12 miles from the sea’, who says she’s ‘not that great at cliff heights.’ The message begins: ‘Had your potatoes yesterday. Hope they crack the murder case soon, what a shock for your entire community.’ The place she is staying is extremely hot, forcing the writer to ‘sit in the fishing village melting in my bra’. The card shows a painting of a distant, lone figure on the top of a cliff overlooking a sea inlet or lake. 

A postcard from Eden Valley, is equally mysterious. ‘I can’t explain why I am here or where I am from,’ the writer says. He or she seems to be trying to flee the workaday world. The message ends with: ‘Sometimes, I feel like a tree in the middle of the A38. Not everything is black and white, not everywhere a calculation, but thank you again for your indifference.’ The card shows a wide river in the foreground, animals grazing beyond, and mountains in the distance. 

Life Here is Full of Tomorrows was inspired by Tom Jackson’s Postcards from the Past. Fitzsimons’ texts cleverly mirror the clichés, disjunctions, and elliptical references of actual cards, transforming commonplace banalities into amusing, touching, at times surreal vignettes of people’s lives. This is a very entertaining pamphlet.

Simon Collings 23rd November 2021

Fever Hammers by Iain Sinclair (Face Press)

Fever Hammers by Iain Sinclair (Face Press)

Fever Hammers it probably doesn’t have to be stressed is a peculiarly strong and resolute title for a collection of prose poems. The general effect of reading through this I thought was that the writing is crisp, accomplished and taut and there is an abiding tough mindedness, making few concessions, driving it along.

Sinclair presents the material in three clearly delineated presentations, red, yellow and blue, each with a charged and resonant epigraph. The first is from William Faulkner’s Light in August speaking of ‘a ghost travelling half a mile ahead’. I don’t know that I can entirely marry this up with the general progression of the text, but it is pungent and affecting. 

The titles of the pieces actually draw on and reflect the material of the text. The first piece is ‘Dogs on the Lawn’ and this reflects a turn of phrase in the piece itself,- ‘The dogs on the generous public lawns are sniffing at small pegged portraits’ (p7) as well as ‘licking drops of their own piss’. This perhaps bespeaks an astringent satire, and dogs in that sense of being vociferous, never mind loyal. 

This first piece has its surprises and a bit of inscrutability, name checking Santiago, Arizona and New Mexico. ‘The village cobbles’ he writes ‘are so many blind eyes of the interrogated’, ‘where exit stratagems are absent’, whose force of expression perhaps does not need too much further scrutiny. However if ‘the interrogated’ is meant as part of a larger narrative it is not entirely clear where it goes. One can conjure up images of fierce resistance, but then who is doing the interrogating, from which exit stratagems are absent? The tendency perhaps is to think of strong resistances, of persecution and oppression. And indeed, are the ‘hammers’ directed against this. This could be very bracing, and yet it is not entirely spelled out, as if instead it was some kind of piercing dystopia, one with little prospect of escape. Is this a barbed satire directed against the prevailing way of the world?

I need hardly add that the text holds up well to rereading, plainly well thought out besides its forceful conviction. The closing piece is ‘Solid But Expendable’, wherein again the words show up in the text,- ‘Bernard Lee/ solid but expendable as ever’ (p27), Lee probably best known for portraying M in the earlier Bond films. The final line is ‘or footnote of prophecy in a twice reprinted volume’ and the penultimate ‘that ghost as sad as cinema’ after invoking Orson Welles and The Third Man. We have something of a conflation of media here, words/texts as well as cinema, although some semioticians might wish to designate everything as a text, an entity, a corralling of memes. Might the fever hammer be a resistance against expendability. 

A minor quandary might be trying to grasp where the colours theme fits in here; it doesn’t seem to me to be foregrounded. What one is left with is that peculiarly gripping if not intense turn of phrase, ‘Mr Orson Welles…another planet entirely’ (p27), although one notes that the endpapers are red.

Is a point reached where the foregrounding presentation doesn’t seem wholly indicative of the material of the text? This of course is not entirely unusual. One can be carried along by processes of emphasis and tone. Lawn dogs and reliable spies. I suppose I might suggest that this very capable text needs room to breathe, and that the design features emphasise matters that are elsewhere unresolved. And what is it about colour;- the reds of youth and the maturity of blue, the purported cowardliness if not naivety of yellow. 

I’d have to say the textual presentation is very coherent stylistically, affecting and expressive. About all that might be lacking is a sense of where this narrative leads and what it is trying to tell us, outside of ‘sad cinema ghosts’ or as the epigraph states on page 21, ‘directed by ephemeral voices’.

All told, I think this is strongly expressed and very relevant. There may be quibbles about connecting together the text’s themes, but there is much there to chew on. I am reminded that we often don’t know what we’re going to say until we’ve said it, and then of course try to deal with the consequences.

This then is a very notable contribution from Iain Sinclair, who is certainly recollected as editor of the quite vital Conductors of Chaos poetry anthology, with an enlightening introduction. Colour perhaps remains inscrutable, tied up perhaps with notions of qualia in philosophy. I can’t help but feel too that if the endnote is solid and expendable this says something to the merit of solidity, albeit that we must deal also with the ghostly or prophetic for those who might perceive it.

Clark Allison 20th November 2021

Lockdown Latitudes by Steven Waling (Leafe Press)

Lockdown Latitudes by Steven Waling (Leafe Press)

One way or another many of us have been producing material during the last year or more which relates directly or otherwise to the situation we have been experiencing. Leaving aside Brexit and the all-embracing facts of climate change the Covid virus has been and will no doubt continue to be a source of energy for writers and artists of all kinds. It feels inevitable in fact and there have already been anthologies of poetry appearing to suggest so. Steven Waling’s new book is a mix of diary entry and personal testimony, combing observation with a collage technique which is very appealing.

          ON THIS ROUTE

          there’s lots of farting about   Turning night into day

          the sun wants to lie in bed   gets up full bladder

          rain-packed isobars rumble in from the West

          so I wait five minutes at Random Stop   ten more

          at Just Before You Alright   then flash of hail followed

          by the heavy beauty of blue sky   all the weathers

          in one day   Clouds like buses pile up in threes

          I miss the rush hour   no I don’t   students crammed

          sweatthick into tin cans   talking   who got wasted who’s

          off to Switzerland for Christmas   essays undone

          pick up the Metro for puzzles and sport   after

          the end of the world   green shoots of crocus and

          snowdrops climb on board   poke heads out of verges

          past the park just because you think you’re exempt don’t

          make exceptions   key workers still spend

          half their lives standing    in this fine rain   where’s

          your mask   are you going to be difficult it

          goes on your nose as well as your mouth

Anyone who has used public transport on a regular basis during the past eighteen months will be able to recognise these moments and the mix of fleeting observation and anxiety is well registered. 

     In ‘Sci-Fi Days’ school day memories intertwine with the here-and-now in a manner which attempts to find a way of approaching the changed and estranging situation we find ourselves in – ‘wherever I am / whatever I’m from / it’s not here’ – and name-checks J.G. Ballard (‘Vermillion Sands’), ‘Bismarck and the Entente Cordial,’ the assassination of Franz  Ferdinand and hints towards Bowie and Bolan where on the walk to school ‘aliens / sing   Children of the Revolution / on Top of the Pops.’ In ‘Spring in a Time of Contagion’ where the day-to-day experience appears with occasionally surreal snapshots – ‘next as dolphins swim canals / Only four items of each / product’ – we have a heightened sense of the natural world, interspersed with paranoid snippets and a hinting towards martial law which suggests a wartime footing:

          sky so blue it hurts

          I buy potatoes and a paper

          with puzzles   Crack open buds

          I’ll try to be an optimist

          as poetry makes nothing

          the swallows rejoice clean air

     In ‘Jesus Strolls Down Market Street’ we get a sense of the paranoia and alienation caused by the present situation, allied to a description of a small kindness – ‘Someone pays with his own card’ – which is set in downtown Manchester but could be almost anywhere in the country. ‘Ten Lancashire Words to be Reintroduced to the Language’ introduces an element of playfulness into the proceedings while ‘In Deep Time’ has a contemplative feel which deals with the geological notion while also pondering how our conceptions of time have shifted on a day-to-day basis during the last couple of years. ‘Autobiographica Literaria’ hints at Coleridge and again juxtaposes memories in a snapshot fashion which mixes high art with pop culture and t.v. shows. There’s an overall sense of new opportunities being opened up, at least in terms of artistic procedures, but also an engagement with hard reality as in ‘Showering a Man’ (Steven Waling is a care worker) where we get:

          You must fully engage in the dance

               move shoulders to the middle

               lift the feet onto the plate

               shift the body by degrees

The ending registers an all-too-apt mix of feeling when issues around care and social provision are aired – ‘That’s such a good thing to do. / I know I don’t get paid enough.’

     I’m more aware of Steven Waling as a reviewer of poetry than as a poet as this is the first chapbook of his that I’ve actually read in full. I’ve enjoyed the mix of tradition and experiment which he employs and this memoir set in a hard time has a very human appeal which is easy to respond to while also including an element of playfulness which keeps the pages turning.

Steve Spence 19th November 2021

The Personal Art: essays, reviews & memoirs by Peter Robinson (Shearsman Books)

The Personal Art: essays, reviews & memoirs by Peter Robinson (Shearsman Books)

The scope of this quite modestly pitched book of reviews and essays is actually quite considerable, it takes in quite a wide compass in a relatively unassuming way in some 440 pages. Robinson has authors he likes, but he is not into score taking or arguing canonically. I suppose this could have been called a collected or selected prose. But Robinson is not the kind to hammer his points, there’s a considerable openness here to many varieties of poetic expression. 

So the book is bold but lacking in ostentation, which makes a curious combination of assertion and humility. There are a great many reviews here and I’d say they’re all pretty insightful, and the final section is given over to some autobiographical essays. Among things to prioritise are perhaps, a vicar’s son,  Robinson’s 18 years of living and teaching in Japan. Also with considerable candour he discusses his surgery for a benign brain tumour, certainly a life changing experience.

There are actually some 55 pieces here, composed ‘over the last forty years’ (p7), so this in a sense a bit of a summa. But again, Robinson does not seem like someone with an axe to grind. The book is in five parts, beginning with British poets, then Americans, then a more retrospective note in Part 3 and on to more perhaps minor or esoteric pieces in Part 4, and memoirs to close. 

The title is from Marianne Moore,- ‘happy that Art, admired in general,/ is always actually personal’. Again that air of no grand claims. A number of very prominent poets get reviewed here, and the sense is of a close, rather than judgmental engagement, again little sense of what betters or words of a delineated evaluation. Robinson is an appreciative reader quite evidently. I thought perhaps the most indicative piece was on the American poet John Matthias, which is in Part 2, where Robinson reiterates the Marianne Moore quote.

Actually placing the memoirs at the end gives the book a wholly different tone, personal, indeed. What we might be lacking is a sense of an ethos, where what we get instead are, oh, here are some things I liked. Is literature of much help in making a way in the world. There’s a little bit of a sense of drift, ie we like these things, but we make no claims for them. There is a lack of taking position. One might find for example no address to such canonical figures as Hughes, Plath or Heaney. And modernism is acknowledged but we do not get wholly behind it.

This might tend to suggest that the book turns into a sort of miscellany, a grab bag. Here is Robinson for instance discussing Lee Harwood, about whom he is quite favourable,-

‘Presenting himself as a nice person and not afraid or ashamed of weakness, Harwood is frequently candid about the ironies and contradictions that have arisen with his projects.’ (p277)

Well one might think this is somewhere Robinson is coming from also.

Given that, a strength of the book is its wide range. We get, for instance, commentary on Peter Riley, John James, Roy Fisher, Bunting, Elizabeth Bishop and a good many more. Yet also that sense of being without sharp or precise delineation. Equally no or little sense of schools and where we are placed with them, although Robinson is certainly aware of the Movement, rather more than he is of the British Poetry Revival or the Cambridge school. The ‘personal art’ coinage is certainly a plus, and this sense that the introspect must figure, all to the good.

I get the sense I suppose that the book as a whole tends to come out as a sort of personal memoir rather than any positioning alignment regards schools or stylistic tendencies. And it is certainly an engaging read, that personal inflection keeps it well clear of academic journalese. 

The effect is perhaps of an odd sort of softening; the cover design is colourful but quite mild, lacking any jagged edges, red, yellow, green and peach. I suppose I’m of the view that this chimes most with the John Matthias, perhaps a relatively underestimated critic and commentator.

The back cover blurb says ‘an essential guide to the poetry that has shaped and fed the imagination of a distinctive and original poet.’ Now this strikes me as about right. Peter Robinson surely is an original. And again no wider claims; perhaps this is indicative of a certain catholicity. 

That said I think this is a very welcome instance of publication. While no partisan, Robinson has obviously read and appreciated widely, and there are many cues here to pick up on some of the authors discussed. Interested readers might wish to refer back to Robinson’s Selected or Collected.

But here am I thinking about all those things he didn’t say. There is assuredly candour and a welcoming sense, but it is not quite a position statement or a guide book. But there is a lot here, reflecting many years of reading and writing. It’s a satisfying book filled with many an insightful reflection on the present condition of poetry.

Clark Allison 13th November 2021

Slate Petals (and Other Wordscapes) by Anthony Etherin (Penteract Press)

Slate Petals (and Other Wordscapes) by Anthony Etherin (Penteract Press)

Question: what’s so distinctive about this stanza?

          Nature painted this morning 

          as a thorn in untried pigment,

          a mad night in turpentines, or

          the turning points in a dream…

And about this one:

          I sat, solemn.

          I saw time open one poem.

          It was in me, lost as I. 

Answer: the first makes each line an anagram of the others; the second is a palindrome. There are some writers who, as if writing weren’t already hard enough, set themselves extra hurdles out of sheer fun, ambition, masochism, or a kind of liberation-through-confinement. This collection is in that tradition, alongside Oulipo’s various jeux d’écriture, Christian Bök’s best-selling Eunoia, and most recently, say, Luke Kennard’s ‘The Anagrams’, and it’s something of a masterclass of constrained super-formalism. There are sonnets in monometer and dimeter, tautograms, pentograms (only five-letter words allowed), pangrams, aelindromes (a type of complex palindrome actually invented by this poet), lipograms including beaux présents (only the letters in its title can be used in the poem), acrostics, visual poems, homovocalics (each line uses the same vowels in the same order), and even a villanelle in dimeter. And amazingly, combinations of these. A sonnet that’s also an anagram. A palindrome that’s also an ottava rima. Poems that are anagrams of each other. Poems encased within other poems. A ‘trionnet’ which, depending on the line-breaks chosen, can become either a triolet or a sonnet.

One hard, or rather impossible, goal of such extreme restriction would be still to produce something not only grammatical but meaningful, sensible, beautiful, witty or profound, and in such natural English that the constraint, when spotted, would be like an icing of astonishment and awe. Anthony Etherin, understandably, has forsworn that literary Eldorado. He calls his constructions ‘wordscapes’ as well as ‘poems’ and in the explicatory notes offers an alternative aesthetic to the usual primacy of textual content: ‘the book’s subject is form itself […] the art of form for form’s sake’. As such one additional pleasure is that of a puzzle-book. You scan the poem for its formal devices, then check the notes at the back to see how many you spotted.

But if you did treat it as poetry? Well, the subject-matter is traditional: nature, Gothic and mythic predominate. The diction likewise is formal (‘Profusion is but paucity’s repose’) in a faintly old-fashioned way. Full rhyme is used, with the occasional plural, albeit unspectacularly; it’s heavy on staple monosyllables of the white/ light/ night grade. The titles often corral a scrabbled meaning, while odd phrasing gets mitigated (or justified, or enriched) by a prevalent dreamlike tone. The strengths of the content are especially in the mastery of rhythm, with deft caesuras and enjambments, nice wit (an anagram of ‘This is Just to Say’ begins ‘I have confused/ the letters/ that were in the poem…’), and cheeky originality (a poem whose ‘lines’ are silhouette lines of mountain ranges). My favourite one-liner was ‘A zig. Now one zag. Gaze now on Giza!’ which, besides its rhythm and soundplay ‘reflects’ its formal subject-matter: the drawing of a ‘palindromic’ shape.

As with a lot of very involving writing, I emerged from the book finding the world stranger – I began expecting palindromes and anagrams everywhere. Hey, that unusual word ‘Etherin’ on the cover: is it ‘In there’? Or ‘Therein’? Or neither? Not any hint here, as Anthony Etherin might put it.

Guy Russell 7th November 2021

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