RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: January 2022

Cardiff Cut by Lloyd Robson (Parthian / Modern)

Cardiff Cut by Lloyd Robson (Parthian / Modern)

cardiff cut was originally published in 2000 and this reprint includes a contextual essay by Peter Finch, himself a groundbreaking poet who shifts between what we might still call ‘the mainstream’ and the ‘avant-garde,’ which locates Lloyd Robson’s entry onto the scene as being at ‘the tail end of performance poetry’s rise’. This is fair enough as far as it goes but it does tend to exclude Robson’s interest in ‘the page’ and in books, both in terms of the aesthetic aspect and also via his transference of dialect into print from the spoken variety or vice-versa as the case may be. This is a big subject and one which Finch’s own work explores but it’s not one I intend to get distracted by here.

     My own initial exposure to Robson as reader was when he performed with his mentor Chris Torrance at the Art Centre in Plymouth (sometime in the mid-1990’s I think) and it was quite an occasion. I had the good fortune to read with him at Exmouth some years later when I was belatedly trying to develop my own writing and establish some sort of  basis for live readings. He’s a terrific live reader but as stated above the relationship between ‘stage and page’ (for want of a better term) is an interesting one and the care he put into producing/co-producing his own books, prior to the later Parthian works, was exemplary. 

     I’m going to admit at the outset that I’ve never set foot in Cardiff (hopefully this will change) and therefore ‘the vibe’ of the poetry doesn’t resonate in any personal  ‘sense of place’ manner but the energy, vitality and sheer verve of the writing carries the  reader along with its wonderful punning, streetwise observation and general immersion in an environment which is richly soaked in wonderful materials. There is humour, political  satire, scatology in abundance and a general sense of time and place which can still be  appreciated from a distance. cardiff cut has been described as a novel as prose poem (a marketing ploy one can’t help thinking) and been compared in content with Ulysses and  this is fair comment in the sense that this is Joyce for a wider audience, a popular form of the avant-garde. 

     You can’t really talk about narrative here, things happen and there are recollections and probably dream sequence sections but there are certainly associations with the beats, with Ginsberg and Kerouac and also with Henry Miller and Burroughs. Robson is a bit of a one-off and his virtual disappearance from the scene for personal reasons has felt like a loss although the timely reappearance of this book may see some kind of a comeback, who knows? Here is an extract from Cardiff Cut to give the reader a flavour and put you in the mood:

          cardiff central destiny the thermovitrine keeps me warm &

          clean in carriage C; offers view in reflectovision as we reach

          the city. dribbling from stat into queues of orange buses into

          taxicabs & cityslabs dark, consumer durable & pissy.

                                                      ‘cold and tired

                                                             pop in

                                                             relax

                                                           have a

                                                 nice cool drink’

                                            (windowpaint, spielothek amusement arcade,

                                                     prince of wales theatre, st. mary street).

          straight  to the front  of queue girls  tryna get ina philly, lines of

          boys  under lion  canopy pissing  their money  over each others’

          shoes not a long sleeve between em not a goosebump let loose.

     I’m still slightly unsure why Robson’s work didn’t appear in a recent anthology of Welsh innovative poetry – The Edge of Necessary – as he’s a singular voice whose work  deserves to be reconsidered and brought into view again. Hopefully this reprint will pave the way.

Steve Spence 18th January 2022

The Release by Jeremy Hooker (Shearsman Books)

The Release by Jeremy Hooker (Shearsman Books)

This is a very vital work for a variety of reasons. Prose and poetry are juxtaposed and interrelated as Jeremy Hooker acknowledges he has occasionally undertaken since his Welsh Journal (2001) and it is very revelatory in that regard. The prose records four visits to hospital Hooker, nearing 80, experienced having been affected by a serious kidney condition, and by the end we find he is not yet receiving but anticipating dialysis. The play of the book is between hospital diaries and poems Hooker wrote during the same passage of time, and it is fascinating to note the mutual influences, one upon or against the other.

     There is a long opening stretch of prose, about 30 pages, which can acculturate the reader to Hooker’s style and voice. Here one very pertinent assertion is made early on where our author cites Barry Lopez saying that ‘All great art tends to draw us out of ourselves.’ (p16) Lest this seem to work against the ego, and Hooker admits he is not fond of psychologising, Freudian or otherwise, elsewhere he does assert that our self, ego or individuality is what distinguishes us from other species, albeit that Hooker is very much in tune and sympathy with the aims and attitude of ecopoetry.

Although Hooker’s voice tends to the open, good natured and optimistic, he does cite a quote used by John Cottingham from Malebranche ‘To myself I am but darkness’ (p63). He also asserts elsewhere our relative inability to know ourselves, maintaining in a religious mode that only God can know us fully; but Hooker is very much more spiritual and earthy than he is religious.

Hooker is perhaps fortunate in the sense of seeming to be relatively untroubled; if there is a darkness to the self he seems quite reconciled to it, and few doubts or veerings off are encountered, the disposition of the prose is reassuringly positive and stable. We hear about the occasional ‘bad night’ or indeed ‘a night when I thought I might die’ (p11) but not lengthy details or dwellings upon it. 

     This then makes for a very interesting reader experience. We are as it were allowed access to the ground and forming of the poems, besides which the prose is also highly engaging, albeit that there is anxiety about the seriousness of his condition. In hospital he needs help with movement, sometimes spending long spells in his chair, and with bathing, and is fitted with a catheter. Nonetheless he remains mentally highly alert, and most of the poems are thoughtful, vivid and well formed. I’d regard it as a brave gesture to risk such a precarious journal, given that things could not unequivocally be expected to have a positive outcome; this revelatory predilection is generous and emotionally frank, almost unsparing.

     From the prose we are given quite a bit not just of Hooker’s daily activities, and he seemed to enjoy having a window side bed when that happened, and indeed he has a moving poem ‘In Praise of Windows’, some references to his reading and listening, radios 3 and 4, but also his attitude to poetry in general, albeit in passing, but adding up to a kind of orientation. He speaks movingly of his admiration of David Jones, Keats, Lawrence and Edward Thomas, although he cautioned against the ‘danger of Thomas worship’ (p18). Hooker favours the existential, experience, sense perception, even touch, but is pretty much opposed to what he alludes to as system building or excessive idealism. He is unabashed at identifying himself as keeping a poet’s notebook, and some of the nurses found him ‘posh’, though surely not aloof.

Among the selection of poems we conclude with two dedicated to his great grandson Archie. As Hooker says ‘You will not know me,/ Archie, unless in a poem’ (p94). ‘A squib for Archie’ is quite a strong final volley, where he reflects on the peculiar contrariness of death and birth, age and youth, ‘a generation of Toads,/ bouncing in buggies…ferocious with innocence’ who ‘mean no harm’ but ‘intend no good’. Whereupon the final lines here,

            ‘So beware, oldies,

            dads, grandpas, great

            grandfathers.

            Step aside, and instead

            of falling, wave as they pass.’ (p95)

and, again, Hooker seems unpessimistic at the mutual incomprehension of succeeding generations, particularly in these changing times.

That Hooker has chosen to be so open about his life at a vulnerable or challenging time I take some reassurance from; the effect is unusual, unanticipated and intrinsically human. It did take a little while to get into Hooker’s poetic voice after the opening 30 pages, but the poems are assuredly well fashioned full of insight, engagement and verve. It is intriguing to reflect on how the poetry and prose differ, certainly, could one deduce one from the other, well probably not, which is one thing that makes this book enlightening. This is a very candid and gently provocative book that I can’t help but feel breaks new ground where others might follow.

Clark Allison 11th January 2022

Samara by Graham Mort Illustrations by Claire Jefferson (4Word Press)

Samara by Graham Mort Illustrations by Claire Jefferson (4Word Press)

The name Samara evokes different intriguing meanings. It refers to a winged seed and is a girl’s name in Arabic and Hebrew that translates as ‘under the protection of God’. It is also the name of ancient Iraqi and Russian cities and is linked to prayers and poetry too, that is, it has a spiritual quality. In the title poem the connection with the natural world, the sycamore tree where the children play, whose ‘seeds whirled to/chance existence’, the ‘insect wing’ and ‘brooched ladybirds’ creates the context. Humans are part of nature in a relationship that is enduring but also in danger. We are taken into this ‘vortex of air’ that is indefinable but also points ‘above us […] with its long climb to heaven.’ The allusion to a possibly more harmonious dimension in which humans and nature merge in an empathic relationship with animals seems to be crucial in this short collection.

      The poems were written over several years and have been illustrated more recently by Claire Jefferson, a retired interior designer based in South West France, who is the artist in residence at The High Window, an online magazine, and is also a poet writing under the pseudonym Stella Wulf. According to Jefferson, ‘painting is the poetry of sight, poetry is the painting of insight’; she believes that they are therefore connected in an artistic comprehensive vision, as they are in this collection. Graham Mort is an award-winning writer and emeritus professor of creative writing at Lancaster University who has published ten collections of poetry and three collections of short fiction; the latest is Like Fado and other stories (Salt, 2021). He has also worked for international writing development projects.

     Mort’s work questions the human condition, emphasising relationships between individuals and the animal world that propose more inclusive alternatives. The poems in the collection focus on different aspects of flora and fauna that are connected in some way to human reality. Humans and non-humans interweave both in the pictures and in the poems, which move awayfrom traditional prosody and experiment in rhythm and sounds. The images reflect and describe the poems in a figurative way and were probably realised after the composition of the collection. They provide a visual background that sets the scene rather than tell the story. Indeed, the expressions of the animals depicted in the pictures are human-like; they speak to the viewer in a significant way, emphasising the dynamic element present in language:

A diamond-tip shard

                of flint, a jade arrowhead

flirted under the saffron

                trumpet of courgette

flowers just beyond my

                 brogue’s print on dark

rotted soil; hatched

                 from the ragged spawn

a cold spring let into

                 our pond; now amphibious,

lunged, miniature;              (‘Froglet’)

     The structure and the rhythm of the lines reflect the sudden appearance of the little frog, its swift movements and its mysterious yet alluring presence. The complex, spiralling use of enjambments suggests sensations rather than descriptions. The result is musical and lively; it is a vital force that speaks of fierce survival. The cycle of loss and renewal occurs in a language that records shape-shifting movements and vanishing entities; they are expressed in a powerful poetic voice which goes beyond time and space and is always fresh and thought-provoking:

Grey-backed,

             bronze-finned,

platinum-scaled,

              sculling water clouds

when sediment

               scuffs up,

gills raking out

               oxygen to their

chilled blood.                     (‘Carp at Meyral’)

     A new beginning seems to be envisaged in the poem ‘First Born’ despite our migrant vanishing nature that is ‘lost before the dark.’ This condition is existential as well as contingent in an open ending that is not final but implies more connections and possible communions between humans and non-humans. This reading is based on attentive observations and a creative interpretation of the natural world and of the significance of our presence in it. A possible new harmony is envisaged that does not exclude questioning and dramatic aspects but always implies inclusiveness. 

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 9th January 2022

Path Through Wood by Sam Buchan-Watts (Prototype)

Path Through Wood by Sam Buchan-Watts (Prototype)

In the opening poem of Sam Buchan-Watts’ debut collection, ‘Lines following’, we accompany the narrator into a wood where: 

The way into the woods is in a way

to go around the woods: the woods are always in the way

if you’re in them (if they’re woods). 

The poem recreates the experience of a place rich in memories but which also eludes us, a space we feel we ‘never really entered’. ‘Lines following’ could be a metaphor for the volume as a whole, individual pieces managing ingeniously to ‘go around’ their subject even as we are ‘in’ them. 

The second and third poems in the book stay with the image of woods, ‘ballad’ evoking childhood memories, and ‘The Days Go Just Like That’ (the title in quotation marks) recalling adolescence.  Later in the collection there is another poem entitled ’The Days Go Just Like That’ (this time without quotation marks) which expands on the earlier one. The events described in these two pieces involve drug taking (‘hash resin/and Benzedrine’) and hallucinations of a medieval joust. On the woodland path kids have let off a fire extinguisher. The scene recalls the litter-strewn, peri-urban woodlands in the paintings of George Shaw. 

Adolescent experience is also powerfully evoked in ‘You just know’. On a coach returning from Ypres one student has ‘managed to get stoned’ while another tells his classmates about his need to masturbate, to ‘tame the snake’. ‘Dew Point’ also describes a school bus ‘randy with adolescence’, where a boy draws images of dicks in the condensation on the window. The poem likens these to: ‘Early actions as stone inscriptions when mark-making and thinking are the same’. The text involves a play on condensation, verdichten (meaning ‘condense’, a term used by Freud in relation to dream work), and reduction. There’s also a play on Verdichten and ‘dick’.

Other poems deal with refugees and asylum seekers – drawing on Buchan-Watts’ working experience. In ‘Listening in’ (p.24 – there are several poems with this title) the narrator is teaching a group of refugees how to use a public phone box, ‘the phone call a useful metaphor/for poetry’s one-sided intimacy’ as the boys leave a message on an answerphone. The poem emphasises the cultural distance between the narrator and the boys, who have been refugees ‘for most of their lives’. It ends ‘even here I skirt the question/of speaking ‘for’ in staking common ground.’ 

‘Sounds Inside’ is another take on the impossibility of knowing another person’s experience of life. It describes the precarious sense of kinship the narrator has with his landlord, also a friend, who works as a medic in a prison. He reflects on the hardening of the friend’s world as a result of the harsh prison environment. At the end of the poem the narrator acknowledges that he cannot ‘get near’ the prisoners’ experiences, or even those of his friend. But he ‘can go in and see’ him, in the next room where he’s is listening to the radio, and ‘hold him/to me, awkwardly’, a gesture he doesn’t in fact make. The slow build up to this moment through two pages of involved argument, structured as a single sentence, is superbly controlled and very moving. 

The poet acknowledges a debt to Denise Riley and the long lines of ‘Sounds Inside’ make her influence evident. ‘The art of trying’, a prose poem, also has echoes of Riley, both formally and thematically. This poem reflects on the instability of the lyric subject and the limitations of language: ‘The ‘I’ speaks out and disperses…nothing was straightforward when put together, or even implicitly so’. 

An extended prose piece, ‘Colouring in’, suggests an aesthetics grounded in play. This piece brings together reflections on Henry Darger, John Ashbery, Joseph Cornell, and Vladimir Nabakov, linking them to the possible connections between artistic practice and a child drawing. Imaginative play, the text suggests, is a way to ‘overturn the world’: ‘To stand in a kitchen observing a child draw with such focus as to be alone in the world is to watch him draw himself out of the world.’ The ‘child’, Buchan-Watts says ‘peeks out in parapraxes, slips of the tongue’. 

Path through Wood is a difficult collection to summarise. The use of different forms, the complex wordplay between individual poems, the thoughtfulness and the expression of the ungraspable quality of simply being alive in the world give this slim volume a richness that repays reading and rereading.

Simon Collings 8th January 2022

L’Italie London by Ariadne Radi Cor (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

L’Italie London by Ariadne Radi Cor (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

Controlled nostalgia suffuses the fourteen poems of Ariadne Radi Cor’s new collection. She moved from Trento in northern Italy to London in 2009 to pursue her new job’s projects. In this journey towards a new life in a big city, the author expresses the disquieting sensations of the duality of language, landscape and weather in the interweaving of past memories and present reality. The two worlds are in conversation but never merge completely, leaving the self in an uncertain suspended dimension. The book is bilingual; not only are the poems translated into English by the author with the help of translators, but also the blurb, the foreword and the afterword are presented with an English counterpart.

     The future is a faraway entity that is unknowable and unpredictable. Therefore, the focus of the poems is on the present in relation to the past which is unforgettable and is surrounded by an aura of extraordinariness:

Per noi solo l’indimenticabile, così non lo dimenticheremo

e comunque solo fuori casa

[…]

E papà diceva che non serviva andare a Parigi

dal momento che ero già straordinaria

For us only the unforgettable, so we’ll never forget it

and in any case always outdoors

[…]

And dad used to say I didn’t need to go to Paris

since I was already marvellous

     It is a dreamlike atmosphere evoked in the reference to La Dolce Vita by Federico Fellini that connects the poem to the Italian cultural context of the time and to the illusions of memories. London, instead, is her everyday reality, which is mysterious and contingent at the same time. It is ‘a skeleton, an attendant – a skeleton […] a bowl of sugar in the rain’. She is unsettled by the absence of sunshine but eventually she learns to love London. A sense of displacement lingers in the allusion to Mary Poppins, whose bag is stolen leaving her deprived of her powers. Similarly to the heroine, the poet seems to be powerless when facing her double life between the present and the past, between London and Italy. Life goes on in London, the ‘unstoppable city’ where she finds her place but also wanders in search of meaning, in its vague ‘scent, a scent: whose, from when – whose?’ that questions her certainties:

e mi chiedo come sia possibile

se io stia occupando il posto di un’altra di proposito o per errore

e se questo fosse un mio errore

o l’errore di un’altra.

and I wonder, how did this happen

and I taking the place of another intentionally or by error

and is this my error

or someone else’s.

     It is an adventure, a journey towards a more complex identity that challenges her origins and enriches them too in a progression that is not always easy. She wishes to rewind, to go back to the past, to her ‘Tyrolean dress’, but she also wants to face the opportunities that London offers. The city is ‘a kind of Olympus, of dream of the century/an emission of our youth’, the embodiment of vitality.

     Four pictures comment on the poems; they are reminders of fragmented memories, apparently simple things but meaningful for the poet’s search, such as a newspaper clipping, a ticket for a sunbed session and a picture of a TV screen with William and Kate’s wedding showing on it. They are metaphors that help the reader understand and give a sense of deep connection to the author’s new life in London; it is an incessant movement that goes forwards and backwards between Italy and London.

     Radi Cor’s poems are skilfully crafted, similarly to the works of major Italian women poets such as Alda Merini and Maria Luisa Spaziani. Her lines express deeply felt emotions in imageries and sounds both in Italian and in the elegant and competent English translations. She recalls memories that shaped her personality in language. It is a shape-shifting identity which is enriched by two cultures and two realities. The reader is involved in this moving and ambivalent reality in which ‘by the Thames […] you sense Venice’ in an illusion of truth. 

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 7th January 2022

Hangzhou: A Hive of Industry

Hangzhou: A Hive of Industry

Hangzhou is the political, economic and cultural captial of Zhejiang province in south-eastern China. Like its neighbour Suzhou, Hangzhou has long been revered for its beauty. An old proverb says:

There is heaven above.

            There are Suzhou and Hangzhou below.

     When Marco Polo visited Hangzhou in the late thirteenth century, he went as far as to  describe Hangzhou as ‘the city of heaven’, and declared it to be ‘the most beautful city in the world’. Indeed,  today Hangzhou presents itself as ‘Heaven on Earth’, and so it is hardly surprising that my immediate sensation on arrival was one of wellbeing. Our group from Cambridge was staying at the beautiful New Hotel by the side of West Lake. As well as views of the city’s skyscrapers to the east, there were enticing glimpses of cloud-shrouded mountains in other directions. I was anticipating a visit to Tea Mountain, and was wondering how it might differ from a tea plantation in Fuzhou (Jiangxi province), which I visited in 2018. On that occasion we had been driven through a part of its 240 square kilometres in a twelve-seater open bus, stopping to take pictures across a flat green expanse of tea bushes, stretching to the horizon in every direction.

      In Hangzhou, by contrast, tea is cultivated on picturesque mountain terraces. I was hoping to see pickers on Tea Mountain, and to witness for myself the traditional scenes of cone-shaped hats dotted among the bushes like little roofs or parasols. One of my fellow travellers, artist David Paskett, was looking forward to sketching such a scene and, as we climbed the dusty and rocky path between the rows of tea bushes, the pale-green buds were plump and seemed ready to burst open. But we were too early to see the flowers or inhale their sweet scent, and the pickers would not arrive for several more weeks. My attention, however, was drawn to a squarish, yellow-brown box. It was a bee-box. The bees inside would soon be released to pollinate the flowers, pollination being necessary for the tea plants to produce new seeds. 

     As a child, the first thing I learnt about bees was negative. It was my mother’s story. When she was a small girl in Paris, her mother would sometimes send her to stay with her grandmother in the Pyrenees, a mountainous region in the south of France. One day the child wandered off into a nearby copse and came upon an irresistible-looking ‘doll’s house’. This was before the discovery of anti-histamine, and I have always been haunted by the image of a six year-old lying unconscious on the pine-scented ground next to that bee hive.  

     Over the years, however, my wariness of bees has greatly diminished. I was momentarily transported back to the scrubby garden of my bedsit in Gravesend, England, which years later I recalled in a prose poem: a buff-tailed bumble bee shelters from an equinoctial downpour, the tiny baskets on her hind legs brimming with yellow pollen. Now, here in Hangzhou, I was pleased to see that simple wooden box. It looked utilitarian, like the kind of packing-box which a courrier might deliver to your door. I gazed across these mountain terraces, envisaging thousands of yellow bees working amongst the glossy green leaves and delicate white flowers, industriously filling the tiny pollen baskets on their hind legs. 

Man’s recognition of the curative benefits of honey goes back to antiquity, and I discovered this for myself during a period of one-and-a-half years when doctors couldn’t find the cause of a severe allergy manifesting itself in swellings, red rashes and sores. When my doctor said it would ‘be a wild goose chase to find the floral source’, I did my own research and, in a poem titled ‘Apitherapy’, quoted Hippocrates (c.460 to c.370 BCE): Honey cleans sores and ulcers of the lips, heals carbuncles and running sores. And, indeed, honey did have a soothing effect before doctors were able to treat my allergy.

     Humans have kept bees in colonies for millennia, and some of the oldest examples of art depicting honey-hunting are to be found in Mesolithic rock paintings in Spain, which have been dated to 8000 to 6000 BCE. It is little wonder, given the health benefits of honey, that bees feature so prominently in world mythology, and in art, literature and film, and in the affections of humans generally. In Western culture, the earliest literary accounts about bees come from the poems of Homer, originally as oral epics and later in written form. The biologist Constantine W. Lau suggests that some of the earliest records of bees may be found on oracle bones dating to the Shang period (1600-1046 BCE), the earliest ruling dynasty of China to be documented in recorded history. 

     One of the earliest poems recorded in ancient China was during the Song dynastry (before 200 BCE). It is a warning poem by the King of Zhou. If a bee entered your home in ancient China, it would bring good luck, but only on condition that it was permitted to fly out again. Bees were also regarded with fear because of their sting, and were called Feng, a term which included other insects such as ants and wasps. The earliest recorded bee was found in neighbouring Myanmar. The bee was found with pollen encased in amber and has been dated as 100 million years old. In those early periods, bees were more like wasps, eating other insects rather than nectar and pollen.

     Honey bees, called Mifeng, were not classified separately until the second century BCE, and the earliest existing poem about them, ‘Mifeng fu’ (‘Rhapsody on Honeybees’), is by Guo Pu in the fourth century. In this poem, Guo elevates the bee among the flying insects, considering them to be on equal terms with birds. The longest single poetic work on Fengwas by Liu Shen (1269-1351), a native of Jiangxi province, the location of my first visit to a tea plantation. Liu’s poem, also called ‘Feng fu’, likens bee colonies to imperial courts and asserts that the bees’ duty is to their monarch. These values are reflected in the Confucian concept of ‘household’. It is interesting to note that for centuries the Chinese believed that the ruler of the bee hive was not the queen bee, but the king bee.

      There is the old custom of ‘telling the bees’ about events such as births and deaths, which the bees would pass on to the gods. In ancient lore, bees were messengers from the gods. In ancient Greece they represented the soul. I recalled the modernist Czech writer, Rilke (1875-1926), using the image of the bee to clarify his ideas and insights concerning modern man’s relationship with the natural world, as expressed in his great poetic work Duino Elegies. He likened the bees’ pollen-gathering to our plundering of the visible (‘honey’) in order to gain access to life beyond the present (‘the great golden hive of the invisible’).

     Richard Schiffman, environmentalist and poet, writes that recent research indicates that ‘bees might actually have unique personalities that allow them to solve problems, make choices, and react in ways that look suspiciously like human emotions’. We should no longer regard bees as humble creatures buzzing around mindlessly. They may have some mathematical capacity, and can distinguish between different patterns in nature.

     Nowadays, China is one of the most significant providers of bee pollination services globally. In addition to having unparalleled bee diversity, China has more than eight million managed bee colonies, and it is the world’s major honey producer. Most beekeepers are from the South of China, and Zhejiang province is particularly important for its bee-keeping industry. Most of us are familiar with the commerical products ― beeswax, honey and royal jelly ― and with their associated health-giving qualities.

     Honey is indeed the nectar of the gods, and I know that honey from Hangzhou is particularly delightful to the taste buds. As Marco Polo might have said: ‘divine!’

Messengers

How apt it is that this upper pictogram could be an insect

the oracle bone drawing not tree but a bee’s exoskeleton

the first two upwardly curving strokes not branches

but forelegs| the second not twigs but middle legs

the downward lines not roots but two hind limbs

How fitting that the lower images of a river and a boat

symbolise people pulling together to overcome a crisis

of even global proportions| Here on the steep tea terraces 

I won’t tell the latest sickness or bereavement or even

the recent family birth| I want to imitate the bees

to be an envoy of the visible to where there is neither a here

nor a beyond but the great unity| Soon they will fly out

from the workers’ box| brush yellow dust into tiny baskets

as they hum in the shrubs| pollinating sweet-scented flowers

I touch a pale tea bud| plump as a bumble bee’s abdomen

thinking about the side of life that is turned away from us

Note: Books and internet articles I have drawn upon for this essay include the following:

Hamilton, Lucy, Stalker (Shearsman Books, 2012)

Hamilton, Lucy, Of Heads & Hearts (Shearsman Books, 2018)

heathenchinese.wordpress.com (2014, 2015)

Huang, Alfred, The Complete I Ching, (Inner Traditions, Vermont, 1998, 2010)

Rilke, Rainer Maria, Duino Elegies trans Stephen Cohn Pref. Peter Porter (Carcanet, 1989)

Rilke, Rainer Maria, Duino Elegies trans. Stephen Cohn, Pref. Peter Porter (Carcanet,1989)

Routledge Encyclopedia of Tranditional Chinese Culture, Ch 3, David Patteron, Bees in China

Schiffman, Richard, New Scientist, 9 June 2018

Calligraphy by Sophie Song

Lucy Hamilton 6th January 2022

Desire Paths by Andrew Martin (Shoals of Starlings Press)

Desire Paths by Andrew Martin (Shoals of Starlings Press)

Andrew Martin’s new collection is from the pen of a modern lyricist who tips his cap to John Clare and Edward Thomas while having a thoroughly  contemporary take on things. While ostensibly about the natural world his work is imbued with deep feeling and a sensitivity which verges on the vulnerable. His use of imagery has a minimalist precision and combines an aesthetic beauty with an approach to the world which contrasts the internal with the external in a manner that is fresh and approachable. The reader is constantly surprised and challenged into seeing the world anew and perhaps into rethinking preconceived positions. Martin also designed the cover art and book layout and he has a real flair for typography.

          walking the worn edge

          I’ve unseen things

          you believed in

          doves on fire

          wings shredding

          in the belly of Betelgeuse

          I’ve heard waves

          shadow-shimmer in daylight

          far from the desire paths

          all those memories

          will be found again

          out of time

          rain that remembers

          the crying

          drenched in dawn

There are hints here towards the lyrical passages in the film Bladerunner, a submerged S/F element which appears elsewhere in his work, while the phrase ‘desire paths’ itself refers back to the prefacing (untitled) poem which views the artistic aim as a combination of mini-Homeric exploration fused with a sense of evolutionary mission. This is heart meets head in an almost quivering tension which  an attentive reader can feel wonderfully immersed in.

     From ‘there is a hole in a tree’ we get the following:

          if I  curl inside

          would this tree

          take this man

          tired of being a man

          turn me to the soft stone

          of old sunlight

          let the dark lightning

          of new antlers

          take root into sky

This is writing which is imbued with longing and which gives a fresh take on the  pantheistic tradition while combining dramatic imagery with an underlying sense of melancholy. From what I understand these poems came about as a result of a particular set of walks which engendered the thoughts and feelings herein. There is  an overall immersion in the environment which creates a mood but not at the expense  of thought and a certain ‘distancing’ which I think relates to the precision and unusual aspects of the imagery.

          sometimes the world is so gentle

          sunset sits upon park benches

          reveals old rivers

          ribboning through the grain

          shadows pool in a paw print

          a cat whispers the piano

          pads across its keys

          breeze lifts the leaves a little

          fingers become feathers

          holding hands

          a form of flight

          skim long grass

          filaments lit low

          shadows stretch towards me

          sparrows shiver cowbells

          in their chests

          church bells

          touched by the late light

          train lines sing

          the miles between us

This is a love song to the world as well as, perhaps, to an individual. I’m not always persuaded by ‘soft lyricism’ these days and it’s hard to achieve in a modern context  but these poems are both intoxicating and immersive, even where, as there is on  occasion, a suggestion of a darker side. From ‘sea glass’ we get: ‘each step / blunts our blades / shatters our rage / the little lashes / that scar us smooth.’ Again we get an immersion in the environment, almost a shape-shift between the human and the environment, a tension between calm and beauty and something more dangerous and hurtful to the vulnerable. These poems work on you upon re-reading and their world is  one which it’s hard to ignore. Martin’s debut collection, Shoals of Starlings (Waterhare Press), is a masterpiece in my view and one of the best poetry books to have come from the Plymouth scene in a long time.

 Steve Spence 5th January 2022

In Her Terms by Toti O’Brien (Cholla Needles)

In Her Terms by Toti O’Brien (Cholla Needles)

     To experience Toti O’Brien’s In Her Terms is to enter into the physical and mental space of someone else’s reality, to feel what it is to be that person, the good and the bad. This collection is about many things, but much of it comes down to what it means to be a human being today. Much of that is made explicit by the way she relates to the physical world within her body. We are allowed to see both the pleasures and pains of staying alive. Equally, she invites us into the vastness of her intellectual and emotional world as she discusses what it means to be a multilingual artist. In Her Terms is an inside, often gritty, often exuberant look at what it means to live the life that she has lived. 

     Part of what drew me into her collection is the way that O’Brien allows me to see the world through the lens of artistic multiculturalism. She is an Italian, whose relationship with words brought me insight on how language affects perception. The poem ‘Terminology’ explores this concept:

As I struggle to translate into 

my mother tongue the word “soothe” 

one I so like that during a conversation 

I’d produce it at every turn 

uncaring of why 

I can’t possibly find a proper 

equivalence. The two words

 that in my vernacular come nearest 

to “soothe,” if translated in English 

are “comfort” and “caress.” (3)

Of course, “comfort” and “caress” are weak approximations of the word soothe, and she, who is a master of words, helps us to see the beauty of our language and the limitations of it too. These meditations on words work directly with meditations on the power of art. One of her arts is poetry after all. But she involves herself and us in sculpture, music, and dance. All of these draw us into her intellectual and emotional life. Each helps us to understand how creative meditation and action can help us to experience life more fully.

     Another motif that runs through the collection is how the poet relates to her body and invites us to experience greater humanity through a kind of physical empathy. In one poem, she brings us along through a medical examination:

            Do not breathe. 

You can breathe now. 

Hold still. 

Close your eyes. 

Now follow the blue light.

The AC is running wild. 

You are freezing.

Leave, or you’ll get a cold. (28)

I find the discussion of the air conditioning as interesting as the moment by moment of the examination, what it feels like to be looked at as a collection of parts as opposed to a person. In the moment, the animal that is our body is affected as much by the chill in the doctor’s office as it is by the impersonal probing. We are also invited to see her sexuality and her body as it dances.  

     Toti O’Brien’s In Her Terms is beautifully intimate and exceptionally vulnerable. It draws us into the personal space of O’Brien’s world, taking on the subtleties of life that often go unexplained.

John Brantingham January 4th 2022

A Democracy of Poisons by Tim Allen (Shearsman Books)

A Democracy of Poisons by Tim Allen (Shearsman Books)

This is a very rich collection of challenging, finely written prose poems, with numerous surreal touches, fairly unreservedly among the best I’ve seen. There is though something of a self effacing or deprecatory tone, as the unappealing title would suggest, which can make the writing dense and either understated or uncertain of what it’s accomplishing.

There is actually something telling or impressionable on just about every page. The narrative is discontinuous, but threads run through it. It might be a fault or limitation of the book that a sense of narrative progression is mostly lacking. Indeed, each of the 100 prose poems is pretty much self sufficient. There are no claims to continuity as we might find in fiction. 

That said the book is great to dip into, each poem consists of four stanzas or paragraphs about 7 lines long, and the title markers, all of just one word that appears in the text are there for orientation. Some key or highlighted phrases are also italicised. The first titles open out with ‘Walk’, into a forest, ‘Lunch’ and ‘Growing’, but perhaps a fairly indicative one might be ‘Cynic’ (no.34), surely indicative of present philosophic inclinations.

It’s a rich heady brew. One might say though that it somewhat lacks an upbeat quality, it is kind of deflating, or challenging as to how we deal with that cynicism or feeling low. So that would appear to be a deflating lack, indeed the last poem is called ‘Desert’.

It is useful I think to indicate where that acidic title gains mention which is most closely matched in poem 17, ‘Flock’. Part of the relevant passage is:

‘Don’t dismay, a simple book read by nobody special gallups uphill as fast as it descends the hill of be careful what you wish for but how to be careful when the world is a democracy of poisons’. (p23)

stated quite dystopically. Plainly Tim Allen feels this is apposite, right, in what some might take to be resentment; but he doesn’t dwell on it or offer a longer exposition. This might even be consistent with an amount of cynicism. Elsewhere in no.67 we find:

‘In the outside world the books earned differing amounts but here in the library of democratic poisons having no time for books gave them all equal space on the shelves.’ (p73)

There might be something of a thesis here, perhaps of the one size fits all, lowest common denominator, greatest happiness number that the book sits ill with. Elsewhere Allen says ‘I work underground too writing subversive literature only blind moles read’ (p29).

Andrew Duncan’s commentary in his back cover blurb might also be worth citing:

‘As the prose units of democracy of poisons develop, their polished and surreal surface becomes more and more convincing. The title presumably refers to a 24-hour media slew in which toxic ideas try to win popularity contests. There is a camaraderie of bad ideas.’

which I find pertinent and useful and indeed promisingly speculative. There surely is an unqualified seeking after of popular kudos, more likes on Twitter, more hits on YouTube and so on. Does anybody question the quality of those moments or instances that are getting the most hits, some of which are into the millions?

It is no doubt worth mentioning that Allen was associated with the very interesting and well wrought Terrible Work website, now defunct. This is his third Shearsman book following The Voice Thrower (2012) and Settings (2008).

What I might surmise is that the book kind of insists on a stubborn title, but that this belies a rather complex but fairly accessible design given that each poem is subdivided into four accessible chunks. Many of these poems I suspect will hold up well to rereading.

This then, one might say, is classic prose poetry, albeit with an amount of difficulty attached;- the title poses a barrier as much as an invite. It is, certainly, not aspiring to be a thing of beauty, but of perhaps acerbic plain, surreally inflected speech that would rather be true or authentic. This book is Allen’s first from Lancashire having moved on from Plymouth. The book is dedicated to his associates back there, the ‘Truth Brothers’. Allen also mentions that the recommendation of the title came from Joanna Ashcroft after a reading. (p108)

Allen’s poems seem to convey that they are driven in part by a wilful perseverance but also an amount of anger, which might seem inevitable, if one puts craft before popularity. I suspect it’s a little compromising and down to find a conclusion at no.100 ‘Desert’, but then this may simply be telling it like it is. There is in a sense too perhaps a defensive formalist sticking to, in the sense that the formal design fully encompasses the entire book. But it is full of great insights and often inspired phrasings and sits very well with the most striking examples I’ve seen of contemporary prose poetry.

Clark Allison 3rd January 2022

Mercy by Eleanor Penny (flipped eye publishing)

Mercy by Eleanor Penny (flipped eye publishing)

‘Before you were born your mother too was visited by dogs (…) They told her it’s not wrong to want a child who fights for its food. Sinks its teeth into the ankle of the world. Sleeps in the sun, vendetta-less, untroubled by strange men.’ (‘The dogs’)

And so we slide into Eleanor Penny’s strange dreaming world of animals, bones, teeth and blood. The world of Mercy is a cruel one, but it is not without its own tender mercies, as the lines between the human world and the animal world meld and shift. In this debut pamphlet, Penny’s dense, atmospheric poems weave rich and bloody interior worlds.

Throughout this arresting, uncanny collection, Penny’s imagery is often visceral, and sometimes grotesque: a woman gives birth in a gutter, ‘there is the gasping light, bloodwaters sluicing off into the drain’, a boy opens a crow to find its ‘stinking knuckle of a heart’, an unnamed speaker loves with a pig’s heart. Animals, and parts of animals, become totemic: in ‘For Jonah’, a whale vertebrae rests in the bed of the speaker, after ‘whales, with their empty car-sized heads, creep onto the tender shore, mouths helpless and unhinged’. The speaker talks to this vertebrae, as it puckers their sheets, and they long to lie like Jonah, ‘always blessed in the belly of the whale.’ I am reminded, here and throughout the collection, of Ocean Vuong’s ‘The Queen Under the Hill’, where a horse is a piano, a shadow, a ‘puddle of sky on earth’, that the speaker is at once within and without.¹

A good proportion of the pamphlet, including ‘The dogs’ and ‘For Jonah’, is made up of short, half-page prose poems. In the density of their language, the effect of the form is heavy and all-encompassing – without the neat distinctions of rhyme and metre the reader is subsumed into the consciousness of the poem, its own small world within a world, a pulsing consciousness in the wider consciousness of the book. As Penny evokes the animal to express and embody what the human cannot or will not, we are pulled into unreal worlds where the impossible is urgent and necessary. For example, in ‘Love song with a pig heart’, Penny asks how a pig might love better, more simply than a human might. The speaker reaches for an animal certainty – ‘soon I’ll have a pig’s heart and know what I’ve been hungry for. My love, it will be better then’. 

Unlike the prose poems, ‘Vivisection’ is formally precise, but, as its title suggests, equally bloody. In opening up the body of a crow, ‘stinking knuckle of heart, bulb and filament / ballasted tightly to the spine’, a boy learns how to become one. The bird’s harsh cry is broken down to investigate its possible human meanings:

They say

Core: an apple, nuclear

Cower: corner

Car: a beckoning, tower of smoke

Inevitably, the figure of Ted Hughes rears its head amongst this transformation and animal magic. Nonetheless, Penny’s voice is relentlessly, doggedly her own in sharp and unexpected turns of phrase: ‘the evening sky is cunt-coloured. Day drooping like a lone white glove’ (‘Poppy Heads’), ‘Your daughter, she has the most beautiful blacksmith’s hands I’ve ever seen’ (‘The list of the missing’), ‘New-fish-in-the-deep-dark yellow’ (‘Paint chart’).

There are animals, which move as strange, terrible gods, and then there is God himself, who appears in various guises throughout this collection. He takes many forms – sending angels as awkward, disinterested emissaries in ‘When angels came’, railed against by a priest who ‘batters both his fists at the chest of god’ in ‘The priest’. God is not all-loving, he is another kind of animal, savage and unknowable, and even his angels are cruel. In ‘Brick by shining brick’, God is feral, and entirely unexpected: ‘God hangs his best skin on the door handle before he enters the house’, ‘God drags a packet of bad children back into the sea’, ‘God choosing a slice of cake and a new dress’. God is slippery, human, promethean, and mysterious. 

God, Animals, animal gods and a ragged, raw love claw their way through the pages of this impressive debut. In its panting animalism and desperate aliveness, Penny’s pamphlet opens up new ways of animal existence, and asks us just how human we would really like to be.

Hannah Green 1st January 2022

Footnote

1. Ocean Vuong, ‘The Queen Under the Hill’, from Night Sky with Exit Wounds, (Jonathan Cape, 2017) p.48

%d bloggers like this: