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Monthly Archives: May 2022

England on Fire by Stephen Ellcock and Mat Osman (Watkins Press)

England on Fire by Stephen Ellcock and Mat Osman (Watkins Press)

Which writer is not at some level engaged with place, landscape, mythology, folklore and stories? It may be overt, it may be in opposition to established histories or geographies, it may be about colonisation, rebellion or immigration, it may be about revisiting the past and present through the lens of gender, sexuality or identity, it might simply creep into our writing because we all live somewhere and hear and see things others don’t.

England on Fire is subtitled A Visual Journey Through Albion’s Psychic Landscape, the kind of phrase that smacks of vague New Age mysticism and woolly religious philosophies. It doesn’t do itself many favours by this kind of labelling, because the book – an anthology of carefully curated images accompanied by Mat Osman’s poetic prose – is much harder-edged and interesting than that subtitle and dour cover with a deer-headed figure against a circle of light suggests.

Stephen Ellcock talks about research, intuition, pattern making and collage in the brief authors’ biographies at the start of the book, all creative processes I can relate to. The book is in 12 themed chapters or sections, each evocatively titled (‘Out of Darkness’, ‘Weeds & Wildness’, ‘Rebellious Nature’, ‘Acardia’), each a cluster of beautifully reproduced painting, photos, prints, sculptures or drawings, each opening with a few hundred words from Osman, who responds to Ellcock’s themes through tangent, metaphor and storytelling.

Osman also supplies a more straightforward, if slightly polemical, ‘Introduction’, where he explains how ‘Stephen juxtaposes and weaves imagery around itself, teasing out narratives and finding wild connections in a kind of visual language’, suggesting that the project is politicised, ‘a very English rebellion of the nameless many against the privileged few’, and uses ‘a language that speaks to England’s subconscious’. Heady stuff! But fair enough, although Osman seems to find the images in here more unknown and obscure than I do.

Anyway, what do we get? To start with there is George Frederick Watts’ swirl of creation, swiftly followed by John Martin’s apocryphal ‘The Deluge’, William Blake, Arthur Rackham, Ken Kiff, Samuel Palmer, an Anglo-Saxon brooch, a photographic stereograph of ‘The Devil’s Chimney’, Norman Palmer and one of Madge Gill’s channeled spirit works on paper. This wonderful visual cornucopia is repeated throughout the book, with still from Derek Jarman’s Avebury film, fairy photographs, Notting Hill carnival images, Richard Dadd’s asylum paintings, landscape photography, mazes, the changing face of ‘Settlements’, until we get to the final section ‘Visions’. Here, Osman becomes ecstatic:

   ENGLAND IS A FIREWORKS DISPLAY
   THAT SETS THE NIGHT ABLAZE

   […]

   And us? We are flame-lit and bonfire
   -warmed. We walk in beauty like the night,
   secure in the knowledge that everything
   grows better after a wildfire […]

   England is a firework that burns forever.

Shooting stars, ‘thought forms’ erupting from a cathedral tower, abstract psychedelic inkjet prints, John Martin again, sunsets by George Shaw and Francis Danby… and then Blake’s ‘Jerusalem, The Emanation Of The Giant Albion’ and Dan Hillier’s ‘Older Light’, a heavenly figure radiating light into the darkness.

Elsewhere, scarecrows, the green man, corn figures, bonfires, dragons, druids, the Padstow Obby Oss, witches, mummers, along with Punch & Judy appear; as do ruined buildings, masks, stained glass and documentary photos from Rock Against Racism. This is Albion, an imaginary and hyper-real version of England, in all its glory. A land where races mingle and co-habit, magic and religion co-exist, as do ritual and science, poetry and song, humans, ghosts and imaginary creatures. I wish it said Britain, not England (maybe that’s just me being PC – England seems so non-inclusive) but this new book is inspirational and thought provoking, part documentary, part challenge, part of the ongoing change we are living through: ‘England is an immigrant song that changes us with every singing.’

Rupert Loydell 21st May 2022


Winstanley by Simon Jenner (Waterloo Press)

Winstanley by Simon Jenner (Waterloo Press)

Here we are in the world of the 17th century reformers, post English civil war, of Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down, of Leon Rosselson’s 20th century song of the same title, covered by Billy Bragg at a later date. Simon Jenner in a mood of democratic revival, generated by hope of a renewed radicalism in the Labour Party, has framed a series of poems based around the writings of Gerard Winstanley, leader of the Diggers whose failed attempt at setting up a democratic commune at St. George’s Hill in 1649 has inspired a multitude of radical movements ever since. These 36 poems are a mix of inspired experimentation, rich historical materials and intellectual curiosity typical of this poet’s considerable output. Winstanley is a great read but one to be taken slowly, with relish, where careful re-reading will improve the response. There’s also plenty of emotional content as this is not a dry academic tome. 

          1

          Orient voice arrival           alluvial days

          land washed stiff by brute plunderers

          where the jute factor wears freedom

          duck egg blue springs with the calyx of April

          a yoke thrown at St George’s Hill, as Fludd says

          each stamen births a star.

          The occident of the oppressor sets to the west

          of men gilding the common treasury of earth

          turning rowan where the histories of wrong

          occlude in darkness where all, all shall rise,

          yeasted with themselves, all, some at the shadowed

          cusp of the minute hand on midnight

          fleer and flesh salvation.

          True levellers of all property I see feast

          on light, God’s nakedness restored in the fork

          of good works. Brothers, sisters of this

          blinding fall to innocence, fasting, prayers

          for the corn I once spent to market,

          shallots, light July rain.

Jenner says in his introduction that ‘I found the cussed extremes of faith and conflict released a wild permission, a go-for-broke linguistic immanence’ and you certainly get the feeling of a modern mind relating to an earlier time and finding common ground and a sense of possibility within the encounter. Here there is utopian hopefulness but grounded in hard reality and a wonderful evocation of the physical aspects relating to food production and a sense of harvest. These poems combine political ideas with emotional intensity, are rich in detail and remain relevant in terms of our current predicaments. I’m reminded stylistically and in terms of historical reconstruction of the poetry of both Geoffrey Hill and Steve Ely.

          XV111

          March whitens. A new year’s gift lies fallow.

          Come out of stark, landlords, parsons,

          Set down in our singing torn-through houses.

          Your souls crunch tenantless as our bodies.

          Your soldiers drop us bright pence as fellows

          some flinch to birch as dogs wail hymning persons;

          ride God’s last year in on bloodied horses.

          We’ve stamped today’s alto wail of babies.

It’s been said that in England we had the revolution too early and that the aftermath of the civil war led to further tyranny before the monarchy was returned and ‘the natural order’ maintained. Yet such attempts at democratisation, foiled by the forces that took to arms in the first place and would brook no dissidence from those seeking a wider franchise, are worth recalling in our equally difficult times. 

          XXXV1

          The cerements of our endeavours rise up waxed

          gusts of others’ breath ripple and distort

          the sheeted shining cloth sigh letters

          the words are ranted but inhabited for good

          the time is minted from the original

          the ripest enthuse just his elbow wit

          the wits pared with a jack-knife on a table for print

          the visions’ crude halo holds a nimbus for truth

          the preacher rails in Atlantic vocables

          the few take seed, the many spindrift

          we’re wombed in what they’ll bring of our freedom

          our treasury’s blowing in a dust cloud of famine

          it lands too tare too thinly scattered but it alights

          it’s broadcast through the seeded months of our successors

          it sings its craft orient, stings the face of the new world.

     Reading these poems has made me eager to go back to writings from the period which include of course Milton and Marvell as well as the rantings of Abiezer Coppe about whom the irrepressible Leon Rosselson wrote – ‘Abiezer Coppe/he did away with sin/my body is my god, he said/and heaven lies within.’  To get the best from Simon Jenner’s short collection it’s necessary to read around the subject and I’m sure the scholarship has moved on since I last read Christopher Hill. Yet it’s a period of great interest and these poems have reawakened mine.

Steve Spence 17th May 2022

Then by Linda Black (Shearsman Books)

Then by Linda Black (Shearsman Books)

I simply love this book and could quote from it endlessly. Split into nine sections it’s playful yet serious and seriously playful at the same time. These are poems which sing and suggest, slip from idea to idea, confuse your thought processes yet delight the eye and the brain with an abundance of energy, skill and sheer brilliance. There is rhyme and assonance in abundance, all the traditional tricks of the trade yet done in such a way as not to overstate the case and even when this is the case to do it with such bravado and gusto that the reader is helplessly in thrall. Here, for example, are the first and final stanzas in the opening poem ‘Time is of the effervescence’:

          Then   it’s   popped.  Likewise   a   pillar  of   well-being – too   much   taboo

          contravenes the notion that all’s well. Many are non-believers confounding

          the desire to know. An expansive watch tells it all.

          On  the  dot. Safety  behind the door. Larger than  the frame it purports

          to fit. Come winter down it goes – contradicted and back to size. A well

          beginning for a venture. 

From an unexpected beginning (has the previous sentence been omitted?) which could signify a ‘grand opening’ we follow through with non-sequiturs which nevertheless take you off at tangents of possibly intriguing thoughts. That or filling in the dots, which each reader can do in his or her own fashion. There’s a charm to the process which is hard to pin down but it’s wonderful writing. Sometimes you get a sense of deja vu from a snippet or phrase which you think you can locate from elsewhere but you’re never quite sure. How much ‘found language’ there is in this process is difficult to ascertain as it all trips along so beautifully even amid the abrupt interjections, and how contradictory is that? Wordplay, as in the title – which you can easily misread at first attempt – 

is central to the method and can be ‘effervescing’ (as here!) or more subtly intertwined within the texts.   

In ‘Lark’ we have the following:

          Folly me dandy                             Follow me rare

          Up from the broad room            Down for repair

          Clopped in the cow pat               Snapped in the snare

          Glandular fever                             Dip snip & dare

          Influence effluence                      Stock still and stare

          Safety-pin paraffin                        Polish & swear

          Pickle & candy                               Cauliflower pear

This is pure nursery rhyme material from the section of mainly shorter poems entitled ‘Each shell or barnacle’ where charm is an essential guide. 

     We have lists and prose poems and visually induced pieces such as ‘A smidgen’ from which we get the following:

                                     scales

                      STICK      in the gullet   a fork

                                    is a powerful tool

                                    I desire

                      a bowl of cake   a broth   hot-pot   gob-stop

                         of scalded chicken       a cut-glass

                      reservoir   DON’T   serve me

                            Octopus  deprived

                      of its mate   Lay   gall-stones

                                    around my plate

I can’t precisely replicate the typographical variation here but you get the gist and these poems are clearly written by somebody with visual training as well, perhaps, as a writer with an interest in concrete poetry. I’m reminded a little here of Edwin Morgan whose versatility stretched to early computer-generated work as well as translations from the Hungarian but his poetry always had a sense of the playful about it which is seriously true of Linda Black’s work also. There appears to be a lot of cooking going on in these poems so I detect the appearance of ‘a foodie’ at work both in terms of the subject matter and in the sense of ‘cooking up’ a readable concoction.

          Riddle

          Head fold   arm swivel   twizzle drizzle

          polarised eyes   meagre   penniless

          concave gaze   a turn  a tail   slight flea-bite

          foot drop   (under the arches  second left)

          stiff back/ed linen   hump lump  impeded gait

          older days   leaden light   adult daze

          paralysis   (atypical depression)

          quarried tiles (misfit)   slab slap overlap  

          assemblage of nuts & bolts   (hard wear)

          crockery  mockery   (Scott not free)

          calories count   stark Clark’s shoes

          spleen   Scalextric   running late

It’s wonderful the way this material all hangs together, whether derived from word association, awareness of the sound aspects of the written word or indeed the artificial nature of process (‘assemblage of nuts & bolts’), there’s a sense of immediacy and a lightness of touch here which is so good to encounter. 

          Each shell or barnacle

          Kingfisher  or   kite,   closely   observed.   A   tarpaulin  to  rest  upon – no

          sting or  carbuncle – leisure  caressing  all surfaces. No ache  (body blithe,

          unruffled).  No  significant  other, trailing  dandelion heads.  Pine needles,

          kelp. Forwards may run forever. The breadth of the breath, the hearth of

          the heart.

          An even temperature. The desire for narrative, the smooth ascent,

          enclosure the sodden clay. Take a runner nailed into place – a (straight)

          forward path; an intermittent placing on the doormat.

          Playtime pops in – something creative. It is time to engage.

So we have ‘the desire for narrative’ allied to what appears to be an often aleatory mix of registers and materials. There is ‘playtime’ just ‘popping in’, as it so often does and now it’s ‘time to engage’.  

     These poems, prose poems and other texts accumulate and begin to work on the reader as they do though it’s equally quite possible to just dip in and worry away at a poem, enjoying the language and the placing of somewhat discordant phrases which nevertheless begin to ‘make sense’ as the images and sentences accrue and accrete. Linda Black knows how to juxtapose and to create poems which may puzzle and occasionally frustrate but also entertain and make you think. There’s a wealth of creativity here and as I said at the beginning I love this book and could quote from it endlessly. Wonderful stuff.

Steve Spence 15th May 2022

Tracing the Distance by Andrea Moorhead (The Bitter Oleander Press)

Tracing the Distance by Andrea Moorhead (The Bitter Oleander Press)

This book is a quartet of slow, accumulative, long prose poems that touch on landscape, personal experience, geography, and philosophy. Sectioned and/or paragraphed, they gradually build up encounters with ‘Landscapes. Subtle shiftings of reality.’ These shiftings come from attention to detail, consideration of change, the seasons, the weather, how the light falls, and of how humans engage with the world around them.

Moorhead is interested in her own place in things, and in place itself, willing to be both scientific and emotional, rational and speculative, and to grapple with the unknown, in an attempt to allow ‘this existence to be full’. This fullness of experience, of course, means dealing with ups and downs, winter and summer, light and dark, the desired-for and the unwelcome. Death and mortality are part of nature, as is longing, absence, memory and anticipation; our own stories make sense of our lives, and ‘[f]ables frame the day’. Moorhead is well aware that ‘[t]his insistence on recollection alters the perception of light, changes the angle, lifts the dark shades to a brighter hue’, and she willingly brings that self-awareness to her texts.

But her self, her ego if you prefer, is pushed to the background throughout this writing. Moorhead gazes outwards, sits still and observes, walks and watches. She is well travelled and well aware of ecological damage and devastation, in fact it informs her work, but her work is mostly sitting still, looking and thinking about what she can see, and putting it in to language. ‘Sometimes’, she writes, ‘the day itself wobbles, sometimes everything wobbles, oscillates, shimmers and shivers along some axis that isn’t readily apparent.’ 

She attempts to explain how history, geography and language – ‘remarks’ – ‘have a way of escaping […] perhaps dissolving into what people call thin air, the substanceless extension of lived space.’ Moorhead is busy trying to document what is missing, push beyond the surface of the world into the past, the now, and the elsewhere, but ‘[t]he physical world preserves its mystery’ and only ‘fragile words linger’, perhaps not for long.

Much as Moorhead does her best to watch and understand, think and engage, she admits that ‘[t]he hallucinatory boundaries are unclear; illusion, mirage, hope and expectation reek havoc with the mind.’ We cannot escape what we have done and are doing, our shared responsibility, or leave our assumptions and wishes, our selves, behind: ‘flesh is slow to absorb what flickers across the mind’. But in this wonderful book Moorhead attempts to ‘narrow the gap between lost reflection and the insistent weight of the body’, to earth herself and us in time and place, the very now of where and how we live.

Rupert Loydell 14th May 2022

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