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Monthly Archives: April 2023

John Ashbery by Jess Cotton (Reaktion Books)

John Ashbery by Jess Cotton (Reaktion Books)

Jess Cotton’s new volume in Reaktion Books’ Critical Lives series is a knockout. It follows John Ashbery’s life and work from childhood to death as well as his posthumous influence, thankfully concentrating on what Cotton in her introduction calls ‘Ashbery’s innovative, evasive, comic and confounding poetic forms’ which, she goes on to declare, ‘have reshaped […] the American poem as we know it.’

To be honest the forms Ashbery uses often seem less interesting than the reshaping, although we have him to thank for the Westernised haibun and furthering the possibilities of the prose poem. But it is the adoption of surrealist juxtaposition and collage, of parataxis, that helped reinvent ‘the American poem’, partly because of the acclaim and fame (if any poet can claim to be truly famous) that accompanied Ashbery’s work.

It wasn’t always so. Ashbery’s first two books of poems, Turandot and Some Trees, are pretty mainstream, somewhat ordinary products of the 1950s, but 1962’s The Tennis Court Oath evidenced a change in direction, of technique and content, and led the way to the acclaimed Three Poems a decade later, and then Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. In the creative mix are the influences of French prose-poets (especially Rimbaud, one of the first to write ‘poetic prose’), fine art painting and critical writing, and queer culture, the products, Cotton argues, from time spent in Paris and then New York.

Although Ashbery suggests that reading Auden allowed more contemporary references and casual language to enter his work, Cotton notes that he ‘was self-consciously thinking about the possibilities of a fragmentary, montage-like poetics, freed of the mythological and expansive historical references of his Modernist forebearers that overdetermined the meaning of the poem’. It is this ability to embrace the fact that the reader is as much the creator of a poem as the writer that marks Ashbery out as original and different. Unlike those who choose to grapple with Ezra Pound’s Cantos, there is no need for the reader to read Chinese and Sanskrit or to know Greek and Norse mythology to ‘get’ Ashbery’s poems, they can luxuriate in wordplay and the imagistic, disjointed moments of the text itself. The work itself makes clear there is no confessional subtext or over-arching message to be imposed or deduced; we are free to make of it what we will.

That doesn’t mean it is random or vague, and Ashbery didn’t use chance procedures to create his work; he carefully edited, revised, and reshaped his writing, often for years on end. (The posthumous Parallel Movement of the Hands: Five Unfinished Longer Works is a marvellous collection evidencing this.) He learnt to allow scenes and moments to imagistically speak for themselves; to embrace camp, high society, friendships and loves, literature and journalism, art, music and cinema: everything could be used to construct his poems. And often was.

Later on in life, Ashbery also allowed himself to write a lot, something he had originally resisted, and in the process gaining a reputation for overproduction. But one senses that is what he did, he was first and foremost a writer, despite by that time being a poetry professor (which became an honorary post towards the end of his life) busy undertaking readings and talks, and an acclaimed success. However, give him a grant or bursary and Ashbery would retreat from his Chelsea apartment to his Hudson house or take off on new travels for as long as possible. As for the ‘zaniness’ he was sometimes accused of in later work, to me it reads as simple mastery and control of his juxtapositions allied with a witty self-deprecation and an original sense of humour. I am sure I am not alone in realising, perhaps later than I should have, just how influential Ashbery’s work has been upon both me personally and the wider poetry world. 

That influence is somewhere in the politicized deconstruction and experiment of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, the British poetry revival (specifically via Lee Harwood, who had a relationship with Ashbery), the surrealist comedy performances and writings of Luke Kennard, and the smartarse poetry of Dean Young, Martin Stannard and Bob Hicock, all busy taking language for long, disorienting walks. Even the mundane and populist poetry of writers such as Billy Collins might be the result of Ashbery, although I would not like to blame him directly.

Ashbery was adept at using others’ voices, disparate events and fictional (im)possibilities, whilst allowing his poems to interrupt themselves and wander off to where he hadn’t figured out yet. Cotton cites a moment of personal revelation for Ashbery, from his editor’s introduction to The Best American Poetry 1988, where he notes how he ‘was struck, perhaps for the first time, by the exciting diversity, the tremendous power it [poetry] could have for enriching our lives.’ What Cotton calls ‘Ashbery’s idiosyncratic talents’ are part of that enrichment, poems which ‘make the moment of communication a live act’. Anne Lauterbach notes that ‘when you read his work you are reading being alive.’ Apart from an informed critical introduction like this volume, what more could anyone ask for?

Rupert Loydell 26th April 2023

Suddenly, It’s Now by Blossom Hibbert (Leafe Press)

Suddenly, It’s Now by Blossom Hibbert (Leafe Press)

In Blossom Hibbert’s debut collection a lively (to put it mildly) imagination seems always to be wrestling with the loads of things going on in and around it. Inside and outside worlds collide and intermingle – much as they do in what we like to think of as real life – and the consequence is a poetry that, instead of trying to order everything neatly, and struggling to articulate what may or may not be its meaning, allows the imagination to come out on top in all its jumbled and often bewildering honesty.

I’m pretty sure purists will object to some of what happens in these poems. Lines have unexpected gaps and as unexpectedly fall apart. Utterance is sometimes fractured. Thoughts and images arrive from who knows where and are rapidly replaced by other images and thoughts because that’s often how the head behaves. As we think, as our brain sometimes overflows, we are not always meditating calmly, or recollecting in tranquillity. 

Take this, for example, from the first piece in the book, ‘bedman’:

            butcher holds paint-splattered knife. causes both grief and fullness,

            complacency and excitement.            would rather starve

            rotten bedman and    me. lost him for quite a while. decades

            even. ran away without saying



                                       his curious form


                                       his roadside shirt


                                       into      breast pocket

            neighbours beside my beating fish.                 gasp!

            bedman watches me write all languid evening long, yearning to win my

            cold heart over.          i never give in.

            i never.

            give.    in.

                                                            [where did he come from?]

                                                                                          retired pianist

            bought the lighthouse to live in across from puffin island.    ran toward it 

            pulling gaunt backbone grand piano

            beautiful sonatas          dropping onto

                                                ten foreign cargo ships

            sweating men on the docks swayed toward the ripping noise, wearing 

            medalled rain.

            started as a novelty but within a week became common:

                                                            wood pigeon’s coo-coo

I won’t claim to understand everything that’s going on here, or to be able to explain comfortably the train of thought, but that’s part of the pleasure. I love that ‘all languid evening long’, and the pianist and grand piano. And “medalled rain”! Writing of this kind is worth way more than the price of admission. And if that’s not enough, there’s the form: the breaks and gaps and lineation jog me out of any readerly complacency from which I might be suffering to pay full attention to what’s being said, whatever it may all ‘mean’. Also, I wouldn’t mind betting a pound coin that some of the form is a direct transcription of how this stuff first landed in Hibbert’s notebook, brain to pen to paper . . . I almost added ‘unthinkingly’, but that would be wrong. There is thinking here, but it’s the kind of thinking that happens when a poet is on a roll.

Never one to shirk a sweeping (and possibly inaccurate) generalization, I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere quite like this before. There’s a very definite and individual mind racing around here, and the form, along with often startling imagery, is enough to render the reading experience . . . well, I’ve been into the thesaurus, and I’ve come out of it with ‘invigorating’. It’ll do.

Hibbert’s writing is always springing wonderful surprises. The unexpected just keeps on coming: the poem “whole days”, which may or may not have its origin in a broken relationship, or a separation, has the brilliant

            spending whole days

            remaking your sudden face

and ends:

            vacant houses cry to be touched but everyone is afraid of deserted

            solitude and dying alone with

            [single egg on toast]

                        surely this cannot be

Hibbert’s natural avoidance of the obvious and her trust in the instinctive serves her well, and you can’t teach that stuff. Writing courses don’t offer it because they can’t. You either have it or you don’t.

While a poem like “bedman” sprawls across three or four sometimes bewildering but never less than engaging pages, Hibbert can also pull off the opposite, in length, form, and subject matter. “circumstances” is short enough to be quoted in full:

            men drink white tea and

                        women black coffee

            table legs strain with weight of all these old books

            mug handles   clunk and 

                                                toast crumbs sit between pages

            large nose presses against window

Throughout the collection, arresting images and phrases abound: there’s a ‘buttoned shoreline’, ‘the leaf is full and swollen now’, ‘tasty salvation’, ‘brave fire’, ‘i smell my shoulder and start again’, ‘god forbid what i’d do if i had a half decent dog to walk’, ‘where sofas smell like sneeze’ . . . This stuff obviously just comes so easily to Hibbert it never feels forced. When ‘drizzle’ ends with the lines

                                    i can’t even remember

            why i wanted to sit on that


            in the dark rotten first place

it just kills me, because it sounds so damn good, the authentic voice of an authentic person. Another poem – ‘for my eyelids’ – ends

            yours, mouldy plum in the room above

and you have to smile, surely. Character and personality is absolutely oozing out of these poems, and in a world where so many of today’s poets sound like loads of other poets that’s priceless. But there’s much more here than images and surprise and a hefty dose of individuality. There’s a bright, inquisitive, restless and self-examining intelligence underpinning everything that becomes more impressive with each repeated read. The collection ends in much the same way as it began, with a long (in this case, prosy) poem, ‘old book’, that starts out as narrative (sort of):

            i say, i think we should start reading to each other in the dark times.

            i say,       we should  start  selling  coffee grounds to the pope  who

            comes to the door every wednesday evening. . . .

                                                – you must go find an old book to read to

            me when the candles are lit.

I don’t have a clue about that pope, but frankly I don’t care. So they go to a shop and ‘he looks for an old book to read to me when stars shine wild’ but the search appears to be long and fruitless, and the speaker (poet) leaves him to it and goes to sit on a (park?) bench, where she (I assume ‘she’) watches a toddler stumbling around ‘the way they always do’, then ‘he comes back from the store . . . holding a yellow old book about boats.’ And I’m missing out quite a lot here, including ‘the way women look at other women. pity.‘ [underlines and bold typeface are as in the book, by the way.]

I don’t plan to try to paraphrase the whole un-paraphrasable poem, but the narrative (such as it is) shifts to the speaker “recover[ing] from heavy illness” and the poem morphs, briefly, into a contemplation of the self (which description sounds too pompous; I may need to re-write that, or maybe I’ll just leave it as it is):

                                                .  .  . not sure who I am or where to go


Momentarily, the poem threatens to become, or sound, a tad too much like the speaker (poet) talking conventionally about themselves and their problems, but Hibbert – perhaps because she’s being honest rather than through anything more complicated like, for example, a theory of poetics – sidesteps the trap:

            i am strange and mysterious and increasingly under the care of god.

            pity me not because sun has gone behind the clouds and the soft

            world is sleepy, but because back is moving towns. pity me because

            i am losing a shield —- me for i am in the middle of a battleground,


                                                music abruptly        stops.

            PITY ME! why should i?

and later:

                                                                        i will learn that i can

            survive without ‘important’ things.

This is pretty impressive stuff, and one of the beauties of it is that I may have a lot of it completely wrong in my head, but it’s a great read anyway, and repays a lot of re-reading.

The only caveat I have is rooted in personal prejudice and so can probably be ignored: I’m not fond of writing that’s 100% lower case. The persistent lower case in particular can really get on my nerves – it annoys me just to see it, and it annoys me even more to actually have to type it when Microsoft Word insists on capitalizing it. Whatever. I think maybe I had to say something vaguely negative because I want to keep young Blossom on her toes.

Finally, here’s the back cover blurb, which I can quote in full without a qualm, because I wrote it:

            Hibbert is a new and invigorating voice, the archetypal “breath of fresh air” 

            so often spoken of but so rarely encountered. These are very early days, but 

            it’s a pleasure to be present at the beginning of what promises to be an 

            interesting journey. One can tell there’s something special going on by the 

            fact that although Hibbert is studying and training to be a vet there are no 

            poems about animals anywhere to be seen. 

Martin Stannard 21st April 2023

The Indescribable Thrill of the Half-Volley by Tim Allen (Leafe Press)

The Indescribable Thrill of the Half-Volley by Tim Allen (Leafe Press)

Tim Allen’s latest investigation into language and the world is made up of 97 short poems, each comprising a couplet of sorts. We’ve been here before I think. You can read these pieces through as playful interjections, philosophical speculations or as refusals to ‘play the game’ in any traditional manner. Tom Jenks in a back-cover blurb to another recent collection (Allen is nothing if not prolific) describes him as ‘a wizard.’ Here is a page of the book, chosen more or less at random and this provides enough material for a ‘critique’ or commentary of some kind:

          16. invisible duty

          Waiting for the firework display – trees fidget

          Further into the forest memory is sleeping

          A dream is all interior like a calf on a cattle trail

          A novel minus its empty rooms and hitchhiking fish

          17. invisible journey

          Nothing in particular was still hanging around

          Surrounded by bitching sticklers for detail

          Gymnasts of fur and feather jump waterfall

          Dancer dances a bit of both with a clean and decent dance

          18. invisible paper

          Horses crossed the river for luck not for a fortune

          If something is missing It’s probably the planet

          Mermaid diarrhoea fertilizes our fields

          Go once around the course then sheer off on a tangent

These poems have both a kind of throwaway feel, as if put together very quickly but there’s also a condensing written into the form which might imply the opposite, the work of ‘a wizard’ perhaps. The titles suggest a continuity of subject, largely illusory yet there are hints within the text – ‘luck’ and ‘fortune’ for example which hang together even when followed by an obvious non-sequitur. What I love about these pieces is the amount of scope given to the reader to ‘improvise’ around each given text. The ‘dream material’ in the first poem, for example, suggests a fairy tale with its lovely ‘memory is sleeping’, rather than ‘an individual sleeper. Then I’m reminded of Rawhide with its mythic (dreamlike) status, memories of childhood television watching and the ‘hitchhiking fish’ is definitely an unexpected bonus, even when preceded by the ‘novel minus its empty rooms’ which is a thoroughly discombobulating image (image!) until you think again about the input of the reader. Here we have a game being played with words which emphasises, yet again, the artificial nature of language and its ‘tangled necessity’ in our relation to the ‘world out there.’ Even on the occasion that Allen plays with cliché you are made aware of the constant fight to avoid the obvious, the mundane, the ‘how many times have I heard this before’ aspect which destroys creativity and leads to endless boredom. These poems may be frustrating to read, at times, especially when you are playing the game and attempt to think through some of the impenetrable ‘logic’ but they are also wonderfully playful and are able to take you off into speculations and fanciful interpretations of your own. Far gone, perhaps but endlessly entertaining and it’s always fun to ‘Go once around the course and sheer off on a tangent’ whatever course it is you might be thinking about. It may be a racecourse, as hinted at throughout but then again…..  . Great stuff.

Steve Spence 6th April 2023

The Fox the Whale and the Wardrobe by Dónall Dempsey (Dempsey & Windle)

The Fox the Whale and the Wardrobe by Dónall Dempsey (Dempsey & Windle)

An intriguing title leads the reader into a kaleidoscopic and scintillating poetry collection by Dónall Dempsey. There is a great variety of wit and humour in these poems. ‘My Molecules are Revolting’ uses dialogue as a device to illustrate the repartee between the Universe and a couple of molecules that currently inhabit the narrator’s body while they wait for ‘the Big Bang/of Death’ and the chance of belonging to a more interesting formation in the future.

An amusing concept but it is always Death that hovers in the background. In the title poem there is the nightmarish texture of an aunt’s fox-fur stole which has ‘beady eyes alive with death.’ Every item of clothing in the dark wardrobe is ‘rotten now/eaten by time.’ Everything once belonging to loved ones is dead.  ‘I cry for the death of summer,’ says the narrator. ‘I cry for the death of them all.’

     Concern for the environment is a key feature throughout the collection. ‘Regeneration’ imagines the transformation of furniture back into its existence in the forest. Even the floor uproots itself while books shed their words ‘becoming/leaves on these trees.’ ‘The Tales Told by Birds’ creates a shocking impact. Humour, in the description of a world now empty of humans, is both surreal and cartoonish as ‘a dinosaur takes/the moving stairs/a pterodactyl hunts for bargains’ but the reality is that humans have nearly destroyed the earth and they themselves only survive ‘in the stories that birds tell/to frighten their little hatchlings.’

     ‘Words loved him/and would do anything/he said.’ This is Dónall Dempsey’s description of his uncle, but I think it would apply equally well to the poet himself, his love of life and living things, his sense of joy. A robin that has flown into a church is not just hopping from pew to pew but is ‘a miracle/ made real/its sheer joy of being’ as it dances on the altar and becomes the music of Hayden. Reflected ‘in the gold/of the tabernacle’ it is ‘the secret/prayer/of the moment.’ (‘The Emperor of Now’).

     The poem ‘Taking Back the Moment’ continues this sense of the here and now– its transience, its uniqueness. Memories, which are seemingly ‘lost for ever,’ trapped like sunbeams in a room, are dragged back by the narrator from a past which is sluggish as ‘a giant in a palace/made of years’ so that, as he says, he can ‘take the moment and flee/far far/into the future/where nothing can touch me.’ A haven of sorts, a sanctuary for the ‘one perfect moment’ caught in flight like ‘birds/writing themselves —unwriting themselves/across a page of sky.’

     There is much to be enjoyed in this collection – delightful, original love poems, a feast of epigraphs and literary references, poems that take a topic and turn it on its head. But I’ll end this review by mentioning two poems that particularly appeal to me.

     First is the lyrical, descriptive ‘…In Forgetful Snow’ which is inspired by a quotation from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: ‘Winter kept us warm, covering/Earth in forgetful snow.’ Here the snow falls heavily on what appears to be a graveyard with stone carved angels guarding the dead. T            his snowfall erases everything – time, memory, ‘the world’ – replacing it with ‘silence’ disturbed only by the croak of a raven ‘as land and sky become one.’  Everything, ‘even the horizon,’ says the observer, ‘is being filled in.’

     But my favourite of all the poems is ‘Nugae’ which I assume is Latin for ‘Ramblings’. Here torrential rain falls on both Catullus in 55 BC and on the narrator in AD 2020.  The humour in these lines is enchanting:

Vivamus … atque amemus!

he tells his rain.

We should live … we should love!

I tell mine.

And then the realisation:

His then and my now

almost one and the same

and the glimpse of a moment, a small epiphany: 

…in that instant

we both catch a glimpse

of the other time

falling like rain.

Mandy Pannett 2nd April 2023

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