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Author Archives: tearsinthefence

Brightwork by Suzannah V Evans (Guillemot Press)

Brightwork by Suzannah V Evans (Guillemot Press)

Amongst the poems, in prose and verse, of her latest pamphlet Brightwork – a follow up to last year’s excellent Marine Objects / Some Language – Suzannah V. Evans translates a number of pieces by Francis Ponge, minimally adapting their imagery to the localised milieu of a boatyard. In ‘Rain’, for example, a poem of deft attention and delicate syllabic patterning, the manifold action of rainfall is shifted from Ponge’s Paris courtyard to ‘the boatyard’, while scalar comparisons for water droplets – ‘un grain de blé’, ‘un pois’, ‘une bille’ – are swapped for boatbuilding paraphernalia – ‘pin head’, ‘copper rove’, ‘shackle’. Another poem, ‘Puffin, the little Hillyard’, retitles Ponge’s ‘La Barque’, allowing a new perspective on a classic wooden yacht (and on Ponge’s poem).

     Direct homage to Ponge is a savvy move on Evans’s part, allowing a more nuanced appreciation of the qualities of attention she’s cultivating in her work. ‘I particularly admire certain restrained writers’, Ponge tells us in ‘Notes For a Sea Shell’, ‘because their monument is made from the true secretion common to the human mollusk, from the thing most closely proportioned and adapted to his body … LANGUAGE’. The voice of Brightwork is suffused with this Pongean tact, with a quality of discretion or restraint which nevertheless allows a sense of powerful feeling to emerge.

     Mostly, these poems build towards an intensely affectionate investment in things seen, a cathexis mirrored in the care taken over the poetic act of knowing and naming. ‘Slipway’, which eases us in to the collection, admires a roster of ‘lovely things’ about its titular object: ‘your timber cradle, how you hold the hull of boats so closely, how you keep your chocking stable, and whistle at the sight of the wooden deck’. Many of the recurring pleasures of the poems in Brightwork are present here: playfully anthropomorphising lyric address; enjoyment of specialised lexis – ‘chocking’; imaginative working up of sound into voice – the slipway’s ‘whistle’ (returned to, memorably, in the closing ‘Slipway Song’); a subtle investment of favoured objects with a quality of maternal care – ‘cradle’, ‘hold’.

     Notably Pongean, too, is the collection’s anti-monumentalist focus on tools, machines, and bits of infrastructure that might easily go unnoticed, as well as its affection for the arcana of a craft – boatbuilding – easily reduced, in the age of the supertanker, to mere ‘heritage’. The title, Brightwork, derives from those parts of a boat of special polish, whether in wood or metal – elements which need maintenance and love to withstand the corrosive, barnacling impact of the sea. A sense is cultivated, throughout these pages, that the poet’s own brightwork is an act of rescue and salvage, the painstaking buffing up, in language, of things otherwise liable to entropy and neglect – things which, like ‘Puffin, the little Hillyard’ are vulnerable before the storm we call progress: ‘Left alone, she follows the current and drifts, like everything in the world, towards ruin’. 

     In ‘Say Elbow, Say Heart’, Evans has her boatbuilders dream of ‘a red hull inching / onto the slipway’, the dawn light which wakes them conflated with the glint of finish on the imagined vessel: 

And as the dream fades away,

And the sun eases up over the harbour,

The words brightwork brightwork brightwork

Lap at the corners of their rooms.

Here, the careful deployment of metaphor suggests the sociological concept of habitus – how our perception is shaped by institutional and technical structures of labour and action. Throughout Brightwork, Evans celebrates the highly particular imaginative worlds created by skilled labour, a shape of encounter between body and matter which takes form in a shared argot – a truly Pongean ‘monument’ all-too-easily lost in a homogenising, capitalist work-culture: ‘language is worked into the wood as they [the boatbuilders] move, / mahogany murmuring with the sound of canvas, / carlins, clinker, coaming, cradle, crook’.

     Brightwork imagines language sedimented in matter, a trace left by the interactions of living and non-living bodies. The poet’s task is to listen in to such significant encounters, translate them into speech: ‘place your hand on my smooth side and I am a rounded belly, full of sea dreams’, a buoy entreats (‘Buoy’); elsewhere, a pontoon ‘curls its voice around a creek, grumbles’ (‘Pontoon’). Together, these poems coax open the boatyard habitus, allowing it to slide out into a broad ecology of material interactions, the ‘sweet frictions’ of wood, air, metal and water tracked by subtle modulations in the sounds of words, an ‘acoustic tumbling’ (‘Slipway Song’). Thus, ‘rain thrums on hulls and hoods, / batters hatches, haunts heels / and heads of sails’ (‘Underfalling’).

     Often, Evans’s skillful sonics put me in mind of Lorine Niedecker, another poet whose work focused on the practical artefacts of ‘life by water’. She seems to share with Niedecker (and other Objectivists such as Oppen and Zukofsky), a trust that the things themselves, properly re-presented, might yield a quiet socio-cultural commentary. These are poems which encourage an ethics of careful listening and argue for respectful proportion between human presence and the elemental world. One of a host of writers drawn to the fertile margins of sea and land – many of them, such as Isabel Galleymore, also published by Guillemot – Evans has nevertheless martialled her influences to claim a highly distinctive poetic lineage. In Brightwork, her voice continues to develop with singular and exhilarating focus. 

Oliver Southall 13th June 2021

Wood Circle by John Wilkinson (The Last Books)

Wood Circle by John Wilkinson (The Last Books)

This is a book, I might say, that is both challenging and highly accomplished. Wilkinson gives few concessions to the wavering reader without compromise. To take the opening poem, ‘Download’, this starts out,-

                        Unruffled by the breeze, water holds steady state.

                                   It must soon be shook, which mind is

                        shattering from black, white and brown,

                        into a leaf-fall flurry, green, red and gold:

                                                 yes, in time, understood       (‘Download’ p9)

Plainly, syntactically and semantically there is a lot going on here, and the phrasing is edifyingly rich even where it might be elusive. The first person is missing, we have the ‘it’ of water, but also the veiled omission of a prospective third person who will ‘shake the water’, presumably. The ‘mind’ mentioned initially plainly retains to the water also, but can be picked up. The understood in time notation seems quite apt, this is the kind of writing that benefits from rereading and commentary. A first reading certainly brings a good amount of sense to it, and the linguistic dexterity of it is unmistakable.

The writing in a sense is plainly not transparent; it is quite thickly elaborated. One can’t help but wonder if this is part of the show or shine of well honed syntactic delivery, not at all giving much easily away. How often, for instance, does anyone speak of water being in a ‘steady state’? It is a matter of rhetoric and affect. 

Another poem further along ‘Burnt’ p21, has an intriguing formulation,-

                                               Draw back, chilled or burnt,

                                                the threads of destiny entangle,

                        hot wax drips on them and cools to affirm

                        simply where we are, each one their personal seal.   (p21)

This is highly indicative of Wilkinson’s style. As for ‘each one’ plainly no one is writing quite like this, not even, say, Keston Sutherland, with whom one might find some stylistic parallels. The use of language again is highly condensed. Wilkinson it could be said is highly economical, little goes to waste. Another citation that tends to bring out Wilkinson’s assertiveness is ‘This /cannot fit, must not…We own it all deniably.’ (p59) of ‘Stop-Out’.

With Wilkinson’s strong sense of rhetoric it is this that I take most from the poem, its apparent uniqueness in this regard. The poem includes a number of ‘Impromptus’ that are in a brisker, more effusive style, which makes for some contrast. Nonetheless the density of the language and its elusiveness of referent in places does tend to make it a difficult read. 

I can’t help but feel, however, that Wilkinson’s ‘personal seal’ tends to move to an inaccessibility and coolness to the writing that somehow uninvites reconsideration. Partly of course this is down to personal style. Wilkinson I think essentially is a highly assertive writer, should one suggest much more the expressionist than the impressionist, which is perhaps where some differences in my reading preferences fall.

That said, the craft of the writing is undeniable, and Wilkinson plies his syntactic originality and versatility with much flexibility and finesse. A question that remains is whether one must write like this, with an attendant density and elusiveness, or whether more transparency is at all possible. And equally if the density reaches certain levels, one wonders if the pay off satisfies the expense. There needs to be some kind of way in for the reader rather than simply marvelling at the verbal acrobatics. So, this is undoubtedly a book of considerable rhetorical fluency and really I suspect does send language use out to limits, less reflective and more of assertion and conviction. 

Clark Allison 9th June 2021

Hoarders by Kate Durbin (Wave Books)

Hoarders by Kate Durbin (Wave Books)

Kate Durbin’s work has been compared to Kafka’s and Beckett’s in its approach to the surreal, and her new book Hoarder’s certainly captures what is absurd in the culture of spectacle that is evident in the AE network’s television show, Hoarders. The reality show episodes focus on a single person or perhaps a couple who feel compelled to hoard objects. These objects come out of a culture based on the idea that consumerism solves problems and brings joy and gives us a voyeuristic look at the result of what is essentially someone’s mental illness. Durbin’s prose poems mix what the participants say about themselves as she describes what the camera is showing. The result is commentary on why they consume what they do and what we are consuming spiritually through our viewership. It is an exceptionally powerful collection that left me often sick to my stomach and moved powerfully by the humanity that the collection seems to suggest we return to. 

     For me, the most compelling poems are those where the people profiled clearly need help or they will suffer physically from their hoarding. For example, she writes about Alice, who takes in cats to care for but is not able to do so. Alice has stopped cleaning up after her cats who relieve themselves in her house. Here, Durbin uses italics when quoting and regular type to describe the camera work. She writes:

I feel awful, I’m a failure and that’s how my whole life has been one fresh shit among old shits.

My cats probably have worms, they probably have ear mites, there’s probably feline leukemia, feline AIDS running through black kitten whose hind legs won’t work lurching across the floor

I had a kitten and there was so much ammonia in the air that its eyeballs popped out grey cat with its eyes crusted shut.

I don’t even know how this started hiking boots under the bed, soles thick with shit (102-103).

Here and elsewhere, the characters profiled on the television show seem to be calling out for help, but their needs are ignored. Instead of providing help, we are asked to indulge in the spectacle of the moment. 

     Underlying the collection is a discussion of what this kind of culture is doing to the environment. After all, these are people reacting to trauma, whose society has told them that if they purchase more and more things they will heal themselves. In 2001, the president went so far as to say that consumerism was an act of patriotism that fought against terrorism. The sheer weight of the objects described is overwhelming. One couple has so many books that the floorboards are beginning to bend. Another woman keeps tapes from 40 years of compulsively recording television. Most people have objects that would seem random except for the commonality that they are meant to bring pleasure. There is very little here that has a function. Mostly they are objects like Barbie Dolls and other toys no one can play with now gathering around them.

     Kate Durbin’s Hoarders is incisive and brilliant. I could call it surreal, but it accurately captures what is on the screen, and the way we have been asked to view other people. 

John Brantingham 8th June 2021

All the Shades of Grief by Ellora Sutton (Nightingale & Sparrow)

All the Shades of Grief by Ellora Sutton (Nightingale & Sparrow)

In this vibrant debut pamphlet, Ellora Sutton excavates grief to discover the beautiful, the ugly, the playful and the startling. One could argue that mourning is much-explored terrain in poetry, covered by poets throughout the ages, from Shakespeare to Emily Berry in her acclaimed 2017 collection Stranger, Baby yet Sutton’s pamphlet brings new truths about grief and its countless ‘shades’ to the table.

Sutton’s imagery is bold and striking. The pamphlet opens with the visceral: ‘Darling – / if I could, I’d dislocate my jaw like one of those snakes / and float my soul out to you’, and with the speaker crying ‘molten gold’. Later, there is a dead badger ‘spangled with flies’, an empty pickled onion crisp packet ‘squeezed until (it is) a dead rat’, a portrait of loss as ‘a passport with a corner cut’, a woman in the moon tucked up like ‘a sweet red adzuki bean’, a radio that forecasts rain ‘before demonstrating / beautifully / with Mozart’. This confidence in use of imagery and metaphor – the ability to convincingly declare that a horse ‘melts / to a Greek chorus on the bank’ – is enthralling. 

The narrative arc moves unapologetically from mythology and folklore to ekphrasis responding to the work of the Old Masters, Van Gogh and Georgia O’Keefe. Perhaps this mirrors the mercurial state of grief; the dysregulation of emotions following a loss, and the suddenness of a shift from one feeling to another. In ‘The Five Stages of Grief’, the Kubler-Ross module is translated from clinical to visual, with each stanza conveying a stage of grief. Even if one is not familiar with the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – each stanza reveals each stage through concrete imagery as clearly as if the stages were named: the second stanza refers to an unsatiated urge ‘to punch walls’ in which the speaker’s ‘knuckles / do not bloom to corsages’. The final is ambiguous as to whether or not acceptance is relieving: whilst the stanza begins with the sun, how ‘The syrup of it / still warms me / through the cobwebs / and glass’, it ends with the horizon as a ‘scab’. Religion is tackled in ‘Flying Ants’, in which ‘the sunrise (is) the absolute beginning, / and sunset an utter myth’, and a girl watching the ants fly is ‘still as an idol’ and ‘a prehistoric monument to a deity, long defunct and bored with her reams of pointless forever’. Perhaps we are all flying ants in ‘the yawning drain-mouth of late afternoon’, and to the ages, our lives are as fleeting.

Dedicated to the memory of Sutton’s mother, the work communes with women throughout time. In ‘I Became the Wolf’, the Bible meets fairy tale when Little Red Riding Hood ‘sheds’ her cloak and remembers ‘before the wood’, ‘a woman naked in a forest / with an apple and a fig leaf’. Both stories reflect that ‘A girl, by nature, is a wild thing’. Witchcraft becomes a feature in ‘Ghazal for a Black Cat’, where ‘Fireworks refract dreams onto dustbin lids, / and it is all just fish to her, black cat’, and in ‘Coven / Transfiguration’, where characters ‘skin hares for their eyes / and feet’, and ‘The love is violet strong’. Much like in Julia Copus’s poem ‘The Great Unburned’ from her 2019 collection Girlhood, witchcraft is a symbol of female empowerment. All the Shades of Grief is both a celebration of and an elegy for female relationships, from the romantic, such as in ‘I Fall in Love with the Women in Paintings’, to the maternal in ‘Orbuculum’ where the speaker writes ‘I carry the weight of my mother on my chest’, and each breast is ‘a crystal ball’. The pamphlet engages with Sylvia Plath, whose influence is palpable throughout, not least in those that mention her by name – ‘On Sylvia Plath’s 87th Birthday’, ‘the moon is a gravestone with half the name keyed off’ and the ‘yew tree, / nursing the light like a horse breaking hot air, / is a boot print on the neck of the dark’, and ‘the wind howls red hair’. This weaving of Plath’s images is an echoing conversation between two grievers.

This pamphlet allows that grief, and its emotions are not to be avoided, but rather acknowledged, processed, and where possible, embraced: that ‘Tears are not snares around throats but dances / honest dances’. This is fresh, evocative work.

Olivia Tuck 7th June 2021

Broken Sleep Books 2020 anthology edited by Aaron Kent (Broken Sleep Books)

Broken Sleep Books 2020 anthology edited by Aaron Kent (Broken Sleep Books)

This unassuming, slightly chunky book delivers far more than its undemonstrative cover design might intimate. It is essentially a sampler of what Broken Sleep Books got around to doing in 2020, and some 24 poets are presented along with five examples of prose or nonfiction. It strikes me as pretty remarkable actually, the novelty and standard of writers represented. The publisher is using on demand printing. There is a mantra, ‘Lay out your unrest’, a good one to ponder over. But there is no mission statement nor any commentary on the writers appearing here. They are arranged chronologically according to date of publication and each writer gets approximately about 8 pages, give or take.

So perhaps first off, the grade of contributor quality is satisfyingly met if not exceeded. This, naturally, is a long way from a Faber or a Picador. The press I’m most reminded of is Knives Forks and Spoons. And by that, that Broken Sleep are largely dealing with newcomers and fringe activity. They haven’t quite yet settled with any ‘house’ authors whom they might wish to centre on or prioritise. Also, Aaron Kent is an able publisher but I wonder if he has other interests; he has a great way of identifying talent, but is that centred on literature or perhaps on other media. I think some of us are wondering about YouTube, just to cite one prominent hub of activity.

The book leaves the reader with a dilemma. Surely, all these tantalising excerpts are most entertaining and thought provoking to encounter, but which of these 28 assembled authors would one want to know more about. Being newcomers, few names are readily identifiable. 

And this appetite for novelty attends both to form and content. Some contributors are formally highly adventurous. And the range of subject matter is wide including an amount of risqué material, even in our age of unshockable indifference.

I’d perhaps venture that Kent is not getting behind a particular style of writing as such but rather more a sort of sensibility, a state of attitude or mind, that is slightly offkey, an amount of radical departure from what would ordinarily be expected. Looking with a new perspective is some hint, although the waters can become a little uncertain.

The layout prescribes that no one or more authors is highlighted or given unusual prominence. Two I particularly liked were Jonny Wiles, quite radical formally, and Alex Mazey, who is promulgating a Baudrillardian vision of consumerist society. The book both begins and ends well. The conclusion, a most unexpected short discourse on the rhinoceros in classical literature by Luke Thompson is quite fascinating. The opening by Emilee Moyce is actually reasonably indicative of what to expect. Her opening poem ‘Over the Moon’ concludes;-

            I felt that I was floating,

            my eyes no longer burned, and I slept

            until the sun came and went away again,

            waking only when the moon called my name.  (p12)

which in its mode of narrating is suitably moonstruck and, I think, quite original.

There are numerous edifying passages like this scattered through the anthology. I am reminded again that its design is highly understated, with few real hints of what to expect, although the plug from Andrew McMillan isn’t far off in speaking of an ‘exciting, and vital press in the dreamscape of UK publishing’. A valuable find, then, and I certainly hope that Aaron Kent, our editor, finds his way in the creative sphere, and there might be some anticipation as to where he heads next. 

Clark Allison 5th June 2021

Building Stonehenge by Marc Maurus (Arroyo Seco Press)

Building Stonehenge by Marc Maurus (Arroyo Seco Press)

     Marc Maurus’s Building Stonehenge is revealing and vulnerable in the way that Kevin Ridgeway and T. Anders Carson’s is, allowing his readers to have access to the complex interior life that many people hold secret. It is a work that comes not so much out of a suicide attempt, but at the vitality and life that followed it. Maurus intentionally drove into a concrete barrier at sixty miles an hour without an air bag or a seat belt and lived but experienced extensive brain damage. His doctors told him that his only possible path forward to recovery was by reading constantly, which he did, and against the odds, that treatment worked. What followed was a period of exceptional creativity, introspection, and even joy, and these poems are a result of that time. On my first reading of the collection, I thought of “The Day My Life Stood Still” (51) as the central poem of the collection because it describes his injury and cause of it. I think that was a mistake however. I think what is central to the collection is what brought him back to happiness and healing.

     Healing came out of a time when he read every moment that he was awake, and certain authors, especially Beat poets like Kerouac and Ginsberg, found their way through several of these poems. He has a gratitude for them. He constructs the cento “Timothy Leary’s Dead” out of a number of sources, but relying on these poets for key lines and understanding to his meaning. What he creates is not simple nostalgia, but a way of reseeing the old ideas and reapplying them to our world now. He does not reference only these writers by any means. They just seem central to his thinking. His poems convey a broad sensibility and a good deal of reading the books that he loved. Because of his brain injury, he would read these books again and again, and to me it feels like they have become a part of who he is and how he filters experience. This is not a bad filter.

     Another theme that runs through the book is a kind of call to humanity and to recognize that everyone is deserving of the human experience. Now that he is in recovery, he is able to hold a job, and one of those is as an ice cream man. He describes a moment when he gives a child who has little money an ice cream. This basic kind of dignity seems to be the mission that all of his reading has led him to. He inspects his own complicity in the poor race relations of the United States and looks to himself to improve, showing others a way forward. He praises those who do good and exhorts us to do the same. For me it functioned as a reminder of what kindness is and how to express it.

     It is no surprise that constant reading leads to kindness. Anyone who reads deeply knows that it helps to develop empathy. I think the great take away from the collection for me was that reading and thinking deeply leads people to their best selves. It has certainly let Maurus in a positive direction.

John Brantingham 4th June 2021

things that happen by Maurice Scully (Shearsman Books)

things that happen by Maurice Scully (Shearsman Books)

Maurice Scully, in my garden 20 years ago, advised me on pruning a young laburnum tree. My dilemma was the removal of one of three main branches. He hardly hesitated, “Take out the middle one.” Was it the tree he was considering or was it symbolic of something else?

Writing ‘about’ something (how many poets continue to introduce their work, ‘This poem is about’?) renders it culpable of being a descriptive exercise, whereas writing ‘through’ something opens levels of greater interest and realization.

                  the middle of March I’m

                  in the tropics suddenly

                  inside the arctic circle not

                  dizzy but waiting to bloom….      ‘ABC’

Maurice Scully’s expansive consideration in ‘things that happen’ moves through such realisations and discoveries.

                  heavy chestnut blossom by a shed wall by a river.

                  Mud & buried bicycles & reflections in the channel.

                  Fifty-seven seagulls on a parti-coloured roof.

                  Your move. Maytime.

                  To swink in this railway station buying time

                  to think, static, in kenetic railway context by the rails.

                                                      ‘A Record of Emotions: Side A’

The word ‘swink’, meaning to work under difficult conditions for long hours is key to much of what unfolds in this collection of writing – it is a huge testament to application, curiosity and the poets unfurling poetic oeuvre since 1987 and places Maurice Scully in the forefront of the Irish Modernist canon.

The word ‘swink’, so playful, indulging as it does in the act of pushing ‘ink’ forming words from that act; those words, in recognition of each other, dropping a ‘wink’ – and without stretching the point too far, the unmistakable ‘swin(g)’ of language, Gaeilge, Italian, French, English and a smattering of Sesotho, at this poets disposal. (There are helpful notes at the end of the book.)

Small turns and light twists in fleeting moments belong to the realm of these poems as much as longer sweeps of time so the reader becomes sensitive to seconds as much as decades.

                  the pillar vine

                  hacks this pliant

                  this pliancy

                  this young

                  vineplant attached

                  to the rocky

                  edges 

                  of the pillar

                  & in a rain

                  of names

                  absorbency

                  storyline

                                    two-way

         three-way

                  in section

                                             vertical

cut across &

                  down

                  rest/pillar/

                  shock – curl –

                  happiness

                  peace/the pillar

                  the vine the

                  soft

                  white the pillar

                  the soft the

                  light

                  vine then just

                  don’t think

                  don’t

                  look don’t

                  brea-

                  the.              ‘The Pillar & The Vine’

Time is held in this meditation – the deliberation lonely, yet filled with succour for both its author and for any reader. So often Maurice Scully’s movement of thought and consideration is through biological fascination.

There is a tacit agreement from the outset that a reader must indulge him/herself in these poems as much as Maurice Scully has done in writing them although there still remains a considerable amount of work to be done by the reader. That said, enjoyment arrives quickly when immersing oneself because of the freedom arrived at in their writing – as if the articulation of the poet’s will is subordinate

or given over to the ‘experience in itself’ as Paul Perry says.

                  driving in a red dustcloud

                  for hours years wandering

                  wondering how to

                  connect

                  this stone to that hut with

                  precision tact     two hands one

                  gift     wait listen     right

                  left     shimmering elastic

                  wallhome

                  (not any other barrier

                  But a breeze over it)

                  welcoming.         conduit. ‘Steps’

Winks and nods arrive with great fun too, as in the Jacques Prévertesque,

‘To make a table / you need wood / to make the wood / you need a tree / to make the tree / you need a seed / to make the seed / you need a fruit / to make the fruit / you need a flower / to make a table / you need a flower.’ 

                                                            ‘A Record of Emotion, Side B’

Elsewhere the wonderfully surreal/absurdist,

                  One day a bankman came to the tree with his money

                  and sat under it balancing a book. But he soon fell

                  asleep and began to dream. And in his dream he saw

                  a bankman falling asleep under a tree with his money

                  and a book and beginning to dream of a man dreaming

                  he was making money out of a book (in which he

                  featured quite prominently) under a tree beside a

                  windowsill upon which were two young caterpillars,

                  laughing, white and green, Fat Caterpillar and Fatter

                  Caterpillar, that dreamed they lived on a windowsill

                  under a tree.  ‘Two Caterpillars’

Reading things that happen can be like flicking from station to station on a radio or channel to channel on TV. After a few minutes the senses become absorbed in the continuity of disruption itself.

There is humanity, adventure, enjoyment and skill in the 609 pages of this book.         

By the way, the laburnum tree is thriving and in flower as I write.

Ric Hool  3rd June 2021

Gravity for Beginners by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Arc Publications]

Gravity for Beginners by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Arc Publications]

I have always admired Kevin Crossley-Holland’s writing, particularly his Anglo-Saxon translations, so it is a pleasure to read and review Gravity for Beginners, his first new collection for six years. An additional delight is the setting – mysterious, atmospheric Norfolk with its wealth of legends.

The collection opens with an epigraph from a poem by Rilke which sets the mood for the theme of ‘times past’ and the sense of magic. ‘This is the heart of everything that ever was’ is the first line and it is also the heart of Gravity for Beginners.

The epigraph is followed by nine parts of a sequence called ‘Seahenge: A Journey’ and we begin a journey through an emotional and geographical landscape established by pieces whose titles themselves are poem-like: ‘Tump’, ‘Deadheaded’, Unliving’, Shimmer’. ‘Tree’, ‘Altar’, ‘Crossing’, ‘Tides’, ‘Burden’. Here the journey begins with ‘a search for a thumbnail of pottery’ that will remind the narrator of his belief that he was ‘an inmate of the barrow’ that once existed and whose echoes can still be heard:

         Footfalls in the sandy soil and soggy fen,

         footfalls through forests bedded

         with cones and needles:

         knappers and salt-panners and oyster-men,

         truth-tellers, outcasts, devotees

         still resting here.

The sequence explores the background to Seahenge – a timber circle of oak trunks with a huge, upside-down one at its centre. Here a young woman relates how she helped to build the circle and lay the body of her father inside it and here the atmosphere becomes ancestral, pagan, violent and ritualistic. We are in the realm of a ‘white skull, green earth, swarming sea’. This is the site of a ‘crossing place’ where ‘time and ‘dream’ have re-mapped the original henge ‘into another truth’ where the narrator is able:

         Wholly to immerse myself

         wholly to find myself.

Gravity for Beginners, like all of Kevin Crossley-Holland’s writing, is imbued with myth, history and the still-living past where wide steps are ‘scalloped by centuries of hooves’. (‘The New Familiar’). These lines from ‘The Northern Gods’ particularly appeal to me:

         Have you ever dreamed you were sitting in the bole

         of Yggdrasill, squinting up at the skull

         of the white sky, then down into the icy swirl?

         Have you heard the vitriol of the dragon,

         the corpse-devourer, and seen how the squirrel

         whisks it up to the eagle on the topmost branch?

There’s humour as well as lyricism in ‘L’Abbaye-Château de Camon’ where the ‘rondel/ of the seasons seems to spin faster’ and the breath of the medieval queen Aliénor ‘is always here/or hereabouts, trailing her wailing/retinue of troubadours.’

But this whole collection is a journey and in ‘En Route’ we are reminded there’s ‘always some unscheduled halt/with its attendant wonders’ which may be:

         The marvellous or the monstrous

         but more often the humdrum 

  • a reclamation yard, or the smell

of an autumn bonfire; this siding, say,

choked with dusty purple nettles,

an ochre butterfly flickering over them.’

There is a sense of wonder throughout Gravity for Beginners and this brings me back to the starting point of Rilke’s lines about the way ‘the heart of everything … returns to each of us, our very being,/woven into us.’ Kevin Crossley-Holland invites the reader to share in the essence behind the appearance, to see the landscape behind the words.  The collection’s title poem sums this up:

         Words slipping into the mind’s casket,

         quick rain falling to attending earth.

Or maybe the essence and wonder is best expressed in this, my favourite poem, ‘Winter as it Used To Be’:

         Birds flew in searching for seed

         and all at once became snowflakes;

         as words do.

         A burst of sunlight, an angel’s aureole,

         and then mist; and the trees,

         and our singing selves made of morning air.

Mandy Pannett 31st May 2021

Things I Have Withheld: Essays by Kei Miller (Canongate Press)

Things I Have Withheld: Essays by Kei Miller (Canongate Press)

This is a stirring and insightful collection of essays that often reads like a travelogue or reportage; that is that its prerogatives are not speculative or theoretical. Kei Miller from Jamaica, who studied and has taught in Britain, has been lauded for his poetry, especially The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (2014). 

I was a little reminded of Martin Amis Visiting Mrs Nabokov, which similarly is in a kind of reporter’s prose conveying and getting back about places he’s visited, people seen. Miller’s essays cover a lot of ground, from Jamaica to Trinidad to Kenya to Ghana. 

Reflecting I’d say the main points coming through are to get a bit of local colour, sometimes not without its hazards, in some of these places; and to take measure of Miller’s insistence on his embodiment, no ivory tower here, and the culture and politics of racial or ethnic identification. Miller seems to suggest that he can no more get out of his body than change or forget his skin colour. Identity figures too in Miller’s gay identification. Among topics covered are the circumstances of battyboys in Jamaica through to Trinidad and Jamaica carnival on to corrupt police in Ghana. 

The book is framed with imaginary letters directed to the esteemed James Baldwin, who becomes Miller’s muse for a time, both opening and closing the book. Baldwin, of course, struggled hard for his art, frequently feeling unsafe, and speaking with a rare reach of eloquence.

Miller seems to be following a theme, if you like, of where you belong. That being so, of course there was black livelihood before Jamaica, presumably prompting the trip to Kenya and Ethiopia. But no Roots excavation here. It is also inescapable that skin colour betrays something about roots, be it tanned, mulatto, deep brown and so on. Miller links his skin tone to his body consciousness, something that no amount of cerebralness can countervene. 

Chapter 9 is called ‘There are Truths Hidden in Our Bodies’, and in that sense this can account for Miller’s body consciousness, a means to arrive at the truth if not quite to some sort of felicity. He does sympathise with the battyboys, who will play up the pride and camp at carnival, and how that experience is seen as a time to expunge our ‘worst’ behaviour, albeit I assume harmlessly. It cannot go unremarked that Miller has a short account of the recent police death incident, rendered anonymously, repeating the fatal expression ‘Please, I can’t breathe’ (p197) twenty two times.

Miller says to Baldwin actually, ‘I resent your dying’ (p16) about the same place he concludes that ‘there are histories that haunt our bodies’.

But of course irrespective of that body awareness Miller is able to bring us a persuasive, writerly account of what is going on in some of these places he inhabits. A strong attachment to Jamaica comes through well, of the shoreline, waves lapping on rocks, of the hillside houses, of the different seasons. Miller says he regards the book as ‘an act of faith, an attempt to put my trust in words again,,,to offer, at long last, a clearer vocabulary’. (pxv) While this is a book with an eye to the future, I like to think that it is well on the way to espousing that enhanced clarity. 

Clark Allison   30th May 2021

Islands of Voices: Selected Poems of Douglas Oliver edited Ian Brinton (Shearsman Books)

Islands of Voices: Selected Poems of Douglas Oliver edited Ian Brinton (Shearsman Books)

The eight titles of Douglas Oliver’s works included by Ian Brinton are supported with a preface by Joe Luna and introduction by the editor along with eight pages of notes at the end of this 180 page book. The inclusions by Joe Luna and Ian Brinton make clear Douglas Oliver’s stance towards poetry as indeed does reading his poems.

         The poet’s inward conversations held within poems being the very thing with which he wants to confront possible readers: the immediacy of language acting in the moment of experience and in the reported experience, each being reliant on the other. Clear indication of this evident in:

                  ‘Oh you are born already!’ cries the English mother

                  in pained surprise to her hanging baby,

                  as though the finished phrase

                  has slipped, unfinished, out of anguish

                  still continuing, into its adventures.

                                                               ‘Beyond active and passive’

and strongly so, in:

                  … The moment we will speak has

                  already happened: it waits

                  in the silence of the subterranean hall

                  as meaning stumbles downstairs to articulation.

                                                               ‘The earthen stairs’

There is no escaping the disruptive syntax, especially in poems from ‘Oppo Hectic’ and ‘The Diagram Poems’ but then poetic articulation has its tradition in ‘strange and wonderful language’ (Aristotle), in order to estrange itself from normalcy. The core concern of defamiliarisation as outlined in Viktor Shklovsky’s essay, ‘Art as Technique’, is that language should be non-normative

so that the author creates a vision from de-automized perceptions.

Certainly Douglas Oliver’s earlier poems invite such a step into them, not to understand, but to believe them. Once done the presumptions of comprehension give way to other experiences.

                  Kindness acts idly or unnaturally,

                  leads you into fear. Act in kind.

                  Kindness makes you idle, worse, unnatural.

                  Don’t be afraid of the darkness of kind;

                  for it’s the birth of darkness, vertical twist

                  of opening lips in the night:

                                                               ‘For Kind

However not all the poems are difficult but most are arresting:

                  …on their marital bed she, the Haitian

                  changed his skin sympathies, unshackled his stiff pelvis

                  by mounting him, squirting black womanly sperm into him,

                  remaking his mind and his tongue while he was still

                  asleep, new conceptions warm and liquid in his pelvis.

                  The opening of eyes, changing of person, exchange of sexes,

                  Black for White, We for They, Woman on Top, all this is

                                                               ‘Penniless Politics’

That book ‘Penniless Politics’ advanced the notion of a people’s political party in the multicultural Lower East Side of New York and, as with the sweep of his writing, politics and social comment was its fuel – that and the manner in which it was sourced from his personal life.

                                                         … for my father

                  now spoke, in death still a typical Scot:

                  ‘Please yourself with all this palaver

                  about Socialism; the cemetery is certainly not

                  a Tory stronghold. The truth is, I’d rather

                  your Socialism shone with your past; you’re not shot

                  of that fatherly honesty,  walk humbly but

                  remember your innocent days; who refuses

                  his childhood’s a booby – and I haven’t forgot

                  your politics, with its blindness and pearly roses.’

                                                               ‘The Infant and the Pearl’

There is a quantity of information regarding Douglas Oliver and that’s good – it is very good and purposeful. What I hope to have achieved in this review is to set out the push in the publication of Islands of Voices.

         Ian Brinton has selected poems by Douglas Oliver that he considers should be read. There is no getting away from this. His selection is generous and scopes the poet’s life, to wit (and it’s quoted in Ian Brinton’s introduction) Douglas Oliver said, ‘A poet’s full performance is the whole life’s work; …’

Some of it is here and Ian Brinton instigates a reading of it all.        Yes.

Ric Hool 29th May 2021

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