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Happiness, as Such by Natalia Ginzburg trans. Minna Zallman Proctor (Daunt Books)

Happiness, as Such by Natalia Ginzburg trans. Minna Zallman Proctor (Daunt Books)

This is the fourth book by Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1991) to be published by Daunt Books, following on from Family Lexicon, The Little Virtues and Voices in the Evening. Essayist and novelist, Sicilian-born, Ginzburg was an extraordinary writer, being able to get under the skin of family life, public and private connections, in a deceptively simple prose style marked by clarity, precision and humour. Her unmistakable style emerges regardless of the translator. Ginzburg wrote Family Lexicon in London in the early 1960s, and pointedly about the English and their ways in The Little Virtues at the same time. With that other Sicilian writer, Andrea Camilleri, known for his Montalbano novels, their near contemporary, Cesare Pavese, and the younger Elena Ferrante, Ginzburg has a growing readership in the UK. An anti-fascist, member of the Italian Communist Party, Ginzburg worked for the publisher, Einaudi, in Turin in the Forties, published early and continued to develop her style over the years. She was elected to the Italian parliament as an Independent in 1983.

Happiness, as Such is partly an epistolary novel, in the tradition of Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771), where comedy arises from the differences in descriptions and understanding of events and places from letters sent home by Squire Bramble and members of his entourage as they tour the country. Here the letters sent arise from an absent son, Michele, who has left Rome for London to escape the dangers of his radical political connections, and the comedy arises from the characters observations and one-liners and, as in Camilleri’s novels, in the fringe characters and action elsewhere. Michele belongs to a large, dysfunctional family, and his absence somehow manages to link his dispersed relatives, friends and lover into complicated web of events revealing how they cope in adversity.

Minna Zallman Proctor has translated Caro Michele (1973) into Happiness, as Such and the English title works brilliantly as it addresses Ginzburg’s attempt to reveal the diverse ways in which people cope with disappointments and mistakes. Deborah Levy’s back cover observation on the effect of reading Ginzburg as both calming and thrilling is spot on. The writing is profoundly alive from the short sentenced opening page into Adriana’s first letter to her son. The reader immediately hears and gets the character, a bossy, melancholic woman with a pithy turn of phrase and the origins of much humour and perception. Here she is in full flow:

‘When you go to see him, don’t take your usual twenty-five pairs of dirty
socks. The butler, I can’t remember if his name is Enrico or Federico,
isn’t up to the extra burden of managing your dirty laundry right now.
He’s exhausted and overwhelmed. He doesn’t sleep at night because your
Father keeps calling him. And it’s the first time he’s ever been a butler.
He was a mechanic before. Plus, he’s an idiot.’

This is essentially a letter of complaint and Ginzburg draws in a great deal of social detail into her characterisation and subsequent action. The reader is carried along by the narrative force and almost misses the relentless candour and deft one-liners, such as her observation on Osvaldo, Michele’s friend, that ‘He’s polite. It’s the kind of politeness that makes you feel full, as if you’ve eaten too much jam.’ Whilst Adriana’s letters are startling, and full of life, Michele’s are brief, evasive and can be read for what they don’t say. His mother in contrast has much to say.

Gradually the complexity of Michele’s life and habits emerge. The absent centre is diffused throughout a set of connections laid bare before and after his death. Ginzburg uses this platform to evaluate what it is to be happy and the various states of happiness, as such, and is never short of new revelation and comic insight.

The exchange between Michele’s sister Angelica and his ex-girlfriend, Mara, who is an unpleasant deceiver and on the make shows how generosity can elicit honesty from a scoundrel. Angelica writes ‘I think that we should care about your baby and not worry about whether or not it’s his baby, by us I mean me and my mother and sisters, and I don’t know why I feel that way, but not everything a person feels has to have an explanation, and to be perfectly honest I don’t believe that obligations should have explanations.’ Mara responds that although she is broken and unreliable, she must tell her that the baby is not Michele’s. She writes: ‘I don’t want to deceive you. You said it so well: we don’t need reasons for what we feel we need to do or not do.’ She then proceeds with her tale of disaster, bored but happy, to emphasise her need for assistance in the face of uncertainty.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the narrative and spoil what is a great read. I shall end by stating that Ginzburg is adept at the gradual filtering of salient detail and, like Chekhov and Carver, at the unsaid, as well as like Ferrante at the full and rounded revelation. This extraordinarily tender and life-affirming novel, by one of the great Italian writers, repays rereading.

David Caddy 22nd October 2019

The Gospel of Trickster by Nancy Charley (Hercules Editions)

The Gospel of Trickster by Nancy Charley (Hercules Editions)

From its quirky pocket size, that makes the book very portable, to its bible black colour, with gothic lettering the reader knows they are about to read something rather unusual. The title itself teases, the use of Gospel seems to subvert the Christian sense of the word, which involve the teachings of Jesus and his followers but has been it seems appropriated by a character called ‘Trickster’ whose origins are unfamiliar. Throughout, the book is dramatically illustrated with drawings by the artist Alison Gill that reinforce the gothic nature of the work.
The book much like a conventional gospel is divided into chapters. Broadly the piece follows the ambiguous Trickster as he encounters and tries to subvert the story of Jesus. It has the feel of a dramatic monologue and does indeed make an excellent piece of theatre as demonstrated by Charley’s run of one woman shows that bring Trickster and his machinations to life with great effect.
A word should be said about the inclusion of the Christian story throughout the narrative. The writer has an impressive knowledge of the bible. However, I really don’t think it is necessary to have these points of reference to enjoy the text. In a secular society the rise and fall and rise of an extraordinary man resonates with us all and recalls such leaders from Gandhi onwards. Whilst a knowledge of the Christian story adds an extra dimension for the reader, it is not preclusive. This is after all Trickster’s story and the focus really is upon the existence of such meddlesome and amoral beings in our world.
Charley makes it clear in the useful afterward that trickster is not the Christian Devil. He seems though to have a nodding acquaintance with Satan in the tale, and is quite willing to do his bidding, especially in the context of the Jesus’ narrative, where he has a word in Judas’ ear amongst other mischief making. What makes the character so appealing is as The Rolling Stone’s say in Sympathy for the Devil ‘Just what is the nature of your game?’ Certainly, he likes to meddle, to make trouble, to stir things up. He is like a malcontent but with a sense of humour. His aim seems to be to debunk or at least subvert the works of good men.
What makes him such a compelling character is his natural whit, but also the ways in which his efforts to disrupt good are always defeated. Trickster is the anti-hero to the Christ hero, and as with all such dynamics the more he seeks to debunk his enemy, the more good prevails. Yet this is not just a simple tension between good and evil. Trickster is more ambiguous. He at times seems to stand apart from both moralities and represent a very modern cynicism which challenges the nature of Christianity. Indeed, the character is not two dimensional but complex with moments of philosophical reflection and a genuine sadness that he cannot fully commit to being good. In this way he is reminiscent of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
What this gospel does is humanise the Christ figure by use of small vignettes that dramatize the stories very familiar to some of us, for example that of Lazarus. The Trickster’s negative reaction in the face of such miracles and their agenda gives us a fresh perspective on the Jesus story. By challenging the character and motives of Christ, we are given a fresh view on the original gospels. This is not a modern atheistic standpoint, rather that of someone who challenges the modus operandi of Jesus. Moreover, the focus is not about God himself rather that of the role of his son.
We see by the very existence of Trickster and his rationale that in real life there are grey areas. In many ways he resembles those creatures in Hilary Mantel’s novels, who are distinctly uncanny and dark. Trickster seeks to meddle and trick us for his own delight and entertainment. Ironically though, seen through the prism of his jealous eyes, the reader comes to regard the story of Christ in a fresh and favourable light. This is particularly seen in the dramatization of the Jesus’ days in the wilderness where he is shown to be stoic and brave, traits a little lacking today.
The literary devices used by Charley are highly effective. There is much use of alliteration as befits a gospel or narrative poem and is in this way again pays homage to Milton’s Paradise Lost, where his devil has all the best lines too. Internal rhyme ensures the poem flows at a pace as events transpire. The use of humour and wit is excellent and highly enjoyable. There are some fine vignettes as the Trickster interacts with other characters. The dramatization of such figures as Mary’s father enraged at his daughter being knocked up by an angel are playful but also bring out the humanity of the biblical story. Trickster’s tone is by turns deliciously spiteful, self-pitying and jubilant. He uses a combination of demotic language as befits his character but this also this serves to make the original bible story more current and relevant today. This language is blended skilfully with higher case lexis such as ‘piquancy and punch’ that makes the tale fun to read and indeed to listen to and indicates that Trickster has great verbal dexterity and can trick us with his language.
Clearly Charley has an enviable knowledge of the original gospels. But this is Trickster’s gospel and it invites us to look from a different perspective at the nature of good and evil. Similarly, the character serves to reveal our own complex humanity. Trickster is that part of us that wants to be bad, to break rules, to be anti-establishment. But watching his shenanigans against the actions of a thoroughly good man allows us to decide which camp we follow. In fact, Trickster himself on observing Jesus’ sacrifice, comes close to redemption, but in the end, he finds being good too restrictive, no fun and elects to continue meddling on down the ages. Yet by the end of the book there is an indefinable and very subtle sadness about his inability to be virtuous.
In the afterwards by publisher and writer we are informed that Trickster’s role is to meddle. he remains ambivalent in origin which makes him even more intriguing. Whereas Christ through his example of self-sacrifice offers a redemption we must earn, Trickster is all about instant gratification. This is a book that challenges the reader with its suggestion of a chaotic universe where there are more things in Heaven and Hell…. And warns us that wickedness is very real.

Fiona Sinclair 21st October 2019

Tears in the Fence 70

Tears in the Fence 70

Tears in the Fence 70 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry and prose poetry from Jeremy Hilton, Charles Hadfield, Mandy Pannett, Lisa Dart, Robert Sheppard, Simon Collings, David Ball, Tamsin Blaxter, Seán Street, Jessica Mookherjee, Peter J. King, Lucy Hamilton, Andrew Henon, David Sahner, Rhea Seren Phillips, Beth McDonough, John Freeman, L. Kiew, Andrew Duncan, Charles Wilkinson, Rhys Trimble, Ruby Reding, Peter Hughes, Maria Jastrzębska, Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, Hazel Smith, Lucia Daramus, Vik Shirley, Julie Mellor, Michael Henry, Cora Greenhill, Maggie Giraud, Paul Matthews, Adam Horovitz, Sarah Barnsley, Beth Davyson, Paul Green, Caroline Maldonado, Lesley Burt, Jonathan Chant, Jane Wheeler, Miranda Lynn Barnes and Reuben Woolley.

This issue is designed by Westrow Cooper and features a cover photograph by Emile Guillemot.

The critical section consists of Ian Brinton’s Editorial, Jeremy Reed on Bill Butler, Mary Woodward on Turin and Pavese, Barbara Bridger on Hari Marini, Ruth Valentine on Isabella Murra & Caroline Maldonado, Mark Prendergast on Chris Wallace-Crabbe & Kris Hemensley, Richard Makin on Ken Edwards, Caroline Maldonado on Mandy Pannett, Ian Seed on Martin Stannard, Duncan Mackay on Eleanor Perry, Sarah Connor on California Continuum Vol. 1, Nigel Jarrett on Rhys Davies, Cora Greenhill on Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, Lisa Dart on Kay Syrad, Nic Stringer on Michelle Penn, Adam Coleman on Duncan Mackay, Fiona Owen on Paul Deaton, Notes On Contributors, and David Caddy’s Afterword

Embodiment by Dinah Livingstone (Katabasis Press)

Embodiment by Dinah Livingstone (Katabasis Press)

Embodiment is a less scary word than incarnation but its choice as title of Dinah Livingstone’s tenth collection reflects her loyalty to Christian theology as a central metaphor. This consistency also allows her to lay claim to a continuous selfhood:

I knew that I was me when I was five,
I’m grown up now and not a little girl
but still myself, though I don’t look the same. ‘Keeping Faith’

The continuity is upheld despite physical changes in the body she speaks from. Livingstone maintains that the poetic voice is always embodied which is why so many of these poems are written in her own voice and explore her own experience. About three fifths of the poems use the first person where this can be identified with the poet. It is not egotistical self-indulgence that motivates her writing, but the belief that physical life on earth is a common or shared experience and that if the poet writes accurately and honestly in their own embodied voice the words will communicate and recognised by others. The first half of the collection uses not only the voice of the poet but includes and acknowledges the voices of others:

Any voice, whether
of someone dear, or hated
like an obnoxious politician,
though each speaks the language
of its social niche, its daily connections,
has its unique print. ‘Loved Voices’

Sometimes, she simply describes the other voice, be it neighbour, teacher, grandson or even the poet, Stevie Smith. In other cases, she takes different personas, as in the delightful sonnet shared between a boy and a fox. In ‘The Yearning Strong’, an eco-protest, she invents a voice from the future which uses the perspective of distance to record some of her own most cherished experiences: ‘There’s a huge animal you can ride on,/stroke its furry neck and trot/through the wood or gallop over the moor.’ In another very powerful poem, she reports the voices of drowning migrants in English and through some of their own languages. This poem records a failure of communication in one of the few moments where the overall tone of positivity falters:

‘Who listens?
Something is very wrong.
What can we do?

Perhaps the implicit message is the importance of listening and hearing, without which there can be no action.

In the second part of the collection, ‘Embodiment’, the voice is the same and themes are developed from the first section which are familiar from the writer’s other work. The first poem, which relates to the cover reproduction from Blake’s illustrations of Paradise Lost, serves as a manifesto. For Livingstone, as for Blake and Stevie Smith in the first section, gods are human inventions and their stories are metaphors or projections of what humans want:

the full embodiment of Christ will be
an actual reign of kindness long imagined,
which now – with nothing supernatural –
ordinary people try (or not)
by love and work to give something towards. ‘Alpha and Omega’

The confident ‘will’ in the first line of this quotation is slightly undermined by the bracketed ‘or not’ in the penultimate, perhaps reinforcing the recognition that it is up to humans what they make of the world.

In the sequence Keeping Faith, Livingstone brings together two of her concerns, the nature of the self and the embodiment of ‘faith and hope and love’ in a world where ‘kindness’ in its fullest sense prevails. I think this is because the fullest embodiment comes through self-realization, as in ‘November’ where she describes a plane tree: “Self-possessed, this London plane/spreads high into the blue’ , a notion of self-hood clearly derived from Hopkins. To oversimplify, the best community will be reached through ‘all those different selves’ achieving their full potential or selfhood. Sometimes it seems that ‘embodiment’ is purely physical; sometimes, it seems to include works of art, such as a poem.

Or you write what you didn’t expect
and it is beyond prose –a poem.
And when, at last, your living child is born,
you see his face and the midwife
gives you him to hold,
himself and snuffling in your arms. ‘Nature and Grace’

However, the age-old divide between body and spirit is challenged in ‘Prologue’, an introductory sonnet to the sequence Embodiment: ‘How could a disembodied spirit speak/or dance or sing the paradox, the power,/the passion and the truth of human hearts?’ We may note the verbs, ‘speak’, ‘dance’ and ‘sing’ are all rooted in the body, and presented as the only way in which the abstractions of ‘power’, ‘passion’ and ‘truth’ can be expressed, i.e., physically.

Among other things, this book confronts the process of aging with grace. Although it could be described as mellower than some of her other work, this is a collection in which Livingstone continues to observe, celebrate and strive.

Kathleen McPhilemy 2nd September 2019

Parables For The Pouring Rain by Paul Sutton (BlazeVOX)

Parables For The Pouring Rain by Paul Sutton (BlazeVOX)

Paul Sutton’s Parables for the Pouring Rain draws together recent work from the Oxford based poet. Sutton is an intriguing figure, one of his main concerns, revealing ‘how dull and pointless most “mainstream” poetry seems1’ has left him largely ostracised from “mainstream” poetry. Although no doubt he’s delighted by this ostracism, it is a shame because his poetry is rich and entertaining. Whether Sutton is better or worse than the mainstream he despises is another question, but his poetry is certainly different, which is something to be cherished. Sutton is, at the very least, a poet who deserves to be read.
There are poets who like to show the world at its best, Sutton is a poet who likes to show the world at its worst. This makes for gripping poetry. Elites, in all their forms, are the naturally enemy of Sutton. Opening salvo ‘Authoritarian centre’ demonstrates:

An elite that is ignored feels it needs to attack:
“We who have given so much. Universal suffrage is
disastrous – there’s no point granting free speech to
those who have nothing to say.

At first glance Sutton’s target may seem to be the political class. However, the Helleresque slogan: ‘free speech to / those who have nothing to say’ seems such a glorious backhander to “mainstream” poetry that Sutton’s attack must be multifarious. The poem reaches its crux in ‘I had a friend who married a working-class man. He beat her daily, posted / it online….that’s why I write’ (italics in original). This is all parody. Sutton identifies a weak point: the middle class poet’s glaring need for authenticity, then uses it to make his target look ridiculous. However, as a graduate of Jesus College, Sutton himself is surely part of the elite. Sutton has defended himself from this before, saying his poetry ‘makes no attempt to put me (the “poet”) above these, instead I’m participating2’. Whether he himself is implicated in ‘Authoritarian centre’ is debatable, his criticisms would seem to place him above the credibility hungry poet, rather than equal. Qualms over the moral high-ground aside, what is indisputable is the impact of the poem, it is a powerful start to the collection, proudly lifting two fingers up at anyone looking to be triggered.

“Angry poems” like ‘Authoritarian centre’ only make up a small proportion of Sutton’s repertoire, which might be a surprise to his enemies. Perhaps the mainstay of Parables for the Pouring Rain are lyrical, non-confrontational poems with a bittersweet sentimentality. ‘In a doll’s house’ is short enough to include in full:

In dreams of living with pistols.
We all did, firing at the white walls.

A child doll is brought to me:
tiny, dead-eyed, the only colour
blood up its nose. Then cradled,

her body emerging in warmth;
‘pink-budded life is too simple.’

The poem displays one of Sutton’s go to techniques: to take something delicate: a ‘child doll’ and to expose it to something cruel: the blood up its nose. It is a tale of innocence lost: the white walls are shot, the child doll’s tiny eyes are dead. The speaker protects the child doll, cradling it, nursing it back to life, before the last line scatters the meaning and the reader returns to the top. Why is the speaker so keen to protect the child doll? Is it because of guilt or an honest inclination? Why a ‘child doll’ and not a child or a doll? The poems brevity leaves these questions unanswered but that they are present shows the level of intrigue Sutton creates in just seven lines.
Sutton can be a poet of real human warmth. ‘Inorganic’, the first poem in a sequence dedicated to Sean McGrady, a scientist who Sutton met at university, is luminous:

Long first-term afternoons, Inorganic
lab, Oxford blue into violet. Whirring
magnetic stirrers, heart-ache colours
transition metal ions – surely that’s
magic? Somehow it’s passed me by.

Sutton is wistfully daydreaming about the long lost magic, working in the lab with his friend. His concern like with ‘In a doll’s house’, is with protecting the innocent: ‘Let’s worry/ for children, the damage they suffer’. Sutton writes about McGrady’s daughter, left behind for ‘tenure and funding’ in America. Sutton is not really the angry wasp he labels himself as, but rather a sentimental figure, it is a poem for ‘for evening and tears’, as Dylan Thomas described ‘Fern Hill’. ‘Inorganic’ exposes the soft core of Sutton’s heart. The seething rage that typifies some of his poems and the antagonistic persona which has led to him being labelled a ‘bottle-lobber3’, is perhaps just a protective shield. Sutton is loathe to reveal his tender side, yet he does so again and again, why? Because he values its poetic appeal and moreover because deep down, it shows who he really is.

1 Quote taken from Paul Sutton’s bio http://www.blazevox.org/index.php/Shop/new-releases/parables-for-the-pouring-rain-by-paul-sutton-519/ last accessed 30/4/2019
2 Quote from an interview with Paul Sutton conducted by BlazeVOX last accessed 30/4/2019
http://www.blazevox.org/index.php/news/15-questions-an-interview-with-paul-sutton-127/
3 Comment left under a blog post on http://toddswift.blogspot.com/2011/11/inane.html last accessed 30/4/2019

Charlie Baylis 22nd August 2019

Maldon – A Version by Michael Smith (Shearsman Library)

Maldon – A Version by Michael Smith (Shearsman Library)

I think that this is a startlingly powerful version of the Anglo-Saxon poem from 991 in which the fragmented narrative of the battle between invading Vikings and the East-Saxon earl, Byrhtnoth is given to us with an immediacy that is recognisably modern. Michael Smith’s note to his translation recognises the powerful influence of both Ezra Pound and Basil Bunting and in this way echoes the words of David Slavitt whose version of the Old English poem was published in The Word Exchange, Anglo-Saxon poems in translation (Norton 2011). Slavitt had suggested that his willingness to undertake the task of translation “was informed…by the echoes of Ezra Pound’s rendition of The Seafarer…in which the weird mannerisms of much of his own poetry look to be normalized and functional”:

“To a considerable degree, The Seafarer opens the door, then, to the rest of his work and illuminates it. The effort seems to be to depart as far as possible from normative English and still be intelligible. And what comes of that is a freshness, a response to his own imperative to Make it new.”

Michael Smith’s version of The Battle of Maldon is dramatically alive:

“…it was sundered.

He said to his soldiers

to set free their horses,

to drive them far off,

and on foot to fare forth,

to think of their hands

and boldness of bravery.

Then the kinsman of Offa

first found out

that the earl was unwilling

to countenance cowardice.

From his hands he let fly

his falcon, his fair one,

toward the wood in the distance,

and he went to the battle.

In his introduction to this lovely addition to the Shearsman Library, Smith tells us that he consciously retained the fragmentary nature of the piece because he felt that it added a sense of authenticity and realism. In terms of this ‘realism’ he then points us to a statement made by Borges about that small moment of the releasing of the falcon in which the Argentinian writer asserted that “Given the epic harshness of the poem, the phrase lêofne…hafoc (literally, ‘his beloved hawk’) moves us extraordinarily”.

In January 2016 I reviewed Kat Peddie’s Spaces for Sappho (Oystercatcher Press) and referred to Hugh Kenner’s fourth chapter of The Pound Era in which the American critic had focussed on one of Sappho’s fragments. Pound had written to Iris Barry in 1916 to complain about the “soft mushy edges” of British poetry and concluded with the suggestion that concision, “saying what you mean in the fewest and clearest words” was essential to the stirring of the reader. I go back to Kat Peddie’s poems to see once more those spaces on the page and those clearest of words which she leaves as stone markers.
And where else do I go? Well, to Christopher Logue’s version of extracts from Homer’s Illiad in War Music (Cape 1981):

“Consider planes at touchdown – how they poise;
Or palms beneath a numbered hurricane;
Or birds wheeled sideways over windswept heights;
Or burly salmon challenging a weir;
Right-angled, dreamy fliers, as they ride
The instep of a dying wave, or trace
Diagonals on snowslopes”

Michael Smith makes it clear from the start that he is not attempting “to replicate slavishly the original metre” of the Ango-Saxon but that he is instead making a new poem. It is with this in mind that one should recall the words Samuel Johnson used when asked about a newly published translation of Aeschylus:

“We must try its effect as an English poem; that is the way to judge of the merit of a translation.”

Michael Smith’s Maldon is a fine poem and I encourage all budding poets to read it!

Ian Brinton, 17th August 2019

Casket by Andy Brown, 2019 the vase in pieces by Rod Mengham

Casket by Andy Brown, 2019 the vase in pieces by Rod Mengham

As I have mentioned before there is something powerfully elegiac threading its sinuous path through Andy Brown’s poetry and “the bloodlines that flow through our bodies are those veins and arteries that pump our sense of immediacy: they keep the here and now moving” (Review of Bloodlines, Worple Press 2018). Reading the recent Shearsman Chapbook by Brown I am struck yet again by the poet’s haunting use of language as he traces the runic symbols upon the lid of an 8th century Anglo-Saxon treasure chest:

“In all these figures, filigree and knots –
In all this yielding bone that’s swum across
Sea-lanes and history to a monk’s refuge –
The ghosts we see, of course, are no such thing,
But simply what remembrance makes of them;
The laden look we witness on a stranger’s face
That houses recollections of our dead.”

According to Ralph of Coggeshall in his Chronicon Anglicanum a merman was caught at Orford in Suffolk during the reign of Henry II in the 12th century. When Kevin Crossley-Holland produced his version of this event he added a note to say that the merman “was imprisoned in the newly-built castle, did not recognise the Cross, did not talk despite torture, returned voluntarily into captivity having eluded three rows of nets, and then disappeared never to be seen again.” And so a tale is told and the world of the long-gone reappears on the page not only of folk-lore but also of imaginative reconstruction: one might well look at Conrad’s short story of ‘Amy Foster’!

The Franks Casket, housed in the British Museum, is made of whalebone and is decorated with runic inscriptions, some Latin text and images from various religious and mythical traditions. Like all tale-tellers Andy Brown attempts “to capture something of the layered histories, from ancient times to present”. As a lyric poet of distinction he also gives voice to an attempt at translation “of the place where I now live: the river Teign and its surrounding area”.
The poem is in five sections and it opens with an account of the casket’s front panel:

“From the river’s curved calligraphy
We haul up a trawl-net of treasures
And tip the shells out on the sorting rack…
Dark mussels fall in clattering cascades.”

The second section opens with an Olsonian sense of istorin, as the lines echo the words offered by Olson to Dorn in his ‘Bibliography on America’ where he suggested that the young poet should absorb himself intensely and entirely in his subject, “to dig one thing” in a “saturation job” that might require a “lifetime of assiduity”,

“To reach the present day, dig deep
Through the level berm that runs above
The ditch and counterscarp of Castle Dyke”

It was in a workshop session given in Vancouver in 1963 that Olson said the great back door is not only Hesiod but also Beowulf and the poems of Casket open up a gateway through which we can peer at a past.

AND as if from a past the Oystercatcher’s beak pulls up a new treasure: seven substantial poems by Rod Mengham two of which are dedicated to other poets, Peter Hughes and Jeremy Prynne. As if to emphasise the emergence of a distant past the opening poem of this little volume is deeply unsettling:

“those are not the colours of the dawn
but the painted breasts of Iceni women
as fierce and stubborn as sap”

As the past feeds the present a shimmering light of the long-gone acts as a mirage but this can only emphasise the unsettling awareness of isolation. With its quiet nod in the direction of ‘The Waste Land’ it must be clear that “there is no spirit who walks beside you / only a coincidence and its shadow”. In the Preface to ‘Inhabiting Art’, the second section of Grimspound (reviewed on Tears blog, a month ago) Mengham expressed his interest in different types of history:

“Although I have a personal interest in natural history, these essays are about cultural history in relation to landscape and cityscape, cultural history viewed episodically or in the form of a palimpsest, where the present state of the habitat both reveals and conceals its own prehistory, the record of its own formation and transformations.”

‘As It Is’ (to J.H.P.) opens with “Memory is recast from the ground up” and closes with fishes that swim down “under five crushing fathoms”. Ariel’s song to Ferdinand’s ears sinks deep to discover that “the bottom of all the land is this stone”.
Andy Brown’s conclusion to the opening of the casket, to the lifting of the lid, is to demand that “These fragments” are given “back to the machinery / Of the world…this shared and ever constant now.”

Ian Brinton 9th August 2019

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