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Collected Poems Volume 1 by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books)

Collected Poems Volume 1 by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books)

Peter Riley’s two volumes of Collected Poems weighs in at about 1200 pages and they need to be reviewed. There is no way that a short piece here can do justice to the wealth of this work and so I shall write three or four reviews covering the chronological development of a poet whose voice is a labour of “calm close attention” (‘All Saints’, a short prose piece from the opening section of Volume 1, pieces written in London between 1962 and 1965). When I gave a Paper at a Conference in Birkbeck devoted to Riley’s work I focused on his editing of the magazine Collection. The Paper was written up for PN Review 207, some six years ago and it began rather mischievously. Now that we can see more fully the quality of Riley’s early work from the Sixties I wish to repeat that mischief by beginning with a quotation which will set the scene and trust that this will prove to be in no way contentious:

“For a time young poets of very different backgrounds and temperament may feel themselves, or be felt by critics, to be working along similar lines. Though its long-term consequence necessarily remains unclear, such a shift of sensibility has taken place very recently in British poetry. It follows a stretch, occupying much of the 1960s and 70s, when very little—in England at any rate—seemed to be happening…”

The quotation comes of course from a very reliable source: a Poet Laureate, a highly successful journalist and a highly competitive and long-standing publishing firm: The Penguin Book of Contemporary Poetry edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion. And so it’s official: “very little seemed to be happening” in the 60s and 70s and this reminds me of the mischievous title of a splendid little journal founded by Anthony Barnett in 1966, Nothing Doing in London. There were only two issues of that beautifully produced item but they contained work by Andrew Crozier, Edmond Jabès, George Oppen, Tom Pickard, Samuel Beckett and Nick Totton: nothing indeed happening very much at all!
The calm close attention which Riley has given to his wealth of life’s experiences is there from the very start as is evident with the poem ‘Introitus’ written in his Hastings years during the mid-to late 60s. The poem opens with the short phrase “How it begins” before proceeding to examine the difficulty of walking on shingle on Hastings beach. The quiet and purposeful movement recalls the ‘Riprap’ progress of Gary Snyder in a very different landscape:

“To walk effectively on shingle you have to
lean forwards so you’d fall if you didn’t push
your feet back from a firm step down and
back sharp forcing the separate ground
to consolidate underneath you, with a marked
flip as you lift each foot, scattering
stones behind, gaining momentum.”

The year is 1967 and Peter Riley was about to take over the editing of The English Intelligencer from Andrew Crozier. Writing to Crozier on January 12th, having arrived back in Hastings after the two had met up, he told of finding Jeremy Prynne on the doorstep and how they had spent that evening discussing the future progress of the magazine. In a letter from a few months later Riley referred to the need for energetic engagement with the poetry scene, “something not so much finished as in mid-stream, alive and still developing” and this energy pulses through these early poems.
When Barry MacSweeney organised the poetry gathering at Sparty Lea Peter Riley was there of course and the letter he wrote to a newspaper a few years ago emphasised the event’s importance:

“Sparty Lea was a serious event that involved listening to each other carefully and weighing up the possibility of common purposes.”

The publication of ‘Sparty Lea Epilogue’ in the first volume of these collected poems is testament indeed to its importance as a meeting-place for new poets who were concerned about what was happening in the world of British poetry:

“It must be the whole continuance,
of our lives bound through the occasion
it must be this other place given
in return, the small room at night.

The meeting was a specific node
of exchange like a thank-you in a long
conversation, fastening the discourse that
sustains us to a future weather.”

The “long conversation” has continued down the years and when Roy Fisher referred to Riley’s deepening sense of how poetry “can be capable of mediating between inner and outer experience” it was adopted as the blurb on the back cover of Pennine Tales issued by Calder Valley Poetry two years ago. It is within the lyric grace of those late pages, written and published too late to be included in the Collected Poems that one can pick up the mournful wisps of sound from an energetic poetic engagement that is by no means over:

“There is nothing here but stone
walls and distance. We are alone. We are nowhere.
We are the length and breadth of a dark nowhere
which encompasses the world.”

I am tempted to say that Peter Riley is a towering presence in the world of modern poetry and yet even that image of stasis is immediately rendered inappropriate when we can read now the early lines he dedicated to Andrew Crozier in the late 60s when he felt that they were “wanderers not in exile / but at permanent home / in movement.”

Ian Brinton 9th December 2018

The Wedding-Guest by Keith Bosley Eds Owen Lowery & Anthony Rudolf (Shoestring Press)

The Wedding-Guest by Keith Bosley Eds Owen Lowery & Anthony Rudolf (Shoestring Press)

I have started writing a book about English teaching based upon my own experiences over the past forty-five years and am determined to give it the title “There was a ship”. When I mentioned this to a colleague recently he asked what that meant and I explained something about the hypnotic power behind Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner who stopped a wedding-guest in his tracks:

“It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?

‘The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May’st hear the merry din.’

He holds him with his skinny hand,
“There was a ship,” quoth he.

The wedding-guest attempts to break away but is held by the Mariner’s “glittering eye” and he stands still to listen “like a three years’ child” as the old man unfolds his tale of guilt and redemption, a tale in which he tells the listener about how he was

“Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!”

In his Preface to this fine collection of Keith Bosley’s poems Anthony Rudolf directs us immediately to the central image of the story-teller:

“At the heart of the book is the powerful poem whose title the editors have chosen for the whole, ‘The Wedding-Guest’, a World War Two poem spoken by the poet narrator himself and his friend.”

Rudolf gives us the dramatic scene of Coleridge’s wedding guest standing as a literary antecedent behind Keith Bosley and the Ancient Mariner himself standing behind the friend “just as he did for Primo Levi, who inspired our cover illustration”. The illustration is by Jane Joseph and it was used for the fine Folio edition of Levi’s The Truce. However, as Rudolf also points out for us it is the wedding guest who tells this story and both the host and the reader are compelled to stand fixed, rooted to the page:

Sometimes we are afraid of you
as if you knew too much
from going to the pit and back
so that when you touch

less travelled lives like ours
you burn
and we are scarred with a knowledge
from which there is no return

Keith Bosley’s poem is immensely powerful and in a world where we are surrounded by so much inescapable history I was left thinking what is it about the quality of this writing that so moves me. The style of the narration reminds me perhaps of Brecht’s 1939 poem ‘The Children’s Crusade’; Bosley’s narrative has a similar simplicity in its style. Brecht opens with an almost naïve tone to his four-line stanzas:

“In ’thirty-nine, in Poland
a bloody battle took place,
turning many a town and village
into a wilderness.

The sister lost her brother,
the wife her husband in war,
the child between fire and rubble
could find his parents no more.

From Poland no news was forthcoming
neither letter nor printed word,
but in all the Eastern countries
a curious tale can be heard.

Snow fell when they told one another
this tale in an Eastern town
of a children’s crusade that started
in Poland, in ’thirty-nine.”

Perhaps it’s that word “curious” that rouses the attention, that sense of the singular nature of a tale to be told. Keith Bosley’s narrative possesses a similar sense of understatement as the simplicity of the four-line stanzas is used as a frame for the most awful experiences which will never disappear. The Guest’s narrative begins, like Brecht’s, with a clear and simple picture:

“In January ’43 (he will say)
because I had not enlisted
in the German occupying forces
I was arrested”

The tale is harrowing but it never moves into the sentimental: the craft of the poet’s language keeps us clearly on track:

“We were locked in the hangars to sleep
on sawdust and concrete
and the frost bit uncovered toes
on rows of wood-shot feet.

‘Blow wind…’: we sang the ancient song
huddled on a little hill.
The other nations who had no songs
gathered and stood still.”

Bosley has for many years been recognized as a translator of some distinction and Owen Lowery is very helpful in bringing this status to the fore in his introduction. Lowery reminds us of Bosley being awarded the Finnish State Prize for Translators and being made a Knight First Class of the Order of the White Rose of Finland in 1991. His translation of Kalevala is the one published by Oxford World Classics and an Agenda review of that publication celebrated not only its “scholarly awareness” but also how its freshness provides “sheer pleasure”. Lowery quite rightly also directs the reader to Bosley’s ability to focus on the details of individual stories and lives, “indicative of an intellectual and compassionate curiosity”. That quiet and humane concern for capturing the moment is clear in a previously unpublished poem written for Antony Rudolf, himself a poet and translator of distinction, ‘Visiting A Poem’:

“August, late afternoon: we are in Gloucestershire.
Chipping Campden: we pass through the old market town.”

The purpose of the journey is to visit the source of Eliot’s poem ‘Burnt Norton’ and to wonder if “great poems” can “be called private?” The “two middle-aged men” go down a track until they are confronted with a notice that spells out “PRIVATE”.

“We drive over a grid, scattering sheep and goats
and arrive at a gate: here is the poem, here”

With a sense of excitement Bosley takes us, now the guests, into a world in which “we have spotted a word, a / phrase and even a line or two”.

“But we waver because no one expects us here
so two middle-aged men take a quick photograph”

The two turn homeward “as if we / heard some bird saying Go, go, go.”

And the echo of that Wedding-Guest’s narrative from January ’43 can be felt as we recall Eliot’s lines:

“Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality,”

The integrity and care behind the craft of Keith Bosley’s poems make this volume from Shoestring Press worth getting NOW. Read these poems, then stop, and then read again. An Ancient Mariner is always worth listening to!

Ian Brinton, 2nd December 2018

Butterfly Valley by Sherko Bekas trans & intro by Choman Hardi (Arc Publications)

Butterfly Valley by Sherko Bekas trans & intro by Choman Hardi (Arc Publications)

One of the immediate qualities of Choman Hardi’s introduction to this powerful volume is its focus upon distance: the space between where one is now and the never-to-be-erased memory of horror heaped upon horror. The Kurdish poem was originally published in Sweden in 1991 after Bekas had sought refuge there from the genocide taking place in Kurdistan where the gassing attack upon Halabja had taken place in March 1988. As Hardi puts it

“Longing for homeland starts Bekas on a constant search for reminders of it. He tours Stockholm, walks in its rain and sun, throws himself at the wind, follows girls, and circles the markets hoping that an image, a sound, a sensation would briefly take him back to his homeland.”

The former Iraqi state had used a cocktail of deadly gasses in the chemical weapons it fired into Halabja: “The gas looked brown and yellow. Some survivors report that it smelt of garlic while others say it smelt of rotten apples”. This attack came as part of a concerted attack upon Kurdish villages in which a hundred thousand civilians were exterminated during the months of that year.

“—What is exile? She asked me. What shall I tell you?
Shall I say: it is the love between land and dreams?
Or the sigh of a flower, away from her own garden?
Or the wandering of a vision, looking for its memories?
Or loneliness when she flees
and carries her country on her shoulders?”

Adorno is often misquoted as asserting that it is impossible to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz and what he did say, in his essay on Lukács, was rather different:

“Art does not provide knowledge of reality by reflecting it photographically or from a particular perspective but by revealing whatever is veiled by the empirical form assumed by reality, and this is possible only by virtue of art’s own autonomous status.”

It is the veiled sense, that which is so difficult to grasp, which makes me think of Paul Celan when I read this long poem. Poetry of course can be a form of active engagement with socio-political realities and sometimes it is compelled to respond to the ungraspable: the Holocaust, chemical warfare. Sometimes poetry has to speak whilst already knowing that it must fail in speaking. And it was Charles Tomlinson who said that reality is not to be sought in concrete but in “space made articulate”:

“Who says exile is longing for
the neighbourhood children’s chaos in the evening?
If it is, then what are all the neighbourhoods’ children
doing in the roads of my voice?”

Sherko Bekas bridges distance and makes space articulate when he asserts “I was the yellow light, / I was the fog, / I was the railway tracks, / and the roads and the journey were me.” The lines on the page are themselves the tracks which join the exile to his homeland and the solemnity with which lost beauty is brought shimmering into the present is a dirge which is related “without laboured tone, like the litany of a wake in which we are told, one by one, the beads of a rosary” (Preface, Gérard Chaliand). What is exile? What is loss?

“Shall I say it is the lost smell of a string of cloves,
the smell of my mother,
the smell of the neighbourhood girls that has forsaken me?”

This is a sophisticated and intense expression of grief in which Sherko Bekas, as is made clear on the back cover of this astonishingly powerful and beautifully produced edition from Arc Publications, uses a mixture of conflicting traditions, “folksong, funeral lamentation, wedding ritual”. The poem mourns but also celebrates the victims not only of Anfal and Halabja, but also those of past centuries. Butterfly Valley, a long poem of human response to pain, deserves a wide readership and if we ignore it we become thinner by doing so. Listen to the poet

“You had to do this
to write poetry with the tip of flame
and set fire to your fear and silence.”

Ian Brinton 26th November 2018

Along Mosaic Roads by Calliope Michail (The 87 Press Ltd)

Along Mosaic Roads by Calliope Michail (The 87 Press Ltd)

This is a very promising debut collection of poems and I shall want to read more of Calliope Michail’s work. The words on the back cover of this handsomely produced little volume open up a sense of the mystery of travelling: “lyrical peregrinations that chart journeys into the real and imagined spaces of wanderlust, desire, origins and memory”. Contained within the margins of stasis, five sections of poetry titled ‘Standing on the Sun’, the reader is posed questions which prompt further enquiries about what is contained within the notion of journeying. One of these questions links the world of hope and memory, the routine of what expectations we carry with us when we venture beyond where we already are:

“Memory doesn’t always serve
the precise contours of a history or
is a rosary still a rosary if
the beads have lost their thread”

Memory of course is threaded with imaginative reconstruction and the past exists only as we now view it, narrate it: its contours will be constructed in the now. There is something enclosing about the chain of rosary beads which are designed to pull us back all the time to a set sense of obedience. Like the drawing pins, doubtless with prettily-coloured heads, that can be pierced into a wall-map to denote both where we have already been or where we have yet to go. They are placed there with a sense of achievement and aspiration and put on the wall to remind others of one’s well-travelled life! But Michail’s journeying is far more true to a real sense of wonder and as such it opens up far greater possibilities than the world of repetition or self-satisfaction:

“The map on my wall gets people

asking,

where are the pins? The pins on the

places

you want to see, but don’t want to see through eyes

alone

places to soak in the colours, inhale the

sounds,

listen to the stories that float like bubbles above the

smells

of the waterfalls of people in the subway; the

windows

and doors that you wrestle with, the

smog

of the wet grass and dry dirt and damp

sidewalks

ripe with the after-fumes of

dog-shit.”

The epigraphs to this important poetry debut are from Walt Whitman, unsurprisingly since he wrote his ‘Song of the Open Road’, and Charles Manson, more surprisingly (despite his connection to the fringe of the Los Angeles music industry) since he spent his last 46 years in California State Prison. As Manson is quoted “I don’t really go anywhere. You can’t move. Anywhere you go, you always there.” After all wherever you travel you take yourself with you and see through your own eyes; and as William Blake knew “The fool sees not the same tree the wise man sees”. Whitman’s quotation, however, opens up the road ahead as we hear that he believes “that much unseen is also here” and it heralds another ghost haunting this little book of poems, that of Jack Kerouac. As Calliope Michail puts it “things happen / and happen and / happen somewhere”. For her “time / moves” and it moves far away from “lInguIstIcmazes” and only concludes with the sun as “a mandar // in your palm”. In both ordering and sending…this poetry is on the move.

http://www.the87press.com

Ian Brinton 12th November 2018

Mentoring and Critical Appraisals

The Tears in the Fence editors now offer more Mentoring and Critical Appraisals in poetry, drama, performance, scriptwriting and voice work.

Playwright, Performance Studies Lecturer, and poet, Louise Buchler is offering Mentoring in Scriptwriting and Verse Drama under the same scheme. She has more than twelve years of experience lecturing in Writing for both Stage and Screen. She made the shortlist for the National Theatre London’s Africa Playwriting Competition recognising her as one of the top twenty playwrights on the African continent. Her plays have been widely performed. Her poetry has been published in Tears in the Fence and various publications in South Africa. Louise is also available for Performance and Voice coaching. Please email Louise at tearsinthefence@gmail.com

Poet, essayist and editor, David Caddy offers critical appraisals and mentoring in Poetry, Flash Fiction and Publication for other literary genres and projects. This involves taking a manuscript from first draft to publication, advising on where to send your work and the range of available options for a prospective poet and author.

Recent comments on their mentoring include:

‘The appraisals from David and Louise were thoughtful and precise. Their feedback ranged from specific matters of craft to the broader question of how I might take my writing forward. They responded to the work on its own terms and even picked up on recurring motifs and concerns I hadn’t been aware of myself.’ Phil Baber

‘David’s critical appraisals are immeasurably helpful. His work
towards my first full collection was immensely useful.’ Jessica Mookherjee

‘David’s close and perceptive reading of each poem, help with ordering and sequencing my pamphlet collections, and support with my first full collection has been enormous. I thoroughly recommend his critical and mentoring services.’ Geraldine Clarkson

For more details visit
https://tearsinthefence.com/mentoring

In Folly’s Shade by John Welch (Shearsman Books)

In Folly’s Shade by John Welch (Shearsman Books)

Tony Frazer’s opening comment on the back cover of this new collection of poems by John Welch raises a central point that is immediately felt when one opens this new volume:

“…there is throughout the book a recurring preoccupation with the ambiguities involved in the business of being a poet and above all the sheer oddness of us as a species inveigled into language and unable to get out of it.”

The opening poem is titled ‘Carpenter Build Me a House’ and it confronts the reader immediately with the difficulties of writing:

“As if in translation eating the bread of existence
In here is a creaking voice, turning the handle
And it does so happen sometimes just before sleep
With that slight awkwardness of language
When it takes you to another voice
As if inhabiting a seizure.”

That difficulty felt by the poet who wishes to communicate a thought but who is also constrained by the language in which the thought can be communicated is there in the “creaking” of a wheel which needs to be moved into smooth action by use. As the handle is turned the intrusive nature of self-doubt is set in motion: the “slight awkwardness” of language raises the question of words that have been used before. The poet translates and perhaps seizes the voice of another to bring his thoughts to the surface and is left wondering “Is it all done in imitation?” Each step the poet takes, word by word, or rock by rock as Gary Snyder might have said sixty years ago in ‘Riprap’, requires there to be “some purchase” and the pun on the word combines not only that acquisition from the language of others but also the firmness that permits one to move tentatively forward. In the second poem of this collection, ‘A Provision’ we are privy to the poet’s isolation:

“Sitting in an upstairs room he is trying to arrive some-
where, making his own silence on behalf of something he
can almost remember. In those odd corners of being where
still he waits for himself, a fountain playing in the desert. He
watches the water fade, dissembling, into the ground.

‘The words’, he said ‘were to gain me a purchase on it,
their empty grip on the page like a bird’s claws’ – and how
neat the whole thing’s workings, like the insides of an old-
fashioned watch.”

Samuel Beckett confronted the difficulties of artistic expression when he was in conversation with Georges Duthuit:

“The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”

Duthuit relied that this was “a violently extreme and personal point of view” to which Beckett did not reply. The rest as it were is silence. Except of course that it isn’t and that Beckett knew well when he came to write Worstward Ho:

“All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

John Welch recognizes the profound truth of what Beckett was saying and the humanity, care and civilized concern for the need of the artist to express himself can be felt throughout these pages of In Folly’s Shade. He recognizes that “The paper was an invitation” even though the “book I take with me…is everywhere unread”. In the poem ‘Translated’ he is “a man with his words stranded hallway over a bridge” but as ‘A Provision’ provides

“Over to here is where it now comes, nearer by far, a
language, something that empties itself full. In the end
there are only the words to smooth the thing.”

This is a very important volume of poems and as the everyday devaluing of words seems to be confronting us we would do wisely to take heed of that cautious and careful voice of concern: I trust the voice in these poems.

Ian Brinton, 28th October 2018

Letters from the Underworld by Alan Baker (The Red Ceilings Press)

Letters from the Underworld by Alan Baker (The Red Ceilings Press)

One of the many striking points about the realism of Dante’s work made by Erich Auerbach in Mimesis concerns the way in which the Italian poet achieves such an intensity of dramatic presence. Auerbach refers to Dante’s journey as representing the only opportunity the souls of the dead have of expressing themselves: they have one moment in all eternity to speak to a hearer from among the living. Hegel suggested that into the changeless existence of eternal damnation Dante “plunges the living world of human action and endurance and more especially of individual deeds and destinies.” It is scarcely small wonder that Samuel Beckett admired Canto V of Inferno with such passion and took his admiration to the point of imitation in the 1962 drama Play.
The twenty prose-poem sections of Alan Baker’s Letters from the Underworld present us with a dystopian vision of the contemporary world and they are threaded with literary references which act as context for the eerie cries haunting this small but profound collection from The Red Ceilings Press. In the form of letters sent out from our “forests of the hinterland” we are presented with echoes of John Donne’s “year’s midnight” as we are informed of our “currency” being “worthless”:

“Th’hydroptic glass hath never sunk so low.”

However, as Donne’s ‘Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day’ reminds us that the moments shift from the year’s midnight and this hour’s vigil is held with a sacred sense of particularity so do Baker’s epistles move forward with fractional exactness:

“You know me by now, after all this correspondence. I cannot rest from travel.”

The voice is that of Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem from 1833 in which the voyager who has spent so long searching for home is confined to Ithaca where “I mete and dole / Unequal laws unto a savage race”. Tennyson’s dramatic recreation of the Greek hero is partly taken from Inferno Canto XXVI as the condemned soul tells us of his “inward hunger…To master earth’s experience” (Binyon). In Alan Baker’s conclusion to these remarkable epistles there is another voice from the mid-nineteenth century as we recognise that mournful cry of Matthew Arnold from the coast-line of Kent:

“This evening, all is calm, here, on this tideless coast. The deep moans round with many voices. The late sun slants into my open window and the lights begin to twinkle from the rocks.”

Arnold’s plea to his newly-wed wife in June 1851 is commanding in its seriousness:

“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

Alan Baker’s twentieth letter tells us “My government has withdrawn funding from the rescue service and other member states argue amongst themselves while the hungry sea doesn’t rest unburnished, but shines in use.” Victims of political indifference we can only wonder “exactly what the future holds”. That future certainly seems here to be bleak as we confront the desperation of migrating people:

“One, who has a particularly plaintive lilt, said he paid $3000 in cash, but the boat was just a cheap inflatable. They wanted safety but the ferryman told them they were already dead; he looked in their mouths for a coin to pay for passage.”

This is a world composed of those “fleeing persecution…wide with wanderers displaced and dispossessed, seeking refuge and finding razor wire and shipwreck.” However, having acknowledged that we are also aware of why one would write letters at all:

“I sometimes feel, when I read your letters, that I could reach out and touch you; the words have your voice, the phrasing the contours of your tongue, the handwriting the morphology of your mental landscape whose valleys I’d like to wander in, perhaps to find a river by whose banks I could fall asleep and dream of the world as an emerald of unreachable beauty, a crystallographer’s dream; such a thing is possible, although, as we know, the possible as a dwelling, be it a garden or a sunlit garret, is as mortal as you or I.”

Language and thought merge together in these prose-poems and the concluding question is an assertion of the importance of the writing itself:

“It’s not too late to seek a newer world, is it?”

http://www.theredceilingspress.co.uk

Ian Brinton, 25th October 2018.

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