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Women of Resistance: Poems For A New Feminism Eds. Danielle Barnhart & Iris Mahan (OR Books)

Women of Resistance: Poems For A New Feminism Eds. Danielle Barnhart & Iris Mahan (OR Books)

This anthology has a strong feminist ethos that cuts through race, gender identity and sexuality. The resistance in the title stems from the fight for agency through suffrage in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as US President. The editor’s note that ‘suffrage’ comes from Middle English, meaning intercessory prayer, and this informs their invocation of the other, encompassing transgender women, as well as its sense of grieving for the violence, rape and oppression of women. They affirm that womanhood is not limited to the biology of the female body and glory in work that occupies poetic space for all who fall in the category of the other within white patriarchy.

The first stanza of the opening poem, ‘A Woman’s Place’ by Denice Frohman sets the defiant tone:

i heard a woman becomes herself
the first time she speaks
without permission

Here women and others speak out and are not named and shamed into silence. Frohman’s poem ends:

if this poem is the only thing that survives
tell them I grew a new tongue
tell them I built a throne

tell them when we discovered life on another planet
it was a woman
& she built a bridge, not a border

got god & named gravity
after herself.

Many poems occupy the space of resistance, protest and survival, supporting stances for Planned Parenthood, Reproductive Rights, Black Lives Matter, Civil Rights, and other issues. There is also a strong sense of grieving for women that have unfairly lost their lives, as in Kaveh Akbar’s poem, ‘Heritage’, which commemorates the life of an Iranian woman hanged in 2014 for killing a man who was attempting to rape her. Akbar’s poem moves towards prayer and hope that God may ‘beat us awake’ and that we may ‘measure every victory / by the momentary absence of pain’.

Others have a more explorative, transformative and open edge. A prime example is Dorothea Lasky’s dense and suggestive poem, ‘The Secret Life of Mary Crow’. The poem works on several levels, positing a secret life as the place ‘where we are no longer us / But the beginning of things’, and sees the body as ‘corpse and text’ and also ‘a possibility’. The poem effectively enacts a series of losses, uncertainties and moves beyond grieving to another deeper place. I was also impressed by Jade Lascelles, poem, ‘This Is Why We Are Afraid’, a striking allegorical poem of quiet power and subtle depiction of young females under attack. The poem paints a broad canvass with its third section highlighting shades of blue revealed after fracture and when darkness becomes visible. The poem later highlights female resistance to male figures that are against nature and wild creatures: ‘Fragile containers at the whim and mercy of a flicking wrist.’

Several poems, such as Ada Limón’s ‘Service’, emphasise and enact the need for independent space, and locate a space for female survival, as in Safia Elhillo’s ‘After’, where ‘every day i go missing one eyelash at a time’. They work through implication and benefit from being less explicit. Similarly, Kimberly Johnson’s poem, ‘Female’, employs new urban words to offer a sense of an emergent female being transformed by ‘Secret, quaint horror’ and ‘betrayal of the flesh’.

This vibrant and dynamic anthology is far from being one-dimensional and has many fine poems to which I shall return.

The book comes with a cover blurb by Eileen Myles. Amongst the contributors are new writers, academics and established voices such as Kim Addonizio, Jericho Brown, Kwame Dawes, Karyna McGlynn, Mary Ruefle and Anne Waldman.

David Caddy March 13th 2018


Selected Poems 1971-2017 by Laurie Duggan (Shearsman Books)

Selected Poems 1971-2017 by Laurie Duggan (Shearsman Books)

William Carlos Williams, a Doctor from Rutherford, was convinced that something did indeed depend upon a ‘red wheel / barrow’ because he firmly believed that American culture was based upon a realization of the qualities of place in relation to the life which occupies it. Laurie Duggan, Australian poet who now lives in Kent, writes poems which share some of this concern and in his work minute and seemingly inert things come to life much as dry twigs become shoots and buds: speed is essential for such freshness. As the Australian critic and poet Fiona Wright noted on the back cover this is a “kind of history that is happening on the side-lines” and one of the memorable aspects of Duggan’s work is its ability to bring into sharp focus what seems to be caught out of the side of one’s eye. On the one hand in a public statement it possesses a dry wit such as the ‘Salute to the Cambridge Marxists’:

If you’re not at the High Table
you’re not in the room

On the other, in quiet memory of another gifted poet, Lee Harwood, an excursion to the South Coast is recorded in trees that were “partly flattened / by gales twenty years back” which are now “resuming a shape”:

a semblance of high wind,
clouds massing, the profile of a hilltop.

Turning his back on solemnity Duggan also notes in the same visit to Brighton “a mechanical duck pedals a tricycle / across a floor in Hove.” In the hands of a lesser poet there might be a temptation towards the sardonic here; in Laurie Duggan’s work it is more a Jonsonian wit. And, as he tells me, the mechanical duck was there and it was exactly what Lee would have delighted in!
The website of photographs which Laurie Duggan began some ten years ago can be located at and the precise visualisation of carefully caught moments offers an interesting insight into his poetry.
One of Jack Spicer’s posthumously published volumes, A Red Wheelbarrow, was produced in an edition of 1000 copies by Arif Press, Berkeley in January 1973 and it opens with a tone that reminds me of Duggan’s work:

“Rest and look at this goddamned wheelbarrow. Whatever
It is. Dogs and crocodiles, sunlamps. Not
For their significance. For being human
The signs escape you.”

In his indispensable book on Spicer’s work, The Poetry of Jack Spicer (Edinburgh University Press, 2013), Daniel Katz wrote about these opening lines in terms of how Williams’s “characteristically inviting tone” gives way to the no less “characteristic Spicerian note of crochety querulousness”:

“No ideas but in things these lines seems to say, with their negation of significance and their recusal of metaphor, while the imperative to Rest and look immediately valorizes the visual, in line with Williams’ emphases again.”

That sharply focussed concern for the visual links Duggan’s and Spicer’s work and it is worth looking back at the opening lines of Spicer’s first ‘Imaginary Elegy’ from the late 1940s:

“Poetry, almost blind like a camera
Is alive in sight only for a second. Click,
Snap goes the eyelid of the eye before movement
Almost as the word happens.
One would not choose to blink and go blind
After the instant. One would not choose
To see the continuous Platonic pattern of birds flying
Long after the stream of birds had dropped or had nested.”

A camera freezes one moment in time and with that “click” followed by a “Snap” the moment is both caught and broken and, in a sense, the poem does become that “continuous Platonic pattern of birds flying” which can be looked at, still life, by other people in other times. One of Duggan’s poems from 1991 makes an interesting comparison here:

“Not to assume a mantle,
not to have you look so closely,
I refuse to be explicator;

instead, a wanderer
in a landscape prefigured
trying not to bend its edges

The camera of course offers precisely that edge, that separating of one moment from another within a stream and, by holding still in front of us an image of what is irremediably gone it echoes that Orphic sense of no return. The world of appearances, Art, consists of edges, contrasts, meeting-points of different phenomena: individuality. Art also acts as a constant reminder of what is not. In Spicer’s terms the only reason for valorizing what he goes on in ‘Imaginary Elegy I’ to call “These cold eternals” is because of their “support of / What is absolutely temporary”.
Laurie Duggan is not an explicator; he presents what he sees and a late snap is ‘DEMOLITION’:

“A square of houses, windows bricked in.
Around these, dust, gamblers, the edge of a market.

A block away streets resume their regular pattern”

For a moment I hear another voice, another influence: that of Charles Reznikoff.

Ian Brinton, 11th March 2018

Heretics of Language by Barry Schwabsky (Black Square Editions)

Heretics of Language by Barry Schwabsky (Black Square Editions)

This is a compelling collection of essays focussing upon a wide range of artists and led by the pied piper of the Arts, Barry Schwabsky. We can engage with Jack Spicer and John Ashbery, Samuel Beckett and Italo Calvino, Peter Manson and Denise Riley…Paul Celan and more…and more.
A taster: the review of Rasula and Conley’s anthology Burning City: Poems of Metropolitan Modernity (Action Books, 2012) opens with an uncompromisingly clear tone:

“There’s nothing like an ambitious anthology for redistricting your inner map of poetic possibility.”

There is a clean sense in Schwabsky’s use of the word “redistricting” which locates us firmly in the urban world that Blake might have recognised in his use of the word “charter’d” in ‘London’. Ambitious anthologies might include Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960), Crozier and Longville’s A Various Art (1987) and Iain Sinclair’s Conductors of Chaos (1996); they certainly include the one mentioned by Schwabsky, Jerome Rothenberg’s Poems for the Millennium. The time-frame of Burning City is approximately 1910-39 and “Jed Rasula and Tom Conley have given us a historical anthology with clear implications for our present sense of what literary modernity might be and of how we could still be implicated in it”. As the editors assert “We still inhabit metropolitan configurations pioneered under the auspices of Modernism” and therefore, implicitly, our writing is still conditioned by such habitation. It was Ben Jonson who wrote that “Language most shewes a man: speake that I may see thee” following that dramatic statement with the assertion that language “springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the image of the Parent of it, the mind”. Barry Schwabsky’s review of this anthology reflects his own sense of mind: a fairness concerning the enormous amount of work done by the editors spending “untold hours leafing through half- or entirely forgotten magazines in seemingly every European language (there are a few Asian writers included as well)”. It comes of course as no surprise that Schwabsky should also pick up on what he sees as something rather surprising, that this complex piece of publishing “has been undertaken by a small press like Action Books:

“One would have thought this kind of project to be the preserve of the university presses…but these days, apparently, such things depend less on institutions than on the heroic efforts of a few individuals. Action Books had long since won my admiration for its publications by contemporaries like Glenum, Aase Berg and Kim Hyesoon, but Burning City puts the press on another level altogether”.

Towards the end of this essay on the Poetry of the Modernist City Barry Schwabsky points us to a central aspect of the urban when he says that the city “seems to be constantly in the process of destroying itself but – through (or as) that very destruction – it persists”. In my mind this seems to point back to Paul Auster’s terrifying picture of the future of urban living in his 1987 novel In the Country of Last Things:

“When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you mustn’t waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it.”

In the opening words to this remarkable collection of essays Barry Schwabsky tells us that to use language is always, in some degree, to disturb it, “to trouble the solidity of the identification through which it is structured – to induce a mutation, momentary or momentous as it may be.” My response is YES! And that is what makes reading so engaging and so important.

Ian Brinton, 1st March 2018.


Poems For The Dance by Scott Thurston (Aquifer)

Poems For The Dance by Scott Thurston (Aquifer)

In 1923 a Doctor in Rutherford was firmly convinced that much depended upon a red wheelbarrow which sat “glazed with rain / water // beside the white / chickens”. Wallace Stevens referred to that wheelbarrow as a “mobile-like arrangement” and Hugh Kenner suggested that the words hung together dangling in “equidependency, attracting the attention, isolating it, so that the sentence in which they are arrayed comes to seem like a suspension system.” Seven years after the placing of that same wheelbarrow William Carlos Williams went on to weave in words a picture of a cat which “climbed over / the top of // the jamcloset”. The 27 words of the cat’s movements are described in what Kenner called “one sinuous suspended sentence, feeling its way and never fumbling.” In The Pound Era Kenner went on to present us with a surfer:

“The surfer planes obliquely down a hill that renews itself at just the rate of his descent. But for encountering the beach he could glide eternally, leftward and inward and always as if downward, but never further down: always hung midway on the face of the wave. He shifts, precarious, through innumerable moments of equilibrium. And the wave bears him and there is no moving wave: the molecules of water move not forward at all but only up and down, their forward movement a pattern not a displacement, as his downward movement is no displacement but a pattern: on and on, self-renewing. So through mere words, renewed by every reader, the cat walks safely forever.”

In her introduction to Scott Thurston’s recently published volume Poems for the Dance Camilla Nelson highlights for us the sense of movement which threads its way through this fine and intriguing moving stance:

“A key part of Thurston’s skill lies in his ability to monitor, examine and carefully express his experience as a dancing body in words. This is evidenced most clearly in the first part of the essay ‘Dancing the Five Rhythms’. The level of detail he is able to recall of the seemingly fleeting emotional-physical relation of the moving body is impressive. But ‘body’ is not enough because, as micro-biologist Margaret McFall-Ngai has observed of her bacterial studies, as the focus of study narrows “it’s difficult for scientists to even categorize what they are seeing” (2010:3). Things fall apart. That is the beauty of such fine observation. Thurston conjures a mirage of being able to think, move and write all at once.”

The reference to things falling apart carries with it no sense of Yeatsian foreboding and what becomes clear throughout this volume of poems, prose and photographs is a sense that the centre both can and does “hold”. This should come as no surprise as one recalls his 2011 Shearsman volume Talking Poetics, the four ‘Dialogues in Innovative Poetry’, a collection of four interviews conducted with Karen MacCormack, Jennifer Moxley, Caroline Bergvall and Andrea Brady:

“It may be difficult to make an apprehension of a poet’s style available to critical analysis. To some extent it must simply be accepted as the means by which their poetry comes to us, and something which we may come to be more or less aware of, perhaps not unlike the rhythm of someone’s walk.”

Commenting on these interviews he suggested that “turning the mercury of speech into the lead of type was a sort of alchemy of meditation and reflection”. The opening poem in this new collection is itself a prolonged meditation on turning and I was reminded of the ‘Message From Not Far Away’ with which Jeremy Prynne concluded the first issue of a Students’ English Magazine of Guangzhou University in 2005:

“Out on the Pearl River enjoying a festive excursion I was watching the water currents slide by, flashing with lights from the banks on either side and lightning from the sky; and I realised how brilliant would be the new magazine of the Guangzhou University English Writing Classes, full of pearl-bright moments and shining articles all moving along in the currents of these changing times. Students of writing should write, so that Chinese imagination and English expression may flow together and blend and sparkle!”

This new collection of Scott Thurston’s work accompanied by the photographs of Roger Bygott sparkles and, as Sarah Kelly notes on the back, it presents us with “moments of encounter, acts of noticing, awareness of pattern – wave by wave by wave”.


Ian Brinton, 24th February 2018


The Mesh: Tears in the Fence Festival Theme

The Mesh: Tears in the Fence Festival Theme

The Mesh is a term used in Timothy Morton’s The Ecological Thought (2010). Morton uses an analogy of a piece of mesh to describe how he thinks about ecology. His thesis is, essentially, that to understand ecology, you have to make connections between things that you may not expect to have anything to do with the environment. For example, there might be an eco-crisis brought out about by deforestation because a particular tribe, religion, or culture, make clothes out of a specific plant. To understand that environmental crisis, you would have to take into account the religion or the culture that contributed to it. His theory of the mesh encourages people to look from many different perspectives in order to obtain a fuller picture and broader understanding.

His approach to ecology, I think, offers a good theme because it involves finding links within the world and understanding relationships. We live in an age of divisions: from Brexit, to the far left and far right, and rapidly evolving technology causing generations to grow apart faster than they ever have before. It is useful and refreshing to hear about the relationships between things, rather than the divides.

The mesh implies that there is no simple right or wrong relationship implied within a given situation or state. A mesh is simply an interweaving of many different threads, pulling the emphasis away from binary standpoints and more towards a plurality of ideas that interconnect.

Similarly, Morton’s Mesh allows for an interesting approach to the poetry that might be generated as a result of the theme. I shall illustrate this Morag Kiziewicz’s poem, ‘Hi Tracey’ published in Tears in the Fence 65.

In the second stanza of ‘Hi Tracey’, Morag’s speaker discusses how she images her “hippy” worldview would clash with that of the artist, Tracey Emin. Morag sets up the two opposing views, only to juxtapose them further by introducing a third view, a girl wearing t-shirt reading, ‘GENDER FREE FUTURE’.

This unexpected ending creates connections between different factions of the left wing political sphere, the divergent perceptions of gender in contemporary culture, and the frictions (or joyful differences) between intergenerational worldviews. This is exactly the kind of interconnected thinking that Morton summarises in the mesh. There are no stereotypical left or right wing figures in the poem, only nuanced perceptions of the world and hints about the relationship between these perceptions. The perceptions of other people’s perceptions, if you will.

The piece also sprawls out to connect poetry to the concept of what can be defined as art by contrasting the t-shirt to Tracey Emin’s iconic bed installation and paintings by Francis Bacon. The t-shirt represents a form of art that, being mobile, crosses the borders of privilege set up by art galleries with high entry fees (and extortionate prices in adjoining gift shops and cafes). But the message of Morag’s poem is not simply THE FUTURE IS COMING. Certainly, the final image of the t-shirt does look to a future in which genders are reworked or dissolved completely. Yet the form of the t-shirt itself brings with it the associations of concrete poetry popularised in the first two characters’ youths. Therefore a cyclical pattern is produced in which older ideas are recycled and adapted to fit the ideologies of the burgeoning era. Nothing is a statement on its own. Everything is linked. While I may have been side tracked by a bit of close analysis, it is these kind of connections that summarise Morton’s idea of a ‘sprawling mesh of interconnection without definite centre or edge’. (page 8).

Since the mesh discourages the reader (or writer) from following a binary trail of logic, this could bring about surprises in poetry. Some of the best poetry surprises us by turning away from the expected ending, ultimately drawing out an undercurrent within the poem, or widening it to a larger plane of meaning. So, writing with the mesh in mind can strengthen our work.

To summarise in a sentence. The mesh involves looking at things from multiple perspectives or having multiple viewpoints present in the same poem, which can improve poetry because it creates surprises by diverting away from the expected to achieve a wider plane of meaning.

I hope this generates some really interesting discussion points, as well as poetry at this year’s festival.

Joanna Nissel 19th February 2018


The Oval Window by J.H. Prynne (Bloodaxe Books)

The Oval Window by J.H. Prynne (Bloodaxe Books)

A new edition of Jeremy Prynne’s long poem which had been originally published privately in an edition of 600 copies in December 1983 is due to be published on 29th March this year. It is the third separate publication of this major poem since the second one appeared in Brisbane in 2002 edited by the Australian artist Ian Friend. On the cover of the first edition there was a photograph showing a window-like opening in the wall of a ruined ‘shield’, or shieling, a rough stone hut built by medieval farmers to house themselves and their families during the summer transhumance. The photograph is one of many taken by Prynne himself at Tinkler Crags, on Askerton North Moor, a desolate area near the village of Gilsland in Cumbria and twenty more pages of these photographs are now included in this new edition.

This finely produced new edition is edited by Neil Reeve and Richard Kerridge whose work on The Oval Window goes back to an article ‘Deaf to Meaning: on J.H. Prynne’s The Oval Window‘ published in issue 3 of Parataxis in 1993. They also wrote a chapter of fifty pages on the poem for their major publication on Prynne, Nearly Too Much (Liverpool University Press, 1995). The new Bloodaxe edition contains two new substantial essays on the poem and some fifty pages of notes. It is a must! This is merely a quick advert for the book to alert our readers in advance and I shall be writing a full review of the new edition in Tears in the Fence 68 later this year.

Ian Brinton 9th February 2018


New York Hotel by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

New York Hotel by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

Some difficulties with visual particularism haunt the phantasmagoric world of Lewis Carroll and a moment from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There anticipates the nightmare world of Kafka whilst also casting a glance back over the shoulder at the world of Todgers’s Guest House in Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit:

“The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things – but the oddest part of all was, that whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty: though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold. “Things flow about so here!” she said at last in a plaintive tone, after she had spent a minute or so in vainly pursuing a large bright thing, that looked sometimes like a doll and sometimes like a work-box, and was always in the shelf next above the one she was looking at.” [1872, Chap. V]

“You couldn’t walk about in Todgers’s neighbourhood, as you could in any other neighbourhood. You groped your way for an hour through lanes and bye-ways, and court-yards and passages; and never once emerged upon anything that might be reasonably called a street. A kind of resigned distraction came over the stranger as he trod those devious mazes, and, giving himself up for lost, went in and out and round about, and quietly turned back again when he came to a dead wall…” [1844, Chap. IX]

It was in a comment on the back cover of Ian Seed’s 2011 collection Shifting Registers (Shearsman Books) that we are referred to the fragmented yet rich lyricism of the writing which “crosses borders between lost and rediscovered identity”: the poet’s “navigation of different realities” is expressed through his willingness to contemplate “new spaces through language.” This powerful focus upon shifting realities keeps the reader’s eye firmly on the pages of New York Hotel as we are confronted with what “felt familiar and yet like another world” (‘Baptism’). These short prose poems are haunting; they are compelling to read and John Ashbery’s comment upon Seed’s work is absolutely on the nail:

“The mystery and sadness of empty rooms, chance encounters in the street, trains travelling through a landscape of snow become magical in Ian Seed’s poems.”

I reviewed Ian Seed’s translation of Pierre Reverdy’s Le Voleur de Talan (The Thief of Talant) about one year ago and was struck then by the ability of both poets to render Orphic vision palpable. Both poets are struck by the sense that as they turn their heads to stare at the past “something flees much faster than us.” In that world of shifting realities (“Things flow about so here”) Reverdy sees how “Further off a forest merged with the city” and it was Philippe Jaccottet who recognised how Reverdy’s words focus upon “la fuite nes nuées, les lueurs des vitres” (the evaporation of dark clouds, glimmers of light through the shutters). Jaccottet’s words are absolutely right also for Ian Seed’s powerful understanding of how we live isolated lives haunted by the flickering images of a past that informs a present.
Perhaps it is because I spent so many years school-teaching that when I read something that holds my attention as firmly as does New York Hotel I am aware of looking around for what I want to read next, return to, advise my pupils to look at. One of the voices that came to mind as I read ‘Orphanage’ was that of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy:

“It was my responsibility to accompany the boy in a taxi to an orphanage on the other side of the city. When we arrived, I was surprised to see what a rundown area it was in. I wondered if we had come to the right place. Although I was worried about the expense, I told the driver to wait while I took the boy and went to find out.”

As readers we are held immediately by that opening word “responsibility” and its association with what we need to take charge of in relation to vulnerability. Rather like the Ancient Mariner Ian Seed has caught us with his version of “There was a ship…” and we cannot choose but hear what happens next. A rundown area, doubts about it being the correct destination, anxiety over cost, reliance upon the escape route. I shan’t tell you any more! Buy a copy of New York Hotel and read it for yourselves. In Auster’s City of Glass the shifting figure of Stillman, a man who imprisoned his son in an apartment with covered up windows for nine years, traces out the letters of TOWER OF BABEL on the “labyrinth of endless steps” that constitute New York watched by a private detective called Paul Auster who also uses the name of Quinn. In Ian Seed’s world of the phantasmagoric we are presented with a ‘Generation Gap’:

“My maternal grandfather turned up at my council flat with his father, who was a tiny bearded man in an ancient wheelchair. I hadn’t seen them for a long time. without saying hello, my great grandfather raised a fist in the air and began to berate me for being nearly sixty and still without a proper home or job. Even when my grandfather lifted him out of the chair, carried him to the toilet and put him down on the seat, he continued to scold me. The whole flat soon started to stink, but I said nothing through fear of offending them.”

When I return to the classroom for a term in September this year I shall present some of these wonderful fictions to my Year 10. After all it is now some fifty-five years since I first came to recognise the palpability of loss: before that there was the magic of the now.

Ian Brinton February 5th 2018.

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