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Author Archives: tearsinthefence

A Journal of Enlightened Panic by Alan Baker (Shoestring Press)

A Journal of Enlightened Panic by Alan Baker (Shoestring Press)

Good poetry often creates a sense of release, of being returned to a point of wonder and attention. Alan Baker’s latest chapbook, A Journal of Enlightened Panic, has that quality. There’s an integrity about the writing which is enlivening.

The metaphor of life as voyage, journey, or walk dominates the volume. The longest poem, ‘Voyager,’ has perhaps the most complex use of these tropes. The poem is dedicated to Baker’s mother, who died in 2015. The text mixes information concerning the Voyager space probe, and material about life on a container ship, with the night-time wanderings of ‘Alan’, a cleverly objectified version of the poet himself.

The probe in outer space, the ship often travelling for days without seeing another vessel, have a resonance with Alan’s nocturnal perambulations, walks which have ‘the quality of dream’ but are also punctured by the unwelcome intrusions of time and unease.

Alan would like to inform us that he was tired
and became irritated
when Time appeared in the form of a bird
Uncertainty, in the form of the rising wind

The refusal of the bird to ‘accept itself as an illusion’ prompts a question:

…whether the double night of dark
and the dark of dreams
invests us with a kind of wisdom,
or whether in fact, the night is peopled by lights
and reflections from which
there is no escape.

Later in the poem a night-time journey by car is a voyage into a wordless and indifferent universe accessible only through dream. A river ‘bears him off his feet’, carrying him back to childhood memories of a coal fire, Dr Who and ‘Geordie gabble’ like the ‘residual sound/ of the creation of the universe.’ The poem ends:

…but here he is, not having expected
to lose the path, or care too much about the old guard
when they’d gone, but he does, surprisingly much.

Another fine example of Baker’s ability to articulate the conflicting tensions of life, and the possible consolation of imaginative attention, is the opening poem in the collection, ‘When a man goes out’. Here it’s an awareness of a worsening ecological crisis and the poet’s contribution to this in the acts of daily living, such as using a fridge, which preoccupy Baker. This is the ‘enlightened panic’ from which the chapbook takes its name. In such a context is it ‘decadent’, he asks, to be absorbed with questions about art?
The poet’s answer is that he does not ‘trust the voices that separate/ the inner from the outer, that sit at the threshold and ask for ID.’ Through attention to the present moment, the poem suggests, ‘a man may be transformed each morning, / like the day’s colours mirrored in the windows of a sleeping house.’

Other poems in this collection are tributes to fellow writers with whom Baker shares an aesthetic affinity – Geraldine Monk, Peter Hughes, Lee Harwood, Peter Gizzi. There are also two poems written in collaboration with Robert Sheppard and previously published in Sheppard’s EUOIA anthology. Baker shows himself equally at home in short-form poems as in the longer discursive texts. A number of the poems make use of embedded quotations– I noted Donne, Shakespeare and Joyce.

In ‘The Right’, Baker speaks of the ‘physicality/ to some texts’, which can ‘create an inner sound/ that takes on a life of its own/ aside from literal meaning’. He speculates that this might be something at one with ‘laugher or weeping,/ or wordless expressions of love.’ Or like the effect of someone making small talk before asking ‘an awkward question’, a question we do not have to answer because as guests we have ‘a right to silence.’

Can ‘a sound that transforms/ and continues the world…illuminate malignancies,/ soothe them with a process/ incompletely understood’ he asks in ‘Hematopoiesis’. Many of the poems in this volume offer precisely this kind of sustaining possibility.

Simon Collings 22nd September 2020

The Slip by Simon Perril (Shearsman Books)

The Slip by Simon Perril (Shearsman Books)

In the Afterwords to this third part of his trilogy focusing upon the central importance of ancient Greece’s lyric poet, Archilochus, we are presented with Simon Perril’s first encounter with a ‘first’ poet whose significance was in ‘marking a turn away from impersonal, heroic Epic, to the personal realm of lyric’. Highlighting the importance of Herman Fränkel’s Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy (Oxford, 1975) Perril refers to the malleable nature of language which is ‘capable of being shaped by human hands rather than the arbitration of the Gods’. Fränkel claimed that the importance of Archilochus rested with his grasping the ‘first and nearest data of the individual: the now, the here, the I’ and Simon Perril’s sense of this immediacy of lyric expression is itself caught here, caught now:

‘May we, similarly,
hear with our hands
the sound of the shape
held in clay
as we wedge at the edges of form’

These lines from the second of the eighty poems in The Slip conclude with a reference to ‘the felting dark’ and Perril has borrowed that viscous term from the Presocratic philosophy of Anaximenes who had written about the primary principle of infinite air ‘from which the things that are becoming, and that are, and that shall be, and gods and things divine, all come into being’. Anaximenes was interested in the continual motion of air, its transformation, its ‘felting’ and when Jonathan Barnes, brother of the novelist Julian, published his Penguin edition of Early Greek Philosophy in 1987 he referred to this first principle in terms of form:

‘The form of the air is this: when it is most uniform it is invisible, but it is made apparent by the hot and the cold and the moist and the moving. It is always in motion; for the things that change would not change if it were not in motion.’

The results possess a viscosity that Simon Perril had already referred to in his own notes to the second volume of the Archilochus poems, Beneath (Shearsman Books, 2015) in which he had talked of the poet’s voice possessing a taste of ‘brine, sweat and handled coins’. When air is more condensed it is water, when still further condensed it is earth, and when it is as dense as possible it is stones and that movement towards a lapidary conclusion leads us through the hands of the potter to a sound of shape, a ‘wedge at the edges of form’. In Simon Perril’s hands we discover the ‘rudiments of shape / woven from water / and silt cake.’

The legend of Archilochus sketches what Perril has hinted at as ‘a crime scene at the birth of lyric’ as the story has been unravelled of the role played by Lycambes in breaking off the poet’s engagement to his daughter Neobulé leading to such powerful creations of lyric outrage that weave poetry and invective into a powerful new combination with devastating consequences of death and loss. Perril’s notes remind us of the previous volumes in his trilogy and his purpose in this last volume:

‘My challenge was where to locate this final part of my Greek trilogy. If Archilochus had the moon, Neobulé Hades, then what stage for Lycambes? The answer was a long time coming, and evasive (as all answers should be). Early on, images of Attic vases and pottery crept into the poems; and it was evident that whereas Archilochus was in exile after the havoc he had wrought, and Neobulé arrives in Hades after this havoc; Lycambes was inhabiting a multi-faceted present moment before he completes his actions by following the death of his daughters with his own. This final volume had to land Lycambes in the less exotic realm of the earth, contemplating his pressing deed, and reminiscing.’

As Perril puts it in lyric 7

‘there are some acts,
slow to unfurl,
that outlive their maps’

In the blurb on the back of The Slip we read of the poetic legacy of Archilochus and although we cannot know whether ancient Greece’s first lyric poet really used his Iambic prowess to curse Lycambes’ family to its grave for a broken marriage oath we can be in no doubt ‘that his poetic legacy, in Antiquity and beyond, was a by-word for judge-ments over the acceptability, or otherwise, of indulgence in poetic harm; just as the literary form of Iambic he is famous for is a locus of ethical crises.’
In a world of metamorphosis where the fox wreaks revenge upon the eagle that has eaten its pups and the greed of the bird of prey that leads it to steal meat from a sacrificial altar only to have it burn down his nest and send its young tumbling into the waiting vulpine jaws, poetry offers a ‘new sense of strengthening regard for common things’ (John James). Simon Perril’s poetry offers us a focus upon the importance of the individual moment, an honest awareness of the present and an understanding that the gravity of a poem lies in its whole form. In that felting of air these poems search for ‘that damp / strip of sand beyond / that stripes land’

‘as white horses charge at it
proferring foam
at the mouth’

Ian Brinton, 15th September 2020

Festival Conversation between Simon Collings and Allen Fisher

Festival Conversation between Simon Collings and Allen Fisher

Questions for Allen Fisher, Answers for Simon Collings

Tears in the Fence Festival 2020

The Friday evening session of this year’s Festival included a conversation between Allen Fisher and Simon Collings. Simon sent Allen written questions before the event and Allen prepared written answers. During the session the conversation took a somewhat different course from the one planned. As a bonus, therefore, we are sharing here the written texts of the questions and answers prepared prior to the event. The discussion was about Allen’s magnum opus Gravity as a consequence of shape, composed between 1982 and 2007. I’m delighted to be able to share this additional material. David Caddy

Q1: You had a structure for the project from the beginning, a framework which guided the subse-quent facturing of the work. You created this framework by marking a number sequence on a card-board tube and then crushing it. Could you say something about the overall structure of the book?
A1: My poetry writing uses processual and procedural methods. For the Gravity project I chose a complex of numerical structure and a small playful book of research into some scientific practices, particularly bio-engineering and quantum physics. The premise behind the initial numerical struc-ture was that the norms of structural pattern put in place in terms of line count and line lengths, but also in terms of overall narrative schemes that you could find in Dante, in Chaucer, in Spenser and in, for example Shakespeare’s Venus & Adonis, these are demonstrations of an earlier aesthetic with a basis in coherence, exactness and certainty. We are now in a culture and civilisation that is run by liars focussed on their own riches their ownership. I am not in favour of these criminals. They are de-stroying the planet, they encourage poverty. They support torture. They refuse joy. I explicitly seek to invent, develop and provide a new aesthetic attention. I take into account a decoherent position that comprehended uncertainties but as I wrote elsewhere gives a confidence in lack.

To cut a longer story short, I devised a system of allegedly exact proportions and exponential devel-opment and part of my procedure was to scale these proportions onto a cardboard cylinder. And as you noted, I put the cylinder in a vice and crushed it and folded it so that the exact numbering be-came self-interfering, became visually energetic. It became more exact to the situation it was in the process of producing. There’s no need for anyone reading the text to know the scheme used, the via-ble knowing has to do with understanding the disruption and excitement in unpredictable aspects of what at first seemed like a straight forward narrative or description. This procedural device was then subjected to a variety of improvised and homophonic attentions both intimately in some of the indi-vidual poems, but also across the larger work to provide the potential for a pattern of connectedness.

As you have it, the poems in Gravity each have the title of a jazz dance and the design of the book derives from my earlier small research book called Ideas on the culture dreamed of, which is alphabetical. In the initial scheme I start with African Boog and end with Zip. The reader may enjoy knowing some of this, or may not, but the reading through is affected by the schemes, the reader need only be alert to the variety of patterns and broken patterns, the narrative expectations and then their subversion.

Q2: You use collage extensively, lifting material from a diverse range of sources. We’ll hear references to Blake and Dryden, material from various works on neuroscience and physics, and later on references to the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. These discourses are woven together into a poly-vocal text, reflective of the way each of us today is surrounded by multiple disourses, many too technical for us to understand. Could you say something about the poem’s appropriation of these varied discourses? You could characterise the writings in Gravity in terms of their function.

A2: The undercurrent writing takes concepts on contemporary scientific thought and practice be-cause I am paying attention to them. Trying to comprehend them. Much of the material comes from studying bio-technology as it might affect our conditions and futures as physical substance. Quantum physics in how it discusses our conditions in terms of where we are and what we are. These attentions lead into the use of language used by these groups of theory and practice. It’s a matter of taking back the language as part of the poetic material part of its substance. Both of these usages lead into and out of narrative themes in the work and also play with the vocabularies in the text. As substances to transform within the larger text.
Q3: Of course you’re making poetry, not trying to explain quantum theory or the nature of con-sciousness, so these different vocabularies are mixed in ways which produce new and surprising for-mulations. These often serve as a kind of commentary on the poem’s own process. In Cakewalk for example we have the lines: ‘The variety of their phase behaviour/encourages a focus deception/His long range special ordering/fantasises a language progression/from colloidal fluids to crystals.’ You’re interested in creating an aesthetic effect here, in provoking an experience for the reader. Is that right?

A3: Maybe aesthetic effect characterises what this is about, but we need to understand aesthetic, its basis in providing information or thoughts, in delighting the reader, in persuading the reader that it goes on and is saying something albeit elusive that there are a number of small conclusions and openings. The aesthetic effect would be a sense of wonder.

Q4: There are a series of ‘characters’ who appear throughout the text, one of the central figures be-ing the Burglar (capital B.) We’ll hear many references to the Burglar in the material you are going to read. Does the Burglar connect with your practice of appropriating text from other authors?

A4: The Burglar the Painter the Technician the Photographer the Bellman are persona in the work, I have mutual feelings about who they are and what they represent. They are metonyms for different aspects of human conditions. The Burglar steals DNA as a commodity on the stock exchange, he turns human substance into a commodity, he can put it on a USB stick, he steals consciousness, he attends to your sleep. It’s incidental that I gather my texts from texts that already exist. That would be a paradigm for Shakespeare and Chaucer, I only need to be an artist to make use of what is available. The character of the Burglar is multiple, his image is fleeting and unrecordable except as a passing wisp in the air. In a sudden lost breath. In a lost balance, stolen in that moment, in a trip on the step. Persuaded by gravity to drop instead of lift. The Burglar is a device to give the reader you or me, a landline, something to provide a recurrence and catch of bird song as it passes.

Q5: The concept of ‘entanglement’ in quantum physics interests you – the phenomenon where parti-cles remote from each other mirror each other’s behaviour. By analogy texts within Gravity are ‘en-tangled’ with each other. For example, poems at the end of the sequence, mirror texts from the be-ginning. The lines ‘The Burglar’s struggle against gravity/begins in irreversible vertigo/practiced in a periodic and reversible fashion/otherwise the lure of his search of self’ which you’ll read from ‘Bun-ny Hop’ are mirrored by: ‘The Burglar’s confrontation with exactness/held sway in this intuition, his immediate/seeing, in that false concept of a present/ trodden by fiction’ which appears in ‘Stroll’ (which you had planned to read but which we won’t have time for.) These poems were written many years apart and in very different settings. How do these textual entanglements relate to the concept of space-time?

A5: Entanglements characterises a summary of our condition as humans on a planet that is in the process of being destroyed. Our spacetime is a muliplex of where we are. The plurality of worlds that David Lewis and that for example the poet Jacques Roubaud returns to is one dimension of this, this is similar to Robert Duncan’s multiverse. It’s also more connected and interactive and self interfering than their concepts. It is disruptive in a positive way, it is energetic and the basis of our existence. It characterises that we are part of a pattern of connectedness, it’s how our human physiology works, how consciousness works or memory and our immune responses our weather. The mirrors are more extraordinary than a hall of mirrors or singular camera lens they are mobile. They are the basis of my aesthetic and my practice and my cooking. Entanglements are exemplary of the decoherence that we experience on a minute by minute condition. They articulate our loss and gains our uncer-tainty and confidence. Our accidents and corrective attentions. Our collective presences.

Your suggestion attends to composition over a broad time. You say over many years. It is also at that moment of energy that momenergy in a multiple of situations and conditions some consciously experienced others lost in the fleet of being. The benefit of project working is that it articulates the production of a poem as a job to do. It is conceptualised and planned and carried out. The idea over many years is lost to the spacetime of multiplicity and that is where the entanglement takes, is effi-caciousness, is how it is experienced as lost and found at once. Stolen and recovered at once.

Q6: A final question. On first encounter the work may seem rebarbative to a reader. But there’s a great deal of playful humour in the work isn’t there, both at the level of the language and in some of the narrative?

A6: The work is necessarily rebarbative, what a word, it feels like a blurb on the back of the book. The work is as you say playful and has an intension in humour. I can think of no better description of the human condition. In states of adversity we move through in good humour and get on with it. We interface adversity, the whole damaged condition of our planet and motivate a recovery. Maybe it is rebarbative in the sense of the barber, like the Burglar takes from you, when you are face to face with the Burglar you don’t see who it is. It is the activity that you encounter. Rebarbative because it uses vocabulary that you don’t recognise or because it feels like a demonstration of confusion, an underlying need to cohere and quickly understand, Gravity can’t be understood in that way, it offers fleets of comprehension which are continually stolen from you. I resist coherence because coherence is a death. It is lie we have been told all our lives. This civilisation does not cohere except as a death culture. We need to transform that, we need to counter it. We are tired of dying, and seeing the death of others, we are sick of the torturers and the victims of torture, tired of arms dealers and the buyers of armoury. We are rebarbative with the psychiatrist and the loss of memory. We are clowns in a circus that demands we fall over and get up. We have funny faces and cry. We demand fun and playfulness and humour, it is restorative.

Simon Collings, Allen Fisher 14th September 2020

Covid 19 Sutras by Hank Lazer (Lavender Ink, New Orleans)

Covid 19 Sutras by Hank Lazer (Lavender Ink, New Orleans)

In writing about Hank Lazer’s 2019 collection of poems Slowly Becoming Awake (Dos Madres Press) for issue 28 of Lou Rowan’s Seattle-based magazine Golden Handcuffs Review I referred to a ‘Notebook’ entry for October 7th 2016: ‘poem radiating outward’ with its immediate follow-on, ‘landfall the page’. The strings of thought in Lazer’s new collection act in a similar fashion as the particularity of the moment is seen against a spiritual and philosophical awareness of the progress and effects of the Covid 19 virus. In a comment made by Charles Bernstein after reading these poems Hank Lazer ‘precisely notates the passing of time through pandemic and uprising’:

‘Consciousness alights on each poem “like a butterfly drawn to a bright flower,” offering luminous company in dark times.’

That luminosity is brightly evident from the opening four lines of the first poem:

‘books & blossoms
spring & all
cold morning no
wind cloud bank’

What is contained in the reading of books and the world of flowering is perhaps brought into focus by the early lines of William Carlos Williams’s 1923 volume Spring and All: ‘a constant barrier between the reader and his consciousness of immediate contact with the world’. As Williams escorts his readers along ‘the road to the contagious hospital / under the surge of the blue / mottled clouds driven from the / northeast – a cold wind’ Lazer takes us

‘over the mountain
ridge city & its
tower in the distance’

The journey of this remarkable collection of poems charts a pathway along the moments of a sutra as we come to terms with the effects of both the pandemic and institutionalised racism as are asked to question the nature of wants and needs:

‘the treasure store
is open you
can take what
you want – no

you can take
what you need
through practice
you may learn

to receive what
is already yours
here is the bell sound
to awaken you’

It was Shakespeare’s King Lear who exposed the central nature of the relationship between wants and needs when he was confronted by his daughters removing from him every token of what is meant by the royalty of oneself. Goneril and Regan remove his train of followers and insist that his needs can be cared for by their own servants. However, it is when Regan delivers the final brutal blow of ‘What need one?’ that Lear pronounces his understanding of what it is to be human:

‘O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s’

Lazer questions what changed ‘when the virus / hit’ and wonders whether ‘connection’ breaks ‘away’. It is perhaps in this nature of connection, who we were and who we are now, what we want and we need, that the poet also finds an echo of a sound from later than Shakespeare. As the bell sounds ‘to awaken you’ we can hear the quiet conclusion to a tale told by an ancient mariner whose guilt had not only weighed him down but had compelled him to tell his tale.

In the second ‘Sutra’, subtitled ‘flattening the curve’ the distance we have travelled (guided by the science) leads the poet to question the nature of ‘liberation’. A sense of spiritual wonder at the moving of the clouds of unknowing has become a mark on a door made ‘with numbers & distance / given us by our sciences’. The ‘hurry to find / a cure’ and the ‘hurry to assign // blame’ is placed against a perspective that Gary Snyder had recognised in his years spent in the Yosemite range of mountains in the 1950s. For Hank Lazer

‘this place
perfect
hillside
light shadow

& a view
of the pasture
having become
this changing light’

For Gary Snyder

‘distant dogs bark, a pair of
cawing crows; the twang
of a pygmy nuthatch high in a pine –
from behind the cypress windrow
the mare moves up, grazing’

The quiet and individual intelligence of Hank Lazer’s poems is perhaps contained in his awareness of the particularity that constitutes played music being ‘never the same twice’. As he puts it in ‘Sutra 3’, subtitled ‘phased reopening’, the individual is ‘here now’ and can ‘see only a small fraction of it’. Faced with the unknown enormity of the pandemic it is worth perhaps bearing in mind the section concerning humility in the late fourteenth-century treatise ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ in which the author asserted that humility was ‘nothing else but a true knowledge and awareness of oneself as one really is’. And one response to this statement may be found in Lazer’s poem:

‘The pictures of Jupiter answer some of the
questions.
This world here & your life in time are not what
you think they are.
If it is a cloud of unknowing know that the cloud
like any weather is constantly changing.’

What was immediately recognised by Rae Armantrout when commenting on the importance of this collection of poems was that it ‘brings us the news in the way that 18th century ballad broadsides did to Londoners’:

‘Quatrain by quatrain, Lazer sings the present world, its viruses (covid and structural racism), and its beauties (animals, friendship, the shape of a sentence).’

Just as Hank Lazer’s earlier collection had presented the reader with the poem radiating outward this new collection offers us a world in which

‘each day is
rich
in its
specifics’

Ian Brinton, 7th September 2020

Hove Lawns to Brighton Pier – March video poem by Joanna Nissel

The early stanzas of ‘Hove Lawns to Brighton Pier – March’ were written during the first Tears in the Fence online workshop on ‘Obsession’. We were asked to consider our habits, the things we return to, and repetition, both in our poetry and wider lives: objects, patterns of behaviour, landscapes, etc.

One element that particularly resonated with me was the concept of the repeated walk and the many perspectives, characters, mysteries, discoveries, and stories that can be revealed through the small changes and details that one may see on such a walk. As it happened, at the time of the workshop I was doing just that. These were the first weeks of lockdown and I was in the habit of taking long walks at dawn to the coast between Brighton and Portslade to avoid the crowds.

The complete poem will be published in issue 72 of Tears in the Fence. An enormous thank you to David Caddy and Louise Buchler for publishing it, and for encouraging me to keep submitting. In the weeks after composing the written poem, I augmented it into a poetry film using footage from my walks. I hope you enjoy it.

Joanna Nissel 4th September 2020

(Joanna Nissel is reading at the Tears in the Fence Festival on Friday, 11th September)

The Celestial Set-Up (Oystercatcher Press) & A Revolutionary Calendar (Shearsman Books) by Zoe Skoulding

The Celestial Set-Up (Oystercatcher Press) & A Revolutionary Calendar (Shearsman Books) by Zoe Skoulding

When Harriet Tarlo’s challenging and deeply rewarding anthology of ‘Radical Landscape Poetry’, The Ground Aslant, appeared in 2011 from Shearsman Books it attracted a review by Robert Macfarlane for an issue of Saturday Guardian. Referring to details of landscape providing ‘no reliable resting place for the eye or the mind’ the reviewer alerted us to the movement onwards ‘in an effortful relay of attention from speck to speck’. He also pointed to Peter Larkin’s awareness of particularity, ‘highlights in the moving light of the ordinary’, which brings to mind the ‘message from far away’ that Jeremy Prynne wrote in 2005 for the opening issue of Pearl Contents, the First Students’ English Magazine of Guangzhou University:

‘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.’

In Zoë Skoulding’s new group of poems from the Oystercatcher’s beak we are offered ‘The Celestial Set-Up’, ‘star clusters’ which scatter into ‘islands breaking into archipelagos’: pearl-drop moments of a ‘network of events’. Their relation to time as well as distance is given to us as the possibility of ‘love moving on the epidermis’, ‘a crackle on a hand’, and they unravel ‘in tenses / between your past and my future’. This poetry is a finely-tuned gaze at the particularity of who we are and what we see and it prompts me to look back at Ruskin’s concern in Modern Painters for the ‘Truth of Space’ as dependent on ‘The Focus of the Eye’:

‘First, then, it is to be noticed, that the eye, like any other lens, must have its focus altered, in order to convey a distinct image of objects at different distances; so that it is totally impossible to see distinctly, at the same moment, two objects, one of which is much father off than another.’

Skoulding’s awareness of the possible relationships between the near and the far is central to her focus upon the Menai Straits that separate the coast of North Wales from the Isle of Anglesy. In ‘A Strait Story’ she waits for the tide to turn:

‘Under morning sun, the surface stirs and flicks: this is how it appears, as retreating blue looking black. But what do I know? Soundings off the sea floor come up in layered patterns as the data stream flows in different intensities: a cobalt speckled band of fish; refracted harmonics of the lower levels. You’d be swayed by the glimpse of a seal led by fish led by movement led by transfer of energy, but who’s to say who sways what in the dip and shudder of knowledge, a vessel.’

This range of thought, soundings, brings to my mind the moment in Charles Olson’s ‘Letter 5’ of The Maximus Poems in which he refers to reading ‘sand in the butter on the end of a lead, / and be precise about what sort of bottom your vessel’s over.’
The precision and awareness of depth which prompts Zoë Skoulding’s poetry to compel the past to pierce the present, to speak of days which give utterance ‘all at once, their tongues punctured with green blades’ (‘A Divinatory Calendar’) is central to her reconstruction of A Revolutionary Calendar. As Lyn Hejinian puts it on the back cover of this compelling new publication from Shearsman Books:

‘With expert grace and subversive panache, Zoë Skoulding has written a collection of 360 five-line poems gathered into twelve sections of thirty poems each – a form that replicates that of the ‘Republican Calendar’ created in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution…The resulting sequence of meticulous observations and penchant forays…maps out a temporal intersection, bringing historico-political time (linear and progressive) into conjuncture with seasonal agricultural time (cyclical and recursive).’

Just as all time is irrecoverable all matter changes shape and ‘oil pressed from / dark fruit won’t / hold summer’s shape’: the ‘Olive’ from Frimaire, the November of frost, will ‘ooze’ into a new day. The connection between what was and what is may be held in scents as the axe from Pluviôse (January / February)

‘felled at the root:
here’s an endpoint
sharpened by split
wood scented
with beginning’

Zoë Skoulding’s poetry is meditative, a drawing aside of curtains to allow a scene to be discovered to the reader: it seems like an act of instant as if a light is suddenly turned brightly focused upon a moment. As the poems rest securely on the page the focus is altered in order to permit the poet to convey a distinct image of objects at different distances. This is a poetry to go back to time and time again.

Ian Brinton, 30th August 2020

Baby, I Don’t Care by Chelsey Minnis (Wave Books)

Baby, I Don’t Care by Chelsey Minnis (Wave Books)

If a more original transposition of a genre from its traditional medium to that of another, wholly alien to it, has ever been attempted – and so successfully and bracingly – I can’t recall of it. Imagine a femme fatale from a classic Noir movie cast as the speaker that unites a suite of poems which adhere to quintain form. Each poem visits a theme, such as seduction, murder, romance, laziness, fun & games, bargaining, larceny, love, and, ultimately, failure. Now envision not one speaker, but a host of female speakers, archetypes from 30s and 40s Hollywood, alternately flouncing into the ring of limelight in their nightgowns while nursing a highball or flute of champagne, inspiring deep draughts from a cigarette, and tossing an endless string of gimlet one-liners. The voice is refracted in a thousand ways, producing a stream of apparent nonsequiturs. Finally, consider the fact that many of the lines could each stand alone as a monostich, so jarring and incisive that the reader literally recoils in stupefaction if not shock. This, in essence, is what Chelsey Minnis, an American poet raised in Colorado and author of several prior collections, has accomplished in Baby, I Don’t Care.

Although she was educated at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and studied creative writing at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Minnis has obviously devoted much time to the review of cinematic source material and dissection of a classic Hollywood phenotype during her preparation for this book. That she is fascinated by a period of film history might be anticipated by the observation that she has a habit of ‘reclaiming unfashionable gestures’ in her work as noted in her Poetry Foundation profile.

Unique is grievously inadequate as a descriptor for Baby, I Don’t Care. An irresistible temptation to psychoanalyze the speaker(s) of the poems in this collection overtakes the reader. She/they, a composite in effect, are at once boozy, disjointed, delirious, seductive, self-absorbed, tangential, acquisitive, mordantly witty, bored, brutal, and broken. A hard-boiled vamp, or amalgam of Noir personae, with a penchant for luxury and a deep vein of masochism. She is a chiseler, a philosopher, and an ‘immoral princess,’ to borrow an epithet from the collection. And she knows she is off-kilter. Keenly observant one-liners are rife, like the telling ‘Something’s wrong with me and I like it.’ She certainly does, and so do we. A throwback to Hollywood’s Golden Age, the speaker knows she is an actor when she says ‘Let’s play the scene how it’s written.’

The pastiche effect achieved by the frequent semantic transitions, with one thought careening into the next, unsettles the reader and this is premeditated. It is as if we are fingering a necklace of variously shaped and colored stones, many of which deserve sustained admiration, but all of which we can touch only fleetingly and incompletely. This staccato rat-tat-tat arbitrariness, with coherent bursts of thought rarely lasting more than one or two lines, echoes the devil-may-care attitude of the jaded speaker. In prior work, Minnis has used ellipses liberally, and the Poetry Foundation quotes Sasha Steensen’s observation that her ellipses ‘are, on the one hand, the bullet-holes that remain after Minnis’s speaker takes shots at the reader. On the other, they are evidence of the unsteadiness of the speaker’s own hand […] embody[ing] the vulnerability that so often lurks behind the book’s defiance.’ Although ellipses are not prominent in Baby, I Don’t Care, we do feel both bullet ridden and acutely aware of the speaker’s imbalance. Invisible ellipses, in essence, separate elements of the barrage of micro-semantic units in these poems.

Minnis’s syntax is simple and declarative, and the diction is ‘ginger-peachy’ period-perfect, but the thoughts, which may seem trivial or superficial at times, often reflect an incisive intellect with profound insight into the most tenebrous corridors of human psychology. The best way to get a flavor for this collection is to sample several lines, extracted below from various sections:

Baby, it’s so sexy to think.
Why don’t you try it?

Why don’t you make love to your wife?
The outstanding novelty of the year.

You’ve completely gone out of my mind.

The grenades are in the champagne bucket.

Let’s fall in love,
just the three of us.

I guess it’s like the sexual equivalent of a flamethrower.
What are you going to do?
Complain about the heat?

The speaker claims she may be ‘strictly ornamental’ but that ‘this is highly agreeable as long as I am paid in gems.’ The truth of the matter is that she finds little of her life enduringly satisfying or congenial, and that her astuteness and wit belie her claim of a mere ornamental status. Ultimately, a sadness pervades the collection. In a Philip Marlowe-style simile we are asked to ‘Behold my dazzling mental illness like a chandelier.’ And there seems to be plenty of that, especially depression. Perhaps the most poignant line she utters is: ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t be saved.’ But we know that men will line up for miles to try to save her, anyway, because she is more lucid and powerful than any of them.

David Sahner 23rd August 2020

Seven Leaf Sermons by Peter Larkin artwork by Rupert Loydell (Guillemot Press)

Seven Leaf Sermons by Peter Larkin artwork by Rupert Loydell (Guillemot Press)

In Part I of A.N. Whitehead’s Process and Reality, the title of which suggests the connection between being and movement, the philosopher asserts that the number one ‘stands for the singularity of an entity’ and that the term ‘many’ presupposes the term ‘one’. A quarter of a century later Charles Olson was to write to Robert Creeley that the term ‘One makes Many’ had been overheard by him as being uttered by Cornelia Williams, the cook in Black Mountain College and the phrase was then adopted by Olson as an epigraph for The Maximus Poems. On similar lines Olson wrote an autobiographical note in November 1952 stating

‘that there is no such thing as duality either of the body and the soul or of the world and I, that the fact of the human universe is the discharge of the many (the multiple) by the one…’

In the opening stanza of the sixth of Peter Larkin’s intensely focused poems we can recognise this inseparable connection between the one and the many as ‘a bough is poised between heaven / and earth, full in leaf points to its latent interceding.’ The moving outwards of ‘points’ leads on to the later thought in the same poem:

‘,,.The tree would have no firmament without its
cloud of leaves’

In its Hebraic origins the word ‘firmament’ may well suggest ‘expanse’ as in the treading out of metals, the beating out, the making firm of a primal source. All journeys have sources and the ‘many’ is an outspreading of the ‘one’; in terms of travel, however, there is always loss as well as gain and the opening poem contemplates this inevitable relationship:

‘…The tree was soon parted
from its leaves, but not its wintering seed: what’s this
casts off any distress of tree, simply wrinkles in leaf?’

Like leaves from a tree words have an outward yearning towards different meaning and ‘leaves’ contains an echo of parting just as the word ‘wrinkles’ hints at the Thomas Nashe lines from ‘Summer’s Last Will and Testament’:

‘Beauty is but a flower,
Which wrinkles will devour,
Brightness falls from the air’

In his ‘Journal’ dated 17th October 1873 Gerard Manley Hopkins noted the unending connection between tree and leaf, the one and the many, as the end of the month brought severe frosts:

‘Wonderful downpour of leaf: when the morning sun began to melt the frost they fell at one touch and in a few minutes a whole tree was flung of them; they lay masking and papering the ground at the foot. Then the tree seems to be looking down on its cast self as blue sky on snow after a long fall, its losing, its doing.’

Contemplating movement which is loss Peter Larkin uses language in his Seven Leaf Sermons which breathes an echo of the early seventeenth century:

‘Lacking leaf a tree is not unhoused, but homeless enough
a leaf at last turns its page. It became apron
only to the underclothing of indigent tree, litter for free.
Saw-leaves, no longer interior scapes of trunk passed across
branch-scape, but sole sly ratchet in gear above tree’

The homelessness of ‘unhoused’ brings before us the King Lear whose address to the Fool signals the opening of a moment of meditative prayer the rhetoric of which would be at home in an early dissenting sermon. He exclaims ‘You houseless poverty’ before falling to his knees and addressing the world peopled with ‘houseless heads’ and ‘unfed sides’.
Peter Larkin’s ‘Sermon 3’ presents us with a leaf that ‘breathes in rain but drinks from the root’ and the etymology of words, the foundation of language, is the precursor of expression: the one leading to the many. ‘The sound of rain is its light rattle’ itself offers a continuation from Larkin’s publication from last year, Trees Before Abstinent Ground (Shearsman Books, 2019) in which

‘an out-where of
woods feathered at
joint, a fledgling
withinness with
which they flaunt

articulatio

‘Rooted from edge’ (‘exposure (A Tree) presents’, 2011 and published by Shearsman Books in 2014 under the title Give Forest Its Next Portent) had already suggested an indissoluble link between the moment of setting out and the landscape arrived at within the act of journeying and ‘Sermon 3’ offers us

‘The rain-swirl is what leaves didn’t filter, they fold
around one main curl further down, how root-scope gets
to think (sank) the shape of its drink trunk-spiralled.’

This is a beautifully produced book from Guillemot Press and the illustrations provided by Rupert Loydell add to the contemplative sense of presentation matching content; Olson would have been rather pleased with that too!

Ian Brinton, 19th August 2020

Tears in the Fence Festival 10-13 September 2020

Tears in the Fence Festival 10-13 September 2020

The Tears in the Fence Festival this year is on 10-13th September via Zoom video conferencing.

The Festival has a long history back to the 1990s and has always attempted to showcase a range of alternative voices associated with the magazine and workshop group. Each themed event stems from the issues of the day and attempts to continue conversations from the previous Festival. The Festival consists of readings, discussions, conversations, and is a gathering of friends and an opportunity to make new friends. Previous themes have included ‘Difference and the Other’, ‘Visionaries and Outsiders’, ‘Hidden Connections’ and ‘The Politics of Engagement’. This year’s theme in the shadow of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter is ‘Lost Connections: Light and Darkness’.
There will be sessions around migration, environmental, multilingual, power and gender dynamics, colonial issues as well as the solitudes and vicissitudes of lockdown. There will be talks, videos, conversations with celebrated poets and the opportunity to question readers and panellists. Above all, there will be stimulating readings and conversations. We shall also be using breakout rooms for further late night social discussions.

Amongst our guests will be Sascha Akhtar, Sarah Cave, Simon Collings, Rachael Clyne, Jennifer K. Dick, Andrew Duncan, Allen Fisher, John Freeman, Mandy Haggith, L. Kiew, Hari Marini, Rethabile Masilo, Geraldine Monk, Jessica Mookherjee, Joanna Nissel, Rhea Seren Phillips, Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani, Gavin Selerie, Aidan Semmens, Maria Stadnicka, Cherry Smyth, Harriet Tarlo, Olivia Tuck, Molly Vogel plus some surprise guests.

Tears in the Fence encourages social inclusion and welcomes under-represented poets and writers to attend this year’s festival. 15 free bursaries are on offer to anyone who might not otherwise be able to attend.
Bursary applicants may identify as (but are not limited to) any of the following: BAME writers, writers on no/low income, working class writers, writers from areas of rural or coastal deprivation, writers who have experienced homelessness, refugee writers, writers in the LGBTQ+ communities, writers who have survived abuse, disabled writers, neurodivergent writers, and writers with chronic health conditions. To apply for a free pass to all festival events please email tearsinthefence@gmail.com with the subject line ‘2020 Festival Bursary’. These will be issued on a first come, first serve basis.

David Caddy 18th August 2020

1348 & Other Equations by Valeria Melchioretto (Eyewear Pamphlet Series)

1348 & Other Equations by Valeria Melchioretto (Eyewear Pamphlet Series)

Poems about plagues have an understandable fascination nowadays, and this one, published in 2019, was ahead of the curve. 1348 was the Western European advent of the Black Death, and the title’s ‘equation’ here appears in its root sense of ‘making equal’ – not only in the irreparable way that death does, but also in terms of social re-stratification in the plague’s aftermath. Starting from England, and travelling with the Arthurian Prince Galehaut, the poem quickly reaches Italy, for 1348 is also the year The Decameron is set, its narrators wintering out from the carnage in Florence. Events in Boccaccio’s narrative and Pasolini’s film version are alluded to, but especially their themes: fortune, sex, trickery, mercantilism, class conflict and Church corruption. The poem has a lot of fun, too, with medieval numerology, expanding (or detouring) onto the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man.

Some readers might be attracted less by the subject-matter than by hopes for more of the unique flavour of The End of Limbo, this poet’s earlier collection; for her far-out metaphors and eye-popping turns of phrase. They do reappear, but in place of the personal and family histories the voice here is of an annalist and purveyor of sententiae, reporting, lamenting, bewailing, and making historical and philosophical assertions. It does so in long, end-stopped lines, building into tercets that claim ancestry from the era’s terza rima, but with its devices of rhyme-scheme and metre now faded and only flickeringly detectable.

Those few left behind are without oat to cook or sprout
But now they own plenty of land to firmly plant their feet.
The righteous are said to bloom honourably as bay trees.

The marvellous quirkiness is still there: creditors ‘ascend the layers of millefoglie to reach heaven’; death ‘wears the skin of the living like the latest fashion’; dead peasants ‘went to plough the clouds’; poetry ‘is a scream under the skin’. On the other hand, in such a high-risk style some of the wordplay will inevitably be a matter of taste: ‘their issues take no issue with ill cruelty’; ‘overflowing coffers turn into overflowing coffins’; ‘the apple of the eye doesn’t keep the doctor away’. Unless perhaps it’s all the more fitting for The Decameron’s own blends of the sublime and the ridiculous. In either case, where the thoughts’ content (as befits the annalist’s character) is conventional, wit and readerly pleasure necessarily lie in the mode of expression. But there are occasional jump-cuts and flat lines and sometimes great ideas seem to be just missing a final edit:

Alas, rich patrons still carry cathedrals on their bad backs,
buy indulgences to fill treasure-troves and secure bliss,
bribe Saint Peter to turn a blind eye – turn heaven’s key.

This unusual and intermittently brilliant poem ends by briefly sketching Pasolini’s murder at Ostia, and then alerting us that the plague bacillus is still around, carried by rodents and occasionally infecting humans. Well, these days I suppose we can never be reminded too often.

Guy Russell 16th August 2020

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