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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

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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.

An Interview with Lucy Hamilton on Stalker by Ian Seed

An Interview with Lucy Hamilton on Stalker by Ian Seed

These questions come from a seminar with my creative writing students at the University of Chester. Stalker is a set text on third year course Life Writing that I teach there. Ian Seed

1.Why did you choose the form of the prose poem to write Stalker ? Why not longer prose or lineated poetry?

This is a question I often address when I give readings. Stalker didn’t begin as a collection of prose poems. It was twenty years before I could write about the events referred to in the title sequence. I wrote a short story called ‘Stalker’, which was published in a small magazine that also included my article on John Steinbeck. This was my first published work. Some years later I took the manucript of a novel to an Arvon fiction course. It was based on my two years living in Paris as a teenager. One of the tutors asked if I wrote poetry and a year later I signed up with Mimi Khalvati at the Poetry School in London. I was writing long rhymed poems about Vincent Van Gogh. Then one day, out of the blue, I wrote a long poem in unrhymed quatrains and took it along. It was about an experience in the States and unlike anything I’d written previously. I received positive feedback, no-one suggested revisions. Yet for some reason the poem didn’t feel right to me and I didn’t send it anywhere. Three years later I got it up on my screen and started playing with it. I did away with the first four quatrains and put them into a paragraph. Suddenly it felt right! The sensation was almost physical: as if I’d altered a sweater and now it fitted and felt comfortable. I changed the remaining quatrains and worked on it and gradually the pieces became ‘Algae Beds, Wyoming’. This form acted as a catalyst: all at once I was writing prose poems set in my teens and twenties, including my two years in Paris, which are referred to in Section 2: Storms & Stations. The prose poem offers enormous scope: it doesn’t have to be linear narrative, you can jump around, twist and turn, play, begin after the beginning and end before the end.

2.Did the ideas behind he book dictate the form of the prose poem, or did you decide on the form first?

I have no doubt that the poem ‘Algae Beds, Wyoming’ chose its form and that this form released all the other poems belonging to that period, which eventually became Stalker.

3.Who are your influences?

The most important writers for me are those concerned with the psychological and spiritual predicaments of men, women and children grappling with the everyday exigencies of their lives from the perspecitve of their own times and cultural backgrounds. Writers who may have influenced my own writing will invariably reveal a poetic sensibility in their work, irrespective of genre. Also those who use historical and mythical epics as a vehicle to portray aspects of the modern world. Aside from writers mentioned in Stalker, others who made a great impression on me include the Irish dramatist Seán O’Casey, Carson McCullers, Hermann Hesse, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, Nawal El Saadawi, Michael Ondaatje, James Baldwin, Edmund White. Also Virginia Woolf and George Eliot. South American writers with their magic realism entranced me. Also classical French writers such as Jean Giono and short story writers such Alphonse Daudet and Guy de Maupassant, whom I loved for their use of French dialect as well as their portrayal of working and peasant life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Short story writers such as Catherine Mansfield, E. Annie Proulx, and contemporary writers such as Lydia Davis, Lyn Hejinian, Anne Carson who blur bounderies between poetry and prose. The poetries of Derek Walcott, Yehuda Amichai, Rumi … too many to mention them all. But I should mention a critic who had an enormous influence on my perception of writing and on my sense of affirmation: the French Algerian writer, playright, poet, philosopher and literary critic, Hélène Cixous. I read her while I was still attempting fiction and can’t over-emphasise the excitement and encouragement I felt when reading her books for the first time, particularly: Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, Coming to Writing and Other Essays, and Rootprints. Cixous is a feminist writer but she is not sexist in my view.
Reading and translating ancient and traditional texts from the French, which are themselves translations from the original Arabic, has influenced aspects of my new book. This second collection of prose poems attempts a greater textual layering than Stalker : a desire to reference history within the present. I have also been greatly influenced by visual art, as is apparent from the obsession with Vincent Van Gogh. I have a strong visual memory and my current work-in-progress (for three years) begins with my making a visual photomontage, which can take weeks or months. This visual work then acts as a stimulus for the poem that follows. The poems are all in unpunctuated couplets, so it’s a departure from prose poetry. Again, I believe the poems found their own form.

4.What for you, the author, are the most important themes of Stalker?

For me the most important themes are those that compelled me to write it. I think they can all be viewed as a form of stalking. Dreams, for example, have always been part of my life and, especially when I was young, could haunt and stay with me for weeks. Dreams are a rich resource for writing, but it was years before I could make use of them. Living alone is another theme. I had never ‘dealt’ with my experiences of living alone as a young woman, trying to make sense of the world, trying to find a meaningful way to live that was true to her own nature. How to be true to your conscience. How to love. Being a twin is another important theme for me. As one poem says, my first memory was of two. We are not identical, in fact we are very different in temperament and interests, but the the depth of intimacy between twins is unique and can certainly be felt as haunting, a form of stalking. Language itself, the origin of words, my mother’s native tongue are all food for creative writing. In her review of Stalker Sandeep Parmar says: ‘Words are stalked through the ages by their roots and, by using them, we are also dogged by what they signify… Ultimately these types of ‘stalking’ are what gives life its viscosity…’ (Sandeep Parmar, PN Review).

5.Why do you make use of so many literary references?

Reading is an important theme for me. These references are to books I was reading at the time I was actually living the events portayed in Stalker. To have omitted reference to what I was reading during those periods in my life would have been unthinkable: a denial of my inner life. Books helped me make sense of what I was living. Not by giving me a replica, but by showing me the inner lives of women and men during different periods in history and in other countries and cultures. Great literature gave me paradigms against which I could test out and measure my own beliefs and position. It inspired and encouraged me by showing me essential truths about human nature and behaviour.
The poem ‘Nigg Bay, Aberdeen’ relates directly to Tolstoy’s Resurrection, which was like a revelation to me when I read it while living in Aberdeen aged 18 and very unhappy. Tolstoy’s book helped me so much because it showed another human being grappling with his own conscience and remorse, as well as loneliness. The fact that his hero was a privileged prince living in the 19th century didn’t matter to me because Tolstoy revealed Nekhlúdov’s innermost feelings as a man, a human being. Nekhlúdov had betrayed a woman he had loved and she was now in prison. I was working in a Care home for young boys, some of whose fathers were in prison. The theme of conscience is also in the poem ‘What Men Did Not Read in Their Hearts’, which quotes the Catholic Catechism I had to learn as a young child, and again at the Catholic secondary school I was sent to. I didn’t like the Catholic belief in absolution, which seemed to suggest we aren’t accountable for our own actions.
Steinbeck was very important to me as a writer for similar reasons. I read him at a time I was grappling with love, life and work while living alone in Gravesend, Kent. Gravesend was an edgy place to live in the late 70s, when many rented bedsits didn’t even have a payphone in the building. The title sequence ‘Stalker’ refers to this time. A time when it was unusual for a woman to go to a café on her own, and virtually taboo to go alone to a pub, since that’s what prostitutes did. This didn’t stop me as I needed to be independent, but it was hard in a town without a student culture to make pubs and cafés feel women-friendly. I loved Steinbeck’s portrayal of misfits and people living on the edge. I was blown away by his Journal of a Novel. This is the diary he wrote every morning to warm up before continuing his day’s work on East of Eden. We see the famous author struggling with his own demons, women, drink, two broken marriages, children he loved.

6.There is a feeling of depersonalisation throughout the book. Is this one of the effects you wished to convey? If so, why?

No, I didn’t choose convey an effect of depersonalisation, though I know it is there. That is to say, it wasn’t an ‘intellectual’ decision. I think it springs from an involuntary and organic need to be objective in order to write about these experiences.

7.Your main character remains something of a mystery, which some readers will find frustrating. Why doesn’t she have a stronger presence?

Yes, I understand this reaction. Again it wasn’t a conscious decision to create a mysterious character. I think it relates to question 6 and is to do with an instinctive need to keep a distance from painful experiences in order to write about them at all. No doubt a better writer would have been able to overcome this. For me, even from this distance, I often found it extremely painful to relive the experiences as I wrote about them.
The issue of character presence also relates back to question 1. Stalker is prose poetry, not fiction. There is usually an element of mystery in poetry, of ‘showing it slant’. The novel I took along to that Arvon fiction course dealt with the two years I lived in Paris as a teenager. It is written in the 3rd person and I think the narrator has a fairly strong presence throughout. But I wrote it without any group support or feedback and it was unwieldy and poorly structured. Years later, I took it along to a small fiction workshop and was encouraged, but life intervened and finally I had to choose, and chose poetry. But I love the blurring of boundaries and cross-overs in different art forms. There are really exciting things happening including innovation and experimentation. I think it’s important to explore and keep open to possibilities, and then be true to what feels right for yourself.

Lucy Hamilton’s Stalker is published by Shearsman (2012) and was short-listed for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Her new collection is Of Heads & Hearts. For more information, go to http://www.shearsman.com/browse-poetry-books-by-author-Lucy-Hamilton

Ian Seed 2nd February 2018

George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace by Xavier Kalck (Peter Lang Publishing)

George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace by Xavier Kalck (Peter Lang Publishing)

A new critical account of the poems of George Oppen is invariably a delight; the arrival of such an intelligent and closely argued text as Xavier Kalck’s has turned out to be is something more.
In his introduction Kalck points to Oppen’s poems “as remarkably readable compositions, which are only elusive if one chooses not to listen to their specific formal characteristics”. He then outlines one of his major concerns:

“The first objective of this book is therefore the exemplification of a new methodology, based on new readings of Oppen’s poems. Bearing in mind that dysfunction often really shows function, I plead for a critical shift toward prosody as interpretive pragmatics.”

We are presented time and again with close critical analysis that reminds one of what it means to read with an engaged concern for what the poet is presenting. As a result we can both see and hear how Oppen builds a song from the common – though shattered – resources of language. The blurb on the back of this new book recognises an aspect of what Kalck has achieved:

George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace offers the first survey of the critical consensus which has now built up around the poetry of George Oppen, after over two decades of substantial interest in his work. It proposes a comprehensive perspective on Oppen and the criticism devoted to Oppen, from the Objectivist strain in American poetry to the thinkers, such as Heidegger, Levinas, Marx and Adorno, which critics have brought to bear on Oppen’s poetry, to pave the way for the consideration and exemplification of a new methodology which sheds a critical light on the ideas and practices in contemporary poetics, through well-researched close readings.”

And there we have it! What makes this book so important is not only the wide range of its focus and its placing of Oppen’s work within a background of substantial twentieth-century thought but also the fact that it takes one back time and again to the words on the page: we are offered an approach to POETRY .
When Michael Davidson edited the New Collected Poems for New Directions in 2002 he had referred to Oppen’s method of working, whittling and refining his poems “into tough, recalcitrant lyrics that would endure the test of time.” After the publication of Discrete Series, a short volume from the Objectivist Press in 1934, Oppen did not produce a second book of poems until 1962 when The Materials was published by New Directions and the San Francisco Review. Some of the poems in that volume had appeared in 1960 in Massachusetts Review and Poetry making the gap between Oppen’s published poems just over twenty-five years. During that quarter-century he saw active duty in the Battle of the Bulge, being gravely wounded in April 1945, became a custom carpenter in California, fell under the watchful glance of the FBI, went into exile in Mexico in 1950 and only returned to New York in January 1960. The epigraph to The Materials was a quotation from Maritain: ‘We awake in the same moment to ourselves and to things’ and it was those lines that Charles Tomlinson underlined in the copy which Oppen signed for him after they had become close friends. Tomlinson also wrote a brief but firmly-held statement just before George and Mary visited him in Gloucestershire in which he recognised that Oppen never wrote poems “where the powers of disquisition begin worrying to death the initial experience before it has been permitted to declare its own terms.”
In a letter from 1959 Oppen had written to Julian Zimet about what it was that so fascinated him about “Things and mechanisms” he said that “I like the things that people have wrested out of the idiot stone…All the poems are about the same thing. The shorter poems are shorter fragments of what I want to say, the longer poems are longer fragments.” In a cancelled opening paragraph to his introduction to the selection of Oppen’s poems edited for Cloudforms No. 4, Tomlinson had referred to making audible Oppen’s “characteristic voice, so distinct from the personality cults of Berryman, Lowell and Plath”. That voice is precisely what comes to the ear and eye in Xavier Kalck’s masterly account of the late poem “Song, The Winds of Downhill” and this book is worth getting hold of if only for those pages of “an architectural representation of the poem’s rhetorical framework”.
In conclusion Kalck refers to another letter sent by Oppen to a British poet. In this case the receiver of that letter was Anthony Barnett and the story behind the correspondence which lasted some thirteen years is told in SNOW lit rev 2. The letter in Kalck’s chapter earns its presence by epitomizing best the several threads which run through this book of criticism. I know that Peter Lang books are expensive but please do put some pressure on your Library to acquire a copy; you will not be disappointed.

Ian Brinton, 31st January 2018

Ring of Bone by Lew Welch (Grey Fox Press, 1973)

Ring of Bone by Lew Welch (Grey Fox Press, 1973)

The title of Lew Welch’s Collected Poems 1950-1971 is taken from one of his earlier Hermit poems which had appeared in 1965 from Don Allen’s Four Seasons Foundation in San Francisco as Writing 8. Published in an edition of 1000 copies it was reproduced from the author’s handwriting.

‘I saw myself
a ring of bone
in the clear stream
of all of it’

The image of sight and sound occurs of course some eighty-five years earlier in the sonnet Hopkins wrote about movement and every aspect of Nature dealing out ‘that being indoors each one dwells’:

‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring…’

The effect of a stone’s splash into water is to produce a number of rings which move outwards from the moment of impact; the movement lessens as it gets further from the source. The echoing sense of experience moving outwards from the initial moment is caught by Hopkins in his wonderfully contradictory image of bells: the sonorous ’roundy wells’, the depth and darkness, give out a clarity of ringing which stretches through air.
In the Preface to his Collected Poems Lew Welch suggested that ‘Ring of Bone might be called a spiritual autobiography arranged in more or less chronological sequence.’ He goes on to say that the mind grows in a ‘flickering kind of way’ and that sometimes ‘an insight comes too early to be fully understood.’ Book II of this Collected Poems reproduces the 1965 Hermit poems and includes the drawing Welch did for his hundred foot circle:

‘Step out onto the Planet.
Draw a circle a hundred feet round.

Inside the circle are
300 things nobody understands, and, maybe
nobody’s ever really seen.’

An earlier poem by Welch offered a picture of Chicago and Samuel Charters wrote about it that it was almost as if the poet ‘were standing on a street corner with his arms folded, trying to tell somebody what he thinks about Chicago’. The language is casual, immediate, direct and ‘he’s only concerned with telling you what’s on his mind, half listening to whatever anybody else is saying’.
Perhaps nowadays one might have to turn to the Notebooks of R.F. Langley to unearth the quietly resounding sense of what is in Lew Welch’s ‘ring of bone’:

‘As I came back up the garden, I sat down on the bench, and stayed there a couple of hours. Barbara was in the attic with the computer, the roof window by her open, the electric light in there strengthening during those hours, from invisible, to a suggestion, to gold in a cave. There was continuous cloud crossing, with blue gaps paling between. Metal grey. Lead silver. With darker whiffs. At first there were touches of citrine, not brown, not yellow, not orange…which chilled and disappeared. There was a small star, which I thought was a satellite because it was moving, but this movement was transferred from the clouds, as I realised when the star reappeared in the same place later. No swifts. No sparrows. No starlings. The raucous bird life has moved away from the garden, to Africa or into the fields and marshes. House martins still, high, in a group, like swifts but slower, gentler, quieter. Thirty or so of them. They vanish as darkness comes.’

The final poem in Lew Welch’s Hermit Poems takes us back to that circle of engagement and observation, of openness to the world:

‘and vowed
always to be open to it
that all of it
might flow through

and then heard
“ring of bone” where
ring is what a
bell does’

Ian Brinton 21st January 2018

Benjamin Fondane’s Cinepoems and Others, and Existential Monday (New York Review Books)

Benjamin Fondane’s Cinepoems and Others, and Existential Monday (New York Review Books)

Benjamin Fondane, Cinepoems and Others, ed. Leonard Schwartz, bilingual, trans. various hands (New York Review Books, 2016)
Benjamin Fondane, Existential Monday: Philosophical Essays, ed. & trans. Bruce Baugh (New York Review Books, 2016)

I am confused. I have two books to review, a volume of poetry and a collection of philosophical essays. They are by the same person, Benjamin Fondane. This is unusual. Philosophers do not usually write passable poetry, nor poets philosophy. I am reminded of a Tommy Cooper sketch. He finds an old violin and an oil painting in the attic, which he takes to an expert who says: “What you’ve got there is a Stradivarius and a Rembrandt. Unfortunately, Stradivarius [sic] was a terrible painter and Rembrandt made rotten violins.” With that the much-loved comedian thrusts the violin through the painting demolishing both. I think Fondane would have appreciated this and laughed his head off. He retains such a sense of humour in the face of the most atrocious circumstances to which he fell victim, though in 1943, the year before his death in Auschwitz, he is quoted, “I publish more prose than poetry; one of my activities harms the other.”
I did not know anything about Fondane until now, which is the point of publishing these two books at the same time. Almost no one, at least in the English-speaking world, has known about him and, it seems, only recently has he truly entered into the post-war literary consciousness of France, whose language he ended up writing in. Fondane was a Romanian Jew, born in 1898. He contributed hundreds of articles and poems to Romanian periodicals, immersed himself in French literature, and in 1922 published a study of Mallarmé, Gide and Proust: “I have not come to know French literature as I might know German literature: I have lived it.” The following year he moved to Paris. His friends there included fellow countrymen Tristan Tzara and Constantine Brancusi. He was photographed by Man Ray around 1925. One double-portrait appears on the cover of Existential Monday and another double, with elongated distortions, as the frontispiece to Cinepoems and Others. He fell under the spell of André Breton’s first Surrealist Manifesto and then the two fell out in fisticuffs in 1930 at the Maldoror, a Montparnasse bar.
I can see, saleswise, why the title of the poetry selection highlights Cinepoems but that really is misleading. Fondane’s Trois scenarios: cinépoèmes was a 1928 exercise in soon-to-be-abandoned surrealism, consisting of numbered single line sentences: “let’s kick off the era of unfilmable scripts” he wrote in the preface. Fondane was a movie buff. He was employed for a time as a script editor at Paramount Pictures in Paris. He worked on the film Rapt aka The Kidnapping. He twice visited Argentina at the invitation of Victoria Ocampo, editor of Sur, first to present screenings, then to make a film of his own, which by all accounts does not survive. Ultimately, “cinepoems” are funny, mildly interesting, and, of course, quite experimentally filmable if you want, but unimportant and nothing to do with his subsequent formidable work.
The Others of the poems are lengthy extracts from Ulysses, Titanic, Exodus, lines from which are displayed at Israel’s Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, In the Time of the Poem, and The Sorrow of Ghosts complete. Fondane is very much a formalist, often in rhymed triplets aba, but there is nothing old-fashioned about him. There is a distrust and subversion of language in densely packed images: “The gods prayed to with the same hieroglyphics / no longer kiss us with the kisses of their mouth; / our cries used up like old nails / no longer penetrate the Eternal. / / It’s been a long time since words lost their meaning / / such a long time— / and there they are, for heaven’s sake, ripening / / on the threshold of time to come— / of great events now past.—“X-Rays” from Titanic.
Unsurprisingly, with translations by eight different hands, the English versions range from slightly suspect to excellent. End rhyme has been eschewed, probably wisely, although there are often good internal compensations: “. . . As hunger plays a pretty song: / when no one’s listening, it tunes up / intestines for a fiddle-string,”—The Sorrow of Ghosts. It is no special wish of mine to play translation detective here but it is intolerable to translate cèpe as mushroom—In the Time of the Poem. Are we to suppose that English-language readers are expected to be too ignorant to know, or to discover, what a cep (or, if you like, a penny-bun, a porcini) is? Or have we learnt something about the translator? Surely, in The Sorrow of Ghosts, “Quel Dieu ordonne” should be “What God ordains”, not “requires”. And why, in the same sequence is “—Prier? mais OÙ?” translated “—Where can we pray?” and not “—Pray? but WHERE?” That sort of thing.
What I really do not like is the inclusion of a 1985 conversation between Leonard Schwartz and E. M. Cioran. Romanian Paris-resident Cioran may have been Fondane’s dear friend but in the 1930s he described himself as a Hitlerist and was an apologist for the Romanian extremist Iron Guard, whatever later renunciations of all that he may have sought to make. Much of what Cioran says leaves a bad taste in the mouth; he is right to discredit Edouard Roditi’s wholly deplorable utterances about Paul Celan—in full in “Paul Celan and the Cult of Personality”, World Literature Today, vol. 66, no. 1 (Winter 1992)—but he is prone to deplorables himself: “We were friends. He [Celan] translated one of my books. But we ceased to be friends when he moved to the 16th. That is for me another world—the haute bourgeoisie, and so on, live there: Celan too, since his wife was a marquise. It was finished. In Paris, friendships are a question of neighbourhood.” As far as I am aware, from my knowing Gisèle Celan-Lestrange and Edmond Jabès, that was no bar to the friendship between Celan and Jabès. And about Fondane: “Yes, but all the same he’s not a French poet. He’s not considered a French poet by the French, and he isn’t one.” Oh, what, another rootless cosmopolitan? I don’t think so.
Turning now to Existential Monday, which includes a thorough introduction, copious notes, and a bibliography, I find myself more than a little out of my depth. I am no student of philosophy though I like to think I am a philosophical poet, to the ribbing of a French philosophy teacher who tells me I am not. I once wrote about George Oppen: “I think—I am often thinking—Oppen was a philosopher without philosophy. That doesn’t matter because a poet’s philosophy will never amount to much more than a partial attempt to justify or explain that particular poetry. Only the poem can be held to account as exemplary or rotten, or somewhere in-between, not its sources, those that are objective—the language, shall we say, which appears as a ready-made above one’s head, at the ready to be remade—and those that are subjective—I shall say only, if evasively, that we know all about that.”
I am told that Fondane’s philosophy, closely allied to that of his mentor Leon Shestov, is naïve. So be it. “In the one case, it is the outer bark of reality that is at stake; in the other, it is the condition of man in reality.” It is certainly readable. The selection is small. It consists of a mere four essays from his immense output. We must take it on trust that this is a truly representative selection: “Existential Monday and the Sunday of History”—Kafka provides the title, “Preface for the Present Moment”, “Man Before History, or, The Sound and the Fury”, “Boredom”, which is an essay about Baudelaire. In fact, Fondane’s first philosophical work was a study of Rimbaud. So you see there is no escaping the cross-fertilization—or “harm” as he put it—of poetry and philosophy in Fondane’s work. I need to take the easy way out here and ask that you simply—for these things are either complex or simple—read what Fondane has to say about existentialism and historical philosophers, and the then state of the world. Fondane’s fate was dreadful yet at the same time noble. He wrote to the end. He could have escaped France. There was some temporary respite following a first arrest and then release because his wife was not Jewish. But he refused to abandon his sister, with whom he was rearrested, and they perished. God alone knows what he would make of our current socio-politico-philosophical mess and evident refusal to learn from history.

This review was written at the invitation of Jewish Quarterly, where it appeared in 2017 with heavy cuts, ostensibly for space reasons. This is the full review.

Anthony Barnett 15th January 2018

Composition in White by S.J. Litherland (Smokestack Books)

Composition in White by S.J. Litherland (Smokestack Books)

According to some recent Facebook comments a review written by Martin Stannard is shortly to appear on Alan Baker’s excellent Litter site (leafepress.com/litter). The review contains the following paragraph:

“I have what can best be described as an ambivalent relationship with innovative poetry and poetics (I’m getting fed up of that phrase) which boils down pretty much to my approach to reading any kind of poetry: is it an enjoyable and maybe even an unforgettable experience, or the opposite of that, whatever it might be. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not put off by not getting it, or not understanding it – but I am put off by reading experiences that fall short of the pleasurable – bearing in mind that pleasure can come in any number of guises. I’m definitely put off when I don’t feel welcome.”

When reading this paragraph I was put in mind of the comment made by J.H. Prynne in his Keynote Speech given ten years ago at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in China at Shijiazhuang when he focused upon the difference between obscurity and difficulty in poetry:

“When poetry is obscure this is chiefly because information necessary for comprehension is not part of reader’s knowledge. The missing information may be specific (a personal name, say, or some tacit allusion), or general (an aspect of religious belief, say); and finding out this information may dispel much of the obscurity. When poetry is difficult this is more likely because the language and structure of its presentation are unusually cross-linked or fragmented, or dense with ideas and response-patterns that challenge the reader’s powers of recognition. In such cases, extra information may not give much help.”

Prynne suggests that Pope’s The Dunciad is now obscure but not especially difficult whereas Stevens’s ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ is difficult “but mostly not obscure”. I would add William Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’ to the list of difficult poems which are not obscure.
Jackie Litherland’s ‘Springtime of the Nations’ was commended in the 2011 National Poetry Competition and as I read this opening poem in last year’s publication of her seventh collection I was struck by the way its power in no way relied upon any awareness of the 1848 revolutionary world or of Hungary: its power is in the way it brings sound and place to experience that is not historically dependent.

“The lilacs were in flower, heavy, drowsy,
boulevards suddenly pleasant. And
I suspect the sun was out. You must
understand there was nothing we could
do. In the square hung the conspirators,
dangling effigies – the partying over –
how they caroused our masters,
the hubbub was like the explosions
of military battle to deafened soldiers,
we the defeated drank deeply while
the victors were clinking glasses.”

A reader of poetry may well find that the reference T.S. Eliot makes to “lilacs” in ‘Portrait of a Lady’ crosses the mind unbidden and, indeed, may well recall Walt Whitman’s elegy to Abraham Lincoln in which “lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d” as he mourns an individual murder “and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring”. But this cross-referencing is not necessary for us to share the sense of peace haunting Litherland’s square in which the hanging bodies are “dangling effigies”. That peace is held with the words “heavy” and “drowsy” and a social sense of life’s continuance is caught with the geographical fixture of “boulevards” and the word “pleasant”. A feeling of helplessness in the face of horror is evoked with the matter-of-fact assertion that we must understand that “there was nothing we could / do”. The celebration associated with carousing, cheers that explode making the square into a battle-field, is present to us with the sharp “clinking” of glasses and “All

we could hear was the chink, chink,
like raindrops in gutters, of their toasts”

The poet (in the epigraph “A sympathiser advises a friend”) remains with a heavy and ominous silence recognising that for them the haunting memory will ensure that “glasses / will never chime” and that “All through the night

they were pushing the boat out, the oars
of a thousand hurrahs dipped into water,
chink, chink, chink, chink, chink,
came the replies of the tiny waves.”

There is a determined tone of resolution in the final lines which are Brechtian in their simplicity:

“…The twelve hung in the sun.
You must understand there was nothing
we could do but shun the moment,
to turn our backs on all that merriment.”

This is a poem which resonates off the page addressing the reader with clarity and leaving echoes of historical reconstruction which can be felt in our NOW.
As Jo Colley states on the back cover of this fine collection of poems Litherland’s poet’s eye is “as diamond sharp and unsentimental as ever”.

Ian Brinton 10th January 2018.

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