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Grimspound & Inhabiting Art by Rod Mengham (Carcanet Press)

Grimspound & Inhabiting Art by Rod Mengham (Carcanet Press)

Referring to the photography of Marc Atkins whose contributions are central to the whole narrative of disappearances in two of Iain Sinclair’s books Rod Mengham writes:

“Photography is often thought of as a medium that fixes the moment, cryogenising it for future generations, but it can also become the means of showing how nothing is ever fixed, how the moment will always elude us, how all that can be recorded is irrevocable loss.”

Grimspound and Inhabiting Art is divided into two separate sections but as one reads more of the second half one realises how connected they really are. The first section looks closely at Conan Doyle’s novella from 1901, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the second larger section is comprised of twenty-nine short essays on different cultural habitats. Both sections focus on the elusiveness of reality and I am put in mind of Lewis Carroll’s 1872 publication, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There:

“The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things – but the oddest part of it 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 workbox, and was always in the shelf next above the one she was looking at.”

In writing about the Sherlock Holmes story, much of which takes place on Dartmoor, Mengham writes convincingly about the satisfactory nature of the detective tale by suggesting that its allure is the “harmony” it gives “to seemingly discordant elements; the underlying pattern that Watson gives voice to”. In a way this “harmony” is a piecing together of language in which its reconstruction “is what loosens the story’s tongue”. Language becomes a souvenir of a specific history. With a close examination of Conan Doyle’s story Mengham identifies some of the roots of this form of communication by alerting us to the fact that the murderer’s wife, Mrs Stapleton, is discovered bound round the throat and the hound itself attacks the throats of its prey:

“The legend reaches its climax with the spectacle of the giant hound standing over Sir Hugo Baskerville and ‘plucking at his throat; the Sherlock Holmes story leads to the same point: ‘I was in time to see the beast spring upon its victim, hurl him to the ground and worry at his throat’. Up until now, the hound has been heard but not seen, with its ‘muttered rumble’ seemingly dislocated from its source in the animal’s throat. Both in the legend and in Watson’s case history, the immediate object of the hound’s attack is the victim’s throat and the root of the tongue; which is where the voice originates; where language is housed.”

Given this context it is highly appropriate that in the old stone hut which is used by Holmes as a hidden lair there are a few items on the flat stone which serves as a table and they include a loaf of bread, two tins of preserved peaches and, notably, “a tinned tongue”. For the detective as things take shape they become coherent and the historian pieces together a version of the truth. However, as Julian Barnes pointed out “History isn’t what happened, history is just what historians tell us” and in his novel Flaubert’s Parrot Barnes’s narrator recalls the difficulties of seizing the past when he tells us of his experience as a medical student when “some pranksters at an end-of-term dance” released into the hall a piglet which had been smeared with grease:

It squirmed between legs, evaded capture, squealed a lot. People fell over trying to grasp it, and were made to look ridiculous in the process. The past often seems to behave like that piglet.”

When he writes a short essay about the photography of Marc Atkins in 2003 Rod Mengham brings to our attention the artist’s focus upon urban iconography. The photographs of Warsaw record a “city of disappearances” which also brings to mind the terrifying dystopia revealed in Paul Auster’s novel In the Country of Last Things. For Mengham the city brought to light by Atkins reveals a history “leaching out through the stone and brick of a fabric that could not be more distressed, whose patched and stained facades offer maximum resistance to the wipe-clean surfaces of modernity”. This is a city “whose foundations lie in sands and gravels” where the archaeology is all “above ground” and the record of past conflicts appear “only skin-deep beneath a thin layer of badly mixed plaster, apparently designed to fall away in time for each generation to have to rehearse its own strategies for oblivion”.
Grimspound and Inhabiting Art is a fascinating read that invites one to return to it time and time again as the roots of language feel out towards the conversation which had been “begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries” (Michael Oakeshott, ‘The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind’).

Ian Brinton, 13th July 2019

Catullus translated by Roz Kaveney (Sad Press)

Catullus translated by Roz Kaveney (Sad Press)

Catullus wrote some very rude poems. And Roz Kaveney has made some very rude translations of them.

The Rome of Catullus and Kaveney is not one of colonnaded arcade and pomerium, of lush gardens fringing the Tiber and aqueducts delivering sparkling water to mansions on the Palatine. It’s a place of back alleys with ‘come-smeared walls’, where a lover ‘fucks / three hundred men queued up’, ‘sorry dregs’ who wash their teeth with urine in a time of ‘filth, love and death’.

Unlike some earlier translators, Kaveney does not beat around the bush of euphemism. Take for example what is presumably the gold standard, the Penguin Classics Poems of Catullus. Where Penguin has ‘remove yourselves’ (poem 33), Kaveney has ‘fuck off’. Where Penguin coyly refers to ‘services’ (41), Kaveney explains these are ‘fuck[ing] her scraggy arse’. In poem 42, Penguin’s ‘indelicate syllables’ are spelled out by Kaveney as ‘Fuck, felch, quim, rim’.

To be fair, though, sometimes even euphemism shrinks before Catullus’s meaning, as in Penguin’s poem 28: ‘Yes, Memmius, once / you filled me truly / slowly – daily – / with the length of your great beam’. (Kaveney renders this as: ‘My dear commander, Memmius, without oil // to smooth things, fucked me in the mouth and arse’.)

Would you like some more? Here is Kaveney’s translation of poem 16 in full:

Eat out my pussy while I fuck you hard
my hands up both your arses. Silly boys,
you prissy queens, because my verse enjoys
making hot love, that doesn’t mean I’m tarred

with the same filthy brush. I might be chaste
as anything. A poem might say “fuck,”
dabble its fingers in all kinds of muck,
turn people on perhaps, if they’ve a taste

for all that sort of thing. Old men with piles
don’t get hard otherwise; bored wives are wet
reading my verses. But you still don’t get
to think I’m a slut or virgin. Snarky smiles

will get you hurt. Oh, I will make you shout,
fistfuck your arses while you eat me out.

Catullus was a great innovator, one of the ‘new poets’ of the late Republic, who experimented with verse forms inherited from the Greeks. His mark can be seen on the work of Ovid, Tibullus, Sextus Propertius, Milton, Yeats and Pound. Kaveney’s translations are skilfully and unobtrusively rhymed in iambic pentameter; almost a third of them are sonnets, a form received from our own past, of course. Poems 63 and 64 are two of the longer poems that Catullus is famous for. The first tells the story of Attis who castrates himself (‘new girled’ ‘She plucks the last / bits of her former flesh / out by the chords’) to please the mother goddess Cybele who sets a lion on her. Poem 64 is another short epic about the marriage of Achilles’ parents, Peleus and sea nymph Thetis (part of which Virgil appropriated for the Aeneid).

The first century BCE was a time of scandal, chaos and civil war and Catullus’s poetry is ripe with intrigue and politics. Caesar and his lieutenant Mamurrus ‘are twins in sleaze / … You know it’s true. / They’ve fucked each other and they’ll fuck Rome too’ (57). There is bitterness, despair – but also love. For one lover, he wrote (48):

Juventius, to kiss your eyes is sweet,
as honey. I will not be satisfied
with thirty million kisses – so complete
is my devotion, I’ve not even tried
to cease from kissing. In a field of wheat,
harvest the grain and put each grain beside
the kisses I will give you. We’ll defeat
comparison, then kiss once more in pride.

Catullus also translated Sappho’s poem 31 for his great lost love, Lesbia (probably Clodia Metelli) (51):

He’s like a god, I think, or maybe more
than gods, the man who’s sitting next to you,
he gets to watch you. It is almost too
much that he hears your sweet laugh. I am poor

in spirit, Lesbia, because that sound
robs me of sense. It leaves me blind and dumb,
Soon deafness and paralysis will come.
I moan, and stagger, lie there on the ground,

and that’s just when you laugh. I cannot bear
to think of him, or you. And worse by far,
I know the truth, that all my problems are
trivial and silly, lighter than the air

and yet great kingdoms fall through such as this,
an idle dreamer, longing for a kiss.

Catullus, the poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus: some English versions by Roz Kaveney is available from Sad Press https://sadpresspoetry.com/catullus/

Antony John 30th June 2019

The Backstreets of Purgatory by Helen Taylor (Unbound)

The Backstreets of Purgatory by Helen Taylor (Unbound)

In The Backstreets of Purgatory, Helen Taylor takes us on an emotional journey that brings joy, pain and laughter along the way. Her mellifluous prose is a joy to read, and each of her characters are incredibly life-like, from overachiever, anxious, psychology student Lizzie to nonchalant, arrogant artist Finn, resourceful but nuanced ex-drug addict Tuesday to crude yet elegant Kassia. By writing each chapter from the viewpoint of each of her characters, Taylor builds empathy for them, creating a distinct, complex personality and set of emotions for each in turn. Throughout the book, there is a clear love for the city of Glasgow, and the book is very much rooted in its Scottish identity. The book is not a retelling of the life of Caravaggio in a modern setting as there is little of Caravaggio in the main protagonist, Finn. The Backstreets of Purgatory is much more about Glasgow’s art school scene and, as such, is a compelling read for its less well known and ordinary, gritty struggles.

A sense of light and darkness throughout the book is embodied in the interweaving of the character’s lives and their community. Her characters are memorable. The relationships between them are sincere and authentic, as well as being complex and nuanced. She creates a sense of family in strangers and shows the relationships between each of them in their complete truth, both toxic and healthy.

By introducing magical realism through the weaving of Caravaggio into the fabric of the story, Taylor explores the idea of meeting one’s heroes. She develops the plot, creating a strong empathetic link between the reader and the characters. Whilst the plot builds consistently, there is a strong feeling of anti-climax at the end with all the characters ending up in a worst place than they had started. This can make you question the idea of meeting your heroes and whether this will truly bring happiness to your life. Caravaggio becomes a violent truth of his time, and Taylor explores the idea of culture not only from the Scottish perspective but also from the Italian sixteenth century side, and the dangers of entering in the shadows of one’s hero.

Overall, this book, which is published by crowdfunded publishers, Unbound, is a strong reflection and exploration of Glaswegian culture. Helen Taylor’s lyrical prose embodies the struggles of the backstreets of Glasgow well and I look forward to her second novel.

Hannah Miller 28th June 2019

Truth, Justice and the Companionship of Owls by Peter Riley (Longbarrow Press)

Truth, Justice and the Companionship of Owls by Peter Riley (Longbarrow Press)

‘Hushings’ is the second group of poems published here and yet again one is struck by the immaculate presentation achieved by Brian Lewis’s Longbarrow Press. It is precisely this care and attention to detail that justifies this Northern Press’s reputation as one of the finest and most professional of the Independent Poetry Presses active at the moment.

There is a quiet and witty intelligence which threads its way through these eighteen poems: the most serious themes of truth and justice are meditated upon within a world of approaching darkness. Writing about humour in Janus: a summing up (1978) Arthur Koestler had suggested that ‘Comedy and tragedy, laughter and weeping, mark the extremes of a continuous spectrum’ and here
just below the surface of Peter Riley’s quiet reflections upon movement and change there lurks the wry smile that can open a poem with an echo of a joke:

‘Two buzzards wheeling over the top of the woods
and one of them says to the other, What
do you see down there, brother,
with your little eye?’

The opening of that second line creates the picture of the joke as it might be shared perhaps in the Hare & Hounds, a pub near Hebden Bridge which appears a few times throughout this collection. However, the reference to a game of ‘I spy’ echoes also the world of childhood which also glimmers just below the surface of these lyrical and elegiac responses to landscape. I am reminded here of Basil Bunting’s comments about music made in an interview with Hugh Kenner for National Public Radio in early 1980 when he suggested that music ‘is organized in various ways, and one of the inventions…was the notion of a sonata, where two themes which at first appear quite separate, and all the better if they’re strongly contrasted…gradually alter and weave together until at the end of your movement you’ve forgotten they are two themes, it’s all one.’ When writing Briggflatts Bunting had perhaps Scarlatti’s B minor fugato sonata (L. 33) in his mind from the outset and the eighteenth century composer’s readiness to modulate between the light and shade of major and minor informs the shift from the spirit of spring which opens the first section and the more sombre note of death and betrayal which soon follows.

In his notes at the end of this new collection of poems Riley tells us that ‘hushings are places where limestone has been exposed and broken for extraction of ore, or for burning into lime, by unleashing a rush of water down a hillside from a reservoir on higher ground’. The eighteen twelve-line poems in the group offer the reader that sense of movement, the rippling effect which Bunting echoed from his knowledge of the Scarlatti sonata, and their sound is ‘always water running over stone’. Movement brings different perspectives and the first of these hushings places the poet’s childhood on the steps of Banks Lane Council School in 1945:

‘a first step into the nation, to be followed
by 68 years starred and scarred with gains and losses
and gates opening upward and pits closing down.’

The landscape here is one of ‘widening regard’ and a realisation that in

‘all this land, this nothing-much, there are
hidden values, seeds waiting to announce themselves
as cotton grass and bugle.’

The wit I was referring to earlier lies bleakly in a comment which appears only two lines above this faith in ‘hidden values’:

‘…Here we wait, as if waiting
for the return of truthful politics.’

And in poem xvi the modulation of the music gives us the ‘end of the chorus’ which is also the ‘end of public truth’.

These poems are in no way infected with rural sentimentality and they are closer to the photographs of Don McCullin in which the images provide their own commentary: they are archways through which the poet can contemplate an intelligent awareness of who he is in relation to the geographical world around him and in relation to a past which disappears down the stone steps:

‘down the stone, down the air, down the darkness
singing Dove sei, amato bene? viewing bright below
everything we have.’

Ian Brinton, 11th June 2019

http//:www.longbarrowpress.com

Psycho-Neurological Poem in 3 Parts & A Clean Heart and a Cheerful Spirit by Felicity Allen (Litmus Publishing 2019)

Psycho-Neurological Poem in 3 Parts &  A Clean Heart and a Cheerful Spirit by  Felicity Allen (Litmus Publishing 2019)

In the State run Panopticon of the ‘Institute of Psychology’ in Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest Big Nurse sits at a ‘centre of this web of wires like a watchful robot’. She tends ‘her network with mechanical insect skill’ and knows every second ‘which wire runs where and just what current to send up to get the result she wants’. This is the world of the early Sixties in the United States of America. She works for what one patient calls the ‘Combine’, a large organization that aims to adjust the Outside as well as the Inside and according to Chief Bromden who has been there for longer than he can remember she has been ‘dedicating herself to adjustment for God knows how long’.
Felicity Allen’s astonishing illustrated ‘Poem in 3 Parts’ was written ‘in response to and from recordings made when visiting the Art Studio of the charity Perspektivy, situated in The Psycho-Neurological Centre No, 3’ outside St. Petersburg in Russia. The scene: a confined residential home in which most residents have either grown up or come from other orphanages at the age of eighteen. Qualifications for entry to the home: some type of disability ‘either at birth’ or in ‘early years’. Life inside: ‘the only activities generally offered to residents are watching television or eating. Numbers of inmates: ??? [‘Numbers are missing’].
Sound haunts the fragmentary lines of this poem and we both read and listen to the ‘Caged heirs’. William Blake’s voice of outrage from 1803 gave us a ‘Robin Redbreast in a Cage’ which put ‘all Heaven in a Rage’; Maya Angelou’s autobiographical writings, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings came from 1969; Felicity Allen’s art as an ‘adventure into an unknown world’ is immediate, it is NOW. Her response to a reading of Angelou’s confrontation with a paternal world of sexual violence is to assert that ‘our function as artists’ is ‘to make you see the world our way not / his way’. Art and Music are assertions; look and listen to this remarkable book and foul up those Big Nurse wires as McMurphy does when he runs his hand through the glass window of her Nurse’s Station:

“I’m sure sorry, ma’am,” he said. “Gawd but I am. That window glass was so spick and span I com-pletely forgot it was there.”

Ian Brinton 18th May 2019

http://litmuspublishing.co.uk

Dogtown by Andrew Spragg & Beth Hopkins (Litmus Publishing)

Dogtown by Andrew Spragg & Beth Hopkins (Litmus Publishing)

When Andrea Brady wrote a comment for the back cover of Andrew Spragg and Beth Hopkins’s Dogtown, an ambitious new publication from Litmus Press, she referred to the ‘uneasy labour of embroidery’ and the ‘arterial drawings’ which are assembled into a book of ‘unsettling beauty’. Derived from the Old French, embroder, the common recognition of embroidery is needlework ornamentation upon cloth and it has a figurative use as a form of making something splendid. There is, however, another ironic association which links the word to James Shirley’s 1649 play The Country Captain and the arrival in London of folk ‘in our torne gowns, embroidered with Strand dirt.’ This embroidery is closer to the outlaw world of Cormac McCarthy where folk ‘sleep that night on the cold plains of a foreign land, forty-six men wrapped in their blankets under the selfsame stars, the prairie wolves so like in their yammering, yet all about so changed and strange’. In Andrew Spragg’s Dogtown the words, embroidered on dark cloth, echo with isolation, movement and awareness of an alternative polis:

‘poetics of disused railyards
distribution centres
gone for rot
canals at
borough boundaries’

Andrew Spragg’s embroidery weaves for the reader ‘a book that moves / to a centre / where dogtown / is vacated’. This is a world where the ‘spirit has / already migrated’.

Charles Olson’s Dogtown, forming part of the geographical background to the Maximus Poems, is an uncultivated section of Gloucester (Mass.) strewn with glacial deposits in the central part of Cape Ann: ‘a deserted village, said to have its name from the dogs kept for protection by widows and elderly women who lived there during the latter part of the eighteenth century’ (Butterick’s Guide to the Maximus Poems). It is an area that looks druidic according to the painter Marsden Hartley who wrote about his 1931 visit to Dogtown: ‘It gives a feeling that any ancient race might turn up at any moment and review an ageless rite there…’. Andrew Spragg’s visit, ‘On coming to dogtown’, is a spiritual journey as well as a physical one and on the outskirts of the domain

‘…we destroyed all
our remaining resources, set fires
as a point of pride. This was the last
of our unspecified hours and it was
marked with a feast of cold meat.’

Fires are set for more than one purpose. They may devour all the accumulation of a past on which the travelers are turning their backs but they may also act as torches in the wilderness, lit with a sense of combative pride. The sketches of Beth Hopkins stalk their spidery way through these pages and the broken twigs make us aware of the fragility of a ‘pattern / of derelicts, a presence / of dust and peace and / stillness’.
Sitting along with the comments made by Andrea Brady on the back cover we read Verity Spott’s acute suggestion that these poems ‘feel like rituals for entry, towards new worlds whilst trailing the flotsam of subjective pain and recovery’.

Reading these poems by Andrew Spragg and looking at the artwork by Beth Hopkins I wish to suggest a way forward for readers. The next stop might be Harding, the nearly deserted town that the old guys find when they leave the commercialism of the East Coast to head westwards in Douglas Woolf’s 1959 novel, Fade Out. As one of the citizens of this new/old polis tells them:

‘Meantime a man can live for sixty-seventy dollars a month. Food is high, but rents are cheap. The climate’s nice, and we’ve got our shelters ready-dug all through this hill. That’s the hospital up there on top, they’ll open that again someday. That was the high school, the grammar school, the church, the theater there, the mortuary, the barbershop—they’ll open that someday too.’

But the last word should be given to Andrew Spragg whose Dogtown gives us ‘a stitching town an embroidered / point haunted by this flight or / all our layers at once.’

Litmus Publishing, edited by Dorothy Lehane and Elinor Cleghorn, runs both a Press and a Magazine and it explores the interaction between poetry and science. My next review will look at another of its recent publications, Felicity Allen’s Psycho-Neurological Poem in 3 Parts & A Clean Heart and a Cheerful Spirit.

Ian Brinton 5th April 2019

Bettbehandlung by Dorothy Lehane (Muscaliet)

Bettbehandlung by Dorothy Lehane (Muscaliet)

Jean-Martin Charcot was a neurologist, a physician who specialized in diseases of the nervous system. He was a professor of pathological anatomy at the Sorbonne and physician in charge of the care of patients at the Salpêtrière. When he died in 1893 an obituary was written by his pupil Sigmund Freud and one of the paragraphs is of particular note:

‘But to his pupils, who made the rounds with him through the wards of the Salpêtrière – the museum of clinical facts for the greater part named and defined by him – he seemed a very Cuvier, as we see him in the statue in front of the Jardin des Plantes, surrounded by the various types of animal life which he had understood and described; or else he had reminded them of the myth of Adam, who must have experienced in its most perfect form that intellectual delight so highly praised by Charcot, when the Lord led before him the creatures of Paradise to be named and grouped.’

As Thomas Szasz puts it in his monumental book from 1960, The Myth of Mental Illness / Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct:

‘To Charcot and Freud, these patients are mere objects or things to be classified and manipulated. It is an utterly dehumanized view of the sick person. But then, we might recall that even today physicians often speak of “cases” and “clinical material” rather than of persons, thus betraying the same bias.’

In Dorothy Lehane’s powerful prose pieces published last year by Muscaliet Press Charcot is ‘show-man’ and the portrait of women we see are ‘performative’. Throughout this relentlessly poignant account of medical imprisonment (definition of what constitutes need for the hysterical female subjects is provided by those in charge) we hear pleading voices of the incarcerated who are ‘always drawing an assembly to convince’, voices of those who are aware of the centrality of performance since, after all, ‘the performative “I do” is a means to the end of marriage’. Performance in a public sphere is closely bound up in Lehane’s terms with the public expectations of sexuality; ‘high & holy is performative’ where the first word hints of suicide and the ‘leap out of a window’ whereas the second confronts the reader with ‘the human face is a multiple sexual organ’.
Time and again during my reading of this unforgettable wring of anguish I am reminded of the final chapter in R.D. Laing’s The Divided Self, published one year before Thomas Szasz. In ‘The ghost of the weed garden (a study of a chronic schizophrenic)’ Julie is perceived by her mother as going through three stages changing from ‘a good, normal, healthy child’ to being ‘bad…caused great distress’ before finally all parental responsibility could be peacefully resolved by the judgement that Julie had gone ‘beyond all tolerable limits so that she could only be regarded as completely mad’. The existential deadness of being socially/domestically good had been followed by Julie’s desperate attempt at self-expression (bad) before retreating into the defined world of madness where her words perhaps said more than anything else to express that isolation of entombment:

She was born under a black sun.
She’s the occidental sun.
I’m the prairie.
She’s a ruined city.
She’s the ghost of the weed garden.

Or, as she concluded, ‘She’s just one of those girls who live in the world. Everyone pretends to want her and doesn’t want her. I’m just leading the life now of a cheap tart’.
Dorothy Lehane’s new book is intense and complex and I have merely scratched something on the surface here. I recall a review I wrote five years ago when Lehane’s magazine Litmus came out. In her editorial introduction to issue 2 she said that within the journal we will find ‘a scientific undertow; the poetry is inherently neurological and yet doesn’t labour to assign literary parallels for scientific theory, nor promote heavy use of devices such as metaphor, but presents subtle coded work operating at the limits of collaborative engagement’. I urge readers here to engage with this intensely demanding new network of language and recognise how deeply we are all involved in the definitions which enclose us:

‘mama’s swan song was believing that the sing-
song is just a game’

Also, I urge you to recall the fist within the glove of language and never forget Toni Morrison’s assertion in Beloved that definitions belong to the definer not to the defined.

Ian Brinton, 25th March 2019

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