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Light-Fall by Lucy Ingrams (Flarestack Poets)

Light-Fall by Lucy Ingrams (Flarestack Poets)

Lucy Ingrams poems in Tears in the Fence 72 impressed readers with their slowed down attentiveness to the moment and invigorating language use. I was thus thrilled to discover her Light-Fall pamphlet from 2019 and to find more of her mindful poetry.

The opening poem, ‘Swimmer’, where the title is the last two words, with ‘fall’ occupying the last line alone, is worth the price of the pamphlet alone. 

The poem, like the best of Ingrams work, recalls the poetry of Lee Harwood and Elizabeth Bishop and yet is distinctly her own. This emerges through her confident use of space, lineation and punctuation. Note her use of brackets, hyphens, space and counter voice, within a sonically rich low pitched delivery.  The poem, written in the living present, in the manner of Harwood’s sea poems, such as ‘Salt Water’, slows the reader’s attention down to each modulated movement within a wide-eyed focus. The narrator’s eye hovers on a series of physical objects, with slight movements in declining light, so that their actions combine to draw in the movements of sea, breeze and light. The layout, sound and sense combine to produce a balanced and clear-sighted focus. The key is that the poem remains in the variable and active present and eschews any extraneous commentary. 

   the is and will-be of its

the single source   of everything

air, its bubble   coast, its run-off – petrified

world’s counterweight.   its balance-tip

(cloud, the shadows of its rougher swells)

sorted   with that

                 and you   back-stroking

                 next    a flotsam speck    floating

                 only at its pleasure

Ingrams is at her best when she takes risks and moves beyond the rigidity of mainstream poetry to explore and engage the reader with a wide-eyed focus and attention to subtle movements and responses. She has a quiet and strong narrative voice. 

I enjoyed revisiting the poem, ‘Signs’, previously published in the Nine Arches Press, Primers Volume One (2015), with its attention to time, hesitancy and doubt through its spatial use, and controlled form.

And whether you loved me   loved me not

would come with a letter    come with you

would come    would come with some sign

of which there was no sign    yet

Here each movement and change of attention matters in the present. Such poems live, are alive, and are cut through fresh language with moments of 

vividness.

red in the willow crowns    plum in the birch

patterns of gnats     looked for a language

larger than us     tremor of catkins

folds of a bud    for meaning like runes

harder than answers   length in the light

the over and over of wood pigeon music

Ingrams also registers time and its gradual movement from moment to moment in fading late, as one would expect from a poet concerned with being alive to the world and its surprises. ‘Blue Hour’, written in crisp couplets, ends ‘and I turn and my step in the wind-drop quiet / is a thread to tack night / to night.’ I love the precision of ‘wind-drop quiet’ and the dropping ‘to night’ on to the next line to register and emphasise time.

There are many other subtle, quite and well measured poems with slight changes of attention within a perceptual roundedness that suggests Ingrams is an emerging and accomplished poet to follow.

David Caddy 23rd November 2020

The Grey Area: A Mystery by Ken Edwards (Grand Iota)

The Grey Area: A Mystery by Ken Edwards (Grand Iota)

For many literary writers, the mystery about mystery novels is why their purportedly formulaic structures, simplified motivations, credibility-stretching twists and over-tidy resolutions find greater readership than their own more full-bodied works. And thence they have a go at the genre, with predictably distinctive results. In Gilbert Adair’s the author did it. In Georges Perec’s the language did it. In Patrick Modiano’s the ‘who’ would’ve done it, if there’d been any ‘who’ in the first place. So, on finding that this author is the ex-editor of Reality Street, we’re basically not expecting Miss Marple. 

Phidias Peralta has left London in nebulous circumstances and repaired to the coast – between quaint Deadhurst and down-at-heel Deadman’s Beach – to relaunch his private investigator business. His first case looks straightforward enough: a ninety-year-old woman who vanished suddenly a year before. Her family are looking for ‘closure’. Uh-oh; not in a novel like this. Is the CCTV footage all it seems? Have the police given up too readily? Did she wander into the ‘grey area’ of the Dead Level marshes? The trail is cold by now. And meanwhile, two sinister-looking men from London have been seen around, asking for him… 

Phidias himself is a terrific character, a born-to-it detective whose eye for detail enriches the descriptions of the locality and whose over-the-top diction and intellectuality bring to mind a Doctor Who or a Holmes. He can’t bear to use the first-person singular in his narrations (though, disappointingly, he speaks and writes email with it), giving them the feel of a parodic scientific report. His assistant Lucy fulfils the more human, Watson-ish role, with a conventional voice anchored in ordinary family concerns. A third format consists of dialogue presented without speech-tags or other primary narrative, as if taped; this kind of stylistic spotlighting felt odd at first, but I did quickly get used to it. It helps that the prose is as adept and fluent as you’d expect. (The only poor writing in the book, I’d say, is on the blurb, which drastically undersells its contents.)

Storywise, some scenes ‒ an early-morning trip with the local trawlermen, an extraordinary model railway ‒ earn their place thematically (or from their intrinsic interest) rather than in terms of direct function. Nonetheless the tension builds up nicely and the late-night industrial park (where homeless Phidias is sleeping) becomes suitably spooky. In fact, at one point, I worried that the book was going to use that genre-twist cop-out where the ‘explanation’ for the crime is a supernatural one. Or that the epistemological riffs were preparing to camouflage some dodgy plot-moves. But the weirdnesses stay more or less under control and the denouement is, instead, revealingly bitter in the manner of, say, Leonardo Sciascia’s novels. I hope Phidias isn’t dead, though: I found myself, like any good crime reader, wanting another in the series, where more of his enigmatic background might get revealed, and the enjoyable partnership between him, Lucy and her bright and comic son can confront a new impossible brain-twister.

Guy Russell 18th November 2020

Études: The Poetry of Dreams & Other Fragments by John Marx (ORO Editions)

Études: The Poetry of Dreams & Other Fragments by John Marx (ORO Editions)

études: The Poetry of Dreams & Other Fragments brings together John Marx’s watercolours first published in The Architectural Review and a range of his visual and concrete poems, with essays providing introductory contexts to the work. Marx, an award-winning designer and architect, based in San Francisco, works as Chief Artistic Officer for Form4 Architecture, and this sumptuous book takes the reader on a journey through his creative landscape. 

The book is divided into eight sections moments in time, apertures, absent nature, objects in nature, without intention, approaching abstraction, deconstructing perception and improvisations, indicating the book’s focus. 

The reader is instantly drawn by the quality of the watercolours, which are simple, precise and thought-provoking. They strike me as having both an intellectual and emotional meaning through their pared down simplicity and exactitude. Laura Iloniemi’s essay places them in an American Tradition showing their relationship to Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keefe and Franz Kline. She notes how they connect an emotional urban atmosphere with natural ‘built landscapes’, such as a sand dune or rock formation through memory and association.

Each watercolour is juxtaposed next to a visual and concrete poem. The poems are similarly pared down to simple statements spread across the page with lines positioned horizontally, vertically, diagonally and so on. The impact is powerful in that a range of potential correspondences are suggested. Thus, the poem, ‘Étude 11, 1980’ precedes the watercolour, ‘The Edge of Possibility, 1990’ and the juxtaposition enhances both as the reader’s eye moves from left to right, right to left, assimilating the forms and dream-like connection of clouds with possibilities beyond the self. The impact is utterly beguiling and accumulates as one follows the journey. 

Whilst the poems may be closed statements presented as shapes and visuals, they are in essence linked to the hypnotic watercolours through juxtaposition and the movement of the eye and mind’s eye. The poem ‘Étude 48, 2005’ has a whirlwind of broken circular lines around the words ‘In the cycle of change / we endure those extremes / each adding / a layer of humanity / to our journey’, and ends with the thought that life asks

‘that we / live intensely / and in the moment’ (in blue). It is placed opposite the watercolour, ‘Ethereal Construct, 1998’ with its two narrow windows and a door within large and rigid building blocks. The eerie atmosphere of the buildings, reminiscent of Hopper, are in contradistinction to any intense living in the moment. The eye returns to the smallness of the windows and door, suggestive of a narrowness of vision and line of thought around scale, balance, opportunity and extremes leading back to the poem’s content. This reflective approach is enhanced by each successive combination in the book and is thus thoroughly provocative.

The work is ultimately philosophical despite its dream like qualities and concerned with vision and a visible language linking our inner and outer worlds. The watercolours often evoke, or imply, an absence. We are, I think, ultimately being asked to consider how we find balance in a world of constant change. This is an utterly beguiling book creating a wonderful synergy between the poems and watercolours. 

David Caddy 13th November 2020

Life, Orange to Pear by John Brantingham (Bamboo Dart Press)

Life, Orange to Pear by John Brantingham (Bamboo Dart Press)

John Brantingham’s newest book, Life, Orange to Pear, begins and ends with fruit.

I’m not spoiling anything for you. It’s right there in the title. It’s also, surprise, about life–how it begins, ends, and everything in between. The simple act of eating fruit in the opening and closing scenes of this book poses the idea that we can find comfort in the simplest moments so long as we choose to look for it. This book proposes that we must appreciate simplicity while we, at the same time, grapple with complexity and existential terror.

Written in a casual, second-person voice, Orange to Pear follows the life and fatherhood of a very flawed but well-meaning part-time college professor and father who also happens to be a functioning alcoholic. Using this voice, this book argues that there are no easy solutions. Instead of groping for answers to the Problem of Evil, or whether we’re defined by our flaws, or how much we doom our children to repeat our lives, this story offers something else–an unadulterated, almost Christ-like empathy.

It also, however, demonstrates how even human beings with the best intentions can be ineffective, destructive, and self-sabotaging. How sometimes people will use any excuse to enact the destructive behaviors at their core. How passivity, over-intellectualizing, and destructive behavior masquerading as self-care can be paralyzing. That certain patterns of living leave a person completely adrift, wondering and hoping instead of acting. The narrator (and by extension the reader) is often left not knowing if he’s done his best. The story reaches a conclusion on this, and it’s carefully crafted, but I won’t summarize it. I can’t. Like many of the things that matter in this world, it can’t be retold, only experienced. One of the gifts of this book is that it revels in uncertainty while also being clear, direct, and brief. Brantingham captures what life is like moment-to-flawed-moment as we scrape (often unsuccessfully) for meaning, importance, and decency–and how painful, divine, and silly these moments can be.

The narrative centers around the flawed narrator’s connection to his daughter, Cyndi. As the story evolves, the uncertainty this man faces as his daughter, despite his every attempt to slow her down, grows up and then eventually outgrows him. This is the archetypal coming-of-age story from the unusual perspective of a broken parent–a man who drinks through breakfast, seems only marginally employed, and who never, ever, refers to his wife by her name. He makes mistakes in pursuit of what he thinks is right–and what he believes is right coincidentally serves to allow him to indulge himself.

At one point, he makes an indirect, not very collected attempt at confronting an acquaintance (who is proudly showing him the taxidermized foot of an elephant that has been made into furniture) about wealth inequality, gleefully burning an important social bridge for his wife:

And as you walk out your daughter beams at you for the first time in a long time and it makes you want to storm out, which you do, as well as anyone can storm and also stop off by the bar for one more glass of the good stuff.

He’s done the right thing. Maybe. He’s done it to earn the pride of his daughter, who finds the man abhorrent, but one can’t help but notice that he’s also getting another drink out of it. He’s–in the true mindset of an addict–earning another drink.

These characters have the simultaneously empathetic and pathetic qualities of Kurt Vonnegut characters. They’re whole, flawed, and alive in a way that lets us one feels their own aliveness. By the time you’ve reached the end of this book you hate the narrator. And you love him. You regret all of his mistakes and realize why they were so important. You wouldn’t undo them even if you could because you’ve found something divine in them.

Bamboo Dart Press are also publishing Dennis Callaci, Stephanie Barbé Hammer and Meg Pokrass in their fiction series.

Scott Noon Creley 11th November 2020

The Fifth Notebook of Dylan Thomas: Annotated Manuscript Edition Edited by John Goodby and Adrian Osbourne (Bloomsbury)

The Fifth Notebook of Dylan Thomas: Annotated Manuscript Edition Edited by John Goodby and Adrian Osbourne (Bloomsbury)

The Notebook, a red Zenith Exercise Book, found in a Tesco bag by Louie King, a former servant of Dylan Thomas’s mother in law, contains fifteen and a half poems. The half poem being the first five sonnets of the ten comprising ‘Altarwise by owl-light’. The poems from Thomas’s first two collections, 18 Poems (1934) and Twenty-five Poems (1936) are mostly fair copies of ‘finished’ poems, written on the right hand side, or recto, pages. There are some missing pages and some occasional crossings out, less than one per cent of which were undecipherable. Written between May 1934 and August 1935, the notebook contains no unpublished work. However, it does reveal a break between the ‘process’ poetry he had begun in 1933 and the non-referential poems that came next. The Notebook allows more accurate dating of compositions, with poems, such as, ‘I dreamed my genesis’, ‘Seven’ and the sonnets of ‘Altarwise by owl-light’ being dated.

At the end of ‘Seven’, dated 26th October 1934 and underlined, there is a second longer horizontal line between two short vertical lines in the centre of the page, indicating an end or break. The date is significant, being the day before Thomas’s twentieth birthday, and the editors think that this marks a conscious decision to end a writing phase and embark on a new style. His birthday held special significance and was the focus of several of his October poems. He is also reading James Joyce closely at this time. There is, though, no conscious change of style marked within Twenty-five Poems, and so this is evidence of a conscious change in poetic style. Further evidence is available in the form of the increased number of deletions and there are some other discoveries in the form of an unknown original stanza two in ‘Fifteen’. The deleted stanza is more nebulous than the replacement. He changes genders and uses personal pronouns and in the sixth line ‘white’ becomes ‘black’ and the overuse of ‘half’ is removed.   

The Notebook reveals the extent of Thomas’s use of traditional Welsh poetry, cynghanedd, the short patterning of vowels and consonants. He draws upon the wok of medieval poet, Dafydd ap Gwilm, who used the englyn form, sangiad, the parenthetical phrase, dyfalu, hyperbolic comparison and description, and torymadroddy, inverted construction. He is quite clearly using more than alliteration and assonance in his sound effects.

Thomas scholar, Ralph Maud, speculated on the existence of ten notebooks and the editors see a missing notebook between notebook two and three as well as the most likely continuation of ‘Alterwise by owl-light’ in another notebook. Given Thomas’s highly peripatetic lifestyle such notebooks could still be extant.

The Notebook and handwritten notes, including one where he describes himself as having ‘no respectable occupation, no permanent address’, are fully annotated so that all differences are accounted for and some debated points of punctuation are now conclusively resolved. The Fifth Notebook contains facsimiles and full transcripts of the originals, which are annotated and accompanied by editorial notes. The notes are comprehensive and come with an extensive bibliography divided into several sections. This is exemplary scholarship, easy to navigate and utterly illuminating. 

David Caddy 29th October 2020

Paris 1925: Ordinary Autumn & All of a Sudden by Vicente Huidobro Translated by Tony Frazer (Shearsman Books)

Paris 1925: Ordinary Autumn & All of a Sudden by Vicente Huidobro Translated by Tony Frazer (Shearsman Books)

In these days when surrealism has become a staple of breakfast cereal adverts, it’s hard imagining the original impact of, say, Paul Éluard’s ‘la terre est bleue comme une orange’ (the earth is blue like an orange), or Robert Desnos’ ‘je suis le bûcheron de la forêt d’acier’ (I am the woodcutter in the steel forest). Vicente Huidobro never signed up officially to the programme, a mishap that’s led to his absence from most surrealist anthologies then and now, but this bilingual volume brings together two small collections from the mid-twenties, the period when he was most influenced by them. 

Reading this kind of work from a century’s distance takes some getting used to. The stuff about capital-W Woman can feel embarrassingly archaic, and the love-poems evince a paramour too scatterbrained to generate any intensity, let alone be reciprocated. Those about the seasons, the sky and nature manage better, refreshing these ultra-traditional subjects through their sheer oddity. The ocean, shipwreck and drowning feature heavily, not only as Symbolist allusions, but also perhaps because, as a Chilean in Paris, Huidobro must have spent quite a while on the Atlantic. There are openings rich in promise

Je possède la clef de l’Automne   (I possess the key to Autumn)

Maintenant écoutez le grincement des paupières   (Now listen to the eyelids creaking)

Parmi les grands figues de l’espace   (Among the great figs of space)

albeit they’re quickly overwhelmed by whimsy. Structure is, naturally, one of the things being kicked against, but there’s the perennial problem of how else the readers are to be kept engaged. Perhaps, like the compliant beloved, they have to think, Well, at least the writer’s having a good time. And how artistic his dreams are!

One interesting feature is that while most avant-garde poetry of the time embraced vers libre, these frequently use rhymes. Some are of the coeur/fleur type that is the French equivalent of breeze/trees or moon/June. But others exploit less common rhymes as a way to link unrelated lines or, as here, to tease with a sonic false-reasoning:

Le Printemps est relative comme l’arc-en-ciel

Il pourrait aussi bien être une ombrelle

(Spring is relative like the rainbow/ It might as well be a parasol)

The book also includes Huidobro’s Spanish versions, which give a glimpse into his ongoing editing:

Dans tes cheveux il y a une musique

(In your hair there’s a kind of music)

becomes

Hay una música silvestre 

En tus cabellos leves

(There’s a wild music/ in your light hair)

where the supplementary adjectives suggest a poet not yet quite certain of his effects. 

All that said, there’s a certain charm here. It might be the sheer insouciance, the sheer eccentricity, or the fresh resonance for our times of lines like le ciel est gratuit’ (the sky is free of charge). In whatever case, it’s definitely helped by a marvellously self-effacing translation which chooses the clearest word rather than showing off the translator’s verbal agility, doesn’t move lines about, and doesn’t privilege rhyme over other poetic effects, as often happens. It’s also unafraid of leaving a nonsense line as nonsense rather than killing by interpretation, a particular danger with this kind of poetry. The book’s appearance finally extends access to Huidobro’s less famous work beyond completists and specialists, which is surely a good thing. 

Guy Russell 21st October 2020

The Martian’s Regress by J.O. Morgan (Cape Poetry)

The Martian’s Regress by J.O. Morgan (Cape Poetry)

It’s the future. Earth, environmentally ruined and abandoned, has become the dead planet, and a martian – with the ‘m’ of species rather than the ‘M’ of locality – is sent back there by his unspecified supervisors to collect samples and seek for new life. 

Life on Mars itself isn’t great, as we learn bit by bit: the radiation, the pollen-storms, the food that’s basically mould, the terrible sex. And the culture is brutal: even martian fairytales and lullabies are grim and sadistic, and the planet’s Adam and Eve are vengeful, genocidal children. 

The martian, who’s small, fat and black, and his accompanying robot, who is tall, white and shaped with ‘overt femininities// all relics of an ancient era’, land and find a place to inhabit. They raid the shops and he goes out daily looking unsuccessfully for life. He casually destroys museum and cathedral artefacts, starts to think telephones are alive, and scatters the ‘prototype’ seeds from the university lab (causing further disaster). With Crusoe-ish irony, he thinks his own footprint is from another being and chases it round the world. Eventually, however, he finds a house with a functioning artificial garden capable of producing real food, abandons his sample jars and settles down to tillage. He puts the robot back into the rocket to go home, but ‘she’ deserts it before take-off, and the book’s end has them watching as the launch fails. 

This is all narrated – unusually for J O Morgan – in separate, titled poems, which build in a back-and-forth way into the story. It’s as deliberately anachronistic as At Maldon: sometimes Earth doesn’t seem all that long abandoned, while at other times ‘eons’ have apparently passed. It plays with our assumptions as to which poems are about Earth and which Mars. It exploits and ironizes the tropes of classic sf – colonisation, terraforming, fixed gender roles, the lone hero, the starward destiny of humanity. The big topics are all there: the utter loneliness of our planet(s) in space, the loneliness of individuals and the sheer stupidity of our environmental behaviour and of our faith in technological solutions; plus, for good ontological measure, our unlikely existence and our justifications of it: ‘if mere existence was itself a success’. 

It’s all done in a nicely-weighted free verse, powered with anaphora and polysyndeton, whose syntactical plainness and lack of obscurantisms makes it a speedy first-time read, although it needs (but merits) several iterations to tease out the narrative and pick up the full freight of the sour jokes about catastrophe. 

Have you swapped out the isotope scrubbers?

    Are the shoreline plastics waiting piously

    for their sublime incineration?

We’ve mapped out the stars to a depth of one third

    of the universe. We’ve ridden the gravity-quakes.

    We’ve noted how dingy it’s getting. 

The fish are gummed up with humectant.

    The crabs carry sandcastle shells.

    How long till the oceans are empty of all but their water?

We’ve unravelled the cryptogenera

    for all living things. We know the eye colour

    of prehistoric lice.

Sickening, depressing, violent, existentially bleak, and such great writing. 

Guy Russell 19th October 2020

Tears in the Fence 72 is out!

Tears in the Fence 72 is out!

Tears in the Fence 72 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, multilingual poetry, prose poetry, flash fiction, fiction and translations from Mandy Haggith, Andrew Duncan, Elzbieta Wojcik-Leese, Charlotte Baldwin, Jeremy Reed, Lynne Wycherley, Joanna Nissel, Mandy Pannett, Sam Wood, Genevieve Carver, Sarah Acton, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Mike Duggan, Daragh Breen, Tracey Turley, Karen Downs-Burton, Barbara Ivusic, John Freeman, John Millbank, Olivia Tuck, Rowan Lyster, Sarah Watkinson, Greg Bright, Robert Vas Dias, Lucy Sheerman, Andrew Darlington, David Punter, Beth Davyson, Michael Henry, Judith Willson, John Gilmore, M.Vasalis translated by Arno Bohlmeijer, Paul Rossiter, Charles Wilkinson, Rupert M. Loydell, Reuben Woolley, Kareem Tayyar, Peter Hughes, Zoe Karathanasi, Lucy Hamilton, Lydia Harris, Lucy Ingrams, Mark Goodwin, Simon Collings, Aidan Semmens, Vasiliki Albedo and Ian Seed.

The critical section consists of David Caddy’s Editorial, Jennifer K. Dick’s Of Tradition & Experiment XIV, Andrew Duncan Apocalypse: An Anthology edited by James Keery, Lily-Robert-Foley on Jennifer K. Dick’s Lilith, Clark Allison on Geoffrey Hill, Alice Entwhistle on Frances Presley, Belinda Cooke on Peter Robinson, Nadira Clare Wallace on Ella Frears, Ian Brinton on Ray Crump, Norman Jope on Menno Wigman, Oliver Sedano-Jones on Anthony Anaxagorou, Steve Spence on Gavin Selerie, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue 7 and Notes on Contributors.

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

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