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Shop Talk: Poems for Shop Workers by Tanner (Penniless Press)

Shop Talk: Poems for Shop Workers by Tanner (Penniless Press)

Since the mid-2000s, Tanner (the ‘Paul’ was dropped in about 2009) has been publishing interesting, distinctive work in The Crazy Oik, Monkey Kettle, Penniless Press, Pulsar, The Recusant and elsewhere, as well as satirical cartoons and a novel. The earlier collections include graphics and prose heavy on bodily fluids and youthful opinion, but among them are poems that shine in their energy, wit and fast-paced depictions of bus-stop-level life ‘in the autumn of our country’ in Birkenhead and Preston. This latest collection has identified the strongest stuff and honed it well. The settings are a series of supermarkets and minimarkets, and the perspective is of a low-paid shelf-stacker/ till-attendant. The management are a pain,

they’d keep you behind, unpaid
for 15 minutes a night
just because they could,

but the customers are far worse. They queue-jump, moan, spit, make personal comments, demand unreasonable discounts or refunds, and are consistently abusive and occasionally violent. Their kids, meanwhile, trash the store. The shopworker gets riled, and can’t resist reacting with demurral, wisecracks or mere candour, and after comic and sometimes hair-raising escalations, ends up being warned, sacked or even assaulted ‒ or simply walks out. The pattern repeats with variations in the manner of a comic-strip or sitcom series: he’s back on the dole, then into another dead-end job, and up comes another snotty punter… The poems themselves set up each drama and conflict fast. Their line-breaks and cadences are functionally perfect. They zip along, low on pretension, fuss and adjective count:

She told me
her and her daughter
were going to wait outside the shop
after closing
and stab me

she even showed me the knife:

More impressive still, they build cumulatively into a disquieting picture of what post-community consumerism is doing to our sense of decent behaviour. Tanner’s particular focus is what it does to the poorest, who can treat shopworkers as one of the few groups they can successfully bully. And how, in turn, the resentment of such workers towards the non-working plays into the hands of the Right. Tanner’s character isn’t going to join a union, take up an Open University course, turn to crime or even go into a different line of work. Shop experience is all he has – along with (less commonly) the compensation of writing:

I could have told him
he was going the right way about
ending up in a poem

and the possibility of even that let-out veering, via the Orwellian, towards the traditions of Knut Hamsun and Céline. (The last poem, consolingly, does suggest a nascent solidarity.) At any rate, with both narrator and creator now well into their thirties, the comedy, I imagine, will continue getting wryer and bleaker:

they tell me
none of us is immortal
but sometimes working in retail
feels life-threateningly close to it.

The book’s back cover quotes fake reviewers carping about it in the same petulant, bad-tempered manner as the supermarket shoppers. Not this one, though: who thinks it’s a fresh, original, eye-opening and powerfully written collection; who’s a very happy customer.

Guy Russell 6th July 2020

This Small Patch by Tom Kelly (Red Squirrel Press)

This Small Patch by Tom Kelly (Red Squirrel Press)

Born in Jarrow, working at sixteen in the Merchant Dry Dock and still living not far away, Tom Kelly has been producing plays, music and film lyrics, short stories and poems for over thirty years in his native North-East. His lifetime’s knowledge of his locality continues, as the title here signals, to be his major source of subject-matter. This collection ‒ his eighth from Red Squirrel in the last twelve years, not forgetting earlier ones from KT, Here Now, Smokestack, and (long ago) Tears in the Fence ‒ also contains song lyrics, speeches from the 1930s Jarrow Crusade, and explanatory prose commentaries. The lyrics lose something on their own, as lyrics generally do, but it’s worth checking the Men of the Tyne songs on the CD, and the documentary on YouTube, where they come into glorious full effect. Of the poems, there’s none here as brilliant as the earlier, savage ‘The Wrong Jarrow’ and no line as arresting as ‘‘No’ is the password, stamped on their hopes’ with its terrific repurposing of ‘password’. Nonetheless the majority preserve a solid style and feel across time: the present historic, the asyndeton, the low-key language and deferred epiphany. Sometimes Kelly’s poems appear to stop before they’ve got going. Sometimes they feel like notes. Moments of pure lyricism are sparse, like moments of joy:

The film’s something celestial
fallen into our laps,

More often, ‘fine phrasing’ gets cut with grim bathos:

Tears hold their own in the corners of her eyes
wishing they could be used in the pawn shop.

Admittedly, it’s not the most rewarding style if you’re in search of linguistic fireworks and metatextual car-chases. Other writers identifying with the skilled working class ‒ Tony Harrison or Andy Croft, say ‒ forge arabesques of wordplay alongside precise rhyming in difficult formalisms to enact toil and struggle and craftsmanship. But perhaps Kelly’s offers an equally authentic way to approach the mental universes of these industrial lives of outward good-fellowship but constricted emotional display, whose laconic narrators resist at all costs the flashy, long-worded or bombastic, and retreat into collocation or summary at the moment of truth:

There’s just a great gap of love
you endured
and my gaping wound.

Certainly, the poems sent me away to investigate Tyneside history: from Bede, whose monastery was in Jarrow, through England’s last gibbeting, the abrupt end of shipbuilding in 1933 and the unspeakable deprivation that led to the march to London; the post-war recovery, and then the early-Eighties destruction. All of these are touched upon and intermixed with family histories and 1950s childhood memories in a nice counterpointing of the social and personal. The concluding section returns to the present, memorialising the decline of Working Men’s Clubs – a topic entirely new to poetry? – alongside family elegies and scary portrayals of the erosion of personal memory. The overall effect, though, remains uplifting: this is poetry as archaeology and conservation, an exegi monumentum not to the poet himself but to the community he’s part of, and all the better for that.

Guy Russell 2nd July 2020

The Mask of Sanity by John Freeman

The Mask of Sanity by John Freeman

The Mask of Sanity

As I Stayed Safe in lockdown Wales
While drought and sun gave way to gales,
The unprecedented times
Begged an echo in my rhymes.

I met Privilege en route
To his weekly photoshoot,
Disguised as a Prime Minister –
And then things got more sinister.

His adviser, Laughing Boy,
Who treated strict rules like a toy,
Kept his job, though everyone
Said he should go for what he’d done.

Pictures from across the sea
Showed a neck under a knee.
George Floyd said I can’t breathe and died.
Protests erupted nationwide.

In Britain, France, and Germany
They marched in solidarity,
People black and brown and white
Gave their governments a fright.

You mustn’t gather, said the Clown
Who had told us that lockdown
Still applied to everyone
But Laughing Boy – now let’s move on!

Home Secretary Priti Patel
Thought she had the right to tell
Other BAMES to hold their tongue –
She’d been abused when she was young,

She said, and still had a career
In P R, lobbying for beer
And the tobacco industry –
Why can’t you all succeed like me?

But folk ignored the government,
Fed up with seeing the rules bent,
And living with a public statue
Black people felt was sneering at you.

They hauled the image of the slaver
Down and threw it in the river.
They started to consider Nelson,
An imperialist with bells on,

And Churchill, who was yet another.
Every slave is like my brother
Or sister, so they said, arise
We must, there is no prize

For putting up a moment longer
With the Powers That may Be stronger
At the moment, but will not
Remain so, now they’ve lost the plot.

Out came the English Nationalists
Some of them leading with their fists,
Getting into scraps till one
Got hurt, and had nowhere to run,

But Patrick Hutchinson carried him
Over his shoulder, looking grim,
To safety where riot police
Made sure he stayed still in one piece.

The photograph of this event –
Black man rescues right-wing gent –
Went viral, and began to offer
Hope at last, to those who suffer,

That reconciliation
Might heal the wounds of every nation.
Yet still the government was awful
And made starving children lawful,

Ignoring a broad-based campaign
Requesting that they think again,
Till a footballer told the story
Of his unlikely path to glory.

His mum had done all that she could,
But without that free school food
Marcus Rashford never would
Have been a star, or half so good.

The government did another U-turn
Which caused Laughing Boy to gurn –
But as that was his usual face
The fact escaped the human race.

Then Greta Thunberg said, we’ve seen,
Reacting to Covid 19,
The world act when it knows it must,
And feeling that their cause is just

People are discovering
Their mass movements can do something.
Now let’s rise up for action,
Not for any group or faction

But world-wide justice, and the planet.
A spark is lit, it’s time to fan it!
There’s no time to hesitate.
It’s nearly – but not quite – too late.

Then she quoted lines she’d learned
By heart in the days she yearned
For a sense of urgency
In the likes of you and me
Faced with this emergency:

And these words shall then become
Like oppression’s thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain
Heard again – again – again –

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number –
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many, they are few
.”

John Freeman 30th June 2020

Bitter Grass by Gëzim Hajdari Translated by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

Bitter Grass by Gëzim Hajdari Translated by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

When in 1970 Isaiah Berlin delivered his Romanes Lecture on the subject of the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev he emphasised the writer’s refusal to be drawn into the world of politics:

‘Nature, personal relationships, quality of feeling – these are what he understood best, these, and their expression in art…The conscious use of art for ends extraneous to itself, ideological, didactic, or utilitarian, and especially as a deliberate weapon in the class war, as demanded by the radicals of the sixties, was detestable to him.’

Six years after Berlin had delivered his talk the young Albanian poet Gëzim Hajdari was in his last year at high school and completing his volume of poems Bitter Grass. It was not permitted to be published by the government publication house in Tirana on account of it being a text that failed to deal with the theme of the socialist village and the censor wrote that

‘…the hero of the poems is a solitary person who flees from his contemporaries, from the Youth Association, from reality; moreover, the transformations that socialism has brought to the countryside under the guidance of the Party are entirely absent…’

One might be tempted to here to catch an undertone, an echo, of Bakunin or of Bazarov, the fiercely dogmatic anarchist of Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons. The language is very different from what Ian Seed recognises as a main characteristic of these early poems in which he discovers ‘a compressed lyricism, a blurring of the boundaries between a geographical landscape and a visionary dreamscape, the merging of the physical with the spiritual’. Recalling what John Ashbery wrote about Ian Seed’s own poetry it seems entirely appropriate that the Albanian refugee who fled to Italy in 1992 should have found a translator of such distinction. Ashbery had recognised Seed’s ability to re-create the ‘mystery and sadness of empty rooms, chance encounters in the street’ and ‘trains travelling through a landscape of snow’ which become ‘magical’. The metamorphic lyrical power to be found in Seed’s translation of one of Hajdari’s poems concerning the fleeting nature of reality is a case in point:

‘Perhaps tomorrow I won’t be
in these whitened fields.
Like an early morning cloud
my face will disappear.

My voice will be lost
with everyday memories,
hopes and dreams
orphaned in the woods.

Still hanging by the river
names and shadows will remain,
the one who obsessed me
dust and ash.

A hawthorn will grow
above the corpse,
my secret kept
under tender grass.

The days of May will come
with gorse and sunshine.
The nightingale and cuckoo
will be the first to sing.’

The movement of time is caught hauntingly here as the word ‘whitened’, associated perhaps with the newness of a morning, is placed against the constant shift of clouds which becomes associated in the poet’s mind with his own transience. The sense of the lost child, whose ‘hopes and dreams’ dissolve in the rejection he feels as an orphan in the woods, links the poem to what Ian Seed recognises as reminiscent of the opening canto of Dante’s Inferno where the poet finds himself lost in ‘una selva oscura’. In Hajdari’s world beyond the ‘dust and ash’ of death there are echoes which still hang in the air, a musical quality that lingers, and the lyric itself seems to take on its concrete form in the print on the page in a manner not dissimilar to the growth of the hawthorn. The physical presence of the poem suggests a shadow of awareness of a future reader and in another spring there will be a return of both the harbingers of distance and of love, the cuckoo and the nightingale.
In Ian Seed’s own ‘Composition 2’ from Shifting Registers (Shearsman Books, 2011) ‘Your face dissolves when you drop / a coin into the fountain’ and ‘The scene / may sparkle but you feel // the pull of its undertow’. In these translations from the Italian of the Balkan poet Gëzim Hajdari Ian Seed offers us a convincing sense of that pull of poetry’s undertow: a convincing refutation of Turgenev’s anarchist Bazarov who in 1862 had rejected everything that could not be established by the rational methods of natural science. One can only wonder what Turgenev would have made of the censor from Tirana!

Ian Brinton 29th June 2020

Plan Audio B by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa (Isobar Press)

Plan Audio B by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa (Isobar Press)

With this long poem’s title being ‘Plan B Audio’ one might be prompted to wonder what was Plan A and I recall referring to the painterly sense to be discovered in the selections from the 2007 volume Aquiline when I reviewed Joritz-Nakagawa’s previous Isobar Press publication, New & Selected Poems. In his Foreword to that 2018 publication Eric Selland had pointed out that for Joritz-Nakagawa the poem never ends:

‘It is an infinitely open system, always searching for that which is unexplainable, and unattainable: the poem is constantly in search of itself.’

The blurb on the back cover of this new remarkable poem asserts that it was written during, and in response to, ‘a life-threatening encounter with illness, and in the aftermath of the radical surgery that saved the author’s life.’ In its ‘dissolving into / beams of frenzied impossible / yearning’ it brings to my mind the figure of Mahood, armless and legless in a jar situated opposite a restaurant with its menu fixed to it, in Samuel Beckett’s 1952 novel L’Innommable (translated as The Unnamable in the John Calder edition of 1959):

‘There I am in any case equipped with eyes, which I open and shut, two, perhaps blue, knowing it avails nothing, for I have a head now too, where all manner of things are known, can it be of me I’m speaking, is it possible, of course not, that’s another thing I know, I’ll speak of me when I speak no more.’

It was Beckett’s earlier fictional creation, Moran, who had suggested that all language was an excess of language but in Joritz-Nakagawa’s poem we are presented with a sinuous winding and weaving of words that seem both to keep the reader at a distance whilst at the same time drawing that same reader into a dystopia:

‘edge of a sinister forest
dissolving into darkness
missing on the clothesline
a delicate smile

near a wandering brook
children’s fantasies fall silent
a deserted door
opening onto a freeway

to collapse the dystopia
i ate the data
scars that itch
failure of languages’

This canvas of language goes beyond the ‘depths of my nest’ to a ‘mute soliloquy’ from the ‘dunghill of which’ the song wanders intricately across the page prompting us to wonder ‘about the sound of doors and walls’. And of course Plan B is sound but it is there as what, on the back cover, Nancy Gaffield calls ‘a contingency’:

‘…an event the occurrence of which could not have been foreseen, but also a conjunction of events occurring without design’.

These poems dissolve into ‘beams of frenzied impossible / yearning’ and they move through ‘wickets / of doldrum and bureaucratic / spoils’.
The last lines of Beckett’s novel which is unnameable leave us on an edge of movement concluding with the possibility that words

‘…have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’

As ‘Plan B Audio’ reaches a conclusion it is ‘sound’ that is missed from beyond the door and the stiffness of doctors in white uniforms are on one side whilst on the other the poet sobs in the bathroom:

‘by accident
my hand brushes my stoma
how stiff it is

sadly
i touch my waist
swollen with plastic

cherry blossoms
students laughing at their desks
how i miss that sound

grey sky
buildings too
what is this world’

This long poem is perhaps one answer to that last question and the reader remains haunted by the vivid individuality of self and other, of sight and its photographic records offered to us by Susan Laura Sullivan, and of coloured sound from which ‘my sorrow spills / in all directions.’

Ian Brinton 15th June 2020

The Allen Fisher Companion Eds: Robert Hampson & cris cheek (Shearsman Books)

The Allen Fisher Companion Eds: Robert Hampson & cris cheek (Shearsman Books)

For readers interested in the complex and challenging work of poet Allen Fisher, this publication provides a useful, and very readable, range of resources. The essays trace the development of Fisher’s creative output, from early Fluxus-related pieces, through the major projects of Place and Gravity as a consequence of space, to the more recent SPUTTOR. Together they offer an informative set of commentaries on the poet’s working practices, influences, and values.

The introduction by Robert Hampson provides a helpful initial survey of Fisher’s writing career, which began in the late 1960s with links to the ‘British Poetry Revival’. The essays that follow discuss the evolution of Fisher’s work in a more or less chronological sequence.
The first piece, by Will Rowe, provides an interesting analysis of Place, the poet’s ‘decade long investigation of the limits of knowledge and truth’ (as Rowe describes it). Rowe examines how Fisher deals in this poem with different types of ‘knowledge’ and their relationship to ‘desire, will, politics and truth’. Some of the key influences on Fisher are usefully traced, including the writings of Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem. Rowe also offers interesting reflections on the differences between Place and Fisher’s second major project Gravity as a consequence of space.

Pierre Joris follows this with a focus on the extent to which ‘health’ (both bodily and societal) is a key theme in Fisher’s early work. Redell Olsen’s essay, ‘Start Place in Flux’, offers insights on Fisher’s early work with a detailed account of his involvement in Fluxus-influenced activities in Britain in the early 1970s. Olsen traces the connections between Fisher’s performance-based work and texts produced during this period, and how these ‘find their way into the synthesis of materials that make up Place.’
Performance and its relation to the text is also discussed by cris cheek, in an account of a reading of ‘Vole’ and ‘Volespin’ (two of the poems in Gravity) which Fisher recorded on video tape. The nature of Fisher’s performance of these poems, which includes visuals and an element of improvisation, and the status of the recording as ‘documentary’, are discussed in relation to concepts of stability, damage, and process, key preoccupations in Fisher’s work.

The essays which follow mainly focus on Fisher’s magnum opus, Gravity as a consequence of space, ‘factured’ between 1982 and 2005. Particularly interesting are Will Montgomery’s examination of the racial context informing ‘Brixton Fractals’ (the sequence with which Gravity opens), Robert Sheppard’s reflections on Fisher’s Apocalyptic Sonnets, written in the late 1970s, as marking a transition between Place and Gravity, Scott Thurston’s close reading of ‘Mummer’s Strut’ from Gravity, and Clive Bush’s critical evaluation of the influence of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatari on Gravity.

Both Place and Gravity include extensive lists of resources upon which Fisher drew in facturing the work. Sheppard quotes Peter Barry saying that Place requires the reader to ‘reactivate a body of reading’ not as a preparation for reading the text, but as a process in which we ‘read the sources in the light of the poem and the poem in the light of the sources.’ This is a process equally critical to an engagement with Gravity. Sheppard describes Gravity, with its complex collaging and overwriting of source texts, and internal cross-referencing, as ‘no longer content-specific poetry. Fisher is not making references for readers to ‘study’; he is making art for readers to engage with.’
Fisher has provided detailed notes on the use of source material in Mummer’s Strut, and Thurston’s analysis of this poem is a helpful exploration of the poet’s method. ‘To read Fisher’s work,’ Thurston writes, ‘is to experience a complex tension between rapid juxtapositions of different materials and patterns of continuity generated through repetition and rhyme: between discontinuity and continuity. A reader must actively negotiate the jumps and continuities in order to build his or her own reading of the poem.’

The Allen Fisher Companion concludes with an interview with Fisher (and his partner Paige Mitchell) conducted by Shamoon Zamir, which forms part of Fisher’s book Imperfect Fit (University of Alabama Press, 2016), and an edited version of an exchange of texts between Fisher and the poet Karen MacCormack, plus commentary by others, originally published online by the Slought Foundation as Philly Talk 19.

‘Discontinuites and continuities’ extend across Fisher’s major texts, each individual poem being ‘entangled’ with others. Gravity is a highly structured work, as is Place. This aspect of Fisher’s oeuvre is not really addressed in this volume, which for me is something of a gap. Gravity is organised around a number scheme subjected to damage by physically compressing a cardboard tube on which the sequence was marked. The ‘damage’ can be seen in the breaks in the alphabetical sequence of the titles and the parallel presentation (vortex) of texts in the middle of the book.

Fisher uses contemporary ideas of space-time, derived from physics, to structure Gravity, in the same way Elizabethan writers used Neoplatonic number symbolism in the ordering of their work. A contribution on this would have been a useful addition. But this criticism does not detract in any way from the many insightful essays mentioned above. This welcome collection adds significantly to the available resources on Fisher’s work.

Simon Collings 14th June 2020

Sur(rendering) by Mario Martín Gijón Translated by Terence Dooley (Shearsman Books)

Sur(rendering) by Mario Martín Gijón  Translated by Terence Dooley (Shearsman Books)

In an attempt to show that ‘absence’ is more important than ‘presence’ the Elizabethan poet Fulke Greville suggested that ‘like dainty clouds, / On glorious bright’ absence can protect Nature’s ‘weak senses’ from ‘harming light’. However, by the end of ‘Absence and Presence’ the realisation that absence and loss cannot be discussed in these terms compels the poet to say

‘The absence which you glory,
Is that which makes you sorry,
And burn in vain:
For thought is not the weapon,
Wherewith thought’s ease men cheapen,
Absence is pain.’

Threading its path through this deeply moving sequence of lyrics by the Spanish poet Mario Martín Gijón there is what Terence Dooley, the translator, calls ‘a love lost and found’:

‘This might sound like nothing new in the history of poetry, but the poet immerses us in his story by a complex process of linguistic recreation: recreation in the sense of re-invention and recreation also as play, or playfulness.’

These poems are remarkable in the way that they offer the reader a tangible sense of the abstract. Words, fleeting sounds, do not possess the concrete presence of physical reality but in the mouth of a sophisticated poet and brought to our attention by the sympathetic and imaginative skills of the translator they convey the very presence of that which is no longer there. In an introduction provided for us by Dooley and given the title ‘Love Games’ we are offered Eduardo Moga’s words concerning the way in which Gijón works:

‘Words become lexical clay in the hands of the poet, or articulated entities into which other words may be telescoped. Words break, unscrew, crumble onto the page like sand.’

And perhaps a little like sand in an hourglass words pour from mind to page so that the reader can reflect upon what has been sifted and in an early poem in the sequence, ‘the promise of (as)saying you’, we can see the articulation at work:

‘s(u/e)rv(ey)ing you gave
me hope and strength to
cont(ai)n(yo)ue
giving my word ploughed
ground
following the furrows
of your abs(c)ent
body
sowing seed
on barren land’

The idea of casting an overall glance or survey over the barren land of loss is merged with the anger of possibly suing the lost one and eyeing her absence. Hope, as a seed that might promote future presence, is given to the mourner in terms of both containing and continuing and the scent of loss itself retains the presence of the body. This may feel like ‘sowing seed / on barren land’ but the subtle movement of the poem, brought to life in this admirable translation, allows the vividness of ‘furrows’ to retain a sense of what is lying below the surface.
That tangible sense of presence at the time of absence is presented to us with a meditative tone in the poem ‘burnt offering’:

‘terrified by terrain untrodden
by you I
wandered through the suburbs
of your name’

That inability of one person to inhabit the world of another, that awareness that the other possesses a different landscape, is subtly transfixed in the use of the word ‘suburbs’ for the Spanish word ‘afueras’. The sense of having lost someone, their movement from a centre into an outskirt, is caught with the subterranean echo of what might rest in a furrow, a ‘sub/urb’.
This short review is not an essay about this important Spanish poet but is offered as a ‘taster’ of what readers might expect within these pages. Gijón dives ever deeper into ‘the memory of your / eyes’ and concludes with the enduring reality of absence:

‘I am
as landless as possessed’

Having started these brief comments with a reference to an Elizabethan poet it will not perhaps be inappropriate to conclude with some words from another, albeit written in a play from the Jacobean age. As Leontes confronts what appears to be the irredeemable loss of his wife and child in The Winter’s Tale he vows to spend time at their grave in the hope that ‘tears shed there / Shall be my re/creation.’

Ian Brinton 8th June 2020

Atha by Sally-Shakti Willow (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

Atha by Sally-Shakti Willow (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

Atha is part of Sally-Shakti Willow’s PhD in Utopian Poetics, and indeed reads more like a practical experiment than a poetry collection. The volume begins with some explanatory pages which could have been taken out of a literary theory textbook, explaining Utopian Poetics. The idea is that Utopian Poetics is a medium of meditation ‘in which one encounters one’s embodied and intersubjective self’, which I understand as experiencing oneself, as in a mindfulness or yoga routine. Willow calls this ‘non-alienation’, and the poem ‘performs and anticipates the possibility of non-alienation, whilst operating within the alienation of this world’. This thesis itself rests on more familiar territory for the post-structuralist: ‘Poems need readers to live. Poems need writers to give them form’, essentially a ‘Death of the Author’-esque reader-response theory about the sovereign control of the reader.

The poems, sometimes stimulated by an image, wind in and around the theme of the body, branching out to the external matters that surround the body and penetrate through the mind. The poems resemble a yoga routine in that they attempt to ground their musings in the body, in an attempt to process and then expel or internalize broader topics. One poem repeats the question ‘how to metabolise this’, foregrounding the idea of a bodily digestion, a literal stomaching of the outer world. This conceit works well, and matches the theme of meditation, questioning the possibility of how we live, thrive off, and in that sense ingest the outer world when its iniquities might otherwise poison or corrupt.

Unfortunately, often these poems swiftly turned into the author’s personal tract against specific, perceived evils of the world, singled out with strange selectiveness. War, or violence, or the manifold crookedness that we see in ourselves and individuals as much as in the world around us, does not get a hearing. Meanwhile, fracking, immigration (and Brexit, of course) are presented as universal evils and goods. It is ironic that a poetic mode whose purpose is be a ‘non-violent’ place of ‘non-oppression’, supposedly a ‘function of openness and multiplicity’ ends up being heavily contrived, controlled and didactic. This descent to a sugar-coated attempt to aggrandize one’s own narrow political interpretation certainly sticks in the throat. The result is that, unless you are perfectly aligned with the poet on what is good and bad in our immediate socio-political climate, you will probably struggle to reach Willow’s utopia, which rather undermines what is meant to be a poetry of inclusiveness. Moreover, despite borrowing techniques and concepts from the East, the poems ended up being very Western-centric. The multiplicity and openness of the poetics is thus let down by these spasms of self-righteousness. It is a shame that the arts world has come to expect, and accept, such pompous tunnel-vision.

The general conceit showed promise of an interesting and refreshing insight into the way subjects interact with the world, reconciling mind with body and then mind and body to the outer world. That this collection frequently resembled a confused and inaccessible train of thought, and failed to fulfil its own ethical criteria, makes one question whether Utopian poetics, let alone utopia, is ever attainable. It is perhaps true that both will remain a theory, at best partially embodied in created forms.

Yvette Dell 5th June 2020

Chords by Raymond Crump (SSEA Press / Face Press)

Chords by Raymond Crump (SSEA Press / Face Press)

In a letter dated 14th March 1968 written to Ray Crump and published in Series 3 of The English Intelligencer the Cambridge poet J.H. Prynne asserted something which threads its way through Crump’s poetry:

“Rhyme is the public truth of language, sound paced out in the shared places, the echoes are no-one’s private property or achievement; thus any grace (truly achieved) of sound is political, part of the world of motion and place in which language is like weather, the air we breathe.”

The rhythmic movement revealed in ‘Melancholy’ reminds one a little of the weighing of echoes and tones in Louis Zukofsky’s first poem in ‘Songs of Degrees’. Crump’s poem from the late 1960s first appeared in Series 3 of Intelligencer:

“As pale still
you little
say but look
and careless play your
careful tune
to life that dies or is grown
slow as
waving pines. There we
sat, eating summer
in a melon
on the mossy lip
of a great hole”

The movement forward from “say”, echoing “pale”, and “little”, echoing “still”, takes the reader to a moment of Blakean ease as “careless” and “careful” possess a wistful tone of meditation. However, that slight shift of the second syllable in each of those last two words promotes a heaviness and the less becomes the full, a thickening out of perception which slows down the movement to the rhyme of “grown” and “slow”. The punning sound of the former (groan) prepares us for a gesture of farewell in “waving pines”. It is as though the focus has meticulously been brought to bear upon the actual and we are “There” in a world of the domestic which teeters on the edge of the Fall. As we read this progression of forty-one words over twelve lines we might be witnessing what Prynne referred to as a “pivot of great beauty” which “is brought lightly off”.
In Zukofsky’s ‘A 6’ he had written of “The melody! the rest is accessory” and when Charles Tomlinson received a copy of the Jonathan Williams edition of Some Time he noted the visual precision as well as the aural meticulousness of the American poet:

“Hear, her
Clear
Mirror,
Care
His error.
In her
Care
Is clear”

In his ‘Commentary and Memoir’ on Ray Crump, appearing ten years ago in Cambridge Literary Review, his fellow student at the University of Kent, Chris Hardy, referred to the poems as appearing to be made effortlessly. He also referred to the way in which they resembled music:

“Though they can be dissected into units of language and image, so that their effects can in part be explained, the poems, when read straight through, create a response in the reader that includes a sort of non-verbal understanding.”

Both Crump and Hardy were taught by Michael Grant, another contributor to The English Intelligencer, and in some recollections of those days of the late 60s Crump recalled how Grant “would take the blue pencil to my ingenuous efforts at versifying, cutting the poem at point to its essence”. He thanked Michael Grant for this “because although love of poetry has sometimes slept in the years since, it was dreaming in the shades of Orpheus and reawakens to feel that melancholic yearning for an Ode which I still desire to fulfil.” It is testimony to this debt that Crump should have written to Grant in February 1974 enclosing “a few worthless poems” including ‘Night into Day’ which has never been published before:

“it is dark
in the room
but the patterns
of the rug find
light to dance
time sleeps
her treasure
displayed
at ashen dawn”

Chords is divided into two sections and as Boris Jardine points out in his bibliographical note at the end of the volume all the poems in Part 1 were written prior to 1970. That which had been dreaming in the shades of Orpheus for some years now stretches into the light of Part 2 where the nineteen poems have all been written since 2010. The last one, ‘Late Friends’, and echoing Thomas Hardy’s ‘Exeunt Omnes’, plays upon an Orphic lyre:

“How they leave us here
like islands in their lost future
and we cast a downward glance
into still water, less like Narcissus
than melancholy piping Pan.”

I shall be writing an article about the mysterious figure of Raymond Crump for the forthcoming issue of Tears in the Fence 72.

(http://face-press.org/crump.html / https://ssea.press/chords-new-and-selected-poems-by-raymond-crump/ )

Ian Brinton, 1st June 2020

Moveable Type by Jo Clement (New Writing North)

Moveable Type by Jo Clement (New Writing North)

Already established as an editor, poet, workshop leader and researcher, Jo Clement published her first collaborative pamphlet with fellow writer and Traveller, Damian Le Bas, and printmaker W. John Hewitt in the weathered poems of Outlandish (NWN 2019). Together, the artists used St Cuthbert’s Way on Holy Island as a starting point for poetry and art inspired by the edgelands of the North East. Several of those poems touched on her Gypsy heritage. But it is in Moveable Type, Clement’s solo debut pamphlet, where the poet examines the poetics and politics of her Traveller ethnicity in depth through the engravings of printmaker Thomas Bewick (1753-1828).
These contemporary and lyrical poems evolve from family and childhood, and culminate in a homecoming at Appleby Horse Fair, the largest annual gathering of Gypsies and Travellers in Europe. On pulling back the eye of a cob the skillful rhythms of ‘The Impression of Water’ resonate:

How fast the water flows in lines
against the Traveller’s face, her clothes,
the supplementary weight.

In this multi-layered poem we feel the pressure on both the Traveller and on the wood carver’s images. This ekphrastic practice continues as Clement assigns artwork with titles, juxtaposing an 18th Century man pole-vaulting across a river with the poem ‘Vault’. This poem teems with imagery from the northern council estate, Lascelles:

til his fists scream
on the glass
and they flush out
like so many bees
or game, back to the Moor,
where porn pulps open crotches

a powerful combination of the musical and the visceral. The final stanza in this poem is a reminder of how her own journey as Traveller, academic and poet has involved a certain ‘kicking back’ inside mainstream society: ‘His sloe arm moves her still, / lifts ‘til vaulting, she stamps the air.’
Two revealing poems then face each other, both corralled and blown free, first in ‘Teesdale Erratics’, and then ‘Market’:

The photographer says
turn a cartwheel, girls

but they shy away
pinch petunias

from pub planters
push stalks behind ears.

Here, the subtle imagery exposes the exploitive media succinctly.
We come across enviable terms such as ‘King Faa’, a poem smattered with delightful kennings like ‘fiddlescrape’ and ‘kettleflute’, as well as the Romani patrins: signposts for fellow Travellers made from twigs. Clement beautifully illustrates the horse dealer’s traditional haggle: ‘let horse dealer hands / take wing in soft claps / that swoop and slap / themselves away’. Meanwhile, Bewick’s tail-piece engraving of a powerless father and son next to the sign: KEEP ON THIS SIDE, reminds us of centuries of land-grabbing Enclosure Laws, and their impact on not only Travellers but on the rural community as a whole.
Clement certainly doesn’t shirk the uncomfortable. In ‘Knots’, Wordsworth is held to account in his poem ‘Gipsies’: ‘He saw us as spot, a spectacle, knots’. ‘Playing Cards’ also delivers a palpable shudder as the speaker falters when asked to tick a box pertaining to ethnicity as either ‘White or Gypsy’:

Black triangles
Needled to our chests like stars, badges of shame
That marked us work-shy Zigeuner.
The death camps devoured us

a reminder of how 200,000 Roma and Sinti Gypsies were put to death during World War II. But it is the pride in her heritage that defines Clement’s writing. ‘Homecoming’, in which the poet takes us to Appleby Fair, is sensuously charged:

In black-wet denim
all teeth and chest shining
half-boy
half-hoss
all bray

Walk alongside a young woman through the joys and frustrations of modern Traveller life inside poems of blood, politics and honesty, and you will see how ‘Gypsiness’ is inextricably linked to heritage and ethnicity, regardless of whether home is house or road. Moveable Type is an anthem, a celebration, and a timely reminder of all our histories.

Notes:

Traveller – the contemporary collective term for Gypsy/Roma/Traveller (GRT).
Zigeuner – the German noun that described Gypsies.

Sarah Wimbush 29th May 2020

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