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Tears in the Fence 74 is out!

Tears in the Fence 74 is out!

Tears in the Fence 74 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, prose poetry, fiction, flash fiction, translations and creative non-fiction by Seán Street, Mandy Pannett, Isobel Armstrong, Jeremy Reed, Andrew Mears, Anum Sattar, Ian Davidson, Joanna Nissel, Simona Nastac, Alan Baker, Lilian Pizzichini, Lucy Ingrams, Beth Davyson, Charles Wilkinson, Scott Thurston, Gerald Killingworth, Gabriela Macon, Kate Noakes, Peter Robinson, Kay Syrad, Huw Lawrence, Lesley Burt, K. V. Skene, John Freeman, Jane Wheeler, Tamsin Hopkins, Rachel Goodman & Elvire Roberts, Andrea Moorhead, Rebecca Althaus, Rachel Goodman, Mark Goodwin, Marina Tsvetaeva translated by Belinda Cooke, Alice Tarbuck, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Adrian Clarke, Nigel Jarrett, Norman Jope, Steve Spence, Maddie Forest, Claire HM, Peter Larkin and Mark Russell.

The critical section includes Richard Foreman’s Editorial, John Freeman on Shelley’s Animism and Ecology, Alice Tarbuck on Thomas A. Clark, Carla Scarano on Margaret Attwood, Jeremy Reed on Yours Presently: The Selected Letters of John Wieners, Sarah Acton on Martin Stannard, Phil Maillard on d.a.levy and Bill Wyatt, Graham Hartill on Phil Maillard’s Bill Wyatt, Simon Jenner on Jay Ramsay’s Pilgrimage, Simon Jenner on Jay Ramsay’s Other Long Poems, Jeremy Reed on Patricia Hope Scanlon, Andrew Duncan on Will Harris, Belinda Cooke on Peter Robinson, Steve Spence on Ric Hool, Ian McMillan, Mandy Pannett on Sarah Cave, Maria Jastrzębska on Marcin Świetlicki, Ric Hool on Mike McNamara, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue and Notes On Contributors 

Why are we here?: Very brief fictions by Simon Collings (Fortnightly Review)

Why are we here?: Very brief fictions by Simon Collings (Fortnightly Review)

The short fictions in this collection engage with questions about the self, the nature of writing, the relation of the writer to the text, the ways in which we perceive reality, and how that reality is represented by works of art. These major themes encompass a number of other strands, some examined below, all of which is expressed in stories which are humorous, engaging and very readable.

In the piece ‘Retrospective’ there is a description of a machine constructed from various musical instruments as well as “old cans, even a plastic bucket”. The machine generates “…music that has no observable pattern. It is purely the product of chance.” This description of an automated artform presents another important theme of the collection, which is virtualisation, that is, digitally-generated experiences which, as these stories suggest, are encroaching more and more on the “real” world. In another story, a couple are entranced by birds singing in a tree in midwinter, only to find that the sounds are from wires and speakers installed by their new neighbours. On the same theme of the effect of the digital world on everyday life, the story “The Composer”, which describes how the narrator discovers a new composer only to find that they already have thousands of online listeners, expresses the anxiety caused by surplus of information in the internet age. The nature of art and the way in which people engage with artworks is examined in a number of pieces. In ‘Another Life (1)’ an art exhibition morphs into a visit to an African village, while in a companion piece, ‘Other Lives (2)’ the narrator returns to Nairobi from a drive up-country, to step from his apartment block into a “a large ballroom full of white people in expensive clothes”; both of these pieces point up the contradiction in how Westerners view art, particularly what might be termed “world art”.

There is plenty of comedy in these stories, and in fact, the comical elements are often the most disturbing. They come into play particularly when dealing with the absurdity of contemporary life and the infantilisation of culture. In ‘The Wedding’, the ceremony is held on a bouncy castle, and “One of the highlights was Julia’s mother falling over during the exchange of vows”. Another story gives us a childhood idyll, in which the narrator watched each year the spawning of fresh-water fish, turned into a “wildlife hotspot” complete with children’s fish-costumes.

The story ‘The Character’ is an important one in terms of this collection; it investigates notions of freewill and determinism in the voice of someone who could well be a character in another of the stories, aware of, and trying to comprehend, their own fictive nature:

“Though seeming to choose freely, I had apparently been hoodwinked by my own hidden impulses, though to what end I could not determine… I felt as though I were being worked by invisible strings, dancing like a puppet to another’s will, and yet I could not just give myself over to that superior power.”

The style of these stories is generally spare and understated. Where variations occur, it’s when the texts are parodying certain types of discourse. Some of the stories read as pastiche of certain styles, lightly shadowing the originals, including historical narrative and the essay form. The story ‘Theory’ is a pastiche of old-fashioned literary criticism, as is ‘Verne’s Nemesis’ in which a discussion of Verne’s work merges with the theme of identity running all through the book. The story ‘The Library’ seems like a key text in this collection, investigating the relationship between fiction and reality, and the blurred no-mans-land between them. The story ends “The library was there, unlike the past, always available to be rediscovered, reinventing itself continually in the light of fresh associations”; a description which could be applied to the stories in this book.

Although there are elements of dream-psychology in these stories, in general they are less dreamlike than literary; their characters are entangled in a text which reflects their confusion and instability, but which also frames their existence. One speaker says “I was no more than a diffuse presence without definite character”, describing how her “identity was seriously in doubt… Until then I had made little impression on the narrative”.

The book has an epigraph from Kafka, and as well as that major influence, the texts are reminiscent of Borges, Calvino and Beckett. The pieces use a combination of first-person and third person (often referred to only by a Kafkaesque initial) and are by turns funny, poignant and disorientating. Reading them late at night in a period of insomnia can, as I can attest, be a disturbing experience. Which as good a recommendation as any.

Alan Baker 27th July 2021

Spinning To Mars by Meg Pokrass (Blue Light Press)

Spinning To Mars by Meg Pokrass (Blue Light Press)

Meg Pokrass’s Spinning to Mars is a kind of non-linear novella in flash that keeps circling back to romantic relationships that aren’t making it and clearly were never meant to be. Pokrass comes out of a tradition that includes Stewart Dybek, Pamela Painter, and Robert Olen Butler, each of whom are masters of flash fiction and who understand unsatisfying relationships. In Pokrass’s collection, we keep coming back to two people who don’t quite understand each other and don’t really seem to want to but would rather retreat into a world of books and cats.

     Each flash story captures a moment in the life of two people who might or might not be the characters from the previous stories. It is never explicitly stated that this is the same woman often circling back to the same relationship, but we do see patterns repeating again and again. Throughout, it is familiar in that she captures what keeps us from satisfying relationships in our own lives, which is mostly the distance they intentionally keep from each other insuring that they will never understand the other’s life. Pokrass is a master of the novella in flash and uses it to its full purpose. Although each piece is well crafted, because they have been arranged as they are, the statement of the collection is that we ruin our lives in depressing patterns that we never break out of. She seems to be saying that if we had a little critical insight into those patterns, we would be able to find greater meaning in our loves and lives.

     Running through the collection is also a discussion of the awkward ways that people express themselves physically as they move into middle age. In this collection, people let themselves go, stop caring that they are near other people. In “Separation,” a wife is leaving her husband. “After packing your third bag, you find yourself staring at his penis which pokes out the side of his shorts when he lies down” (40). This would seem to be a violation, but there is a friendliness built on this kind of physical intimacy. She is leaving him for a reason, but their bodies have become comfortable. Of his penis, she writes, “It has always been friendly. You’re going to miss it” (46). Awkward bodies and closeness because of that awkwardness flow through this collection. These people have lost their inhibitions as they have entered middle age, and it is comfortable and even nice. This emotion is captured best perhaps in “Classified,” where a woman meets “one of the saddest men on earth”:

    A smile obscured his sadness. His belly poked out of his shirt and he pushed it back with his hand.

    She knelt and smoothed the dog’s ears. The dog had rancid breath and she liked it. (51)

The belly, the rancid breath, and the hand are what matter here. They humanize these characters, make them relatable and likeable. She uses the awkwardness to make them attractive.

     There is a reason that Meg Pokrass’s work is gaining in popularity right now and so many people are reading her. It is powerful and human. Through these flashes that are sometimes only a sentence long, she is able to get down to what is truly human in all of us.

John Brantingham 24th July 2021

Words Become Ashes: An Offering by Cindy Rinne (Bamboo Dart Press)

Words Become Ashes: An Offering by Cindy Rinne (Bamboo Dart Press)

Cindy Rinne’s Words Become Ashes: An Offering is in part a reaction to the pandemic and in part a spiritual guidebook to healing from it. Rinne is a poet and fiber artist who designs clothing and wall hangings among other objects of art. This collection highlights her poetry and fiber art, and both discuss the ways that she has worked through this time of pain. She is a deeply spiritual person whose work seems to be guided by Buddhist philosophy.

One of the ways that Rinne has found strength is through her art, which is an emotional link to those women who have come before her. She writes about the strange phenomenon of natural places being closed. She is cut off from these places that feed her spirit. In “The Forest Is Closed,” she writes of a national park being shut down because of the quarantine, but she imagines a meeting with women who have shaped her:

. . . Underneath the masks

reveal a blond woman floating. My grandmother

I never knew? She crochets a coverlet, a cross,

Shows me other women crafting by hand” (15).

If she cannot have the connection to the forest right now, she does have a connection to the natural world through a history that she continues with her art. In “Dear Flood Plain,” she does find a connection to the natural world by sneaking onto a floodplain where no houses can be built but is still cut off from her. “I arrived when you were called ‘Private Property Keep Out.’ I sneak under the chain and listen to eucalyptus, greet the sunrise over the mountain and take three deep breaths as my arms reach above my head” (19). In this passage, she is giving us one way through the pandemic and life’s problems generally, and that is a connection to the natural world.

     Rinne also writes about turning everyday activities into a meditation that brings healing and calm. She writes, “Night cream, vitamins, lavender oil, and brush teeth. Then stretch my back across a large exercise ball. . . Stretch and bow before ceramic Buddha with thoughts of thankfulness for another day. Blow out candles. Smoke drifts to ceiling leaving lines like spider webs. Read about a small shoreline bird. Lights out” (43). In this poem and others like it, we are given an insight into how she turns chores into ritual meditation that works for her. She is not exhorting us to follow what she does. She is simply allowing us into her life to show what works for her. It is up to us if we want to do something similar.

     Words Become Ashes: An Offering is as its title suggests a kind of prayer in and of itself. These are words meant to move the spirit, and for me they do. They offer hope in a time that has been so bleak for me.

John Brantingham 23rd July 2021

The Underground Cabaret by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

The Underground Cabaret by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

The ‘small square of blocks of prose presented as poetry’, as Ian Seed once defined prose poems, is deftly crafted in this collection, which is the final volume of a quartet, following New York HotelIdentity Papers and Makers of Empty Dreams. The stories, or, more accurately, fragments of stories, are tight, sharp and fascinating in their essentiality, revealing a surreal perspective that exists at the verge of absurdity, an upside-down world that is real and unreal at the same time. As in surrealist thought, so-called tangible reality is considered artificial, and, in opposition to that, the world of dreams, or nightmares, becomes the ‘real’ world. It is a subversive perspective that challenges and questions not only our certainties but also our perceptions. The detailed descriptions present in Seed’s prose poems set his pieces in a credible environment that is nevertheless reverted and subverted in each prose poem. It is a play of mirrors where characters and images are always shifting and suggest different meanings or no meaning at all. This conveys a sense of deep uncertainty but also great freedom of thought and movement. Repetitive patterns give consistency to this collection in a relentless exploration of themes such as loneliness, isolation, loss of identity, absence of passion and alienation; they emerge from everyday life and obsess the protagonist.

We found what looked like a piece of light, unmoving, frozen in the shape of a human being. We were afraid to touch it – it looked cold enough to burn us. What would happen if we could unfreeze it? Would it melt and vanish, or would it keep its shape and come alive? Could we take it away with us? Would it make any difference to how we lived, or loved, one way or another? (‘In the Empty House’)

     Some settings recur, such as second-hand bookshops, tunnels, corridors, beds, cafés and different cities located in Italy, France and England where Seed has travelled and lived. They are claustrophobic environments where the protagonist feels lost, haunted by his visions, and diminished and ignored by his friends and family. People who are commonly considered vulnerable, such as elderly people, migrants, homeless people and orphans, are sometimes depicted, with deliberate irony, as threatening; they invade his space and he flees from them. The poet’s inner self observes this comedy of life of sorts and is detached and estranged; he strays from the main focus of his stories and is eventually distracted by marginal details that derange the apparent logic of the discourse. Thus, the stories are unresolved and each ending often contradicts the beginning in an exploration that seems to be triggered by pure curiosity for its own sake. As Baudelaire claims in the introduction of Paris Spleen, prose poems have ‘neither head nor tail, since, on the contrary, it is all alternately and reciprocally head and tail’. He adds that prose poems communicate a reverie in a ‘poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple and choppy enough to accommodate the lyrical movement of the soul’. Seed also refers to the prose poems of Kenneth Patchen (Love and War Poems, published in 1968) he read in his youth as well as to William Blake, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy and Jeremy Over. In his essay ‘Discovery and Rediscovery (published in Fortnightly Review on 19 October 2018), Seed remarks how much he admires the lyricism of the language of the prose poem that contrasts with the objectivity of the description. According to him, this greatly enforces the message and highlights a subversive side out of academic and commercial worlds. This strategy attracted his imagination to the point of inspiring him to write in new ways after two decades of silence and to publish his work eventually. Seed’s work is not only in line with the tradition of the prose poems of Baudelaire and those written by recent authors but he also incorporates unusual elements, uncanny views that involve the protagonist. He withdraws when life attempts to grip him, when nothing makes a difference and mud and gold might be interchangeable. Therefore, the inadequacy of the protagonist, who often slips and falls when he is near the goal, seems quite intentional, a way of ‘making fun of the authorities’ and so avoiding being involved in what is considered a meaningless game. This opens up the poems to different views and boundless freedom that are always in dialogue with who we imagine we are and who we would like to be.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 21st July 2021

Weep Hole by Mai Ivfjäll (Sad Press)

Weep Hole by Mai Ivfjäll (Sad Press)

Mai Ivfjäll’s poetry shares the quality of symbolic elusiveness with that of William Blake whose motifs are significant in Weep Hole. Tantalising hints throughout the pamphlet invite the reader to explore a world of mysticism and ancient magic as well as the retro future of a fifth element and a divine language.

‘Suspended Not Suspended’ is written from the perspective of Blake’s ‘Sick Rose’ where the secret, invisible worm is its own self-destructive love. Time, in Mai Ivfjäll’s poem, unravels self like the thread of a hem. Here there is ‘no health’ but ‘only living     my sick sick rose’. There are sonnets in Weep Hole, part of a sequence called ‘Sick Sonnets’ which the author has described in an interview with Paul Cunningham of Action Books, as a ‘kind of love letter to the obliteration of self (and attunement to the present moment) that happens in the throes of chronic sickness.’

Sickness, certainly, and pain ‘is a psalm that sings your body is a bivouac’. (‘Glossolalia’). The poems begin with the line ‘the bees are dying – can you feel it?’ and the end of the collection is insistent: ‘the bees are dying the bees are dying’. The book itself is titled Weep Hole – an opening at the bottom of a structure which allows water to drain away. A small opening, a small weeping where ‘healing is an endless emptying’. (Poembody).  In the same poem the author poses the question ‘who wrote the list of the saddest words in the English language/on dictionary.com?’

But it is these words, this focus on the joy of language that most interests me in Weep Hole. In the same interview mentioned earlier Mai Ivfjäll describes how her sonnets may look traditional but inside are a mess ‘gorging on language’. Her poems overflow with sonic richness. ‘I liked the way the sounds tasted in my mouth,’ she says, ‘and wanted others to experience that pleasure.’ 

‘Make Me An Instrument’ offers fine examples of this gorging. One line plays with the sound of words: ‘I am lamb bait a baited lamb a lamented/bam’ while this word chain is perfect in its assonance: ‘noon moon moan koan loan lean/ mean meal meat met wet/let lit i’. What could be a better example of the joy to be found in linguistics than ‘Keening’?

            slime gifs

            are prayer psalms of goo

                                           asmr

            devotional gulp   oozing

holiness        as collapse

The first poem in the book is titled ‘Glossolalia’ and this intriguing word seems to me to be a central motif with its definitions that suggest fluid echoes of speech-like syllables that lack any readily understandable meaning, sounds that predate and supersede human speech, a sense of something transcendent and pentecostal, a language that is divine and mystical. References to books and films enhance ancient mysteries – the narrator slips ‘in and out of time’, one moment as Billy Pilgrim from Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-war sci-fi book ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’, the next as Leelo from Luc Besson’s ‘The Fifth Element’ – Leelo who by ‘googling a new vocabulary’ and by injecting herself with the quintessence of ether becomes the element itself that alone can defeat a cosmic evil force, can save the planet Earth.

Are we ‘empty vessels or/cosmic bodies’ asks Mai Ivfjäll in ‘S(ub)lime’.In ‘Everywhere Disappeared’ she gives herself a possible answer, disclosing ‘strange fruit    of a strange fire/my secret alphabet’. In ‘Preliminary (Im)materials’ she may ‘caw and claw/and coo I am dead’ but then, in the remarkable poem ‘A Slow Rapture’ she gives us this:

            wet

            magnolia trees

            drip

            memory    haunted

            after-rain baptismal’.

Mandy Pannett 12th July 2021

2021 Tears in the Fence Festival

2021 Tears in the Fence Festival

We are delighted to be able to announce that we will be holding the Tears in the Fence Festival Digging Deeper: Roots and Remains on 2nd to 5th September 2021 via Zoom and at the Stourpaine Village Hall, Stourpaine, Blandford Forum, Dorset DT11 8TA.

Amongst our featured readers and speakers will be Sascha Akhtar, Rae Armantrout, Elisabeth Bletsoe, Vahni Capildeo, Abigail Chabitnoy, Simon Collings, Emily Critchley, Melisande Fitzsimons, John Freeman, Alan Halsey, Jeremy Hilton, Fawzia Kane, Luke Kennard, Geraldine Monk, Mandy Pannett, Maurice Scully, Harriet Tarlo, Carol Watts, Sarah Watkinson.

There will be a celebration of the poetry of Rae Armantrout and Carol Watts. There will be open reading sessions, music, videos, talks, discussion, book signings and Festival bookstall. Amongst the open readers will be Lesley Burt, Paul Matthews, Aidan Semmens, et al.

Festival bursaries are available.

More details at http://www.tearsinthefence.com/festival.

Jack the Stripper by Paul Sutton (Knives Forks and Spoons Press)

Jack the Stripper by Paul Sutton (Knives Forks and Spoons Press)

Paul Sutton, perhaps somewhat of a cult figure in contemporary poetry, is approaching his sixties. His first collection Broadsheet Asphyxia was published eighteen years ago around the time he abandoned working in contract negotiations for offshore gas fields. Since then he has published six collections and a plethora of pamphlets, while teaching English in secondary schools, a job he finds creatively stimulating:  

the joys, rages and stresses are exactly the spurs needed for writing. And the insight gained is revealing; of how dull and pointless most ‘mainstream’ poetry seems, to those who don’t have to feign interest.[1]

Sutton is no doubt a little proud of his outsider status, relishing opportunities to decry political and poetical conformism in what he conceives as the ‘mainstream’. His favourite subjects for poems are “decay, violence, crime, gentrification, authenticity, serial killers, humiliation…[2]” so it seems a natural move for his latest offering to be a pamphlet punning on one of Britain’s most notorious murderers. Sutton’s macabre fascination with Jack the Ripper lasts for just the first two poems: ‘Prologue’ and ‘a Man in Acton Wearing a Trilby’, both alluring and unsettling affairs, though the theme of murder does resurface in the pamphlet’s twenty poems.

Outside of Roy Fisher’s city centred writing, Sutton’s biggest influence may well be Larkin, their similarities shine not just in mutual dispensation for ironic humour and poetry of place, moreover they have a pronounced talent for metrical sophistication, a scrutiny paid to the rhythm and beat of syllables and sonants, something of a lost art in contemporary poetry. Sutton’s poem ‘Under Gas’ starts beautifully:

My grandfather’s book on meteorology

starts gently, with him reminding us:

‘We live under a sea of gas.’

‘gently’ picks up the last syllable of ‘meteorology’ before leaning into the mesmerising image of a hazy world ‘under a sea of gas’. Sutton can be a poet of such delicacy, as technically gifted as any of his contemporaries, even the ‘mainstream’ figures he despises. Another particularly mellifluous moment comes in the opening to ‘Mud and Sun’:

Sudden sunlight hits the road

as you drive past what you’ve known –

seen in the rear-view  then gone

the juxtaposition of moving on from the past, physically and emotionally, floats out along the dashes and the repeated, clashing o sounds of ‘known’ and ‘gone’. However while the aforementioned ‘Under Gas’ has a clear focal point for its drooping nostalgia (the memory of Sutton’s grandfather), the nostalgia evoked in ‘Mud and Sun’ lacks directness, the poem features a mystical yearning for a forgotten place. Martin Stannard locates this in his blurb as a ‘sense of loss (but loss of what?) in contemporary Britain.’ The subject matter ties Sutton to Larkin once more while also harking back to the Georgian school, but it is also a point of departure for me. I simply don’t believe in what Sutton is mythologising, his idyllic visions of a lost Britain seem to my eyes constructs about as real as Neverland in Peter Pan, or C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. In ‘Mud and Sun’ Sutton’s craft is sublime but his sentiment misses the mark.

Jack the Stripper also features a ripping pastiche of Arthur Conan Doyle. ‘The Mystery of Skidmore Hall’ is rude, puerile and seriously funny, while also demonstrating Sutton’s fine hand for prose. Could it be time for a collection of Sutton’s Sherlock Holmes sagas? I think so. His sharp tongue and acid sense of humour are well suited to satire plus he knows the shimmies and feints of Conan Doyle’s as well as any writer. ‘The Mystery of Skidmore Hall’ is then a highlight of an original, often disarming, addition to the Sutton catalogue. 

Charlie Baylis 8th July 2021


[1]    https://thewombwellrainbow.com/2019/01/26/wombwell-rainbow-interviews-paul-sutton/ [accessed 5/6/21]

[2]    https://thewombwellrainbow.com/2019/01/26/wombwell-rainbow-interviews-paul-sutton/ [accessed 5/6/21]

Parallel Movement of the Hands by John Ashbery (Carcanet Press)

Parallel Movement of the Hands by John Ashbery (Carcanet Press)

This, first off, is a work of posthumous reconstruction of five coherent but unfinished pieces at various levels of progression that Ashbery’s assistant of some years Emily Skillings managed to put together. So we are lacking the author’s intended ideas for book length presentation of these works.

I think however we do get quite a strong sense of the poet’s voice here, albeit that any narrative elements might be in a stage of incompletion. Ashbery of course is renowned as a key member of the core New York school along with Frank O’Hara, whose career was cut short, James Schuyler, with whom Ashbery wrote A Nest of Ninnies, and Kenneth Koch. He completed a large number of French translations, and was many years involved in art criticism. 

The design of the book has a certain logic to it, wherein probably the most substantive pieces start and conclude it, so that we begin with the long six part poem ‘The History of Photography’, which, Ashbery being Ashbery, isn’t entirely about photography.

It is worth citing briefly Skilling’s epigraph, which includes the expression by Ashbery that ‘we can dream safely in our environment because art has set soft, invisible limits to it.’ (pxv, p169). This doubtless helped Ashbery’s will to experimentation and unorthodoxy, but I think this kind of ‘invisible safety’ is a mite questionable.

When Ashbery is in full flow he seems to come up with long fluent lines, unlike the briskly lean variety of O’Hara. He could not be described as a formalist; and there are occasional noticings of disjunction as well as surrealist touches.

‘Photography’ in its 6 parts takes a little while to warm up, but by the third section I’d say we’re arriving at something approaching Ashbery’s typical voice. Here we find

                                                                        ‘What I buy

                        I pass around; all are unbidden to this feast

                        of the every-day, so I can hear its

                        partial music just as a bird sings

                        out of reach, within the edge of a forest.’ (p16) 

This sounds almost Whitmanesque. But Ashbery’s poetry is of a more terse, frisky variety, no doubt also more cerebral, rather less Falstaffian. 

Emily Skillings’ very insightful introduction offers a very useful commentary on these pieces. So that if Ashbery takes something from Whitman, there are also smatterings of perhaps Auden too. The departure from Whitman may be owing to what Skillings identifies as his interest and leaning toward not so much hesitation as tentativeness, a certain thinking on one’s feet. This she cites from some of Ashbery’s art criticism. So we have Ashbery saying,-

‘The artists of the world can be divided into two groups: those who organize and premeditate, and those who accept the tentative, the whatever-happens-along. And though neither method is inherently superior…I probably prefer more works of art that fall in the latter category.’ (cited pxlii)

This is possibly part too of what makes Ashbery’s work so American and New York school.

For all his flowing lines nonetheless I sense Ashbery as a writer much in control of his material. There are for instance line endings that are curt and contained rather than flowing on, a fairly sure footed quality with that sense that he knows what he is about. Nonetheless the first person singular is much absent, and there is never anything resembling Lowell or confessionalism. Ashbery has indeed sometimes been proposed as a precursor of the rather objectified Language school. And that is much part of his extraordinary originality, in the sense that this strange mix of styles we get from him is peculiarly much his own. 

But there are limits to this. Ashbery does, agreed, seem to be language driven, and in that sense the experiential roots of his poetry are rather muted. At the same time he’s always been very conscious of pictorial models.

Another writer Ashbery resembles to an extent is Wallace Stevens, and in his more relaxed modes there do seem points of comparison there. Because Ashbery can convince himself of ‘invisible safety’ he is content to lay down his guard here and there, which no doubt is how we get books of poetry with such titles as Houseboat Days or The Tennis Court Oath. Ashbery’s undeniable seriousness is not at all heavy handed and he plainly enjoys following the play of the language.

This playfulness or even ‘softness’ of an amount of Ashbery’s writing may either engage or not; were he a South American he leans much closer to a Neruda than a Vallejo, though with a much more restrained quality of intimacy. Skillings appropriately dedicates this volume to Ashbery’s long term partner David Kermani. As Ashbery concludes ‘The Art of Finger Dexterity’, ‘Thereafter/ foils drooped./ That’s what I thought he said,/ trespassing.// It won’t be entirely winter.’ (p80) which reminds me among other things of the title of that Stevens’ collection Transport to Summer. Not quite a case of ‘poetry doesn’t change anything’ as with Auden, but there perhaps is not a developed sense of political or social consciousness here, though perhaps we do not expect that of poetry. If unlike Lowell, certainly unlike a Ginsberg besides. But that said this poetry is highly original and does plough its own furrow quite to effect.

Clark Allison 7th July 2021

Then by Linda Black (Shearsman Books)

Then by Linda Black (Shearsman Books)

Describing her first collection, Inventory (2008), Linda Black drew a parallel between her writing style and her approach to etching. ‘As a visual artist (and art teacher),’ she said, ‘my process was to begin without a preconceived idea—to approach a blank sheet, or etching plate, by merely making a mark, with as it were a blank mind, to delight in the not knowing, the exploration, the opening up of possibilities.’ A matching openness to where words might lead characterised that first collection, and has been a hallmark of her poetry ever since. With each new volume, her writing seems to take more risks, the most recent book, Then, continuing this trajectory.

Memories, domestic objects, children’s games, fairytales, and the doubtful wisdom of common sayings are all grist to Black’s process. Word associations, puns, rhymes and alliterations are allowed to lead, the poem discovering itself as it goes along. ‘Call my refrain     a form/of recitation …….  my favourite/polyphony’ she writes in ‘The thrum   string   strain’. 

There are echoes of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons in some of the poems, for example in phrases like: ‘Suppose it is done and frequent as the moth’, ‘stuck lift/when there is kindness/a solid spoon’, and ‘Concerning cutlery were canteens.’ Like Stein, Black often focuses on the domestic: clothing, food, washing, household items. One section of Then, called ‘Frippery…’, groups poems about dress, including the delightful ‘What she is wearing today she may not have’. The second paragraph reads:

Slipped on the shoe. Many laced and pin-tucked as featured. Browse for the time being. Snag a caught loop on a chain. There are many ways to travail for example on the slide without a care. Never having driven nor for that matter the length of a thread. Forewarned is to dangle, toes tapping.

Travailing ‘on the slide’ might be a description of Black’s own work method. Anna Reckin speaks to this in her back-cover endorsement of Then:  

Words ‘collude / allude’, slip over each other, with many near-misses. They lean into one another, threaten connection, narrowly miss and ricochet in another direction. Allusions are so nearly (neatly-delightfully) pinned down, are always on the verge of escaping.

In the book’s next section, ‘The un-envisaged…’, we find poems reference eating and the kitchen. ‘A smidgen’ makes extensive use of typographical devices in its witty celebration of gluttony. The poem begins:

          Of fudge   a…

screa m  of carrion   fat-lipped   drained

          of FANCY    a st0rm

in a st0mach   walls   str-e-e-e-tch

          churn   regurgitate   just a   little

     bit  MORE  salvation: latkes   tzimmus

(Latkes are potato pancakes, and tzimmus presumably refers to tzimmes, a kind of stew of vegetables and dried fruit.) 

Another poem of note, which comes in the final section, is ‘A Causeway Runneling Between Two Lands Either Side of a Parting’, a long prose piece which riffs on the tropes of Medieval Romance literature. Fortunate is kind of a knight errant, a ‘traveller’ who knows well ‘in which direction lies pleasure & fervour, rest & a full stomach.’ ‘Tralalee, tralalee,’ he sings, ‘this is my domain.’ 

But Fortunate’s sense of entitlement is challenged later in the poem by a mocking authorial voice. ‘Sort yourself out!’ it admonishes. ‘The world is not a shellfish!’ ‘The water is furring, the air is hardening, a storm is nigh,’ the voice warns. ‘Fuel is eating the planet. To go by foot is honourable. When it comes to tomorrow: Then!’ 

The collection includes several grid poem, some of them reading like skipping rhymes. I particularly like ‘Lark’, the title capturing the poem’s ludic approach:

Folly me dandy                          Follow me rare

Up from the broad room            Down for repair

Clopped in the cow-pat             Snapped in the snare

Glandular fever                          Dip snip & dare

Influence effluence                    Stock still & stare

Safety-pin paraffin                     Polish & swear

Pickle & candy                           Cauliflower pear

As well as engaging in this kind of childlike play, Black’s poetry can also address more personal and difficult subjects. A section near the beginning of the book, ‘Misdemeanour’, includes poems about Black’s deceased parents, the mood here far more sombre. In ‘Mother’ she writes of a parent about whom she clearly has conflicted feelings, a mother ‘with the perfect/script’, a ‘quite comfortable/off mother  fed/to the teeth’, a ‘flat iron mother/about faced’. 

In ‘He lay down…’ she compares her aging father to a ‘dormant parasol […]/its skirts/declined   limp  all life/gone out of them’. The final poem of this section, ‘I like’, says of her father’s death: 

if it was up to me

I’d deem you well

alive and well

and sitting opposite

There is a great deal of variety in this engaging collection, both in form and theme. Black’s playful, quizzical, at times elusive poetry is well worth getting to know if you’re not already familiar with it.

Simon Collings 27th June 2021

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