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The Fire of Joy edited by Clive James (Picador Poetry)

The Fire of Joy edited by Clive James (Picador Poetry)

This is presented as an anthology of poems, some 84, arranged chronologically, with extensive commentary, seen as suitable for memorising or reading aloud, in that sense a bit like Ted Hughes’ By Heart collection, although the Hughes is neither chronological nor offers comment on the poems. James variously and perhaps surprisingly eloquently gives about four or five paragraphs to each poem. This struck me as very refreshing. The book was indeed put together just after James’ death in 2019, and it is a most unusual effort. But I think we get out of it not just those often perceptive insights but a curious assortment of pickings from English literature from the metaphysics of the Renaissance on.

There are two forces of fascination, then;- the choice of poems, and of course how memorable they are, along with the commentary. James might be seemed to some as an Aussie philistine, and he is unafraid of voicing some strong opinions. We might remember that his unfinished doctoral dissertation was to be on the influence of Dante on Shelley, would that there were such. James himself undertook a translation of The Divine Comedy. This is the same man who was Observer TV critic for about 10 years, and was suitably telegenic, eg in his TV series on fame. 

The choice of poems is suitably expansive. A few little known names appear, some Australian, but other than that it makes for an interesting primer on the course of English poetry; this might also be got of course via such other anthologies as The Rattle Bag, though that has a rather scatter shot arrangement.

The book is just a little too long to digest in one sitting. Among the metaphysics we get Donne, Herrick and Herbert. Milton is represented but not Dryden; there is besides a Shakespeare sonnet (‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame’). There is reasonably full coverage of the Romantics. James notes the considerable impetus of Keats’ poetry toward higher things, had he longer stayed the course.

When we get to near contemporary poetry, Hughes (‘Pike’) and Heaney are here along with Plath, whom he does appear to take relatively seriously (‘Cut’). But we also find catholically represented Dylan Thomas, Larkin, Donald Davie and Kingsley Amis. Still perhaps what we might call the British Poetry Revival does not figure here greatly. 

James manages to turn a relatively fresh ear to many of these writers, though the choices at times can seem a little quirky, ie why that particular Shakespeare sonnet for instance, from such a range of choice.

What does one come away with? This is actually a fairly short, concise anthology; very often there is the attempt to spread the net wider. But James has put his imprint on it, in a way we have found from previous anthologies such as those of Yeats and Larkin, not to mention the current Ricks.

Not everyone is likely to be disposed to the emphasis on commentary, which is fully half the book, and of course this is somewhere Hughes didn’t go. Some anthologies such as that of Keith Tuma provide extensive prefatory matter; quite often we get merely the poems.

One could cobble out, piece together a kind of argument about where James sees poetry going. He says of Plath and Hughes, ‘Although the towering Hughes raided the whole of history and all cultures for his ideas, she was the one with the poetic scope’. (p251) He accords Heaney high praise,- ‘when he spoke he made hundreds of years of troubled history seem at least a touch more bearable’ (p268). He also attends to Walcott, but not Brathwaite, ‘Walcott had more talent than anyone knew what to do with’ (p270). As the cited Walcott poem concludes, ‘Sea Grapes’,- ‘The classics can console. But not enough.’ In terms of direction, this strain of influences will doubtless continue to work on through.

The choice of poems is decidedly idiosyncratic. James does not go for some of the major targets, eg for Eliot we get ‘La Figlia Che Piange’, though with Pound it is the now familiar couplet ‘In a Station of the Metro’. Of Pound’s flirtation with fascism, James offers,- ‘Pound himself was very slow to deduce that the Dream was a farcical nightmare’ (p107). Olson, who took so much from Pound, isn’t here, but John Berryman is. To Davie James attributes a ‘misplaced admiration for the mind of Ezra Pound’ (p213) though we still have canonical works like Kenner’s The Pound Era to contend with.

I think the book actually has a pretty good take on Anglophone poetry, even if it could hardly be termed radical. One can only wonder what Hughes might have done had he scope to comment on the poems in By Heart. What I come back to is that the whole scope of the book is quite refreshing, and maybe Clive James could get away with it because it was a posthumous, albeit somewhat impassioned exercise. I find it too as helpful in the effort to get a grip of the development of English poetry. Whilst some here are overlooked, there is too much of quite certain relevance here to make it much more than a personal indulgence; James deferral to poetic affinity is too strong to invite dismissal. 

Clark Allison 19th October 2021

Within the Inscribed: Selected Prose and Conversations by Michael Heller (Shearsman Books)

Within the Inscribed: Selected Prose and Conversations by Michael Heller (Shearsman Books)

This is, it must be said, a deeply intelligent and thoughtful book, of what are interviews and essays. This comes very late for Michael Heller (b1937) who has already behind him a copious collected poems This Constellation is a Name and a number of significant prose volumes, including a much admired study of the Objectivist poets Conviction’s Net of Branches (1985)This comes some years after a significant volume from Salt, Uncertain Poetries (2005). There are insights to be gleaned here not only on Heller’s writing but on poetics and practice more generally.

A full appreciation of what is going on here might very well spur further essays. So in that sense this short review is bound to seem a little superficial. The book is in three parts, one more general, one geared to specific readings and a concluding ‘Coda’ of just three articles. 

It is doubtless relevant and pertinent to note that Heller’s predominant influences have been George Oppen and Walter Benjamin, with whose work he has sustained a lasting relation (p117) and there was an Oppen correspondence. The book, regrettably, has no index but there is a bibliography of works cited, some six pages.

There is almost an unspelled out theory of poetic composition here, almost an ars poetica, but it is not stressed or emphasised, and we have reference to such notions as revelation and clarity, as well as the void, which language might ‘cover’ with some nods to Heidegger, in ‘revealments and concealments’ (p189). This is plainly not far from the notion of authenticity if not exactness. There is also Heller’s late encounter with Buddhism, something he shares for instance with Ginsberg. The notion of ‘now time’ is also picked up from Benjamin.

The book itself has a wonderfully perplexing epigraph from critic Geoffrey Hartman,- ‘the sacred has so inscribed itself in language that while it must be interpreted, it cannot be removed’. This suggests of course that interpretation can be a kind of usurpation or adaptation. Yet this intrinsic core of the sacred remains, although Heller, to his credit, does not harp on about this.

So in that sense, the first part is about poetics generally, and the second offers specific readings, of Oppen, another leading Objectivist Reznikoff, HD (her ‘Helen in Egypt’), Robert Duncan and Norman Finkelstein. Memorably Duncan asserts that he is waging poetry, not war. There does seem also to be an awareness of Harold Bloom’s notion of the literary agon. For Heller his engagement with Oppen seems to have been quite critical. Heller’s implication in secular Judaism cannot equally be discounted. 

For better or worse, Heller’s main engagement has been with the Objectivists and of course also Benjamin. He writes insightfully also about Pound and HD. Olson is mentioned only briefly, and there is certainly an awareness of Whitman as well as Ginsberg. Also the Oppen connection in which Heller was imbricated was personal. Heller may be very interested in the methodology of poetry but he is not trying particularly to sketch out any larger historical development.

Poetry as Heller asserts is ‘an articulation of that which was inarticulate’ (p45). He then discusses the ‘desanctification’ of Whitman and how this must be ‘re-examined in the light of present circumstances’, before going on to discuss some Buddhist possible extrapolations, whose foremost exponent might be Ginsberg. Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, might be seen to be reaching out to the West, in a way for instance that Hinduism does not.

And there is more besides;- Heller is very aware of Judaic thought for instance, and how this must relate to contemporary poetics. He speaks of a tendency to ‘turn the Torah of Israel from a source of authority to a source for inspiration’ (p59), of converting Law into lore. One might cover ‘the underlying void and expose it at the same time’ (p61). This he says leads to Oppen’s ‘speaking the estranged’. (p62) Citing the poet Bialik he asserts ‘between concealments, the void looms’ (p64); and he continues that ‘between a perfunctory use of language and a language of the mysteries’ ‘are at the heart of the sacred text’ (p65). 

There is an interesting engagement with Leiris, where we find commentary on ‘the refusals of the confessional writer to indulge’ in a more palatable artifice (p73), described in terms of ‘adherence to the rules of the game’. And, actually this is a signal characteristic of Oppen and the Objectivists that they tend to be disinclined towards confessionalism, introspection and subjectivity which are then bound up with purported solipsism or narcissism. 

Given that, the presentation of lyricism here is penetrating and thorough, as well as effectively honed. There is of course nary a hint of Lowell, say, and one feels that this is a work of communal engagement, not the solitary or personal insight. Given that, the sophistication of argument is high, and just about all the poets cited well worth the attention and effort. I would maintain then that this is criticism and comment of a high degree. But of course Heller is not discussing the ‘New Americans’ but the ‘Objectivists’ and their legacy. Yet given this process of constraint there is much here to stir a quite delving creative interest if not some soul searching.  

Clark Allison 10th October 2021

Forms of Exile: Selected Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva Translated by Belinda Cooke (The High Window Press)

Forms of Exile: Selected Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva Translated by Belinda Cooke (The High Window Press)

Marina Tsvetaeva is one of those poets whose biography (privilege, revolution, poverty, exile, return, suicide) tends to generate more word-count than their work. Presumably that’s not merely because of her life’s drama and passion, and because the distance between the lived and written personae appears so small, but because the work is so difficult. Nonetheless, translators do love a challenge and there are nowadays plenty of options in English – Feinstein, Alvi/Krasnova, White, Whyte, Naydam/Yastremski, Kneller, Kossman, McDuff, just for starters – giving us Tsvetaeva’s who are fatalist, formalist, bourgeois, Orthodox, faithless, feminist, tsarist, unstable, ironic, bisexual, cool, or all of these. As for this book, most of the translations in its second half – from After Russia and the Thirties – are already available in Belinda Cooke’s praised 2008 selection from Worple Press with only minor amendments here. (And many of those look like typos, of which this book has rather a few.) The new ones come from 1917-8 and the early Twenties. This means we get less of the joyously passionate Tsvetaeva and more of the grief, anger and despair:

O, from the open drop

to fall below – to become dust and jet-black.

This Tsvetaeva often has a contemporary demotic feel (‘I’ve had it with obsessing’), though she can equally (‘That which is called death’) be grammatically traditionalist. Like most of her anglophone incarnations, she’s cut down on the abundant exclamation marks, so that for example, ‘– увы!’ (lit: alas!) becomes the much more English ‘Sadly, […]’. Some insistent anaphora is also softened, lines are occasionally moved about, and there’s no attempt to imitate the original’s rhyme-schemes. Visually, these versions (mostly) preserve stanza-lengths and indentations but indulge greater variance in the line-lengths. They also keep many of the dashes and ellipses attendant on Tsvetaeva’s compulsive aposiopesis, but don’t fetishize doing so; so that this, for instance (to a now far-distant Pasternak):

Не рассорили — рассорили,
Расслоили…

(lit: not fallen out — fallen out,/ stratified…)

becomes

they didn’t make us quarrel 

  but they dropped us like litter,

they lay us apart, put us in separate layers of cake,

The repeated ‘they’s replace the original ‘ras-’ head-rhymes. The liquids and sibilants are reordered but still detectable. And the translation explicates (or interprets) the concisions, albeit at some length. As a good Modernist, Tsvetaeva gives the underinformed reader no quarter, so it’s similarly useful to have, for instance, ‘the Twelve Apostles’ glossed as ‘Prague’s/ […] clock of the Twelve Apostles’. Often, however, the sonics are quite untranslatable. ‘Poem of the Mountain’ relies on the ‘gor-’ head-rhymes in the Russian words for ‘mountain’ and ‘grief’/’grieved’, and subsequently for ‘city’, ‘hump’, ‘spoke’, ‘Gordian knot’ and so on, so that the speaker like a weighed-down Atlas keeps emitting ‘gor’s as groan-sounds themselves. Feinstein tried ‘the mountain mourned’, but are those ‘m’s just too soothing a noise? Cooke, whether sensibly or despairingly, just doesn’t go there. 

Plenty remains, in whatever event, for the British reader to enjoy (or ‘enjoy’). This is a book packed with love and death, Classical and Biblical allusion, poems about how important poets are (we all like those), monologues on the model of the Heroides, lips, sin, the ‘milky call’ of the Russian language, ‘roses of blood’, ‘God in a brothel’ and ‘this most fairytale of orphanhoods’. What more do we ask of the world’s famous poets?

Guy Russell 8th October 2021

Kelptown by Carol Watts (Shearsman Books)

Kelptown by Carol Watts (Shearsman Books)

Kemptown in Brighton is the point of departure for Kelptown, in which Carol Watts studies and investigates the effects of what we have lost because of global warming, a change in climate conditions and the consequent lack of connections with nature. The language of the poems has a fragmented quality that is emphasised by deliberately hallucinatory links that express the dire situation we are experiencing today. The picture of the spinach leaf with beating blood cells on the cover of the book symbolises this connection between human and nature that should be re-established to revitalise our world in a more hopeful vision.

     The collection is divided into four parts that trace a journey from observation and witnessing and apocalyptic descriptions of a world drowning in rising tides and burning forest fires to possible alternatives of ‘DeExtinction’ and community projects. This is not only a way to take care of the environment but also a practice that merges human and natural worlds in an empathy that might guarantee life to future generations. This serious vision needs urgent solutions, as Greta Thunberg remarks in her speeches collected in her book, No One is Too Small to Make a Difference. We seem to be blind to nature, and putting it first again might be the solution to environmental threats, as botanists and biology educators such as Susanna Grant, James Wandersee, Elisabeth Schussler and Dennis Martinez state. The relationship with nature that the poet describes aims for the level of equality that existed in the primordial indigenous world. As Rachel Carson observes in Man’s War Against Nature, published in 1962, the idyllic fruitful countryside suddenly changed: ‘mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens, and the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was the shadow of death.’ What Carson described in her book were the effects of chemical pollution, but a more lasting and durable process is exposed and explored in Watts’s poems. Since the 1960s the situation involving global warming, sea and air pollution and the waste production of the so-called civilised world has grown and worsened, causing the opposing calamities of floods and fires.

     In Watts’s poems, death looms; it ‘crowns this day […] catastrophes approach’ and are out of our control. Loss is at the heart of this situation and we need to re-enter our community and accept mutations to envisage possible alternatives:

ghost pulse    miniature scale

warning glitch    grief penumbra

airborne    a dream of fireflies

lost to colder climates

extinguishings at dusk    ash lit

border crossing    nocturnal

(‘Disappearances’)

     The fragmented discourses of Watts’s lines emphasise this absence, a loss we need to bridge to reach the DeExtinction she analyses in the last section of the collection. Her poems are in various forms and include personal artwork (for example, T.R.E.E., Total Rare Earth Elements) such as sketches, photos and responses to music, such as ‘Life Scores’, which was created in collaboration with the composer Dave Maric. 

This enriching collection has a complex, wide range of references that also include writers such as Emily Dickinson, Ovid, Pablo Neruda, William Blake and Andrew Marvell, and yet it addresses the major issues of today’s society in a simple way. The poet suggests that this time of loss can be a time of witnessing and exploration, an opportunity to search for and reach the essence of our being. The different moments are caught and described in their shifting temporality, in their minimal simplicity; they form revitalised life in the kelp forest that, like a reef, protects our shores, or in the rocks, trees, wildflowers and plants thriving in the countryside. The ‘ants, toiling butterflies, pollen rising in clouds’ confirm how nature renews relentlessly, that ‘No one dies out, but they enter community’, a statement that confirms a presence despite the loss.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 7th October 2021

Cut Flowers by Harriet Tarlo (Guillemot Press)

Cut Flowers by Harriet Tarlo (Guillemot Press)

The enthralling collection Cut Flowers by Harriet Tarlo cleverly combines form and content in hybrid structures in which the horizontal lines intersect with a vertical reading. This form allows different possibilities that coexist at physical and conceptual levels. The poems are also beautifully illustrated by Chloe Bonfield, though they were not created in collaboration with the artist. In her previous works, Tarlo collaborated with many artists. For example, in the exhibition ‘A Fine Day for Seeing’ at Southwark Park Galleries she worked with Judith Tucker in reference to the artwork ‘Dark marsh: silvered out’ (2021) in relation to her poem ‘Winter Saltwort’. The illustrations in this collection strongly express the essentiality of the writings, whose style is a minimalist one:

cut flowers why would they when

it came to it         lasting longer

long days             before dawn sees

a fair light            crows & robins upright

on the wall           look out, learn to travel in

deep time             blood fish & bone, find

new ventures        prepare, parse, prey for

vegetables

The poem can be read horizontally and the part on the left vertically as well, which is reminiscent of a mesostic or of a wordplay. This form gives the lyric a structure that is both open and closed that is reflected in the illustrations too. In fact, some of the pictures have geometrical closed shapes with grids and dots of sorts symbolising flower shapes, while others are delicately sketched minerals or barely traced wall structures that are open to multiple interpretations by the viewer.

The collection is divided into four parts, each featuring one of the four seasons, though this division is not especially strict. The sequences are more linked to the long-term practice of daily observation and diary annotations, with particular attention given to the weirdness and unpredictability of everyday events. The tone is not autobiographical, and the attention is on feelings. The language is mostly expressed using a tangential view that suggests rather than states:

they got darker than he meant them to

bleeding            into body, blurring into

portal                 light lost – Fall maybe or

out of                 all Four Seasons together

art scene             people can stand anything

these days          more than cube, depth

frame or             field could interiorise

internalise

The floral aspect could also be a reference to botanical catalogues and old prints of flowers and seeds such as the ones conserved at the British Library and the Natural History Museum in London. The body is a recurring image of loss and regaining, sometimes abused but at other times cherished and always explored in its diverse aspects. Tarlo therefore plays around with cut flowers, wildflowers, flowers in greenhouses and in garden centres, and city flowers that trigger ‘PAIN        ANXIETY  FERTILITY/WELL        BEING STRESS’. Cutting flowers could also be a reference to cutting living things, cutting lines off and to the practice of flower arranging and making decorations out of flowers, hobbies often associated with women. The changing of seasons, weather conditions and situations the poet explores suggest a changing of mind that subtly comments on the status quo. This is especially clear in the use of apparently isolated words listed in the left vertical part of the poems. These lines express political connections, for example to Syria, environmental concerns and concerns about violence against women. Therefore, the collection patiently traces a detailed quotidian observation of ordinary life with an eye on global issues. Different possibilities coexist in a comprehensive and yet fragmented vision that might be unsettling but is also illuminating. This view is skilfully expressed both in the structure and in the imageries and language of the poems and is exquisitely emphasised by the illustrations. Tarlo gives a unique interpretation of a botanical reality that is profoundly human and, at the same time, intensely empathetic towards nature.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 4th October 2021

The Daedalus Files by Mandy Pannett (SPM Publications)

The Daedalus Files by Mandy Pannett (SPM Publications)

One of the most dramatic and controversial myths is revisited and thoughtfully explored in Mandy Pannett’s The Daedalus Files. The roles of the actors in the story are investigated in the poems, from that of Daedalus, the maker of the labyrinth, to that of his son Icarus, who was the result of Daedalus’s marriage to a slave called Naucrate. Icarus later dies while he is trying to escape, falling from the sky into the Aegean Sea. The role of the monster, the Minotaur, is also explored in the poems; it was created following a sexual encounter between the adulteress queen, Pasiphaë, and the sacred white bull, a present from Poseidon to the king, Minos. Finally, the role of Theseus, the hero, is examined; his victory is tightly linked to the clever tricks of Ariadne, whom he eventually abandons on the island of Naxos. Death is the constant threat that is present in the centre of the labyrinth, where the monster is imprisoned and where seven Athenian boys and seven girls are sacrificed each year to its hunger and lust. 

Symbolic meanings unfold and overlap in this myth, following the meandering turns of the labyrinth, such as death and renewal, the search for identity and the encounter with otherness, as Kerényi states in his seminal book on the labyrinth. Borges, in his poem ‘The Labyrinth’, expresses the loneliness, boredom and frightening aspects of the place where otherness is present and absent at the same time. It is a search for meaning that is never definitely achieved; on the contrary, it is always postponed. The centre is a loss, an empty space where the monster waits, and going back to that space by following Ariadne’s flaxen thread does not redeem the hero. The contact with the mystery of the labyrinth, or a supposed sacred centre, does not give answers but only silence. However, defeating the monster and returning is Theseus’s goal that implies courage but also ruthlessness and eventually betrayal.

Pannett highlights this signum contradictionis implied in the labyrinth and in the myth, for example in the figure of the Minotaur, who was once a tender calf ‘cradled on his mother’s knee.’ Nevertheless, its brutality and ferocity have no reason, and only language, poetic language, can try to make sense of this violence and successive unfaithfulness. The poems analyse and question the myth connecting the story to the present situation of danger and displacement experienced by people fleeing from conflicts and persecutions, people in exile. It is a ferocious journey, as Pannett evokes in ‘Memo’, describing it as ‘Cramping. Claustrophobic. No air.’ In the foreword she recalls how her poems were inspired by the fall of Icarus and the arrival of refugees from Syria on the Greek island of Tilos, where she was staying at the time. Escaping and finding a way out towards salvation are the objectives that are eventually contradicted by the ending. Icarus dies and Ariadne is abandoned by Theseus, the ‘faithless lover’. Therefore, the solutions are partial and temporary; they need to be renegotiated each time and loss is inevitable. The narrative of the myth is rewritten in Pannett’s poems in a constant resignification that evolves in an exploration using language. The process is emphasised in impeccable lines that develop all these threads.

The myth remains a mystery because the different actors never disclose their secrets; loss and betrayal loom at the end of the story. Daedalus the maker, the craftsman, sculptor and architect pushed the boundaries of human limitations with tragic consequences. The poet questions his inventions, suggesting they might be ‘transitory and insignificant’. He kept his self-control but his son did not; he dared too much despite his father’s instructions to ‘Get ready to jump. Mind rocks. Don’t/hesitate. Deep breath.’ There seems to be no way out, though the final poems suggest a change of mind, the possibility that is not necessary ‘to fall into the dark/wingless and hurt’. But the myth culminates with the death of Icarus, and this is the end the reader is left to unravel.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 25th September 2021

The Red Place by Lars Amund Vaage translated by Anna Reckin & Hanne Bramness (Shearsman Books)

The Red Place by Lars Amund Vaage translated by Anna Reckin & Hanne Bramness (Shearsman Books)

This melancholy book-length poem, first published in Norway in 2014, begins with a motionless drama:

THERE IS A YOUNG MAN inside me

I see him standing

by a dark wall

somewhere in the forest

which sets the timbre straight off. ‘Inside’, in a way, means ‘outside’. We’re not going to be able to trust even the simplest language. Adjectives will cancel each other out: ‘the beautiful, ugly buildings/ the rich, poor rooms’.  Line-breaks are deployed to leave you rudderless:

Quietly I passed into that area of darkness 

which does not exist. 

[…]

Mother fell and moved around in a circle

which was impossible

and expected emotional reactions are denied: ‘I am not happy to see him/ nor do I mourn him’. Soon sets of spiralling metaphors are in play: the red place is the heart, which is the piano, which is the lover and the coffin, which is the forest which is the realm of the dead which is the red place. In a way. Meanwhile images of violation pervade: ‘I opened my memory/ all the way down to my heart’s floor’. ‘He is running into himself, through the small holes/ he once drilled.’ ‘Peace had eaten its way into her’. [A pianist] ‘plugs himself into the great, black body’.

There’s no conventional narrative, but a picture starts to build: this is a middle-aged or elderly man from a rural background, who was once a concert pianist (as Vaage himself was). His memory has become so intense that he’s having visions. There’s his childhood self, perennially at the piano. His youthful and professional selves, uncommunicative and inner-directed. And his now-deceased parents. His mum, who left with ‘the other man’, is always travelling or absent. His dad is always on the farm, working – he ‘empties work of work’. I found the narrator’s regrets at not communicating with them, especially with his father, more affecting at every rereading. The straightforward vocabulary and minimal punctuation make the book a speedy read, and that, along with the refusal of the normally expected sentiments, means the emotional surge only impacts belatedly. The narrator’s is not an unremitting loneliness; he mentions a friend (albeit a dead one) and twice addresses a presumed former partner. Nonetheless the piano, with ‘its kisses/ inside the canals of the ear’, becomes the meagre surrogate to romance: ‘The piano opened the door/ […] we emptied into each other/ But emptiness/ is a poor gift between lovers’. 

The translation looks welcomely unmeddled. Language geeks (unsurprisingly common among poetry fans) will find the original downloadable as an epub from ebok.no or similar, where they can check, for example, whether the glum puns on ‘play’ (the child plays only the piano, not with other children) or ‘autist’ (for ‘artist’) are also there in the Nynorsk. Spotify can let them hear the cadences; a selection has been recorded accompanied by appropriately spooky music. ‘The poems are constantly trying to take us through a door into another world’, wrote Michael Peverett of Vaage’s earlier Outside the Institution. And there are plenty of ghosts and doors here, among ‘sheep and cows so startled/ they had forgotten all they knew’, and the human costs of artistic practice. Certainly this is remarkably distinctive and special writing, which I guess is what we ask from translations: to deliver us stuff that no-one in our own language has done.

Guy Russell 24th September 2021

Between The Music And The Sun by Andrew Hughes (Literary Alchemy Press)

Between The Music And The Sun by Andrew Hughes (Literary Alchemy Press)

     I reached out to Andrew Hughes, who is my former student, while I was reading his short fiction collection Between the Music and the Sun and had a quick conversation with him about what he was doing in these stories, half of which are set in Nashville, Tennessee and half of which are set in Phoenix, Arizona. He told me that part of the project was to capture the new American South and desert Southwest and how the working class lives within it, which intrigues me of course. Like every other American, I was raised on a literary diet rich in the works of Southern authors, but only to a certain point in time. My Southern reading includes Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner, and so my understanding of that region is limited to images that have become stereotypes. My knowledge of the desert Southwest is even more narrow, so I was eager to get a little better insight into how the working class lives in these places. I am pleased to write that Hughes’s collection complicates my understanding of these regions, and that I was surprised to see that his South and Southwest are places of interior spaces. Where Falkner might have had his characters outdoors, sweating away in a heat, Hughes’s working class people have moved indoors. After all, much of fieldwork has been mechanized. Instead of a rich sense of the outdoors, his characters have been driven into the blandly air conditioned interiors of the service and health care careers to live lives of hidden insignificance where they feel anonymous and cut off from the world.

     Hughes’s Nashville is a place of bars, restaurants, and hospitals where people are not enjoying themselves or being healed but facing the indignities of jobs that cut them off from their humanity. I was reminded again and again of the television show The Office where David Brent humiliates and is humiliated, and everyone must smile or risk losing their livelihoods. That is Hughes’s new South. Gone is the richness and trauma to be replaced by the slow grinding that defines so much of this world. In one story, told from the point of view of Mica, a doctor working in a hospital, a paramedic is told to “Get out of my ER” (15). He has not erred in any way. He has simply finished his report and is dismissed in the most demeaning of ways. In another story, Adrian works behind the scenes in a bar that serves the vast music world of Nashville. He is floating through life without focus because all there is for him is an endless progression of days in climate controlled and fluorescent lit rooms where he never sees the sun or moon save for those moments when he is traveling between work and his apartment. His life decisions come as reactions to things that he feels are happening to him, the unplanned birth of a daughter he no longer is allowed to spend time with and the suicide of an old friend. There is no agency to these characters’ lives, just the urge to keep surviving barely from one day to the next.

     The outdoors and the natural world become even more cut off from the characters in Phoenix. That world is one of great hostility, a hellscape where people are cast if they commit the sins of falling into debt too deeply or losing their jobs. After all, this is the bare desert, where temperatures often stay above forty degrees celsius for nearly half the year. To lose one’s job is to become homeless and to live in the endless grinding heat that does not relent even at night. The only solace these characters find is within a clearly defined pattern of drinking: 

You drank to reach a place where rules didn’t exist. You became a child. Do that too much though, you get labeled an alcoholic. So, have fun, but not too much fun, or they’ll treat you like a villain. (57)

It is vital in this world to follow these rules because being cast out leads to fates worse than death like Jada who must leave her toddler daughter hiding in an alley as she prostitutes herself or an unnamed homeless man who lives near the protagonist of another story:

During the days he sweats and broils in the desert sun, talking to himself in long, unintelligible monologues. Sometimes, he lies on the sidewalk, so hot it scalds his skin, and crawls, his nails scraping long white streaks in the sidewalk. (61)

To play by the rules for the working class in this city is to live a life of great blandness, but it is better than the hell that waits for people who do not, people who are cast outside and punished for not fitting in.

     I found this look at how the world has changed intriguing. I do not know what I was expecting this vision of the South and Southwest to be, but it is not hopeful, and it is not inspiring. It reflects the current housing and wage crisis that seems to be affecting every aspect of life in the United States.

John Brantingham 16th September 2021

Rich Soos and Cholla Needles Press Interview by John Brantingham

Rich Soos and Cholla Needles Press Interview by John Brantingham

Just outside Joshua Tree National Park is the city of Joshua Tree, which has drawn artists and writers to itself forming a community of creative people in the Mojave Desert. Within this community is Rich Soos and Cholla Needles Arts & Literary Library, which have created a space for these folks to share their creativity. He publishes a monthly literary magazine and hosts readings to celebrate each new issue. He also makes sure Cholla Needles is involved with other local events including the Big Read put on each year by the Arts Connection of San Bernardino County.  In 2021 the Big Read featured the U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo.

       What I find particularly fascinating however, is Cholla Needles’ publishing project. Soos publishes a wide range of work, but his series of books of poets who are also visual artists is stunning. These are often about forty pages and include full color art. They often feature desert themes and capture the spirit of the Joshua Tree’s arts community well with authors and artists like Kendall Johnson, Cynthia Anderson, Susan Abbott, Zara Kand, and Cindy Rinne, serious writers who take their art just as seriously. The effect is a body of work that is the best of what ekphrasis does, where the art and words work in unison to make new connections, to create new ideas, that the art or words alone could not do. These are not just exceptional books. This is an exceptional series.

      I wanted to understand the collaborative process between him and his writer/artists, so I talked to him about the project.

John:   Would it be fair to say that you are deeply involved in a collaborative process that is not just you printing the work, but helping the artists/writers to draw out ideas that they might not have necessarily found on their own?

Rich:   Well, a lot depends on the author. I am always involved in the collaborations, obviously. How deeply depends on the other parties involved. There are some poets/artists that I spend lots and lots of time with attempting to craft a final product that works. There are others who are excellent at self-editing, and describing their vision well, so I’m largely the old guy in the background making sure the technology matches their vision. 

John:   Did you self-consciously decide to develop this art/poetry project? Do you even see it as a project or is it just something that naturally built itself?

Rich:   I walked into pie for the people in Joshua Tree for some pizza and saw artwork on the walls that knocked me over. I discovered an artist who had placed my deepest dreams and poetry onto canvas and was fascinated. I found my heart pouring out words that had been waiting for these images and created two proofs – one called Interiors, and one called Exteriors. I created the proofs before talking to the artist because I did not have the language to explain the vision I had for these publications. The cover of both was the same, the titles were different. When I took the proofs to the artist we immediately bonded and collaborated to help make the vision I had a mutual vision. This experience started the series of art/poetry books and is solely the fault of Zara Kand. Without her art speaking directly to me this would never have started. I’m not sure the word “project” is the correct term, I just know it was something I had to do to satisfy my own need to see poetry and art that moved my soul become a single unit. I do like your description, “naturally built itself”.

     Many of these art books have come together the same way. A vision in my head that I can only express through the printing process. As an example, Cindy Rinne submitted a book of poetry that she wanted me to publish Called Moon of Many Pebbles. I loved the words, and was willing to publish them in the same way as most of our books – black words on white paper. As I read through the words I kept seeing her art, so using the same format, I decided to try the art/poetry approach to add a vivid dimension to the reading experience. Again, I was unable to use words to explain the vision, so I made up a proof version and shared it with Cindy. She was very happy with the presentation, and from that first proof we were able to collaborate to make the vision a mutual one.

      Now, of course, folks have seen quite a few of these books and are able to send me material to create these art/poetry books using their vision. For example here, I had published work by Cynthia Anderson and Susan Abbott. Cynthia saw Susan’s work and wanted to have her words enhanced by including full color pieces with her words. And that beautiful collaboration became Now Voyager. We have over 25 of these books by many folks available now, and I am proud of the series. Each book is unique, and meets a specific creative desire within me. I love the technical challenge of turning the vision in my head into a work of art others want to hold in their hands. 

John:   Would it be fair to say that you are deeply involved in a collaborative process that is not just you printing the work, but helping the artists/writers to draw out ideas that they might not have necessarily found on their own?

Rich:   Well, a lot depends on the author. I am always involved in the collaborations, obviously. How deeply depends on the other parties involved. There are some poets/artists that I spend lots and lots of time with attempting to craft a final product that works. There are others who are excellent at self-editing, and describing their vision well, so I’m largely the old guy in the background making sure the technology matches their vision. 

John:   I’m wondering about your placement in the Mojave desert and if that’s influenced the way you’ve developed as a press.

Rich:   My “placement” in the Mojave desert was simply a result of the big real estate crash of 2008. I had always wanted to move here since my first visit in 1972, and by 2008 I was very close to “retirement”.  We had honestly given up on ever being able to return to California to live because of the ridiculous costs of homes. In 2008 real estate prices were slashed to 25% of what they were in previous years, and we immediately bought our retirement home because we knew that was a once every 20-30 years opportunity. The entire country has experienced the doubling and tripling of real estate prices in the past few years, so I made a good decision. There’s no way we could afford to move here now.

We had come to Joshua Tree every summer and I can’t deny it’s influenced me as a writer and artist – and probably as an editor. I have a deep love for work that is sparse and carries deep meaning below the surface, and I’m sure that comes from my walks in the desert. Also, our motto here at Cholla Needles is from a poem I wrote 40 years ago when I learned the hard way the strength of those little needles. The motto basically says that I look for work that slices through the surface, and leaves a healthy scar long afterwards. Poetry should bear repeated readings, and stay deep within us long after we’ve turned the page.

The development of the Cholla Needles phenomena happened quickly once we started. My initial desire was simply to have a monthly magazine. I started receiving full length manuscripts almost immediately, and when I’m presented with work I know others should be reading, I can’t help but desire to print it. In five years we’ve published 60 monthly issues and over 120 books.   

John:   Speaking of the monthly magazine, you’ve told me that you draw many of the people you publish from Cholla Needles Magazine. This involves both art and writing as well. Was one of your impulses for book publishing to get a more complete vision of individual artists?

Rich:   Cholla Needles magazine is presented as what I call 10 mini-chapbooks between two covers. This was on purpose – to give readers a real good flavor of each writer and artist. And you are correct, this mini-chapbook is a mere taste of what they are capable of, and the books offer much more depth into the authors. I did plan that specific requirement – that an author or artist appear in Cholla Needles prior to being considered for a book – for a reason. My sanity. I always feel obligated to read material that comes across my threshold. I’m sure no one would be surprised how many people have book manuscripts ready to be read. Any editor will tell you – it is very easy to become overwhelmed. By making sure authors/artists first appear in the magazine before I read their full book manuscript, I save a lot of time. I do believe the best books come from mutual respect and a willingness to work together. If we can work together to get their work prepared for the mini-chapbook, we have a much better chance of some real success with a 120 page book. 

John:   Do you have any plans or dreams for the future of the press or do you plan for it just to develop organically?

Rich:   Oh yes, we have dreams, big dreams! However, our plan at this point is simple – to survive the pandemic, and to build back to where we were pre-pandemic. 

            Understandably people’s financial situations have been in havoc the past sixteen months and their ability and desire to support magazines like ours has almost disappeared.

            Our three dreams remain the same, the same dreams we have included in our non-profit by-laws. 

            First, we’d love to pay our authors and artists. Our plan pre-pandemic was to change from a single copy to several copies as payment starting 2022, with the continued dream of being able to pay in greenbacks as we grow. 

            The second dream is to move our library from the garage into a site that would double as a poetry bookstore/art gallery. The dream is to sell new poetry from around the world, and maintain our library for the classic books of poetry that are no longer available for sale. We have several thousand books in the library already, and it continues to grow. Many writers donate their own books to the library, as well as books they’ve collected that they no longer have room for. 

            And finally, the biggest dream was practical pre-pandemic, but since real estate prices have tripled in the past 16 months it feels impractical. That said, a dream can still be a dream, and we want to have a Cholla Needles retreat where poets can reserve a place to come from anywhere in the world to be inspired by our beautiful landscape to either start a new book, or find the peace to complete a project they are working on. The dream is to have this space available to writers at no cost and underwritten by donations from patrons of the arts. There are folks who still do that and we simply wait for the right ones who love Cholla Needles and love our area and love writers. The perfect trifecta.

            In the meantime, as these dreams continue to motivate and inspire our board members we will continue to develop organically. Last year for example, a single board member pointed out since I was answering emails 10-12 hours a day seven days a week that I didn’t have time for my own writing. I hadn’t stopped to consider that, but it was true, so I asked the simple question – how do we change that? She suggested “guest editors.” Such a simple, organic solution, and yes, we have had four issues by guest editors in the past year, and it’s been so successful we will continue to keep that new tradition alive.

    We’ve been blessed to be able to continue publishing during these days when folks are more focused on survival than poetry. Maintaining our schedule has proven to be inspirational to our readers, and their monthly notes of thanks and praise help us tremendously. Mutual love and respect. Good times!!!

John Brantingham 10th September 2021

SurvivalEye by Mare Heron Hake (Arroyo Seco Press)

SurvivalEye by Mare Heron Hake (Arroyo Seco Press)

For me, Mare Heron Hake’s SurvivalEye is a necessary book in this time of pain and uncertainty. There is a lot going on in Hake’s debut collection. She takes a close look at what is deadly and difficult in the world, but her poetry is filled with characteristics I personally admire above all else, hope and courage. There are any number of poets that show me how to proceed through the kind of chaos we face, Yusef Komunyakaa, Joy Harjo, Paul Kareem Tayyar, and Marge Piercy, and what I love about Hake is that she continues the ideals of these great writers and applies them to the problems of now. As I move with anxiety through my in-person teaching and worry about the health of myself, my family, and my students, Hake reminds me of how to do so with grace. She does it with hope and resilience and her collection gives us a model for courage.

     Hake’s poetry is often an antidote for despair. Her prose poem “your ember” discusses finding resilience in the passions that live in all of us. It tells to have faith in that passion, in her words that “ember,” “it isn’t nothing but something here tangled in your own roots, down beyond their clawed reach, this smallest tip of heat that you can feel, a burning, an ember to keep you warm but could also light the rest of you on fire” (55). Here and throughout the collection, Hake acknowledges that those parts of us that are often demeaned or ignored by us and others are part of who we are and a part of our power. Simply moving and doing often gives us a way forward. She also discusses this same idea in “BossLady” where she writes, “I am the belief no one else encouraged” (9). This looking inward to find strength that gives us hope is repeated again and again, and she shows us that having faith in ourselves is the way to move forward. We should not look to others for this.

     If she is calling to us for hope in this time when we are inclining toward despair, she is also calling to us for resilience. In the titular poem, she writes of how a crow she witnesses survives.

But every-

thing of this crow was committed to

the task — feet in water, one eye

going down, a thing tongued tool

of a beak parallel to the inch of

wet, a neck bent so low for a

moment, and necessary, over

and over again, day after

day (5).

The crow becomes emblematic of the resilience that she is calling for. To live, it must drink, and to drink it must put itself in a vulnerable position, and this is terrifying, but the narrator watching the crow starts to understand and relate to it. Like the crow, she is vulnerable, and life is dangerous, but the only way forward is to keep going, day after day.

         The world needs more collections that affirm hope and resilience, and I am grateful to Hake for having given us this one. Anything that reminds us that there is a better world possible is to be lauded. This is a book that shows us the way.

John Brantingham 1st September 2021

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