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The Poetry of John James Conference

The Poetry of John James Conference

Last Saturday saw Magdalene College, Cambridge, host this conference to celebrate the poetry of John James. It was organised by the current Judith E. Wilson Fellow, Peter Hughes, whose Oystercatcher Press has published both Cloud Breaking Sun (2012) and Sabots (2015). I recall reviewing Sabots for the Tears blog in August 2015 and concluding that it is “an uplifting sequence of three poems which restores a sense of vitality and endurance within a world threatened by commercial bureaucracy and targets”.

The conference was itself uplifting and by the end of the day I realised that the speakers had taken us on a journey which involved close textual criticism, overviews of the place of John James’s work in contemporary poetry and personal reminiscence. Emphasis was placed on the role of music within the poetry and the importance of the visual arts to a man whose sense of the flâneur is still to be recognised in the laughter and wry awareness exhibited by the poet in the audience who turned to me at one point to say “Who is this poet? I must get hold of some of his work”.

The speakers included Rod Mengham whose Equipage Press has published both In Romsey Town (2011) and Songs In Midwinter For Franco; Andrew Taylor whose debt to James weaves its way through his own Oystercatcher volume Air Vault; Simon Smith, Ian Heames, Peter Riley, Drew Milne and Geoff Ward spoke and read and by the end of the day there was a feeling that the success of this event was partly to do with the range of focus: different takes on a common theme of respect for this poet whose first published volume had appeared half-a-century ago from Andrew Crozier’s Ferry Press.

The poem ‘Pimlico’ was read (first published in Tears) as was ‘A Theory of Poetry, twice, and there was a beautifully produced gift from Ian Heames of his own finely published copy of the original Street Editions in comfrey blue. There was a sense in the auditorium of what John James referred to in his ‘Poem beginning with a line of Andrew Crozier’:

“I reach toward the poetry of kindred
where we speak in our work as we seldom do otherwise”

My review of Sabots had ended with a simple statement about the book:

“It is a tribute to the quietly unchanging in a fast-changing world. It’s terrific!” The same could be said of the 2017 Cambridge Conference on the Poetry of John James.

Ian Brinton, 13th March 2017

The Meaning of Things: Poems and Prose by Elaine Randell (Shearsman Books)

The Meaning of Things: Poems and Prose by Elaine Randell (Shearsman Books)

There is an old saying about not judging other people until you have walked a mile in their shoes. In her reminiscences about her father, the concluding section of this powerfully moving new book, Elaine Randell puts it slightly differently:

“If anyone ever behaved badly or was criticised by my mother or me, he would always say, to know all is to forgive all, you have to understand why people do certain things and behave in a certain way before jumping in, Elaine.”

Elaine Randell’s career in social work and psychotherapy complements her substantial work as a poet which stretches back to Nos 3 & 4 of The Curiously Strong in November 1971 where she appeared alongside Barry MacSweeney in ‘The official Biography of Jim Morrison’, Just 22 And Don’t Mind Dying. Two years later a short book of poems appeared from MacSweeney’s Blacksuede Boot Press, Telegrams From The Midnight Country, and it is one of these short pieces that lingers in my mind as I read Randell’s new volume from Shearsman Books:

“See how the tree comes to
ward.
A heavy wind here pesters
loose wood.
Sky steps are light.
The birds fly up ex
static.”

In an interview the American Objectivist Charles Reznikoff suggested that poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling: it should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling. Of course the feeling is there in the selection of material: you pick certain things that are significant—that’s your feeling. You don’t go into the feeling; you portray it as well as you can, hoping that somebody else reading the poem will get your feeling:

“Now, as part of that, I should perhaps say that I try to be as clear and precise as possible….my own belief is to name and to name and to name—and to name in such a way that you have rhythm, since music (and I think George Oppen would agree with me) is also part of the meaning”.

I’m sure that Randell would certainly agree with Reznikoff and that early poem, titled ‘For You – Today’, would not look out of place in the 1934 Objectivist Press publication Jerusalem the Golden. For instance look at the three lines of ‘July’ in that Reznikoff volume:

“No one is in the street but a sparrow;
it hops on the glittering sidewalk,
and at last flies – into a dusty tree.”

Randell’s The Meaning of Things is divided into four sections the last being two autobiographical pieces of memory of the poet’s mother and father. In section II that naming and rhythm which mattered so much to both Reznikoff and Oppen is placed securely in ‘Easter 2014 Romney Marsh’:

“On such a day the skylark
heard above the tractor before seen
up that high.
Who could not be charged
by his ecstatic salute to life
upwards and yet further up he shows how to sing while flying
while
plummeting
vertically effortlessly hovering before parachuting back.
On such a day you had also heard this
known perhaps that despite their aerial activities,
skylarks nest on the ground not in trees which may catch the wind.”

Forty-four years ago in ‘For You – Today’ the second line opens with what might be perceived to be the second syllable of the word “toward”. However, by being placed where it is that word becomes a verb “ward” and the note of warning and care held in both sound and meaning of that small word leads the reader forward to the third line’s reference to “A heavy wind” and the repeated ‘w’s, agitated by the use of “pesters”, take us to the fragility of “loose wood”. In this new poem there is a contrast between the firm placing on a ground, “On such a day”, with the following nine syllables of line two ending in the open music of “seen”. The poem echoes the surge of movement and song as the lark moves “upwards and yet further up he shows how to sing while flying”.
George Oppen was a great admirer of the slightly older Reznikoff and in a 1959 letter to June Oppen Degnan, his half-sister and publisher of San Francisco Review, he wrote:

“Rezi wrote

Among the heap of brick and plaster lies
A girder, still itself among the rubbish.

Likely he could mull along and tell you what he had in mind. But how other than with this image could he put into your mind so clearly the miracle of existence—the existence of things. It is only because the image hits so clear and sudden that the poem means what it means. I don’t know that he could make it any clearer by talking about it.”

Elaine Randell’s new publication presents the reader with poetry and prose. The poetry stands clear on the page, THINGS. The prose, reminiscent of John Berger’s account of a doctor in the Forest of Dean in A Fortunate Man, gives us human voices that unsettle us with their convincing presentation of emptiness and perseverance, loss and determination. This is an important book.

Ian Brinton 4th March 2017

Your Scratch Entourage by Kris Hemensley (Cordite Books)

Your Scratch Entourage by Kris Hemensley (Cordite Books)

The introduction to this collection of poems by Kris Hemensley, the first to appear for some thirty years, makes an interesting and direct assertion taken from Alain (Emile Chartier):

“…men are afraid to complete their thoughts” [.]

This moment of realisation was shared between Lucas Weschke and Kris Hemensley as they were on their way to visit Greta Berlin whom Weschke had met in Zennor “as a small child and whose father, Sven Berlin, had enthralled a young Kris Hemensley in 1963 with the accoutrements of the artist and his first taste of red wine.”

One might be almost tempted to recall those words from the first chapter of Kenner’s The Pound Era where he refers to a moment on a Chelsea street in the early 1900s:

“Which is all of the story, like a torn papyrus. That is how the past exists, phantasmagoric weskits, stray words, random things recorded. The imagination augments, metabolizes, feeding on all it has to feed on, such scraps.”

The introduction goes on to give us a picture of how these poems relate to people in their places taking us “into deeply personal territory: the territory of sons and fathers, brothers and lovers; into the territory of war and its enduring shadows. The chapters are stakes embedded in the ground to mark what needed to be acknowledged”. The seven ‘chapters’, separate but connected areas of poetic ground, take the reader from 1971 to ‘Millenium Poems’, from Frank Prince to Ivor Gurney, from London to Weymouth:

“tracks along the shore
disappear almost as fast as they’re formed
in the sand”

The staked out land is a world of marked territory and as the poet looks back over a half-century of close involvement with the powerful urges and effects of language he recognises the clarity of “what’s the use of going against the wind?” :

“man, woman or child:
who walks here
whose footsteps disappear?”

This awareness of the effect of time is very different from Barry MacSweeney’s sharp outburst against the Colonel B and ‘Jury Vet’ mystification of truth from the ABC trial of 1977. Hemensley’s tone of voice uses the particular to point to the universal and his awareness of the way in which the staked out plots relate to each other is caught in the poem written in memory of MacSweeney:

“your scratch entourage
sans powder sans rouge
sans a sodding sausage
what’s it all in aid of
counted now on page 470 of Herodotus
inventory of spears swords daggers
shields bows & lassoes gold-plated helmets
of this & that regiment chain-mail tunics
women & tents horses & sheep
tanks & helicopter gunships
guided missile systems…”

An early poem which Kris Hemensley published in 1972 pointed us to ‘The Horizon’ where “the wider lights / lengthening days / the pink flood above / the tallest pine / blue grill of sky / talk of snow to come” lead on to a “question of occupation”:

“which time & place
awaiting spring…”

As Hemensley knows, we can only hope to occupy a here-and-now and his moving record of poems in this new collection offers a glance backward over a lifetime’s commitment. He might almost be thinking of Samuel Beckett’s Murphy who announced that “all life is figure and ground”. Meanwhile, as the seven sonnets which constitute the staked-out patch of ground titled ‘More Midsummer Night’s Dream Than Dante’ offer a mordant awareness of life passing we must also recall Flaubert writing to Louis Bouilhet in September 1850:

“Yes, stupidity consists in wanting to reach conclusions. We are a thread, and we want to know the whole cloth.”

Kris Hemensley is aware of the threads and, without wanting the whole cloth, he yearns to recognise how each field allows us a vision both backwards and for the future. This is a moving and serious collection of poems.

Ian Brinton 18th February 2017

Paris, Painters, Poets by Jim Burns (Penniless Press Publications)

Paris, Painters, Poets by Jim Burns (Penniless Press Publications)

An abiding feature of Jim Burns’ informative series of critical books is their range of interests and his passion in recalling neglected and marginalised artists, poets and jazz musicians. This eighth collection of reviews and essays has a sequence of essays on Paris, sections on neglected British artists and American poets, the effects of the Hollywood blacklists, the early days of communism in Russia and America, as well as some of his own short fiction.

The Parisian section has essays on Chaim Soutine, Marc Chagall and other Montparnasse outsiders, Picasso and his milieu in 1900, existentialists, including Edmund Husserl, the way the work of photographer, Felix Nadar, shaped images of the city, and the role of the barricade in successive insurrections. As ever, Burns writes in a richly contextual and inviting manner and gives useful overviews and plenty of references for further reading.

The reviews of recent exhibitions and books on Sven Berlin, John Bratby and Stanley Spencer are illuminating. I did not know, for example, that Bratby was also a novelist. He also writes the Forties and Fifties Soho bohemia that produced
Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, John Minton and Michael Ayrton, through the lens of the lives of artists, Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller, who frequently feature as minor artists in accounts of the period. As Burns makes clear any sense of transgressive artistic practice was over by the Sixties and the scene had degenerated into the same old faces drinking away their lives.

Amongst the highlights of this book for me is the discovery of the poetry of Lola Ridge (1873-1941) in the essay, ‘Lola Ridge, Radical Poet’, and of Cambridge Opinion 41 (1965), an issue devoted to the impact of William Carlos Williams on English poets. The former essay sets her work firmly in the context of American modernist poetry and its social background. Irish born Ridge came to become a Greenwich Village bohemian via New Zealand, Australia, and San Francisco. Her feminist, street poetry, voicing class conflict, social protest, won the Shelley Memorial Award in 1934 and 1935. Her first poetry book, The Ghetto and Other Poems (1918) centred on the Jewish community of the Lower East Side, and created quite a stir, despite the fact that her portrayal was mostly second hand.
There is currently a revival of interest in her poetry and Light in Hand: Selected Early Poems introduced and edited by Daniel Tobin appeared in 2007. Terese Svoboda’s biography Anything That Burns You (2015) extends to 627 pages. Burns found a copy of Cambridge Opinion 41 in his archives, as he was a contributor. The magazine is not referenced in any of the histories and bibliographies of little poetry magazines produced by the British Library and elesewhere. This significant issue features the work of Basil Bunting, Andrew Crozier, Roy Fisher, Tim Longville, Tom Pickard, J.H. Prynne, John Temple, Gael Turnbull and others. Burns provides plenty of background information on the editors and the various approaches of contributors and various other related magazines and presses. It is the kind of recovery that aptly illustrates the great value that Burns offers to us all.

David Caddy 8th February 2017

no particular place to go by Laurie Duggan (Shearsman Books)

no particular place to go by Laurie Duggan (Shearsman Books)

In Robert Duncan’s interview with Ekbert Faas (Towards a New American Poetics, Black Sparrow Press 1978) the poet asserts “there are no trivial events for me. This is the question raised by Williams’ famous ‘so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow’. The real point of that question is: Are there any trivial events, are there any trivial people or trivial anythings, trivial beings or propositions? And for me everything happening in the poem is properly apprehended and therefore not trivial.” One consults a map because one has a particular place to reach but Laurie Duggan’s new volume of poems charts a sense of discovery which responds to experience rather than mapping it out first: read this book and you’re on the move!
When Williams highlighted the importance of his red wheel barrow he followed it with a prose statement concerning the “fixed categories into which life is divided”:

“These things are normal – essential to every activity. But they exist – but not as dead dissections”.

Laurie Duggan’s new collection is, in his own words, “an unholy gathering of discrete pieces written over the last fifteen years” but to my mind they hold together in such a way as to give a picture which is more than an accumulation of the discrete. ‘Hegemony’ is a poem which perhaps represents the sense of poetic unity:

“a world of transactions
at war with a world of immanence,
a geography without contours
against a range of singular spaces”

The immediacy of Duggan’s perceptions possess a life which is not held in by the contours of the field but which realises the geography of “range”. This fine collection is more than “singular spaces” and lives as a “world of transactions” between poet and reader. Our guide through the spaces is a perceptive wit which looks closely at the world and concludes with wry humour. Gustave Courbet’s 1854 painting titled ‘The Meeting’ is given a new breath of life by the poet’s close awareness of what the gestures in the painting point to:

“What made him present himself, greeted on the road
by another figure (engaged perhaps

in mere commerce) offer instead of an epithet
a commonplace?”

The poet has captured that “world of transactions” in which the figure on the right, a pedlar perhaps, cocks his head to one side as if appraising the figure in front of him: the painter with courteous gesture of held out left arm as if he might be wishing the man a fine day. It is typical of much of Laurie Duggan’s work that these small moments are given a life, a sparkle of immediacy. So many of the poems are addressed to individual readers and we are given sly insights into character and landscape within which character resides for a moment, a click of the lens. Tony Frazer, Peter Lanyon, Frank Auerbach, Alexander Calder, Basil King, Pam Brown, Angela Gardner, Lee Harwood, Rosemary Hunter and ‘The Ghost of WCW in a Faversham Pub’:

“ ‘I’d love to go back
to Acapulco

it was so different
and so easy’ ”

Those plums in the icebox were indeed delicious and as readers we easily forgive the seemingly inconsequential footsteps of words which step their way through these poems. Duggan’s volume may assert the “inherently occasional” but I am reminded of those Necessary Steps (Shearsman Books, edited by David Kennedy, 2007) in which John Hall reminds us of the derivation of the word “occasion”:

“The Oxford English Dictionary gives as the etymology for occasion: ‘ad. L. occasion-em falling (of things) towards (each other)’. It is not just the things that fall towards each other, though there is always, I would say, a sense of conjuncture or convergence that marks something as an ‘occasion’, even for those with their attention on the ‘everyday’. It is also that occasions are marked incidents that cause certain people to fall together.”

Given these words…there is always a “particular place to go” and I can think of few better guides that Laurie Duggan.

Ian Brinton, 6th February 2017

Only More So by Millicent Borges Accardi (Salmon Poetry)

Only More So by Millicent Borges Accardi (Salmon Poetry)

Portuguese American, Borges Accardi’s fourth collection broadly centres on the female experience of war atrocities, ethnic cleansing, rape, imprisonment and other instances of degradation inflicted by men on women. The book’s verve stems from its narrative angles, imagery and memorable lines that produce a beguiling reading experience. Suggestive poems insinuate themselves through unusual angles, associative interruptions and by avoiding the obvious, and so allow access to a wider perspective.

Female identities are marked and located by pain, rage, trouble and war. Poems explore the condition of female experience, concluding in the final poem that nuns require a leap of faith to believe that they are female. They travel historically and culturally from instructions on how to avoid being arrested in ‘How to Shake off the Políciade Segurança Pública Circa 1970’, to the wise woman, ‘a bride of dried veil blossoms’, who could ‘poison or heal’ to how a woman carries the ache of a man inside her and falls back on nurturing instincts at times of crisis. In the case of the hooker, ‘who looked like Lena Horner’ and ‘suffered herself as a gift to men, though, consolation is found in beer alone. Men also feature as victims, such as, the Vietnam veteran always close to trauma and unlocatable pain, or through their gaze, as in the film actor who ‘looks at his women as if they / were a platter at a banquet, or ice / at an oasis’. Mostly they are moody, possessive, man spreading, close to death or dying.

Her best poems evoke an elusive quality and suggest an invisible world, as in the growth of a tumour, the attraction of lures or the function of ritual. One of the most tender moments starts with the line: “Wanna buy some sleep?” where the poet-narrator’s brother ‘gathers up a cocoon of sleep’ and ‘zips it up tightly under my chin / almost as if he loved me.’ The ‘almost’ here echoes a fear of the Father and of male dominance that is set against silence and survival throughout the collection.

In the thick of the worst of war, ‘In Prague’ where:

A skull, embedded in a dirt wall seems, for a moment,
as white and round as bread. Jaws, on metal stands,
tagged with numbers, wait for a turn to be whole again.

Here, dates are rounded to the nearest hundred.

Tarsals, femurs, ulna, open-pored
bones like coral, legs bowed, dried marrow
dark as tunnels, joint like fists, teeth.

The poet-narrator wants to move to where memory is kinetic action, where language is recorded in the natural world and where atrocities are named:

Take me where memory makes my legs move.
Take me where moss holds language.
Take me where we have a name for the things we do.

The battle of the sexes surfaces in ‘What The Water Gives Me’, based on a Frida Kahlo painting, where the painter-narrator reflects on her turbulent marriage to Diego Rivera. Here ‘Motion, not heart, undertakes every marriage’ and attracts mold, thus ages or fades, and ends somewhat hauntingly with Frida seeing children with ‘soft, miscarried faces.’

This thoughtful collection is a joy to read, evoking elusive states, and coming at the reader from all angles. It is thoroughly recommended.

David Caddy 2nd February 2017

Lunarium by Josep Lluís Aguiló translated by Anna Crowe (Arc Publications)

Lunarium by Josep Lluís Aguiló translated by Anna Crowe (Arc Publications)

John Berger’s fictional account of a doctor in the Forest of Dean, Dr Sassall in A Fortunate Man, presents the reader with that reality pointed to by Charles Tomlinson in his poem ‘A Meditation on John Constable’:

“…The artist lies
For the improvement of truth.”

Berger’s country doctor “exaggerates when he tells stories about himself. In these stories he is nearly always in an absurd position: trying to take a film on deck when the waves break over him; getting lost in a city he doesn’t know; letting a pneumatic drill run away with him. He stresses the disenchantment and deliberately makes himself a comic little man. Disguised in this way and forearmed against disappointment, he can then re-approach reality once more with the entirely un-comic purposes of mastering it, of understanding further.” Anna Crowe’s Preface to her convincing translations of the contemporary Mallorcan poet Aguiló highlights some similar ideas concerning the imagination of this tale-weaving poet:

“Already there is a sense that the reader may expect the unexpected. Reading these poems, what is striking is the power of the imagination at work, and the multiplicity of voices that speak through the poems. The power of the imagination might be said to be the underlying argument or leitmotif of Aguiló’s poetry.”

Aguiló creates worlds which can be visited secretly and we can begin “to search for the truth / by finding where the ink is hidden that tattoos us / in the world”. This is a poetry of doors and as they open, one by one, they invite the reader into the next stanza:

“The first stanza is the one that welcomes
you and drags you inside,
grabbing you by the arm and frowning at you;
the one that speaks to you with warmth and trust
while it makes you sit down in the armchair of the second stanza.”

These are magical poems which create a magical world of Mallorca in which “green and yellow words”, written by a botanical god, can be deciphered “every day on the pages of / the thicket of writing”.
This is a Mallorca known to the Americans of the 1950s from which Robert Creeley published his Divers Press books and Black Mountain Review and from which Robert Duncan could write to Denise Levertov in June 1955 about “the desire to have imagination freed again”. This is a world which exists with a perception of exact detail and an understanding that ouvertures are created through which we see another world:

“You had to walk stealthily. Every footstep echoed,
disturbing emptiness and time. The smells of food
from the kitchen did not reach this high and I scrabbled
among lumber and old clothes, savouring the smells
of chicken bran and the dung and damp walls
of this corner of Santanyí and bad Mallorcan cement.”

The importance of Tomlinson’s assertion about imagination and truth informs this whole collection and the emphasis noted in Anna Crowe’s introduction stands sentinel to a landscape which invites further exploration:

“There is a sense of a poet pushing the boundaries of the possible further and further out, of exploring what it means to live on the edge of whatever world he has invented, as well as, at the same time, going further and further in, exploring what it means to be human.”

Ian Brinton 23rd January 2017

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