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Through a Grainy Landscape by Millicent Borges Accardi (New Meridian)

Through a Grainy Landscape by Millicent Borges Accardi (New Meridian)

Millicent Borges Accardi’s Through a Grainy Landscape is part of a subgenre written by immigrants and their descendants from Portugal in the United States. This poetry and prose includes the work of Frank X. Gaspar (who wrote the foreword to Accardi’s book), Brian Sousa, Sam Periera and many others. Accardi’s work is filled with a beautiful longing for what she has lost in her family’s transition to the United States. Those who have immigrated have gained a level of financial security but Accardi shows how some long for the culture and world they have lost and left behind.

     Part of what the narrator faces as an immigrant is scarcity of resources or a built in support system, so she and her family are forced to make do and figure out a new cultural landscape that is often hostile. In “The Graphics of Home,” she describes how far the family stretches every resource, even clothing, eventually after passing it around from friends to family, tearing it apart and selling or reusing all of it.

            Whatever was left, was sold

            by the pound, wrapped and rolled into

            giant cloth balls, sold to the rag man

            who made his rounds in the neighborhood

            all oily and urgent and smiling as if

            his soul were a miracle of naturalized

            birth. (48)

Those around her family seem to be blessed with not only a social safety net but with the confidence that goes with feeling that they are a part of the larger culture. Their poverty is present and difficult, but the status of being an outsider is what matters. Even simple tasks are tests of their lives. 

            You hummed the slow fado 

            music under your breath

            and considered a time where 

walking home was not a test

of fixing life. (39)

Every moment can be difficult in a new and complex landscape. Even walking here tests them.

     But it is not just being an outsider that tests and harms those who have immigrated to the new country; Accardi also explores the idea of loss of the individual self as they become more acculturated.

            We were in disguise, afraid of the

            serenity we might never feel, the horror

            of telling the truth. Existing in a variety

            of lost stages of fitting in and awkward 

            strength. We knew vices, deception

            and the way our imaginations were

            helpless to fight against the

            anonymity of what is called America. (28)

She is getting at an essential truth of the country. America often prides itself in being “a melting pot” of cultures, but the truth is that the dominant culture often strives consciously and unconsciously to make the new citizens change who they are and how they act to fit in and disappear. Her collection is often an exposition of how that happens and the anxiety and even terror of losing one’s identity. She describes cultural touchstones and a way of life for people who had been fishers.

     Millicent Borges Accardi’s Through a Grainy Landscape captures a mood and a feeling brilliantly. I am not an immigrant myself, so I doubt I can fully grasp the complexity of what she is doing, but this is a nuanced look at humanity, and it is exceptionally well done.

John Brantingham 8th April 2022

Nothing Is Being Suppressed: British Poetry of the 1970s by Andrew Duncan (Shearsman Books)

Nothing Is Being Suppressed: British Poetry of the 1970s by Andrew Duncan (Shearsman Books)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am glad Andrew Duncan has written his books about 20th century poetry, but I wish he’d do some proper research, reference material, and not be so opinionated (or at least use critical material to back up his arguments). But at least he is paying attention to what went on in the world of poetry (or parts of it), this time in 1970s Britain, the decade when I first encountered and paid attention to small presses and alternative bookshops, though in my case it was a weird mix of Brian Patten, Adrian Mitchell, Ted Hughes, Ken Smith and Julian Beck alongside T.S. Eliot and the WW1 poets I was studying at the time in school. For me though, postpunk and improvised music was in the mix, as well as experimental theatre and radical politics – and I wish poetry was sometimes considered in relation to what else was going on at the time.

There are, it has to be said, some great sections in this book, and it does feel like the most shaped and edited of Duncan’s critical volumes. That doesn’t of course, mean there isn’t his normal conjecture, assumption and generalisations, sometimes made using scant evidence. In fact the first chapter of Nothing is being suppressed is called ‘Generalisations about the Seventies’ which, despite my scepticism, is an intelligent series of statements ‘designed not to be controversial’ but ‘placed as the front as a basis’, a kind of foundation for what follows. It works well, even if one feels one can’t argue back to what is being presented as a given here.

Duncan it at his best when he writes at length about a subject, so chapter such as ‘Speaking Volumes’, a weirdly selective summary of what books were published when, and his quick dips into Conceptual Art and Visual Poetry are less successful. Yes, Michael Gibbs and John Powell Ward are good examples of the latter, but one can’t help feeling that Duncan is regurgitating information gathered up in a recent Uniform Books edition on the former, and that other visual poetry by the likes of Bob Cobbing also deserve attention.

Chapters on ‘Psychedelic Coding’ and ‘Post-western’ (not cowboys but Western society seen through fringe science, home and landscape: a good example of wider contextualisation) are better, if brief, whilst elsewhere Duncan seems to want to elevate a few selected names. There’s a whole chapter on Colin Simms and his poems of American experience, whilst the oddly titled chapter ‘The Bloodshed, the Shaking House‘ creates a kind of alternative history, or ‘folklore’, where ‘Martin Thom and Brian Marley are remembered as the supreme moments of the Seventies, the excelling goals for journeys to bring the dace back to life.’ Their work is interesting but one gets the feeling of a desperate attempt at literary mouth-to-mouth resuscitation long after the corpse has gone cold.

Elsewhere, another strangely titled chapter, ‘The Geothermal Turret: News of Warring Clans‘, turns out to be an erudite and considered critique of Prynne’s work; in fact one of the most lucid discussions of his poetry I’ve read. It’s a highlight of the book, along with chapters on Iain Sinclair, Allen Fisher (though I think this is mostly drawn from Duncan’s book of interviews with him – apologies if this is wrong), and a discussion about ‘Who Owns the Future?’, where Duncan questions the critical elevation of Ken Smith and Basil Bunting. This is mostly intelligent and well-reasoned, although I fail to see why Smith’s marvellous Fox Running prompts Duncan to ask ‘Why doesn’t Smith describe feelings?’ Because the reader can work them out from the events and description in the text; they don’t need to be explicit!

In a strange example of synchronicity, I’d been rereading and listening to Briggflatts before my copy of the book arrived. I can understand Duncan’s suspicions about the imposition of a new canon or hierarchy but it seems to me that there are obvious answers to be had. Ken Smith was one of two Bloodaxe authors who the publisher managed to get high profile publicity for: in Smith’s case this was mostly the result of him being writer-in-residence at Wormwood Scrubs prison. Bunting was very much a neglected modernist, and – as Duncan I’m sure knows – was reintroduced to the poetry world by Tom Pickard, at a time when modernism was being reconsidered, and ‘poetry of the North’, ideas of place and locale, as well as dialect and excluded voices, were in vogue. That doesn’t mean I don’t rate both these poets and texts highly, it’s just the way things happened. I for one am glad that both Fox Running and Briggflatts remain in print and continue to attract readers.

Strangely, neither of these texts get a mention in the other fantastic chapter, where Duncan considers ‘the Long Poem of the 1970s’ by discussing the long poems, plural, of the era. Duncan makes a strong case for them being ‘a feature of the 1970s’, offers up a lengthy but selective reading list, and then offers brief comments on a strange selection of these, often ­ missing out texts I’m not alone in thinking important, e.g Ted Hughes’ Crow. Perhaps Duncan feels enough words and time have been spent analysing the more famous poems he names, perhaps he is attempting to be inclusive, write about his favourites, or draw attention to neglected work? There’s also, of course, the possibility that what he writes about had more of a presence at the time, although I’m not convinced.

Whilst it’s good to see long poems or sequences by W.S. Graham, David Jones (a bit of a shoe-in), Harry Guest, (An)Tony Lopez, Allen Fisher, and Andrew Crozier included, I’m far less interested in the work of Jeremy Reed, Ian Crichton Smith and George Macbeth (who Duncan disses anyway). There’s an interesting conclusion to the chapter, noting the practical and financial difficulties of publishing long poems in magazines, proposing that long poems were ‘a line of advance’, and suggesting that 

‘The starting point for these poems is questions which are rather older and which were often put by readers of poetry. The questions where, what is your moral and theological vision? And what is your political commitment and system? The long poems connect to the questions but don’t answer them […]’

I’m not convinced, although Duncan is astute in realising that long poems were often written due to ‘internal exile, a rejection of the values of the news media and of what political and cultural authorities were saying.’ He also notes that ‘rejection could either be from the Right of the Left and was certainly more to do with the failure of authority than with dislike of their success.’

He mentions Judith Kazantzis here, someone whose work I certainly feel is neglected, but mostly adheres to the binary notion of ‘mainstream poets like Thwaite, Hooker, Wain, Hill, Humphreys’ (despite recognizing that their work is ‘similar to the alternative poetry’) in opposition to ‘the Underground’, cynically suggesting that ‘[t]here was an alternative everything‘ and that in the end ‘[t]he unavoidable questions of the mid-70s were resolved by a wide-spectrum surrender to the power of capital’ and that ‘[a]lternatives became less fascinating.’

Yes, but… Resolved or defeated? Isn’t there a difference? And what about new innovative and experimental poetries that emerged despite the collapse of the so-called Underground? Just as small publishers found new ways to sell their books after the collapse of alternative bookshops, just as society changed and adapted after the end of the 60s utopian dream, poets found new audiences, new forms, new media, new ways of publishing, new ways to write. In his ‘Afterword’, Duncan offers a different picture, accepting that ‘you can see the Underground as a river that breaks up into dozens of shallow streams and finally runs into the sand.’ I’m a cynic at heart, but this seems simplistic and negative, reductionist even. I’m interested in some of those streams, and believe that some find routes to other lakes and oceans.

I can’t help feeling that Duncan sometimes strays too close to the mainstream, focussing on published books, whilst choosing to stay away from performance poetry (where are John Cooper Clarke and Attila the Stockbroker in Duncan’s 1970s?), theatre or stand-up. Maybe even song lyrics (Howard Devoto anyone?), let alone the freeform improvisations of Julie Tippets and Maggie Nichols at the London Musicians Collective which might be considered as sound poetry? And where is Michael Horovitz? Surely he at least deserves a mention?

No, nothing is being suppressed, least of all by Andrew Duncan. There’s no conspiracy, but I want a bigger, different picture. I know  that part of this is to do with taste (it always is), but I can’t help feeling Duncan doesn’t quite play his cards straight here: is this a survey, a critical book, or Andrew Duncan’s extended desert island books? How critically detached or emotionally invested is he? ‘There is grey sludge underneath consciousness’, he declaims in his discussion of liminality and the sublime, a sludge Duncan thankfully keeps well away from, preferring to stay in the sludge-free thinking zone.

In the end, the ‘Afterword’ lets Duncan cover his tracks. He notes that the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn in 2019 has added another layer to his and our perception of radicalism, and altered the underlying thesis of how he began this book, and acknowledges that ‘[t]here is a whole world of alternative poets today’, at the same time giving a nod to visual arts and literary theorists. He concludes by answering some of my questions, stating that he wanted ‘to rescue things that have never been written down and which are threatened with forgetfulness and decay’, and declaring that he is ‘describing what people said and wrote in the 1970s’ whilst flagging up the problem with setting aside ‘what people in 2020 [and presumably 2022] think about the time and what selective memory processes have been set in motion to cover up deception.’ If he almost undermines the whole project with his jibe that ‘any kind of marketing is better than total oblivion’, he then recovers enough for an upbeat ending, where despite ‘discontinuity’ there is ‘a whole theme park of abandoned poetic projects’ to explore. I can’t see how Duncan can dissociate himself from contemporary poetry and thought, but once again he has produced an intelligent, provocative and sometimes annoying volume.

Rupert Loydell 31st March 2022

City On The Second Floor by Matt Sedillo (Flower Song Press)

City On The Second Floor by Matt Sedillo (Flower Song Press)

Matt Sedillo’s City on the Second Floor is a bit of a departure stylistically for Sedillo. Sedillo, who has worked with Los Angeles poets like Luis Rodriguez, David Romero, and Luivette Resto, often deals with the profound historical inequities of people, especially people of color, in the United States. This newest collection is less a discussion of how history affects us and how those forces continue to tread upon the poor and more of a sociological approach to these same factors. He looks at the ways in which the country is designed to keep marginalized people in a permanent state of poverty, and how the national morality is designed to denigrate those who need help.

            The titular poem, “City on the Second Floor,” is a discussion of how Los Angeles is really two cities and those without wealth will never be allowed on the second floor where the power resides. He writes:

            Here 

In the space between 

Worker and destination

Conversation spins profit 

And no one moves without reason 

And no one speaks without purpose 

Here 

The word is stillborn 

A commodity 

And the world dies anew.

This is the heart of the collection. Where previous collections have focused on history, his newest work talks about how systemic inequity functions. These are not hopeless so much as they are angry about the institutions that continue poverty. 

     He focuses a number of poems on higher education, especially the community college system which does not serve its population well, and creates inequality for most of its faculty. Most of the faculty on these campuses are adjunct professors without any job protection or health benefits, and without rehire rights, so their jobs might disappear on a whim. The people most likely to remain in these positions are people of color. In his persona poem, “Adjunct Professor,” Sedillo writes from the point of view of a Mexican-American professor of English:

Early westward visionary and pioneer

                        Of land speculation

                                                And underpaying Mexicans

                                                            A tradition to which my labor

                                                Is accustomed

             And a practice to which  my employers

                                   Both prior and current  

                                                            Have proven themselves   

Not only to be among the grandest of enthusiasts

But also, the most ardent of practitioners.  

The educational system keeps the professor in a state of permanent poverty with the promise that he might at some time get a tenure track job that never comes. Students in this system are equally at risk. He highlights this in “To Serve Hispanics” when he references how college administrations have debated whether to help the nearly twenty percent of their students who are unhoused every year:

            Boards of trustees

Debating

Safe spaces

For students

To sleep in

Parking lots

Perchance to dream

Of a way of life

Many colleges have argued about whether they should allow students who sleep in their cars to sleep in college parking lots. Most have not allowed this, forcing their students to find other ways to make it through the night.

     Sedillo of course does not limit himself to these institutions. His criticism is widespread and fights against a society that would try to keep its people in their place. It is a collection filled with anger and calls to arms. 

John Brantingham 22nd March 2022

Why is Poetry Important to today’s society?

Why is Poetry Important to today’s society?

Poetry, like music, can provide a kind of atmosphere to echo or assure a reader, share in their mood, or provide one. It can also, like novels, serve as a kind of escape, allegory, or humor as we face or need respite from life’s difficulties. But what I find I come back to poetry for are insights into the deeper questions—life, nature, connection, existence, the cosmos. It is not that poetry answers the great questions, but that it asks with us and participates somehow in our being. 

I think of the deep reflective poetry of John Donne (“Death be not proud…”), poems by Gerard Manly Hopkins in moments of depression but also doubt about belief and then a reconnection with his God (ie “Carrion Comfort”) or Frost’s poems which are on one level simple observations of natural spaces he passes along in walks but on another level have to do with how he decides to live and direct his life, or how he keeps on keeping on. 

When I think of contemporary poetry, I think these are the things which draw me to authors like Anne Carson, whose poetry contains characters, philosophy, history and the confusion of everyday being that both interrogates my own existence and allows me distance to watch someone else doing the hard work of wandering along, struggling with love and rejection, meaning and time. Or I think of Shrikanth Reddy’s Facts for Visitors and now-native Georgia poet Andrew Zawacki and the deep beauty in their poetry. 

Lastly, I am a poet who has lived across multiple languages and countries, initially grounded in Iowa but now living in France, so the poetry by contemporary authors which is focused on interrogating family, migration/immigration and ancestral connections in wholly new ways is the writing I come to most: Myung Mi Kim’s Under Flag to Commons, Craig Santos Perez’s first 4 books from his unincorporated territory series telling of his roots in Guam and old family vs attachments to the USA via Hawaii and new family, Bhanu Kapil’s Incubation: A Story of Monsters with its cyborg version of herself—an Indian-Brit residing in the USA trying to figure out how to belong, American author now living in New Zealand Lisa Samuels Anti M which is a new version of an autobiography or the slightly older texts which paved the way to these: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet Lyn Hejinian (My Life but also her recent, exciting text for our times Tribunal) or Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s mixed language text Dictée (first and only book, published on the day she passed away). 

Poetry connects me simultaneously to myself, and to the world and universe I am part of. It is a deep form of art which, in this current time of pandemic, is one of the strongest examples of hope, or methods of hoping. This is why I think poetry is fundamental to and for society.

Jennifer K. Dick 14th March 2022

Atoms by Clive Gresswell (erbacce press)

Atoms by Clive Gresswell (erbacce press)

Atoms is a free flowing pamphlet-length prose poem, a sinuous sweep through the first quarter of the 21st century as it lurches into and out of lockdown. I’m reminded of Carl Jung’s essay on James Joyce’s Ulysses in which he refers to the work as a cosmic tapeworm. Jung initially wants us to see this as an insult, characterising writing he saw produced as much by an autonomic nervous system as by an aesthetic intelligence. But something in Jung’s writing feels conflicted. It’s as if he almost admires Ulysses for its parasitic processing power. And as it turns out, he does. He says of the book:

     There is life in it, and life in never exclusively evil and destructive…it wants to be an 

     eye of the moon, a consciousness detached from the object, in thrall neither to the 

     gods, nor to sensuality, and bound neither by love nor hate, neither by conviction nor 

     by prejudice ‘Ulysses’ does not preach this but practices it—detachment of 

     consciousness is the goal the through the fog of this book

Atoms is a tape worm. It is the 21st century eating itself. It has an internal logic this way, it has aesthetics this way, and in this way it is alive. You don’t feel the sense of the poet behind the poem, generating the old A level questions, what is Gresswell thinking? what does he mean? The writing can do that for itself, thank you. It’s a clever worm, a socialist worm, a worm that frankly has to stomach a lot when it comes to eating history. Deep down it’s probably quite glad to be a worm, that it doesn’t have to retch, or stop to demonstrate its outrage. It can leave that to the reader, maybe even its author, but it won’t care about that. The best writing has long since ceased to care for its author:

     Some of the atomic figures were fictitious. The prime minister instilled a sense of

     calm into the proceedings. More zygotes wrapped themselves around the institutions. 

     They bled racism into the walls of their buildings. Hurrah for common sense and the  jaws of death.  (p.6)

Try and figure out the series of ironies here, finishing with that ‘hurrah’. That last sentence is like the ghost in the machine—who says this? The are aspects to the writing that look programmatic, or like a form of cut-up or fold-in, splicing different words and phrases against each other. Here you can imagine the ‘atomic figures’ and ‘zygotes’ could just be dropped in from the discourse suggested by the title of the poem, but in another way they just feel literal, like the sentence between them (except, of course, when has our prime minister done this, really?). And that’s it.   

The language of atoms and zygotes keeps breaking the surface, as if a submerged and subversive force, pre-sentient, questioning us as to who is in charge. The political, the social, undermined by the real drivers, particles, cells, chaos theory: 

     No more night flying caffeine cells to dispute wages dismantled by atomic discipline and wiring.  (p.11)

     Foot-first though the frostbit forest. Matriculation in the atomic sequence. No one 

     here to captivate an audience.  (p.16)

     Still pumping hard a faithful heart draws blood rushing crucifixion to the art of 

     capital atoms. Capital letters adorning wisps of lager clouds.  (pp.27-28)

The connection between the senses of ‘capital’ here isn’t metaphoric, it’s literal. Something in Atoms wants to tell us that nothing is metaphor, everything is contiguous, metonymy. 

Atoms is angry. Who is it angry with? Trump, Johnson and Starmer are named targets, but across the whole piece it seems plain that Atoms is angry with an ideology, a neo-liberal ideology underpinned by the return of humanism. It is angry to know that beneath everything, humanism is not humane. You can see the influence of Sean Bonney in this poem, but with one major difference. Bonney’s work takes things personally, and there is a subject position to suffer it all for us. Here Gresswell’s text presents no subject: if you feel the abjection consequent to its violence, there is no proxy. You take it. You have to live here:

     Recalled and on pianos in destitution unfurled by Universal Credit music. Fashions  come and go in times of rigor mortise. (p.35)

Keith Jebb 12th March 2022

Tears in the Fence 75 is out!

Tears in the Fence 75 is out!

Tears in the Fence 75 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, prose poetry, translations, fiction, flash fiction and creative nonfiction by Mandy Pannett, Greg Bright, Penny Hope, David Sahner, Stephen Paul Wren, Alexandra Fössinger, Mark Russell, Maurice Scully, Gavin Selerie, Mandy Haggith, Lynne Cameron, Sarah Watkinson, Jeremy Hilton, Gerald Killingworth, Lesley Burt, Nic Stringer, Sam Wilson-Fletcher, Lilian Pizzichini, Paul Kareem Tayyar, Beth Davyson, Rethabile Masilo, Tracy Turley, Olivia Tuck, Elisabeth Bletsoe & Chris Torrance’s Thirteen Moon Renga, Wei Congyi Translated by Kevin Nolan, Basil King, Robert Sheppard, Lucy Ingrams, John Freeman, Mélisande Fitzsimons, Deborah Harvey, David Harmer, David Ball, Rupert M. Loydell, Jeremy Reed, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Sian Thomas, Chaucer Cameron, Huw Gwynn-Jones and Simon Collings.

The critical section consists of editorial, essays, articles and critical reviews by David Caddy, Elisabeth Bletsoe Remembering Chris Torrance, Jeremy Reed on The Letters of Thom Gunn, Simon Collings’ ecocritical perspective of Rae Armantrout, Isobel Armstrong on Peter Larkin, Barbara Bridger on Barbara Guest, Andrew Duncan on Elisabeth Bletsoe & Portland Tryptich, Frances Presley on Harriet Tarlo,  Simon Jenner on Geoffrey Hill, Steve Spence on Sarah Crewe, Mandy Pannett on Charles Wilkinson, Clark Allison on Ken Edwards, Guy Russell on Paul Vangelisti, Norman Jope on Ariana Reines, Lyndon Davies on Elena Rivera and Scott Thurston, Harriet Tarlo on Carol Watts, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue 10 and Notes On Contributors.

Revolutionary Letters by Diana Di Prima (Silver Press)

Revolutionary Letters by Diana Di Prima (Silver Press)

This new U.K. edition of Revolutionary Letters gathers up fifty years of Di Prima’s anarchic and insightful series of poems which she started writing back in 1968. Moving to New York City in the 1950s she embedded herself in the alternative culture of the Beatniks in Greenwich Village before embracing the Black Panther movement, drugs, feminism, counterculture politics, direct action, and what we now call small press publishing.

The book contains freeform rants, comments upon topical events, advice to friends and/or would-be revolutionaries, lists, cynicism, utopian ideologues and utopian dreams. Somewhat surprisingly, alongside the down-to-earth survival techniques she shares there is also the presence of the spiritual weaving through her work alongside questioning insight:

   You cannot write a single line w/ out a cosmology

   a cosmogony

   laid out, before all eyes

   […]

   There is no way out of the spiritual battle

   the war is the war against the imagination

   you can’t sign up as a conscientious objector.          (‘Revolutionary Letter #75’)

   As soon as we submit

   to a system based on causality, linear time

   we submit, again, to the old values, plunge again

   into slavery.                                                              (‘Revolutionary Letter #51’)

At other times, however, she is jubilantly optimistic and proclaimative:

   I will not rest

   till we walk free & fearless on the earth

   each doing in the manner of his blood

   & tribe, peaceful in the free air             (‘Revolutionary Letter #20’)

Other poems offer dialogue with other poets – be they famous or unknown, or immediate responses to local (the NYC police clearing Tompkins Park of the homeless, her neighbours’ need for money or food) and international events such as 9/11, The Gulf War, or The Occupy movement:

   Occupy the planet

   the Oceans

   as well

               as the Land

   Mind is unlimited

   Can go anywhere

   Occupy the Night Sky,

   Mother Nuit

   Occupy your breath

   Your Body & remember

   We are one Body

   Occupy with Love                   (‘Revolutionary Letter #108’)

I like the fact Di Prima is often angry, sometimes anti-technology (‘did you ever try to email chicken soup?’) informative and instructive, and that her work includes both elation and despair. She cuts through the crap of political rhetoric, points out what is important in society – be that local or international, and reminds us that we can change the world as individuals, starting with where we live, how we live and who we live with or next to. It’s easy to be cynical about poems as a container of comment or narrative, let alone as a catalyst for revolution, but it’s also good to be reminded that words do affect us and can inspire, effect and facilitate change.

Di Prima’s work, like that of Adrian Mitchell, Kenneth Patchen and Julian Beck, can often be labelled simplistic and obvious, naive and unnuanced, but as I numbly watch the bombs fall on Ukraine and wonder what on earth I can do, it’s good to be reminded as a writer that poetry can matter:

   What matters:

                            the memory

   of the poem

                            taking root in

   thousands

                            of minds…           (‘Revolutionary Letter #110’)

Rupert Loydell 9th March 2022

VOU: Visual Poetry Tokio 1958-1978, ed Taylor Mignon (Isobar Press)

VOU: Visual Poetry Tokio 1958-1978, ed Taylor Mignon (Isobar Press)

This intriguing anthology features the work of nine visual poets active in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s, artists whose work was largely ignored by the mainstream and which, as a consequence, has been little documented. 

The VOU Club, from which the anthology takes its name, was founded by Kitasono Katue in 1935. His pioneering work in abstract and visual poetry influenced the younger generation of poets featured in the anthology. Kitasono maintained links with a wide range of writers, corresponding with Ezra Pound, James Laughlin, Kenneth Rexroth, and the Brazilian concrete poet Haroldo de Campos. He was also involved in Surrealism. 

The poems in the anthology tend to the purely abstract, making little or no use of words and letters, even as graphic elements. Where text is used the artists generally shun Japanese characters, perhaps in reaction to a tendency of Western poets to see Japanese ideograms as exotic. The techniques employed vary from photographic media, to collage, to drawing. Dada and Surrealism are obvious influences. 

There are many delightful images in the book. One of my favourites is ‘two people eating the moon’ by Tsuji Setsuko, whose work has a strong Surrealist style.  She used a camera to create her poems, photographing her own collages. She edited an avant-garde magazine O which featured the work of several of the poets included in this book.

The influence of Surrealism, in this case the paintings of Magritte, is again evident in ‘anti-illusion 2’ by Shimizu Toshihiko. He was a jazz critic who wrote the liner notes for Japanese issues of albums by Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra, and whose collages appear on the covers of albums by the Stan Tracey Sextet and the Masahiko Togashi Trio. The Japanese characters in ‘anti-illusion 2’ include fleeting references to jazz.

Another interesting image is Seki Shiro’s ‘plastic poem: parole sans parole b-2’, part of a series featuring different letters incorporated into abstract visual designs. He was associated with Tsuji Setsuko’s O before founding his own influential magazine δ.

A number of the artists included in this anthology had or have international connections and have shown and published their work in Europe, North America and elsewhere. Seki Shiro, for example has exhibited many times in Europe. Takahashi Shôhachirô, who died in 2014, also exhibited internationally, including a joint show in Los Angeles with Ian Hamilton Finlay, and exhibitions with Fluxus artists Dick Higgins and Shiomi Mieko.

VOU regularly published experimental non-Japanese artists and writers in its journal. This international orientation, suggests Eric Selland in his helpful introduction, may be one of the reasons the Japanese mainstream, preoccupied at the time with defining a new Japanese identity, marginalized these artists. Another contributing factor might be the intermedial nature of the work raising questions about whether this was ‘poetry’ or ‘visual art’. A third reason for the comparative neglect of this group perhaps lies with Western poets being more interested in Zen and haiku than in experimental poetry. 

The anthology has an interesting history which underlines how precarious is the survival of much of this material. The editor, Taylor Migon, began researching Japanese avant-garde visual poetry more than twenty years ago. His desire to put together an anthology led him to the American scholar and publisher Karl Young of Light & Dust, who proposed publishing the work online and as a CD-ROM. A limited selection of work was posted online, but the project did not progress beyond this. 

Young died in 2015 but left instructions for his executors that the planned anthology with Mignon should be published. Funds were supposedly available for this in Japan but never materialized. However, Mignon was able to recover a great deal of material he had sent Young and had feared was lost. Paul Rossiter at Isobar Press then stepped in and VOU: Visual Poetry Tokio, 1958–1978, which is dedicated to Young’s memory, is the result.

An online archive of material published by Karl Young’s Light & Dust, available here, gives a good sense of the wider context within which Japanese avant-garde art was circulating. The website includes a section on Kitasono Katue, but also features a wide array of work from different parts of the world, work by bpNichol, Michael McClure, a Fluxus section, and much more. 

VOU: Visual Poetry Tokio, 1958–1978 is a fascinating addition to a small body of publications in English which document the avant-garde tradition in Japanese poetry and its international links. Mignon provides useful contextual information in an Afterword to the book, as well as including a page of biographical data on each of the poets featured. There is also an excellent Bibliography for anyone wanting to explore further. 

Simon Collings 8th March 2022

Little Elegies for Sister Satan by Michael Palmer (New Directions)

Little Elegies for Sister Satan by Michael Palmer (New Directions)

Michael Palmer has been widely lauded for his voluminous body of work.  He may be considered a poet’s poet whose output exhibits a dynamic range, even within a single volume such as his latest collection, Little Elegies for Sister Satan.  Palmer has defied categorization.  The litany of adjectives that come to mind in describing this shape-shifter’s work might variably include cerebral, philosophical, allusive, and surreal.  Some of his lines are sprinkled with religious references; politically charged observations about child soldiers are on hand, and even the odd scatological turn of phrase.  Unusual, to say the least, is a book a poetry mentioning the Higgs boson in the same line as the Knave of Hearts.  He also can be tongue-in-cheek, yet even several of his stray thoughts and lighter aphoristic poems showcase mastery.  Palmer’s lines are typically populated by eye-widening turns of phrase delivered with musical sensibility.  His use of rhythm and meter mimics that of a virtuosic percussionist, and he will often deftly dust a poem with rhyme and half-rhyme sweet to the ear.

Throughout this collection, and especially among the poems in the last section, Palmer is acutely aware of his poetic heritage.  He is, in fact, in dialog with his forbears.  In this volume these include Han Shan, as well as Fernando Pessoa (and his fictional poetic heteronym, Alberto Caeiro).  In one poem Han Shan converses with T.S. Eliot as if they were two poetic slivers or ‘selves’ of Palmer, one of whom prods the other (with a tip of the hat to Prufrock): ‘So let us go then, / you and I, to / that place where / there is no time.’  Palmer’s eclectic poetic and artistic influences are consistent with the refractoriness of his work to easy pigeon-holing of his work.  Epigraphs from Osip Mandelstam and Zbigniew Herbert are to be found, as well as the names of numerous artists, writers, and intellectuals – the reflection of an omnivorous mind.  In one poem, for example, we find a reference to Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian.  Several shadows have loomed over Palmer’s career, including Samuel Beckett, Paul Celan, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan, but the list is likely endless.  

Little Elegies for Sister Satan, although no stranger to the occasional surrealist poem, such as ‘The Cats of Cremona,’ is, perhaps, most notable for the ambitious and lengthy titular sequence, with which it opens.  This suite, ‘Little Elegies for Sister Satan,’ consists of eleven elegies and three ‘commentaries.’ It might be claimed that, in this cycle of poems, one poet holds the greatest sway, namely Wallace Stevens.  While Stevens was an inveterate atheist (until, possibly, shortly before his death), he wrote of ‘The Necessary Angel,’ the human constructs of reality that inform poetry.  Here, however, in Palmer’s opening sequence, we have, rather than an angel, ‘Sister Satan’ who serves as a symbol for the false promise of language.  

Both Stevens and Palmer are preoccupied with poetics and, particularly, the inadequacies of the written word.  Stevens, despite his capacious intellect and poetic gifts, ultimately had to content himself with notes toward a supreme fiction, cognizant as he was of the vast crevasse between reality and our human imaginings of it.  Stevens’ later ‘hibernal’ poems speak of a cold and sparse reality, ten times removed from our fabricated renderings of the world we inhabit.  In fact, in Stevens’ ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,’ we find these telling lines: ‘I should name you flatly . . .  / Check your evasions, hold you to yourself. / . . . You / Become the soft-footed phantom, the irrational / Distortion, however fragrant, however dear.’  In ‘Add this to Rhetoric,’ Stevens speaks of ‘evading metaphor.’  This poet understood the limits of poetry.  The irreparable schism between reality and the imagination, and our inability to completely understand or capture the true essence of things in language, led Stevens, I think, to a write a despondent couplet in his poem, ‘The Plain Sense of Things,’ as he contemplated mortality and the value of his oeuvre toward the end of his career:  ‘A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition / In a repetitiousness of men and flies.’ 

In the Eleventh Elegy in Palmer’s suite, ‘Little Elegies for Sister Satan,’ affinities between Stevens and Palmer become clear.  We are told, that ‘the sea is an abecedarium.’  Neither this sea nor the sisterhood of Sister Satan (Poetry) saves or comforts the poet-narrator.   ‘Words don’t mean anything’ and the poet must wait.  For what, precisely?  The supreme fiction?  The poet continues to wait endlessly, of course: ‘. . . And I waited in the alphabet’s shadow, waited . . . for the words to reveal their names.’  Still, toward the end of the poem, the poet must contend with a world inhabited by ‘two suns and two moons’: reality and the dull mirror of the world expressed in language.  Twins that can never be reconciled.  

Later in Palmer’s collection, a poet is likened to a ‘prophet with no tongue’.  At times, given the limitations of language, he favors silence over speech.  Palmer believes the words we use are flawed, but, in ‘Solunar Tables,’ they appear to be all we possess: ‘our alphabets without end / that spell themselves / and weave themselves / into a trembling web as the poem.’  The gossamer-like insubstantiality of the poem, foregrounded here, takes on a beauty of its own, rooted, in part, in its transience in the arc of the universe.  Many other outstanding poems fill these pages, such as ‘The Bell’ (an ode to a trumpeter, who, like the poet, knows that the tune “must come out wrong / such is song) and ‘Pillows of Stone.’  Some might argue that Palmer’s work is ‘difficult,’ but almost all the poems in his latest collection carry interpretable meaning, which may be nuanced.  Active reader participation is, however, advised if the marrow of these poems is to be savored. 

David Sahner 5th March 2022

Same But Different by Helen Mort & Katrina Naomi (Hazel Press)

Same But Different by Helen Mort & Katrina Naomi (Hazel Press)

     This enthralling collection is a collaborative project by two award-winning poets that was developed during the lockdown of 2020 in a dialogue between Penzance and Sheffield. They exchanged artwork and their favourite poems, and doing so triggered the compositions that were published without attribution after a year of conversation. Hazel Press focuses on environmental issues, climate change and feminist writing, emphasising the possibilities of renewal and survival. The poems in this collection are loosely and poignantly in line with these themes and go beyond them. The poems work in pairs and are divided into ten sections that are reminders of lockdown situations, such as the future, reflection, rise and take or give. Instinctively, we read the poems in pairs and probably think that maybe one was written by Naomi and the other by Mort. But which poem did each of them write? We will never know.

     In a podcast recorded at the LRB bookshop they explain that the process started from images they exchanged and a poem. Then they wrote two poems in response, producing something that they call ‘the same and different’. However, nothing is ‘the same’ in this collection; each poem is unique in its skilfully crafted language and fresh imageries:

[…] At dusk, 

I open the pantry door and he charges towards it 

barreling, a ball of midnight, muscular shadow,

come to shame me with his bravery. In India, 

in the north where wild bamboo grows

there is a rat flood every fifty years.

[…]

When rats move past me

I become a figure of speech in his damp world.

Which of us is living now? We are finished 

with words.                                                               (‘Rat’)

     One poem answers another, though they are not necessarily in the same pair. Multiple strands interweave with different topics, such as animals, the outdoors, family, children, writing, successes and failures, and the pandemic is always subtly present. Time magically expands in a constant meditation as if it has no limits. We have time for everything and for nothing during the lockdown: everything might happen and yet we live with restrictions and limitations. It is the imagination that therefore creates this expansion. Thoughts unravel and produce what is impossible in the real world, at least for a while:

the first time she finds herself      among brown strands

between fear and wonder      floating      in this other world

of upside down       a place a person could wed herself to

so much dank silence       beyond her breath       the gentle

murmur of limbs       in suspension       their arc and splay

there’s no peace like this in the dry country

(‘in the kelp forest’)

     The atmosphere evoked in the poem is a reminder of Alice in Wonderland, its dreamlike tone, weightless fall and suspension in the rabbit hole symbolically linked to the conditions during the pandemic.

     In this fruitful dialogue, friendship and sisterhood flourished between Naomi and Mort. However, their communion develops in independent paths in a multifaceted vision that is committed to conveying seriously good poetry. The power of imagination is therefore revealed in all its strength; it fills the void of the pandemic in the act of storytelling that is renewing despite drawbacks and failures:

Each morning, I have filled myself

to brimming with the scent of our child,

with coffee and good intentions,

playgroups and home-made dens

then each evening I have set myself down

on an unmade bed, emptied.                                               (‘Glass’)

As soon as I’d cleaned my aching teeth

I focused on failure

hugged it to me for hours

After a quick soup and salad

I took my failure for a walk

paraded it round the village each day

saw the tide rise and fall on                                     (‘Small Yellow Boat’)

The poets eventually invest in emotions. Their feelings guide them in the intricacies of the unpredictable and apparent ordinariness of the lockdown, its silence and forced stillness. The dynamic of creativity breaks this destiny and spurs new views and new forms.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 21st February 2022

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