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‘the green edge of yesterday’
In 1958 William Carlos Williams wrote his ‘autobiography of the works of a poet’ in conversation with Edith Heal. The title of the book was unflinchingly clear: I Wanted to Write a Poem. In the early pages Williams talked about the writing of his 1920 publication Kora in Hell: Improvisations and gave an account of its inception:
“For a year I used to come home and no matter how late it was before I went to bed I would write something. And I kept writing, writing, even if it were only a few words, and at the end of the year there were 365 entries. Even if I had nothing in my mind at all I put something down…They were a reflection of the day’s happenings more or less, and what I had had to do with them.”
Realising that he would need to “interpret” these thoughts Williams found a book that Ezra Pound had left in his house, Varie Poesie dell’ Abate Pietro Metastasio, Venice, 1795 and he took the method used by the Abbot of drawing a line between his improvisations (“those more or less incomprehensible statements”) and his interpretations of them. Williams chose the frontispiece to his volume from a drawing done by a young artist from Gloucester, Stuart Davis: “It was, graphically, exactly what I was trying to do in words, put the Improvisations down as a unit on the page. You must remember I had a strong inclination all my life to be a painter. Under different circumstances I would rather have been a painter than to bother with these god-damn words. I never actually thought of myself as a poet but I knew I had to be an artist in some way. Anyhow, Floss and I went to Gloucester and got permission from Stuart Davis to use his art – an impressionistic view of the simultaneous.” And it is that impressionistic view of what happens in the present that seems to haunt David Miller’s deeply moving new volumes, heralding in a new year, a New decade: moments of memory appearing sharply in focus before the merging together of movements. An “arcade in memory or dream” precedes the “pianist forced to dig hard earth with his fingers” but one who “played no more”.
Threading its path through the twenty lyrical pieces of Matrix I there is “calligraphy entwined with drawing” as “my words entwined her art”. Personal recollections are given the exactness of place and Miller’s musical rhythms sound drawn by the “ink & Chinese brushes / bought in a Chinese supermarket // in Gerrard Street / c. 1973”. Descending “the chines / in darkness // & in wind” the poet remembers “how I phoned you one evening / in despair” and the quietness of personal recollection borrows movement from a reading of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem ‘The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo’ in which the ending of the first section (“Despair, despair, despair, despair”) is followed by the echo which is golden:
There is one, yes I have one (Hush there!),
Only not within seeing of the sun.
Not within the singeing of the strong sun,
Tall sun’s tingeing, or treacherous the tainting of the earth’s air,
Somewhere elsewhere there is ah well where! one,
Miller’s movement is from “despair” to an impressionistic reconstruction which merges the domestic and the ubiquitous:
“30 years later we met again
& soon after we married
so many wasted years
amongst fickle & false friends
along with the few
who truly counted
– in dream
a tiny being sylph-like
clogged with mud
stranded in a gutter
crying for help”
In late Latin the word ‘matrix’ refers to the womb: that dark place in which new growth commences and, as we stand upon the bones of the past, we can glimpse both who and where we are. It is with this movement forward that Matrix II opens with “a bent tree by / the water’s edge” and “now in Dorset // an old farmhouse / & converted outbuilding”.
David Miller’s impressionistic world of sight and sound, of memory and desire, is an unforgettable realisation of the movement of age:
but going back
I slept little that night
dreaming of friends…dead
who had no desire
to protest or complain
nor to stay
These two lyrical sequences are a moving tribute to a poet’s awareness of the past. Like the fifth ‘Improvisation’ from Williams’s Kora there is a “beautiful white corpse of night” and voices are “restfully babbling of how, where, why and night is done and the green edge of yesterday has said all it could.”
Ian Brinton, January 1st 2020
William Carlos Williams, a Doctor from Rutherford, was convinced that something did indeed depend upon a ‘red wheel / barrow’ because he firmly believed that American culture was based upon a realization of the qualities of place in relation to the life which occupies it. Laurie Duggan, Australian poet who now lives in Kent, writes poems which share some of this concern and in his work minute and seemingly inert things come to life much as dry twigs become shoots and buds: speed is essential for such freshness. As the Australian critic and poet Fiona Wright noted on the back cover this is a “kind of history that is happening on the side-lines” and one of the memorable aspects of Duggan’s work is its ability to bring into sharp focus what seems to be caught out of the side of one’s eye. On the one hand in a public statement it possesses a dry wit such as the ‘Salute to the Cambridge Marxists’:
If you’re not at the High Table
you’re not in the room
On the other, in quiet memory of another gifted poet, Lee Harwood, an excursion to the South Coast is recorded in trees that were “partly flattened / by gales twenty years back” which are now “resuming a shape”:
a semblance of high wind,
clouds massing, the profile of a hilltop.
Turning his back on solemnity Duggan also notes in the same visit to Brighton “a mechanical duck pedals a tricycle / across a floor in Hove.” In the hands of a lesser poet there might be a temptation towards the sardonic here; in Laurie Duggan’s work it is more a Jonsonian wit. And, as he tells me, the mechanical duck was there and it was exactly what Lee would have delighted in!
The website of photographs which Laurie Duggan began some ten years ago can be located at graveneymarsh.blogspot.co.uk and the precise visualisation of carefully caught moments offers an interesting insight into his poetry.
One of Jack Spicer’s posthumously published volumes, A Red Wheelbarrow, was produced in an edition of 1000 copies by Arif Press, Berkeley in January 1973 and it opens with a tone that reminds me of Duggan’s work:
“Rest and look at this goddamned wheelbarrow. Whatever
It is. Dogs and crocodiles, sunlamps. Not
For their significance. For being human
The signs escape you.”
In his indispensable book on Spicer’s work, The Poetry of Jack Spicer (Edinburgh University Press, 2013), Daniel Katz wrote about these opening lines in terms of how Williams’s “characteristically inviting tone” gives way to the no less “characteristic Spicerian note of crochety querulousness”:
“No ideas but in things these lines seems to say, with their negation of significance and their recusal of metaphor, while the imperative to Rest and look immediately valorizes the visual, in line with Williams’ emphases again.”
That sharply focussed concern for the visual links Duggan’s and Spicer’s work and it is worth looking back at the opening lines of Spicer’s first ‘Imaginary Elegy’ from the late 1940s:
“Poetry, almost blind like a camera
Is alive in sight only for a second. Click,
Snap goes the eyelid of the eye before movement
Almost as the word happens.
One would not choose to blink and go blind
After the instant. One would not choose
To see the continuous Platonic pattern of birds flying
Long after the stream of birds had dropped or had nested.”
A camera freezes one moment in time and with that “click” followed by a “Snap” the moment is both caught and broken and, in a sense, the poem does become that “continuous Platonic pattern of birds flying” which can be looked at, still life, by other people in other times. One of Duggan’s poems from 1991 makes an interesting comparison here:
“Not to assume a mantle,
not to have you look so closely,
I refuse to be explicator;
instead, a wanderer
in a landscape prefigured
trying not to bend its edges
The camera of course offers precisely that edge, that separating of one moment from another within a stream and, by holding still in front of us an image of what is irremediably gone it echoes that Orphic sense of no return. The world of appearances, Art, consists of edges, contrasts, meeting-points of different phenomena: individuality. Art also acts as a constant reminder of what is not. In Spicer’s terms the only reason for valorizing what he goes on in ‘Imaginary Elegy I’ to call “These cold eternals” is because of their “support of / What is absolutely temporary”.
Laurie Duggan is not an explicator; he presents what he sees and a late snap is ‘DEMOLITION’:
“A square of houses, windows bricked in.
Around these, dust, gamblers, the edge of a market.
A block away streets resume their regular pattern”
For a moment I hear another voice, another influence: that of Charles Reznikoff.
Ian Brinton, 11th March 2018
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
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
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
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
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
One of the two epigraphs to Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems is the phrase that the poet overheard in 1953 at Black Mountain College when the cook, Cornelia Williams, said ‘All my life I’ve heard one makes many’. The phrase struck a chord with Olson and in his copy of A.N. Whitehead’s Process and Reality where the Ramsgate-born Mathematician and Philosopher had written ‘the term many presupposes the term one, and the term one presupposes the term many’ he scribbled ‘exactly Cornelia Williams, Black Mt kitchen, 1953’.
On the back of this beautifully produced new Shearsman collection of 100 short poems Fiona Wright has written ‘The small poems…slowly build up to a much larger narrative; a narrative of time and memory, of thinking and being in the world, a kind of history that is happening on the sidelines.’Or, to put it in Laurie Duggan’s words in ‘Allotment #62’:
to make much of little
where perception and act are one
each thing in its place
spread over the garden
poppy seeds of various hue
stolen from elsewhere
The delight of many of these poems, ‘Pansies’, pensées, is the sure touch of language in which that ‘perception’ and the act of the words on the page cohere to form a picture, a vignette. Some of them are just that: a picture, a photograph clicked in an instant:
a robin lands, curious
as I grub weeds
One can see the curiosity of the robin as though a head tilted to one side were there on the page; the movement from lightness of the bird to the more ponderous work of the man is caught in the contrast of sound between ‘lands’ and ‘grub’. The coherence of the picture is given to us with the dual meaning of that second word.
The connectedness between a sharply perceived ‘here’ and the shadow cast on the ground by a ‘then’ is held in
a moment’s silence
with Gael Turnbull,
Brigflatts Meeting House, 1987
on Hardknott Pass
The witty, almost mischievous, association between the surname of the founder of Migrant Press and the opening line of Bunting’s poem is never allowed to rest with the self-satisfaction that can come as the result of a pun; we have already moved on in time (‘later’) and the cold of the Pass bridges a ‘now’ and the builders of Hadrian’s Wall.
Laurie Duggan has an infectious awareness of history and his precision allows the reader to share moments rather like a pebble dropped in a well on the surface of which ‘stones ring.
All Hallows approaches
the bar strung with rubber bats,
obscure the windows.
Pepys drank in this pub
(the Thames, Wapping
above the tunnel
further out, rotten wharves,
hulks on the estuary bed
subject to slow rust
Ian Brinton 11th April 2014
Two new collections of living poetry brought to the surface by the
When Michael Farrell’s collection, Open Sesame, appeared from Giramondo Press in Australia two years ago it had this comment on the back cover: ‘This poetry can be unsettling, and its abstract music is passionate as well as parodic. Farrell’s fractured narratives seem to settle in the reader’s mind where they become a form of pure lyricism’.
The Australian poet Henry Lawson (to whose memory a statue of the poet accompanied by a swagman, a fencepost and a dog was put up in Sidney in the early 1930s) becomes the title of one of these new fast-moving pieces which merge the world of Michael McClure and that parodic humour pointed out the blurb above.
reading henry lawson
i go into the snow &
see a rainbow. cars have action: streets shriek
‘our love affair.’
Quoting the tones of
ICE ISLAND SIGHLAND SIC ICELANDIC EYES
backpack, head full of ‘i’
words. don’t make me rue
the day i took up Spanish things. (hold
the tool in your would be
In his introduction to Talking Poetics, Dialogues in Innovative Poetry (Shearsman 2011) Scott Thurston reminded us that ‘writings have their own secret life which escapes the writer, which eludes her or him, and without which the whole endless, sacrificial labour of writing would be worthless’. Scott’s new sequence, Figure Detached, Figure Impermanent, gives us that truth on the page as we confront mystery and a compassionate understanding of cultural values:
This poem has already been read for you. Isn’t a word a site
of interaction? No need to overcome disagreement when
you throw yourself away so easily. Source the act.
Recognise, reject pattern; find equilibrium. In the luxury of
the past she went into character as a listener, the witness just
another brick in the wall.
Both these chapbooks are full of humour: mischievous and graceful, sharp-edged as comments upon the world. Whether it is Scott Thurston’s nod in the direction of Samuel L. Jackson’s hit-man in Pulp Fiction who tells his partner that it is time for them to ‘get into character’ or Michael Farrell’s shift of the name of a French poet, so dear to contemporary poetics, into a self-pummelling verb of astonishment (‘mallar me’) there is a vibrancy about these two volumes which make them worth ordering immediately.
Ian Brinton 4th April 2014.