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The Purpose of Things: Illuminating the Ordinary Poetry by Peter Serchuk Photographs by Pieter de Koninck (Regal House Publishing)

The Purpose of Things: Illuminating the Ordinary Poetry by Peter Serchuk Photographs by Pieter de Koninck (Regal House Publishing)

            My friend Jane Edberg, who is a writer and visual artist, and I coined the term etymphrastic to describe visual arts that are created in direct reaction to poetry. It’s a counterpoint to ekphrastic, which describes poetry written in reaction to visual arts. I don’t know whether The Purpose of the Things: Illuminating the Ordinary is etymphrastic or ekphrastic because the photography by de Koninck and the poems by Serchuk work playfully together. My guess, however, is that whichever way it went this collection was probably done in a kind of joyful collaboration. I read this collection because of my admiration for Serchuk. I came to know his work through the New Voices Project, which will be publishing a book on April 18th. It is the work of dozens of writers and poets writing new work about the Holocaust. The hope is that we might understand it and keep learning new lessons from it. His work in this collection is painful, so I expected that same kind of thing here. Instead, what I read was joy. The Purpose of the Things: Illuminating the Ordinary is a playful collection that examines what things do for us and how they bring us joy; while I will be quoting the poetry in this article, the poetry is incomplete without the images that go with it, the image and poetry together forming the meaning of the book.

            This book of etymphrastic and ekphrastic work is innovative in its use of this approach, and its use of short measure as a poetic form. Short measure is a form defined by a quatrain of iambic verse using 6, 6, 8, 6 syllables in each line. The result of this is a bouncy, playful meter that is child-like without being childish. Serchuk’s poems stop after only two stanzas, so they are quick as well as being playful. However, it is the white space between poem and image that helps us to form meaning. For example, in The Purpose of Dirt,’ Serchuk writes, 

To bristle every broom.

To bury every war.

To wash the smirk off every face

that wears a righteous smile.

Asylum for the root.

Confetti for the dead.

To know the work in any man

by scouring his hands (45).

The image that accompanies the poem is a bin of dirt sitting in the middle of a cemetery. The seemingly happy and bouncing nature of the poetry, juxtaposed with the image of dirt presumably left over after being displaced by the dead, and also juxtaposed with discussion of war dead, creates a tension that is difficult and uncomfortable to sort out in the reader’s head. After all, the rhythm and the style draws us toward lightness and humor, but there is a level of guilt once we feel this emotion given the discourse of the photographer and poet. This tension is where this book often lives and helps us to get a more complex understanding of the things that inhabit our world.

            The Purpose of the Things: Illuminating the Ordinary is an interesting dive that plays with what poetry can do. I found myself breezing through the first reading because it is a quick read. But it stayed with me. Subsequent readings were slower, and I spent more time thinking about the tension of images and words. The two artists take on so many ideas and explore so many points of view that it’s a little dizzying. Each one though demands attention and reflection. Each one hides a power that can be understood only through some level of meditation.

John Brantingham 27th May 2023

The Small Press Model by Simon Cutts (Uniformbooks)

The Small Press Model by Simon Cutts (Uniformbooks)

One branch of small press publishing is the fine art object, often co-existent with individually designed, sometimes handprinted and/or bound books, often produced in a kind of opposition to the scruffy pamphlet, offset and digital print-on-demand publications, and the ubiquitousness of online texts. In the last decade there has been a renewed interest in crafted books, limited editions, the book as object, not just a container of stories or poems. Simon Cutts, of course, has always been ahead of this curve. Since the mid 1960s he has, often through his Coracle Press imprint, been making beautifully designed and crafted books and objects, but he was also thinking and writing about what he published and how he did so. The Small Press Model gathers up some of his articles and ‘attempts to group together approaches to the physicality of the book’.

I must confess that although I like beautiful books and own some wonderful fine art and poetry volumes, I tend towards the idea that the text should in some ways be tough enough to survive most forms of reproduction and dissemination, especially when price comes in to play. I’m sure I am not alone as a writer in having to decide whether one wants readers or book sales, affordable paperbacks or collector’s editions. I guess I have a foot in several camps, currently enjoying the lo-fi photocopying production of Smallminded Books and Analogue Flashback pamphlets; happy to accept that online publication is publication and offers easy access to large numbers of readers; and pleased with the good-looking trade editions that Shearsman Books produces for their authors, including me. Whilst I am appreciative of the likes of Guillemot Press whose design and production ethos have not pushed the cost of their books out of reach, I dislike preciousness, and have little time for authors who worry about half a millimetre here or there when it is not vital to the work itself. And whilst I am occasionally put off reading a book by the paper used – when it veers towards newsprint or that awful laid paper that was in vogue for a while – if it’s well laid out and readable that’s all I require.

I don’t know much about Coracle books beyond the name. I own a copy of Jonathan Williams’ Portrait Photographs, mainly because I like some of the writers pictured (including Thomas Merton, Basil Bunting, Guy Davenport and Charles Olsen), and I briefly spoke to Cutts at the last Small Press fair I attended, pre-pandemic, at the Conway Hall in London. In my mind he is part of a small group that includes Thomas A. Clark and Ian Hamilton Finlay. As publishers that group containing Coracle and Moschatel might perhaps also include Five Seasons Press and their design and printing work for Alan Halsey at West House Books and many others. I’m sure there are other kindred fugitive presses I don’t know about. In Cutts’ work at Victor Miro Gallery and his own Coracle Gallery, Thomas A and Laurie Clark’s Cairn Gallery activities and Hamilton Finlay’s sculpture garden we are offered another way to consider that group, as curators and artists. Hamilton Finlay’s Garden is of course sculptural, very present as object, whilst Miro and Cairn often veer towards conceptual and minimal work. Cairn showed early wax and wood wall sculptures by Andrew Bick, Cutts has been involved with Roger Ackling, who marked found wood with light, burning lines into them, evidencing the passage of time as well as the artist’s intervention. The Cairn Gallery website today positions itself via a quote as an oasis; its small quiet white space is often home to one or two small works of art or interventions.

There is an inclination towards focus and simplicity here. Even artist Andy Goldsworthy went conceptual for a show at Coracle Gallery, cutting a hole in the floor rather than constructing a piece from or in the landscape as is his usual practice. However, all too often with this kind of work (I mean in general, not just Goldsworthy), I come up against one of two problems: either that work has to be explained, which often negates the work itself; or that the work is too simple, with not enough to hold my attention. When repetition and simplicity works, in art or text, then fantastic. But sometimes art or writing is reduced to mind games, verbal or visual tricks, or the simple fact that something fascinates somebody else in a way it doesn’t others. I’m afraid Simon Cutts is clearly someone I don’t seem to share many interests with. My favourite piece in the book is also reproduced on a postcard that was included in my parcel: Les Coleman’s 1975 sculpture ‘Three Jam Jars’, which consists of two smashed jam jars placed in the undamaged third. But there’s not much more to say about it, and it’s not particularly original or profound; in fact it’s easy to associate it with the last book I reviewed, Katie Treggiden’s Broken, an exploration of artists’, curators’ and makers’ resistance to our throwaway world. 

Part of the problem with this book is, of course, that I don’t know the work being discussed and written about. Whilst both Andrew Bick’s work (from back in the 1980s up to and including the present) and Roger Ackling’s work (throughout his career) are complex and interesting enough for prolonged engagement, much here isn’t. Richard Long’s ‘Stone Field’ may have been fantastic to visit at the time but it is mostly of interest here – via a small black & white photograph – in relation to his much wider practice, his walks, documentation, exhibitions and catalogues. However, most of Cutts’ book remains focussed on publishing or small press activities, although sometimes he is prone to stating the obvious: 

     Coracle books remain almost clandestine, shelved in our barn in
     rural Tipperary. They circulate via the occasional book fair, general
     travel and demonstration, the intermittent website listing, but
     mostly see the light through prepared lists for particular libraries
     and individuals.

Substitute any small press name for ‘Coracle books’ and that press’ stock location for ‘our barn in rural Tipperary’ and you have the small press world summarised in two sentences.

So what else makes small press different, now that more than a few mainstream publishers use print-on-demand and no longer require warehouse space or huge London offices? I certainly enjoyed my last few years of running Stride Books because print-on-demand meant it was easy to survive without arts council grants, there was no gambling on short or large print runs, and instead of warehousing and shipping bills, the printers and online bookstores dealt with most of it and transferred sales money each month. Of course, none of this changed the fact that marketing and publicity are what most small presses aren’t much good at. Or the fact that even when one took that on, producing advance information sheets and cover designs, quotes and biographies for reps and catalogues, as well as organizing book launches and promotional material, the mainstream book industry still wasn’t very interested. But the likes of the aforementioned Guillemot and the very different Broken Sleep Books are examples of current presses who are able to successfully use social media and online events to market their publications, even as the old bookshop and independent bookfair models become more and more outdated.

I bought this book because there was talk at work of me having to teach a hands-on publishing module to our student first years, following on from a theoretical one they take in the first semester. It is not what I expected it to be, and it turns out I am not teaching that module after all. Neither does it seem, to me, to discuss ‘the physicality of the book’ in anything other than terms of artists’ books, and whilst it may question some of ‘the wider ideas surrounding publishing and publication’ it remains aloof from over two decades worth of discussion about publishing in the age of the internet, the global marketplace, and print-on-demand technologies, not to mention each individual’s ability to create their own outlet, platform or space to disseminate their own work, be that performance, text, film, visual art or some hybrid practice. What it does offer is a personal and reflective history of Simon Cutts’ work as curator, publisher, promoter and thinker. That, rather than ‘The form of a book as a metaphorical structure for the poem’ is reason enough to buy this intriguing, sometimes rather insular, book.

Rupert Loydell 14th May 2023

An Interview with Sara Lippmann

An Interview with Sara Lippmann

I discovered Sara Lippmann’s work when I attended a reading for the New Voices Project online. The New Voices Project includes a book (New Voices from Vallentine and Mitchell) and a series of events where current writers and poets write ekphrasis to images from the Holocaust. The idea is that it is important that we not only hear what the thinkers of the past wrote about the Holocaust but that we keep learning from it and update our understanding of it as we progress as a civilization.

         Lippmann certainly does that in her story ‘Good Girls,’ which is about two Jewish children being rounded up in Vichy France at the Velodrome by nationalistic governmental agents, so they can be sent to the concentration camps. She’s also the author of the recently released novel, Lech, which focuses on people in the Catskills. It is not about the pandemic, but it seems to me that this is a book inspired by it, as it talks about ideas of the dehumanizing effects of isolation. This dehumanization also figures highly in her discussion of the Holocaust, how separating people can lead to the kinds of horrors witnessed there.

John Brantingham: ‘Good Girls,’ the title of the story in New Voices, seems to me to have some level of irony. I was wondering if what you meant was that there is some level of danger in training young girls to be good in a traditional sense?

It’s loaded. What does it mean to be a good girl? Keep her mouth shut. Do as she’s told. Never step out of line, never beat to her own drummer, never resist. It’s self-erasure. Whenever an authority figure levies such an expectation, we better run. In the case of the story, however, it is precisely that self-erasure that is desired. If they keep quiet. If they don’t make a fuss. If they put up with every indignity, every act of violence, if if if – they might squeak through to survival. They might go undetected. 

John Brantingham: That’s interesting then. So the narrative given to us by authority figures is a bluff. If we keep quiet, then we will survive, but that convention is really just a way of causing harm to those who would be obedient. And it seems to me that the potential dangers of following convention is one of the themes that is often in your work. Were you discussing that in Lech in any way?

Not to wade too deeply into politics, or thorny cultural critique, but we can see this pattern manifest, play out and backfire time and again throughout Jewish history: Jews trying to align themselves with the dominant power, as if that might enable them to ‘pass,’ only to be outed and othered, anyway. I touch this gently in the flash piece, but certainly, we saw this with the nationalism of German Jews and the push for assimilation, the cultural antagonism between those who “fit” in vs. those (eastern European) who stand out. And of course, we also see this with the Kushner Jews aligning themselves with evangelical politics and the right wing agenda as if that might somehow “save” them, ignoring the rampant anti-semitisim within their own party.

I agree that one of the common themes of all my work – short stories, the novel – is the false comfort of convention. I look a lot at illusions of safety – whether it’s all the disturbing crap that springs from the suburbs, the truth behind every staged picture, and so on. It’s almost become knee jerk for me to confront the box, the container, the convention, whatever the purported package is – and more, the person/power/system that is trying to fit us into that package.   

John Brantingham:          So then convention is a trap, or maybe a place from where someone or some group might hide to spring a trap. I think in Lech perhaps my favorite character is Tzvi, who seems so human and at the same time seems like a cluster of contradictions. He isn’t contradictory at all, but he doesn’t conform to societal norms. I’m wondering if I’m getting this right about him, if this is what you meant.

The cloak of conformity may have its uses, but not when it suffocates the soul. So yes, this becomes Tzvi’s struggle. I’m so happy to hear you connected with him, as he is such a tender, wounded character — perhaps the only character that doesn’t use humor as a coping or defense mechanism, because he’s been sheltered by the insular Satmar community for so long he hasn’t built up any skin. Born into a world where everything is preordained, where laws dictate, from what you study to what you wear, how you eat, who you marry, how you love, etc, his whole self has been erased by the collective, by ritual. His “going forth” is one of self discovery and acceptance, which takes great courage and inward looking. Who doesn’t want to belong? And yet, at what individual price such belonging?

John Brantingham: The communities represented, both the Jewish community from the city and the non-Jewish residents seem to be insular to some degree. Of course, that’s the nature of community. What strikes me though is that many of those people who have moved from the city for this time seem to have little desire for connection with their neighbors and many of the people from the Catskills don’t especially want to mingle with those from the city. This tendency seems like the danger you are warning us of, and Tsvi seems in some ways to be the character who grows the most and finds what he needs the most. I don’t think you mean to be lecturing the reader on the dangers of this kind of attitude. I think you have just drawn a realistic portrayal of cause and effect in the same way as there is a cause and effect to the girls’ relationship to the community in ‘Good Girls.’ Would you agree with that?

I never write with any set agenda, and I’m certainly not here to proselytize. But I would agree that my characters are looking for connection. And sure, isolationism of any kind breeds distrust and suspicion. We see this playing out in our political arena, in the news, where people seek out echo chambers and surround themselves with like-minded people. And of course, we see this throughout history, religious, cultural, racial and otherwise. Maybe I’m being naive to hope for greater fluidity. As social beings, humans naturally form communities. But the ugly underbelly can be exclusion. If we don’t sit at the table together, we’ll never break down those prejudices and begin to understand each other.

John Brantingham 13th May 2023

John Ashbery by Jess Cotton (Reaktion Books)

John Ashbery by Jess Cotton (Reaktion Books)

Jess Cotton’s new volume in Reaktion Books’ Critical Lives series is a knockout. It follows John Ashbery’s life and work from childhood to death as well as his posthumous influence, thankfully concentrating on what Cotton in her introduction calls ‘Ashbery’s innovative, evasive, comic and confounding poetic forms’ which, she goes on to declare, ‘have reshaped […] the American poem as we know it.’

To be honest the forms Ashbery uses often seem less interesting than the reshaping, although we have him to thank for the Westernised haibun and furthering the possibilities of the prose poem. But it is the adoption of surrealist juxtaposition and collage, of parataxis, that helped reinvent ‘the American poem’, partly because of the acclaim and fame (if any poet can claim to be truly famous) that accompanied Ashbery’s work.

It wasn’t always so. Ashbery’s first two books of poems, Turandot and Some Trees, are pretty mainstream, somewhat ordinary products of the 1950s, but 1962’s The Tennis Court Oath evidenced a change in direction, of technique and content, and led the way to the acclaimed Three Poems a decade later, and then Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. In the creative mix are the influences of French prose-poets (especially Rimbaud, one of the first to write ‘poetic prose’), fine art painting and critical writing, and queer culture, the products, Cotton argues, from time spent in Paris and then New York.

Although Ashbery suggests that reading Auden allowed more contemporary references and casual language to enter his work, Cotton notes that he ‘was self-consciously thinking about the possibilities of a fragmentary, montage-like poetics, freed of the mythological and expansive historical references of his Modernist forebearers that overdetermined the meaning of the poem’. It is this ability to embrace the fact that the reader is as much the creator of a poem as the writer that marks Ashbery out as original and different. Unlike those who choose to grapple with Ezra Pound’s Cantos, there is no need for the reader to read Chinese and Sanskrit or to know Greek and Norse mythology to ‘get’ Ashbery’s poems, they can luxuriate in wordplay and the imagistic, disjointed moments of the text itself. The work itself makes clear there is no confessional subtext or over-arching message to be imposed or deduced; we are free to make of it what we will.

That doesn’t mean it is random or vague, and Ashbery didn’t use chance procedures to create his work; he carefully edited, revised, and reshaped his writing, often for years on end. (The posthumous Parallel Movement of the Hands: Five Unfinished Longer Works is a marvellous collection evidencing this.) He learnt to allow scenes and moments to imagistically speak for themselves; to embrace camp, high society, friendships and loves, literature and journalism, art, music and cinema: everything could be used to construct his poems. And often was.

Later on in life, Ashbery also allowed himself to write a lot, something he had originally resisted, and in the process gaining a reputation for overproduction. But one senses that is what he did, he was first and foremost a writer, despite by that time being a poetry professor (which became an honorary post towards the end of his life) busy undertaking readings and talks, and an acclaimed success. However, give him a grant or bursary and Ashbery would retreat from his Chelsea apartment to his Hudson house or take off on new travels for as long as possible. As for the ‘zaniness’ he was sometimes accused of in later work, to me it reads as simple mastery and control of his juxtapositions allied with a witty self-deprecation and an original sense of humour. I am sure I am not alone in realising, perhaps later than I should have, just how influential Ashbery’s work has been upon both me personally and the wider poetry world. 

That influence is somewhere in the politicized deconstruction and experiment of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, the British poetry revival (specifically via Lee Harwood, who had a relationship with Ashbery), the surrealist comedy performances and writings of Luke Kennard, and the smartarse poetry of Dean Young, Martin Stannard and Bob Hicock, all busy taking language for long, disorienting walks. Even the mundane and populist poetry of writers such as Billy Collins might be the result of Ashbery, although I would not like to blame him directly.

Ashbery was adept at using others’ voices, disparate events and fictional (im)possibilities, whilst allowing his poems to interrupt themselves and wander off to where he hadn’t figured out yet. Cotton cites a moment of personal revelation for Ashbery, from his editor’s introduction to The Best American Poetry 1988, where he notes how he ‘was struck, perhaps for the first time, by the exciting diversity, the tremendous power it [poetry] could have for enriching our lives.’ What Cotton calls ‘Ashbery’s idiosyncratic talents’ are part of that enrichment, poems which ‘make the moment of communication a live act’. Anne Lauterbach notes that ‘when you read his work you are reading being alive.’ Apart from an informed critical introduction like this volume, what more could anyone ask for?

Rupert Loydell 26th April 2023

Suddenly, It’s Now by Blossom Hibbert (Leafe Press)

Suddenly, It’s Now by Blossom Hibbert (Leafe Press)

In Blossom Hibbert’s debut collection a lively (to put it mildly) imagination seems always to be wrestling with the loads of things going on in and around it. Inside and outside worlds collide and intermingle – much as they do in what we like to think of as real life – and the consequence is a poetry that, instead of trying to order everything neatly, and struggling to articulate what may or may not be its meaning, allows the imagination to come out on top in all its jumbled and often bewildering honesty.

I’m pretty sure purists will object to some of what happens in these poems. Lines have unexpected gaps and as unexpectedly fall apart. Utterance is sometimes fractured. Thoughts and images arrive from who knows where and are rapidly replaced by other images and thoughts because that’s often how the head behaves. As we think, as our brain sometimes overflows, we are not always meditating calmly, or recollecting in tranquillity. 

Take this, for example, from the first piece in the book, ‘bedman’:

            butcher holds paint-splattered knife. causes both grief and fullness,

            complacency and excitement.            would rather starve

            rotten bedman and    me. lost him for quite a while. decades

            even. ran away without saying



                                       his curious form


                                       his roadside shirt


                                       into      breast pocket

            neighbours beside my beating fish.                 gasp!

            bedman watches me write all languid evening long, yearning to win my

            cold heart over.          i never give in.

            i never.

            give.    in.

                                                            [where did he come from?]

                                                                                          retired pianist

            bought the lighthouse to live in across from puffin island.    ran toward it 

            pulling gaunt backbone grand piano

            beautiful sonatas          dropping onto

                                                ten foreign cargo ships

            sweating men on the docks swayed toward the ripping noise, wearing 

            medalled rain.

            started as a novelty but within a week became common:

                                                            wood pigeon’s coo-coo

I won’t claim to understand everything that’s going on here, or to be able to explain comfortably the train of thought, but that’s part of the pleasure. I love that ‘all languid evening long’, and the pianist and grand piano. And “medalled rain”! Writing of this kind is worth way more than the price of admission. And if that’s not enough, there’s the form: the breaks and gaps and lineation jog me out of any readerly complacency from which I might be suffering to pay full attention to what’s being said, whatever it may all ‘mean’. Also, I wouldn’t mind betting a pound coin that some of the form is a direct transcription of how this stuff first landed in Hibbert’s notebook, brain to pen to paper . . . I almost added ‘unthinkingly’, but that would be wrong. There is thinking here, but it’s the kind of thinking that happens when a poet is on a roll.

Never one to shirk a sweeping (and possibly inaccurate) generalization, I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere quite like this before. There’s a very definite and individual mind racing around here, and the form, along with often startling imagery, is enough to render the reading experience . . . well, I’ve been into the thesaurus, and I’ve come out of it with ‘invigorating’. It’ll do.

Hibbert’s writing is always springing wonderful surprises. The unexpected just keeps on coming: the poem “whole days”, which may or may not have its origin in a broken relationship, or a separation, has the brilliant

            spending whole days

            remaking your sudden face

and ends:

            vacant houses cry to be touched but everyone is afraid of deserted

            solitude and dying alone with

            [single egg on toast]

                        surely this cannot be

Hibbert’s natural avoidance of the obvious and her trust in the instinctive serves her well, and you can’t teach that stuff. Writing courses don’t offer it because they can’t. You either have it or you don’t.

While a poem like “bedman” sprawls across three or four sometimes bewildering but never less than engaging pages, Hibbert can also pull off the opposite, in length, form, and subject matter. “circumstances” is short enough to be quoted in full:

            men drink white tea and

                        women black coffee

            table legs strain with weight of all these old books

            mug handles   clunk and 

                                                toast crumbs sit between pages

            large nose presses against window

Throughout the collection, arresting images and phrases abound: there’s a ‘buttoned shoreline’, ‘the leaf is full and swollen now’, ‘tasty salvation’, ‘brave fire’, ‘i smell my shoulder and start again’, ‘god forbid what i’d do if i had a half decent dog to walk’, ‘where sofas smell like sneeze’ . . . This stuff obviously just comes so easily to Hibbert it never feels forced. When ‘drizzle’ ends with the lines

                                    i can’t even remember

            why i wanted to sit on that


            in the dark rotten first place

it just kills me, because it sounds so damn good, the authentic voice of an authentic person. Another poem – ‘for my eyelids’ – ends

            yours, mouldy plum in the room above

and you have to smile, surely. Character and personality is absolutely oozing out of these poems, and in a world where so many of today’s poets sound like loads of other poets that’s priceless. But there’s much more here than images and surprise and a hefty dose of individuality. There’s a bright, inquisitive, restless and self-examining intelligence underpinning everything that becomes more impressive with each repeated read. The collection ends in much the same way as it began, with a long (in this case, prosy) poem, ‘old book’, that starts out as narrative (sort of):

            i say, i think we should start reading to each other in the dark times.

            i say,       we should  start  selling  coffee grounds to the pope  who

            comes to the door every wednesday evening. . . .

                                                – you must go find an old book to read to

            me when the candles are lit.

I don’t have a clue about that pope, but frankly I don’t care. So they go to a shop and ‘he looks for an old book to read to me when stars shine wild’ but the search appears to be long and fruitless, and the speaker (poet) leaves him to it and goes to sit on a (park?) bench, where she (I assume ‘she’) watches a toddler stumbling around ‘the way they always do’, then ‘he comes back from the store . . . holding a yellow old book about boats.’ And I’m missing out quite a lot here, including ‘the way women look at other women. pity.‘ [underlines and bold typeface are as in the book, by the way.]

I don’t plan to try to paraphrase the whole un-paraphrasable poem, but the narrative (such as it is) shifts to the speaker “recover[ing] from heavy illness” and the poem morphs, briefly, into a contemplation of the self (which description sounds too pompous; I may need to re-write that, or maybe I’ll just leave it as it is):

                                                .  .  . not sure who I am or where to go


Momentarily, the poem threatens to become, or sound, a tad too much like the speaker (poet) talking conventionally about themselves and their problems, but Hibbert – perhaps because she’s being honest rather than through anything more complicated like, for example, a theory of poetics – sidesteps the trap:

            i am strange and mysterious and increasingly under the care of god.

            pity me not because sun has gone behind the clouds and the soft

            world is sleepy, but because back is moving towns. pity me because

            i am losing a shield —- me for i am in the middle of a battleground,


                                                music abruptly        stops.

            PITY ME! why should i?

and later:

                                                                        i will learn that i can

            survive without ‘important’ things.

This is pretty impressive stuff, and one of the beauties of it is that I may have a lot of it completely wrong in my head, but it’s a great read anyway, and repays a lot of re-reading.

The only caveat I have is rooted in personal prejudice and so can probably be ignored: I’m not fond of writing that’s 100% lower case. The persistent lower case in particular can really get on my nerves – it annoys me just to see it, and it annoys me even more to actually have to type it when Microsoft Word insists on capitalizing it. Whatever. I think maybe I had to say something vaguely negative because I want to keep young Blossom on her toes.

Finally, here’s the back cover blurb, which I can quote in full without a qualm, because I wrote it:

            Hibbert is a new and invigorating voice, the archetypal “breath of fresh air” 

            so often spoken of but so rarely encountered. These are very early days, but 

            it’s a pleasure to be present at the beginning of what promises to be an 

            interesting journey. One can tell there’s something special going on by the 

            fact that although Hibbert is studying and training to be a vet there are no 

            poems about animals anywhere to be seen. 

Martin Stannard 21st April 2023

The Indescribable Thrill of the Half-Volley by Tim Allen (Leafe Press)

The Indescribable Thrill of the Half-Volley by Tim Allen (Leafe Press)

Tim Allen’s latest investigation into language and the world is made up of 97 short poems, each comprising a couplet of sorts. We’ve been here before I think. You can read these pieces through as playful interjections, philosophical speculations or as refusals to ‘play the game’ in any traditional manner. Tom Jenks in a back-cover blurb to another recent collection (Allen is nothing if not prolific) describes him as ‘a wizard.’ Here is a page of the book, chosen more or less at random and this provides enough material for a ‘critique’ or commentary of some kind:

          16. invisible duty

          Waiting for the firework display – trees fidget

          Further into the forest memory is sleeping

          A dream is all interior like a calf on a cattle trail

          A novel minus its empty rooms and hitchhiking fish

          17. invisible journey

          Nothing in particular was still hanging around

          Surrounded by bitching sticklers for detail

          Gymnasts of fur and feather jump waterfall

          Dancer dances a bit of both with a clean and decent dance

          18. invisible paper

          Horses crossed the river for luck not for a fortune

          If something is missing It’s probably the planet

          Mermaid diarrhoea fertilizes our fields

          Go once around the course then sheer off on a tangent

These poems have both a kind of throwaway feel, as if put together very quickly but there’s also a condensing written into the form which might imply the opposite, the work of ‘a wizard’ perhaps. The titles suggest a continuity of subject, largely illusory yet there are hints within the text – ‘luck’ and ‘fortune’ for example which hang together even when followed by an obvious non-sequitur. What I love about these pieces is the amount of scope given to the reader to ‘improvise’ around each given text. The ‘dream material’ in the first poem, for example, suggests a fairy tale with its lovely ‘memory is sleeping’, rather than ‘an individual sleeper. Then I’m reminded of Rawhide with its mythic (dreamlike) status, memories of childhood television watching and the ‘hitchhiking fish’ is definitely an unexpected bonus, even when preceded by the ‘novel minus its empty rooms’ which is a thoroughly discombobulating image (image!) until you think again about the input of the reader. Here we have a game being played with words which emphasises, yet again, the artificial nature of language and its ‘tangled necessity’ in our relation to the ‘world out there.’ Even on the occasion that Allen plays with cliché you are made aware of the constant fight to avoid the obvious, the mundane, the ‘how many times have I heard this before’ aspect which destroys creativity and leads to endless boredom. These poems may be frustrating to read, at times, especially when you are playing the game and attempt to think through some of the impenetrable ‘logic’ but they are also wonderfully playful and are able to take you off into speculations and fanciful interpretations of your own. Far gone, perhaps but endlessly entertaining and it’s always fun to ‘Go once around the course and sheer off on a tangent’ whatever course it is you might be thinking about. It may be a racecourse, as hinted at throughout but then again…..  . Great stuff.

Steve Spence 6th April 2023

The Fox the Whale and the Wardrobe by Dónall Dempsey (Dempsey & Windle)

The Fox the Whale and the Wardrobe by Dónall Dempsey (Dempsey & Windle)

An intriguing title leads the reader into a kaleidoscopic and scintillating poetry collection by Dónall Dempsey. There is a great variety of wit and humour in these poems. ‘My Molecules are Revolting’ uses dialogue as a device to illustrate the repartee between the Universe and a couple of molecules that currently inhabit the narrator’s body while they wait for ‘the Big Bang/of Death’ and the chance of belonging to a more interesting formation in the future.

An amusing concept but it is always Death that hovers in the background. In the title poem there is the nightmarish texture of an aunt’s fox-fur stole which has ‘beady eyes alive with death.’ Every item of clothing in the dark wardrobe is ‘rotten now/eaten by time.’ Everything once belonging to loved ones is dead.  ‘I cry for the death of summer,’ says the narrator. ‘I cry for the death of them all.’

     Concern for the environment is a key feature throughout the collection. ‘Regeneration’ imagines the transformation of furniture back into its existence in the forest. Even the floor uproots itself while books shed their words ‘becoming/leaves on these trees.’ ‘The Tales Told by Birds’ creates a shocking impact. Humour, in the description of a world now empty of humans, is both surreal and cartoonish as ‘a dinosaur takes/the moving stairs/a pterodactyl hunts for bargains’ but the reality is that humans have nearly destroyed the earth and they themselves only survive ‘in the stories that birds tell/to frighten their little hatchlings.’

     ‘Words loved him/and would do anything/he said.’ This is Dónall Dempsey’s description of his uncle, but I think it would apply equally well to the poet himself, his love of life and living things, his sense of joy. A robin that has flown into a church is not just hopping from pew to pew but is ‘a miracle/ made real/its sheer joy of being’ as it dances on the altar and becomes the music of Hayden. Reflected ‘in the gold/of the tabernacle’ it is ‘the secret/prayer/of the moment.’ (‘The Emperor of Now’).

     The poem ‘Taking Back the Moment’ continues this sense of the here and now– its transience, its uniqueness. Memories, which are seemingly ‘lost for ever,’ trapped like sunbeams in a room, are dragged back by the narrator from a past which is sluggish as ‘a giant in a palace/made of years’ so that, as he says, he can ‘take the moment and flee/far far/into the future/where nothing can touch me.’ A haven of sorts, a sanctuary for the ‘one perfect moment’ caught in flight like ‘birds/writing themselves —unwriting themselves/across a page of sky.’

     There is much to be enjoyed in this collection – delightful, original love poems, a feast of epigraphs and literary references, poems that take a topic and turn it on its head. But I’ll end this review by mentioning two poems that particularly appeal to me.

     First is the lyrical, descriptive ‘…In Forgetful Snow’ which is inspired by a quotation from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: ‘Winter kept us warm, covering/Earth in forgetful snow.’ Here the snow falls heavily on what appears to be a graveyard with stone carved angels guarding the dead. T            his snowfall erases everything – time, memory, ‘the world’ – replacing it with ‘silence’ disturbed only by the croak of a raven ‘as land and sky become one.’  Everything, ‘even the horizon,’ says the observer, ‘is being filled in.’

     But my favourite of all the poems is ‘Nugae’ which I assume is Latin for ‘Ramblings’. Here torrential rain falls on both Catullus in 55 BC and on the narrator in AD 2020.  The humour in these lines is enchanting:

Vivamus … atque amemus!

he tells his rain.

We should live … we should love!

I tell mine.

And then the realisation:

His then and my now

almost one and the same

and the glimpse of a moment, a small epiphany: 

…in that instant

we both catch a glimpse

of the other time

falling like rain.

Mandy Pannett 2nd April 2023

See Saw: a series of poems on art by Adrian Buckner (Leafe Press)

See Saw: a series of poems on art by Adrian Buckner (Leafe Press)

This is a beautifully succinct addition to the ‘poems about art’ genre, otherwise known as ekphrasis.

Here we have 24 poems, each based on an individual painting, presumably favourites of the author, laid out in chronological fashion from Giotto to Rae. I don’t know all of the paintings though I do know something of most of the painters but as these short pieces (each are 9 lines long with an identical stanza structure) all work sui generis any further research will only add to the enrichment and you can easily dip in without any foreknowledge. 

     The tone ranges from light and delightful to dark and sinister and we could do worse than take the first two inclusions as examples of this range:


         The Entry into Jerusalem, c 1305

          I am a smiling donkey

          I am practically giggling

          With the Good News

          When the golden age arrives

          For children’s illustrated books

          I will trot from this fresco

          Onto those pages

          And wreathe the unlettered

          In smiles again

This is a wonderful example of how art from the distant past can be re-evaluated in a modern context and while the tone here is light-hearted and even joyful its serious subject is gently underlined by that slightly enigmatic  ‘…wreathe the unlettered’ which can be seen in terms of 

a message of hope and positive change.

          Fra Angelico

          The Decapitation of St Cosmas and St Damian, c1440

          When I am called to account at The Hague

          I will say I was obeying orders

          Like the three lads on crowd control rota

          Look to the front row for the guilty

          The self-absorbing gestures

          The more in sorrow than anger

          Exporters of rational governance

          Through a swing of the sword

          A drone strike in the desert

Once again we have the mix of ‘then and now’ which throws up some interesting dilemmas for politicians and ‘the military’ of whichever hue as that ‘drone strike in the desert’ can clearly be interpreted as a general condemnation rather than a partisan positioning.

     Coming a bit closer to home we get a more lyrical approach with Schmidt-Rotluff Flowering Trees, 1909 with ‘I left her sleeping / In the light and airy room / the window curtain pulsing with the breeze…’ . In English) Little Blue Horse, 1912 we have a moving reference to two artists engaged during WW1 who had different outcomes. Franz Marc was killed in Verdun in 1916 and Paul Nash’s  We are Making a New World (1918) depicted a surreal landscape of the aftermath of warfare which can be seen as both reportage (he was of course a commissioned war artist) and blistering condemnation. Marc’s imagined words – ‘I will not be around Paul / to gaze across / The new world they are making’ remains both heavy with portent and satire yet also somehow horribly innocent and genuinely poignant.

     Buckner does a similar thing, across the ages, with a further imagined dialogue between Leonardo and Rothko which throws up a whole nest of possibilities in relation to longevity, to the nature and aims of art and to commerce and the implications of sponsorship/patronage. Throughout this short collection of short poems in fact, he manages to combine an almost jaunty, wonderfully enticing glamour with something richer and often darker in intent and implication. There are also commentaries on Duchamp, Lowry, Hopper and Gwen John, among others, taking in a range of angles and perceptions, each poem having something of interest to say about artwork and creator. This is a neat little publication from the Leafe Press stable and one that is easily approachable and full of surprise and revelation.

Steve Spence 25th March 2023

Of Necessity and Wanting by Sascha Akhtar (the 87 Press)

Of Necessity and Wanting by Sascha Akhtar (the 87 Press)

There are three stories of different lengths in Of Necessity and Wanting, each one a vignette of life in urban Pakistan, particularly in the cosmopolitan city of Karachi. Each story has its characters and themes but the connecting thread between them all is the city itself. One might also consider Karachi to be a character – a paradoxical, ‘not-so-beautiful’, dominating character – it would be hard to find another setting where these tales of ‘need’ and ‘want’ could unfold as they do in this ‘hell-hole’ of a city with its frenzy of traffic, canals clogged with raw sewage, its sicknesses and smells of rotting fish and smog, its beggar-lined streets of colour and glitter and flowers.

Then there is the heat, the exhausting, all-pervading heat which, as Zainab in the third story describes: 

(The sun) beat down with more ferocity as it got nearer to mid-afternoon … the dust filled your nostrils and coated your throat. Externally, it stuck to the rivulets of sweat that dripped down your face.’ 

The nearness of the sea offered a promise of some relief – until one got nearer and smelled ‘the pungent aroma of dead fish.’

Here is a description of a beach:

Clifton Beach was no beauty. The sands were verging on the black side of grey, with muck piled up everywhere. Slimy hills of seaweed, old shoes, dog excrement, human excrement, oil slicks and pieces of glass adorned the shore – this was no encouragement to walk barefoot and yet people did. Tonight, Javid walked right onto the beach craving the cool sands under his feet – the all-encompassing sound of the waves raging in his ears.

Karachi – a paradoxical city of grime and beauty. ‘May the seven saints continue to protect her,’ says Sascha Akhtar in a dedication.

The three stories are fascinating and very readable with strong, independent men and women fighting against the existences in which they find themselves and striving to discover ways of improving their lives. But the plots are there to carry the themes and it is those which stay in the memory. 

One example is the section called ‘Paani: Water’ which focuses on the issue of hydro-politics. Akram obtains employment as a manservant in a palatial house where he receives so much money he is able to send large amounts home to help support his family. He is responsible for overseeing many duties but what puzzles him is the fact that: 

:           Every four or five days, a white van pulled up at the house between 12 pm and 2 pm. Three men in blue shirts and trousers with name badges would wheel in a retinue of heavy, thick plastic barrels full of ‘purified’ water. They would make three trips, each one of them wheeling in three at a time.

This purified water is for the wealthy family only and there are barrels in every single room. When Akram persuades his employer to have all the servants tested, the results are shocking:

When the blood tests came back every single member of the domestic staff had some form of water-borne stomach illness from mild gastroenteritis to amoebic dysentery.

After this the servants are allowed and encouraged to drink as much boiled water as they wish – boiled water, not purified. It would cost too much, the employer says, to have filtered water for everyone.

Of Necessity and Wanting is a profound and thought-provoking book, rich with colour and compassion. I have long been an admirer of Sascha Akhtar’s poetry and it’s good to enjoy her journey into fiction. I’m looking forward to whatever she will write about next.

Mandy Pannett 22nd March 2023

Divine Blue Light (for John Coltrane) by Will Alexander (City Lights)

Divine Blue Light (for John Coltrane) by Will Alexander (City Lights)

Like saxophonist John Coltrane, who this book is dedicated to, Will Alexander improvises his way through noise and chaos to explore the furthest reaches of his source material and thought process. And sometimes, although I love the late music of Coltrane, I can’t but help be reminded of Miles Davis’ retort in response to Coltrane’s extended soloing‘Why don’t you try taking the horn out of your mouth?’

The contradiction is that the lengthier poems here are the most successful, as they catch the reader up in extended riffs of ‘Language / as scaled erisma / as amplification that burns’ with energy, confusion and the ghost of incantatory poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Gil Scott Heron or The Last Poets whilst also drawing on the bewildering radical politics and mysticism of black artists such as Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton and Amiri Baraka.

Shorter poems, such as ‘Under Corporate Worship, reproduced here in its entirety, don’t cut it for me:

   being elliptically feigned
   tautological circumference

There’s not enough of it for it to establish a sound pattern or concept. The long works are often even more abstract (I hesitate to use that word, because of course, words always carry meaning[s], even when they are decontextualised or syntax is disrupted) but over a few pages one can start to grasp at ‘poetic current / not as inordinate savagery / but as refined alchemical emblem’ which works towards ‘mystical commencement’.

Alexander’s strength, beyond a clear freewheeling delight in language itself, is to reinvent or at least discuss spirituality by combining the vocabularies and ideas of cartography, science, nature and rhizomics, signs and symbols:

   I come not to ascribe or assassinate trans-regulation or intent
   but to subsist by vibration
   by hollow or vibrational design


   I articulate through fog

with the aim ‘to burn away the drought within thinking’.

It is a strange read, that mostly I can only start to apprehend; these are poems that grasp at enlightenment and imagery outside my experience or imagination. What is ‘expanded helipause’? What is the meaning or symbolism of ‘suns appearing above suns / ignited via the blue fragmentation that is grace’? Does the poet really partake in the ‘Phantom Inter-Dimensional Activity’ which is the title of one of his texts?

Sun Ra’s Arkestra would often dress in sci-fi versions of Egyptian robes, and appropriate both gospel and mystical texts and tunes within their music; their leader himself claimed to have been born on Jupiter before travelling through time and space to Earth. Many critics argued then and now that this was a kind of diversion tactic: critics and audiences were so busy being mystified by the weirdness of the visuals and the music that they forgot the band were Afro-Americans intent on fighting racism and injustice. 

This mix of race, technology, and metaphysics is often known as Afrofuturism. Alexander’s mix of mystical aspiration and ability to ‘blaze as spectral reasoning’ sits squarely in this lineage, ‘being praxis that magically emanates and heightens the zero field’. It is a challenging and exciting read

   that insists on startling & consequential contour
   so higher emptiness concurs
   not unlike a rhetoric that swarms with declivitous capacity
   having an explosively strange assessment of itself

This is poetry as thought, as visionary experience, as stormy epiphany and epiphanic storm, ‘where power evinces the limitless / the arcane appellation of itself’, in ‘realms where the mind fails to match itself’. It is a generous, bewildering outpouring of language and ideas, an echo of possibilities, explanations and declamation: raw, militant, energising poetry, ‘perhaps a deafening colloquy by quarrel’.

Rupert Loydell 2nd March 2023

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