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Truth, Justice and the Companionship of Owls by Peter Riley (Longbarrow Press)

Truth, Justice and the Companionship of Owls by Peter Riley (Longbarrow Press)

‘Hushings’ is the second group of poems published here and yet again one is struck by the immaculate presentation achieved by Brian Lewis’s Longbarrow Press. It is precisely this care and attention to detail that justifies this Northern Press’s reputation as one of the finest and most professional of the Independent Poetry Presses active at the moment.

There is a quiet and witty intelligence which threads its way through these eighteen poems: the most serious themes of truth and justice are meditated upon within a world of approaching darkness. Writing about humour in Janus: a summing up (1978) Arthur Koestler had suggested that ‘Comedy and tragedy, laughter and weeping, mark the extremes of a continuous spectrum’ and here
just below the surface of Peter Riley’s quiet reflections upon movement and change there lurks the wry smile that can open a poem with an echo of a joke:

‘Two buzzards wheeling over the top of the woods
and one of them says to the other, What
do you see down there, brother,
with your little eye?’

The opening of that second line creates the picture of the joke as it might be shared perhaps in the Hare & Hounds, a pub near Hebden Bridge which appears a few times throughout this collection. However, the reference to a game of ‘I spy’ echoes also the world of childhood which also glimmers just below the surface of these lyrical and elegiac responses to landscape. I am reminded here of Basil Bunting’s comments about music made in an interview with Hugh Kenner for National Public Radio in early 1980 when he suggested that music ‘is organized in various ways, and one of the inventions…was the notion of a sonata, where two themes which at first appear quite separate, and all the better if they’re strongly contrasted…gradually alter and weave together until at the end of your movement you’ve forgotten they are two themes, it’s all one.’ When writing Briggflatts Bunting had perhaps Scarlatti’s B minor fugato sonata (L. 33) in his mind from the outset and the eighteenth century composer’s readiness to modulate between the light and shade of major and minor informs the shift from the spirit of spring which opens the first section and the more sombre note of death and betrayal which soon follows.

In his notes at the end of this new collection of poems Riley tells us that ‘hushings are places where limestone has been exposed and broken for extraction of ore, or for burning into lime, by unleashing a rush of water down a hillside from a reservoir on higher ground’. The eighteen twelve-line poems in the group offer the reader that sense of movement, the rippling effect which Bunting echoed from his knowledge of the Scarlatti sonata, and their sound is ‘always water running over stone’. Movement brings different perspectives and the first of these hushings places the poet’s childhood on the steps of Banks Lane Council School in 1945:

‘a first step into the nation, to be followed
by 68 years starred and scarred with gains and losses
and gates opening upward and pits closing down.’

The landscape here is one of ‘widening regard’ and a realisation that in

‘all this land, this nothing-much, there are
hidden values, seeds waiting to announce themselves
as cotton grass and bugle.’

The wit I was referring to earlier lies bleakly in a comment which appears only two lines above this faith in ‘hidden values’:

‘…Here we wait, as if waiting
for the return of truthful politics.’

And in poem xvi the modulation of the music gives us the ‘end of the chorus’ which is also the ‘end of public truth’.

These poems are in no way infected with rural sentimentality and they are closer to the photographs of Don McCullin in which the images provide their own commentary: they are archways through which the poet can contemplate an intelligent awareness of who he is in relation to the geographical world around him and in relation to a past which disappears down the stone steps:

‘down the stone, down the air, down the darkness
singing Dove sei, amato bene? viewing bright below
everything we have.’

Ian Brinton, 11th June 2019

http//:www.longbarrowpress.com

Psycho-Neurological Poem in 3 Parts & A Clean Heart and a Cheerful Spirit by Felicity Allen (Litmus Publishing 2019)

Psycho-Neurological Poem in 3 Parts &  A Clean Heart and a Cheerful Spirit by  Felicity Allen (Litmus Publishing 2019)

In the State run Panopticon of the ‘Institute of Psychology’ in Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest Big Nurse sits at a ‘centre of this web of wires like a watchful robot’. She tends ‘her network with mechanical insect skill’ and knows every second ‘which wire runs where and just what current to send up to get the result she wants’. This is the world of the early Sixties in the United States of America. She works for what one patient calls the ‘Combine’, a large organization that aims to adjust the Outside as well as the Inside and according to Chief Bromden who has been there for longer than he can remember she has been ‘dedicating herself to adjustment for God knows how long’.
Felicity Allen’s astonishing illustrated ‘Poem in 3 Parts’ was written ‘in response to and from recordings made when visiting the Art Studio of the charity Perspektivy, situated in The Psycho-Neurological Centre No, 3’ outside St. Petersburg in Russia. The scene: a confined residential home in which most residents have either grown up or come from other orphanages at the age of eighteen. Qualifications for entry to the home: some type of disability ‘either at birth’ or in ‘early years’. Life inside: ‘the only activities generally offered to residents are watching television or eating. Numbers of inmates: ??? [‘Numbers are missing’].
Sound haunts the fragmentary lines of this poem and we both read and listen to the ‘Caged heirs’. William Blake’s voice of outrage from 1803 gave us a ‘Robin Redbreast in a Cage’ which put ‘all Heaven in a Rage’; Maya Angelou’s autobiographical writings, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings came from 1969; Felicity Allen’s art as an ‘adventure into an unknown world’ is immediate, it is NOW. Her response to a reading of Angelou’s confrontation with a paternal world of sexual violence is to assert that ‘our function as artists’ is ‘to make you see the world our way not / his way’. Art and Music are assertions; look and listen to this remarkable book and foul up those Big Nurse wires as McMurphy does when he runs his hand through the glass window of her Nurse’s Station:

“I’m sure sorry, ma’am,” he said. “Gawd but I am. That window glass was so spick and span I com-pletely forgot it was there.”

Ian Brinton 18th May 2019

http://litmuspublishing.co.uk

Dogtown by Andrew Spragg & Beth Hopkins (Litmus Publishing)

Dogtown by Andrew Spragg & Beth Hopkins (Litmus Publishing)

When Andrea Brady wrote a comment for the back cover of Andrew Spragg and Beth Hopkins’s Dogtown, an ambitious new publication from Litmus Press, she referred to the ‘uneasy labour of embroidery’ and the ‘arterial drawings’ which are assembled into a book of ‘unsettling beauty’. Derived from the Old French, embroder, the common recognition of embroidery is needlework ornamentation upon cloth and it has a figurative use as a form of making something splendid. There is, however, another ironic association which links the word to James Shirley’s 1649 play The Country Captain and the arrival in London of folk ‘in our torne gowns, embroidered with Strand dirt.’ This embroidery is closer to the outlaw world of Cormac McCarthy where folk ‘sleep that night on the cold plains of a foreign land, forty-six men wrapped in their blankets under the selfsame stars, the prairie wolves so like in their yammering, yet all about so changed and strange’. In Andrew Spragg’s Dogtown the words, embroidered on dark cloth, echo with isolation, movement and awareness of an alternative polis:

‘poetics of disused railyards
distribution centres
gone for rot
canals at
borough boundaries’

Andrew Spragg’s embroidery weaves for the reader ‘a book that moves / to a centre / where dogtown / is vacated’. This is a world where the ‘spirit has / already migrated’.

Charles Olson’s Dogtown, forming part of the geographical background to the Maximus Poems, is an uncultivated section of Gloucester (Mass.) strewn with glacial deposits in the central part of Cape Ann: ‘a deserted village, said to have its name from the dogs kept for protection by widows and elderly women who lived there during the latter part of the eighteenth century’ (Butterick’s Guide to the Maximus Poems). It is an area that looks druidic according to the painter Marsden Hartley who wrote about his 1931 visit to Dogtown: ‘It gives a feeling that any ancient race might turn up at any moment and review an ageless rite there…’. Andrew Spragg’s visit, ‘On coming to dogtown’, is a spiritual journey as well as a physical one and on the outskirts of the domain

‘…we destroyed all
our remaining resources, set fires
as a point of pride. This was the last
of our unspecified hours and it was
marked with a feast of cold meat.’

Fires are set for more than one purpose. They may devour all the accumulation of a past on which the travelers are turning their backs but they may also act as torches in the wilderness, lit with a sense of combative pride. The sketches of Beth Hopkins stalk their spidery way through these pages and the broken twigs make us aware of the fragility of a ‘pattern / of derelicts, a presence / of dust and peace and / stillness’.
Sitting along with the comments made by Andrea Brady on the back cover we read Verity Spott’s acute suggestion that these poems ‘feel like rituals for entry, towards new worlds whilst trailing the flotsam of subjective pain and recovery’.

Reading these poems by Andrew Spragg and looking at the artwork by Beth Hopkins I wish to suggest a way forward for readers. The next stop might be Harding, the nearly deserted town that the old guys find when they leave the commercialism of the East Coast to head westwards in Douglas Woolf’s 1959 novel, Fade Out. As one of the citizens of this new/old polis tells them:

‘Meantime a man can live for sixty-seventy dollars a month. Food is high, but rents are cheap. The climate’s nice, and we’ve got our shelters ready-dug all through this hill. That’s the hospital up there on top, they’ll open that again someday. That was the high school, the grammar school, the church, the theater there, the mortuary, the barbershop—they’ll open that someday too.’

But the last word should be given to Andrew Spragg whose Dogtown gives us ‘a stitching town an embroidered / point haunted by this flight or / all our layers at once.’

Litmus Publishing, edited by Dorothy Lehane and Elinor Cleghorn, runs both a Press and a Magazine and it explores the interaction between poetry and science. My next review will look at another of its recent publications, Felicity Allen’s Psycho-Neurological Poem in 3 Parts & A Clean Heart and a Cheerful Spirit.

Ian Brinton 5th April 2019

Bettbehandlung by Dorothy Lehane (Muscaliet)

Bettbehandlung by Dorothy Lehane (Muscaliet)

Jean-Martin Charcot was a neurologist, a physician who specialized in diseases of the nervous system. He was a professor of pathological anatomy at the Sorbonne and physician in charge of the care of patients at the Salpêtrière. When he died in 1893 an obituary was written by his pupil Sigmund Freud and one of the paragraphs is of particular note:

‘But to his pupils, who made the rounds with him through the wards of the Salpêtrière – the museum of clinical facts for the greater part named and defined by him – he seemed a very Cuvier, as we see him in the statue in front of the Jardin des Plantes, surrounded by the various types of animal life which he had understood and described; or else he had reminded them of the myth of Adam, who must have experienced in its most perfect form that intellectual delight so highly praised by Charcot, when the Lord led before him the creatures of Paradise to be named and grouped.’

As Thomas Szasz puts it in his monumental book from 1960, The Myth of Mental Illness / Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct:

‘To Charcot and Freud, these patients are mere objects or things to be classified and manipulated. It is an utterly dehumanized view of the sick person. But then, we might recall that even today physicians often speak of “cases” and “clinical material” rather than of persons, thus betraying the same bias.’

In Dorothy Lehane’s powerful prose pieces published last year by Muscaliet Press Charcot is ‘show-man’ and the portrait of women we see are ‘performative’. Throughout this relentlessly poignant account of medical imprisonment (definition of what constitutes need for the hysterical female subjects is provided by those in charge) we hear pleading voices of the incarcerated who are ‘always drawing an assembly to convince’, voices of those who are aware of the centrality of performance since, after all, ‘the performative “I do” is a means to the end of marriage’. Performance in a public sphere is closely bound up in Lehane’s terms with the public expectations of sexuality; ‘high & holy is performative’ where the first word hints of suicide and the ‘leap out of a window’ whereas the second confronts the reader with ‘the human face is a multiple sexual organ’.
Time and again during my reading of this unforgettable wring of anguish I am reminded of the final chapter in R.D. Laing’s The Divided Self, published one year before Thomas Szasz. In ‘The ghost of the weed garden (a study of a chronic schizophrenic)’ Julie is perceived by her mother as going through three stages changing from ‘a good, normal, healthy child’ to being ‘bad…caused great distress’ before finally all parental responsibility could be peacefully resolved by the judgement that Julie had gone ‘beyond all tolerable limits so that she could only be regarded as completely mad’. The existential deadness of being socially/domestically good had been followed by Julie’s desperate attempt at self-expression (bad) before retreating into the defined world of madness where her words perhaps said more than anything else to express that isolation of entombment:

She was born under a black sun.
She’s the occidental sun.
I’m the prairie.
She’s a ruined city.
She’s the ghost of the weed garden.

Or, as she concluded, ‘She’s just one of those girls who live in the world. Everyone pretends to want her and doesn’t want her. I’m just leading the life now of a cheap tart’.
Dorothy Lehane’s new book is intense and complex and I have merely scratched something on the surface here. I recall a review I wrote five years ago when Lehane’s magazine Litmus came out. In her editorial introduction to issue 2 she said that within the journal we will find ‘a scientific undertow; the poetry is inherently neurological and yet doesn’t labour to assign literary parallels for scientific theory, nor promote heavy use of devices such as metaphor, but presents subtle coded work operating at the limits of collaborative engagement’. I urge readers here to engage with this intensely demanding new network of language and recognise how deeply we are all involved in the definitions which enclose us:

‘mama’s swan song was believing that the sing-
song is just a game’

Also, I urge you to recall the fist within the glove of language and never forget Toni Morrison’s assertion in Beloved that definitions belong to the definer not to the defined.

Ian Brinton, 25th March 2019

Tears in the Fence 69

Tears in the Fence 69

Tears in the Fence 69 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward/

This issue has a front cover designed by Westrow Cooper from a photograph entitled, God and Man, and was designed by Westrow Cooper. The creative section consists of poetry, visual and prose poems, fiction, flash fiction and creative non-fiction by Martin Stannard, Valerie Bridge, Marcin Podlaski, Sharon Olinka, Sheila E Murphy, Jeremy Reed, Clive Gresswell, Gerald Killingworth, Michael Farrell, Serena Mayer, Will Hall, Holly V Chilton, Annemarie Austin, Robert Hirschfield, David Harmer, Maria Stadnicka, Jazmine Linklater, David Felix, Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani Mina Ray, Jennie E. Owen, Regi Claire, Emma Stamm, Drew Milne, Peter Dent, Tess Jolly, Charles Wilkinson, Basil King, Yvonne Litschel, Arpit Kaushik, Richard Foreman, Ceinwen E.C. Hayden, Amy Acre, Mandy Pannett, Jane R Rogers, Louise Wilford, John Brantingham, Laurie Duggan, Andrew Shelley, Ezra Miles, Greg Bright and Beth Davyson.

The critical section consists of Ian Brinton’s Editorial, Jennifer K. Dick’s Of Tradition & Experiment XIII: Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Caroline Clark’s In Praise Of Artifice on Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Olga Sedakova, Sarah Connor on Poems For Grenfell Tower, A Tale of Two Londons, Norman Jope on Games Across Frontiers: Twitters For a Lark, Andrew Duncan on Edge of Necessary, Martin Thom, Barbara Bridger on JR Carpenter, Sheila Hamilton on Melinda Lovell, Tim Allen on Andrew Duncan, Seán Street on Eleanor Rees, Guy Russell on Martin Gray, Simon Collings on Alan Baker, Jessica Mookherjee on Rachael Clyne, Mandy Pannett on Reuben Woolley, John Welch on James Sutherland-Smith, David Pollard – What Is Poetry? A Response, Why are we writing and who are we writing for? A Conversation between Lisa Kiew and Amy McCauley, Notes on Contributors and David Caddy’s Afterword.

Meridian by Nancy Gaffield (Longbarrow Press)

Meridian by Nancy Gaffield (Longbarrow Press)

“The idea was to walk the line from Peacehaven to the Humber. I had devised the notion that the physical act of walking would help me to locate what was lost”.

We are immediately presented with a topographical focus and I can feel myself wanting to reach for Edward Thomas’s The Icknield Way in which he opened his 1913 walk with the words

“Much has been written of travel, far less of the road. Writers have treated the road as a passive means to an end, and honoured it most when it has been an obstacle; they leave the impression that a road is a connection between two points which only exists when the traveller is upon it.”

However, it very quickly becomes clear that Nancy Gaffield’s 270 mile walk, the Greenwich Meridian Trail from Peacehaven to Sand le Mere, is immersed in far more than topography. Her opening epigraph is taken from Charles Olson’s study of Herman Melville, Call Me Ishmael, and it is neatly adapted to her venture of discovery, a venture which prompts her forward whilst reawakening the past: “SPACE” is the “central fact to [wo]man born in America” and Gaffield’s movement through space is guided by Robert Moor’s exploration of trails:

“The key difference between a trail and a path is directional: paths extend forward, whereas trails extend backward”.

The reference to Olson at the very start of the book’s journey is by no means accidental and in the opening poem ‘ORDNANCE SURVEY MAP 122: BRIGHTON & HOVE’ we read of “Disturbances within the threshold / of hearing are sampled in time” and those disturbances have a lyrical echo down the years. This is a person who is “six years old again / learning to read / the landscape”. The musical echoes of wisps of language become

“The song that the rigging makes,
Port of Gloucester. The acoustics
of the sea. Here / there”

If we can hear Olson in that reference then when, extending backward, we look at the trail that got us moving we can also hear T.S. Eliot and the Gloucester poet’s “space of enunciation” traces a landscape that contains a reference to the last section of Bostonian ‘Preludes’ which itself looks backwards to the Whitman who sings the body electric “out on the vacant lot at sundown after work”.
In the generous section of Acknowledgements at the end of this book’s adventure Nancy Gaffield expresses her gratitude for those who accompanied her on the walk (Kat Peddie) and those who were there “in spirit”: Helen Adam, John Clare and Paul Celan. And here lies a major point about this autobiographical expression of how path and trail belong within the same covers: we carry our reading, our influences, with us as they have formed the person who we are. Some of these influences lie buried and do not obtrude themselves as landmarks on the pathway and in this way Edward Thomas’s ‘Lob’ emerges as

“The man in the street says: “I’ve
lived here all my life. I’m telling
you there’s no road in or out. You
could slip into a ditch. No one
would ever find you.””

Thomas gives us an old man who has a “land face, sea-blue eyed” who says

“….Nobody can’t stop ’ee. It’s
A footpath right enough. You see those bits
Of mounds – that’s where they opened up the barrows
Sixty years since, while I was scaring sparrows.
They thought as there was something to find there,
But couldn’t find it, by digging, anywhere.”

Nancy Gaffield is following the Greenwich Meridian Trail as a path, walking forward in a northerly direction “recalling snippets from books, scenes from films, or events… following a trail backwards”.
Meridian is no mere scrap-book of reminiscences but instead is a carefully wrought accumulation of reflections. The notes offered at the end of each poem are helpful and they echo the very movement of the poetry itself. In the second poem which deals with Greenwich and Gravesend we are confronted with a reference to a notorious pub, The Grapes, in which strangers to the area were known to have disappeared before turning up on the dissecting table. Dickens had presented us with that pub now disguised as The Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters in his mid-1860s novel Our Mutual Friend and Gaffield offers us a quotation from the early pages which includes the reference to being able to “trace little forests” on the surface of an old corner cupboard. This is no chance quotation and the paragraph had earlier included the suggestion that the pub seemed in its old age to also look back at its youth: both trail and path. The little forests, where the very word conjures up the world of the fairy-tale, are part of the “gnarled and riven appearance of old trees” where the past “seemed to twist itself into some likeness of boughs”. In Nancy Gaffield’s “migrant” language she contemplates being at the “forest’s fringe” and the whole sequence of poems becomes as Jeremy Prynne suggested about Olson’s Maximus IV, V, VI “a lingual and temporal syncretism”.

Ian Brinton 3rd March 2019

Rages of The Carbolic by Clive Gresswell (KFS Press), Some Municipal Love Poems by Simon Smith (Muscaliet Press)

Rages of The Carbolic by Clive Gresswell (KFS Press), Some Municipal Love Poems by Simon Smith (Muscaliet Press)

When I reviewed Clive Gresswell’s Jargon Busters, his first collection from Alec Newman’s radical and innovative Press, I recall using a phrase about the poems possessing an authoritative tone which is accompanied by a compelling lyricism. This new collection firms up that opinion for me. As the opening poem offers us “new shapes from this froth of form” we are introduced into a reading of the past through “a gate left partly open” and we are invited to glimpse

“narrow (needless) chattering
divulging corners of winter
(we) crept into the crypts
& buttercup fields.”

Our present reading of the past reveals our inheritance and the “froth of form” which constitutes poetic language permits “new shapes”. In a sense we emerge from the hidden darkness of the buried past (kruptos) to “buttercup fields” of explosion:

“igniting craters in gathering blossom
to storms of deluxe transition we ferry
able sea-soldiers subliminally required
a gesture at the foot

breaking fortunes to new requisitions
we gather in harvests of the bland
to dictating new forms of capital explosions
the garden-path is blocked

an extra energy exerts excitement
exhorting byways gathered in the sonnet
a dim-lit lecture betrays new breathing
clutching at the straws”

The martial and political thrust here is counterpointed against the language of the pastoral, the nostalgic nature of which is little more than “bland” and as that tyrant of Language, Humpty-Dumpty, recognised “When I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”. However, Gresswell knows all too clearly what has happened to language and you may be “wrapped in your blanket / field of dreams” but still have to come up against broken realities:

“& all the kings horses and all the kings men
marching an army of dreams on its belly
into the umbilical”

There is less anger and more O’Hara in Simon Smith’s most recent collection and there is a tone of both realisation (acceptance) and resignation (a shrug of the shoulders) in his opening ‘General Purpose Love Poem’. That which can be “gathered” in a sonnet can be seen

“as fourteen pence of change
as fourteen sous of change
as fourteen bits all in a row

the fourteen lines of chance
& the six degrees of knowing

on London streets
along the boulevards of Paris

not an earthly
art without a heaven
not without chance”

If the world of Frank O’Hara casts its wandering shade over these attractive glimpses of time passing then so does Browning’s Faultless Painter and we can almost hear the wry tones of Andrea Del Sarto as he muses

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for? All is silver-grey
Placid and perfect with my art: the worse!
I know both what I want and what might gain,
And yet how profitless to know, to sigh
“Had I been two, another and myself,
“Our head would have o’erlooked the world!””

Simon Smith’s skill as a poet and jongleur resides partly in his ability to forge “base language / into pure song / into various song” and partly in his understanding of human frailty and lost opportunity. These new poems are a delight and they reflect the vision of this new independent Press that believes in writing as “a process of synthesis; of arranging, combining, contrasting and layering ideas through language”.
Or as Smith puts it

“there’s a fizz in the glass
& the pleasure is mine
& ideological

like a guitar with L / A / N / G / U / A / G / E printed all along the
fret board

Ian Brinton, 10th January 2019

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