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The Collected Poems of Robert Desnos, translated by Timothy Adès (Arc Publications, 2017), Despair Has Wings: Selected Poems of Pierre Jean Jouve (Enitharmon Press, 2007), Robert Desnos, translated by Martin Bell (Art Translated)

The Collected Poems of Robert Desnos, translated by Timothy Adès (Arc Publications, 2017), Despair Has Wings: Selected Poems of Pierre Jean Jouve (Enitharmon Press, 2007), Robert Desnos, translated by Martin Bell (Art Translated)

In the opening poem of the 1926 sequence À La Mystérieuse (To the Woman of Mystery) Robert Desnos wrote

J’ai rêvé cette nuit de paysages insensés et d’aventures
dangereuses aussi bien du point de vue de la mort que du
point de vue de la vie qui sont aussi le point de vue de l’amour.

In this ambitious new translation of Desnos, one which will I suspect remain the standard text for some years to come, Timothy Adès suggests the following as a bridge crossing two different languages:

I dreamed last night of unhinged landscapes and dangerous
adventures, as much from death’s viewpoint as from life’s,
and they are both the viewpoint of love.

The word ‘unhinged’ conveys a colloquial awareness of how one might refer to madness and indeed Martin Bell’s translation of the same line offered support for this when he rendered the line into English as ‘Tonight I dreamed of insane landscapes’. However, Adès’s use of the word ‘unhinged’ also prompts us to contemplate an idea concerning the possibility of an opening, a taking down of shutters, and this idea is taken further in the last poem of the sequence, ‘À la Faveur de la Nuit’:

Mais la fenêtre s’ouvre et le vent, le vent qui balance bizarrement
La flame et le drapeau entoure ma fuite de son manteau.

(But the window is opening and the breeze, the breeze weirdly
juggling flame and flag, wraps my retreat in its cloak.)

When the hinges of the window open in this fifth poem of the sequence the poet is compelled to recognise that the space now exposed offers no entrance to his desired lover, the night-club singer Yvonne George. Whereas only a few lines earlier Desnos had become aware of a shadow outside his window, ‘Cette ombre à la fenêtre’, and felt that the ghostly image was that of the woman whose eyes he would wish to close with his lips he is now compelled to recognise that ‘it isn’t you’ and that ‘I knew that’. The siren-like attraction of Yvonne George for the young Desnos offers an echo of a poetic heritage which must include the knight of Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ who is ensnared by the lady’s ‘wild wild eyes’ as he closes them ‘with kisses four’.
Adès uses this word ‘unhinged’ in an equally intriguing way when translating a much later poem from Desnos’s 1944 sequence Contrée (Against the Grain). Timothy Adès tells us that ‘Le Paysage’ (‘The Countryside’) was the first poem by Desnos that he had ever discovered and translated; it was to be found in The Penguin Book of French Verse. The sonnet casts a backward glance at love from a different perspective and the poet is compelled to recognise that for him

Love’s not that storm whose lightning kindled high
Towers, unhorsed, unhinged, and fleetingly
Would set the parting of the ways aglow.

This later concept of love becomes something more concrete altogether, a ‘flint’ that his ‘footstep sparks at night’, a word that ‘no lexicon can render right’.
If poetry possesses the power to make the invisible visible then the earlier poem had made every attempt to give the muse form:

My laughter and joy crystallise around you, It’s your make-
up, your powder, your rouge, your snakeskin bag, your
silk stocking…it’s also that little fold between ear and
nape, where the neck is born.

Clearly the poet’s understanding of love was inextricably bound up with the language of the visual and echoed perhaps the suggestive words of André Breton: ‘les mots font l’amour’. But the later use of ‘unhinged’ suggests, however, a different awareness of love’s power and that despite not being ‘that storm’ it can remain enduring as ‘Still I love’ and the words become contained within the more defined structure of a sonnet: a more formal approach to language seems like a recognition of ‘Old age’ making ‘all things fixed and luminous.’
In March 1933 Pierre Jean Jouve wrote an astonishing essay ‘The Unconscious, Spirituality, Catastrophe’ in which ‘poetry is in possession of a number of ways of attaining to the symbol – which, no longer controlled by the intellect, rises up by itself, redoubtable and wholly real. It is like a substance discharging force. And as the sensibility becomes accustomed, through training, to proceed from the phrase to the line of verse, from the commonplace word to that of magic, the quest for formal adequacy becomes inseparable from the quest for buried treasure.’ Jouve’s own 1938 poem about interior landscapes pursued that search for what could be uncovered within the formalities of language by suggesting that ‘The mighty pillars of poetry form towns’ and that ‘Evening sinks and solidifies about men’s mortal limbs’ as ‘A mourning girl goes gathering into her aproned gown / The scattered ashes of the man she loved.’
The interweaving connection between Desnos and Jouve, those two pioneering French poets of the mid-twentieth century, might perhaps also be illustrated by the break Desnos made with the Surrealist movement in 1929. As Adès puts it in the notes he has added to his monumental edition of the poems Desnos had realised that love for Yvonne was a hopeless case and in a poem from 16th November, ‘The Poem to Florence’, he asserted that ‘The gates have been bolted on Wonderland’. As Desnos went on to proclaim in his ‘offensive and sarcastic’ Third Manifesto of Surrealism (1st March 1930): ‘Surrealism has now fallen into the public domain’.
Arc’s excellent publication of these Collected Poems, subtitled ‘Surrealist, Lover, Resistant’, goes a long way towards making that exclamatory statement an evident reality just as Enitharmon’s re-issuing of the Gascoyne translations of Jouve’s Selected Poems offers an opening, an unhinging, a suggestion that, as its subtitle affirms, ‘Despair Has Wings’.

Ian Brinton 20th January 2020

Matrix I & Matrix II by David Miller (Guillemot Press)

Matrix I & Matrix II by David Miller (Guillemot Press)

‘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:

“Spare!
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,
Ońe.”

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

wings useless
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:

“heavy rain
all night

nonsequences
no

but going back
& forth

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

Happiness, as Such by Natalia Ginzburg trans. Minna Zallman Proctor (Daunt Books)

Happiness, as Such by Natalia Ginzburg trans. Minna Zallman Proctor (Daunt Books)

This is the fourth book by Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1991) to be published by Daunt Books, following on from Family Lexicon, The Little Virtues and Voices in the Evening. Essayist and novelist, Sicilian-born, Ginzburg was an extraordinary writer, being able to get under the skin of family life, public and private connections, in a deceptively simple prose style marked by clarity, precision and humour. Her unmistakable style emerges regardless of the translator. Ginzburg wrote Family Lexicon in London in the early 1960s, and pointedly about the English and their ways in The Little Virtues at the same time. With that other Sicilian writer, Andrea Camilleri, known for his Montalbano novels, their near contemporary, Cesare Pavese, and the younger Elena Ferrante, Ginzburg has a growing readership in the UK. An anti-fascist, member of the Italian Communist Party, Ginzburg worked for the publisher, Einaudi, in Turin in the Forties, published early and continued to develop her style over the years. She was elected to the Italian parliament as an Independent in 1983.

Happiness, as Such is partly an epistolary novel, in the tradition of Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771), where comedy arises from the differences in descriptions and understanding of events and places from letters sent home by Squire Bramble and members of his entourage as they tour the country. Here the letters sent arise from an absent son, Michele, who has left Rome for London to escape the dangers of his radical political connections, and the comedy arises from the characters observations and one-liners and, as in Camilleri’s novels, in the fringe characters and action elsewhere. Michele belongs to a large, dysfunctional family, and his absence somehow manages to link his dispersed relatives, friends and lover into complicated web of events revealing how they cope in adversity.

Minna Zallman Proctor has translated Caro Michele (1973) into Happiness, as Such and the English title works brilliantly as it addresses Ginzburg’s attempt to reveal the diverse ways in which people cope with disappointments and mistakes. Deborah Levy’s back cover observation on the effect of reading Ginzburg as both calming and thrilling is spot on. The writing is profoundly alive from the short sentenced opening page into Adriana’s first letter to her son. The reader immediately hears and gets the character, a bossy, melancholic woman with a pithy turn of phrase and the origins of much humour and perception. Here she is in full flow:

‘When you go to see him, don’t take your usual twenty-five pairs of dirty
socks. The butler, I can’t remember if his name is Enrico or Federico,
isn’t up to the extra burden of managing your dirty laundry right now.
He’s exhausted and overwhelmed. He doesn’t sleep at night because your
Father keeps calling him. And it’s the first time he’s ever been a butler.
He was a mechanic before. Plus, he’s an idiot.’

This is essentially a letter of complaint and Ginzburg draws in a great deal of social detail into her characterisation and subsequent action. The reader is carried along by the narrative force and almost misses the relentless candour and deft one-liners, such as her observation on Osvaldo, Michele’s friend, that ‘He’s polite. It’s the kind of politeness that makes you feel full, as if you’ve eaten too much jam.’ Whilst Adriana’s letters are startling, and full of life, Michele’s are brief, evasive and can be read for what they don’t say. His mother in contrast has much to say.

Gradually the complexity of Michele’s life and habits emerge. The absent centre is diffused throughout a set of connections laid bare before and after his death. Ginzburg uses this platform to evaluate what it is to be happy and the various states of happiness, as such, and is never short of new revelation and comic insight.

The exchange between Michele’s sister Angelica and his ex-girlfriend, Mara, who is an unpleasant deceiver and on the make shows how generosity can elicit honesty from a scoundrel. Angelica writes ‘I think that we should care about your baby and not worry about whether or not it’s his baby, by us I mean me and my mother and sisters, and I don’t know why I feel that way, but not everything a person feels has to have an explanation, and to be perfectly honest I don’t believe that obligations should have explanations.’ Mara responds that although she is broken and unreliable, she must tell her that the baby is not Michele’s. She writes: ‘I don’t want to deceive you. You said it so well: we don’t need reasons for what we feel we need to do or not do.’ She then proceeds with her tale of disaster, bored but happy, to emphasise her need for assistance in the face of uncertainty.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the narrative and spoil what is a great read. I shall end by stating that Ginzburg is adept at the gradual filtering of salient detail and, like Chekhov and Carver, at the unsaid, as well as like Ferrante at the full and rounded revelation. This extraordinarily tender and life-affirming novel, by one of the great Italian writers, repays rereading.

David Caddy 22nd October 2019

Tears in the Fence 70

Tears in the Fence 70

Tears in the Fence 70 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry and prose poetry from Jeremy Hilton, Charles Hadfield, Mandy Pannett, Lisa Dart, Robert Sheppard, Simon Collings, David Ball, Tamsin Blaxter, Seán Street, Jessica Mookherjee, Peter J. King, Lucy Hamilton, Andrew Henon, David Sahner, Rhea Seren Phillips, Beth McDonough, John Freeman, L. Kiew, Andrew Duncan, Charles Wilkinson, Rhys Trimble, Ruby Reding, Peter Hughes, Maria Jastrzębska, Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, Hazel Smith, Lucia Daramus, Vik Shirley, Julie Mellor, Michael Henry, Cora Greenhill, Maggie Giraud, Paul Matthews, Adam Horovitz, Sarah Barnsley, Beth Davyson, Paul Green, Caroline Maldonado, Lesley Burt, Jonathan Chant, Jane Wheeler, Miranda Lynn Barnes and Reuben Woolley.

This issue is designed by Westrow Cooper and features a cover photograph by Emile Guillemot.

The critical section consists of Ian Brinton’s Editorial, Jeremy Reed on Bill Butler, Mary Woodward on Turin and Pavese, Barbara Bridger on Hari Marini, Ruth Valentine on Isabella Murra & Caroline Maldonado, Mark Prendergast on Chris Wallace-Crabbe & Kris Hemensley, Richard Makin on Ken Edwards, Caroline Maldonado on Mandy Pannett, Ian Seed on Martin Stannard, Duncan Mackay on Eleanor Perry, Sarah Connor on California Continuum Vol. 1, Nigel Jarrett on Rhys Davies, Cora Greenhill on Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, Lisa Dart on Kay Syrad, Nic Stringer on Michelle Penn, Adam Coleman on Duncan Mackay, Fiona Owen on Paul Deaton, Notes On Contributors, and David Caddy’s Afterword

Embodiment by Dinah Livingstone (Katabasis Press)

Embodiment by Dinah Livingstone (Katabasis Press)

Embodiment is a less scary word than incarnation but its choice as title of Dinah Livingstone’s tenth collection reflects her loyalty to Christian theology as a central metaphor. This consistency also allows her to lay claim to a continuous selfhood:

I knew that I was me when I was five,
I’m grown up now and not a little girl
but still myself, though I don’t look the same. ‘Keeping Faith’

The continuity is upheld despite physical changes in the body she speaks from. Livingstone maintains that the poetic voice is always embodied which is why so many of these poems are written in her own voice and explore her own experience. About three fifths of the poems use the first person where this can be identified with the poet. It is not egotistical self-indulgence that motivates her writing, but the belief that physical life on earth is a common or shared experience and that if the poet writes accurately and honestly in their own embodied voice the words will communicate and recognised by others. The first half of the collection uses not only the voice of the poet but includes and acknowledges the voices of others:

Any voice, whether
of someone dear, or hated
like an obnoxious politician,
though each speaks the language
of its social niche, its daily connections,
has its unique print. ‘Loved Voices’

Sometimes, she simply describes the other voice, be it neighbour, teacher, grandson or even the poet, Stevie Smith. In other cases, she takes different personas, as in the delightful sonnet shared between a boy and a fox. In ‘The Yearning Strong’, an eco-protest, she invents a voice from the future which uses the perspective of distance to record some of her own most cherished experiences: ‘There’s a huge animal you can ride on,/stroke its furry neck and trot/through the wood or gallop over the moor.’ In another very powerful poem, she reports the voices of drowning migrants in English and through some of their own languages. This poem records a failure of communication in one of the few moments where the overall tone of positivity falters:

‘Who listens?
Something is very wrong.
What can we do?

Perhaps the implicit message is the importance of listening and hearing, without which there can be no action.

In the second part of the collection, ‘Embodiment’, the voice is the same and themes are developed from the first section which are familiar from the writer’s other work. The first poem, which relates to the cover reproduction from Blake’s illustrations of Paradise Lost, serves as a manifesto. For Livingstone, as for Blake and Stevie Smith in the first section, gods are human inventions and their stories are metaphors or projections of what humans want:

the full embodiment of Christ will be
an actual reign of kindness long imagined,
which now – with nothing supernatural –
ordinary people try (or not)
by love and work to give something towards. ‘Alpha and Omega’

The confident ‘will’ in the first line of this quotation is slightly undermined by the bracketed ‘or not’ in the penultimate, perhaps reinforcing the recognition that it is up to humans what they make of the world.

In the sequence Keeping Faith, Livingstone brings together two of her concerns, the nature of the self and the embodiment of ‘faith and hope and love’ in a world where ‘kindness’ in its fullest sense prevails. I think this is because the fullest embodiment comes through self-realization, as in ‘November’ where she describes a plane tree: “Self-possessed, this London plane/spreads high into the blue’ , a notion of self-hood clearly derived from Hopkins. To oversimplify, the best community will be reached through ‘all those different selves’ achieving their full potential or selfhood. Sometimes it seems that ‘embodiment’ is purely physical; sometimes, it seems to include works of art, such as a poem.

Or you write what you didn’t expect
and it is beyond prose –a poem.
And when, at last, your living child is born,
you see his face and the midwife
gives you him to hold,
himself and snuffling in your arms. ‘Nature and Grace’

However, the age-old divide between body and spirit is challenged in ‘Prologue’, an introductory sonnet to the sequence Embodiment: ‘How could a disembodied spirit speak/or dance or sing the paradox, the power,/the passion and the truth of human hearts?’ We may note the verbs, ‘speak’, ‘dance’ and ‘sing’ are all rooted in the body, and presented as the only way in which the abstractions of ‘power’, ‘passion’ and ‘truth’ can be expressed, i.e., physically.

Among other things, this book confronts the process of aging with grace. Although it could be described as mellower than some of her other work, this is a collection in which Livingstone continues to observe, celebrate and strive.

Kathleen McPhilemy 2nd September 2019

Parables For The Pouring Rain by Paul Sutton (BlazeVOX)

Parables For The Pouring Rain by Paul Sutton (BlazeVOX)

Paul Sutton’s Parables for the Pouring Rain draws together recent work from the Oxford based poet. Sutton is an intriguing figure, one of his main concerns, revealing ‘how dull and pointless most “mainstream” poetry seems1’ has left him largely ostracised from “mainstream” poetry. Although no doubt he’s delighted by this ostracism, it is a shame because his poetry is rich and entertaining. Whether Sutton is better or worse than the mainstream he despises is another question, but his poetry is certainly different, which is something to be cherished. Sutton is, at the very least, a poet who deserves to be read.
There are poets who like to show the world at its best, Sutton is a poet who likes to show the world at its worst. This makes for gripping poetry. Elites, in all their forms, are the naturally enemy of Sutton. Opening salvo ‘Authoritarian centre’ demonstrates:

An elite that is ignored feels it needs to attack:
“We who have given so much. Universal suffrage is
disastrous – there’s no point granting free speech to
those who have nothing to say.

At first glance Sutton’s target may seem to be the political class. However, the Helleresque slogan: ‘free speech to / those who have nothing to say’ seems such a glorious backhander to “mainstream” poetry that Sutton’s attack must be multifarious. The poem reaches its crux in ‘I had a friend who married a working-class man. He beat her daily, posted / it online….that’s why I write’ (italics in original). This is all parody. Sutton identifies a weak point: the middle class poet’s glaring need for authenticity, then uses it to make his target look ridiculous. However, as a graduate of Jesus College, Sutton himself is surely part of the elite. Sutton has defended himself from this before, saying his poetry ‘makes no attempt to put me (the “poet”) above these, instead I’m participating2’. Whether he himself is implicated in ‘Authoritarian centre’ is debatable, his criticisms would seem to place him above the credibility hungry poet, rather than equal. Qualms over the moral high-ground aside, what is indisputable is the impact of the poem, it is a powerful start to the collection, proudly lifting two fingers up at anyone looking to be triggered.

“Angry poems” like ‘Authoritarian centre’ only make up a small proportion of Sutton’s repertoire, which might be a surprise to his enemies. Perhaps the mainstay of Parables for the Pouring Rain are lyrical, non-confrontational poems with a bittersweet sentimentality. ‘In a doll’s house’ is short enough to include in full:

In dreams of living with pistols.
We all did, firing at the white walls.

A child doll is brought to me:
tiny, dead-eyed, the only colour
blood up its nose. Then cradled,

her body emerging in warmth;
‘pink-budded life is too simple.’

The poem displays one of Sutton’s go to techniques: to take something delicate: a ‘child doll’ and to expose it to something cruel: the blood up its nose. It is a tale of innocence lost: the white walls are shot, the child doll’s tiny eyes are dead. The speaker protects the child doll, cradling it, nursing it back to life, before the last line scatters the meaning and the reader returns to the top. Why is the speaker so keen to protect the child doll? Is it because of guilt or an honest inclination? Why a ‘child doll’ and not a child or a doll? The poems brevity leaves these questions unanswered but that they are present shows the level of intrigue Sutton creates in just seven lines.
Sutton can be a poet of real human warmth. ‘Inorganic’, the first poem in a sequence dedicated to Sean McGrady, a scientist who Sutton met at university, is luminous:

Long first-term afternoons, Inorganic
lab, Oxford blue into violet. Whirring
magnetic stirrers, heart-ache colours
transition metal ions – surely that’s
magic? Somehow it’s passed me by.

Sutton is wistfully daydreaming about the long lost magic, working in the lab with his friend. His concern like with ‘In a doll’s house’, is with protecting the innocent: ‘Let’s worry/ for children, the damage they suffer’. Sutton writes about McGrady’s daughter, left behind for ‘tenure and funding’ in America. Sutton is not really the angry wasp he labels himself as, but rather a sentimental figure, it is a poem for ‘for evening and tears’, as Dylan Thomas described ‘Fern Hill’. ‘Inorganic’ exposes the soft core of Sutton’s heart. The seething rage that typifies some of his poems and the antagonistic persona which has led to him being labelled a ‘bottle-lobber3’, is perhaps just a protective shield. Sutton is loathe to reveal his tender side, yet he does so again and again, why? Because he values its poetic appeal and moreover because deep down, it shows who he really is.

1 Quote taken from Paul Sutton’s bio http://www.blazevox.org/index.php/Shop/new-releases/parables-for-the-pouring-rain-by-paul-sutton-519/ last accessed 30/4/2019
2 Quote from an interview with Paul Sutton conducted by BlazeVOX last accessed 30/4/2019
http://www.blazevox.org/index.php/news/15-questions-an-interview-with-paul-sutton-127/
3 Comment left under a blog post on http://toddswift.blogspot.com/2011/11/inane.html last accessed 30/4/2019

Charlie Baylis 22nd August 2019

Below This Level by Kelvin Corcoran (Shearsman Books)

Below This Level by Kelvin Corcoran (Shearsman Books)

Poetry of any real importance was never going to be the same after T.S. Eliot’s assertion that “A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility” (‘The Metaphysical Poets’). In that essay from 1921 he continued in the manner often quoted as an example of Modernism:

“When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”

It was one year earlier than this statement that Paul Valéry composed his ‘Le Cimetière Marin’ and only a few years later that he wrote some comments upon the composition of that startling account of a peaceful roof in Sète “trodden solely by the doves” and quivering “between the pines, between the tombs” (Tr. Brinton & Grant):

“…the memory of my attempts, my gropings, inner decipherings, those imperious verbal illuminations which suddenly impose a particular combination of words – as though a certain group possessed some kind of intrinsic power…I nearly said: some kind of will to live, quite the opposite of the freedom or chaos of the mind, a will that can sometimes force the mind to deviate from its plan and the poem to become quite other than what it was going to be and something one did not dream it could be.”

From mind to words on a page a transformation is in action and perhaps this is what most of all in-forms Kelvin Corcoran’s deeply moving lyric sequence recounting his experience of prostate cancer; its diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.

The sequence of fourteen poems and a letter opens with a sonnet titled ‘What the Birds Said’:

“I sit by the window and read the poetry received.
I can smell smoke from a neighbour’s garden,
hear a collared dove coo, a buried piano, a distant aircraft.
I can understand these things but in my reading
I lose track of the world in the would-be samizdat.”

Four of these lines from the opening stanza assert the focus upon self but it is a self in motion as sitting moves towards losing track. Awareness and memory are alert to senses of scent and sound but the increasing distance from the opening stasis is felt through “buried” noise becoming “distant” and “understanding” moves in the direction of an underground movement of forbidden publication: one should not talk about these naked feelings!
It is no surprise then that the second stanza should open with a repeated apology: the first being to the poet whose work Corcoran is occupied in reading, the second registering the awareness that “light is draining from the sky” so that “affective meaning has gone in darkness”. Any attempt at distracting the mind by focussing on names (“Rue des Hiboux and Zaventem”) is thwarted by the approaching white-out of snow being forecast. The sonnet closes with the most understandable of returns, to that of childhood when the mother’s song of “To bed, to bed…” concludes with the wise old rook suggesting opening a book so that “we’ll have prayers before we go”:

“a return to first things is forecast – I like that, said the rook,
I can pick at that, I might eat it and then take off into the sky.”

Proximity becomes distance and the act of reading merges with “a distant aircraft”.
Kelvin Corcoran’s poems are deeply moving and they are composed of lyric poetry of the highest order. Prufrock-like he wonders if the mermaids which sing “each to each” (transposed in ‘Oitgang, provisional’ to “Two older nurses” who “work the nightshift”) can be heard “singing in the night / on kitchen chairs in the hospital garden”. And just as Prufrock reflects that “I do not think that they will sing to me”, Corcoran knows the almost overwhelming power of imaginative association:

“Of course there is no garden,
and there is a garden where apophenia blooms” .

This is a major work written by a master and copies should be sought immediately from Tony Frazer at Shearsman Books at http://www.shearsman.com

Ian Brinton 5th August 2019

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