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Rockabye by Patricia McCarthy (Worple Press)

Rockabye by Patricia McCarthy (Worple Press)

‘tapestries of sound’

The story of Philomela is of course known principally from Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; and perhaps then is known widely from T.S. Eliot’s use of the tale in the second section of The Waste Land in which ‘Above the antique mantel was displayed / As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene / The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king / So rudely forced’. This remarkable new collection of poems from Patricia McCarthy is dedicated ‘For battered women, whoever and wherever they are’ and its ‘Prologue’ is titled ‘Writer’s Block’:

“Decade after decade the nib hung,
poised like a buzzard to attack the page,
but no word formed in longhand cursives.
Gagged, it seemed, by a tarred rope,
or caught in a stutter, without a tongue,
she was nervous of clearing the blockage.”

Towards the end of this multi-layered canvas of poems, they are by no means all dominated by a testimony to the resurrection of abuse, we discover ‘Philomela’:

“Was it so terrible what you underwent
that you could not recover your song
stolen by the male that did you wrong?”

The question here is of course to do with sound. When King Tereus tore out Philomela’s tongue so that she would be unable to tell of her ordeal at his hands she turns to tapestry: to sew her story in silence. The poet weaves a poem in a similar manner, word by word, revealing line by line those thoughts which would otherwise remain buried deep within us. Like a shark’s fin the printed words surge above the whiteness of the page to reveal to the reader a sense of what is lying and moving beneath the surface. The poem externalizes what is hidden:

“from the thicket where your shyness hides
your talent far surpasses what you hear,
yet stays day and night unappreciated inside?”

That opening ‘Writer’s Block’ uses an image of the pen that the poet may well have found in Arthur Golding’s late sixteenth-century translation of Ovid, a volume which was to so influence William Shakespeare:

“…..the cruell tyrant came
And with a paire of pinsons fast did catch hir by the tung
And with his sword did cut it off. The stumpe whereon it hung
Did patter still. The tip fell downe, and quivering on the ground
As though that it had murmured it made a certaine sound.”

In Patricia McCarthy’s poem the outrage done to Philomela has struggled to surface for years and the poet has been aware of that silence for far too long. The tapestry of sound which weaves its way throughout this book can be heard in the poem which echoes the title of the collection, ‘Rockabye grandfather’:

“Rockabye, rockabye, rockabye rock
I see you on Facebook cradling
a grandchild that could have been mine.

Such tenderness, care as you rockabye,
rockabye, rockabye rock.”

The rhythm of the child’s nursery rhyme which accompanies the shared delight of adult and baby, a feeling of security despite the well-known conclusion to the wind’s blowing of the rocking cradle, is thwarted. The harsh line ending of ‘rock’ brings a stony ending to what is offered initially as delight; “tenderness” and “care” are juxtaposed with that rhythmic inevitability that McCarthy has brought to the poem. This is a poem of the “broken bough” and the “baby that did fall”.
This sense of poetry rising out of the past, central to ‘Writer’s Block’, is placed alongside a quotation from Jung: “The sea is the favourite symbol for the unconscious, the mother of all that lives.” Language, like that shark’s fin piercing the waves, brings to the surface what has been long hidden. The poem ‘Childless Woman’ concludes that “Even if / you did / Shy away from hushabyes once, now you would not. / Too old to carnival into motherhood, poems are all you / can beget.” It is impossible for me to not recall that deeply moving poem by Ben Jonson ‘On my First Sonne’ who had died very young:

“Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say here doth lye
BEN JONSON his best piece of poetrie.”

Ian Brinton 7th October 2018

Poems: New & Selected by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa (Isobar Press)

Poems: New & Selected by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa (Isobar Press)

Eric Selland’s introduction heading this new addition to Isobar’s fine series of publications of contemporary poetry is uncompromisingly clear in its assertion about the work of Joritz-Nakagawa:

“Hers is a radically open form – a framework through which the data of life, and poetic themes and materials, freely migrate. She does not reject the personal, but she does not privilege it either. It is simply part of the data. And yet one senses a personal warmth, the presence of an intelligent observer in Jane’s work. What we experience here as readers is not ‘the death of the author’ – the poetic subject has simply become more complex.”

At the opening of ‘PLAN B AUDIO’, one of the new poems that start this remarkable volume, we read the line “courtship of empty space” where the first word contains two nouns, both court and ship, and it is the palpable juxtaposition of what might become appropriate: a reference to a courtyard that one could mistake for the Cortile of Urbino is joined to a sense of movement and discovery. This compound is then placed against the empty space of paper: a painting perhaps which might bring to mind the work of Mondrian or even de Kooning. With this visual prompt I am then drawn to a poem from the 2007 collection Aquiline which highlights the painterly sense laying itself open time and again on the canvas of this visual poetry:

“Grey men in blue vinyl
tents The pond
a web of mistakes the
sky vacant Even
birds
reject it A
hump-backed
woman dips her hand into
opaque water
& immediately
withdraws it Wind
scatters
trash along flattened dirt The
light
is not correct”

The poem is titled ‘View from the Century Hyatt Hotel, Tokyo’ and with that opening word “View” we are offered a cityscape in which colours merge with shapes (“tents”) and the “pond” is drawn with the criss-crossings of “web”. As “Wind /scatters / trash along flattened dirt” there is the sense of a brushstroke and the concluding comment concerning light not being “correct” reminds the reader of the inevitable gap between the artist and his art. Maurice Blanchot composed his The Space of Literature in 1955 and the essay about Orpheus has an appropriateness to Joritz-Nakagawa’s poetry:

“When Orpheus descends towards Eurydice, art is the power by which night opens. Because of art’s strength, night welcomes him; it becomes welcoming intimacy, the harmony and accord of the first night. But it is toward Eurydice that Orpheus has descended. For him Eurydice is the furthest that art can reach. Under a name that hides her and a veil that covers her, she is the profoundly obscure point toward which art and desire, death and night, seem to tend. She is the instant when the essence of night approaches as the other night.”

Or as Eric Selland puts it:

“For Jane, as with Blanchot, the poem never ends. It is an infinitely open system, always searching for that which is unexplainable, and unattainable: the poem is constantly in search of itself.”

In a poem from last year we can read the “merging of potential shapes // in elusive pools”. The poem as a “test run” or “stage symbol” can unearth “what becomes undone”: it can bring to the page “my frozen heart / her upturned body”.

This book provides a fascinating glimpse into a poetic world that shimmers.

Ian Brinton, 25th September 2018

The Mummiad: New Selected Poems by Richard Livermore (Bibliotheca Universalis)

The Mummiad: New Selected Poems by Richard Livermore (Bibliotheca Universalis)

As with Ted Hughes’ animal poems that go beyond animal nature toward ourselves, so it is with Richard Livermore’s animal poems. There are several in his latest collection, The Mummiad: New Selected Poems, his second book from Bibliotheca Universalis, where one feels uncomfortably closer to the true nature of some of our fellow humans, or even to ourselves. In ‘Jaguar’, the big cat could equally be a too-young man dared by the gang, lurking in the shadows of a city nightscape, ‘a tiptoeing/ shadow of death, jam-packed/ with muscle and power’ who lies in wait to kill his prey ‘with a single bound;/ black flowers adorn him,/help him hide in the dappled/ half-lit undergrowth/ he is in his element in.’ The feeling of being under threat is stirred up from our collective unconscious in part by his mastery of echoes aural and visual of Paul Celan, news items, as well as memories perhaps we all have of walking down city streets or secluded country lanes at night, of ‘being what he can see/ in the dark. . . .’ In ‘Lioness’, this point that we have more than a little in common with the behaviour of animals and wild animals at that, is made clear when the poet brings us up close to those for whom ‘you are nothing but the next meal, the next occasion she can feed.’ Then there are the wildebeests, the tiger, lion and ‘the serpent in the garden,’ the ‘dragon in the armadillo,’ the gecko carrying on as normal in a war-ravaged land. Yes, it’s animal behaviour being described, we are animals, thus through the poet’s alchemy of imagery, Jungian allusion and the poems’ padding, four-legged rhythm we hear also our human behaviour being described. We face up to it on these pages. The poet reminds us we face up to it nightly on the news, too, as in the violence of the state recalled in ‘Black Wind’: ‘Arrest that wind,/hands up, don’t shoot,/I cannot breathe.’

As one might expect from a collection titled The Mummiad, the vulnerability of the body, birth and death, time, fate and rather than the intervention of the gods, more likely their absence, are recurring themes. In ‘The Body in Question’, the body of younger years is missed, but not without appreciation for the benefits of getting older in terms of experience and understanding. One of the many things I admire about Richard Livermore’s poetry is he never overdoes things – he knows just when to stop. Through technical skill he manages to articulate complex feelings and subtle ideas for us all, concisely, leaving plenty of space around each poem for our own reflection. In ‘Daisy, Daisy’, he explores his own birth both through its historical circumstance and its innocent, everyday occurrences – we are indeed born into both and this poet’s attention to both brought this reader, for one, up short with the realisation that the philosopher’s dictum ‘know thyself’ begins with this examination of all aspects of our moment of entry into the world. Life, give me your answer, do, each poem pleads. The leavening in it all is the poet’s characteristic play with words, his calling upon our shared inherited gift of language with all its idioms, rhythms and mythology, so that, for instance, when he writes, ‘-time has me by/the late and earlies’ there’s recognition and delight.

The only niggling disappointment about this book is that the quality of Richard Livermore’s writing has not been matched by the copy editing, where each poem’s translation by Roxana Doncu into the Romanian is printed not on the facing page but overleaf. Seekers of lexical similarity will have to flip back and forth – no great hardship since there’s plenty to detain one on every page.

Beth Junor 25th September 2018

In The Country of Last Things by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber)

In The Country of Last Things by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber)

Over the next few weeks I shall be teaching some aspects of literary dystopia to sixth-formers at a school in Kent and it has prompted me to re-read Paul Auster’s terrifying vision from 1987, In the Country of Last Things. This itself acts as a prompting background to a review I am starting to put together for Lou Rowan’s wonderful magazine from Seattle, Golden Handcuffs Review. The review is of Leslie Kaplan’s book-length poem L’excès-l’usine (Hachette 1982) which has been recently translated for Commune Editions by Julie Carr and Jennifer Pap under the title Excess – The Factory.
The word dystopia is derived from the Greek for bad (δυσ) and (τόπος) place and deals with a community or society that is undesirable or frightening and is, of course, a direct opposite of the world conceived of by Thomas More in the early sixteenth-century book Utopia. The opening paragraphs of Auster’s novel take us immediately into a world of the unsafe:

“These are the last things, she wrote. One by one they disappear and never come back. I can tell you of the ones I have seen, of the ones that are no more, but I doubt there will be time. It is all happening too fast now, and I cannot keep up.
I don’t expect you to understand. You have seen none of this, and even if you tried, you could not imagine it. These are the last things. A house is there one day, and the next day it is gone. A street you walked down yesterday is no longer there today. Even the weather is in constant flux. A day of sun followed by a day of rain, a day of snow followed by a day of fog, warm then cool, and then today, in the middle of winter, an afternoon of fragrant light, warm to the point of merely sweaters. When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you mustn’t waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it.”

Leslie Kaplan’s poem is divided into nine circles and the echo of a medieval Florentine legacy cannot be ignored. In this world “You move between formless walls” and become aware that as there is no beginning and no end “Things exist together, all at once”. One of the immediately frightening introductory statements to the First Circle is quite simple:

“Inside the factory, you are endlessly doing.

You are inside, in the factory, the universe, the one that breathes for you.”

There are some interesting literary forbears to this dystopian world of Paul Auster and one is prompted to return to the world of Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, 1844, where he describes a hidden neighbourhood in London called Todgers:

“You couldn’t walk about in Todgers’s neighbourhood, as you could in any other neighbourhood. You groped your way for an hour through lanes and bye-ways, and court-yards and passages; and never once emerged upon anything that might be reasonably be called a street. A kind of resigned distraction came over the stranger as he trod those devious mazes, and, giving himself up for lost, went in and out and roundabout, and quietly turned back again when he came to a dead wall or was stopped by an iron railing, and felt that the means of escape might possibly present themselves in their own good time, but that to anticipate them was hopeless.”

Or one might accompany Alice into her Looking-Glass World of the 1870s:

“The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things – but the oddest part of it all was that, whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty, though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold.”

Alice’s response is one of astonishment at this surreal world and she exclaims “Things flow about so here”! Anna, the narrator of Auster’s novel, responds more bleakly and with a sense of quickly-learned experience:

“The streets of the city are everywhere, and no two streets are the same. I put one foot in front of the other, and then the other foot in front of the first, and then hope I can do it again. Nothing more than that. You must understand how it is with me now. I move. I breathe what air is given me. I eat as little as I can. No matter what anyone says, the only thing that counts is staying on your feet.”

The translators of Leslie Kaplan’s poem added a shrewd and highly perceptive conclusion to their work:

“In writing L’excès-l’usine, Kaplan was wary of using an overproduced or too-familiar language to convey the workers’ experience of capitalist production. The usual discursive practices would only pervert, not reveal, her subject. A stripped-down language was needed, freed from the forms and expectations of discourse. Rather than being descriptive or explanatory, the poem’s language would be suspended, with objects and events seemingly let loose from their context.”

I now look forward this autumn to writing a full review of Kaplan’s poem for Golden Handcuffs Review. Thank you Lou, and I look forward to meeting you at this coming weekend’s Tears in the Fence Festival!

Ian Brinton, 9th September 2018

Tears in the Fence 68 is out!

Tears in the Fence 68 is out!

Tears in the Fence 68 is now available from https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, prose, creative non-fiction and prose poetry from Ian Seed, Simon Collings, Melisande Fitzsimons, Anna Backman Rogers, Beth Davyson, Robert Sheppard, David Miller, Peter Hughes, Tracey Iceton, Jill Eulalie Dawson, Kate Noakes, Taró Naka Trans. Andrew Houwen & Chikako Nihei, Aidan Semmens, Mark Goodwin, Barbara Bridger, Alexandra Strnad, Daragh Breen, Andrew Darlington, Caroline Heaton, Peter J. King, Amelia Forman, Clive Gresswell, Steve Spence, Rebecca Oet, Sue Burge, Chloe Marie, Lucy Sheerman, Peter Robinson, Michael Henry, Wendy Brandmark, Abeer Ameer, Reuben Woolley, Kareem Tayyar, Sarah Cave, Angela Howarth, Norman Jope, John Freeman, Eoghan Walls, Jennie Byrne, Marcel Labine Trans. John Gilmore and Peter Larkin.

The critical section features Ian Brinton’s editorial, Andrew Duncan on Sean Bonney, Mark Byers on Jasper Bernes and Sean Bonney, Nancy Gaffield on Zoë Skoulding, Frances Spurrier – Poetry, resilience and the power of hope, Simon Collings on Ian Seed, Peter Larkin, Clark Allison on John Hall, Astra Papachristodoulou on Nic Stringer, Greg Bright – What Is Poetry?, Mandy Pannett on Seán Street, David Pollard on Norman Jope, Louise Buchler on New Voices in South African Poetry, Anthony Mellors on Gavin Selerie, Linda Black on Anna Reckin, Jonathan Catherall on Nicki Heinen, Richard Foreman on M. John Harrison, Morag Kiziewicz’s column Electric Blue 4, Notes on Contributors and David Caddy’s Afterword.

The Lonely Funeral by Maarten Inghels & F. Starik (Arc Publications)

The Lonely Funeral by Maarten Inghels & F. Starik (Arc Publications)

It was in June 1750 that Thomas Gray completed his ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ before sending it to Horace Walpole:

“I have been here at Stoke a few days (where I shall continue good part of the summer); and having put an end to a thing, whose beginning you have seen long ago, I immediately send it to you.”

The poem became of course one of the most anthologized pieces throughout the past two-hundred and sixty-eight years and Arc’s new publication of The Lonely Funeral is firmly in that tradition of immensely powerful and haunting records of the deaths of those flowers “born to blush unseen”.
Starik’s Foreword to the volume places the scene:

“In Amsterdam there are approximately fifteen lonely funerals each year: lifelong junkies, solitary seniors, the occasional suicide. Undocumented migrants, drug mules, vagrants, victims of a questionable crime, professional drunkards who toppled into a canal weeks earlier. Most are discovered in their own home, after complaints by neighbours about the stench in the stairwell.”

And a ‘lonely funeral’ is one at which no one is present except pallbearers, one or two civil servants, the cemetery director and the funeral officiant. However, since November 2002 a project has got under way in which poets volunteer to attend these funerals of the unknown and forgotten so that they can read some words that place on record a shared sense of the common bond of humanity. The immense importance of this venture is of course for the living, as is true of all funerals. As Starik puts it “We pity no one. For us, all that counts is respect for a person’s life…the poet speaks in the darkness…We have no grief of our own”.
The first poem pays respect to an anonymous dead man who was found in an apartment in the Bijlmer, a social-housing district on the outskirts of Amesterdam. Starik suggests that he was probably from Ghana or Ivory Coast; nameless because without papers, without officially recognized identity. A migrating figure from The Dark Continent.

“Goodbye, nameless man, I salute you as you pass
into the last of lands where all are welcome,
where no one needs to know a thing about you.
Goodbye, man with no papers, no identity.

What brought you here? Who looks out through an empty window
now for you, nameless man, who’s waiting as I speak,
as I repeat my empty words in an almost empty room?
I came too late. I never knew you.”

When Gray sat in the churchyard at Stoke Poges in the mid-eighteenth century he gazed upon the stones which recorded humble lives. Buried there may be have been “Some village-Hampden that with dauntless breast / The little tyrant of his fields withstood” or some “mute inglorious Milton” who kept the “noiseless tenor” of his way. Gray names none of those whose resting-place is a “narrow cell” but what he does do is evoke a picture representing the “short and simple annals of the poor”. The breath of the poetry allows the reader to stand on the verge of individual clarity: we can almost see the picture of the living person who has been one of those flowers “born to blush unseen” where the use of the word “blush” conjures a hint of awareness, of social interaction.
Each poem is preceded by a short account of the known details concerning the body which is to be buried or cremated but the poems themselves speak in that darkness which constitutes our common bond. Number 40 is Mr. M.B. who died at the age of eighty-three:

“Just as the silence at his funeral was deafening, during his life Mr. M.B. also had no one to talk to. Andy had visited his place of residence in Antwerp-South, and had spoken to a neighbour. She did not know Mr. M.B. – yes, they had exchanged a word or two in the corridor once, when there was something wrong with his television, and he asked if she could help. But it never went as far as sitting down together in front of their favourite soap”.

The poem opens

“the things a person touches
carry their imprint for a while
an existence leaves a trail
that slowly fades away”

This is an immensely important book and I should like to see every school in this country acquire a couple of copies for their Libraries. It is a book which should be available within Secondary School English Departments where it could sit side by side with the powerful reconstructions from Chaucerian tale-telling, Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus for Comma Press in 2016. Gray’s elegiac meditations in a churchyard brought us to an awareness of “Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire” and less that fifty years later William Blake concluded his ‘Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ with the simplicity of an inclusive awareness of that common bond which keeps us pale: “Every thing that lives is Holy”. And what would a review of mine be without a passing reference to the poetry of J.H. Prynne whose introductory comment to the 1968 Ferry Press publication of Aristeas was from Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid:

“As to the destitute man who has no family, he takes his meals in the huts of his congeners; he enters a hut, takes –by right, not for charity – his seat by the fire, and shares the meal which always is scrupulously divided into equal parts; he sleeps where he has taken his evening meal.”

Ian Brinton, 1st September 2018

Bloodlines by Andy Brown (Worple Press)

Bloodlines by Andy Brown (Worple Press)

The title of these poems suggests two different things to my mind. The bloodlines that flow through our bodies are those veins and arteries that pump our sense of immediacy: they keep the ‘here’ and ‘now’ moving. The bloodlines that connect us to our past remind us of the more established patterns that might be traceable over centuries. One of the more extreme versions of the possible connections between past and present is a belief in cryonic preservation and Andy Brown’s quietly humane poem ‘Committal’ opens by contemplating this:

“Today a teenage girl secured her right
to have herself cryonically preserved

so maybe in five hundred years, or more,
once mutation’s mystery has been solved,

her body may be warmed to stir again
and she can live the life she’s barely led.”

There is a moving tone to this picture as we are confronted with youth’s clutch at a straw and it is given a greater emotional emphasis by being juxtaposed with a mature awareness of what one might be able to pass on to future generations if one did not have life taken away so young. The poet’s own wish for commitment to the ground involves being interred “deep in loamy woodland soil” and having a sapling oak planted above his head:

“so hair and skin and bone may be reborn

in twig and leaf, in xylem, riddled bark;
so the seep of muscle and marrow may

replenish soil, feed worm and ant and moth…”

There is perhaps enormous comfort in thinking that what we do feeds the life that goes on after our death although, as Hamlet recognized, the idea is threaded with ironies because after all “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm”. When Claudius asks the meaning of this he is told that it reveals “how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar”. In ‘Committal’ the word “feed” occurs three times and the important emphasis is on how the present feeds the future and, of course, how the past feeds the present. The last couplet of the poem has a fine echo to it and we are made aware of the tentative connections between ‘now’ and ‘then’:

“just let the faintest hints of musk remain:
that trace and pulse of what we must become.”

The trace and pulse, both aspects of a bloodline, present us with the hints of a past that bodies forth into a present as with Hardy’s ‘The Voice’ where he can almost see again his young girlfriend standing outside the town where they used to meet some forty years ago “where you would wait for me”. The memory is held in the air, like a scent, and he is almost seeing the way she was dressed “even to the original air-blue gown”. This is a history that offers those “faintest hints”, or what Hardy recalled about returning from a walk after Emma’s death, “that underlying sense / Of the look of a room on returning thence”. In Julian Barnes’s novel, Flaubert’s Parrot, the narrator wonders about how we can seize the past and recalls an anecdote from his college-days in which a piglet smeared with grease was let loose at the end of term dance:

“It squirmed between legs, evaded capture, squealed a lot. People fell over trying to grasp it, and were made to look ridiculous in the process. The past often seems to behave like that piglet.”

There is of course that less immediately personal bloodline that connects us with a common past: our inheritance of central feelings such as greed and violence. Reading Brown’s two-part poem ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ one is drawn into that world of Chaucer’s bleak humour as the three thieves murder each other and the Pardoner watches the bodies disappear “like runoff down the drain”. However, a more pensive tone informs ‘Homo naledi’, the epigraph of which refers to a new species of hominid that was unearthed in South Africa in 2013 after having been given a ritual burial some two million years before:

“In Gauteng’s caves the dons are asking how
the branches of our past converge; if much
connects these buried bones with the longer
lines that lead out from the trees. They will
in time shed light.”

These are thoughtful, quiet poems and, as befits elegies, they linger in the mind.

Ian Brinton 26th August 2018

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