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The Grey Area: A Mystery by Ken Edwards (Grand Iota)

The Grey Area: A Mystery by Ken Edwards (Grand Iota)

For many literary writers, the mystery about mystery novels is why their purportedly formulaic structures, simplified motivations, credibility-stretching twists and over-tidy resolutions find greater readership than their own more full-bodied works. And thence they have a go at the genre, with predictably distinctive results. In Gilbert Adair’s the author did it. In Georges Perec’s the language did it. In Patrick Modiano’s the ‘who’ would’ve done it, if there’d been any ‘who’ in the first place. So, on finding that this author is the ex-editor of Reality Street, we’re basically not expecting Miss Marple. 

Phidias Peralta has left London in nebulous circumstances and repaired to the coast – between quaint Deadhurst and down-at-heel Deadman’s Beach – to relaunch his private investigator business. His first case looks straightforward enough: a ninety-year-old woman who vanished suddenly a year before. Her family are looking for ‘closure’. Uh-oh; not in a novel like this. Is the CCTV footage all it seems? Have the police given up too readily? Did she wander into the ‘grey area’ of the Dead Level marshes? The trail is cold by now. And meanwhile, two sinister-looking men from London have been seen around, asking for him… 

Phidias himself is a terrific character, a born-to-it detective whose eye for detail enriches the descriptions of the locality and whose over-the-top diction and intellectuality bring to mind a Doctor Who or a Holmes. He can’t bear to use the first-person singular in his narrations (though, disappointingly, he speaks and writes email with it), giving them the feel of a parodic scientific report. His assistant Lucy fulfils the more human, Watson-ish role, with a conventional voice anchored in ordinary family concerns. A third format consists of dialogue presented without speech-tags or other primary narrative, as if taped; this kind of stylistic spotlighting felt odd at first, but I did quickly get used to it. It helps that the prose is as adept and fluent as you’d expect. (The only poor writing in the book, I’d say, is on the blurb, which drastically undersells its contents.)

Storywise, some scenes ‒ an early-morning trip with the local trawlermen, an extraordinary model railway ‒ earn their place thematically (or from their intrinsic interest) rather than in terms of direct function. Nonetheless the tension builds up nicely and the late-night industrial park (where homeless Phidias is sleeping) becomes suitably spooky. In fact, at one point, I worried that the book was going to use that genre-twist cop-out where the ‘explanation’ for the crime is a supernatural one. Or that the epistemological riffs were preparing to camouflage some dodgy plot-moves. But the weirdnesses stay more or less under control and the denouement is, instead, revealingly bitter in the manner of, say, Leonardo Sciascia’s novels. I hope Phidias isn’t dead, though: I found myself, like any good crime reader, wanting another in the series, where more of his enigmatic background might get revealed, and the enjoyable partnership between him, Lucy and her bright and comic son can confront a new impossible brain-twister.

Guy Russell 18th November 2020

Études: The Poetry of Dreams & Other Fragments by John Marx (ORO Editions)

Études: The Poetry of Dreams & Other Fragments by John Marx (ORO Editions)

études: The Poetry of Dreams & Other Fragments brings together John Marx’s watercolours first published in The Architectural Review and a range of his visual and concrete poems, with essays providing introductory contexts to the work. Marx, an award-winning designer and architect, based in San Francisco, works as Chief Artistic Officer for Form4 Architecture, and this sumptuous book takes the reader on a journey through his creative landscape. 

The book is divided into eight sections moments in time, apertures, absent nature, objects in nature, without intention, approaching abstraction, deconstructing perception and improvisations, indicating the book’s focus. 

The reader is instantly drawn by the quality of the watercolours, which are simple, precise and thought-provoking. They strike me as having both an intellectual and emotional meaning through their pared down simplicity and exactitude. Laura Iloniemi’s essay places them in an American Tradition showing their relationship to Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keefe and Franz Kline. She notes how they connect an emotional urban atmosphere with natural ‘built landscapes’, such as a sand dune or rock formation through memory and association.

Each watercolour is juxtaposed next to a visual and concrete poem. The poems are similarly pared down to simple statements spread across the page with lines positioned horizontally, vertically, diagonally and so on. The impact is powerful in that a range of potential correspondences are suggested. Thus, the poem, ‘Étude 11, 1980’ precedes the watercolour, ‘The Edge of Possibility, 1990’ and the juxtaposition enhances both as the reader’s eye moves from left to right, right to left, assimilating the forms and dream-like connection of clouds with possibilities beyond the self. The impact is utterly beguiling and accumulates as one follows the journey. 

Whilst the poems may be closed statements presented as shapes and visuals, they are in essence linked to the hypnotic watercolours through juxtaposition and the movement of the eye and mind’s eye. The poem ‘Étude 48, 2005’ has a whirlwind of broken circular lines around the words ‘In the cycle of change / we endure those extremes / each adding / a layer of humanity / to our journey’, and ends with the thought that life asks

‘that we / live intensely / and in the moment’ (in blue). It is placed opposite the watercolour, ‘Ethereal Construct, 1998’ with its two narrow windows and a door within large and rigid building blocks. The eerie atmosphere of the buildings, reminiscent of Hopper, are in contradistinction to any intense living in the moment. The eye returns to the smallness of the windows and door, suggestive of a narrowness of vision and line of thought around scale, balance, opportunity and extremes leading back to the poem’s content. This reflective approach is enhanced by each successive combination in the book and is thus thoroughly provocative.

The work is ultimately philosophical despite its dream like qualities and concerned with vision and a visible language linking our inner and outer worlds. The watercolours often evoke, or imply, an absence. We are, I think, ultimately being asked to consider how we find balance in a world of constant change. This is an utterly beguiling book creating a wonderful synergy between the poems and watercolours. 

David Caddy 13th November 2020

Life, Orange to Pear by John Brantingham (Bamboo Dart Press)

Life, Orange to Pear by John Brantingham (Bamboo Dart Press)

John Brantingham’s newest book, Life, Orange to Pear, begins and ends with fruit.

I’m not spoiling anything for you. It’s right there in the title. It’s also, surprise, about life–how it begins, ends, and everything in between. The simple act of eating fruit in the opening and closing scenes of this book poses the idea that we can find comfort in the simplest moments so long as we choose to look for it. This book proposes that we must appreciate simplicity while we, at the same time, grapple with complexity and existential terror.

Written in a casual, second-person voice, Orange to Pear follows the life and fatherhood of a very flawed but well-meaning part-time college professor and father who also happens to be a functioning alcoholic. Using this voice, this book argues that there are no easy solutions. Instead of groping for answers to the Problem of Evil, or whether we’re defined by our flaws, or how much we doom our children to repeat our lives, this story offers something else–an unadulterated, almost Christ-like empathy.

It also, however, demonstrates how even human beings with the best intentions can be ineffective, destructive, and self-sabotaging. How sometimes people will use any excuse to enact the destructive behaviors at their core. How passivity, over-intellectualizing, and destructive behavior masquerading as self-care can be paralyzing. That certain patterns of living leave a person completely adrift, wondering and hoping instead of acting. The narrator (and by extension the reader) is often left not knowing if he’s done his best. The story reaches a conclusion on this, and it’s carefully crafted, but I won’t summarize it. I can’t. Like many of the things that matter in this world, it can’t be retold, only experienced. One of the gifts of this book is that it revels in uncertainty while also being clear, direct, and brief. Brantingham captures what life is like moment-to-flawed-moment as we scrape (often unsuccessfully) for meaning, importance, and decency–and how painful, divine, and silly these moments can be.

The narrative centers around the flawed narrator’s connection to his daughter, Cyndi. As the story evolves, the uncertainty this man faces as his daughter, despite his every attempt to slow her down, grows up and then eventually outgrows him. This is the archetypal coming-of-age story from the unusual perspective of a broken parent–a man who drinks through breakfast, seems only marginally employed, and who never, ever, refers to his wife by her name. He makes mistakes in pursuit of what he thinks is right–and what he believes is right coincidentally serves to allow him to indulge himself.

At one point, he makes an indirect, not very collected attempt at confronting an acquaintance (who is proudly showing him the taxidermized foot of an elephant that has been made into furniture) about wealth inequality, gleefully burning an important social bridge for his wife:

And as you walk out your daughter beams at you for the first time in a long time and it makes you want to storm out, which you do, as well as anyone can storm and also stop off by the bar for one more glass of the good stuff.

He’s done the right thing. Maybe. He’s done it to earn the pride of his daughter, who finds the man abhorrent, but one can’t help but notice that he’s also getting another drink out of it. He’s–in the true mindset of an addict–earning another drink.

These characters have the simultaneously empathetic and pathetic qualities of Kurt Vonnegut characters. They’re whole, flawed, and alive in a way that lets us one feels their own aliveness. By the time you’ve reached the end of this book you hate the narrator. And you love him. You regret all of his mistakes and realize why they were so important. You wouldn’t undo them even if you could because you’ve found something divine in them.

Bamboo Dart Press are also publishing Dennis Callaci, Stephanie Barbé Hammer and Meg Pokrass in their fiction series.

Scott Noon Creley 11th November 2020

The Fifth Notebook of Dylan Thomas: Annotated Manuscript Edition Edited by John Goodby and Adrian Osbourne (Bloomsbury)

The Fifth Notebook of Dylan Thomas: Annotated Manuscript Edition Edited by John Goodby and Adrian Osbourne (Bloomsbury)

The Notebook, a red Zenith Exercise Book, found in a Tesco bag by Louie King, a former servant of Dylan Thomas’s mother in law, contains fifteen and a half poems. The half poem being the first five sonnets of the ten comprising ‘Altarwise by owl-light’. The poems from Thomas’s first two collections, 18 Poems (1934) and Twenty-five Poems (1936) are mostly fair copies of ‘finished’ poems, written on the right hand side, or recto, pages. There are some missing pages and some occasional crossings out, less than one per cent of which were undecipherable. Written between May 1934 and August 1935, the notebook contains no unpublished work. However, it does reveal a break between the ‘process’ poetry he had begun in 1933 and the non-referential poems that came next. The Notebook allows more accurate dating of compositions, with poems, such as, ‘I dreamed my genesis’, ‘Seven’ and the sonnets of ‘Altarwise by owl-light’ being dated.

At the end of ‘Seven’, dated 26th October 1934 and underlined, there is a second longer horizontal line between two short vertical lines in the centre of the page, indicating an end or break. The date is significant, being the day before Thomas’s twentieth birthday, and the editors think that this marks a conscious decision to end a writing phase and embark on a new style. His birthday held special significance and was the focus of several of his October poems. He is also reading James Joyce closely at this time. There is, though, no conscious change of style marked within Twenty-five Poems, and so this is evidence of a conscious change in poetic style. Further evidence is available in the form of the increased number of deletions and there are some other discoveries in the form of an unknown original stanza two in ‘Fifteen’. The deleted stanza is more nebulous than the replacement. He changes genders and uses personal pronouns and in the sixth line ‘white’ becomes ‘black’ and the overuse of ‘half’ is removed.   

The Notebook reveals the extent of Thomas’s use of traditional Welsh poetry, cynghanedd, the short patterning of vowels and consonants. He draws upon the wok of medieval poet, Dafydd ap Gwilm, who used the englyn form, sangiad, the parenthetical phrase, dyfalu, hyperbolic comparison and description, and torymadroddy, inverted construction. He is quite clearly using more than alliteration and assonance in his sound effects.

Thomas scholar, Ralph Maud, speculated on the existence of ten notebooks and the editors see a missing notebook between notebook two and three as well as the most likely continuation of ‘Alterwise by owl-light’ in another notebook. Given Thomas’s highly peripatetic lifestyle such notebooks could still be extant.

The Notebook and handwritten notes, including one where he describes himself as having ‘no respectable occupation, no permanent address’, are fully annotated so that all differences are accounted for and some debated points of punctuation are now conclusively resolved. The Fifth Notebook contains facsimiles and full transcripts of the originals, which are annotated and accompanied by editorial notes. The notes are comprehensive and come with an extensive bibliography divided into several sections. This is exemplary scholarship, easy to navigate and utterly illuminating. 

David Caddy 29th October 2020

Paris 1925: Ordinary Autumn & All of a Sudden by Vicente Huidobro Translated by Tony Frazer (Shearsman Books)

Paris 1925: Ordinary Autumn & All of a Sudden by Vicente Huidobro Translated by Tony Frazer (Shearsman Books)

In these days when surrealism has become a staple of breakfast cereal adverts, it’s hard imagining the original impact of, say, Paul Éluard’s ‘la terre est bleue comme une orange’ (the earth is blue like an orange), or Robert Desnos’ ‘je suis le bûcheron de la forêt d’acier’ (I am the woodcutter in the steel forest). Vicente Huidobro never signed up officially to the programme, a mishap that’s led to his absence from most surrealist anthologies then and now, but this bilingual volume brings together two small collections from the mid-twenties, the period when he was most influenced by them. 

Reading this kind of work from a century’s distance takes some getting used to. The stuff about capital-W Woman can feel embarrassingly archaic, and the love-poems evince a paramour too scatterbrained to generate any intensity, let alone be reciprocated. Those about the seasons, the sky and nature manage better, refreshing these ultra-traditional subjects through their sheer oddity. The ocean, shipwreck and drowning feature heavily, not only as Symbolist allusions, but also perhaps because, as a Chilean in Paris, Huidobro must have spent quite a while on the Atlantic. There are openings rich in promise

Je possède la clef de l’Automne   (I possess the key to Autumn)

Maintenant écoutez le grincement des paupières   (Now listen to the eyelids creaking)

Parmi les grands figues de l’espace   (Among the great figs of space)

albeit they’re quickly overwhelmed by whimsy. Structure is, naturally, one of the things being kicked against, but there’s the perennial problem of how else the readers are to be kept engaged. Perhaps, like the compliant beloved, they have to think, Well, at least the writer’s having a good time. And how artistic his dreams are!

One interesting feature is that while most avant-garde poetry of the time embraced vers libre, these frequently use rhymes. Some are of the coeur/fleur type that is the French equivalent of breeze/trees or moon/June. But others exploit less common rhymes as a way to link unrelated lines or, as here, to tease with a sonic false-reasoning:

Le Printemps est relative comme l’arc-en-ciel

Il pourrait aussi bien être une ombrelle

(Spring is relative like the rainbow/ It might as well be a parasol)

The book also includes Huidobro’s Spanish versions, which give a glimpse into his ongoing editing:

Dans tes cheveux il y a une musique

(In your hair there’s a kind of music)

becomes

Hay una música silvestre 

En tus cabellos leves

(There’s a wild music/ in your light hair)

where the supplementary adjectives suggest a poet not yet quite certain of his effects. 

All that said, there’s a certain charm here. It might be the sheer insouciance, the sheer eccentricity, or the fresh resonance for our times of lines like le ciel est gratuit’ (the sky is free of charge). In whatever case, it’s definitely helped by a marvellously self-effacing translation which chooses the clearest word rather than showing off the translator’s verbal agility, doesn’t move lines about, and doesn’t privilege rhyme over other poetic effects, as often happens. It’s also unafraid of leaving a nonsense line as nonsense rather than killing by interpretation, a particular danger with this kind of poetry. The book’s appearance finally extends access to Huidobro’s less famous work beyond completists and specialists, which is surely a good thing. 

Guy Russell 21st October 2020

Tears in the Fence 72 is out!

Tears in the Fence 72 is out!

Tears in the Fence 72 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, multilingual poetry, prose poetry, flash fiction, fiction and translations from Mandy Haggith, Andrew Duncan, Elzbieta Wojcik-Leese, Charlotte Baldwin, Jeremy Reed, Lynne Wycherley, Joanna Nissel, Mandy Pannett, Sam Wood, Genevieve Carver, Sarah Acton, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Mike Duggan, Daragh Breen, Tracey Turley, Karen Downs-Burton, Barbara Ivusic, John Freeman, John Millbank, Olivia Tuck, Rowan Lyster, Sarah Watkinson, Greg Bright, Robert Vas Dias, Lucy Sheerman, Andrew Darlington, David Punter, Beth Davyson, Michael Henry, Judith Willson, John Gilmore, M.Vasalis translated by Arno Bohlmeijer, Paul Rossiter, Charles Wilkinson, Rupert M. Loydell, Reuben Woolley, Kareem Tayyar, Peter Hughes, Zoe Karathanasi, Lucy Hamilton, Lydia Harris, Lucy Ingrams, Mark Goodwin, Simon Collings, Aidan Semmens, Vasiliki Albedo and Ian Seed.

The critical section consists of David Caddy’s Editorial, Jennifer K. Dick’s Of Tradition & Experiment XIV, Andrew Duncan Apocalypse: An Anthology edited by James Keery, Lily-Robert-Foley on Jennifer K. Dick’s Lilith, Clark Allison on Geoffrey Hill, Alice Entwhistle on Frances Presley, Belinda Cooke on Peter Robinson, Nadira Clare Wallace on Ella Frears, Ian Brinton on Ray Crump, Norman Jope on Menno Wigman, Oliver Sedano-Jones on Anthony Anaxagorou, Steve Spence on Gavin Selerie, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue 7 and Notes on Contributors.

The Slip by Simon Perril (Shearsman Books)

The Slip by Simon Perril (Shearsman Books)

In the Afterwords to this third part of his trilogy focusing upon the central importance of ancient Greece’s lyric poet, Archilochus, we are presented with Simon Perril’s first encounter with a ‘first’ poet whose significance was in ‘marking a turn away from impersonal, heroic Epic, to the personal realm of lyric’. Highlighting the importance of Herman Fränkel’s Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy (Oxford, 1975) Perril refers to the malleable nature of language which is ‘capable of being shaped by human hands rather than the arbitration of the Gods’. Fränkel claimed that the importance of Archilochus rested with his grasping the ‘first and nearest data of the individual: the now, the here, the I’ and Simon Perril’s sense of this immediacy of lyric expression is itself caught here, caught now:

‘May we, similarly,
hear with our hands
the sound of the shape
held in clay
as we wedge at the edges of form’

These lines from the second of the eighty poems in The Slip conclude with a reference to ‘the felting dark’ and Perril has borrowed that viscous term from the Presocratic philosophy of Anaximenes who had written about the primary principle of infinite air ‘from which the things that are becoming, and that are, and that shall be, and gods and things divine, all come into being’. Anaximenes was interested in the continual motion of air, its transformation, its ‘felting’ and when Jonathan Barnes, brother of the novelist Julian, published his Penguin edition of Early Greek Philosophy in 1987 he referred to this first principle in terms of form:

‘The form of the air is this: when it is most uniform it is invisible, but it is made apparent by the hot and the cold and the moist and the moving. It is always in motion; for the things that change would not change if it were not in motion.’

The results possess a viscosity that Simon Perril had already referred to in his own notes to the second volume of the Archilochus poems, Beneath (Shearsman Books, 2015) in which he had talked of the poet’s voice possessing a taste of ‘brine, sweat and handled coins’. When air is more condensed it is water, when still further condensed it is earth, and when it is as dense as possible it is stones and that movement towards a lapidary conclusion leads us through the hands of the potter to a sound of shape, a ‘wedge at the edges of form’. In Simon Perril’s hands we discover the ‘rudiments of shape / woven from water / and silt cake.’

The legend of Archilochus sketches what Perril has hinted at as ‘a crime scene at the birth of lyric’ as the story has been unravelled of the role played by Lycambes in breaking off the poet’s engagement to his daughter Neobulé leading to such powerful creations of lyric outrage that weave poetry and invective into a powerful new combination with devastating consequences of death and loss. Perril’s notes remind us of the previous volumes in his trilogy and his purpose in this last volume:

‘My challenge was where to locate this final part of my Greek trilogy. If Archilochus had the moon, Neobulé Hades, then what stage for Lycambes? The answer was a long time coming, and evasive (as all answers should be). Early on, images of Attic vases and pottery crept into the poems; and it was evident that whereas Archilochus was in exile after the havoc he had wrought, and Neobulé arrives in Hades after this havoc; Lycambes was inhabiting a multi-faceted present moment before he completes his actions by following the death of his daughters with his own. This final volume had to land Lycambes in the less exotic realm of the earth, contemplating his pressing deed, and reminiscing.’

As Perril puts it in lyric 7

‘there are some acts,
slow to unfurl,
that outlive their maps’

In the blurb on the back of The Slip we read of the poetic legacy of Archilochus and although we cannot know whether ancient Greece’s first lyric poet really used his Iambic prowess to curse Lycambes’ family to its grave for a broken marriage oath we can be in no doubt ‘that his poetic legacy, in Antiquity and beyond, was a by-word for judge-ments over the acceptability, or otherwise, of indulgence in poetic harm; just as the literary form of Iambic he is famous for is a locus of ethical crises.’
In a world of metamorphosis where the fox wreaks revenge upon the eagle that has eaten its pups and the greed of the bird of prey that leads it to steal meat from a sacrificial altar only to have it burn down his nest and send its young tumbling into the waiting vulpine jaws, poetry offers a ‘new sense of strengthening regard for common things’ (John James). Simon Perril’s poetry offers us a focus upon the importance of the individual moment, an honest awareness of the present and an understanding that the gravity of a poem lies in its whole form. In that felting of air these poems search for ‘that damp / strip of sand beyond / that stripes land’

‘as white horses charge at it
proferring foam
at the mouth’

Ian Brinton, 15th September 2020

Covid 19 Sutras by Hank Lazer (Lavender Ink, New Orleans)

Covid 19 Sutras by Hank Lazer (Lavender Ink, New Orleans)

In writing about Hank Lazer’s 2019 collection of poems Slowly Becoming Awake (Dos Madres Press) for issue 28 of Lou Rowan’s Seattle-based magazine Golden Handcuffs Review I referred to a ‘Notebook’ entry for October 7th 2016: ‘poem radiating outward’ with its immediate follow-on, ‘landfall the page’. The strings of thought in Lazer’s new collection act in a similar fashion as the particularity of the moment is seen against a spiritual and philosophical awareness of the progress and effects of the Covid 19 virus. In a comment made by Charles Bernstein after reading these poems Hank Lazer ‘precisely notates the passing of time through pandemic and uprising’:

‘Consciousness alights on each poem “like a butterfly drawn to a bright flower,” offering luminous company in dark times.’

That luminosity is brightly evident from the opening four lines of the first poem:

‘books & blossoms
spring & all
cold morning no
wind cloud bank’

What is contained in the reading of books and the world of flowering is perhaps brought into focus by the early lines of William Carlos Williams’s 1923 volume Spring and All: ‘a constant barrier between the reader and his consciousness of immediate contact with the world’. As Williams escorts his readers along ‘the road to the contagious hospital / under the surge of the blue / mottled clouds driven from the / northeast – a cold wind’ Lazer takes us

‘over the mountain
ridge city & its
tower in the distance’

The journey of this remarkable collection of poems charts a pathway along the moments of a sutra as we come to terms with the effects of both the pandemic and institutionalised racism as are asked to question the nature of wants and needs:

‘the treasure store
is open you
can take what
you want – no

you can take
what you need
through practice
you may learn

to receive what
is already yours
here is the bell sound
to awaken you’

It was Shakespeare’s King Lear who exposed the central nature of the relationship between wants and needs when he was confronted by his daughters removing from him every token of what is meant by the royalty of oneself. Goneril and Regan remove his train of followers and insist that his needs can be cared for by their own servants. However, it is when Regan delivers the final brutal blow of ‘What need one?’ that Lear pronounces his understanding of what it is to be human:

‘O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s’

Lazer questions what changed ‘when the virus / hit’ and wonders whether ‘connection’ breaks ‘away’. It is perhaps in this nature of connection, who we were and who we are now, what we want and we need, that the poet also finds an echo of a sound from later than Shakespeare. As the bell sounds ‘to awaken you’ we can hear the quiet conclusion to a tale told by an ancient mariner whose guilt had not only weighed him down but had compelled him to tell his tale.

In the second ‘Sutra’, subtitled ‘flattening the curve’ the distance we have travelled (guided by the science) leads the poet to question the nature of ‘liberation’. A sense of spiritual wonder at the moving of the clouds of unknowing has become a mark on a door made ‘with numbers & distance / given us by our sciences’. The ‘hurry to find / a cure’ and the ‘hurry to assign // blame’ is placed against a perspective that Gary Snyder had recognised in his years spent in the Yosemite range of mountains in the 1950s. For Hank Lazer

‘this place
perfect
hillside
light shadow

& a view
of the pasture
having become
this changing light’

For Gary Snyder

‘distant dogs bark, a pair of
cawing crows; the twang
of a pygmy nuthatch high in a pine –
from behind the cypress windrow
the mare moves up, grazing’

The quiet and individual intelligence of Hank Lazer’s poems is perhaps contained in his awareness of the particularity that constitutes played music being ‘never the same twice’. As he puts it in ‘Sutra 3’, subtitled ‘phased reopening’, the individual is ‘here now’ and can ‘see only a small fraction of it’. Faced with the unknown enormity of the pandemic it is worth perhaps bearing in mind the section concerning humility in the late fourteenth-century treatise ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ in which the author asserted that humility was ‘nothing else but a true knowledge and awareness of oneself as one really is’. And one response to this statement may be found in Lazer’s poem:

‘The pictures of Jupiter answer some of the
questions.
This world here & your life in time are not what
you think they are.
If it is a cloud of unknowing know that the cloud
like any weather is constantly changing.’

What was immediately recognised by Rae Armantrout when commenting on the importance of this collection of poems was that it ‘brings us the news in the way that 18th century ballad broadsides did to Londoners’:

‘Quatrain by quatrain, Lazer sings the present world, its viruses (covid and structural racism), and its beauties (animals, friendship, the shape of a sentence).’

Just as Hank Lazer’s earlier collection had presented the reader with the poem radiating outward this new collection offers us a world in which

‘each day is
rich
in its
specifics’

Ian Brinton, 7th September 2020

The Celestial Set-Up (Oystercatcher Press) & A Revolutionary Calendar (Shearsman Books) by Zoe Skoulding

The Celestial Set-Up (Oystercatcher Press) & A Revolutionary Calendar (Shearsman Books) by Zoe Skoulding

When Harriet Tarlo’s challenging and deeply rewarding anthology of ‘Radical Landscape Poetry’, The Ground Aslant, appeared in 2011 from Shearsman Books it attracted a review by Robert Macfarlane for an issue of Saturday Guardian. Referring to details of landscape providing ‘no reliable resting place for the eye or the mind’ the reviewer alerted us to the movement onwards ‘in an effortful relay of attention from speck to speck’. He also pointed to Peter Larkin’s awareness of particularity, ‘highlights in the moving light of the ordinary’, which brings to mind the ‘message from far away’ that Jeremy Prynne wrote in 2005 for the opening issue of Pearl Contents, the First Students’ English Magazine of Guangzhou University:

‘Out on the Pearl River enjoying a festive excursion I was watching the water currents slide by, flashing with lights from the banks on either side and lightning from the sky; and I realised how brilliant would be the new magazine of the Guangzhou University English Writing Classes, full of pearl-bright moments and shining articles all moving along in the currents of these changing times.’

In Zoë Skoulding’s new group of poems from the Oystercatcher’s beak we are offered ‘The Celestial Set-Up’, ‘star clusters’ which scatter into ‘islands breaking into archipelagos’: pearl-drop moments of a ‘network of events’. Their relation to time as well as distance is given to us as the possibility of ‘love moving on the epidermis’, ‘a crackle on a hand’, and they unravel ‘in tenses / between your past and my future’. This poetry is a finely-tuned gaze at the particularity of who we are and what we see and it prompts me to look back at Ruskin’s concern in Modern Painters for the ‘Truth of Space’ as dependent on ‘The Focus of the Eye’:

‘First, then, it is to be noticed, that the eye, like any other lens, must have its focus altered, in order to convey a distinct image of objects at different distances; so that it is totally impossible to see distinctly, at the same moment, two objects, one of which is much father off than another.’

Skoulding’s awareness of the possible relationships between the near and the far is central to her focus upon the Menai Straits that separate the coast of North Wales from the Isle of Anglesy. In ‘A Strait Story’ she waits for the tide to turn:

‘Under morning sun, the surface stirs and flicks: this is how it appears, as retreating blue looking black. But what do I know? Soundings off the sea floor come up in layered patterns as the data stream flows in different intensities: a cobalt speckled band of fish; refracted harmonics of the lower levels. You’d be swayed by the glimpse of a seal led by fish led by movement led by transfer of energy, but who’s to say who sways what in the dip and shudder of knowledge, a vessel.’

This range of thought, soundings, brings to my mind the moment in Charles Olson’s ‘Letter 5’ of The Maximus Poems in which he refers to reading ‘sand in the butter on the end of a lead, / and be precise about what sort of bottom your vessel’s over.’
The precision and awareness of depth which prompts Zoë Skoulding’s poetry to compel the past to pierce the present, to speak of days which give utterance ‘all at once, their tongues punctured with green blades’ (‘A Divinatory Calendar’) is central to her reconstruction of A Revolutionary Calendar. As Lyn Hejinian puts it on the back cover of this compelling new publication from Shearsman Books:

‘With expert grace and subversive panache, Zoë Skoulding has written a collection of 360 five-line poems gathered into twelve sections of thirty poems each – a form that replicates that of the ‘Republican Calendar’ created in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution…The resulting sequence of meticulous observations and penchant forays…maps out a temporal intersection, bringing historico-political time (linear and progressive) into conjuncture with seasonal agricultural time (cyclical and recursive).’

Just as all time is irrecoverable all matter changes shape and ‘oil pressed from / dark fruit won’t / hold summer’s shape’: the ‘Olive’ from Frimaire, the November of frost, will ‘ooze’ into a new day. The connection between what was and what is may be held in scents as the axe from Pluviôse (January / February)

‘felled at the root:
here’s an endpoint
sharpened by split
wood scented
with beginning’

Zoë Skoulding’s poetry is meditative, a drawing aside of curtains to allow a scene to be discovered to the reader: it seems like an act of instant as if a light is suddenly turned brightly focused upon a moment. As the poems rest securely on the page the focus is altered in order to permit the poet to convey a distinct image of objects at different distances. This is a poetry to go back to time and time again.

Ian Brinton, 30th August 2020

Baby, I Don’t Care by Chelsey Minnis (Wave Books)

Baby, I Don’t Care by Chelsey Minnis (Wave Books)

If a more original transposition of a genre from its traditional medium to that of another, wholly alien to it, has ever been attempted – and so successfully and bracingly – I can’t recall of it. Imagine a femme fatale from a classic Noir movie cast as the speaker that unites a suite of poems which adhere to quintain form. Each poem visits a theme, such as seduction, murder, romance, laziness, fun & games, bargaining, larceny, love, and, ultimately, failure. Now envision not one speaker, but a host of female speakers, archetypes from 30s and 40s Hollywood, alternately flouncing into the ring of limelight in their nightgowns while nursing a highball or flute of champagne, inspiring deep draughts from a cigarette, and tossing an endless string of gimlet one-liners. The voice is refracted in a thousand ways, producing a stream of apparent nonsequiturs. Finally, consider the fact that many of the lines could each stand alone as a monostich, so jarring and incisive that the reader literally recoils in stupefaction if not shock. This, in essence, is what Chelsey Minnis, an American poet raised in Colorado and author of several prior collections, has accomplished in Baby, I Don’t Care.

Although she was educated at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and studied creative writing at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Minnis has obviously devoted much time to the review of cinematic source material and dissection of a classic Hollywood phenotype during her preparation for this book. That she is fascinated by a period of film history might be anticipated by the observation that she has a habit of ‘reclaiming unfashionable gestures’ in her work as noted in her Poetry Foundation profile.

Unique is grievously inadequate as a descriptor for Baby, I Don’t Care. An irresistible temptation to psychoanalyze the speaker(s) of the poems in this collection overtakes the reader. She/they, a composite in effect, are at once boozy, disjointed, delirious, seductive, self-absorbed, tangential, acquisitive, mordantly witty, bored, brutal, and broken. A hard-boiled vamp, or amalgam of Noir personae, with a penchant for luxury and a deep vein of masochism. She is a chiseler, a philosopher, and an ‘immoral princess,’ to borrow an epithet from the collection. And she knows she is off-kilter. Keenly observant one-liners are rife, like the telling ‘Something’s wrong with me and I like it.’ She certainly does, and so do we. A throwback to Hollywood’s Golden Age, the speaker knows she is an actor when she says ‘Let’s play the scene how it’s written.’

The pastiche effect achieved by the frequent semantic transitions, with one thought careening into the next, unsettles the reader and this is premeditated. It is as if we are fingering a necklace of variously shaped and colored stones, many of which deserve sustained admiration, but all of which we can touch only fleetingly and incompletely. This staccato rat-tat-tat arbitrariness, with coherent bursts of thought rarely lasting more than one or two lines, echoes the devil-may-care attitude of the jaded speaker. In prior work, Minnis has used ellipses liberally, and the Poetry Foundation quotes Sasha Steensen’s observation that her ellipses ‘are, on the one hand, the bullet-holes that remain after Minnis’s speaker takes shots at the reader. On the other, they are evidence of the unsteadiness of the speaker’s own hand […] embody[ing] the vulnerability that so often lurks behind the book’s defiance.’ Although ellipses are not prominent in Baby, I Don’t Care, we do feel both bullet ridden and acutely aware of the speaker’s imbalance. Invisible ellipses, in essence, separate elements of the barrage of micro-semantic units in these poems.

Minnis’s syntax is simple and declarative, and the diction is ‘ginger-peachy’ period-perfect, but the thoughts, which may seem trivial or superficial at times, often reflect an incisive intellect with profound insight into the most tenebrous corridors of human psychology. The best way to get a flavor for this collection is to sample several lines, extracted below from various sections:

Baby, it’s so sexy to think.
Why don’t you try it?

Why don’t you make love to your wife?
The outstanding novelty of the year.

You’ve completely gone out of my mind.

The grenades are in the champagne bucket.

Let’s fall in love,
just the three of us.

I guess it’s like the sexual equivalent of a flamethrower.
What are you going to do?
Complain about the heat?

The speaker claims she may be ‘strictly ornamental’ but that ‘this is highly agreeable as long as I am paid in gems.’ The truth of the matter is that she finds little of her life enduringly satisfying or congenial, and that her astuteness and wit belie her claim of a mere ornamental status. Ultimately, a sadness pervades the collection. In a Philip Marlowe-style simile we are asked to ‘Behold my dazzling mental illness like a chandelier.’ And there seems to be plenty of that, especially depression. Perhaps the most poignant line she utters is: ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t be saved.’ But we know that men will line up for miles to try to save her, anyway, because she is more lucid and powerful than any of them.

David Sahner 23rd August 2020

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