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Selected Poems: 1989-2012 by Simon Smith (Shearsman Books) Part Two

On the reverse side of this selection David Herd is quoted from The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry where he comments upon Simon Smith’s sequence of poems from 2010, London Bridge:

“Simon Smith’s writing forges English language poetry out of the translated utterance, his most recent volume, London Bridge, fixing itself not to place but to the questions of crossing.”

In an article by John Wilkinson titled ‘Stone thresholds’, published in this year’s Textual Practice there is a fine reading of Andrew Crozier’s late poem ‘Blank Misgivings’, “built on the rubble of a postwar cityscape and of postwar political hopes”. Wilkinson notes that the poem’s title is borrowed from Arthur Hugh Clough:

“The ruined landscape fills with sounds and obstructions as well as ‘unbuilt monuments’; like the ‘extinct hiss’ which is still incendiary and the ‘static roar’ from space, it is haunted by futurity as well as the past. Neglected past participles throng in this poem, still hissing and burning. What is performed here and enjoined on a reader is a hermeneutic work of remembrance, reconnection and shaping.”

Reading through the selection of twenty-five sonnets from ‘Unfelt, A Poem in Forty-Four Parts’, which occupies a prominent section towards the end of this new Selected Poems I am drawn back to looking at Clough again. The awareness of ghosts haunting the ‘you’ and the ‘I’ in Smith’s sequence reminds me of the tone of ‘Amours de Voyage’. In section VIII of that fine poem from 1862 Claude writes to Eustace:

“After all, do I know that I really cared so about her?
Do whatever I will, I cannot call up her image;
For when I close my eyes, I see, very likely, St. Peter’s,
Or the Pantheon façade, or Michael Angelo’s figures,
Or, at a wish, when I please, the Alban hills and the Forum –
But that face, those eyes – ah no, never anything like them;
Only, try as I will, a sort of featureless outline,
And a pale blank orb, which no recollection will add to.
After all perhaps there was something factitious about it:
I have had pain, it is true; I have wept; and so have the actors.”

The shadows which haunt Simon Smith’s sonnet sequence offer glimpses of world lost in which “I cannot distinguish between your acts now” (2) and that world of ‘crossing’ which is perhaps pointed to in that quotation from David Herd may be seen most clearly in sonnet 41:

“The literal truth of history I feel you in the air
& the sun but not in detail everything is at once
Too near & too far enough to make me tremble
Quietly as we are, you at New Cross, & I here”

Simon Smith’s poems have often been located in a recognizable topography and the power of this sonnet sequence is located in the way the poet moves from this ‘here-and-now’ to an awareness of how we stand upon the flagstones of our pasts. This is a poet who has read his Olson as well as his O’Hara:

“we compare notes
we meet, shall I come
to you or will you come to me
unhappy as Mercury in our shape-shifting
as we row backwards always backwards rolling
towards beginning with all the inevitable permanence
of the concrete breeze blocks, their presence, their weight
their grey bulk

floats off
above
city
air
to be with”
(‘Ode to David Herd’)

Simon Smith is a major poet of the present and his voice is distinctive as the world of America and England meet in a manner that the shade of Clough may well smile at; after all, ‘Amours de Voyage’ was first published in the Boston Atlantic Monthly.

Ian Brinton, 25th April 2017

More Flowers Than You Could Possibly Carry, Selected Poems 1989-2012 Simon Smith (Shearsman Books)

More Flowers Than You Could Possibly Carry, Selected Poems 1989-2012  Simon Smith (Shearsman Books)

Part I: CONTEXT

Simon Smith’s poetry is always on the move and Fifteen Exits (Waterloo Press 2001) is no exception. Although published at the opening of the new century the individual ‘exits’ are all dated in the closing years of the previous one. The place of first publication and the names of the travelling companions are also included. The volume’s opening poem, ‘The Nature of Things’, is dedicated to J.D. Taylor, carries an epigraph from Stephen Rodefer and begins in a slightly old-fashioned epistolary fashion suggestive of being on the cusp of change:

Dear John, my friend
can I call you that?
No news, but poetry.

First published in West Coast Line in the Fall of 1995 the poem was originally titled ‘Didactic Ode’ but with the new century a re-reading of Lucretius impelled ‘These coarsened times’ to ‘swallow the Works of the Ancients too’.
Reviewing Smith’s 2010 Salt collection, London Bridge, Ben Hickman had referred to the poems as ‘fast’ or, as if just to check that distance between perceiver and perceived, ‘rather, the world they intermediate in is’:

The achievement of the poems is to hang on to this world while remaining faithful to the fact that, in the twenty-first century, this is not easy. Smith, in a sense, has it both ways, reflecting the fragmentation of experience but also often enough able to grab it, celebrate it, mourn it or present its beauty.

Hickman’s use of the word ‘fragmentation’ here inevitably conjures up the world of early Modernism, particularly T.S. Eliot whose ‘fragments’ were ‘stored against’ his ruin in The Wasteland. London Bridge is peopled with literary ghosts, from the opening poem’s weaving of John Ruskin’s ‘Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century’ into Second World War air-raids over London to Chaucer, Keats, Baudelaire, Rilke, Kafka, Apollinaire, Pound and Saussure.

Smith’s concern with poetic voices had been announced earlier with the title of his 2003 volume for Salt, Reverdy Road. A reference to the French poet, translated by Kenneth Rexroth, points us to the end of one of Frank O’Hara’s most well-known pieces, ‘A Step Away From Them’ which itself concluded with his heart in his pocket, ‘it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.’ This link to O’Hara is central to Simon Smith’s poetry: poems which appear to present a quality of the random are in fact highly-wrought and careful vignettes of modern urban and suburban life. As a practitioner Smith is also concerned with the line as well as the music of verse and it is fitting that the short poem ‘Olson’ from Reverdy Road should focus not only on the geography of Fort Square but also on the emphatic Olsonian concern for the poetic line:

Looking off the watch-house quay into fog.

Olson scrawling walls and every surface.

Hi, gran pops! Information log-jammed.

Everyday is small. A few drops

The other way look the other way there

It goes the World harder than love. The line.

In 2011 Veer Books published Smith’s sequence of poems, Gravesend, reflections of a train journey between Charing Cross and Chatham. The volume opens with a desire for permanence within a shifting landscape, a narrative that contains ‘whatever occurred at that particular moment at the carriage window, or on the train.’ However, the hunger for permanence and some sense of stability in a fast-moving world is undermined by the subject material of potential catastrophe. Within these poems we will be confronted by the ghosts of Conrad and Dickens, Walter Benjamin and Paul Weller (Jam to Style Council), Juvenal, Claudius, Caesar, Vespasian, Neil Young and Browning, Spenser and Catullus. This wide frame of reference offers a living background to the ‘now’ and it is worth looking at Smith’s 2005 review of Josephine Balmer’s new translation of Catullus published by Bloodaxe (Poetry Review, Vol. 95, No. 1). In a scathing reference to the former Education Minister Charles Clarke’s pronouncement that educational subjects worthy of study ‘need a relationship with the workplace’ Simon Smith pointed out that if you want to become a politician perhaps you should read Cicero, Plato or Aristotle before going on to pose the question ‘where else is the foundation of Western democracy other than in the Ancient worlds of Greece and Rome?’
In contrast to this sense of continuity, however, one pervasive tone threading its way through the Gravesend sequence is that of impermanence and perhaps another shadow behind the literary urban scene is Paul Auster whose novel In the Country of Last Things (1987) drowned the reader in instability:

When you live in a 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.

A child’s recognition of vertigo and terror finds one its most moving manifestations in the opening pages of Dickens’s Great Expectations where the young Pip is surrounded by the graves of his family as he stands on the marshland of North Kent one Christmas-eve. The presence of this little seed in the opening poem of Smith’s journey sets the scene for the injustice of life and the oppressive political insensitivity of the adult world masquerading as the language of ‘Progressive education’ and ‘liberal democracy’

Where ‘life’ became a history to cry out
About grey and brown flatlands tilted
Over the edge dangling Pip.

As the train approaches Bluewater shopping-city, itself an Auster or Ballard world, ‘Assessment elides policing’ and the prevailing sense of educational policy which would have doubtless found favour with that now historical Minister, Clarke, prompts the poet to mis-read a sign on a grey bin labelled ‘not working’ as ‘networking’! This is a world of captions and key-words which present themselves as mirrors of everyday narrowness.
Gravesend, republished in 2014 by Shearsman as the second section of 11781 W. Sunset Boulevard, is not a disconnected set of fragments shored against this poet’s ruin but is a collage where ‘Opposite Burger King’ there will be the outline of a Roman temple and where ‘Ghost landscapes slip the train window.’ As the reader arrives finally at Chatham, the ‘End of the line’, the journey has been a narrative in the sense used by Ortega y Gasset in Historical Reason, (published in 1984, the year of the miners’ strike and Big Brother):

So if we resort to the image, universal and ancient as you will see, that portrays life as a road to be travelled and travelled again—hence the expression “the course of life, curriculum vitae, decide on a career”—we could say that in walking along the road of life we keep it with us, know it; that is the road already travelled curls up behind us, rolls up like a film. So that when he comes to an end, man discovers that he carries, stuck there on his back, the entire roll of the life he led.

Or as Simon Smith, sardonic, shrewd and humane poet, concludes:

Me in pin-sharp form,
The ring-pull moment of chance,
Reality a line right through.

In his most recent poems, written in 2014 whilst on the West Coast of America doing research work for his forthcoming Paul Blackburn Reader, Smith pursues his concern with speed and place

father farther out with each act
of memory whilst I’m here
locked between the non-stop grind of trucks west
and endless gridlock east
trying to learn Italian
from reading Franco Beltrametti’s Face to Face
each neighbourhood a tight packet of stuff

Beltrametti’s book was published in 1973 by Grosseteste Press and Smith’s awareness of the Italian poet is not only a sly reference to John James’s sequence of poems published by Equipage in 2014 (Songs in Midwinter for Franco) but also to the poet whose merging of the immediate and the far produced embers which became fire and in whose own work ‘introspection creaks like stretched / leather, gaudy and plain, at half past / midnight 50 km out of town’.

Eating tangerines.
Missing people—lots.

Ian Brinton 17th April 2017

Vanishing Points Eds. John Kinsella & Rod Mengham (Salt Publishing)

Vanishing Points Eds. John Kinsella & Rod Mengham (Salt Publishing)

The moment of change between one century and another is no easily defined discrete box into which ideas can be crammed later to become defined as Twentieth Century as opposed to Twenty-first Century. Thomas Hardy knew this well when he published his much anthologised poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’ on December 31st 1901. The poem looks forward to the newly defined Twentieth Century with a limited sense of blessed hope “whereof he knew but I was unaware” whilst also looking back at the Nineteenth Century’s corpse “outleant”. This sense of one eye being cast over the shoulder whilst the other is fixed firmly ahead is the hallmark of the Salt anthology of poems, Vanishing Points, edited by John Kinsella and Rod Mengham and published in 2004.
The backwards glance is towards the anthology Conductors of Chaos, edited by Iain Sinclair in 1996 in which, as Randall Stevenson suggested in Volume 12 of The Oxford English Literary History, there was a clear attempt to make great demands on readers to ensure that they “looked at the language on the page—rather than through it, towards a familiar, represented reality—transparency and ease of ordinary understanding had to be eliminated as far as possible”.
Sinclair’s introduction to Conductors of Chaos had thrown down a glove for the editors of anthologies and for serious readers of modern poetry:

“The work I value is that which seems most remote, alienated, fractured. I don’t claim to ‘understand’ it but I like having it around. The darker it grows outside the window, the worse the noises from the island, the more closely do I attend to the mass of instant-printed pamphlets that pile up around my desk. The very titles are pure adrenalin; Satyrs and Mephitic Angels, Tense Fodder, Hellhound Memos, Civic Crime, Alien Skies, Harpmesh Intermezzi, A Pocket History of the Soul. You don’t need to read them, just handle them: feel the sticky heat creep up through your fingers. If these things are ‘difficult’, they have earned that right. Why should they be easy? Why should they not reflect some measure of the complexity of the climate in which they exist? Why should we not be prepared to make an effort, to break sweat, in hope of high return? There’s no key, no Masonic password; take the sequences gently, a line at a time. Treat the page as a block, sound it for submerged sonar effects. Suspend conditioned reflexes. You don’t need to sign up for Tom Paulin’s masterclass to reap the reward. If it comes too sweetly, somebody’s trying to sell you something.”

As if to emphasise even more the links between one century and the next, three of the seven titles mentioned by Sinclair were published by Rod Mengham’s Cambridge based Equipage Press and there is perhaps a sense of appropriateness here in his being the co-editor of the first significantly challenging new anthology of the Twenty-First Century. In his introduction to Vanishing Points Mengham takes up the challenge of reading as thrown down by Randall Stevenson, looking at language on the page:

“The vanishing point lies beyond the horizon established by ruling conventions, it is where the imagination takes over from the understanding. Most anthologies of contemporary verse are filled with poems that do not cross that dividing-line, but our contention is that many poems in this volume are situated on the threshold of conventional sense-making. They go beyond the perspective of accepted canons of taste and judgement and ask questions about where they belong, and who they are meant for, often combining the pathos of estrangement with the irascibility of the refusenik.”

The thirty-two poets in this anthology are from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and United States of America but despite this wide geographical range what binds them together is “a strong insistence on finding ways of continuing and renewing the lyric impulse in poetry in English”. The British contributors include Caroline Bergvall, Brian Catling, David Chaloner, Andrew Crozier, Andrew Duncan, Roy Fisher, Ulli Freer, Tony Lopez, Barry MacSweeney, Anna Mendelssohn (Grace Lake), Drew Milne, Ian Patterson, J.H. Prynne, Peter Riley, Geoff Ward and John Wilkinson. Some of the poems in the anthology are from a much earlier date and Roy Fisher’s The Cut Pages first appeared in 1971 from Fulcrum Press before re-emerging in 1986 as a joint production of Oasis Books and Shearsman Books. Introducing the first appearance of the poem Fisher had told his readers that the “aim in the improvisation was to give the words as much relief as possible from serving in planned situations” and that the work “was taken forward with no programme beyond the principle that it should not know where its next meal was coming from”. This method of composition “produced very rapid changes of direction”. More on the cusp of the millennium Barry MacSweeney’s ‘Totem Banking’ and ‘I Looked Down On a Child Today’ were both written in 1998-1999 and included in his posthumous selected poems, Wolf Tongue, which appeared from Bloodaxe in 2003. ‘Totem Banking’ is dedicated to J.H. Prynne and the appropriate nature of its inclusion in this anthology is emphasised by Mengham’s introductory comments concerning the way in which “writers in this anthology have been part of a process of exchanging ideas manifested in little magazines, in the publishing programmes of small presses, and in the sheer volume of email and internet transactions”. It was Prynne, along with Andrew Crozier, who began much of this exchange of ideas with the creation and publication of The English Intelligencer back in the 1960s and it is a measure of the Cambridge poet’s professional commitment to new forms of writing that an extract from his own Red D Gypsum should form part of the new horizon posited by the editors of Vanishing Points.
Although Red D Gypsum was published by Barque Press (Andrea Brady and Keston Sutherland) in 1998 it was one of the later sequences which prompted Andrew Duncan in 2003 to write “Of course, Prynne’s aesthetic of difficulty often causes panic anxiety, feels like sensory deprivation, and invites misconstruction…people have different perceptions of what ‘good pattern’ is, and may experience incompleteness as anxiety as well as cognitive freedom”. Writing about the sequence in 2009 Nigel Wheale suggested that it is worth thinking about the sense in which reading it “may be a cumulative experience for the reader” requiring a different reading strategy. This, of course, is entirely in tune with the editorial comments in Vanishing Points and John Kinsella, the co-editor, stressed that “Typically, a poem gives the reader or listener something to take away from the text—an emotional gravitas, whimsical joy, intellectual or spiritual connection or awakening”.
At the end of the last century Kinsella had formed a publishing partnership with Clive Newman and Chris Hamilton-Emery and this new Salt Press heralded the world of Print-on-Demand (PoD). The press soon made a name for publishing a pluralist view of poetry and the 2004 publication of Vanishing Points was like the raising of a standard.

Ian Brinton 10th April 2017

A History of Modernist Poetry Ed. Alex Davis & Lee M. Jenkins (Cambridge University Press)

A History of Modernist Poetry  Ed. Alex Davis & Lee M. Jenkins  (Cambridge University Press)

I have rarely come across a readable, engaging and infectious introduction to the world of Modernist Poetry…until NOW.
The opening lines of this History set the scene:

“What, When, and Where was modernism? Is modernism a period or a paradigm, an era or a style? Is modernism solely the product of metropolitan modernity, or equally of local, even peripheral, spatialities? Is modernism an ‘international’ or even transnational phenomenon, or is it wedded to notions of cultural nationalism and regional identity?”

The questions are set out and the twenty-three chapters of this fine book attempt to answer them. A concern for placing modernism within an historical context leads the editors to wonder if it marked a moment of avant-garde rupture with its late nineteenth-century poetic antecedents or did it consist, instead, of “a reinflection and continuation of their preoccupations”.

“In what follows, modernist poetry is understood as having its roots in the fin de siècle even as it reflects and refracts the climate of the new century, as an affair of the city and imperial centre, and of what Scottish poet High MacDiarmid termed the ‘stony limits’ of the periphery; and as a variegated field of formal experiments, whether iconoclastic rejections of the past or embattled recuperations of it.”

There is an engaging directness of address in the editorial introduction and I found myself held by a contextual comment such as the difference between modernism and the broader “modern movement”:

“Both register the shock of the new in terms of content and push at the envelope of conventional form; nevertheless, there is a distinction to be made between, for example, the Edwardian verse of John Masefield and the early poetry of Mina Loy.”

The point is made even clearer when one compares the representation of the First World War in David Jones’s In Parenthesis (1937) and the shell-shocked Georgianism of the lyric war poetry of Sassoon and Owen. Jones’s “mixed prose and verse narrative underpinned by the deep time of the mythical method common to many modernist works” is very different from the world addressed by J.H. Prynne in his unpublished lecture to the Edmund Blunden Society in 2009:

“In different ways each one of what we now can’t avoid calling war poets had to make do with traditional modes and genres of composition, as compellingly the default option. With so much of their cultural equipment at risk of destruction, they were deeply conservative in formal poetics, even as they experimented towards far limits in the expression of personal and ethical feeling…Pound, Eliot and Joyce defined major new initiatives, but the surviving war poets lapsed into survival. This stand-off stakes out the territory for literary antagonism and contest, between old-style cultural continuities and the progress of Modernism, both rooted in the modality of the English language but in the case of Eliot and Pound determined to break the mould of inherited practice, to fight free of suffocating influence from the past.”

It is little wonder that In Parenthesis was championed by Eliot sharing, as it did, a fragmentary presence heralded in different voices through whose tones of expression mythology provided a framework for contemporary analysis.
Rather than give a list of all 23 chapters in this new History I urge readers to look the details up on-line: this is probably the most important collection of essays on Modernism to appear for some time to come. What I can do is highlight two little delights, tasters as it were. Mark Scroggins wrote a biography of Zukofsky (Shoemaker Hoard, 2007) and it comes as little surprise that his chapter on ‘Objectivist Poets’ should be so clear in its purpose and details. Scroggins highlights the sense that whilst several writers saw their work published by The Objectivist Press (TO) “the poets now discussed as Objectivists never formed anything like a coherent movement”. He concludes his survey with the statement from Zukofsky who wrote that their interest resided “in the craft of poetry, NOT in a movement”. The final chapter of the History, this history, not where history ends(!), is written by Anthony Mellors whose Late Modernist Poetics, From Pound to Prynne (Manchester University Press, 2005) provides a major focus on Pound, Celan, Olson and Prynne. Mellors concludes his summing-up of A History of Modernist Poetry by quoting Allen Fisher who describes his own poetic strategy as a truth to materials which “involves slow decomposition, disruption of autobiographical voice through the use of many voices”. In response Mellors writes “The danger here is for multiplicity to become a new orthodoxy”. David Jones might well have been interested in this view of the future as well as the past when he opened his Preface to The Anathemata (1952) with the quotation from Nennius (or whoever composed the introductory matter to the Historia Brittonum):

“I have made a heap of all that I could find.”

Ian Brinton 4th April 2017

Scaplings by Michael Haslam (Calder Valley Poetry)

Scaplings by Michael Haslam (Calder Valley Poetry)

In the introduction to issue 1 of folded sheets (foldan sceatas), September 1986, the editor Michael Haslam wrote about his new magazine venture:

“It just aims to sheaf and bind some disparatenesses, making postal ground out of what else might run the risk of being several desperate isolations, facing the claims coherence makes upon identity.”

The subtitled address on the front cover of this exciting new venture some thirty years ago told us that the folded sheets in question were “of what new poetry is posted here” and on the fly-sheet there was an announcement concerning this “unplanned serial publication of new poetry, or prose / (or prose that is comparable to poetry, is similarly motivated, or at least may be self-conscious of the wherefore of its personally spoken tone)”. The eight issues of folded sheets contained poetry and prose by Kelvin Corcoran, Ken Edwards, Peter Hughes, Simon Marsh, Chris Torrance, John Wilkinson and many other important writers of the time. Issue 3 also contained a sequence of six poems by Peter Riley whose Pennine Tales was published by Bob Horne’s Calder Valley Poetry last year and which I reviewed for this blog at the end of July. In Riley’s six poems from folded sheets we stand “Finally on the edge of night” and recognise the “dark mottled fall of light / Tensed between the houses, which is / Itself a meaning but not itself articulate”. In the ninth poem from Pennine Tales the poet stands above Hebden Bridge:

“Out of the Hare & Hounds 11:20 with Mike Haslam
and stand on the edge of the moors. Difficult
to believe that a small bus will come and
pick us up. There is nothing here but stone
walls and distance. We are alone. We are nowhere.”

This new publication from Calder Valley Poetry offers a type of echoing reply as from one walker, one traveller, to another. Its full title is Scaplings, Star Jelly, and a Seeming Sense of Soul and it opens with references to other travellers whose ghosts haunt the heady lyrical surge that moves from bank to bank of these 36 poems:

“The edifice of work and life, an old retaining wall
that long held back a seam of flaking shale
collapses as a crumpled face into a rubble pile.

From high imperium to small importance fall
impotence, imprudence, impertinence and all
the way from imputation back to impact
trail the files for miles and fail
for want of style to face the facts beyond recall.”

The echo here is of course that of a traveller “from an antique land” whose discovery “of that colossal Wreck” in the desert sands of 1817 prompted Shelley to think of how high imperium falls to small importance:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Time and decay haunt Haslam’s masterful lyric display of fingers up and down a keyboard of Scarlatti sonatas. As Peter Riley puts it on the back cover of this delightful collection:

“On each of these 36 pages Michael Haslam sets out (on foot) into the world immediately confronting him, and gathers from it the words, experience, memories, percepts that he needs to form a poetry of rich texture. He does this singingly, so that the words echo each other and form queues, and with the sharpest awareness of all the bright play offered by language when it is opened up, when it faces its own history.”

As travellers move about leafing their way through pages of long told tales, Odysseus (“Nobody”) “steers / his craft across the shoals of an obscure idea”. The scaplings of “wedge-shaped lumps of offcut gritstone” are inserted into the mortar of language to hold the “block flush with the wallface”. Bunting would have loved these poems and I think of Peter Makin’s central book on the shaping of that Northumbrian’s verse:

“the good poem is the one that, once one has started saying its lines, an inner necessitation makes one want to say on – so interesting are the relations between the lines – through to the end.”

As Riley put it “words echo each other and form queues”; the walkers of a landscape walk over ground which shifts and changes; one which holds its original face; palimpsest:

“I view us two that day we came along the long catchwater drain
the climate light and delicate, a touch intemperate, the weather cold.
I can’t recall the exact date. The ground it seems is owned by some
consortium of infrastructure funds. When water passed
to private hands the heart deflated and evaporated from the state.

Our land miss-sold, how gently by permissive footpaths now
across their land our right to roam’s controlled! Free hearts for health
and heath. The heather blossom’s old. The physis that’s the bios,
physics of our lungs and things we hold above the ground beneath.”

To buy a copy of Michael Haslam’s Scaplings contact Bob Horne at http://www.caldervalleypoetry.com or caldervalleypoetry@yahoo.com

Ian Brinton, 23rd March 2017

The Meaning of Things: Poems and Prose by Elaine Randell (Shearsman Books)

The Meaning of Things: Poems and Prose by Elaine Randell (Shearsman Books)

There is an old saying about not judging other people until you have walked a mile in their shoes. In her reminiscences about her father, the concluding section of this powerfully moving new book, Elaine Randell puts it slightly differently:

“If anyone ever behaved badly or was criticised by my mother or me, he would always say, to know all is to forgive all, you have to understand why people do certain things and behave in a certain way before jumping in, Elaine.”

Elaine Randell’s career in social work and psychotherapy complements her substantial work as a poet which stretches back to Nos 3 & 4 of The Curiously Strong in November 1971 where she appeared alongside Barry MacSweeney in ‘The official Biography of Jim Morrison’, Just 22 And Don’t Mind Dying. Two years later a short book of poems appeared from MacSweeney’s Blacksuede Boot Press, Telegrams From The Midnight Country, and it is one of these short pieces that lingers in my mind as I read Randell’s new volume from Shearsman Books:

“See how the tree comes to
ward.
A heavy wind here pesters
loose wood.
Sky steps are light.
The birds fly up ex
static.”

In an interview the American Objectivist Charles Reznikoff suggested that poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling: it should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling. Of course the feeling is there in the selection of material: you pick certain things that are significant—that’s your feeling. You don’t go into the feeling; you portray it as well as you can, hoping that somebody else reading the poem will get your feeling:

“Now, as part of that, I should perhaps say that I try to be as clear and precise as possible….my own belief is to name and to name and to name—and to name in such a way that you have rhythm, since music (and I think George Oppen would agree with me) is also part of the meaning”.

I’m sure that Randell would certainly agree with Reznikoff and that early poem, titled ‘For You – Today’, would not look out of place in the 1934 Objectivist Press publication Jerusalem the Golden. For instance look at the three lines of ‘July’ in that Reznikoff volume:

“No one is in the street but a sparrow;
it hops on the glittering sidewalk,
and at last flies – into a dusty tree.”

Randell’s The Meaning of Things is divided into four sections the last being two autobiographical pieces of memory of the poet’s mother and father. In section II that naming and rhythm which mattered so much to both Reznikoff and Oppen is placed securely in ‘Easter 2014 Romney Marsh’:

“On such a day the skylark
heard above the tractor before seen
up that high.
Who could not be charged
by his ecstatic salute to life
upwards and yet further up he shows how to sing while flying
while
plummeting
vertically effortlessly hovering before parachuting back.
On such a day you had also heard this
known perhaps that despite their aerial activities,
skylarks nest on the ground not in trees which may catch the wind.”

Forty-four years ago in ‘For You – Today’ the second line opens with what might be perceived to be the second syllable of the word “toward”. However, by being placed where it is that word becomes a verb “ward” and the note of warning and care held in both sound and meaning of that small word leads the reader forward to the third line’s reference to “A heavy wind” and the repeated ‘w’s, agitated by the use of “pesters”, take us to the fragility of “loose wood”. In this new poem there is a contrast between the firm placing on a ground, “On such a day”, with the following nine syllables of line two ending in the open music of “seen”. The poem echoes the surge of movement and song as the lark moves “upwards and yet further up he shows how to sing while flying”.
George Oppen was a great admirer of the slightly older Reznikoff and in a 1959 letter to June Oppen Degnan, his half-sister and publisher of San Francisco Review, he wrote:

“Rezi wrote

Among the heap of brick and plaster lies
A girder, still itself among the rubbish.

Likely he could mull along and tell you what he had in mind. But how other than with this image could he put into your mind so clearly the miracle of existence—the existence of things. It is only because the image hits so clear and sudden that the poem means what it means. I don’t know that he could make it any clearer by talking about it.”

Elaine Randell’s new publication presents the reader with poetry and prose. The poetry stands clear on the page, THINGS. The prose, reminiscent of John Berger’s account of a doctor in the Forest of Dean in A Fortunate Man, gives us human voices that unsettle us with their convincing presentation of emptiness and perseverance, loss and determination. This is an important book.

Ian Brinton 4th March 2017

Your Scratch Entourage by Kris Hemensley (Cordite Books)

Your Scratch Entourage by Kris Hemensley (Cordite Books)

The introduction to this collection of poems by Kris Hemensley, the first to appear for some thirty years, makes an interesting and direct assertion taken from Alain (Emile Chartier):

“…men are afraid to complete their thoughts” [.]

This moment of realisation was shared between Lucas Weschke and Kris Hemensley as they were on their way to visit Greta Berlin whom Weschke had met in Zennor “as a small child and whose father, Sven Berlin, had enthralled a young Kris Hemensley in 1963 with the accoutrements of the artist and his first taste of red wine.”

One might be almost tempted to recall those words from the first chapter of Kenner’s The Pound Era where he refers to a moment on a Chelsea street in the early 1900s:

“Which is all of the story, like a torn papyrus. That is how the past exists, phantasmagoric weskits, stray words, random things recorded. The imagination augments, metabolizes, feeding on all it has to feed on, such scraps.”

The introduction goes on to give us a picture of how these poems relate to people in their places taking us “into deeply personal territory: the territory of sons and fathers, brothers and lovers; into the territory of war and its enduring shadows. The chapters are stakes embedded in the ground to mark what needed to be acknowledged”. The seven ‘chapters’, separate but connected areas of poetic ground, take the reader from 1971 to ‘Millenium Poems’, from Frank Prince to Ivor Gurney, from London to Weymouth:

“tracks along the shore
disappear almost as fast as they’re formed
in the sand”

The staked out land is a world of marked territory and as the poet looks back over a half-century of close involvement with the powerful urges and effects of language he recognises the clarity of “what’s the use of going against the wind?” :

“man, woman or child:
who walks here
whose footsteps disappear?”

This awareness of the effect of time is very different from Barry MacSweeney’s sharp outburst against the Colonel B and ‘Jury Vet’ mystification of truth from the ABC trial of 1977. Hemensley’s tone of voice uses the particular to point to the universal and his awareness of the way in which the staked out plots relate to each other is caught in the poem written in memory of MacSweeney:

“your scratch entourage
sans powder sans rouge
sans a sodding sausage
what’s it all in aid of
counted now on page 470 of Herodotus
inventory of spears swords daggers
shields bows & lassoes gold-plated helmets
of this & that regiment chain-mail tunics
women & tents horses & sheep
tanks & helicopter gunships
guided missile systems…”

An early poem which Kris Hemensley published in 1972 pointed us to ‘The Horizon’ where “the wider lights / lengthening days / the pink flood above / the tallest pine / blue grill of sky / talk of snow to come” lead on to a “question of occupation”:

“which time & place
awaiting spring…”

As Hemensley knows, we can only hope to occupy a here-and-now and his moving record of poems in this new collection offers a glance backward over a lifetime’s commitment. He might almost be thinking of Samuel Beckett’s Murphy who announced that “all life is figure and ground”. Meanwhile, as the seven sonnets which constitute the staked-out patch of ground titled ‘More Midsummer Night’s Dream Than Dante’ offer a mordant awareness of life passing we must also recall Flaubert writing to Louis Bouilhet in September 1850:

“Yes, stupidity consists in wanting to reach conclusions. We are a thread, and we want to know the whole cloth.”

Kris Hemensley is aware of the threads and, without wanting the whole cloth, he yearns to recognise how each field allows us a vision both backwards and for the future. This is a moving and serious collection of poems.

Ian Brinton 18th February 2017

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