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Music, Selected Poems of Tarō Naka Translated by Andrew Houwen & Chikako Nihei (Isobar Press)

Music,  Selected Poems of Tarō Naka  Translated by Andrew Houwen & Chikako Nihei (Isobar Press)

In his introduction to this long-overdue translation of one of Japan’s most significant post-war poets Andrew Houwen draws attention to the importance of Buddhism and transience. He suggests that Naka came to realise the importance of the impermanence of all things when he was “confronted with the war’s destruction” and points us towards the 1954 poem ‘Scene II’ with its italicised epigram ‘summer 1945’:

“scabs of black memory tear off
the guillotine river cuts up
the city’s torn skin

pushed along in the flow
countless burnt eyes
eyes
eyes”

An echo here points us of course to Eliot’s ‘The Fire Sermon’ with its focus upon both the river and the burning and to that poet’s use of Henry Clarke Warren’s Buddhism in Translations:

“All things, O priests, are on fire. And what, O priests, are all these things which are on fire?
The eye, O priests, is on fire; forms are on fire; eye-consciousness is on fire; impressions received by the eye are on fire; and whatever sensation, pleasant, unpleasant, or indifferent, originates in dependence on impressions received by the eye, that also is on fire.”

It was a year after the publication of The Waste Land that William Carlos Williams published Spring and All with its emphasis on the “universality of things” and this later fed that central phrase from the first book of Paterson:

“Say it! No ideas but in things”

The impermanence of things haunts the poetry that Naka wrote after he had returned to Hakata at the end of the war, after Hiroshima, to find that his home and his hometown had been devastated. This was a world where “in the distance burnt shrivelled trees / no longer / have any trace of life”. What remains are the “skeletons of apartments // where the smell of the rocky shore drifts / a cavern – / time’s insides / gone”.
Naka’s first mature collection of poems was composed between 1957 and 1964 before being published in 1965 as Ongaku (Music). Introducing the collection with a Note the poet writes

“Mu is not ‘nothing’. It is the mu of existing things, breathing mu, the mu of writhing waves. It is because music sounds in these things, or perhaps in order to make music sound, that people produce words.”

Words, like music, possess an independence from their creator and this in Naka’s words “allows the creation to exist on its own”. Poems, like music, exist in their own world and the last section of this immensely important new book from Isobar Press is given over to Naka’s 1966 prose ‘Notes for a Poetics’:

“The activity of writing is itself, of course, a visible activity. One holds a pen, faces the paper, and in everyday time moves one’s own hand. However, what one’s consciousness works to indicate certainly does not take place in the visible world, but in a separate, unreal one. In this unreal space, through using those unreal ‘things’, words, one acts in order to reach (an indefinable) something.
The activity of creating poetry is always an escape to this unreal space.”

The 1975 collection of poems, Hakata, possesses a haunting sense of unseen tracks:

“the autumn woman’s skin has a trembling lily’s scent
walking through withered leaves in the distance”

and the poet registers “time’s / footfall” and “the thirst for the far shore of the futureless blue sky”. As Houwen puts it in his highly valuable introduction

“A poem, as a product of the combination of words, depends on the words’ interaction with each other, which is something that, as Naka observes in ‘Notes for a Poetics’, ‘always surpasses the writer” (Naka’s emphasis) and, as words’ associations continually shift with new readings, the poem, like all entities, is in constant flux.

To return to William Carlos Williams and 1923:

“Here is a shutter, a bunch of grapes, a sheet of music, a picture of sea and mountains…One thing laps over on the other.”

This first book-length collection of Tarō Naka’s work in English provides an essential addition to the book-shelves of all readers of serious poetry. Thanks again to Paul Rossiter’s fine Isobar Press (http://isobarpress.com).

Ian Brinton 17th August 2018

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Fair by Martin Thom (Infernal Methods)

Fair by Martin Thom (Infernal Methods)

The poem that Shelley wrote on the occasion of the 1819 massacre in Manchester was titled ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ and that very word conjures up a world of deceit as though politicians, like Prufrock, prepare a face to meet the faces that they meet. In Shelley’s poem the poet meets “Murder on the way –” and he had a “mask like Castlereagh”:

“Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds flowed him”

Sidmouth, Home Secretary at the time of the Peterloo Massacre, appears

“Clothed with the Bible, as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth, next, Hypocrisy
On a crocodile rode by.”

In this recently published chapbook poem we meet Sir Michael Fallon, Liam Fox and Amber Rudd.
Martin Thom’s long-term interest in Shelley is evident when we look at the front page of the fourth issue of the magazine he edited, Turpin:

“We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest. The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of men over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world… (‘A Defence of Poetry’)

And that evidence is there now in this recent publication from the Press whose name is taken from the poetry of William Blake. In this whirling explosion of outrage where the “Strict licensing of ordinance” is swiftly followed by the “margin of collateral” and “Harm to school or hospital” is delivered “In a hell-sent British shell” Thom’s eloquence of anger is revitalising.

“Eldon, Sidmouth, Castlereagh
Are in the stocks that Shelley made
And in the cuts that Cruikshank drew
Rotten fruit that outrage threw
Turn to emblems on the page.”

In the political world of Martin Thom’s poem the “devil dust” of modern warfare brings “mayhem to the mortal screen” and “infant hope, pale despair / In a second are not there”. The poem itself was drafted in the late summer of 2017 as preparations for the DSEI Arms Fair were under way at ExCel London, in London Docklands. Perhaps the nearest we have had recently to this bitter outburst of indignation about war was Tony Harrison’s A Cold Coming, Gulf War Poems published by Bloodaxe in 1991 and then, of course J.H. Prynne’s 2004 Refuse Collection where in the “curving / mirror of enlarged depravity daily and abhorrent a / comfort of disgust adjusted to market slippage”.

Ian Brinton, 6th August 2018

Infernal Methods: 1a Lupton Street, London NW5 2JA

The Making Of A Story by Anthony Barnett (Allardyce Book ABP)

The Making Of A Story by Anthony Barnett (Allardyce Book ABP)

One of the things which I have admired about the poetry of Anthony Barnett, and this has been true now for many years, is his ability to adopt different perspectives. We are presented time and again with a quality of diffracted light as words bend around the corners of a subject or aperture. A typical example for me occurs on page 197 of the collected poems which appeared in 2012, Poems & (Tears in the Fence in association with Allardyce Book ABP):

“I turn away from you
whom I no longer know.

I turn towards you
whom I do not know.

We were gentle.

You were one and the same.”

The present and the past, the self and the other, are caught as in a painting by Duchamp. This new publication consists of prose fragments and poems arising from the search for an unknown woman who appears in a video clip. It has an air of mystery such as that which haunts Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy and it
recalls the words of Ortega y Gasset in his 1984 book Historical Reason:

“At another time we shall see that, while astronomy for example is not a part of the stellar bodies it researches and discovers, the peculiar vital wisdom we call life experience is an essential part of life itself, constituting one of its principal components or factors. It is this wisdom that makes a second love necessarily different from a first one, because the first love is already there and one carries it rolled up within. So if we resort to the image, universal and ancient as you will see, that portrays life as a road to be traveled and traveled again …we could say that in walking along the road of life we keep it with us, know it; that is the road already traveled curls up behind us, rolls up like a film. So that when he comes to the end, man discovers that he carries, stuck there on his back, the entire roll of the life he led.”

The first of three epigraphs which front this new volume from Anthony Barnett’s highly professional and invariably attractive small Press, Allardyce Book, is a quotation from Isak Dinesen which offers an intriguing stance from which to contemplate the nature of story-telling:

“The happy man comforted me and begged me not to take a story too much to heart.”

Barnett’s narrator is not a “happy man” but he is one who seeks, one whose restless mind plays backwards and forwards over past and present images and whose opening statement emphasizes this spirit of enquiry:

“IT HAS BEEN SAID THAT THE ONE WHO LOVES YOU IS NOT THE one who sees you every day but the one who looks for you every day. I wonder if you agree. It is possible to see and to look at the same time.”

The Making of a Story is of course about story-telling and as the pages unroll it is one which one wishes very much to take to heart whether or not this excludes one from being classified as “happy”! When I read it I was immediately put in mind of a little piece by John Berger published over thirty years ago in Granta. Berger was contemplating the portrait of Aesop painted by Velásquez and this led him to reflect upon the importance of story-telling:

“Indirectly, Aesop’s eyes tell a lot about story-telling. Their expression is reflective. Everything he has seen contributes to his sense of the enigma of life: for this enigma he finds partial answers – each story he tells is one – yet each answer, each story, uncovers another question, and so he is continually failing and this failure maintains his curiosity. Without mystery, without curiosity and without the form imposed by a partial answer, there can be no stories – only confessions, communiqués, memories and fragments of autobiographical fantasy which for the moment pass as novels.”

Anthony Barnett’s work keeps asking questions, keeps peering at different perspectives, and this lends to it a deeply moving restlessness which one can go back to time and time again. The narrator may express “anxiety for what is gone” but he moves forward “to make poetry out of the world”.

This is a deeply serious book which needs to be read by anyone who wishes to come to an understanding of who they are in relation to the world around them.

Ian Brinton, 30th July 2018

http://www.abar.net

A White Year by Anna Lewis (Maquette Press)

A White Year by Anna Lewis (Maquette Press)

As the blurb on the back cover of this important small collection of poems tells us, the chapbook follows a year in the life of one young inhabitant of a Late Iron Age lake village at Glastonbury. In a world not entirely dissimilar to that explored by Emmanuel Le Roi Ladurie in his monumental recreation of the life of the Cathars in the area of South West France, Montaillou, Anna Lewis has based her poems on excavation reports especially those of the nineteenth-century local archaeologist, Arthur Bulleid.
The sixteen-page poem is divided into four sections and it focuses upon the ending of a way of life as the tribe is compelled to move away in reaction to a shift in climate conditions. This is not an angry or ecologically strident tale which we are being told; it is a convincingly aware reaction to changes in the outside world. It is a migrant’s tale:

“Raindrops collect like blossom on the boughs,
hang in the light an hour, and fall. By now
the grass should be dry to the root,

ants raising forts beside the paths;
as it is, rain flays the tender shoots,
the stone tracks sink into the marsh.”

There is a visual simplicity to this awareness of things not being right. The comparison between rain and blossom dangles a sense of future before us but the underlying menace cannot be ignored as the “By now” ends a line and the awareness of time lost is emphasized by what seems to be enormous distance. After all, the grass should by this time “be dry to the root”: there, after all, would be security and repetition for a future. The invasion of flood is registered by the ants “raising” what can only in effect be a temporary rearguard action, “forts beside the paths”. More disturbingly, the stone tracks sink into the marsh.
How is truth registered? In a world before the internet one could presumably only wait for news and in this sharply conceived realization of village life news is dependent upon the relied-upon return of the traveler.

“The boats are days late, with no word
from the men. When, behind our mother’s back
dark prints surge across the flags,

her face turns grey-white as the morning sky”

I take the dark prints to suggest the seeping dampness of water that is coming in and the use of the term for writing (“prints”) has an ominous feel of that which might have appeared from nowhere upon a wall during a feast.
The narrative which threads its way through this momentous year of change is firmly linked to the narrator’s small sister and the rain which is going to change for ever a way of life finds its counterpart in the “cloud” which “gathered weight inside her lungs”

“and as the brushwood shifted on the mere,
she sank from us.”

As populations move in response to environmental change they leave behind those traces that are unearthed by later excavations. In this case, as the information on the cover tells us, “One of the more enigmatic finds from the site was a lump of strange ‘bread’ consisting of un-broken wheat grains bound with a mysterious substance, possibly honey.”

“An exceptionally fine sheet bronze bowl was recovered from outside the palisade, where it had been discarded, or perhaps placed deliberately: the deposition of material into both wet and dry locations was a common Iron Age votive practice.”

As the sequence of poems ends the reader is left like the narrator:

“I sit quiet in the moss,
watch rain widen on the lake”

The lack of a final full-stop leaves us contemplating the migrant’s future. This is a terrific poem for these times and I suggest that if there any of the 100 copies left that were published towards the end of last year as Maquette # 8 then you could do no better than to get hold of one. The sequence makes a very fine complement to the Comma Press Refugee Tales.

Maquette Press,
7 Grove Terrace,
Teignmouth,
Devon
TQ14 9HT

I am pleased to be able to leave this little review as my last word before taking off for two weeks in Skiathos!

Ian Brinton, 9th July, 2018

Cold Calling (Equipage), World Frequency (Magpie Moon) by Nick Totton

Cold Calling (Equipage), World Frequency (Magpie Moon) by Nick Totton

New collections by Nick Totton are a delight and when he sent me these two a couple of months ago they were accompanied by a note that said “I thought you would like to see these fruits of my poetic renaissance. You wait for years and two come along at once…”
This image of movement and recurrence is central to Totton’s poetry and in a review of the 1976 Many Press collection, A Talisman, Bill Bennett had written in Perfect Bound 2:

“The function of the stars in ‘A Talisman’: so many of the poems ending on an edge, break or shift into another element. The stars bound the digestive tract of the poem’s working, a greasy infinity that adapts its own definitions, ‘the dream swallows me / and I am fed by it, star-milk, star- / breath’. Whether or not that space they offer is release, having freed the tongue to abdicate from it, a slackness of the jaw.”

Bennett continued to suggest that the very reticence of our utterance is the catch, and slowly, in these poems, “we can see a direct statement shaping itself, the alibis accounted for, and leaving a knowledge of possible direction coiled back on itself, a whip at rest”. Totton had worked with Ian Patterson and Martin Thom in a 1977 Cambridge publication, More Follows and then again in 1979 for a Curiously Strong publication Love Laughs at Locksmiths. It is now no surprise to read his recent opening poem to cold calling, ‘A Real Eye Opener’ being for Ian Patterson:

“Returned to the present by hand, solitude comes to play
in the immense game of air
where no pale architecture
makes a desiring rupture, where no
one’s waiting limousines
leave a silver hint at the transfer threshold.”

The Lacanian act of projection forward being at once an act of drawing back reminds us of the Moebius strip, to the topology of which Lacan devoted a good deal of thought:

“I am what I will have been for what I am in the process of becoming.”

In the words of the poet Michael Grant, retired lecturer in English at Kent University, the importance of whose work is being celebrated in a forthcoming festschrift Saluting Steadiness, “In Lacan’s view, it is this temporality of the future anterior that engenders, and is engendered by, the retroactive temporality of the speech act itself, of language in its taking place.” In the words of Nick Totton, poet whose work found a natural resting-place in the Carcanet anthology A Various Art

“What pierced name hangs reversed in startled air?
The bell is out of order but the drill
went smoothly through to the meat of it;
like slipping on the soap we are flung
into the future, where everything
happens twice.”

These are fascinating poems and their debts are fully acknowledged. ‘Drone Congregation’ is written for JH Prynne and it opens with a quotation from Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary: “DREAM…From the same root as drone and drum”. The opening lines of the poem themselves echo the cadences of Prynne’s work:

“Mating occurs in flight: to compress the kill chain
with great speed and force into her opened sting chamber,
a sweet target defined by environmental cues
clustering at predetermined frequencies” [.]

On the closing page of World Frequency (and note that reference to the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit of time) we are told that the title was originally a mistyping of Word Frequency Niand that most of the poems are “a mosaic of elements from different sources, conscious and unconscious; but a few are derived each from a single source, certain words and phrases being selected and used unchanged, always in the original order and with nothing added”. Poems are “sawn up history / being able to not maintain a stable plateau / ramping up cracked / fractions, acting almost normal against / a backdrop of shiny ice”.

Some of these poems from both collections have appeared in Tears in the Fence and in SNOW. Now they are collected together we are able to note what has become clear:

“a continuous undertow of matterings”

Ian Brinton, 5th July 2018

The Distal Point by Fiona Moore (HappenStance Press)

The Distal Point by Fiona Moore (HappenStance Press)

Reading the title poem of this debut collection I am tempted to think of Yeats’s gyres, those cones which he imagined as interpenetrating and whirling around inside one another.

“We stand at the point of greatest change—
the distal point, a shingle spit
at the end of the longshore drift.
Here the waves curve
and spill, lacing each other,
forming a landscape that moves
leached of colour.”

There is an eerie sense of threat in that last line with “leached” bringing to mind a world of infertility after so many chemical substances have been removed through intensive farming. The eye may be focussed upon the sea but the use of the word “landscape” suggests more than just a visual note about wave movement: poetic image is merged with futuristic nightmare and we are presented with a world that echoes the closing images of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine:

“The sea stretched away to the southwest, to rise into a sharp bright horizon against the wan sky. There were no breakers and no waves, for not a breath of wind was stirring. Only a slight oily swell rose and fell like a gentle breathing, and showed that the eternal sea was still moving and living.”

The second stanza of Fiona Moore’s poem opens with mystery:

“No-one who stands here
can see down the length
of the wind’s fetch
and only the gulls measure
the shape of the swell
as they swing high
on the full, low in the swale”

A feeling of isolation is brought to mind by the opening word and then strengthened in the second line by the eye’s movement “down the length” before finding further desolation with the open sound of “wind’s fetch”. The steady build-up of menace is then emphasised by placing the word “only” in relation to the gulls measuring that mathematical distance and we are confronted with a glimpse of what their birds’ eye view might hold: “the shape of the swell”. The concluding stanza confirms us in the feeling of isolation:

“and no-one has stood here before
where each accretion of ground
becomes an erosion
from the diagonal swash
and straight backwash,
the waves’ refraction and landfall.
No-one will stand here again.”

The negative of “no-one” takes on a positive presence with that opening line and if there is any hope to be preserved at this distal point it is that another “No-one will stand here again.”
Fiona Moore’s convincing understanding of the power of immediacy can be felt in both ‘Taking Visitors to Auschwitz’ and ‘After Five Years’. In the former she opens with a clarity of statement which seems to offer superficial realisation but which acts as a mask for much deeper moral understanding:

“It’s here
except it’s not.
This could be anywhere or on the edges of.
That car’s parked askew
and sparrows forage on the tarmac
while people pose each other at the entrance.”

We are in the world of course of Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ or ‘The Shield of Achilles’: suffering takes place “While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking / dully along”. Auden wrote of the ordinariness of torture and the infliction of pain:

“Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot”

In Moore’s world “Coaches drop off groups / and pick them up again”; but she moves one step further on than Auden. Whereas the earlier poet had offered us that mundanity of pain she concludes with a prompting nudge of responsibility:

“This could be anywhere or on the edges of

except it’s not,
it’s here.”

And this is one of the most powerful things about this remarkably confident first volume of poems: its understanding of the present. In ‘After Five Years’ Moore creates for us a returnee:

“You’ll carry in strange dust on your feet
if you come back now: from as far away
as this thought, out of the first twilight
long enough to feel like spring.

Orbiter of legend and distant stars…”

This is no space voyager returning to earth but a personally-known traveller whose absence has been felt. The returned traveller will be compelled to recognise what has changed in those five years of absence and will become “dazed” by both what is new and what has stayed the same. There will be a “perfection of circumstance”.
This is a debut volume of poems which stops the reader in their tracks: buy it, read it, and then read it again.

Ian Brinton 30th June 2018

Melancholy Occurrence by John Seed (Shearsman Books)

Melancholy Occurrence by John Seed (Shearsman Books)

“body partly on the
pavement partly on the road blood
streaming from the back of his head

Cornelius Grinnell of New York
owner of the steam yacht Hawk
lodging at the Royal Victoria Yacht Club

on Pier Street in Ryde
returning to his rooms after midnight
drew up the Venetian blinds

opened the window and stepped out
onto a balcony that wasn’t there
and disappeared”

John Seed opens his new book of poetic vignettes, his windows into another world, with the clear assertion that they are appropriated from mostly nineteenth-century English newspapers or inquest reports and rewritten. As Julian Barnes reminded us some years ago History isn’t what happened it’s what historians tell us happened and when contemplating the enormous canvas of Gericault’s ‘Le Radeau de la Méduse’ in the Louvre he enquired “How do you turn catastrophe into art?” John Seed’s “rewritten” transforms these pieces of news into what could be the frame for the nouveau roman or, more closely perhaps, le nouveau conte. The margin between historical reconstruction and the world of fiction was tested in 1979 by Milan Kundera in the opening four paragraphs of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

“In February 1948, Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to address the hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens packed into Old Town Square. It was a crucial moment in Czech history—a fateful moment of the kind that occurs once or twice in a millennium.
Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing next to him. There were snow flurries, it was cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. The solicitious Clementis took off his own fur cap and set it on Gottwald’s head.
The Party propaganda section put out hundreds of thousands of copies of a photograph of that balcony with Gottwald, a fur cap on his head and comrades at his side, speaking to the nation. On that balcony the history of Communist Czechoslovakia was born. Every child knew the photograph from posters, schoolbooks, and museums.
Four years later Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of history and, obviously, out of all the photographs as well. Ever since, Gottwald has stood on that balcony alone. Where Clementis once stood, there is only bare palace wall. All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald’s head.”

The famous photograph was taken on February 21st 1948 and when Vladimir Clementis was executed in 1952 he was indeed erased from the photograph. But it acts as the opening scene for a novel which Salman Rushdie referred to as being full of angels, terror, ostriches and love!
John Seed’s glimpses and glimmerings taken from those nineteenth-century newspapers raise the curtain upon a moment of dramatic intensity. In the poem I quoted at the beginning we are confronted with a conclusion: a body, partly on the road and partly on the pavement. The opening word offers us no description but its bald assertion makes it clear that this is a dead person and the most immediate cause of death may well be the blood that is “streaming” from the head. We are then taken back in time to discover the name of the dead person, his place of origin, his possession of a steam yacht and the place at which he was residing. The deft artistic quality of this little picture is then caught in the last stanza as we are invited into the room from which he fell. We are caught between the historical fact of him stepping out of the window and the immediate awareness of the moment of realisation that is followed by the fall to his death: historical information has taken on a moment of individual and personal vividness. This is very powerful writing indeed.
On the back cover of this remarkable collection of poems there is a quotation from Empire of Signs by Roland Barthes:

“The haiku’s task is to achieve exemption from meaning within a perfectly readerly discourse (a contradiction denied to Western art, which can contest meaning only by rendering its discourse incomprehensible”.

Haiku resists interpretation: it is intelligible and means nothing. Robert Duncan was haunted by this sense of what lurks behind meaning, what he referred to as a “ground of man’s imaginations”, and recalled sitting with his sister, “my mother between us”, looking at pictures as he was read to. The picture that stayed with him was of three young men sleeping on a mat one of whom was Bashō, the seventeenth-century Japanese writer of Haiku who had just woken up: the seventeen syllables of a frog jumping into an ancient pond reverberates down the years. It doesn’t mean anything but it is! And so, on Sunday 26th December 1820 in “French-alley Goswell-street” a watchman going his rounds and calling out the hour of one

“discovered a new-born infant
lying in a corner entirely naked
a few old rags around his head”

Ian Brinton 24th June 2018

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