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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

Manifestos by Vicente Huidobro Translated by Tony Frazer (Shearsman Books)

Manifestos by Vicente Huidobro Translated by Tony Frazer (Shearsman Books)

The 1910s and 1920s were the Golden Age of artistic manifestos. Surrealists, Suprematists, Ultraists, Unanimists, Vorticists, Dadaists, Futurists: you gathered a group, you selected a name, you started a magazine, you adopted a café or established a salon, and you published a manifesto. Or in many cases, numerous manifestos as you refined your aesthetics and politics, and responded to critics. The manifesto was a recruitment prospectus and a marketing tool. It was also a kind of genre in its own right, where, as a poet, you could show off your aptitude for startling collocation or paradox and display your commitment to daring and modernity.
Chilean poet Huidobro had already produced an Ars Poetica before his arrival in Paris in 1916:

Por qué cantáis a la rosa, ¡oh, Poetas!
Hacedla florecer en el poema:
(Why sing about the rose, poets? Make it bloom in the poem.)

Another fronts his Saisons Choisies in 1921 (he wrote in both French and Spanish). This book, four years later, is a refining and responding one. It surveys the opposition. Cocteau is worthless. Soupault ‘must be excommunicated’. Futurism is simply out-of-date: singing about war and athletes is older than Pindar, and singing about aeroplanes doesn’t make you futuristic if you do it in old-fashioned ways. Surrealism’s advocacy of automatic writing, madness and dreams makes for poor poetry and besides, jettisoning reason is impossible. On the other hand, Huidobro shares the Surrealist opposition to realism, and approves much of the poetry quoted in André Breton’s 1924 manifesto. He largely agrees with them that successful imagery is about ‘the bringing together of two distant realities’, while claiming the idea is not new.

Clearly Huidobro’s Creationism is a cousin of Surrealism. Great poems arise from the poet’s délire (euphoria) and superconscience (superconsciousness). They involve l’inhabituel (the unfamiliar), ‘humanising things’ and making the abstract concrete and the concrete abstract. Nothing must be anecdotal or descriptive, but everything should be newly created, like l’oiseau niché sur l’arc-en-ciel (the bird nestled on the rainbow). Or horizon carré (square horizon). And, of course, such work can only be produced by les gens d’un esprit vraiment supérieur (people of a really superior mind), for le poète est un moteur de haute fréquence spirituelle (the poet is an engine of high spiritual frequency). This last, rather futurist, image is rhetorically dramatic but evidently unfalsifiable as argument. It illustrates a common weakness of manifestos, whose polemical cast often entails appeals to science and philosophy while betraying that their writers are experts in neither sphere.

Despite his upper-class super-confidence (or arrogance), Huidobro’s repetitive ‘I’s and insistent name-dropping (Apollinaire, Picasso, Gris) expose a certain plaintiveness. No-one’s paying enough attention. He’s obliged to be his own critic, quoting, explaining and praising his own poems. Creationism ultimately became an art-historical also-ran and Huidobro returned to Latin America. Nowadays he’s well-known there but often overlooked in Anglophone surveys of the modernist ferment, so it’s great to see his works reappearing. This one is in a useful parallel-text edition with a contextualising introduction and makes for a fascinating read.

Guy Russell 12th August 2020

We Were Not There by Jordi Doce Translated by Lawrence Schimel (Shearsman Books)

We Were Not There by Jordi Doce Translated by Lawrence Schimel (Shearsman Books)

When Jordi Doce considered the poems of Charles Tomlinson for an Agenda International Issue some twenty-five years ago he noted the voice behind the poems as being ‘wholly unique in its ambition’ before going on to say that the English poet’s ambition and ability was ‘to match and express preoccupations which have remained largely consistent through the years, always expanding and expounding themselves through the workings of an alert, intelligent mind.’ Let me be bold enough to say that similar words may be used about the Spanish poet who wrote that and suggest that his volume We Were Not There, published last year by Shearsman Books , plots an ambitious journey of discovery in which we are challenged to examine not only our changing world but also those senses ‘the air interrogated questioned by a blank page’ (‘Guest’).

The blank page offers an invitation to the writer to pursue a horizon of discovery as in ‘Exploration’:

‘To go there where no one has ever been.
The place of all places, they said.
A fire burned me from within and there was no respite.
Wastelands, wandering clouds, some trees.
I kept on traveling toward my own borders.’

As William Blake’s Infernal Proverb had put it ‘No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings’ and to travel towards one’s own borders suggests a journey that has no predetermined conclusion. Journeys begin with the opening of doors but anticipation is more like an imaginative fiction, a glance through the glass, and as Louis Zukofsky put it ‘To see is to inform all speech’. Doce’s ‘Fiction’ opens with sight:

‘I didn’t want to open the door
nor for it to open before me:

the keyhole was all I needed
to pass through to the other side

and see the house where time
was buzzing in the kitchen

and we heard, in the distance,
the sea’s obstinacy,

the obedient crunch of the sand –’

One of the most striking elements of this collection of poems is that feeling of collaborative concern, that awareness of commonality, the record of experiences that permits us to recognise our common humanity. Doce brings into focus ‘Then’, that awareness that ‘When the world became the world / the light shone like always / upon an indifferent clock’. That world possessed an air that ‘was full of beginnings’:

‘and a thousand times in a thousand different streets
someone tripped on a stone
and this stone opened their eyes;
it was the moment we all waited for
to make the same decisions,
to again kiss the same ground,
to say the goodbyes of the day before;
and that beloved everyday face
that pretended to listen
or invited a distracted caress
once again pulled away too soon.’

Writing about Tomlinson, Jordi Doce quoted the English poet as explaining in an interview with a Spanish newspaper that ‘Europe has been built by its poets, and not by its politicians. Homer, Dante, Rilke have done more for Europe than all bureaucratic dispositions and governments.’ It seems entirely appropriate that Doce’s own ‘Una página, un jardin’ (‘A Page, A Garden’) should have as epigraph Tomlinson’s own lines:

‘A sudden blossoming of each character,
Of living letters, sprung from nowhere…’

The movement from Spanish to French in the title of Doce’s poem is given gentle force as we then read that ‘You step upon the humble tiles / and another floor gives way, neither here nor there, between two worlds that intermingle / at the tips of the toes.’

It is those toe-tips that set out on the journey in a manner not dissimilar to the way a pen’s mark on a page commences a new determination and Doce’s use of an extract from Goethe’s Diaries as an epigraph to his volume alerts the reader to the connections between movement and stillness: in a world of restricted journeying we are NOW and in a world of LOCK-DOWN we are aware of liberty:

‘Now that half of my life has passed I find that I have made but little progress, and I stand here like one who has barely escaped drowning and who is drying himself in the grateful rays of the sun’
J.W. Goethe, 1779

Ian Brinton 18th July 2020

Happenstance by Duncan MacKay (Muscaliet Press)

Happenstance by Duncan MacKay (Muscaliet Press)

In writing about Eleanor Perry’s ‘Pataquerical Imagination’ in issue 70 of Tears in the Fence last autumn Duncan MacKay suggested that close reading and close listening ‘function in tandem’ and that they are indeed the ‘two complementary poles of our experiential poetic whole’. That wholeness of response rings out of the pages of Muscaliet Press’s new selection of MacKay’s poems, Happenstance, and as we read the poem ‘HER WORDS HIS’ we recognise a quality of poetic response to ‘displacements of faulty memory’ where ‘in transposition we refigure the word’. In terms of that refiguring it is interesting to note how MacKay’s interest in the poetics of J.H. Prynne had led him to quote from an interview given in 2011 in which the Cambridge poet spoke of the difficulties of translating his own work at the time of the publication of a bilingual English-Chinese edition of his selected poems. MacKay’s quotation comes from his article on Prynne’s Kazoo Dreamboats which appeared in Tears 65. Prynne had suggested that for the English Poetry Studies Institute in Guangzhou there might be some focus upon how to translate the words of the poems, ‘their activity of language, rather than to resolve what might seem to be the question of meaning and then to render the meaning of the resulting interpretation’. MacKay’s interest in Prynne’s poetry might also be detected in his own earlier collection of poems, Briefly Speaking (Blurb, March 2015) where in ‘A Poetry of Logical Ideas’

‘All now seemed
possible, making
connections, rather than
a stop
& start, but by
putting a twist
in &
letting go.’

In Happenstance there is a careful precision of language and it comes as no surprise that one poem should bear an epigraph from Leo Tolstoy: ‘It’s in the linkages’. ‘HER WORDS HIS’ is the poem preceding this reference and the echoes and melodies in it are worth pausing for:

‘Few we are & fall from each other’

The hint of loss in that word ‘fall’ is partly to do with the source of the phrase in Thomas Nashe’s ‘Litany in Time of Plague’ where ‘Brightness falls from the air’ but is also heard in the shift of vowels from ‘few’ to ‘fall’: a sound which precedes a hint of the loss of social being with the inclusion of the last three words. That opening line is followed by an indented phrase the appearance of which on the page defines its own visible presence:

‘dust on the shelf as dust’

Dust is not only a word associated with the permanence of loss as in a funeral service but remains as a reminder of what is produced in stillness and this quiet emphasis is taken up in the third line

‘among the self-effacing typed scraps photos black & white’

And this world of visual re-creation, like tears shed by Leontes at a tomb’s side, echoes again that late play by Shakespeare in which ‘who that was lost is now found’. MacKay’s interest in A Winter’s Tale is here an echo of the poem of that title which appeared towards the close of the earlier volume of poems where

‘As time drew on as I do
of each the light of stars
as rain of snow, those moments
just but always turning as of words’ [.]

Happenstance is a beautifully produced volume which I urge readers to buy and it is worth bearing in mind the words used by Robert Hampson on the inside cover:

‘A sustained exploration of writing as an enactment of cognition; perception through the materiality of language.’

The phrase used here anticipates MacKay’s forthcoming book on George Oppen’s poetry which will appear from Liverpool University Press. Oppen like Prynne is a figure in the shadowed background of Happenstance and ‘George & Mary answered for one another’ finishing sentences ‘the other had begun’ before occasionally speaking ‘the same words in unison’.

Ian Brinton 15th July 2020

Shop Talk: Poems for Shop Workers by Tanner (Penniless Press)

Shop Talk: Poems for Shop Workers by Tanner (Penniless Press)

Since the mid-2000s, Tanner (the ‘Paul’ was dropped in about 2009) has been publishing interesting, distinctive work in The Crazy Oik, Monkey Kettle, Penniless Press, Pulsar, The Recusant and elsewhere, as well as satirical cartoons and a novel. The earlier collections include graphics and prose heavy on bodily fluids and youthful opinion, but among them are poems that shine in their energy, wit and fast-paced depictions of bus-stop-level life ‘in the autumn of our country’ in Birkenhead and Preston. This latest collection has identified the strongest stuff and honed it well. The settings are a series of supermarkets and minimarkets, and the perspective is of a low-paid shelf-stacker/ till-attendant. The management are a pain,

they’d keep you behind, unpaid
for 15 minutes a night
just because they could,

but the customers are far worse. They queue-jump, moan, spit, make personal comments, demand unreasonable discounts or refunds, and are consistently abusive and occasionally violent. Their kids, meanwhile, trash the store. The shopworker gets riled, and can’t resist reacting with demurral, wisecracks or mere candour, and after comic and sometimes hair-raising escalations, ends up being warned, sacked or even assaulted ‒ or simply walks out. The pattern repeats with variations in the manner of a comic-strip or sitcom series: he’s back on the dole, then into another dead-end job, and up comes another snotty punter… The poems themselves set up each drama and conflict fast. Their line-breaks and cadences are functionally perfect. They zip along, low on pretension, fuss and adjective count:

She told me
her and her daughter
were going to wait outside the shop
after closing
and stab me

she even showed me the knife:

More impressive still, they build cumulatively into a disquieting picture of what post-community consumerism is doing to our sense of decent behaviour. Tanner’s particular focus is what it does to the poorest, who can treat shopworkers as one of the few groups they can successfully bully. And how, in turn, the resentment of such workers towards the non-working plays into the hands of the Right. Tanner’s character isn’t going to join a union, take up an Open University course, turn to crime or even go into a different line of work. Shop experience is all he has – along with (less commonly) the compensation of writing:

I could have told him
he was going the right way about
ending up in a poem

and the possibility of even that let-out veering, via the Orwellian, towards the traditions of Knut Hamsun and Céline. (The last poem, consolingly, does suggest a nascent solidarity.) At any rate, with both narrator and creator now well into their thirties, the comedy, I imagine, will continue getting wryer and bleaker:

they tell me
none of us is immortal
but sometimes working in retail
feels life-threateningly close to it.

The book’s back cover quotes fake reviewers carping about it in the same petulant, bad-tempered manner as the supermarket shoppers. Not this one, though: who thinks it’s a fresh, original, eye-opening and powerfully written collection; who’s a very happy customer.

Guy Russell 6th July 2020

This Small Patch by Tom Kelly (Red Squirrel Press)

This Small Patch by Tom Kelly (Red Squirrel Press)

Born in Jarrow, working at sixteen in the Merchant Dry Dock and still living not far away, Tom Kelly has been producing plays, music and film lyrics, short stories and poems for over thirty years in his native North-East. His lifetime’s knowledge of his locality continues, as the title here signals, to be his major source of subject-matter. This collection ‒ his eighth from Red Squirrel in the last twelve years, not forgetting earlier ones from KT, Here Now, Smokestack, and (long ago) Tears in the Fence ‒ also contains song lyrics, speeches from the 1930s Jarrow Crusade, and explanatory prose commentaries. The lyrics lose something on their own, as lyrics generally do, but it’s worth checking the Men of the Tyne songs on the CD, and the documentary on YouTube, where they come into glorious full effect. Of the poems, there’s none here as brilliant as the earlier, savage ‘The Wrong Jarrow’ and no line as arresting as ‘‘No’ is the password, stamped on their hopes’ with its terrific repurposing of ‘password’. Nonetheless the majority preserve a solid style and feel across time: the present historic, the asyndeton, the low-key language and deferred epiphany. Sometimes Kelly’s poems appear to stop before they’ve got going. Sometimes they feel like notes. Moments of pure lyricism are sparse, like moments of joy:

The film’s something celestial
fallen into our laps,

More often, ‘fine phrasing’ gets cut with grim bathos:

Tears hold their own in the corners of her eyes
wishing they could be used in the pawn shop.

Admittedly, it’s not the most rewarding style if you’re in search of linguistic fireworks and metatextual car-chases. Other writers identifying with the skilled working class ‒ Tony Harrison or Andy Croft, say ‒ forge arabesques of wordplay alongside precise rhyming in difficult formalisms to enact toil and struggle and craftsmanship. But perhaps Kelly’s offers an equally authentic way to approach the mental universes of these industrial lives of outward good-fellowship but constricted emotional display, whose laconic narrators resist at all costs the flashy, long-worded or bombastic, and retreat into collocation or summary at the moment of truth:

There’s just a great gap of love
you endured
and my gaping wound.

Certainly, the poems sent me away to investigate Tyneside history: from Bede, whose monastery was in Jarrow, through England’s last gibbeting, the abrupt end of shipbuilding in 1933 and the unspeakable deprivation that led to the march to London; the post-war recovery, and then the early-Eighties destruction. All of these are touched upon and intermixed with family histories and 1950s childhood memories in a nice counterpointing of the social and personal. The concluding section returns to the present, memorialising the decline of Working Men’s Clubs – a topic entirely new to poetry? – alongside family elegies and scary portrayals of the erosion of personal memory. The overall effect, though, remains uplifting: this is poetry as archaeology and conservation, an exegi monumentum not to the poet himself but to the community he’s part of, and all the better for that.

Guy Russell 2nd July 2020

Bitter Grass by Gëzim Hajdari Translated by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

Bitter Grass by Gëzim Hajdari Translated by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

When in 1970 Isaiah Berlin delivered his Romanes Lecture on the subject of the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev he emphasised the writer’s refusal to be drawn into the world of politics:

‘Nature, personal relationships, quality of feeling – these are what he understood best, these, and their expression in art…The conscious use of art for ends extraneous to itself, ideological, didactic, or utilitarian, and especially as a deliberate weapon in the class war, as demanded by the radicals of the sixties, was detestable to him.’

Six years after Berlin had delivered his talk the young Albanian poet Gëzim Hajdari was in his last year at high school and completing his volume of poems Bitter Grass. It was not permitted to be published by the government publication house in Tirana on account of it being a text that failed to deal with the theme of the socialist village and the censor wrote that

‘…the hero of the poems is a solitary person who flees from his contemporaries, from the Youth Association, from reality; moreover, the transformations that socialism has brought to the countryside under the guidance of the Party are entirely absent…’

One might be tempted to here to catch an undertone, an echo, of Bakunin or of Bazarov, the fiercely dogmatic anarchist of Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons. The language is very different from what Ian Seed recognises as a main characteristic of these early poems in which he discovers ‘a compressed lyricism, a blurring of the boundaries between a geographical landscape and a visionary dreamscape, the merging of the physical with the spiritual’. Recalling what John Ashbery wrote about Ian Seed’s own poetry it seems entirely appropriate that the Albanian refugee who fled to Italy in 1992 should have found a translator of such distinction. Ashbery had recognised Seed’s ability to re-create the ‘mystery and sadness of empty rooms, chance encounters in the street’ and ‘trains travelling through a landscape of snow’ which become ‘magical’. The metamorphic lyrical power to be found in Seed’s translation of one of Hajdari’s poems concerning the fleeting nature of reality is a case in point:

‘Perhaps tomorrow I won’t be
in these whitened fields.
Like an early morning cloud
my face will disappear.

My voice will be lost
with everyday memories,
hopes and dreams
orphaned in the woods.

Still hanging by the river
names and shadows will remain,
the one who obsessed me
dust and ash.

A hawthorn will grow
above the corpse,
my secret kept
under tender grass.

The days of May will come
with gorse and sunshine.
The nightingale and cuckoo
will be the first to sing.’

The movement of time is caught hauntingly here as the word ‘whitened’, associated perhaps with the newness of a morning, is placed against the constant shift of clouds which becomes associated in the poet’s mind with his own transience. The sense of the lost child, whose ‘hopes and dreams’ dissolve in the rejection he feels as an orphan in the woods, links the poem to what Ian Seed recognises as reminiscent of the opening canto of Dante’s Inferno where the poet finds himself lost in ‘una selva oscura’. In Hajdari’s world beyond the ‘dust and ash’ of death there are echoes which still hang in the air, a musical quality that lingers, and the lyric itself seems to take on its concrete form in the print on the page in a manner not dissimilar to the growth of the hawthorn. The physical presence of the poem suggests a shadow of awareness of a future reader and in another spring there will be a return of both the harbingers of distance and of love, the cuckoo and the nightingale.
In Ian Seed’s own ‘Composition 2’ from Shifting Registers (Shearsman Books, 2011) ‘Your face dissolves when you drop / a coin into the fountain’ and ‘The scene / may sparkle but you feel // the pull of its undertow’. In these translations from the Italian of the Balkan poet Gëzim Hajdari Ian Seed offers us a convincing sense of that pull of poetry’s undertow: a convincing refutation of Turgenev’s anarchist Bazarov who in 1862 had rejected everything that could not be established by the rational methods of natural science. One can only wonder what Turgenev would have made of the censor from Tirana!

Ian Brinton 29th June 2020

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