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The Collected Letters of Charles Olson & J.H. Prynne Edited by Ryan Dobran University of New Mexico Press

The Collected Letters of Charles Olson & J.H. Prynne Edited by Ryan Dobran University of New Mexico Press

As if echoing agreement with the British poet’s injunction from the 1983 sequence The Oval Window (“In darkness by day we must press on”) the clear and helpful introduction by Ryan Dobran to this long-awaited publication of a major correspondence is already a shade out of date!

“Prynne’s private collection of correspondence and manuscripts is scarcely known at all, and does not yet exist as an archive available to a scholarly public, although several letters to others besides Olson have been published in small magazines such as The English Intelligencer, Grosseteste Review, Parataxis and Quid.”

Well, the University Library in Cambridge does now hold the entire Prynne archive and work is already under way to have it catalogued and made available for research.
That said, in terms of the whole process of permitting the public to see Jeremy Prynne’s enormous output of papers and correspondence, drafts and teaching notes from the late 1950s to the very present this new publication of the Olson/Prynne letters will stand as a remarkably effective foundation stone. Dobran writes with modesty about his intention “to produce a readable book” and he has succeeded in this aim beyond all doubt. With an interest alerted by the introduction one can trace through the remarkable sequence of letters and recognise the importance of their argument in terms of what was happening in post-WW2 British poetry:

“Often loosely assembled via Eric Mottram’s term the ‘British Poetry Revival’, Prynne and his contemporaries were eager to renovate the stagnant ironies of the Movement poets prominently on display in postwar England. One instrument of breaking the hegemony of official verse culture was reading, discussing, teaching, publishing, and distributing postwar American poetry and prose.”

The awakening of infectious interest in poetry and language rears off the page in this collection of letters and Dobran notes that what makes the correspondence so vital is “not what these letters offer in terms of personal details, but rather the way they bind knowledge and writing, information and composition, feeling and articulation, history and poetry”.
The book opens in November 1961 as Prynne writes from Gonville and Caius College to ask if Charles Olson might send something for publication in the magazine Prospect of which he had just become editor. Prynne refers to reading Olson’s IN COLD HELL, IN THICKET which “speaks for me out of the fast centre”. Reading Olson’s work was for Prynne “like reading for the first time the back of my own hand.” Probably in response to Olson’s ‘Letter to Elaine Feinstein’ (the founding editor of Prospect) in which the American poet had suggested a need for some book of etymological roots, Prynne writes with exuberance about Julius Pokorny’s etymological dictionary:

“Pokorny has drawn on all the Celtic tongues, Tokharin and Hittite and a whole range of little-known Romance dialects: Phrygian, Thracian, Messapian, Venetian, Illyrian, Ligurian &c; it makes tremendously exciting reading. In the section given to KAR-, for example, with a root signification of ‘hard’ or ‘rough’, he shows an astonishing range of derived cognates embracing European words for ‘rock’, ‘crab’, ‘shell, peel, nut’, ‘strong, bold, heavy, difficult, firm’, perhaps also ‘cliff, crag, crevice’, ‘stone, scarp’, ‘cairn, burial-mound, temple’. And it merely confirms my own feeling to find ‘keel, hull, ship’ also included here; part 6 of the first Max. letter reveals the rationale behind this. Pokorny’s whole book sits on my shelf like a bomb, ready to explode at a touch with the most intricately powerful forces caged up inside, a storehouse of vectors.”

On November 24 Olson sent through a poem which he liked very much – “and hope you will”. The poem ‘GOING RIGHT OUT OF THE CENTURY’ was published in Prospect 6 and later became part of Maximus IV, V, VI.

This is an astonishing book of letters and I recommend that it should stand on the shelf of anyone interested in the world of post-war poetry.

Ian Brinton 18th June 2017

Facing West by Kelvin Corcoran (Shearsman Books)

Facing West by Kelvin Corcoran (Shearsman Books)

“the mineral density of loss”

Myth in forms our lives not just our life; it threads its way in strands which are held together by the light and distant clash of cooking implements both now and then. The screech of Ariadne’s cries reach us now through the lyric muscularity of Kelvin Corcoran’s lines as the sea blinds her, “the sail-away sea gone sour”.
Facing West contains not only the sequence of poems published by Maquette Press three years ago but also some important new pieces which confirm my view that Corcoran’s poetry is amongst the most important being published in this country. I wrote about Radio Archilochos in my review for this blog in November 2014 and therefore wish to just focus for a moment now on two pieces from this new volume, both of which deal with loss: ‘Orpheus / If I could’ and ‘Lee Harwood 1939-2015’.
As if in response to a reading of Rilke’s poem concerning the journey undertaken by Orpheus, published in New Poems 1907/08, Corcoran’s contemplation of loss aches with “mineral density”. In Rilke we read of

“Bridges over voidness
and that immense, grey, unreflecting pool
that hung above its so far distant bed
like a grey rainy sky above a landscape.
And between meadows, soft and full of patience,
appeared the pale strip of the single pathway
like a long line of linen laid to bleach.”

In Kelvin Corcoran’s web of landscape

“Orpheus walked the dark path
through black trees arching,
their bloody roots like shadows
seeping deep entangled underground
where the light collapsed in stripes.”

In these poems loss has a palpability as the “earth gives way at every step / foot sinks, birds stop singing” and the geological foundations of misery are presented to us with a vivid portrait of what irrevocability might look like:

“face broken, head empty, staggering,
propelled into a wall of obsidian”.

This is world known to Thomas Hardy who “Saw morning harden upon the wall” before leaving his house in pursuit of a glimpse of his dead wife “Where so often at dusk you used to be” only to be confronted by “The yawning blankness”.
In the tribute to Lee Harwood, dying in a “high room, Ward 9A East”, Corcoran journeys across the country:

“I drove long tunnels of swaying trees
through Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire,
and walked the hospital maze to find him
through green underwater light made blind.”

The maze through which one can trace one’s way down those lanes of memory, helped by Ariadne, that Goddess of Mazes, leads us to a bedside, words (“Oh Kelvin you made it”). And from there, almost like a poem from Malcolm Mooney’s Land, the tracks lead on further and further back

“So I can only imagine him at the kitchen window
up early, asking – “What do you think that bird is there?”

This collection is of course facing West as the poet’s eye is firmly focused upon a declining light. It also doffs its hat to the Westward glances of both Olson and Dorn!

Ian Brinton, 6th June 2017

Edward Thomas: Prose Writings Volume V Edited by Francis O’Gorman (Oxford University Press)

Edward Thomas: Prose Writings Volume V  Edited by Francis O’Gorman  (Oxford University Press)

When I reviewed the first volume of O.U.P.’s ambitious project to produce six substantial volumes of the prose of Edward Thomas I remember being struck by the meticulous and engaging introduction by the editor Guy Cuthbertson. That review appeared in The English Association’s Journal The Use of English in the autumn of 2011. The same held true for the second volume edited by both Cuthbertson and his partner in the whole project, Lucy Newlyn. As I read through this fifth volume, edited by the Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at Edinburgh, the undoubted professionalism of the whole O.U.P. project becomes sparklingly clear.
In his prose work Timber, or Discoveries, Ben Jonson presented us with the way in which language reveals our identity:

“Language most shewes a man: speake that I may see thee. It springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the Image of the Parent of it, the mind. No glasse renders a mans forme, or likenesse, so true as his speech.”

In the introduction to this finely-crafted book containing not only Edward Thomas’s critical studies of Swinburne and Pater but also some of the reviews the poet wrote between 1904 and 1909, O’Gorman suggests that “A critic’s identity is always some part of what he or she presents as knowledge of someone else’s”. For Edward Thomas, a writer troubled with trying to get words exactly right so that he could present his readers with the shades of reality that constituted his thoughts “readings of Pater and Swinburne are peculiarly dense with the literary conundrums for which he was seeking an answer, the problems of his professional relationship with words, the troubles of making a living from language while not betraying it”. For O’Gorman these two book-length monographs on Oxford-educated poets “provide a broken narrative of an as-yet voiceless poet journeying towards himself.”
In a subsection of his introduction, the editor directs us to Chapter 8 of the book on Swinburne and makes a convincing case for the chapter’s distinctive qualities in terms of Thomas’s own progression from prose to poetry. He notes the intensity of Thomas’s absorption, “his detailed enumeration of the many turns of Swinburne’s language that figure a mystery”. He conjures up for us a picture of Thomas “entranced by a poet on the edge of theology; a poet handling what might loosely be described as unsolved or numinous ideas that avoid mere clarity and summon possibility without adjudication”:

“Thomas is drawn to Swinburne’s capacity to write in ways that suggest rather than inform. He calls attention to Swinburne’s ability to compose poetry that contains ideas but is not reducible to them. He describes the ineffable objects of Swinburne’s imagination.”

In this chapter Thomas mused on ways in which poetry was able to communicate differently than merely through the literal sense of words:

“His criticism points to an aspiration for poetry that trades in un-paraphrasable moments of understanding, luminosity, emotional poise, mystery, or even – to borrow the title of a book he never wrote – ecstasy.”

When we read Thomas’s poetry we recognise time and again that reach for some meaning that lies beyond the empirical, that concern for trying to catch, as F.R.Leavis expressed it in 1932, “some shy intuition on the edge of consciousness that would disappear if looked at directly”.
The sixty page introduction to these two important prose works of Thomas, both written in the two years leading up to the outbreak of war, relies upon imaginative use of manuscript material from the Thomas archives in order to present us with what amounts to a portrait of Thomas himself. Or, as O’Gorman puts it, “They are, in significant ways, versions of Thomas as he was and as he imagined he could have been. They are certainly versions of his literary problems, solved and unsolved”. Tracing this path of the poet’s life in which his acumen and honesty as a literary critic of considerable renown was brought to bear on two writers of substantial importance to the late nineteenth-century and the early years of the twentieth O’Gorman dwells intriguingly on Thomas’s early years as an Oxford student of History and the disappointment to himself of his second-class degree. We are directed to the seemingly easy judgement made by the poet’s widow in her biographical account of their lives, World Without End, as she refers to the birth of their first child:

“As was natural his work suffered a good deal during this last term, and it was no surprise to David [Edward], though a bitter disappointment to his father, when he got only a second-class degree.”

O’Gorman suggests that the use of the word “natural” is apt in one sense, after all the arrival a baby is bound to interrupt the study for Finals, but it is also a cagey one:

“Its sense of normality, of what is merely to be expected, throws into the shade the aftermath (perceived or real) of not taking a higher class of degree; of not having made the most of that last Trinity term; of not being free from the responsibilities of marriage and children. Behind that ‘as was natural’ is the sad history of a man who felt he had had to live unnaturally.”

I remember writing that review in 2011 after reading the first volume of this superbly presented series, ‘Autobiographies’, and commenting upon one of the central themes haunting the work of Edward Thomas: the inability to ever go back; the inaccessibility of a past which haunts and beckons whilst always being one step away from actualization. This new volume complements the two earlier publications and I wait with considerable anticipation for the next volume to appear.

Ian Brinton, 30th May 2017

Barry MacSweeney and the Politics of post-war British Poetry: Luke Roberts (Palgrave MacMillan)

Barry MacSweeney and the Politics of post-war British Poetry: Luke Roberts (Palgrave MacMillan)

One of the immediately refreshing aspects of Luke Roberts’s book about Barry MacSweeney is the clear manner in which he distances himself from the mythologizing and gossip which surrounded the poet soon after his death in May 2000. It is highly appropriate that he should open his introduction with a reference to the obituary written for The Guardian in which Andrew Crozier addressed the alcoholism which had caused MacSweeney’s death and was, as Roberts puts it, the “intractable subject of MacSweeney’s later books”. Crozier made the point, in his inimitably careful way, that “It would be unfortunate if this final self-identification became his own myth”. Luke Roberts’s fine engagement with MacSweeney’s work goes some considerable distance towards avoiding the world of gossip; instead he directs us to the poems themselves and how much of MacSweeney’s writing arose out of social and political commitment. The focus Roberts presents us with gives “a serious account of the communities he moved through from the mid-1960s to the end of his life”. This is an important book which provides a literary context within which to view MacSweeney’s lyrical intensity and to re-view his powerful political commitment.
This is the first major study of MacSweeney’s work and what is so attractive about it is the fine mixture of close textual criticism and historical literary context: in two ways we are reading a world which comes alive. Roberts looks at the Menard Press publication of MacSweeney’s lecture on Chatterton which was delivered at the University of Newcastle in 1970: Elegy for January. MacSweeney’s interest in the work of Chatterton may well have started as a recommendation by J.H. Prynne as did his reading of Death’s Jest Book by Beddoes:

“Though he begins by taking a sceptical view of the ‘romantic myth we are led to believe’, MacSweeney drifts into a glorification of youth and early death, In a manner not dissimilar to the ‘melancholy raptures’ of Dr. Knox, quoted at merciless length by Hazlitt, he addresses Chatterton directly: ‘You are the elegant, eloquent poet, my brother!’; ‘Thomas, what is there, after all, after youth’. Nevertheless, over the course of the lecture, MacSweeney does speak of a number of Chatterton’s poems precisely as if they were ‘old well-known favourites’, and this is borne out by the order of engagement we find in the poems. MacSweeney’s language and imagery is persistently inflected by Chatterton in Odes, ranging from subtle single-word allusions to the extended ‘Wolf Tongue’, which revels in his vocabulary for well over a hundred lines. Some of the most intense passages in Colonel B feature interruptions and excursions drawn from ‘AElla: A Tragycal Enterlude’ and ‘Elinoure and Juga’. Far from emptily enthusing about the circumstances in which they were produced, MacSweeney used these texts as a vital resource for his own writing.”

Luke Roberts then provides us with a vignette of the “true poète maudit”, Mark Hyatt, MacSweeney’s friend who killed himself in early 1972. He points us to the publication of some of Hyatt’s work in the posthumous edition published by MacSweeney’s Blacksuede Boot Press and Crozier’s Ferry Press, How Odd, before taking us forward to the collection of MacSweeney’s own work, Fog Eye which was dedicated to Hyatt and in which ‘Elegy’ appears:

“Invulnerable nothings. Nothing
indecipherable as those ghost
messages. The seed burns by
a grey unblinking plant or moon.
You tear pages from a diary
written many years ago, but
the stories are the same today.
There are chapters like hidden doors
and they do not bear closing.”

The final chapter in this book looks at Pearl and Blood Money: The Marvellous Secret Sonnets of Mary Bell, Child Killer and Roberts suggests that there is no simple coincidence in MacSweeney “thinking about the figure of the child and the idea of innocence”:

“These poems were written with extremely high-profile trials of children going on in the background, and a change in how the child is constituted as a legal subject.”

I have said that this is an important book and I hope that it may be just the first major study of a neglected poet whose explosive lyricism and deep political commitment to justice, (one who hated secrecy and deception), deserves to be more widely known. As Chris Hall wrote on hearing of the death of Barry MacSweeney:

“It is to be hoped that his untimely death will stimulate a genuine reassessment of this important, brave and undervalued poet.”

Ian Brinton, 26th May 2017

Discovering Dylan Thomas, A Companion to the Collected Poems and Notebook Poems John Goodby University of Wales Press

Discovering Dylan Thomas, A Companion to the Collected Poems and Notebook Poems  John Goodby  University of Wales Press

In PN Review 222, March/April 2015, I reviewed John Goodby’s superb edition of Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems and made a point of highlighting the very fine quality of the notes included in what will surely be the standard edition of Thomas’s poetry for many years to come. The notes occupy the last 180 pages of the volume and they act as genuine literary criticism. I suggested that these clear and unobtrusive notes ensure that the reader gets an immense amount out of recognising the contexts within which the poems were written. When I contacted John Goodby to bemoan the fact that there didn’t appear to be any quick way of locating the notes from the poems, something which occurs also in the George Butterick Collected Poems of Charles Olson, he replied that the lack of locational referencing was part of the huge cuts (55,000 words) that the publishers insisted on. He also suggested that there were battles “every step of the way” to preserve as much of the integrity of the edition as he could; notebook poems and juvenilia had to be dropped as well as drafts of poems which he had intended to include in the notes. John’s communication concluded on a highly optimistic note:

“I have persuaded another publisher to publish the material I was forced to cut from the notes as a Guide to the Collected Poems.”

Well, it is here! And it is terrific! Everyone who now possesses a copy of the Collected Poems (it is available in paperback now with added page references in the notes) will want to purchase this substantial new book: a real Companion to both the Collected Poems and to the Notebook Poems. The rationale behind Goodby’s new book is clear:

“That rationale is primarily a critical and scholarly one, unshaped by commercial criteria, even though I hope this book will appeal to some non-academic lovers of Thomas’s poetry too. A coherent work in its own right, it offers, for example, critical histories for most of the poems, at a level of detail which would never have been tolerated in the edition, as well as material which has come to light in the two years since the edition was published.”

One of the exciting things about this new book is that as readers we are aware of being part of a work in progress: Goodby’s magisterial understanding of the importance of Thomas’s work ensures that any academic dust has been blown off the pages before we start to become immersed in an adventure of continuing discovery.
This new book is divided into sections including ‘Supplementary Poems’, ‘Textual annotations and critical histories’ and ‘drafts’and time and again we are reminded of the omnivorous reading which the poet undertook in different disciplines. In his introduction John Goodby raises the interesting question as to “just why Thomas alludes to and echoes other writers so obliquely”. By way of answer he points out a path for the reader which avoids simple references to other literary works incorporated within that reading:

“Dylan Thomas was a trickster-poet, one who resisted the display of metropolitan insider knowledge which allusion, quotation and echo of ten signify. Defining himself against Eliot and Auden, with their well-bred canonical assurances, he opted instead for a subversive, cryptic mode of allusion.”

Goodby recognises that Thomas’s volume 18 Poems “is very different to The Waste Land or The Cantos in smothering its allusions deep within its traditional forms, rather than flaunting them on a broken, variable verse surface”. He also recognises that there is a need for an overhaul “of standard accounts of 1930s and 1940s poetry and its relationship to the present-day scene”:

“Critics such as Andrew Duncan and James Keery have for some time been preparing the way by teasing out the 1940s inheritance shared by such unlikely bedfellows as Hughes, Plath, Roy Fisher, Geoffrey Hill, Philip Larkin and J.H. Prynne, as well as tracing the influence of W.S. Graham on poets, such as Denise Riley, associated with the ‘Cambridge School’”.

One might add to that list by including the name of Andrew Crozier whose ‘Styles of the Self: The New Apocalypse and 1940s Poetry’ was included in my edition of his selected prose, Thrills and Frills (Shearsman Books, 2013). One might further add an example of precisely the sort of “subversive, cryptic mode of allusion” by referring to a couple of examples contained within the poetry of J.H. Prynne. As was pointed out to me some time ago by Anthony Mellors, in ‘Of Movement Towards a Natural Place’ (Wound Response, 1974) there is a quotation from Dickens’s Great Expectations embedded within the text:

“upon his lips curious white flakes, like thin snow”

In ‘As Mouth Blindness’ (Sub Songs, 2010) King Lear’s words as he bears his dead Cordelia onto the stage are echoed, buried within the text:

“What is’t thou sayst? Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle and low….” (King Lear, V iii 270-271)

“…Her voice was ever low…” (Poems, p. 609)

Discovering Dylan Thomas is an indispensable book. Buy a copy and you will discover much more than appears on the title page.

Ian Brinton, 14th May 2017

Lessons: Selected Poems Joel Oppenheimer (edited by Dennis Maloney & introduced by David Landrey) White Pine Press / Buffalo, New York

Lessons: Selected Poems  Joel Oppenheimer (edited by Dennis Maloney & introduced by David Landrey)  White Pine Press / Buffalo, New York

In Black Mountain Days, the engaging autobiographical account of the early 1950s at Black Mountain College, Michael Rumaker described his fellow student Joel Oppenheimer as that “fierce-featured poet from the Bronx and refugee from Cornell, whose father owned a luggage shop in mid-Manhatten”. When Oppenheimer wrote a short biographical note for the concluding pages of Donald Allen’s 1960 ground-breaking anthology The New American Poetry, in which he was represented by five poems, he wrote:

“Born for the Depression, but too young to remember any suffering. Too young for WWII – in school and 4 F during Korean. Consequently, having missed the 3 major social calamities of my time, I am always feeling just a little guilty. Now living in NYC”.

There is a clarity in these phrases of self-accounting as well as a wry touch of humour. This is the man who, in a little anecdote told me some years ago by Jeremy Prynne, caused the Zukofsky family a certain amount of consternation. Prynne and Oppenheimer had paid a visit to the Zukofsky home and Joel, being of some considerable physical size, started to throw his arms about in energetic enthusiasm. According to Prynne, Louis Z. was terrified for the safety of the little ornaments with which the flat was decorated!
Dennis Maloney’s new selection of poems by Oppenheimer brings the extravagant and dedicated figure of Oppenheimer back into focus and David Landrey’s introduction directs us to some very good reasons why the poet who bridged the world of North Carolina and New York should be read again now. Landrey writes about simplicity in Oppenheimer’s work not as being opposite to complexity but as being more connected to what Emerson wrote in his 1836 book-length lecture Nature:

“When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of idea is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires – the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise – and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not; a paper currency is employed, when there is no bullion in the vaults.”

At Black Mountain College Charles Olson taught the value of limpidity and Rumaker recalled soon after leaving there a letter he wrote to Olson in September 1956:

“Four years ago or so when I first read your work (mostly in Origin) I thought you were straining after an impossible chaos – that it was whimsical, meaningless, sensationally tricky. But what was necessary was a correction of my ear. I didn’t see the form, I didn’t hear the limpidity of your thought and feeling, your rhythm – what you were always after me for, limpidity, telling me that night over the dishrack to go to Williams, as I did, and found, as I find now the same in you, in all I’ve read of you.”

Oppenheimer’s short poem ‘The Gardener’ first appeared in Robert Creeley’s magazine Black Mountain Review 4, Winter 1954:

“on the left branch, a
blossom. on the
top branch, a blossom.
which child is this.
which flowering
of me. which
gold white bloom.
which the force of my life.”

Of course there is Williams in this but there is also a delicately thoughtful contemplation which is entirely Oppenheimer: an awareness of one’s self, a throwing open of one’s arms. Zukofsky might have had justification for his touch of anxiety! In ‘Chaos’ from the 1994 collection New Hampshire Journal there is a further contemplation of the relationship between the poet and his creations:

“CHAOS is where
we come from
FORM we reach
occasionally
then fall back
into chaos
to start again
renewed

INCOHATE
means beginning

comes from the root
TO HARNESS

getting into harness
is just the beginning

how we plow and
what we plant
determines the field

the field
determines
what feeds us
while we wait
to fall back
to grow again”

This is a fine poem which focuses on the link between the present and the future recognising the way in which we can learn from what we have created: this is poetry which has a sense of newness, a sense of the future and yet it contains a limpid grasp of where ideas come from, a humility. It recalls for me that early Olson poem ‘These Days’ which I am so fond of quoting:

“whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them
dangle

And the dirt

Just to make clear
where they come from”

In his ‘Poem for the New Year 31 December 1973’ Oppenheimer describes being strangled by Medusa in a nightmare from which he struggles to awake. As he puts it “i am saved / by the old poet, he helps me / break loose”. The old poet is Charles Olson who had died some three years before but whose teaching would continue to have a major effect on American poetry.

Ian Brinton, 12th May 2017

Poems by Georges Rodenbach Selected, translated & introduced by Will Stone (Arc Publications)

Poems by Georges Rodenbach Selected, translated & introduced by Will Stone (Arc Publications)

When I reviewed Will Stone’s translation of Stefan Zweig’s Messages from a Lost World for The London Magazine (October/November 2016) I stressed the “clarity and insight” of his introduction. The substantial twelve page introduction to this attractively produced bi-lingual edition of Rodenbach’s selected poems is a clear reminder yet again of how the translator and literary critic/historian treads a path to the reader: Stone brings the world of Rodenbach’s eerie white shades to the fore and we can recognise the ways in which Baudelaire, Rilke and even the early Eliot can be seen within an urban landscape.
The introduction opens with the picture of a man, “half-framed by an open window” standing in front of a background which seems to be of Bruges:

“He is a spectral figure drifting across the canal’s greenish-black waters, his dark jacket blending naturally with its opaque surface, suggesting an area of confusion where dream and reality converge.”

Rodenbach’s treatment of Bruges, the Venice of the North, presents us with a supernatural landscape; a world where, as Will Stone puts it, “what is seemingly dead speaks, where the worn-away stone, even the grass and moss growing up through the cobblestones, have a voice detected only by those who are endowed with the sensibility to receive the true soul of the town”:

“It is this treatment of Bruges as a poetic vehicle for a mood, one of supreme melancholy, which forms the backbone of not only these poems but Rodenbach’s entire oeuvre.”

The melancholy atmosphere of the town and the haunted sense of the poet trapped within a chain of noises is vividly there for the reader from the very first poem chosen by the translator, ‘Dimanches/Sundays’. The “Mournful Sunday afternoons in winter” are made more vivid as “some inconsolable weather cock creaks / alone on a roof-top like a bird of iron!”. As if to emphasise the living death of this world where a long-gone Medieval history seeks refuge within the “vieux hôtels” and lanterns seem “to burn for the cortege of some deity”, the sudden clashing of bells intrudes to offer a complement to a funeral:

“And now of a sudden the restless bells
disturb the belfry planted in its pride,
and their sound, heavy with bronze, slowly falls
on the coffin of the town as if in spadefuls.”

As readers we are inevitably reminded of those bells of Baudelaire’s ‘Spleen’ which “tout à coup sautent avec furie” bringing with them not only the “esprits errants et sans patrie” but also the funeral cortege which files its way slowly through the poet’s mind.
There are four poems from the 1896 publication Les Vies Encloses (The Enclosed Lives) included in this selection and two of them, ‘Aquarium Mental / Mental Aquarium’ are particularly striking to my mind.

“Aquarium water, drear night, half-light,
where thought passes in brief appearances
like shadows of a great tree over a wall.”

Or again:

“Yet in the water, from time to time, something strays,
circles, opens out or obliquely shifts;
luminous shivers tense this water that drifts
– like spasms of light from a diamond! –
a murky fish undulates, a weed in mourning stirs,
the soft sand scree of the bed collapses as if
sand in time’s hourglass upended;
and sometimes too, on the transfixed crystal,
a flaccid monster, blurred image, shows on the surface,
while the water suffers, seeming to drowse,
and senses, in her morose lethargy, a thousand shadows
giving her ceaseless shivers as they pass
making her surface one great spreading wound.”

Without suggesting for one moment that there is a direct influence here I am drawn from this poetry to the ‘afterword’ that Jeremy Prynne wrote for his edition of Parataxis Number 7, Spring 1995, in which he introduced the reader to the Chinese Language-Poetry Group that had been based at Suzhou University in the summer of 1991:

“Within the great aquarium of language the light refracts variously and can bounce by inclinations nor previously observed. Some of the codes will unfold with merely adept connivance, others will swim vigorously into and by circulation inside their own medium.”

These thoughts may well have developed from a letter Prynne wrote in April 1992 to one of the Chinese poets represented in the Parataxis anthology, Zhou Ya-Ping:

“Language is an instrument of symbolic performance and representation that also has no independently direct connection to ‘a real world’: it belongs to men and to their sense of the possible just as much as of the actual…If the level and method of representation are shifted strongly into the language-world it may seem like fantasy; but it is a way of thinking about potential experience, liberating the mind from clumsy and doctrinaire ‘realism’ while keeping a complex connection with its components.”

In Rodenbach’s aquarium world “underwater dreams are ceaselessly voyaging” leading to an unending “buried life”.
Yet again Arc Publications, in this guest-edited volume by Olivia Hanks, has revealed itself to be one of the most important poetry presses working in this country. Long may it continue!

Ian Brinton, 8th May 2017

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