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Winstanley by Simon Jenner (Waterloo Press)

Winstanley by Simon Jenner (Waterloo Press)

Here we are in the world of the 17th century reformers, post English civil war, of Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down, of Leon Rosselson’s 20th century song of the same title, covered by Billy Bragg at a later date. Simon Jenner in a mood of democratic revival, generated by hope of a renewed radicalism in the Labour Party, has framed a series of poems based around the writings of Gerard Winstanley, leader of the Diggers whose failed attempt at setting up a democratic commune at St. George’s Hill in 1649 has inspired a multitude of radical movements ever since. These 36 poems are a mix of inspired experimentation, rich historical materials and intellectual curiosity typical of this poet’s considerable output. Winstanley is a great read but one to be taken slowly, with relish, where careful re-reading will improve the response. There’s also plenty of emotional content as this is not a dry academic tome. 

          1

          Orient voice arrival           alluvial days

          land washed stiff by brute plunderers

          where the jute factor wears freedom

          duck egg blue springs with the calyx of April

          a yoke thrown at St George’s Hill, as Fludd says

          each stamen births a star.

          The occident of the oppressor sets to the west

          of men gilding the common treasury of earth

          turning rowan where the histories of wrong

          occlude in darkness where all, all shall rise,

          yeasted with themselves, all, some at the shadowed

          cusp of the minute hand on midnight

          fleer and flesh salvation.

          True levellers of all property I see feast

          on light, God’s nakedness restored in the fork

          of good works. Brothers, sisters of this

          blinding fall to innocence, fasting, prayers

          for the corn I once spent to market,

          shallots, light July rain.

Jenner says in his introduction that ‘I found the cussed extremes of faith and conflict released a wild permission, a go-for-broke linguistic immanence’ and you certainly get the feeling of a modern mind relating to an earlier time and finding common ground and a sense of possibility within the encounter. Here there is utopian hopefulness but grounded in hard reality and a wonderful evocation of the physical aspects relating to food production and a sense of harvest. These poems combine political ideas with emotional intensity, are rich in detail and remain relevant in terms of our current predicaments. I’m reminded stylistically and in terms of historical reconstruction of the poetry of both Geoffrey Hill and Steve Ely.

          XV111

          March whitens. A new year’s gift lies fallow.

          Come out of stark, landlords, parsons,

          Set down in our singing torn-through houses.

          Your souls crunch tenantless as our bodies.

          Your soldiers drop us bright pence as fellows

          some flinch to birch as dogs wail hymning persons;

          ride God’s last year in on bloodied horses.

          We’ve stamped today’s alto wail of babies.

It’s been said that in England we had the revolution too early and that the aftermath of the civil war led to further tyranny before the monarchy was returned and ‘the natural order’ maintained. Yet such attempts at democratisation, foiled by the forces that took to arms in the first place and would brook no dissidence from those seeking a wider franchise, are worth recalling in our equally difficult times. 

          XXXV1

          The cerements of our endeavours rise up waxed

          gusts of others’ breath ripple and distort

          the sheeted shining cloth sigh letters

          the words are ranted but inhabited for good

          the time is minted from the original

          the ripest enthuse just his elbow wit

          the wits pared with a jack-knife on a table for print

          the visions’ crude halo holds a nimbus for truth

          the preacher rails in Atlantic vocables

          the few take seed, the many spindrift

          we’re wombed in what they’ll bring of our freedom

          our treasury’s blowing in a dust cloud of famine

          it lands too tare too thinly scattered but it alights

          it’s broadcast through the seeded months of our successors

          it sings its craft orient, stings the face of the new world.

     Reading these poems has made me eager to go back to writings from the period which include of course Milton and Marvell as well as the rantings of Abiezer Coppe about whom the irrepressible Leon Rosselson wrote – ‘Abiezer Coppe/he did away with sin/my body is my god, he said/and heaven lies within.’  To get the best from Simon Jenner’s short collection it’s necessary to read around the subject and I’m sure the scholarship has moved on since I last read Christopher Hill. Yet it’s a period of great interest and these poems have reawakened mine.

Steve Spence 17th May 2022

Then by Linda Black (Shearsman Books)

Then by Linda Black (Shearsman Books)

I simply love this book and could quote from it endlessly. Split into nine sections it’s playful yet serious and seriously playful at the same time. These are poems which sing and suggest, slip from idea to idea, confuse your thought processes yet delight the eye and the brain with an abundance of energy, skill and sheer brilliance. There is rhyme and assonance in abundance, all the traditional tricks of the trade yet done in such a way as not to overstate the case and even when this is the case to do it with such bravado and gusto that the reader is helplessly in thrall. Here, for example, are the first and final stanzas in the opening poem ‘Time is of the effervescence’:

          Then   it’s   popped.  Likewise   a   pillar  of   well-being – too   much   taboo

          contravenes the notion that all’s well. Many are non-believers confounding

          the desire to know. An expansive watch tells it all.

          On  the  dot. Safety  behind the door. Larger than  the frame it purports

          to fit. Come winter down it goes – contradicted and back to size. A well

          beginning for a venture. 

From an unexpected beginning (has the previous sentence been omitted?) which could signify a ‘grand opening’ we follow through with non-sequiturs which nevertheless take you off at tangents of possibly intriguing thoughts. That or filling in the dots, which each reader can do in his or her own fashion. There’s a charm to the process which is hard to pin down but it’s wonderful writing. Sometimes you get a sense of deja vu from a snippet or phrase which you think you can locate from elsewhere but you’re never quite sure. How much ‘found language’ there is in this process is difficult to ascertain as it all trips along so beautifully even amid the abrupt interjections, and how contradictory is that? Wordplay, as in the title – which you can easily misread at first attempt – 

is central to the method and can be ‘effervescing’ (as here!) or more subtly intertwined within the texts.   

In ‘Lark’ we have the following:

          Folly me dandy                             Follow me rare

          Up from the broad room            Down for repair

          Clopped in the cow pat               Snapped in the snare

          Glandular fever                             Dip snip & dare

          Influence effluence                      Stock still and stare

          Safety-pin paraffin                        Polish & swear

          Pickle & candy                               Cauliflower pear

This is pure nursery rhyme material from the section of mainly shorter poems entitled ‘Each shell or barnacle’ where charm is an essential guide. 

     We have lists and prose poems and visually induced pieces such as ‘A smidgen’ from which we get the following:

                                     scales

                      STICK      in the gullet   a fork

                                    is a powerful tool

                                    I desire

                      a bowl of cake   a broth   hot-pot   gob-stop

                         of scalded chicken       a cut-glass

                      reservoir   DON’T   serve me

                            Octopus  deprived

                      of its mate   Lay   gall-stones

                                    around my plate

I can’t precisely replicate the typographical variation here but you get the gist and these poems are clearly written by somebody with visual training as well, perhaps, as a writer with an interest in concrete poetry. I’m reminded a little here of Edwin Morgan whose versatility stretched to early computer-generated work as well as translations from the Hungarian but his poetry always had a sense of the playful about it which is seriously true of Linda Black’s work also. There appears to be a lot of cooking going on in these poems so I detect the appearance of ‘a foodie’ at work both in terms of the subject matter and in the sense of ‘cooking up’ a readable concoction.

          Riddle

          Head fold   arm swivel   twizzle drizzle

          polarised eyes   meagre   penniless

          concave gaze   a turn  a tail   slight flea-bite

          foot drop   (under the arches  second left)

          stiff back/ed linen   hump lump  impeded gait

          older days   leaden light   adult daze

          paralysis   (atypical depression)

          quarried tiles (misfit)   slab slap overlap  

          assemblage of nuts & bolts   (hard wear)

          crockery  mockery   (Scott not free)

          calories count   stark Clark’s shoes

          spleen   Scalextric   running late

It’s wonderful the way this material all hangs together, whether derived from word association, awareness of the sound aspects of the written word or indeed the artificial nature of process (‘assemblage of nuts & bolts’), there’s a sense of immediacy and a lightness of touch here which is so good to encounter. 

          Each shell or barnacle

          Kingfisher  or   kite,   closely   observed.   A   tarpaulin  to  rest  upon – no

          sting or  carbuncle – leisure  caressing  all surfaces. No ache  (body blithe,

          unruffled).  No  significant  other, trailing  dandelion heads.  Pine needles,

          kelp. Forwards may run forever. The breadth of the breath, the hearth of

          the heart.

          An even temperature. The desire for narrative, the smooth ascent,

          enclosure the sodden clay. Take a runner nailed into place – a (straight)

          forward path; an intermittent placing on the doormat.

          Playtime pops in – something creative. It is time to engage.

So we have ‘the desire for narrative’ allied to what appears to be an often aleatory mix of registers and materials. There is ‘playtime’ just ‘popping in’, as it so often does and now it’s ‘time to engage’.  

     These poems, prose poems and other texts accumulate and begin to work on the reader as they do though it’s equally quite possible to just dip in and worry away at a poem, enjoying the language and the placing of somewhat discordant phrases which nevertheless begin to ‘make sense’ as the images and sentences accrue and accrete. Linda Black knows how to juxtapose and to create poems which may puzzle and occasionally frustrate but also entertain and make you think. There’s a wealth of creativity here and as I said at the beginning I love this book and could quote from it endlessly. Wonderful stuff.

Steve Spence 15th May 2022

Tracing the Distance by Andrea Moorhead (The Bitter Oleander Press)

Tracing the Distance by Andrea Moorhead (The Bitter Oleander Press)

This book is a quartet of slow, accumulative, long prose poems that touch on landscape, personal experience, geography, and philosophy. Sectioned and/or paragraphed, they gradually build up encounters with ‘Landscapes. Subtle shiftings of reality.’ These shiftings come from attention to detail, consideration of change, the seasons, the weather, how the light falls, and of how humans engage with the world around them.

Moorhead is interested in her own place in things, and in place itself, willing to be both scientific and emotional, rational and speculative, and to grapple with the unknown, in an attempt to allow ‘this existence to be full’. This fullness of experience, of course, means dealing with ups and downs, winter and summer, light and dark, the desired-for and the unwelcome. Death and mortality are part of nature, as is longing, absence, memory and anticipation; our own stories make sense of our lives, and ‘[f]ables frame the day’. Moorhead is well aware that ‘[t]his insistence on recollection alters the perception of light, changes the angle, lifts the dark shades to a brighter hue’, and she willingly brings that self-awareness to her texts.

But her self, her ego if you prefer, is pushed to the background throughout this writing. Moorhead gazes outwards, sits still and observes, walks and watches. She is well travelled and well aware of ecological damage and devastation, in fact it informs her work, but her work is mostly sitting still, looking and thinking about what she can see, and putting it in to language. ‘Sometimes’, she writes, ‘the day itself wobbles, sometimes everything wobbles, oscillates, shimmers and shivers along some axis that isn’t readily apparent.’ 

She attempts to explain how history, geography and language – ‘remarks’ – ‘have a way of escaping […] perhaps dissolving into what people call thin air, the substanceless extension of lived space.’ Moorhead is busy trying to document what is missing, push beyond the surface of the world into the past, the now, and the elsewhere, but ‘[t]he physical world preserves its mystery’ and only ‘fragile words linger’, perhaps not for long.

Much as Moorhead does her best to watch and understand, think and engage, she admits that ‘[t]he hallucinatory boundaries are unclear; illusion, mirage, hope and expectation reek havoc with the mind.’ We cannot escape what we have done and are doing, our shared responsibility, or leave our assumptions and wishes, our selves, behind: ‘flesh is slow to absorb what flickers across the mind’. But in this wonderful book Moorhead attempts to ‘narrow the gap between lost reflection and the insistent weight of the body’, to earth herself and us in time and place, the very now of where and how we live.

Rupert Loydell 14th May 2022

The Pact by Jennifer Militello (Shearsman Books)

The Pact by Jennifer Militello (Shearsman Books)

A pact with a shattered self, disassembled by a violent reality and expressed in fragmented lines, is thoroughly investigated in Jennifer Militello’s fifth collection. It is a wasteland but the fragments do not shore up against the poet’s ruins, as in T.S. Eliot’s poems; instead, they expose the destruction which is irreversible and total. The individual is lost, a wreck; she is empty, a zombie ‘covered in soot’. There is no going back and ‘nothing can be done’ – the only possibility is describing this condition. Love and relationships are dissected in an accumulation of images that explore the topic from all sides, revealing a dark centre that is reduced to smithereens which are scattered around. ‘Love is all you need’, the dedication at the beginning of the book sings, echoing the Beatles’ song, but this remark is ironic and is denied in the narratives of the poems in the collection. Love as affection and a fulfilling relationship is unattainable, delusional and disappointing. It is often described as its opposite, that is, hate, and it causes anger and frustration as well as violent reactions. 

      Militello’s impeccable lines express this contradictory and multifaceted concept of love in fragmented verses in which frequent full stops break the pressing rhythm of the lines and repetitions that are produced using devices such as anaphora and epiphora that reiterate and develop her thoughts:

Hatred is the new love. Rage is right. Touch 

is touch. The collars of the coat, turned down,

point up. The corners of our hearts are smoothed

with rough. Our glass breaks slick, our teeth

rip soft. The mollusc of me, shell-less.

[…]

Let us empty. Let us alone. Madness

is our happiness. Sadness is our home.               (‘Oxymoronic Love’)

I brace: we hit the wall, we slam the brakes. You are 

the maw, the clamp, the rake. Bootlace, foothold,

briefcase, bass. I claw the window, claw the grate.

You snap the whip and clasp the gate. I want it now, 

the great escape.       (‘&’)

     The use of alliteration, enumeration and hyperbole is also frequent; these stylistic devices not only emphasise the skilfulness of the poet but also underline the profundity of her reasoning. She uses a plenitude of thought-provoking imageries that involve the reader in an oxymoronic and often contradictory reality in which opposites do not coexist in harmony but clash with one another. The use of the enjambments together with unusual line breaks reflect this sense of contradiction in the structure of her lyrics. It is a violent reality on the brink of a precipice, in constant evolution and always under investigation. 

     The adventure is daring and risky. The fragility of the self is shamelessly exposed with its losses and flaws in the apparently unconnected arguments and in the vulnerability of the edible body. Cannibalism seems to be part of our humanity; ‘we crave meat’, feast on others’ blood, ‘taste’ their bodies by biting and licking their flesh. The references to the Last Supper and to the Eucharist point to the sacrifice that is implied in love relations. 

     Love can therefore be described in different ways; it protects and heals but also has destructive qualities. The passage through sacrifice and death seems inevitable and is perhaps necessary, but there is no sense of transcendence, only temporary annihilation. This concept is symbolised in the figure of the Nkisi Nkondi, a traditional figure of the Congo. It is usually represented as a wooden sculpture into which people hammer nails or blades to release their anger and frustration, and it mediates against violent forces. It is similar to the figure depicting the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, who is pierced by the arrows of his Roman persecutors and is eventually celebrated as a healer. The saint accepts the wounds in an extreme act of love that is above all a sacrifice and violence perpetrated against an innocent. This violent death is also evoked in the stations of the cross in the poem ‘Idolatry’. In this poem, the confrontation between the two lovers hurts and they ‘bleed secretly, silently’. The relationship may bring a renewal, but it is hard to achieve. Eventually, love is considered a lie:

My collar is my lover’s death.

I wear it heavy. I wear it 

hellish as a home or shell,

hollow as a wreck.

[…]

[…] I want him to live, but we do not 

fit. I want him to live,

but I writhe and twist and

an animal in me lies down

on its side and withers to bone

through our time-lapsed lips.         (‘Electric Fence’)

      The nursery rhyme ‘Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary’ at the end of the poem ‘The Pact’ suggests tense and unsettling relationships with family members, such as siblings, and especially with her mother. These feelings are also expressed in the sibling series and in the poems ‘Dear Hiss’ and ‘My Mother is in Antarctica’. The lyrics are twisted; ‘pretty maids all in a row’ becomes ‘all the daughters caught in their rows’, pointing not only to contradictions but also to constrictions and maybe abuse. 

      The final poem, ‘Ode to Love’, seems to open up to a more hopeful vision. However, the scenario is still unsettling, with its ‘complexities or cries’. The final ‘Hush’ that ‘must be soothed. Has a snag. Has a bleed. A drape’ does not seem to bring reconciliation. The apparently reassuring image of the heron is turned upside down in the final line, ‘a wide bottom perfect with fish.’ Militello traces until the end of the collection her relentless exploration of love that is vital in human relations and part of our effort to survive. Irony and violence permeate the poems and are expressed in unexpected and compelling imageries that render her vision challenging and exceptional. 

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 27th April 2022

Rhapsodies by Graham Hartill (Aquifer Press)

Rhapsodies by Graham Hartill (Aquifer Press)

Hartill’s poetry combines an interest in Buddhism with a political approach which manages to fuse an often sparse lyrical style with something more analytical so we have beauty and melancholy alongside anger and critique. We have ‘being in the moment’ and a celebration of the physical world together with a commentary on the negative consequences of capitalism and of the empire building realities of organised religion. I’m probably being a bit reductionist here but these seem to be the underlying themes of what is a wonderful book of contemporary poetry.

There’s a definition of the term Rhapsody from Cuddon’s Dictionary of Literary Terms at the end of the book which it’s worth bearing in mind:

          Rhapsody  means ‘stitch song’, a rhapsodist  one who recited, 

          stitched together and improvised on various elements of epic 

          poetry.  In   a  more  general   sense  a   rhapsody   may  be an

          emotional, perhaps even ecstatic, utterance.

      From ‘Proverbs of Sugarloaf’ we get the following encapsulations:

          If there’s no room in your boots,

              put your feet in your hat                     (Spring)

          “Peace is the milk of birds”                    (from a Khartoum newspaper – Summer)

          “We’ve all pissed in the bath son…”                      (on the Usk bridge, Autumn)

          The sky dragged across like a heavy sack              (Winter)

     The section entitled ‘Easter’ is an appreciation of the innovative and influential American Jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler where we get this:

          Love reaches and unfolds,

          a completed life

          can show this:

                                    Ayler,

          dead in the water at age 34 –

          his universe swims in the cup of his tune

          forever: folk-songs are flowers, flowers

          explosions of language – there is and there is no

          silence in inner space, the thud of the blood,

          the pulling of nerves,

          the picking up, between finger and finger,

          of intimate stars.

                         The tree in the ear,

                         The Easter in the throat.

     ‘Pay Dirt’ from ‘Letters from America’ is prefaced with the quotation (Not just to make poverty history / but also excessive wealth!) and is clearly a critique of American political machinations and the ideology of The American Dream which has surely crashed to ground if it was ever an admirable or attainable aim in the first place. Those of us in the west who grew up in the aftermath of WW2 and who were hugely influenced by tv and advertising allied to the culture of consumption may feel an inevitable ambivalence about ‘the reality’ but in the face of climate change, war and pandemic it’s hard to come to any sane conclusion that doesn’t point towards a serious change in direction. 

     There’s a lot of compassion in Hartill’s poetry and the section entitled ‘Crowd Scenes’ includes material related to mental illness and to a celebration of the human spirit in the face of severe adversity. He’s inclusive rather than exclusive but focusses on the dispossessed and how chance can play such an important part in anyone’s life:

           There are different kinds of drop out –

           those with proper jobs, who like to dress up and express themselves,

           and those who face or suffer St Anthony’s mental fire

           every day:                (from ‘St Anthony’s Well’)

     In an earlier sequence from ‘Only Human’ we have a description of prison life and I imagine this experience may have come from work as a prison tutor (I’m guessing) similar to that expressed by Ken Smith in his book Inside Time. “He’s lost it now, his tele, and his parole, Gray, / anywhere else they’ll have done him over, / fucked him up. / He can forget September now.’ The final short poem in this sequence is puzzling but resonant and filled with both a sense of disturbance and of compassion:

          Entire

          that the stone could be

               pulled from his chest

          and become his father again

          -that he could write an entire page

          and his father be in it

     From the chapter ‘Palaces’ we get ‘Pebbles’ a seven part reverie which ponders the nature of war and human culture, moving from the rhapsodic and a contemplation of beauty to something much darker and how the two are hopelessly entwined:

                                                         but Death,

           like cathedral stone, isn’t violent, just Culture:

           the beautiful carving of bear or leaf

           on the fortified tower, and yes, of course,

           a poem –

                                           in a Christian cross,

           the violence done

           to Love

           can coalesce, this is maybe how

           cultures solidify –

Similarly with ‘From A Chained Library’ where we have the following from ‘in violence we act as if we were alone.’   

               Like children, we are keepers of the sacred texts,

                       we want the same story, over and over again –

                  a theocracy’s job, or a capitalist’s,

                                                         is to chain the text –

                      but life is a language, a touch, and a timing:

                          faces flow past,

                               the altars are way markers –

                      and every lost book a lake

                                 in which we are free to imagine.                    (from 3 ‘From A Chained Library’)

This may sound overly didactic on a first reading but in fact it’s the opposite of that, an invitation to engage and to think outside of the box.                 

There’s a lyric tenderness in ‘Life Stories’ which is prefaced by what I take to be a tinted photograph of the author’s parents so there’s an autobiographical feel to this short penultimate section. In the final section ‘Lyrics’ we have fragmented open-field minimalism while in ‘Spring’ we have a commentary on the nature of being – …’that being human, the fight is always between the real and the / how we would like it to be,’ – which is interrupted by an evocation of the here and now:

          the wind is suddenly loud in the bushes,

          wrapped inside the hill

          the cuckoo’s

          song

     There’s a delicious sensuousness to some of these latter pieces which is enhanced by the cover art, a minimalist creation of line and texture. This is a nicely produced book which I thoroughly enjoyed reading and thinking about.

Steve Spence 25th April 2022

The Giving Way by Richard Skelton (Guillemot Press)

The Giving Way by Richard Skelton (Guillemot Press)

How do we engage with the past? What are history, time, and the past? This seems to be the question, or one of the questions (plural), that musician, writer and publisher Richard Skelton attempts to answer, or at least explore, in this beautifully designed pamphlet. The very first part of this sequence sets the reader up for this exploration:

   and what is this
   what is it
   is it
   is

Immediately we are aware of the ideas of echoes (of sound, of the past, of other work) and also the idea that things simply are: what is will be; what is, is; and we must be accepting as we consider ‘it’.

For the rest of the sequence, Skelton lays out a number of possibilities of what it is, or might be, including the mythological, the sacrificial, the scientific, the specific and the conjectured, the unknown and unknowable, for instance (and these lines are all from different poems):

   is it the cortical dream of the scoured earth

   is it the lost pathway across the Dogger isthmus

   is it the placing of hands

   is it the great unknown rite of blood

   is it the radiocarbon measure

   is it the flattening of tireless millennia

Deep time leads us to ‘the porosity of worlds / of fleshworld and spiritworld’ and the idea of the spiritual, ‘the vast battery of souls of the indwelling multitude’. This foregrounds the almost liturgical nature of this sequence, a liturgy that remembers how centuries build upon previous centuries, ‘becoming tabular rasa for the next’.

There is ecological change too, and further change as humans inflict their presence on the world:

   is it the great plateau of ice
   giving way to tundra
   giving way to taiga
   giving way to wildwood
   giving way to the axe

These axes and other stone tools are also present as a number of drawings with collaged text, and also as echoes in some of the poems, such as this (note the ‘blunt gesture’):

   is it the unimaginable here and now
   is it the black chambers in the caverns of time
   the momentary glance of stars
   the blunt gestures of galaxies

Gradually Skelton circles back to specifics of the Palaeolithic era, engaging with notions of ‘seeing’, ‘bearing witness’ and ‘testimony’. There is no formal resolution beyond what ‘simply is’ and:

   an echo
   reverberating

   reverberating

   but
   diminishing

   gradually
   fading

   and
   gone

This is a complex and questioning text which despite its minimalism is expansive and wide-ranging. It offers suggestions and prompts for the reader to think for themselves but remains open-ended and non-didactic. It mourns for but also celebrates the past, regrets what we have done to the earth and how everything has implications, but mostly it is an acceptance, a remembering, a reminder that we simply are, right now, dependent upon but also separated from the past. We have been given and must give; it is The Giving Way.

Rupert Loydell 22nd April 2022

Guerrilla Brightenings by Joanna Nissel (Against the Grain Press)

Guerrilla Brightenings by Joanna Nissel (Against the Grain Press)

In this deft and lyrical debut pamphlet, Joanna Nissel explores the beginning of 2020 as seen from Brighton. Throughout these poems, Nissel dances with grief and the sea, as well as the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the unexpected and intense moments of colour: both in the literal or physical sense, and the psychological sense.

Nissel makes eclectic and dynamic choices regarding form. The pamphlet opens with a poem fluid and beautiful with its frequently recurring refrain: ‘every morning                  the beach’.  The prose poem form also emerges throughout the pamphlet, as in ‘Now More Than Ever’ and ‘Meantime’, in which Nissel tackles found poetry, using social media posts recorded between the 4th and 5th April 2020. These posts then comprise prose poems, with each post separated by virgules, allowing the posts to come thick and fast as they did when they flashed across our screens, and to make surprising, often humorous, combinations regarding mood and tone: ‘In lieu of / privileged little cunts / lord bless some of the real ones / the nice weather’. Nissel uses white space not only to establish pace and tension, but to physically create interludes between images and ideas. For example, in ‘The Night Lockdown Came In’, the white space between could be seen to play on social distancing measures visually and allows us moments to rest and absorb each facet of the onset of the ‘new normal’, as well as what has remained of what we already knew: ‘A dog walker            ekes        out        the         minutes’; ‘Orion levitates above  the sea’.

The speaker’s voice is complex and layered. In many of the poems, the speaker is a vessel for their surroundings and the world many of us knew during lockdown. The speaker is an artist of sorts, commenting on a scene by painting – writing – it, giving it to us on the page independent of opinion or interpretation: the lesbian couple spotted walking the beach at dawn, the ‘looped hills and pathways’ of a residential crescent, the ‘low vibrato of scraping of chair legs’ heard from upstairs. These concrete images are immediate and vivid, as well as comprehensive – the smaller details create a three-dimensional sense of lockdown Brighton. However, there is also a confessional aspect to many of the poems – a sense of the artist stepping back, so that we can see inside their own mind, giving us greater context on why they are painting that picture. We brought our individual traumas into lockdown with us; Nissel’s speaker is no exception. The speaker is grieving their father, revisiting their childhood to remember other times in which they witnessed abundant handwashing – to enter a hospital room, to scrub hands of blood – and is visited by their unborn child, whom they ask to ‘please stay here with me… don’t look out to the sea’s heat-hazed horizon / don’t notice the gulls calling you home’. Throughout the collective suffering, it was our individual hopes for our futures that carried many of us through. This speaker’s connection with their unborn child allows them to envisage a life beyond the painful present. Is this a ‘guerrilla brightening’ in itself?

More generally, the pamphlet’s ‘guerrilla brightenings’ are moments of colour found among the bleakness: ‘the runners / slipstreaming around each other like fish / on the promenade’, forests ‘infiltrated with fairy lights’, wiping dust from the leaves of a plant to discover a bud, ‘David Bowie in tight leather trousers’, ‘Noel Fielding prancing – sparrow-footed – into a land of discoballs and rainbow shards’. We also see the darkenings of the 21st Century contrasted with them…a particularly prominent example ‘the new vegan pizzeria…doing its best to signal rejuvenation beside the sleeping bags stowed in the alcoves’. It is up for debate as to whether these poems are highlighting that, even in the darkest moments of the times in which we find ourselves, we must take strength from the ‘guerrilla brightenings’ to be found all around us, or if these brightenings are in fact what we use to deny collective trauma and hide from harsh realities – or perhaps both. One thing is clear, however – as the speaker finds written on a concrete wall ‘Found on the Seafront’: ‘WE CAN’T GO BACK / TO BEFORE. BEFORE / WAS THE PROBLEM.’

Olivia Tuck 21st April 2022

The Lascaux Notebooks, Jean-Luc Champerret, ed./tr. Philip Terry (Carcanet Press)

The Lascaux Notebooks, Jean-Luc Champerret, ed./tr. Philip Terry (Carcanet Press)

Whilst dedicated cavers continue to dive and squeeze further and further underground, mapping new networks and entering underground ‘rooms’ no-one else has ever seen, others have always preferred to consider archaeological and anthropological findings in depth rather than simply move on. Jerome Rothenberg has translated and anthologised texts under the term ethnopoetics; Clayton Eshelman has synthesized theology, psychology, creative writing and what would now be called eco-criticism to explore the ‘Upper Paleolithic Imagination’; whilst the first (and for a long time only) monograph about the Lascaux caves was written by Georges Bataille.

Much, of course, was made of the 20,000 year-old art found (or re-rediscovered) in 1940 at Lascaux and other caves in the Dordogne region. It fed into fine artists’ obsessions with ‘primitive’ cultures, as well as providing an argument that art had always been important, perhaps pre-dating spoken language, and allowed much conjecture about art as magic, celebration, wish-fulfilment, prophecy, celebration and documentary. What seemed to be missing was any coherent study of the smaller marks in the caves, which were overshadowed by many larger animal images and silhouettes of hands.

Enter Jean-Luc Champerret, an obscure and largely forgotten French author, who took it upon himself to document the symbols found in Lascaux, eventually producing a set of 70 Ice-Age hieroglyphics. He had visited the caves as a member of the Resistance soon after they were found, and upon returning soon after the war was able to translate the groups and grids of marks into word clusters, and then extrapolate them into more and more complex texts or poems. Ignored at the time, Champerret’s neglected research was eventually given to Dr. Terry, a translator and Oulipean writer, when visiting an architect friend in the Dordogne region who had found a crate of Champerret’s papers in a chateau he was then remodelling. 

It wasn’t until a few years later, when moving house, that Terry realised what he had been given: a highly original and invaluable work which had not been widely disseminated in its original language, let alone translated and published elsewhere. His academic inquisitiveness and imaginative prowess facilitated this marvellous 400-page edition, which reproduces in full the original cave markings, as well as translated versions and reversions of the cave texts produced by Champerret.

Many are first translated from the images – often found in a 3 by 3 grid, a kind of visual magic square – into simple language, which provides a basic word pattern to build on:

     call     birds     trees

     call     deer      plain

     call     bear      mountains    (p 82)

It is then a small step to work this up into a denser, more complex work:

     the call
     of the birds
     fills the trees

     the call 
     of the deer
     fills the plain

     the call
     of the bear
     fills the mountains

and on, through a third version to the more poetic fourth and final text:

     The shrill song
          of the birds
               fills the swaying trees

     the hoarse bellow 
          of the red deer
               echoes in the river valley

     the rasping roar
          of the cave bears
               fills the black mountains

There is, of course, an element of authorial assumption and intervention, not to mention poetic licence here, something Terry notes he is aware of, but the effect of ‘filling out’ the basic written utterances of our ancient ancestors offers us a new and invigorating insight into our past. 

Elsewhere, there are texts expanded into prose poems or stories, as well as more fragmented works (sometimes reminiscent of the works of Sappho) which spill across the page. It is an exhilarating and thought-provoking book that foregrounds the world of Ice Age people, a world that is, as one of the poems says, ‘still etched in the dark earth’. This book will, I am sure be of interest to not only poets but all those interested in history, shamanism, ethnography, codes, caves, dissimulation, creative writing and the roots of documented utterance. It will, I am sure, become an influential and seminal book, one which will illuminate the previously dark and shadow-filled caves of formative language.

Rupert Loydell 17th April 2022


On Becoming a Poet edited by Susan Terris (Marsh Hawk Press)

On Becoming a Poet edited by Susan Terris (Marsh Hawk Press)

Although this book is subtitled ‘Essential Information About the Writing Craft’, it’s actually more a collection of 25 autobiographical musings from a collection of American poets. That’s quite a relief: I wasn’t looking forward to a how-to-write manual, nor anything that suggested poets were born or relied on muses and inspiration for their work.

What we do have is a mostly enjoyable anthology of people looking back at what informed and encouraged them to start and keep writing. Sheila E. Murphy focuses on the music of language, linking it to the ever-present music in her childhood home. Geoffrey O’Brien wittily deconstructs a nursery rhyme, Philip F. Clark discusses how to ‘sustain wonder’, Burt Kimmelman links it all back to Black Mountain poetics, and Lynne Thompson writes about how her ‘journey to becoming a writer was inspired by my father’, a nice contrast to Denise Low’s discussion of ‘The Womanly Lineage of Writerly Mentors’, which celebrates her feminist teacher Mrs. Sullivan.

David Lehman is a little bit more schoolmasterly, with some sections of his work instructing the reader what to do, but it’s mostly sensible if slightly obvious stuff, such as ‘Write any time, any place. Take a little notebook with you. Jot down possible titles, overheard phrases, unexpected similes.’ More useful is his recognition that poetry is no different to and is informed by other genres:

   Write prose. All the writing you do helps all the other writing
   you do. Learn the prose virtues of economy, directness, and
   clarity. Good journalism or nonfiction writing or speech writing
   or technical writing can help your poetry. Writing to an editor’s
   specifications, on deadline, with a tight word-count, is a sort of 
   discipline not unlike writing poems […]

He’s also astute enough to point out that ‘poetry is not the whole of one’s life, it is a part of it’.

Personally, my two favourite parts of the book are both interviews. Arthur Sze discusses ‘Revealing and Revelling in Complexity’ and declares that he loves ‘the intensity and power of language, and imagination that all come together in poetry.’ He also discusses clarity and the use of specialist language, multiculturalism, science and poetry, and writing with ‘openness and risk’. Jane Hirshfield has to answer some dodgy lines of questioning about inspiration, influences and – worst of all – ‘poetic voice’, but mostly keeps coming back to what she calls ‘deepened language’ and wanting her ‘poems to be stranger’. I’m less convinced by her aspiration to use poetry to make ‘a more full human person’, although I note her hesitant ‘perhaps’ earlier in the sentence.

This feels like a rather old-fashioned anthology, from the rather clunky cover design and disingenuous blurb and Introduction, to the insistence on traditional publishing and the volume’s overall confessional, or autobiographical, approach to things. There is little mention of performance, visual poetics, digital publishing or experimental processes and poetics. Mostly it is as though the late 20th Century has not happened to the poets here, although I know for a fact it has! It would be good to see another volume that focussed on younger writers, what they make with language, and why they do so.

Rupert Loydell 15th April 2022

Tempo: Excursions in 21st Century Italian Poetry edited by Luca Paci (Parthian Books)

Tempo: Excursions in 21st Century Italian Poetry edited by Luca Paci (Parthian Books)

The first thing to say is what a beautiful production this book is, and a 300+ page hardback for £15 is a bargain. The second thing is that this is my kind of anthology: it doesn’t make outrageous claims for itself, there’s no bullshit about Italian poetry being the new rock & roll, just a wide-ranging sample of what is going on, with each of the 22 authors given a brief introduction and enough pages for a decent selection of their work.

Most of these authors are new to me. I am one of the readers Paci mentions in his Introduction, who knows the usual few Italian poets (Montale, Buffalino, Quasimodo, Ungaretti), although I have got Jamie McKendrick’s Faber anthology on my shelves. It’s clear I’ve been missing out, although I don’t like everything included here. And whilst I don’t read or speak much Italian, even I can see from the Italian versions here, that there is a musicality and alliteration missing from many of the English translations.

There are some key subjects here, one being a kind of obsession with death, another recent Italian history. I’m writing this a few days after being in Bologna, and one of the novels I read there was about the revolutions and bombings in the 80s, a subject Matteo Fantuzzi writes about, sometimes in general terms (one of his poems is called ‘The meaning of a massacre’), but at other times very specifically, as in ‘If from the square you start walking and stay under the arches’, which has a note pinning the poem to the specifics of ‘A bomb exploded in the heart of Bologna Second of August 1980’:

   If from the square you start walking and stay under the arches
   in the city centre and manage to pass in one fell swoop
   that crowd, the sales, shop windows, the small desk for signatures,
   if you manage not to stop in front of that homeless
   one his knees as a Christ who is begging for
   coins, and who is praying to everybody for money, if all of a sudden
   you remain strong and start running, stopping to glance
   elsewhere you will find yourself all of a sudden on the left
   the place lying with open legs and in the middle the wound
   which still gives a hint, which remembers the day
   when people were the same for that one time,
                                                            and only that one.
   All communists, priests. All bolegnesi.

I especially love that ‘all of a sudden on the left’ which is both political and geographical allusion, but the whole thing repositions the contemporary city in the past in a kind of time shift, as well as being both informative and uplifting.

Antonella Anedda, whose poems appear first in the book, is more oblique. She writes about a world of forensic medicine, anatomy (Bologna is home to a couple of collections of early anatomical waxworks and skeletons of the diseased and disabled; not to mention numerous saints’ relics and corpses) and the dead, but declares in ‘VI’ that ‘language has no innocence’, going on to say in poetic self-awareness:

   And so I write with reluctance
   with a few dry stumps of phrases
   boxed into humdrum language
   which I arrange so as to call out
   down there as far as the dark
   that sounds the bells

Elsewhere there are more mundane poems. Fabio Franzin’s narrative poem about Marta and how she has spent 25 years sanding frames for a job explains too much and seems rather ordinary, as does Mariangela Gualteri’s romantic declaration ‘I have been a girl in the rose garden / a nymph’. Really? I am not convinced.

Mostly, however, the poetry in Tempo is intriguing and fresh. Andrea Inglese plays with notions of borders and frames, force-justifying her poems inside boxes on the page; he also writes inward looking poems that consider the way they are being written and read. Valerio Magrelli’s writing can also be self-aware, but he mostly writes down-to-earth, warmhearted love poems, for instance in ‘The Embrace’, which moves from a sleepy kiss through prehistoric imagery to its memorable conclusion:

   And we are the wicks, the two tongues
   flickering on that single Paleozoic torch.

‘Lai of Reasoning Slowly’ is a ruminative and engrossing poem by Lello Voce, a poet and performer, which winds its leisurely way over several pages in stepped patterns; Marco Giovenale offers both condensed prose poems and thinner, more spacious short poems; the selection of Maria Grazia Calandrone’s work offers some longer, dense and busy texts, including a prose poem sequence about an actual murderer who killed his parents. This makes use intriguing of advertising slogans and phrases from Miami Vice as section headings or narrative interruptions. 

Elsewhere, Calandrone perhaps sums up this anthology at the start of her poem ‘Intellect of Love’:

   Poetry is anarchic, it follows only its own laws, it cannot and must not bend to anything
   except itself.
   Its inner law is rhythm, pure and simple music.
   That explains why we can be moved by poetry we hear read in languages we do not know.

I’m not convinced that poetry needs to move us, but Tempo is full of music of all sorts, and is a wonderful door into a different literary world from the one I mostly inhabit. These are excursions I intend to keep making, poets whose work I hope to find more of and enjoy.

Rupert Loydell 13th April 2022

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