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Category Archives: English Poetry

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

Festival Conversation between Simon Collings and Allen Fisher

Festival Conversation between Simon Collings and Allen Fisher

Questions for Allen Fisher, Answers for Simon Collings

Tears in the Fence Festival 2020

The Friday evening session of this year’s Festival included a conversation between Allen Fisher and Simon Collings. Simon sent Allen written questions before the event and Allen prepared written answers. During the session the conversation took a somewhat different course from the one planned. As a bonus, therefore, we are sharing here the written texts of the questions and answers prepared prior to the event. The discussion was about Allen’s magnum opus Gravity as a consequence of shape, composed between 1982 and 2007. I’m delighted to be able to share this additional material. David Caddy

Q1: You had a structure for the project from the beginning, a framework which guided the subse-quent facturing of the work. You created this framework by marking a number sequence on a card-board tube and then crushing it. Could you say something about the overall structure of the book?
A1: My poetry writing uses processual and procedural methods. For the Gravity project I chose a complex of numerical structure and a small playful book of research into some scientific practices, particularly bio-engineering and quantum physics. The premise behind the initial numerical struc-ture was that the norms of structural pattern put in place in terms of line count and line lengths, but also in terms of overall narrative schemes that you could find in Dante, in Chaucer, in Spenser and in, for example Shakespeare’s Venus & Adonis, these are demonstrations of an earlier aesthetic with a basis in coherence, exactness and certainty. We are now in a culture and civilisation that is run by liars focussed on their own riches their ownership. I am not in favour of these criminals. They are de-stroying the planet, they encourage poverty. They support torture. They refuse joy. I explicitly seek to invent, develop and provide a new aesthetic attention. I take into account a decoherent position that comprehended uncertainties but as I wrote elsewhere gives a confidence in lack.

To cut a longer story short, I devised a system of allegedly exact proportions and exponential devel-opment and part of my procedure was to scale these proportions onto a cardboard cylinder. And as you noted, I put the cylinder in a vice and crushed it and folded it so that the exact numbering be-came self-interfering, became visually energetic. It became more exact to the situation it was in the process of producing. There’s no need for anyone reading the text to know the scheme used, the via-ble knowing has to do with understanding the disruption and excitement in unpredictable aspects of what at first seemed like a straight forward narrative or description. This procedural device was then subjected to a variety of improvised and homophonic attentions both intimately in some of the indi-vidual poems, but also across the larger work to provide the potential for a pattern of connectedness.

As you have it, the poems in Gravity each have the title of a jazz dance and the design of the book derives from my earlier small research book called Ideas on the culture dreamed of, which is alphabetical. In the initial scheme I start with African Boog and end with Zip. The reader may enjoy knowing some of this, or may not, but the reading through is affected by the schemes, the reader need only be alert to the variety of patterns and broken patterns, the narrative expectations and then their subversion.

Q2: You use collage extensively, lifting material from a diverse range of sources. We’ll hear references to Blake and Dryden, material from various works on neuroscience and physics, and later on references to the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. These discourses are woven together into a poly-vocal text, reflective of the way each of us today is surrounded by multiple disourses, many too technical for us to understand. Could you say something about the poem’s appropriation of these varied discourses? You could characterise the writings in Gravity in terms of their function.

A2: The undercurrent writing takes concepts on contemporary scientific thought and practice be-cause I am paying attention to them. Trying to comprehend them. Much of the material comes from studying bio-technology as it might affect our conditions and futures as physical substance. Quantum physics in how it discusses our conditions in terms of where we are and what we are. These attentions lead into the use of language used by these groups of theory and practice. It’s a matter of taking back the language as part of the poetic material part of its substance. Both of these usages lead into and out of narrative themes in the work and also play with the vocabularies in the text. As substances to transform within the larger text.
Q3: Of course you’re making poetry, not trying to explain quantum theory or the nature of con-sciousness, so these different vocabularies are mixed in ways which produce new and surprising for-mulations. These often serve as a kind of commentary on the poem’s own process. In Cakewalk for example we have the lines: ‘The variety of their phase behaviour/encourages a focus deception/His long range special ordering/fantasises a language progression/from colloidal fluids to crystals.’ You’re interested in creating an aesthetic effect here, in provoking an experience for the reader. Is that right?

A3: Maybe aesthetic effect characterises what this is about, but we need to understand aesthetic, its basis in providing information or thoughts, in delighting the reader, in persuading the reader that it goes on and is saying something albeit elusive that there are a number of small conclusions and openings. The aesthetic effect would be a sense of wonder.

Q4: There are a series of ‘characters’ who appear throughout the text, one of the central figures be-ing the Burglar (capital B.) We’ll hear many references to the Burglar in the material you are going to read. Does the Burglar connect with your practice of appropriating text from other authors?

A4: The Burglar the Painter the Technician the Photographer the Bellman are persona in the work, I have mutual feelings about who they are and what they represent. They are metonyms for different aspects of human conditions. The Burglar steals DNA as a commodity on the stock exchange, he turns human substance into a commodity, he can put it on a USB stick, he steals consciousness, he attends to your sleep. It’s incidental that I gather my texts from texts that already exist. That would be a paradigm for Shakespeare and Chaucer, I only need to be an artist to make use of what is available. The character of the Burglar is multiple, his image is fleeting and unrecordable except as a passing wisp in the air. In a sudden lost breath. In a lost balance, stolen in that moment, in a trip on the step. Persuaded by gravity to drop instead of lift. The Burglar is a device to give the reader you or me, a landline, something to provide a recurrence and catch of bird song as it passes.

Q5: The concept of ‘entanglement’ in quantum physics interests you – the phenomenon where parti-cles remote from each other mirror each other’s behaviour. By analogy texts within Gravity are ‘en-tangled’ with each other. For example, poems at the end of the sequence, mirror texts from the be-ginning. The lines ‘The Burglar’s struggle against gravity/begins in irreversible vertigo/practiced in a periodic and reversible fashion/otherwise the lure of his search of self’ which you’ll read from ‘Bun-ny Hop’ are mirrored by: ‘The Burglar’s confrontation with exactness/held sway in this intuition, his immediate/seeing, in that false concept of a present/ trodden by fiction’ which appears in ‘Stroll’ (which you had planned to read but which we won’t have time for.) These poems were written many years apart and in very different settings. How do these textual entanglements relate to the concept of space-time?

A5: Entanglements characterises a summary of our condition as humans on a planet that is in the process of being destroyed. Our spacetime is a muliplex of where we are. The plurality of worlds that David Lewis and that for example the poet Jacques Roubaud returns to is one dimension of this, this is similar to Robert Duncan’s multiverse. It’s also more connected and interactive and self interfering than their concepts. It is disruptive in a positive way, it is energetic and the basis of our existence. It characterises that we are part of a pattern of connectedness, it’s how our human physiology works, how consciousness works or memory and our immune responses our weather. The mirrors are more extraordinary than a hall of mirrors or singular camera lens they are mobile. They are the basis of my aesthetic and my practice and my cooking. Entanglements are exemplary of the decoherence that we experience on a minute by minute condition. They articulate our loss and gains our uncer-tainty and confidence. Our accidents and corrective attentions. Our collective presences.

Your suggestion attends to composition over a broad time. You say over many years. It is also at that moment of energy that momenergy in a multiple of situations and conditions some consciously experienced others lost in the fleet of being. The benefit of project working is that it articulates the production of a poem as a job to do. It is conceptualised and planned and carried out. The idea over many years is lost to the spacetime of multiplicity and that is where the entanglement takes, is effi-caciousness, is how it is experienced as lost and found at once. Stolen and recovered at once.

Q6: A final question. On first encounter the work may seem rebarbative to a reader. But there’s a great deal of playful humour in the work isn’t there, both at the level of the language and in some of the narrative?

A6: The work is necessarily rebarbative, what a word, it feels like a blurb on the back of the book. The work is as you say playful and has an intension in humour. I can think of no better description of the human condition. In states of adversity we move through in good humour and get on with it. We interface adversity, the whole damaged condition of our planet and motivate a recovery. Maybe it is rebarbative in the sense of the barber, like the Burglar takes from you, when you are face to face with the Burglar you don’t see who it is. It is the activity that you encounter. Rebarbative because it uses vocabulary that you don’t recognise or because it feels like a demonstration of confusion, an underlying need to cohere and quickly understand, Gravity can’t be understood in that way, it offers fleets of comprehension which are continually stolen from you. I resist coherence because coherence is a death. It is lie we have been told all our lives. This civilisation does not cohere except as a death culture. We need to transform that, we need to counter it. We are tired of dying, and seeing the death of others, we are sick of the torturers and the victims of torture, tired of arms dealers and the buyers of armoury. We are rebarbative with the psychiatrist and the loss of memory. We are clowns in a circus that demands we fall over and get up. We have funny faces and cry. We demand fun and playfulness and humour, it is restorative.

Simon Collings, Allen Fisher 14th September 2020

Hove Lawns to Brighton Pier – March video poem by Joanna Nissel

The early stanzas of ‘Hove Lawns to Brighton Pier – March’ were written during the first Tears in the Fence online workshop on ‘Obsession’. We were asked to consider our habits, the things we return to, and repetition, both in our poetry and wider lives: objects, patterns of behaviour, landscapes, etc.

One element that particularly resonated with me was the concept of the repeated walk and the many perspectives, characters, mysteries, discoveries, and stories that can be revealed through the small changes and details that one may see on such a walk. As it happened, at the time of the workshop I was doing just that. These were the first weeks of lockdown and I was in the habit of taking long walks at dawn to the coast between Brighton and Portslade to avoid the crowds.

The complete poem will be published in issue 72 of Tears in the Fence. An enormous thank you to David Caddy and Louise Buchler for publishing it, and for encouraging me to keep submitting. In the weeks after composing the written poem, I augmented it into a poetry film using footage from my walks. I hope you enjoy it.

Joanna Nissel 4th September 2020

(Joanna Nissel is reading at the Tears in the Fence Festival on Friday, 11th September)

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

Seven Leaf Sermons by Peter Larkin artwork by Rupert Loydell (Guillemot Press)

Seven Leaf Sermons by Peter Larkin artwork by Rupert Loydell (Guillemot Press)

In Part I of A.N. Whitehead’s Process and Reality, the title of which suggests the connection between being and movement, the philosopher asserts that the number one ‘stands for the singularity of an entity’ and that the term ‘many’ presupposes the term ‘one’. A quarter of a century later Charles Olson was to write to Robert Creeley that the term ‘One makes Many’ had been overheard by him as being uttered by Cornelia Williams, the cook in Black Mountain College and the phrase was then adopted by Olson as an epigraph for The Maximus Poems. On similar lines Olson wrote an autobiographical note in November 1952 stating

‘that there is no such thing as duality either of the body and the soul or of the world and I, that the fact of the human universe is the discharge of the many (the multiple) by the one…’

In the opening stanza of the sixth of Peter Larkin’s intensely focused poems we can recognise this inseparable connection between the one and the many as ‘a bough is poised between heaven / and earth, full in leaf points to its latent interceding.’ The moving outwards of ‘points’ leads on to the later thought in the same poem:

‘,,.The tree would have no firmament without its
cloud of leaves’

In its Hebraic origins the word ‘firmament’ may well suggest ‘expanse’ as in the treading out of metals, the beating out, the making firm of a primal source. All journeys have sources and the ‘many’ is an outspreading of the ‘one’; in terms of travel, however, there is always loss as well as gain and the opening poem contemplates this inevitable relationship:

‘…The tree was soon parted
from its leaves, but not its wintering seed: what’s this
casts off any distress of tree, simply wrinkles in leaf?’

Like leaves from a tree words have an outward yearning towards different meaning and ‘leaves’ contains an echo of parting just as the word ‘wrinkles’ hints at the Thomas Nashe lines from ‘Summer’s Last Will and Testament’:

‘Beauty is but a flower,
Which wrinkles will devour,
Brightness falls from the air’

In his ‘Journal’ dated 17th October 1873 Gerard Manley Hopkins noted the unending connection between tree and leaf, the one and the many, as the end of the month brought severe frosts:

‘Wonderful downpour of leaf: when the morning sun began to melt the frost they fell at one touch and in a few minutes a whole tree was flung of them; they lay masking and papering the ground at the foot. Then the tree seems to be looking down on its cast self as blue sky on snow after a long fall, its losing, its doing.’

Contemplating movement which is loss Peter Larkin uses language in his Seven Leaf Sermons which breathes an echo of the early seventeenth century:

‘Lacking leaf a tree is not unhoused, but homeless enough
a leaf at last turns its page. It became apron
only to the underclothing of indigent tree, litter for free.
Saw-leaves, no longer interior scapes of trunk passed across
branch-scape, but sole sly ratchet in gear above tree’

The homelessness of ‘unhoused’ brings before us the King Lear whose address to the Fool signals the opening of a moment of meditative prayer the rhetoric of which would be at home in an early dissenting sermon. He exclaims ‘You houseless poverty’ before falling to his knees and addressing the world peopled with ‘houseless heads’ and ‘unfed sides’.
Peter Larkin’s ‘Sermon 3’ presents us with a leaf that ‘breathes in rain but drinks from the root’ and the etymology of words, the foundation of language, is the precursor of expression: the one leading to the many. ‘The sound of rain is its light rattle’ itself offers a continuation from Larkin’s publication from last year, Trees Before Abstinent Ground (Shearsman Books, 2019) in which

‘an out-where of
woods feathered at
joint, a fledgling
withinness with
which they flaunt

articulatio

‘Rooted from edge’ (‘exposure (A Tree) presents’, 2011 and published by Shearsman Books in 2014 under the title Give Forest Its Next Portent) had already suggested an indissoluble link between the moment of setting out and the landscape arrived at within the act of journeying and ‘Sermon 3’ offers us

‘The rain-swirl is what leaves didn’t filter, they fold
around one main curl further down, how root-scope gets
to think (sank) the shape of its drink trunk-spiralled.’

This is a beautifully produced book from Guillemot Press and the illustrations provided by Rupert Loydell add to the contemplative sense of presentation matching content; Olson would have been rather pleased with that too!

Ian Brinton, 19th August 2020

Tears in the Fence Festival 10-13 September 2020

Tears in the Fence Festival 10-13 September 2020

The Tears in the Fence Festival this year is on 10-13th September via Zoom video conferencing.

The Festival has a long history back to the 1990s and has always attempted to showcase a range of alternative voices associated with the magazine and workshop group. Each themed event stems from the issues of the day and attempts to continue conversations from the previous Festival. The Festival consists of readings, discussions, conversations, and is a gathering of friends and an opportunity to make new friends. Previous themes have included ‘Difference and the Other’, ‘Visionaries and Outsiders’, ‘Hidden Connections’ and ‘The Politics of Engagement’. This year’s theme in the shadow of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter is ‘Lost Connections: Light and Darkness’.
There will be sessions around migration, environmental, multilingual, power and gender dynamics, colonial issues as well as the solitudes and vicissitudes of lockdown. There will be talks, videos, conversations with celebrated poets and the opportunity to question readers and panellists. Above all, there will be stimulating readings and conversations. We shall also be using breakout rooms for further late night social discussions.

Amongst our guests will be Sascha Akhtar, Sarah Cave, Simon Collings, Rachael Clyne, Jennifer K. Dick, Andrew Duncan, Allen Fisher, John Freeman, Mandy Haggith, L. Kiew, Hari Marini, Rethabile Masilo, Geraldine Monk, Jessica Mookherjee, Joanna Nissel, Rhea Seren Phillips, Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani, Gavin Selerie, Aidan Semmens, Maria Stadnicka, Cherry Smyth, Harriet Tarlo, Olivia Tuck, Molly Vogel plus some surprise guests.

Tears in the Fence encourages social inclusion and welcomes under-represented poets and writers to attend this year’s festival. 15 free bursaries are on offer to anyone who might not otherwise be able to attend.
Bursary applicants may identify as (but are not limited to) any of the following: BAME writers, writers on no/low income, working class writers, writers from areas of rural or coastal deprivation, writers who have experienced homelessness, refugee writers, writers in the LGBTQ+ communities, writers who have survived abuse, disabled writers, neurodivergent writers, and writers with chronic health conditions. To apply for a free pass to all festival events please email tearsinthefence@gmail.com with the subject line ‘2020 Festival Bursary’. These will be issued on a first come, first serve basis.

David Caddy 18th August 2020

1348 & Other Equations by Valeria Melchioretto (Eyewear Pamphlet Series)

1348 & Other Equations by Valeria Melchioretto (Eyewear Pamphlet Series)

Poems about plagues have an understandable fascination nowadays, and this one, published in 2019, was ahead of the curve. 1348 was the Western European advent of the Black Death, and the title’s ‘equation’ here appears in its root sense of ‘making equal’ – not only in the irreparable way that death does, but also in terms of social re-stratification in the plague’s aftermath. Starting from England, and travelling with the Arthurian Prince Galehaut, the poem quickly reaches Italy, for 1348 is also the year The Decameron is set, its narrators wintering out from the carnage in Florence. Events in Boccaccio’s narrative and Pasolini’s film version are alluded to, but especially their themes: fortune, sex, trickery, mercantilism, class conflict and Church corruption. The poem has a lot of fun, too, with medieval numerology, expanding (or detouring) onto the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man.

Some readers might be attracted less by the subject-matter than by hopes for more of the unique flavour of The End of Limbo, this poet’s earlier collection; for her far-out metaphors and eye-popping turns of phrase. They do reappear, but in place of the personal and family histories the voice here is of an annalist and purveyor of sententiae, reporting, lamenting, bewailing, and making historical and philosophical assertions. It does so in long, end-stopped lines, building into tercets that claim ancestry from the era’s terza rima, but with its devices of rhyme-scheme and metre now faded and only flickeringly detectable.

Those few left behind are without oat to cook or sprout
But now they own plenty of land to firmly plant their feet.
The righteous are said to bloom honourably as bay trees.

The marvellous quirkiness is still there: creditors ‘ascend the layers of millefoglie to reach heaven’; death ‘wears the skin of the living like the latest fashion’; dead peasants ‘went to plough the clouds’; poetry ‘is a scream under the skin’. On the other hand, in such a high-risk style some of the wordplay will inevitably be a matter of taste: ‘their issues take no issue with ill cruelty’; ‘overflowing coffers turn into overflowing coffins’; ‘the apple of the eye doesn’t keep the doctor away’. Unless perhaps it’s all the more fitting for The Decameron’s own blends of the sublime and the ridiculous. In either case, where the thoughts’ content (as befits the annalist’s character) is conventional, wit and readerly pleasure necessarily lie in the mode of expression. But there are occasional jump-cuts and flat lines and sometimes great ideas seem to be just missing a final edit:

Alas, rich patrons still carry cathedrals on their bad backs,
buy indulgences to fill treasure-troves and secure bliss,
bribe Saint Peter to turn a blind eye – turn heaven’s key.

This unusual and intermittently brilliant poem ends by briefly sketching Pasolini’s murder at Ostia, and then alerting us that the plague bacillus is still around, carried by rodents and occasionally infecting humans. Well, these days I suppose we can never be reminded too often.

Guy Russell 16th August 2020

Keeping in touch, virtually: two publications from the time of distancing

Keeping in touch, virtually: two publications from the time of distancing

Untitled, 2020, (The London Magazine: edited by Matthew Scott and available from Lucy Binnersley at the magazine’s headquarters at 11 Queen’s Gate, London, SW7 5EL)

Quarantine, (Muscaliet Press: edited by Moyra Tourlamain and available on the Press’s website at https://www.muscaliet.co.uk/the-quarantine-notebooks/)

Dated June this year Matthew Scott’s Preface to The London Magazine’s powerful collection of writings arising out of the Covid-19 lock-down opens with a quotation from Samuel Beckett: ‘a mind like the one I always had, always on the alert against itself’. That use of the word ‘alert’ places the importance of what will follow in a very particular time-frame:

‘To be alert to complacencies of thought is surely a good thing but Beckett’s phrase also seems to imply a mind at work against its own well-being. In my case, that quality of the mind working against itself has been a mark of this difficult period; clarity of thought becoming clouded by an oppressive form of uncertainty even more quickly than usual. This surely comes from being without many of the accustomed means to escape the narrow confines of the individual consciousness when it feels cooped up.’

Feeling ‘cooped up’ raises interesting issues about imprisonment and one aspect of the last few months has been the manner in which time seems to change. In ‘Faraway Close’, a title in which contradictories bump into each other, Elleke Boehmer writes about how, as one lockdown day follows another, time passes but ‘lacks texture’:

‘One week on, it is difficult to remember what we did last Monday or Tuesday’.

The Oxford Professor of World Literature proceeds to focus upon how lockdown ‘has made the idea of distant proximity immediate and present in ways I could not have anticipated’ and suggests that ‘we needed a new vocabulary for talking about being remote together, an oxymoronic lexicon for feeling each other across distance, for thinking as one across the miles, faraway but close’. The merging of distance and nearness must be ever present in the mind of the prisoner and Xavier de Maistre’s 1794 undertaking of a forty-two days’ journey around his room when he was under arrest in Turin is a disturbingly contemporary insight into the world of virtual reality:

‘I have undertaken and performed a forty-two days’ journey round my room. The interesting observations I have made, and the constant pleasure I have experienced all along the road, made me wish to publish my travels.’

The prisoner here delights in ‘being able thus to expand the soul’s existence’ in a way that might remind one of the world of Dickens’s Little Dorrit which is referred to Quarantine 6 as the wife of Plornish the plasterer creates her fictional reality by means of the decoration of her living room: she paints the outside of a thatched country cottage on the inside of her cramped walls in Bleeding Heart Yard near Clerkenwell. For the inhabitants of this claustrophobic tenement which exists below the level of the main streets of London this interior decoration is ‘a most wonderful deception’ and ‘it made no difference that Mrs Plornish’s eye was some inches above the level of the gable bed-room in the thatch’: pictures can encourage the mind to escape from the narrow confines of physical space. However, whereas the uplifting sentimentality of a film such as The Shawshank Redemption which offers us full-length photographs of film stars acting as cover for a literal passage to freedom, what is remarkably moving about Untitled, 2020 is its quiet understanding of a more mundane and convincingly real human predicament. Matthew Scott’s Preface points out that we cannot all be like de Maistre (nor Mrs. Plornish) and the ‘pleasures of domesticity and the consolations of the ordinary are at least in part granted by our capacity to escape them from time to time.’
Peter Robinson’s contribution to The London Magazine’s collection involves both reminiscence and shrewd awareness. He vividly recalls for us his years involved with teaching in Japan and of living in Parma and ‘Parmese Days’ echoes Matthew Scott’s thoughts about the need for life outside confinement:

‘During the last few weeks, I have heard some writers say, whether on the radio or privately, that this lockdown has not radically disrupted their necessarily withdrawn working-from-home lives’.

As Robinson points out this is mostly not true for him since so much of his work for about nine months of the year ‘would normally include face-to-face meetings with colleagues and students’. For Simon Smith in Quarantine 9 (24th May)

‘it is evening
me tight up on the microphone & microscope
intent on the details
unseen to the eye
& the covenant that part
to inhabit the space between perimeter fence & watchtower’

whereas Suzi Feay writes a piece in Untitled, 2020 which strikes a convincingly understated awareness of these times as she notes that ‘when there’s nothing happening out there, occurrences in here loom larger’:

‘My subconscious, desperate for input, now goes into overdrive at night, instantly processing the skimpy contents of the day into dreams.’

And again Moyra Tourlamain’s poem ‘Lockdown let loose’ in Quarantine 10 brings into focus how

‘This bit’s pulling all the stops
Out of mind, heart
Skull and bones the next
Best foot forward to stay
In the same place.’

Ian Brinton 26th 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

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