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Category Archives: English Poetry

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

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

Nothing Is Being Suppressed: British Poetry of the 1970s by Andrew Duncan (Shearsman Books)

Nothing Is Being Suppressed: British Poetry of the 1970s by Andrew Duncan (Shearsman Books)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am glad Andrew Duncan has written his books about 20th century poetry, but I wish he’d do some proper research, reference material, and not be so opinionated (or at least use critical material to back up his arguments). But at least he is paying attention to what went on in the world of poetry (or parts of it), this time in 1970s Britain, the decade when I first encountered and paid attention to small presses and alternative bookshops, though in my case it was a weird mix of Brian Patten, Adrian Mitchell, Ted Hughes, Ken Smith and Julian Beck alongside T.S. Eliot and the WW1 poets I was studying at the time in school. For me though, postpunk and improvised music was in the mix, as well as experimental theatre and radical politics – and I wish poetry was sometimes considered in relation to what else was going on at the time.

There are, it has to be said, some great sections in this book, and it does feel like the most shaped and edited of Duncan’s critical volumes. That doesn’t of course, mean there isn’t his normal conjecture, assumption and generalisations, sometimes made using scant evidence. In fact the first chapter of Nothing is being suppressed is called ‘Generalisations about the Seventies’ which, despite my scepticism, is an intelligent series of statements ‘designed not to be controversial’ but ‘placed as the front as a basis’, a kind of foundation for what follows. It works well, even if one feels one can’t argue back to what is being presented as a given here.

Duncan it at his best when he writes at length about a subject, so chapter such as ‘Speaking Volumes’, a weirdly selective summary of what books were published when, and his quick dips into Conceptual Art and Visual Poetry are less successful. Yes, Michael Gibbs and John Powell Ward are good examples of the latter, but one can’t help feeling that Duncan is regurgitating information gathered up in a recent Uniform Books edition on the former, and that other visual poetry by the likes of Bob Cobbing also deserve attention.

Chapters on ‘Psychedelic Coding’ and ‘Post-western’ (not cowboys but Western society seen through fringe science, home and landscape: a good example of wider contextualisation) are better, if brief, whilst elsewhere Duncan seems to want to elevate a few selected names. There’s a whole chapter on Colin Simms and his poems of American experience, whilst the oddly titled chapter ‘The Bloodshed, the Shaking House‘ creates a kind of alternative history, or ‘folklore’, where ‘Martin Thom and Brian Marley are remembered as the supreme moments of the Seventies, the excelling goals for journeys to bring the dace back to life.’ Their work is interesting but one gets the feeling of a desperate attempt at literary mouth-to-mouth resuscitation long after the corpse has gone cold.

Elsewhere, another strangely titled chapter, ‘The Geothermal Turret: News of Warring Clans‘, turns out to be an erudite and considered critique of Prynne’s work; in fact one of the most lucid discussions of his poetry I’ve read. It’s a highlight of the book, along with chapters on Iain Sinclair, Allen Fisher (though I think this is mostly drawn from Duncan’s book of interviews with him – apologies if this is wrong), and a discussion about ‘Who Owns the Future?’, where Duncan questions the critical elevation of Ken Smith and Basil Bunting. This is mostly intelligent and well-reasoned, although I fail to see why Smith’s marvellous Fox Running prompts Duncan to ask ‘Why doesn’t Smith describe feelings?’ Because the reader can work them out from the events and description in the text; they don’t need to be explicit!

In a strange example of synchronicity, I’d been rereading and listening to Briggflatts before my copy of the book arrived. I can understand Duncan’s suspicions about the imposition of a new canon or hierarchy but it seems to me that there are obvious answers to be had. Ken Smith was one of two Bloodaxe authors who the publisher managed to get high profile publicity for: in Smith’s case this was mostly the result of him being writer-in-residence at Wormwood Scrubs prison. Bunting was very much a neglected modernist, and – as Duncan I’m sure knows – was reintroduced to the poetry world by Tom Pickard, at a time when modernism was being reconsidered, and ‘poetry of the North’, ideas of place and locale, as well as dialect and excluded voices, were in vogue. That doesn’t mean I don’t rate both these poets and texts highly, it’s just the way things happened. I for one am glad that both Fox Running and Briggflatts remain in print and continue to attract readers.

Strangely, neither of these texts get a mention in the other fantastic chapter, where Duncan considers ‘the Long Poem of the 1970s’ by discussing the long poems, plural, of the era. Duncan makes a strong case for them being ‘a feature of the 1970s’, offers up a lengthy but selective reading list, and then offers brief comments on a strange selection of these, often ­ missing out texts I’m not alone in thinking important, e.g Ted Hughes’ Crow. Perhaps Duncan feels enough words and time have been spent analysing the more famous poems he names, perhaps he is attempting to be inclusive, write about his favourites, or draw attention to neglected work? There’s also, of course, the possibility that what he writes about had more of a presence at the time, although I’m not convinced.

Whilst it’s good to see long poems or sequences by W.S. Graham, David Jones (a bit of a shoe-in), Harry Guest, (An)Tony Lopez, Allen Fisher, and Andrew Crozier included, I’m far less interested in the work of Jeremy Reed, Ian Crichton Smith and George Macbeth (who Duncan disses anyway). There’s an interesting conclusion to the chapter, noting the practical and financial difficulties of publishing long poems in magazines, proposing that long poems were ‘a line of advance’, and suggesting that 

‘The starting point for these poems is questions which are rather older and which were often put by readers of poetry. The questions where, what is your moral and theological vision? And what is your political commitment and system? The long poems connect to the questions but don’t answer them […]’

I’m not convinced, although Duncan is astute in realising that long poems were often written due to ‘internal exile, a rejection of the values of the news media and of what political and cultural authorities were saying.’ He also notes that ‘rejection could either be from the Right of the Left and was certainly more to do with the failure of authority than with dislike of their success.’

He mentions Judith Kazantzis here, someone whose work I certainly feel is neglected, but mostly adheres to the binary notion of ‘mainstream poets like Thwaite, Hooker, Wain, Hill, Humphreys’ (despite recognizing that their work is ‘similar to the alternative poetry’) in opposition to ‘the Underground’, cynically suggesting that ‘[t]here was an alternative everything‘ and that in the end ‘[t]he unavoidable questions of the mid-70s were resolved by a wide-spectrum surrender to the power of capital’ and that ‘[a]lternatives became less fascinating.’

Yes, but… Resolved or defeated? Isn’t there a difference? And what about new innovative and experimental poetries that emerged despite the collapse of the so-called Underground? Just as small publishers found new ways to sell their books after the collapse of alternative bookshops, just as society changed and adapted after the end of the 60s utopian dream, poets found new audiences, new forms, new media, new ways of publishing, new ways to write. In his ‘Afterword’, Duncan offers a different picture, accepting that ‘you can see the Underground as a river that breaks up into dozens of shallow streams and finally runs into the sand.’ I’m a cynic at heart, but this seems simplistic and negative, reductionist even. I’m interested in some of those streams, and believe that some find routes to other lakes and oceans.

I can’t help feeling that Duncan sometimes strays too close to the mainstream, focussing on published books, whilst choosing to stay away from performance poetry (where are John Cooper Clarke and Attila the Stockbroker in Duncan’s 1970s?), theatre or stand-up. Maybe even song lyrics (Howard Devoto anyone?), let alone the freeform improvisations of Julie Tippets and Maggie Nichols at the London Musicians Collective which might be considered as sound poetry? And where is Michael Horovitz? Surely he at least deserves a mention?

No, nothing is being suppressed, least of all by Andrew Duncan. There’s no conspiracy, but I want a bigger, different picture. I know  that part of this is to do with taste (it always is), but I can’t help feeling Duncan doesn’t quite play his cards straight here: is this a survey, a critical book, or Andrew Duncan’s extended desert island books? How critically detached or emotionally invested is he? ‘There is grey sludge underneath consciousness’, he declaims in his discussion of liminality and the sublime, a sludge Duncan thankfully keeps well away from, preferring to stay in the sludge-free thinking zone.

In the end, the ‘Afterword’ lets Duncan cover his tracks. He notes that the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn in 2019 has added another layer to his and our perception of radicalism, and altered the underlying thesis of how he began this book, and acknowledges that ‘[t]here is a whole world of alternative poets today’, at the same time giving a nod to visual arts and literary theorists. He concludes by answering some of my questions, stating that he wanted ‘to rescue things that have never been written down and which are threatened with forgetfulness and decay’, and declaring that he is ‘describing what people said and wrote in the 1970s’ whilst flagging up the problem with setting aside ‘what people in 2020 [and presumably 2022] think about the time and what selective memory processes have been set in motion to cover up deception.’ If he almost undermines the whole project with his jibe that ‘any kind of marketing is better than total oblivion’, he then recovers enough for an upbeat ending, where despite ‘discontinuity’ there is ‘a whole theme park of abandoned poetic projects’ to explore. I can’t see how Duncan can dissociate himself from contemporary poetry and thought, but once again he has produced an intelligent, provocative and sometimes annoying volume.

Rupert Loydell 31st March 2022

Atoms by Clive Gresswell (erbacce press)

Atoms by Clive Gresswell (erbacce press)

Atoms is a free flowing pamphlet-length prose poem, a sinuous sweep through the first quarter of the 21st century as it lurches into and out of lockdown. I’m reminded of Carl Jung’s essay on James Joyce’s Ulysses in which he refers to the work as a cosmic tapeworm. Jung initially wants us to see this as an insult, characterising writing he saw produced as much by an autonomic nervous system as by an aesthetic intelligence. But something in Jung’s writing feels conflicted. It’s as if he almost admires Ulysses for its parasitic processing power. And as it turns out, he does. He says of the book:

     There is life in it, and life in never exclusively evil and destructive…it wants to be an 

     eye of the moon, a consciousness detached from the object, in thrall neither to the 

     gods, nor to sensuality, and bound neither by love nor hate, neither by conviction nor 

     by prejudice ‘Ulysses’ does not preach this but practices it—detachment of 

     consciousness is the goal the through the fog of this book

Atoms is a tape worm. It is the 21st century eating itself. It has an internal logic this way, it has aesthetics this way, and in this way it is alive. You don’t feel the sense of the poet behind the poem, generating the old A level questions, what is Gresswell thinking? what does he mean? The writing can do that for itself, thank you. It’s a clever worm, a socialist worm, a worm that frankly has to stomach a lot when it comes to eating history. Deep down it’s probably quite glad to be a worm, that it doesn’t have to retch, or stop to demonstrate its outrage. It can leave that to the reader, maybe even its author, but it won’t care about that. The best writing has long since ceased to care for its author:

     Some of the atomic figures were fictitious. The prime minister instilled a sense of

     calm into the proceedings. More zygotes wrapped themselves around the institutions. 

     They bled racism into the walls of their buildings. Hurrah for common sense and the  jaws of death.  (p.6)

Try and figure out the series of ironies here, finishing with that ‘hurrah’. That last sentence is like the ghost in the machine—who says this? The are aspects to the writing that look programmatic, or like a form of cut-up or fold-in, splicing different words and phrases against each other. Here you can imagine the ‘atomic figures’ and ‘zygotes’ could just be dropped in from the discourse suggested by the title of the poem, but in another way they just feel literal, like the sentence between them (except, of course, when has our prime minister done this, really?). And that’s it.   

The language of atoms and zygotes keeps breaking the surface, as if a submerged and subversive force, pre-sentient, questioning us as to who is in charge. The political, the social, undermined by the real drivers, particles, cells, chaos theory: 

     No more night flying caffeine cells to dispute wages dismantled by atomic discipline and wiring.  (p.11)

     Foot-first though the frostbit forest. Matriculation in the atomic sequence. No one 

     here to captivate an audience.  (p.16)

     Still pumping hard a faithful heart draws blood rushing crucifixion to the art of 

     capital atoms. Capital letters adorning wisps of lager clouds.  (pp.27-28)

The connection between the senses of ‘capital’ here isn’t metaphoric, it’s literal. Something in Atoms wants to tell us that nothing is metaphor, everything is contiguous, metonymy. 

Atoms is angry. Who is it angry with? Trump, Johnson and Starmer are named targets, but across the whole piece it seems plain that Atoms is angry with an ideology, a neo-liberal ideology underpinned by the return of humanism. It is angry to know that beneath everything, humanism is not humane. You can see the influence of Sean Bonney in this poem, but with one major difference. Bonney’s work takes things personally, and there is a subject position to suffer it all for us. Here Gresswell’s text presents no subject: if you feel the abjection consequent to its violence, there is no proxy. You take it. You have to live here:

     Recalled and on pianos in destitution unfurled by Universal Credit music. Fashions  come and go in times of rigor mortise. (p.35)

Keith Jebb 12th March 2022

Same But Different by Helen Mort & Katrina Naomi (Hazel Press)

Same But Different by Helen Mort & Katrina Naomi (Hazel Press)

     This enthralling collection is a collaborative project by two award-winning poets that was developed during the lockdown of 2020 in a dialogue between Penzance and Sheffield. They exchanged artwork and their favourite poems, and doing so triggered the compositions that were published without attribution after a year of conversation. Hazel Press focuses on environmental issues, climate change and feminist writing, emphasising the possibilities of renewal and survival. The poems in this collection are loosely and poignantly in line with these themes and go beyond them. The poems work in pairs and are divided into ten sections that are reminders of lockdown situations, such as the future, reflection, rise and take or give. Instinctively, we read the poems in pairs and probably think that maybe one was written by Naomi and the other by Mort. But which poem did each of them write? We will never know.

     In a podcast recorded at the LRB bookshop they explain that the process started from images they exchanged and a poem. Then they wrote two poems in response, producing something that they call ‘the same and different’. However, nothing is ‘the same’ in this collection; each poem is unique in its skilfully crafted language and fresh imageries:

[…] At dusk, 

I open the pantry door and he charges towards it 

barreling, a ball of midnight, muscular shadow,

come to shame me with his bravery. In India, 

in the north where wild bamboo grows

there is a rat flood every fifty years.

[…]

When rats move past me

I become a figure of speech in his damp world.

Which of us is living now? We are finished 

with words.                                                               (‘Rat’)

     One poem answers another, though they are not necessarily in the same pair. Multiple strands interweave with different topics, such as animals, the outdoors, family, children, writing, successes and failures, and the pandemic is always subtly present. Time magically expands in a constant meditation as if it has no limits. We have time for everything and for nothing during the lockdown: everything might happen and yet we live with restrictions and limitations. It is the imagination that therefore creates this expansion. Thoughts unravel and produce what is impossible in the real world, at least for a while:

the first time she finds herself      among brown strands

between fear and wonder      floating      in this other world

of upside down       a place a person could wed herself to

so much dank silence       beyond her breath       the gentle

murmur of limbs       in suspension       their arc and splay

there’s no peace like this in the dry country

(‘in the kelp forest’)

     The atmosphere evoked in the poem is a reminder of Alice in Wonderland, its dreamlike tone, weightless fall and suspension in the rabbit hole symbolically linked to the conditions during the pandemic.

     In this fruitful dialogue, friendship and sisterhood flourished between Naomi and Mort. However, their communion develops in independent paths in a multifaceted vision that is committed to conveying seriously good poetry. The power of imagination is therefore revealed in all its strength; it fills the void of the pandemic in the act of storytelling that is renewing despite drawbacks and failures:

Each morning, I have filled myself

to brimming with the scent of our child,

with coffee and good intentions,

playgroups and home-made dens

then each evening I have set myself down

on an unmade bed, emptied.                                               (‘Glass’)

As soon as I’d cleaned my aching teeth

I focused on failure

hugged it to me for hours

After a quick soup and salad

I took my failure for a walk

paraded it round the village each day

saw the tide rise and fall on                                     (‘Small Yellow Boat’)

The poets eventually invest in emotions. Their feelings guide them in the intricacies of the unpredictable and apparent ordinariness of the lockdown, its silence and forced stillness. The dynamic of creativity breaks this destiny and spurs new views and new forms.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 21st February 2022

The Goldfish by Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi Degoul Illustrated by Emma Wright (The Emma Press)

The Goldfish by Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi Degoul Illustrated by Emma Wright (The Emma Press)

The poems of the Indonesian poet Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi Degoul featured in The Goldfish trace a journey of self-awareness and rebirth from the limited world of a fishbowl to a freedom that was difficult to achieve. The narratives are surreal and thought-provoking and challenge stereotypes concerning femininity in an often-fragmented discourse. Ayuning Maharsi Degoul’s explorations play with the ‘inhuman’ qualities of the fish but also evoke the realistic condition of a woman being constricted because of her limited environment. Her anger and disillusionment are expressed in continuous provocations that envisage sheer rebellion and suggest alternatives:

Stars are starving

Cats are getting mad

My mouth

                   wide open

O what I – 

I need to be a newborn

                              immediately

                                                    delivered by a long river

O what I – 

                      I 

                                              need

                       to give birth to the newest me            every day

Ovulating my apperception.                   (‘The Goldfish’)

         ‘O revolt!’ is announced in the poem ‘Rebellion Red’; she refuses ‘to be a clown anymore’ and wishes to change her perspective. It seems to be a problem that concerns surviving a reality that entails trapping her, and it needs to be transformed. Stereotypes about women, such as the idea that they should ‘be joyful […] be accepting’ are questioned in a new view of displacement where the self finds her home ‘everywhere’, a vagabond by choice in a voyage between earth and sea (voyage entre terre et mer) that echoes Jules Verne’s novels such as Voyage to the Bottom of the SeaVoyage to the Centre of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. The reference to Horace’s ode ‘Carpe Diem’ (‘Carpe Diem pour de vrai’) emphasises the wish to change and live life to the full despite possible future risks:

carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero

seize the day, to the least extent possible trusting in the next one

(Horace, ‘Carpe Diem’, Ode 1:11)

The poems are superbly illustrated by Emma Dai’an Wright, the founder of Emma Press. They are black and white watercolour pictures, except on the front cover, where the goldfish is red. The pictures enhance the poems through the simple yet skilful rendering of them that adds movement to the dynamic and flow of the lines. The colour red recalls the goldfish and is also linked to red lipstick and to the passion of love:

Red for statement, not solely for existence

Red for braveness, to conquer the day

Like all mothers of my mothers      Lipstick stains are a symbol 

of beauty and sadness

passion and craziness                   (‘Lipstick Stains’)

Transformation finally happens in a celebration of women’s love. The poet feels ‘vibrations everywhere. […] My soul is vibrant.’ It is like ‘a breeze on a dry day’ and a ‘statement of femininity’. She invents a new self and a new language that breaks her free, mixing some words in Indonesian and Japanese with English. Although the final poems celebrate happy days of ‘laughing and singing together […] holding, hands in trust and true honour’, they also reveal some worries in the final lines of ‘Highball’: Abunai yo!, which means ‘watch out’ in Japanese. 

The ‘super ugly goldfish’ is eventually flushed down the toilet, but its shadow might come back in unexpected shapes.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 15th February 2022

Look, Breathe by Chris Powici (Red Squirrel Press)

Look, Breathe by Chris Powici (Red Squirrel Press)

This 66 page collection of poems arrives with translations in Scots, Gaelic, Doric, Orcadian and a host of other Scots dialects – there’s Flemish and Dutch translations too. The main delivery comes from substantial poems written by Chris Powici which have been transcribed, essentially, by Scots poets into local speech. The result opens a rich soundscape of regional locution.

         Chris Powici’s poems find unity through a field of concerns that connect in time, space and locality. His poems put a finger on particular synchronicities of observations, memories and experience that manifest, mainly through acts of nature.

         ‘Lamlash Nights’ (p.52) begins with gulls settling for evening that, ‘put their faith in café roofs / and car park walls / even the little iron-coloured waves’, the observation broken by the playful thought of grabbing nearby anchoring chains and hauling in a small boat or even the local ferry, complete with a cargo of monks, before snapping back to observation of locality: ‘meanwhile the chitter of gull / the push of the tide’. The poem moves again and quickly to abstraction and reflective thought

                  everything’s as ordinary and holy as bread or rain

                  as the way I remember my mother’s hand on my sleeve

                  pale, liver-spotted, so thin

                  it seemed no more than the weight of a glove

and concludes in conflating observation of locality while thoughts stretch ever outward over the sea and higher into the night sky

                  beyond Holy Isle, the moon

                  – that shining, far-out buoy –

                  rides the black swell

                  making sense of the depths

         Cosmic allusions are apparent, the final verse places weight on all that has possibly occurred for millennia juxtaposed with the time, held within the poem. The word ‘depths’ reaches out not only to the deepness of a moon-governed sea but in every direction of time and space. What is arrived at is the subject of the poem is the poem itself and not any single part of it. Those elements stand as content.

         There is nothing cold or academic about the poems in Look, Breathe  – quite the opposite; warmth flows in appreciation of people

                  the passengers talk about grandchildren

                  and weather and who’s died

                  and who’s still with us by the grace of God

                                                                        ‘Happens’ (p.46)

         In the poem ‘Wild Summer’ (p.22), dedicated to the memory of nature poet Angus Dunn, Powici is walking the great outdoors, observing the quality of light on a late afternoon in Glen Tye. Recent weather has featured ‘blinding rain’ with ‘hills lost to thick noonday mist’, when

                  A raven lifts from a fencepost

                  and gives itself to the cold, marvellous air

                  pitching and wheeling

                  as if there’s no tomorrow, as if there’s

                  only ever hunger, longing, flight – here, now

He captures this moment then sets it free, turning to speak directly and in revelation to the absent Angus Dunn 

                  and this, as you know, is the real poem Angus –

                  a lone dark bird telling the truth about the world

                  telling it well –

                  not these words

Four lines to which aspiring poets and established poets alike should be directed. Powici uses that moment of change to usher in powerlessness of poetic words when faced with the very essence of poetry itself.

         There’s a Who’s Who of translators at the end of the book, along with several glossaries attending to words in dialect and, turning to the translations, the reader becomes aware of just how much local colour is poured into the rewritten poems. In the translations language becomes beautifully strange, often glancing off the English glyph but emitting an aural mystery from an age that seems almost lost.

         Side by side, the original poems and translations illustrate how ‘the mind of language’, distinct as it ever wants to be, races to embrace another. That spirit evident in Stephanie Van De Peer’s search for a suitable translation for ‘fox bark’ – see her note (p.61).

Ric Hool 12th February 2022

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