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Category Archives: English Poetry

A White Year by Anna Lewis (Maquette Press)

A White Year by Anna Lewis (Maquette Press)

As the blurb on the back cover of this important small collection of poems tells us, the chapbook follows a year in the life of one young inhabitant of a Late Iron Age lake village at Glastonbury. In a world not entirely dissimilar to that explored by Emmanuel Le Roi Ladurie in his monumental recreation of the life of the Cathars in the area of South West France, Montaillou, Anna Lewis has based her poems on excavation reports especially those of the nineteenth-century local archaeologist, Arthur Bulleid.
The sixteen-page poem is divided into four sections and it focuses upon the ending of a way of life as the tribe is compelled to move away in reaction to a shift in climate conditions. This is not an angry or ecologically strident tale which we are being told; it is a convincingly aware reaction to changes in the outside world. It is a migrant’s tale:

“Raindrops collect like blossom on the boughs,
hang in the light an hour, and fall. By now
the grass should be dry to the root,

ants raising forts beside the paths;
as it is, rain flays the tender shoots,
the stone tracks sink into the marsh.”

There is a visual simplicity to this awareness of things not being right. The comparison between rain and blossom dangles a sense of future before us but the underlying menace cannot be ignored as the “By now” ends a line and the awareness of time lost is emphasized by what seems to be enormous distance. After all, the grass should by this time “be dry to the root”: there, after all, would be security and repetition for a future. The invasion of flood is registered by the ants “raising” what can only in effect be a temporary rearguard action, “forts beside the paths”. More disturbingly, the stone tracks sink into the marsh.
How is truth registered? In a world before the internet one could presumably only wait for news and in this sharply conceived realization of village life news is dependent upon the relied-upon return of the traveler.

“The boats are days late, with no word
from the men. When, behind our mother’s back
dark prints surge across the flags,

her face turns grey-white as the morning sky”

I take the dark prints to suggest the seeping dampness of water that is coming in and the use of the term for writing (“prints”) has an ominous feel of that which might have appeared from nowhere upon a wall during a feast.
The narrative which threads its way through this momentous year of change is firmly linked to the narrator’s small sister and the rain which is going to change for ever a way of life finds its counterpart in the “cloud” which “gathered weight inside her lungs”

“and as the brushwood shifted on the mere,
she sank from us.”

As populations move in response to environmental change they leave behind those traces that are unearthed by later excavations. In this case, as the information on the cover tells us, “One of the more enigmatic finds from the site was a lump of strange ‘bread’ consisting of un-broken wheat grains bound with a mysterious substance, possibly honey.”

“An exceptionally fine sheet bronze bowl was recovered from outside the palisade, where it had been discarded, or perhaps placed deliberately: the deposition of material into both wet and dry locations was a common Iron Age votive practice.”

As the sequence of poems ends the reader is left like the narrator:

“I sit quiet in the moss,
watch rain widen on the lake”

The lack of a final full-stop leaves us contemplating the migrant’s future. This is a terrific poem for these times and I suggest that if there any of the 100 copies left that were published towards the end of last year as Maquette # 8 then you could do no better than to get hold of one. The sequence makes a very fine complement to the Comma Press Refugee Tales.

Maquette Press,
7 Grove Terrace,
Teignmouth,
Devon
TQ14 9HT

I am pleased to be able to leave this little review as my last word before taking off for two weeks in Skiathos!

Ian Brinton, 9th July, 2018

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Cold Calling (Equipage), World Frequency (Magpie Moon) by Nick Totton

Cold Calling (Equipage), World Frequency (Magpie Moon) by Nick Totton

New collections by Nick Totton are a delight and when he sent me these two a couple of months ago they were accompanied by a note that said “I thought you would like to see these fruits of my poetic renaissance. You wait for years and two come along at once…”
This image of movement and recurrence is central to Totton’s poetry and in a review of the 1976 Many Press collection, A Talisman, Bill Bennett had written in Perfect Bound 2:

“The function of the stars in ‘A Talisman’: so many of the poems ending on an edge, break or shift into another element. The stars bound the digestive tract of the poem’s working, a greasy infinity that adapts its own definitions, ‘the dream swallows me / and I am fed by it, star-milk, star- / breath’. Whether or not that space they offer is release, having freed the tongue to abdicate from it, a slackness of the jaw.”

Bennett continued to suggest that the very reticence of our utterance is the catch, and slowly, in these poems, “we can see a direct statement shaping itself, the alibis accounted for, and leaving a knowledge of possible direction coiled back on itself, a whip at rest”. Totton had worked with Ian Patterson and Martin Thom in a 1977 Cambridge publication, More Follows and then again in 1979 for a Curiously Strong publication Love Laughs at Locksmiths. It is now no surprise to read his recent opening poem to cold calling, ‘A Real Eye Opener’ being for Ian Patterson:

“Returned to the present by hand, solitude comes to play
in the immense game of air
where no pale architecture
makes a desiring rupture, where no
one’s waiting limousines
leave a silver hint at the transfer threshold.”

The Lacanian act of projection forward being at once an act of drawing back reminds us of the Moebius strip, to the topology of which Lacan devoted a good deal of thought:

“I am what I will have been for what I am in the process of becoming.”

In the words of the poet Michael Grant, retired lecturer in English at Kent University, the importance of whose work is being celebrated in a forthcoming festschrift Saluting Steadiness, “In Lacan’s view, it is this temporality of the future anterior that engenders, and is engendered by, the retroactive temporality of the speech act itself, of language in its taking place.” In the words of Nick Totton, poet whose work found a natural resting-place in the Carcanet anthology A Various Art

“What pierced name hangs reversed in startled air?
The bell is out of order but the drill
went smoothly through to the meat of it;
like slipping on the soap we are flung
into the future, where everything
happens twice.”

These are fascinating poems and their debts are fully acknowledged. ‘Drone Congregation’ is written for JH Prynne and it opens with a quotation from Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary: “DREAM…From the same root as drone and drum”. The opening lines of the poem themselves echo the cadences of Prynne’s work:

“Mating occurs in flight: to compress the kill chain
with great speed and force into her opened sting chamber,
a sweet target defined by environmental cues
clustering at predetermined frequencies” [.]

On the closing page of World Frequency (and note that reference to the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit of time) we are told that the title was originally a mistyping of Word Frequency Niand that most of the poems are “a mosaic of elements from different sources, conscious and unconscious; but a few are derived each from a single source, certain words and phrases being selected and used unchanged, always in the original order and with nothing added”. Poems are “sawn up history / being able to not maintain a stable plateau / ramping up cracked / fractions, acting almost normal against / a backdrop of shiny ice”.

Some of these poems from both collections have appeared in Tears in the Fence and in SNOW. Now they are collected together we are able to note what has become clear:

“a continuous undertow of matterings”

Ian Brinton, 5th July 2018

The Distal Point by Fiona Moore (HappenStance Press)

The Distal Point by Fiona Moore (HappenStance Press)

Reading the title poem of this debut collection I am tempted to think of Yeats’s gyres, those cones which he imagined as interpenetrating and whirling around inside one another.

“We stand at the point of greatest change—
the distal point, a shingle spit
at the end of the longshore drift.
Here the waves curve
and spill, lacing each other,
forming a landscape that moves
leached of colour.”

There is an eerie sense of threat in that last line with “leached” bringing to mind a world of infertility after so many chemical substances have been removed through intensive farming. The eye may be focussed upon the sea but the use of the word “landscape” suggests more than just a visual note about wave movement: poetic image is merged with futuristic nightmare and we are presented with a world that echoes the closing images of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine:

“The sea stretched away to the southwest, to rise into a sharp bright horizon against the wan sky. There were no breakers and no waves, for not a breath of wind was stirring. Only a slight oily swell rose and fell like a gentle breathing, and showed that the eternal sea was still moving and living.”

The second stanza of Fiona Moore’s poem opens with mystery:

“No-one who stands here
can see down the length
of the wind’s fetch
and only the gulls measure
the shape of the swell
as they swing high
on the full, low in the swale”

A feeling of isolation is brought to mind by the opening word and then strengthened in the second line by the eye’s movement “down the length” before finding further desolation with the open sound of “wind’s fetch”. The steady build-up of menace is then emphasised by placing the word “only” in relation to the gulls measuring that mathematical distance and we are confronted with a glimpse of what their birds’ eye view might hold: “the shape of the swell”. The concluding stanza confirms us in the feeling of isolation:

“and no-one has stood here before
where each accretion of ground
becomes an erosion
from the diagonal swash
and straight backwash,
the waves’ refraction and landfall.
No-one will stand here again.”

The negative of “no-one” takes on a positive presence with that opening line and if there is any hope to be preserved at this distal point it is that another “No-one will stand here again.”
Fiona Moore’s convincing understanding of the power of immediacy can be felt in both ‘Taking Visitors to Auschwitz’ and ‘After Five Years’. In the former she opens with a clarity of statement which seems to offer superficial realisation but which acts as a mask for much deeper moral understanding:

“It’s here
except it’s not.
This could be anywhere or on the edges of.
That car’s parked askew
and sparrows forage on the tarmac
while people pose each other at the entrance.”

We are in the world of course of Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ or ‘The Shield of Achilles’: suffering takes place “While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking / dully along”. Auden wrote of the ordinariness of torture and the infliction of pain:

“Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot”

In Moore’s world “Coaches drop off groups / and pick them up again”; but she moves one step further on than Auden. Whereas the earlier poet had offered us that mundanity of pain she concludes with a prompting nudge of responsibility:

“This could be anywhere or on the edges of

except it’s not,
it’s here.”

And this is one of the most powerful things about this remarkably confident first volume of poems: its understanding of the present. In ‘After Five Years’ Moore creates for us a returnee:

“You’ll carry in strange dust on your feet
if you come back now: from as far away
as this thought, out of the first twilight
long enough to feel like spring.

Orbiter of legend and distant stars…”

This is no space voyager returning to earth but a personally-known traveller whose absence has been felt. The returned traveller will be compelled to recognise what has changed in those five years of absence and will become “dazed” by both what is new and what has stayed the same. There will be a “perfection of circumstance”.
This is a debut volume of poems which stops the reader in their tracks: buy it, read it, and then read it again.

Ian Brinton 30th June 2018

Melancholy Occurrence by John Seed (Shearsman Books)

Melancholy Occurrence by John Seed (Shearsman Books)

“body partly on the
pavement partly on the road blood
streaming from the back of his head

Cornelius Grinnell of New York
owner of the steam yacht Hawk
lodging at the Royal Victoria Yacht Club

on Pier Street in Ryde
returning to his rooms after midnight
drew up the Venetian blinds

opened the window and stepped out
onto a balcony that wasn’t there
and disappeared”

John Seed opens his new book of poetic vignettes, his windows into another world, with the clear assertion that they are appropriated from mostly nineteenth-century English newspapers or inquest reports and rewritten. As Julian Barnes reminded us some years ago History isn’t what happened it’s what historians tell us happened and when contemplating the enormous canvas of Gericault’s ‘Le Radeau de la Méduse’ in the Louvre he enquired “How do you turn catastrophe into art?” John Seed’s “rewritten” transforms these pieces of news into what could be the frame for the nouveau roman or, more closely perhaps, le nouveau conte. The margin between historical reconstruction and the world of fiction was tested in 1979 by Milan Kundera in the opening four paragraphs of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

“In February 1948, Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to address the hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens packed into Old Town Square. It was a crucial moment in Czech history—a fateful moment of the kind that occurs once or twice in a millennium.
Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing next to him. There were snow flurries, it was cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. The solicitious Clementis took off his own fur cap and set it on Gottwald’s head.
The Party propaganda section put out hundreds of thousands of copies of a photograph of that balcony with Gottwald, a fur cap on his head and comrades at his side, speaking to the nation. On that balcony the history of Communist Czechoslovakia was born. Every child knew the photograph from posters, schoolbooks, and museums.
Four years later Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of history and, obviously, out of all the photographs as well. Ever since, Gottwald has stood on that balcony alone. Where Clementis once stood, there is only bare palace wall. All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald’s head.”

The famous photograph was taken on February 21st 1948 and when Vladimir Clementis was executed in 1952 he was indeed erased from the photograph. But it acts as the opening scene for a novel which Salman Rushdie referred to as being full of angels, terror, ostriches and love!
John Seed’s glimpses and glimmerings taken from those nineteenth-century newspapers raise the curtain upon a moment of dramatic intensity. In the poem I quoted at the beginning we are confronted with a conclusion: a body, partly on the road and partly on the pavement. The opening word offers us no description but its bald assertion makes it clear that this is a dead person and the most immediate cause of death may well be the blood that is “streaming” from the head. We are then taken back in time to discover the name of the dead person, his place of origin, his possession of a steam yacht and the place at which he was residing. The deft artistic quality of this little picture is then caught in the last stanza as we are invited into the room from which he fell. We are caught between the historical fact of him stepping out of the window and the immediate awareness of the moment of realisation that is followed by the fall to his death: historical information has taken on a moment of individual and personal vividness. This is very powerful writing indeed.
On the back cover of this remarkable collection of poems there is a quotation from Empire of Signs by Roland Barthes:

“The haiku’s task is to achieve exemption from meaning within a perfectly readerly discourse (a contradiction denied to Western art, which can contest meaning only by rendering its discourse incomprehensible”.

Haiku resists interpretation: it is intelligible and means nothing. Robert Duncan was haunted by this sense of what lurks behind meaning, what he referred to as a “ground of man’s imaginations”, and recalled sitting with his sister, “my mother between us”, looking at pictures as he was read to. The picture that stayed with him was of three young men sleeping on a mat one of whom was Bashō, the seventeenth-century Japanese writer of Haiku who had just woken up: the seventeen syllables of a frog jumping into an ancient pond reverberates down the years. It doesn’t mean anything but it is! And so, on Sunday 26th December 1820 in “French-alley Goswell-street” a watchman going his rounds and calling out the hour of one

“discovered a new-born infant
lying in a corner entirely naked
a few old rags around his head”

Ian Brinton 24th June 2018

The No Breath by John Goodby, Distances by Ian Seed (The Red Ceilings Press)

The No Breath by John Goodby, Distances by Ian Seed (The Red Ceilings Press)

On the back cover of John Goodby’s little volume of poems Lyndon Davies tells us why these little poems are favourites of his:

“It’s like being in a calm dark room with little slots and windowlets opening just briefly onto brilliantly lit spaces out there and all over and then closing again before you can get a really good look.”

There is of course something of Alice’s glimpses of the garden through the little door at the bottom of the rabbit-hole in this analogy but it also reminds me of the wonderful 1970 prose book by Philippe Jaccottet, Paysages avec figures absentes. Early in that short book the poet of Grignan refers to “ouvertures”, openings, like rents in the world through which one can gaze for a moment:

“And so, without desiring or seeking it, what I discovered at times was a homeland, and perhaps the most rightful one: a place which opened up to me the magical depths of Time.”

In his own words, “ces ouvertures proposées au regard intérieur apparaissaient ainsi convergentes, tels les rayons d’une sphère; ells désignaient par intermittences, mais avec obstination, un noyau comme immobile.” That glimpse of a still centre, the far perceived from the near, can be felt in Goodby’s ‘Teller’:

“Plump fingers on the keys, clumsy prey,
From all corners of the house
Opened to hear better
The same dress, with blue roses.

Just a few could have been stairwells,
Thinking of himself as he was
Matted with night and the casement,
The pointed roofs, the largeness of snow.

What opens with a title suggestive of either counting money or votes moves, with the opening words of “plump fingers” on keys, to hint at the telling of beads as well as the playing of a piano: that patient counting of meditation complements the focus upon musical notes to suggest a concentration upon the moment. The third line announces an opening which allows the pianist’s playing to be heard more widely and a touch of vision, a dress with blue roses (Hardy’s “air-blue gown?”), appears before the eye’s glimpse. The moving radii of Jaccottet’s thought lead to possible stairwells, awareness of what lies beneath the surface, and the poet rests for a moment “Matted with night”. What lies woven beneath one’s feet finds its counterpart in “pointed roofs” and an endless whiteness. It is a moment caught! A slot, a windowlet, a suggestive sense of something lying beyond the immediate.

Ian Seed’s prose vignettes reflect upon the individual in relation to others: twenty-nine little prose poems introduce us to a world of Europe and a world of domestic reminiscence. The intensity of the moment is caught rather like the way the writer finds himself standing in front of a huge bookshop that he had never seen before. As he says “The city looked different this morning”.

“The streets and squares were bathed in a beautiful, yet somehow ominous golden glow, which had so distracted me that I was now lost.”

The pressures of time mount as he realises that not only is he going to be late at the school in Turin “where I taught English as a foreign language” but that as the shop’s door is being opened by a “hunched old man with rimless spectacles” he should already, as a teacher, “been with my pupils”. The shopkeeper seems to offer an invitation to the teacher to enter this new world where books in different languages “lay on shelves that seemed to stretch into the distance”. Caught within the dreamlike moment, a world which seems to diminish the mundanity of what lies outside the shop, the writer discovers a book titled The Unseen Everyday and is compelled to recognise that here is a text “which would finally illuminate my understanding of the life beyond life”. The general vagueness of such a thought is then immediately qualified by the realisation that such an illumination belongs “within the life itself that I led, although it would never enable me to find my way around the city arrive on time.

These two little books from The Red Ceilings Press are published in limited editions of 60 and 70 copies and I suggest that you get hold of them fast before the window shuts and that glimpse of a tantalising and refreshing world disappears.

Ian Brinton, 17th June 2018

http://www.theredceilingspress.co.uk

The Small Henderson Room by John James (Ferry Press, 1969)

The Small Henderson Room by John James (Ferry Press, 1969)

A Paper given at the John James Conference, 11th March 2017

In his introduction to the Salt Reader for John James Simon Perril, referred to a ‘politics of poise’ in the poetry and to my mind this related closely to James’s wry sense of transience, his concern for the particular time and for a creative atmosphere. It is as if, in the words of the artist Peter Cartwright, “Two effects strike me as running through his poetry, in the form of an interaction of a consciousness of the visual with an acute flow of perceptions”. James came across the work of Peter Cartwright at the Survey ’67 exhibition of Abstract Painters at Camden Arts Centre which he and Andrew Crozier visited. It was there that he also came across the catalogue which included Cartwright’s comments upon his art:

“I am concerned with growth, movement and tension. Certain work is influenced not directly by, but by reaction to, natural forms and structures…I am aiming to establish a reality which will exist independently from myself. My intention is to make a vital tension between forms, to induce speculation, to create a relationship which is a synthesis between the formal and the unpredictable. Any references in my work are oblique and are references to mood.”

That statement found its way into the poem ‘Waiting’ which appeared in The Small Henderson Room published by Crozier’s Ferry Press in 1969 where the fifth section of that poem opens

“In a new blue room I rearrange
the mantelpiece, opening on it
the catalogue of the Survey ’67 Exhibition at Peter Cartwright’s
Three. Those anonymous forms wait, shakily
menacing to change shape, making
a new & unpredictable arrangement
of themselves.”

It was after seeing Cartwright’s work in the Camden gallery that James asked him to produce a cover for the Ferry Press publication and Cartwright later wrote about his surprise at seeing his own catalogue statement appearing in James’s poem prompting him to say a few words about ‘Waiting’:

“The poem moves through events and situations, producing the sensation of a shifting range of experience. It reveals in John’s work an integration of allusions to art, to living encounters and to language and the centrality of a range of phenomena in which the aesthetic experience is a potent and even a fundamentally social element…Two effects strike me as running through his poetry, in the form of an interaction of a consciousness of the visual with an acute flow of perceptions. I am aware in John’s poetry of a constant perceptive response to the tactile, to the nature of light, of physical presence and one’s own physical transience.”

He also made some comments upon the particular nature of that cover:

The Small Henderson Room was the last of the covers I made, and was designed with more concern for the curious and oblique relationship the cover would have to the work within. Did I receive a copy of the poems before designing the cover? At this distance I’m not sure but I think not. The cover was designed as an entity but with some intuitive response to the words The Small Henderson Room. The cover-work, a formal abstract image, was a response to the unknown nature of that ‘room’. My intention was to create a spatial ambiguity, tension and even a sense of unease.”

The illustration may well have been the last of the covers that Cartwright made but only by a month or two since he had also produced the cover for the last issue of the magazine The Resuscitator that John James and Nick Wayte had begun in Bristol in 1963. The last issue of that magazine appeared in February 1969 and Cartwright commented upon the way he had designed the cover pointing to the image of “a stark black formality on a white ground’ with the ‘embossed whiteness of the title” which “meant that no text was immediately visible. THE LAST RESUSCITATOR – the title’s ambiguity chimed with the need to physically tilt the book to decipher it”. The same is true of the Ferry Press book and both suggest to my mind something about the act of reading: the words are not simply visible, they need to be tilted to reveal the seemingly invisible.
The opening poem in The Small Henderson Room presents us with a world in which “we are aware of ourselves as persons with a / particular history”. It originally appeared the year before the Ferry Press publication in 2R2, Resuscitator Second Series and it opens ‘on the move’

“& so I open myself again as we wheel
down over Crickley, chivalrously high on our seats
you see across the gleaming generous screen
right to the Severn valley, tawny with the broad
spread of distant grain, & beyond
is where I’m going, where the mountains
put up their profiles & in the moister
air of that high altitude, the woods and valleys
will be deeply soft & made greenly
vivacious again”

When the poem appeared in the following year’s Ferry Press collection the opening lines had changed a little, perhaps to emphasise that sense of movement and the second published draft is what appeared in the Salt Collected Poems of 2002. The first line starts now much further towards the right margin and is heralded by three dots as if to suggest the continuance of a line of thought. Both the second and the fourth lines are closer to the left-hand margin giving the impression that the main body of the poem is indented. These small details are perhaps part of what Cartwright was referring to when he suggested that James’s poetry presented an interaction between a consciousness of the visual with an acute flow of perceptions. Or as Romana Huk put it when writing about the early poems there is a quality of repetitive artifice and voluptuous spontaneity. This is of course recognisable in ‘The Postcard Sonata’ which contains “40”, the collaborative sonnet written with Andrew Crozier which was to reappear in the 1970 Ferry Press publication IN ONE SIDE & OUT THE OTHER where it also joined forces with Tom Phillips: a writing over what has already been said. The second sonnet in ‘The Postcard Sonata’ is “for Andrew Crozier” and it contains a brief critical comment on Cartwright’s work:

admiring Peter Cartwright’s One Two Three
Four & Five all menacingly fluid but
precise, a relationship between the formal

& the unpredictable.

This quality that James noted about Cartwright’s work haunts his own poetry and Simon Perril noted that he shares with the New York School poets “a willingness to view everyday objects not simply as degraded commodities, but as potential talismans that might be invested with hopes and desires”. Noting the influence of Wordsworth on John James’s poetry Perril pointed out that “characteristically, this aesthetic moment of contemplation contains an element of rhapsody that compels the listener to ‘look up’ and take further notice of his environment.” In terms of the Conversation Poems of Wordsworth/Coleridge, shared walks, interests, focal moments there is a “communitarian sense of the lyric voice forged not in isolation but in the friction of relationships, friendships and reciprocal hopes and fears” It is as if the “we” is that path via which “I” am. That untitled opening poem from The Small Henderson Room proposes that: “In a mutual presence / catastrophe may be averted” and this thought is taken up in A Theory of Poetry published by Street Editions in 1977 where there is a reference to

“particular people at a particular time
& in a particular place
these people are the others
without whom you would not exist”

It is within that context that I wish to point out what will appear obvious to sensitive readers of the poetry of John James. His early work is in no sense a hearkening back to the pastoral nostalgia of the Georgian poets. In the first collection that Crozier published for Ferry Press, MMM… AH YES, 1967, there appears a poem ‘An Open Letter to Jim Workman, Landlord, at the Rose & Crown, Withy Mills, North Somerset’. The title itself gives a nod to Wordsworth and it celebrates the natural ability of a pub landlord to find ‘sustenance’ in his rootedness in “the earth your / feet press on”. Now what I mean by saying how different John James is to the Georgian ‘Nature’ poets who focused on geographical rural particularities can be seen when you look at a little piece written in 1910 by W.H. Davies, friend of Edward Thomas and known mostly for being the author of The Autobiography of a Supertramp and for possessing a wooden leg. The poem celebrates a particular pub in the Sevenoaks Weald named The Harvest Home. It is little more than a jolly record of a moment and, as of course might be expected, the pub no longer exists. Neither does the Rose and Crown at Withy Mills near Paulton in Somerset. And that’s where the similarity ends. Whereas Davies’s poem is locked into a particular moment of stasis, a diary note that could be added to a social history of the local area, James’s poem is ‘on the move’. It recreates the character and personality of Jim Workman through the landlord’s actions and advice. There is the local humour of characterisation contained in the recollections:

“& if I brought you a poem
what would you do with it?
what would your hawk’s nose,
your dry sniff, pulled down
corners of mouth,
mockery of Old Winsley,
scrounging his way, the way
you made him an iced birthday cake
of wood, set light to his hat

And there is the admiration of folk-lore knowledge that doffs its hat to Edward Thomas’s figure of Lob:

“the way you know the way
foxes kill young cuckoos
in long grass…

You showed me the
way to bud the
briars in June,
splicing with
raffia. Told me
dung burns the roots off
beans, to repair
the rung of a ladder with
pitchpine

But there is also that Wordsworthian title, the inclusion of words from Pound’s ‘L’Envoi’ from 1919, that recognition of the influence of Charles Tomlinson in “the fields / multiplying through / division by hedges”. The landlord, Jim Workman, finds “sustenance” in his natural rootedness “from the earth your / feet press on” and James’s poem echoes the short review he published in Resuscitator 4, May 1965, of Anselm Hollo’s here we go:

“In this and in other poems in this little book, Mr. Hollo presents the humdrum details of family life in such a way, with such choice and ironic juxtaposition, that escape is not only unrealistic but unnecessary. Such apparently trivial details – queuing for public transport, children asleep in their cots, undressing for bed – matter for Mr. Hollo and for all of us because without them we would not exist. Once they are accepted they become meaningful, a source of happiness and enlightenment. Such acceptance of the common place in literature is not new of course. One thinks of how central it was to the poetry of Wordsworth and to Ulysses; and it survives as an attitude in the poetry of Charles Tomlinson…”

The reference to Charles Tomlinson is important and his poem, ‘A Given Grace’, later published in American Scenes, is the opening moment of Resuscitator 1, Autumn 1963. It presents challenge and replenishment. A few months later Resuscitator 2 appeared and Tomlinson took his place alongside Zukofsky, Corman and Olson. In January 1968 the second series of Resuscitator was started from John James’s home in Trumpington High Street and the contributors included J.H. Prynne, Gill Vickers, Jeremy Mulford, Elaine Feinstein, Andrew Crozier, Nick Wayte, Wendy Mulford, John Hall and James himself. It is worth noting the dedication to that new magazine:

“This series of Resuscitator is dedicated to Charles Tomlinson with thanks for his generous help over the first series”.

IN ONE SIDE & OUT THE OTHER presents the reader with a writing over what has already been said and words push off the page through new designs. It is almost as if you need to tilt the book to see what lies beneath and I return to the influence of Charles Olson whose poem from January 1950, ‘These Days’ opens with the injunction to “leave the roots on” whatever it is that you have to say, “let them / dangle / And the dirt // Just to make clear where they come from”.
For John James ‘sustenance’, the ground on which your feet press, can be located in ‘The Conversation’, a poem he contributed to the last issue of Grosseteste Review in 1984 with its illustration on the front cover by Franco Beltrametti:

“to say nothing of you Jeremy when you leaf
your pages to that summer & and have before you
all we make of what we are when every day
gave some new sense of strengthening regard for common things
& all the land gave up a breath of gentler touch
but for the undertow of darkness
in the phones

And it is there in Songs In Midwinter For Franco published less than three years ago by Equipage here in Cambridge:

in tranquillity
is difficult simplicity

as ever the table set
not to forget

Ian Brinton 20th May 2018

Remains To Be Seen by David Rushmer (Shearsman Books)

Remains To Be Seen by David Rushmer (Shearsman Books)

Writing about the importance of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice Maurice Blanchot suggested that the musician and distraught lover who has lost sight of his beloved did so “because he desires her beyond the measured limits of the song”. Thinking of how art can only recall the lost world, a recovery of something from darkness, he suggested that “art is the power by which night opens”: it is the art of the musician or poet that allows the mind to penetrate the darkness and “His work is to bring it back to the light of day and to give it form, shape, and reality in the day”. This art of “eternal inertia” prompts me to think of Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ where the vase is associated with “silence”, “quietness” and “slow time”. The “Cold pastoral” which is wreathed about the shape of the urn is the distillation of the Orphic journey the quality of which is what one is left with as one winds the way upwards from the darkness beneath. Orpheus’s error “is to want to exhaust the infinite, to put a term to the interminable” and he suffers from failing to realise that in order to master absence one must make it of another time, “measured otherwise”. In a way poetry is like a Möbius loop in which the movement forward twists round on itself, curling back on its own progress: lost time is transfixed in stillness.
David Rushmer’s powerfully evocative poetry explores precisely this type of movement:

“you fall into
the space of me

body caressed
by a graveyard of sky

filled the air
with your bones”

As Orpheus returns from the world of the Dead he approaches the sky which rounds the cave’s mouth and this is the moment he turns with a failure of nerve. The body of the dead can only be “caressed”, felt and cared for, in the light of a sky which is itself the graveyard of what can never be brought back in its lost form. The poem is the distillation of the self’s understanding of what can never be recovered. The body’s bones “filled the air” like George Herbert’s contemplation of the dead as “shells of fledge souls left behind”. Rushmer presents us with

“mouth drawn open
in the rain”

and the poet’s inbreathing of imaginative experience

“inhaled you
like sunshine”

This is remarkable poetry: intense and compacted, “Remains to Be Seen”. Quoting again from Blanchot’s ‘The Gaze of Orpheus’ Rushmer heads one of his poems with an epigraph: “one can only write if one arrives at the instant towards which one can only move through the space opened up by the movement of writing”. Here is a darkness which “opens its wings to us” and “the instant / of flame” is “held in your hand”. Art’s magical stilling of the moment appears as

“you look at me
the earth disappears

a movement of birds
contains us

where the night
speaks our skin”

Peter Gizzi writes on the back of this disturbingly evocative poetry that within the pages of Remains To Be Seen we “find a carefully crafted rendering of a voice in the world, each syllable of this drama earned.” Peter Hughes adds that the poetry “can come as a shock” with its “primitive, elemental feel”. This is haunting poetry which leaves its effects upon the reader far beyond the time when one has put the book down.

Ian Brinton, 13th May 2018

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