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Category Archives: English Poetry

Broken Stories by Reuben Woolley (20/20 Vision Publishing)

Broken Stories by Reuben Woolley (20/20 Vision Publishing)

As the Bishop orders his tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church in Robert Browning’s poem from Men and Women he mutters to those who stand around his bed:

“Swift as a weaver’s shuttle fleet our years”

And as if echoing down the years we read Reuben Woolley’s short poem, ‘weft’ which opens with the words

“i’m trying
to bring this crazy
into focus”

The word “crazy” is of Norse origin meaning crackle and suggests flawed, damaged, or, as Dickens used the term in 1844, “The court is full of crazy coaches” with a sense of travel that was unsound. In the tightly-bound lines of Reuben Woolley’s poems there is a desire to place order upon those shifts of Time which defy the storyteller’s art and neatness: these are ‘broken stories’.

In ‘weft’ dark unthreads every angle:

“is no next line
in mildew.old
forms crumble & this
is accidental”

The fabric which Browning’s Bishop had imagined from his deathbed as having been created over the loom of years is disrupted now. There is no next line! Forms, like patterns which are woven into shapes of recollection and purpose, “crumble”. The “accidental” has replaced the sense of purpose to be found in stories, narratives of whole remembrance.

“we wear
time like shuttles
waiting for patterns”

However, as the short poem ‘eurydice’ reminds us, the now dead wife of Orpheus looks backward into the darkness which attracts her. When she rises, as if from the dead, to follow her husband up the winding stair to light “she rises in black” and

“there is
no moon& strings
echo on distant walls”

From the world of fairy-tales the moon offers the brightness of a pathway which might lead the lost child home. Here not only is there no moon but the music for which Orpheus was so justly famed is now emptied into echo reverberating off distant walls. This is a world in which everything

“is seen
in shadows”

We cannot escape from our history and we need it in order to come to some patterning of our individual lives. But we also have to accept that history is the attempt to give an account, with incomplete knowledge, of actions themselves undertaken with incomplete knowledge. As Graham Swift’s novel Waterland made clear, if we can learn anything then it is “only the dogged and patient art of making do”. We have only ‘broken stories’ as we “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past” (Ulysses). In Reuben Woolley’s fragmented tales there are “black / sails on black seas”: the healing hands of Iseult will not reach the dying Tristan and rather like Browning’s Bishop the figure of Arthurian Romance can only contemplate the fleeting of Time.

Ian Brinton, 19th November 2017

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Write To Be Counted: Poetry to Uphold Human Rights (The Book Mill)

Write To Be Counted: Poetry to Uphold Human Rights (The Book Mill)

Love, not hate, is the focus of the three editors of a new anthology of ‘resistance poetry’ edited by Jacci Bulman, Nicola Jackson and Kathleen Jones. Its ambition is to raise funds for PEN, a charity that defends freedom of expression. In the words of the editors: We propose to produce an anthology to allow us all to stand up and be counted: to express our outrage, to honour and nurture the values we believe in, to join the upswing of positive resistance to the assaults and threats to the creative and compassionate global community. Our focus is love not hate.

The anthology was launched at the Poetry Café in London on October 4th, and is on sale from the http://writetobecounted.blogspot.co.uk/ and from Amazon. Details on the blog.
Write To Be Counted has not sacrificed quality of work to the notion of ‘charity’ or ‘worthiness’. The editors were able to be choosy, overwhelmed by the response to the call-out. Writers come from all over the world, and the book includes poets of wide reputation alongside others who are not so well known. The result is a rich collection of 87 poems. The notion of protest is challenged, the concept of truth questioned. There are public declarations, and private meditations. It is an exploration of how we live amongst other humans, and what truly belongs to us, and how it is denied. It is hard to select a few poems to represent the collection, but consider ‘Colmbrook Immigration Removal Centre’, by Iranian refugee Nasrin Parvaz:
Hazily you remember/that some rich man/has bought this prison/all the inmates included/just like serfs or slaves/and you try to figure out/how anyone makes money/holding you prisoner

In striking contrast, we have Charlie Lambert’s ‘Generation Protest’, where the hipster generation reflects upon the protest culture of its youth:
Fifty years, and have we binned/Dylan/Blowin’ in the wind?

A walk on the beach brings out the personal experience of gendered expectations in Emma McGordon’s ‘Queer Beach’:
It’s happened before. I’ve been a that or an it,/a hybrid match of mixed-up bits…
I wish… he’d known all along/I was a woman on a beach, back against a rock, staring out to sea

The editors plan a series of readings. Scheduled for March 2018, is a reading as part of the Words by the Water festival in Keswick. Details to be announced. See http://writetobecounted.blogspot.co.uk for updates.

Elizabeth Stott 9th November 2017

March by Andrew Taylor (Shearsman Books)

March by Andrew Taylor (Shearsman Books)

The title of Andrew Taylor’s recent new publication from Shearsman is already on the move as the reminder of a new spring is joined to an order for progress: a season’s transience is accompanied by a planned manoeuvre. With both travel and stillness in mind I want to consider in some detail one particular poem in this fine collection.
The witty conjunction of poetry and Time’s effacement is of course not new and it is worth just remembering Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 in which the lines of ageing on a face are held “in eternal lines” on a page. More recently, W.S. Graham’s ‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land’ ranged over a page’s snowscape:

“From wherever it is I urge these words
To find their subtle vents, the northern dazzle
Of silence cranes to watch. Footprint on foot
Print, word on word and each on a fool’s errand.”

Andrew Taylor’s ‘Honesty Box’ is the most recent example of this focus on how words can present a more lasting reflection of Time’s inexorable progress. It is an important poem and one that deserves some serious consideration as the latest example of a fine genre in which a human individual contemplates both movement and stasis. With that in mind, I quote it in full:

“This is not automatic
it has to be earned

Capturing moments of sounds
and noises before they escape
through the ceiling

In the hopes of preserving something

felt tip painted nails
I will build a shared archive

Greenness of meadow
redness of terminus lights

Early morning empty platforms
prospect of four into two
a day on the network

wait twenty years to search
for peeled paint

Foliage insulation
good for cold May

Shell collecting a rippled shore
wash the finds in pools

Follow tracks in soft sands
keep the notes
focus on the corner chair

Hold the seeds
to your face
walk The Pads

spot the scarecrows
spot the swallows

across to the city
see the cranes see the spires

there’s blood there’s soil
there are generations

Old School free range eggs
honesty box
pass the feather

let’s always share”

In a way that is alert to the NOW the poem tries to capture those moments of sound, those echoes of transience which escape immediately “through the ceiling”. The poem’s intention is to preserve something that, word by word, stone by stone, “will build a shared archive”. A little like Gary Snyder’s ‘Riprap’ the purpose behind the writing is to lay down words “Before your mind like rocks // placed solid, by hands / In choice of place”. The living presence of the moment is caught between the “Greenness of meadow” and the end of the line with its “redness of terminus lights”. This stark presentation of Death will be hinted at again in the closing lines of the poem where the command to “pass the feather” echoes King Lear’s haunting cries of loss as he deceives himself into thinking “This feather stirs”. Snyder’s “Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall” is mirrored in Taylor’s shell collecting where the finds are washed in pools to be kept for recollections in tranquillity. Tracks which are followed are in soft sands which will become all too soon submerged and the poet’s focus moves to the keeping of notes and the solidity of the “corner chair”. Scarecrows in this poetic landscape remain still, swallows move not only swiftly but also over long distances as Hardy recognised in his elegiac poem ‘The Going’. And is if with an eye pursuing the bird’s flight the poet’s attention shifts “across to the city” and notes the inevitable signs of urban growth, “cranes”, “spires”, “generations”.
Lear’s anguish had recognised that a feather’s movement was “a chance which does redeem all sorrows / That ever I have felt”. The concluding line of Andrew Taylor’s poem pleads “let’s always share” and if we are to remain faithful to an Honesty Box then our concentration must be trusted: we must contribute our full attention in the act of reading.

Andrew Taylor will be reading from this new collection at the Shearsman Reading next week, Tuesday 14th November in Swedenborg Hall. Not to be missed!

Ian Brinton 7th November 2017

The Magic Door by Chris Torrance (Test Centre Publications)

The Magic Door by Chris Torrance (Test Centre Publications)

Test Centre Publications: http://www.testcentre.org.uk

In June this year Phil Maillard wrote the introduction to Test Centre’s collected and complete earliest published books of Chris Torrance’s ongoing poem-cycle The Magic Door. As he says, “They cover the years from 1970, when the poet moved to a cottage in the Upper Neath Valley in South Wales, to 1996, thus representing about half of his near-50-year residence there.”
Maillard goes on to make a central statement about Torrance’s poetry:

“The poet inhabits borders and boundaries, between worlds, both physical and imaginative. The portals, gateways and doors so prevalent in the writing open both outwards and inwards.”

This new publication is like a cromlech: the reader passes through the portal covers into a new world and the opening sequence, Acrospirical Meanderings in a Tongue of the Time, is the first greeting that one discovers. Published by Albion Village Press in 1973 it consists of poems written at Glynmercher Isaf between June 1970 and October 1972 and contains ‘The Theatre of its Protagonist’s Desires’, dedicated to Andrew Crozier:

“Strode out into the woods with
cat, axe & saw to bring back
mushrooms: Ceps
&Rough-stemmed Boletus: apricot-
lunged Chanterelle; pretty, intoxicant
amanita muscaria emerging
richly red from her
silky membranous fur. The
music becomes more insane, more unreadable.
Tea onto the compost heap. Empty the cats’
shitbox. & then, preferring “my ease
to my will” (Valéry)
nettle & marigold beer
trickles down my throat. Buzzard
flies by the moon as I crouch
down on the porch to watch
Sweetheart of Sigmund Freud crunch up
yet another mouse. My beard has grown
as lushly as my garden. The fire
hisses & flares. The fire in my head
is a crippled demon I am burning up.

September 1970

The title of the poem is taken from a letter sent by Andrew Crozier to Chris Torrance soon after the London poet had arrived in Wales in the summer of 1970. Writing to me in 2006 about this poem Torrance suggested that Crozier’s letter was something along the lines of “the poet finding the right place to fully pursue his work, in the theatre of its protagonist’s desires”.
The opening presents us with a frontiersman’s spirit of determination with the word “stride”. This purposefulness is no meander, that will come later, and the accompanying tools suggest a world more akin to that of Robinson Crusoe than a rural ramble: the cat, for a reminder of domesticity, the axe and saw for the intentional task of survival. The listing of the fungi conveys a movement outward and the sharply sounded separation between “Ceps” and “Rough-stemmed Boletus” followed by the angular sounding “apricot-lunged Chanterelle” is seductively followed by the seemingly innocuous word “pretty” which then sinuously unwinds over the next three lines. Perhaps the word “fur” with which the sentence concludes adds a frisson to the living quality of the poisonous fly agaric which had been previously conjured up by being referred to as “her”.
This poem is located in the immediacy of small events: “tea on the compost heap” or emptying the cats’ shitbox. The meandering quality of thought which succeeds to that purposeful opening is heralded by the preference for taking “my ease” rather than by subduing this to “my will”; the viscous quality of the beer is felt in the contrast of “nettle” and “marigold” before a Keatsian ease is captured in “trickles down my throat”. This accumulation of details, moving the poet outwards from the purposeful opening of the poem is, in conclusion, registered as time passing. The poet’s beard grows lushly as does his garden and the purgative experience of unwinding (an ironic echo of the book’s title, Acrospirical Meanderings, the twisted new growth of a leaf as it pushes out being accompanied by the winding of the Phrygian river) ends with fire. The “hiss & flares” are reflective of a sharply heard and seen burning away of poisonous dross. The poet has passed through a doorway into a new world.

This is just a glimpse into some of the delights of this new Test Centre publication and I shall be doing a further account for PN Review.

Ian Brinton, 28th October 2017

The Intaglio Poems by Iain Britton (Hesterglock Press)

The Intaglio Poems by Iain Britton (Hesterglock Press)

None of us can see into another person’s mind and we have to reconcile ourselves to ending at our skin, that elasticated sack within which we live. In Andrew Marvell’s ‘A Dialogue between the Soul and Body’ the cry of anguish which opens the poem yearns for rescue from enslavement and, like Shakespeare’s Ariel, it reflects upon the ‘Magick’ that could confine it pining within the body’s physical limitation. However, it is language itself, like a shark’s fin moving through the distance between us that can form the bridge between self and other, between Now and Then.
It is no mere accident that the first of Iain Britton’s opening sequence, ‘The Vignettes’, should embed itself on the first page, fossil-like looking both forwards and outwards, whilst peering inwards to a stone past:

“but these eyes fossilised in glistening rock
embedded in the bone work of a carver’s
imagination / transfix the visitor / the

foreigner / to the jawline / the coastline
of a hill bridging hollowed-out ravines
hanging by threads of luminous particles /

these eyes light up / yet nothing flickers /
no church or tabernacle sings / constantly
they’re turning coded valedictions inwards”

On the back cover of The Intaglio Poems Peter Riley comments upon how the poet deals with the entanglement of the personal human condition and suggests that “Human problems, frequently a question of reconciling self and other, are read in terms of place, landscape, image, the clutter and scenery of civilisation…”. The “visitor”, like the reader of the poem, is transfixed by the stone eye in a manner a little like that of the wedding-guest held by the Ancient Mariner’s “glittering” one. As readers of these poems we cannot choose but hear. Words set their mark on the page as a “solitary window is splashed with the Pacific” (‘weather-vane’), “salt grains liquefy” and “gannets drop suddenly into the surf”. The ten opening vignettes, ornamental borders of trailing tendrils, are followed by eight meditations and then nine poems on the elements earth, fire and water before we arrive at an inner portal, the nine engraved pieces which illustrate the book’s title. There is a painterly aspect to this writing and a clear sense of the picture within the confines or window-frames of the page. As such it takes me back to an earlier piece by Britton which he published in Zone 2 (edited from University of Kent by Kat Peddie and Eleanor Perry). The fourth ‘equation’ in a sequence of six offered the reader a house with a girl, a room with a view:

“she shuts the door

of the house i built

stands at the table

at a vase of flowers on the table

she goes to the window

touches a fallen petal”

The house built of words “locks her in” and the interior takes on the existence of another world as the flowers (“orbitally hung”) “float / and colour-scape the room”. Now, held within the engravings of these new ‘Intaglio Poems’

“visions pack in quickly-taken breaths”

And “this teacher knows every brick / in his house”; he “writes messages / to himself” to alchemically transform place and conjure up “multiple / topographies” all of which spell out his name.
The Intaglio Poems concludes with nine short prose ‘narratives’; an eerie surrealism haunts these pieces and I find the world of the Belgian artist Paul Delvaux shimmering before my eyes and “love’s pictured pedestal” found in a ghost story. The poet admits to the accusation of “writing my name in water” and as I look back at the poems which blink their eyes in both directions, to the past and to the future, I cannot help but also recall Charles Tomlinson’s geometry of water in ‘Swimming Chenango Lake’:

“For to swim is also to take hold
On water’s meaning, to move in its embrace
And to be, between grasp and grasping, free.”

The Intaglio Poems by Iain Britton is an intriguing volume concerned with the ephemeral nature of things, as Nikolai Duffy writes. It is “carved out of a language aware of its own fragility” and images “cycle and recycle like tidal echoes”.

Ian Brinton, 7th October 2017

Atlantic Drift edited by James Byrne & Robert Sheppard (Arc Press & Edge Hill University Press)

Atlantic Drift edited by James Byrne & Robert Sheppard (Arc Press & Edge Hill University Press)

The opening statement of Robert Sheppard’s short introduction to this exciting new volume of transatlantic poetic focus is uncompromisingly clear in its assertion:

“Contact and conversation between transatlantic poets has always been one of fluctuating relations. North American writers have always been an important presence in British and Irish poetries, sometimes physically so. Edward Dorn, who lived in and wrote about England was aware of these relations and what he called the ‘North Atlantic Turbine’. Often the traffic is reversed.”

The fluctuating nature of these relations can of course be traced back to the early Sixties when Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry was being recognised in England with a sense of excitement. Charles Tomlinson’s forty-page Black Mountain Poets supplement to Ian Hamilton’s the Review appeared in January 1964 and three months later Andrew Crozier edited an American Supplement to the Cambridge magazine, Granta. Unlike Tomlinson’s focus on the Black Mountain School Crozier’s was more largely based on the Allen anthology and contained work by Levertov, Eigner, Woolf and Loewinsohn as well as Dorn, Dawson, Duncan and Wieners. Crozier quoted a letter Olson had written to George Butterick which included the phrase “to freshen our sense of the language we do have” and this statement might well describe the impact of this new anthology from Sheppard and Byrne. However, it might be just worth recalling the rather mean-spirited editorial note which Ian Hamilton added to the Tomlinson supplement which had offered such new ideas to a world dominated by New Lines:

“It should, I think, be made clear that the foregoing pages were given over to Charles Tomlinson to fill, more or less as he pleased, with work by the Black Mountain poets. We are most grateful to him for his co-operation. The editorial motive of the Review in this project has been a documentary rather than, necessarily, a critical one. We believe that the movement ought at least to be known about.”

As if hurled in the teeth of Hamilton’s graceless editorial disclaimer, Robert Sheppard’s comments present us with a sense of the active and living importance of what he and James Byrne have collected together. It is located in a reference to one of the contributors, Jerome Rothenberg, whose concern for the urgency and scope of poetics is presented in the words used to relate this “directly to the way he sees the world”:

“But the world we share, & our interplay with it, calls again & again for discourse: in the case of Poets, the setting forth of a poetics. I have found myself involved with that also, at first tentatively & then, once into it, discovering ways suited to my own temperament & to the sense I have…that the discourse, like the poetry, must in all events resist rigidity & closure.”

It is this resistance to closure, this refusal to adopt the safe line for poetry that is presented year after year in too many Secondary Schools, that makes this new anthology a box of fireworks. One can read Sean Bonney’s lines of lyrical politics and hear a voice that possesses not only anger but acute observation:

“An invisible person has appeared in everyone’s simultaneous dream.
Oh look here I am. Fuck the police.
It is the surveillance laws. All ages are not contemporaneous.
We are outside this century. We are very glamorous. We are
waiting in the hall.
Somewhere near Moritzplatz the adepts are getting sick.
It is the stupidity of gardens. I love the tiny sparrows.
The janitor’s kids are not playing they are digging up gold.
It is the last song you will ever hear.”

And one can turn from that to Chris McCabe’s snarled lines about “John Whittaker Straw, Labour politician” who changed his name to steal unearned value from the Peasants’ Revolt figure of 1381, Jack Straw. And then one can turn again to Rosmarie Waldrop’s ‘By the Waters of Babylon”:

“Unless we recognize a language we do not recognize a man. We
wrap entire villages in barbed wire.

My father used to close his eyes and remain as motionless as
possible to let his body-image dissolve.

I repeat myself often.

Time has no power over the Id. But heat passes from a warm body
to a cold body and not in the reverse direction.”

Look in this anthology for the America of Charles Bernstein and Claudia Rankine, Nathaniel Mackey and Lyn Hejinian; look this side of the Atlantic for Allen Fisher and John James, Geraldine Monk and Zoë Skoulding. We are presented with “Poets in both directions across the water” who “have influenced, and continue to influence each other in terms of practice and poetics.”
Atlantic Drift continues this collaboration and exchange in its alphabetic juxtaposition of twenty-four contributors and these poems ignite to provide a most effective and immediate anthology of the living power of poetry and poetics. As such it takes its place in the tradition of Donald Allen’s 1960 volume and Iain Sinclair’s 1996 publication, Conductors of Chaos.

Ian Brinton, 1st October 2017

A Dance With Hermes by Lindsay Clarke (Awen Publications)

A Dance With Hermes by Lindsay Clarke (Awen Publications)

The artist is an opener of doors and Lindsay Clarke’s hermetic sequence sketches for us images of gates and crossroads, gaps in landscape where the eye, itself a window to the soul, can reflect Janus-like upon the self through attention to intricacies of form in the natural world. In the ‘Note at the Threshold’ to this intriguing glimpse at the shimmering light of a Greek world Lindsay Clarke acts as our host:

“That they recognised so many impersonal powers at work through him suggests that the ancient Greeks well understood that the young Hermes who entered the Homeric world of the Olympian gods brought with him deep-rooted associations and attributes from a far earlier age. In any case, there is always an essential ambiguity in the nature of this god of the stone pile. He may be there as an invaluable guide across difficult terrain but he is not entirely to be trusted and may also choose to lead us astray. Hikers and climbers still add herm-stones to cairns, and Hermes still often faces us with choices at a crossroads; but as the image evolved in ancient times, instead of a rough stone pile, a monolith was erected in some terminal places, and a bearded head was carved on the standing stone, and out of its limbless pillar was thrust a vigorous penis. Here was Hermes as the god of fertility, drawing generative power up from the dark underworld – an ithyphallic alpha male, formidably guarding his herds beside the life-giving female presence of a spring.”

The herma marks that liminal space, that boundary between territories, that moment in both geography and imagination where one world becomes another. This is a junction, a cromlech, a door and the “sly / light-fingered god of crossways, transit, / emails and exchange…” acts as the door-keeper:

“…..the wing-heeled, shifty,
wheeler-dealing go-between, who’ll slip right

through your fingers if you try to pin
him down.”

There is a quiet lyricism in these poems and a tone of determination that places the evanescent within a topographical steadiness:

“Herma: a heap of stones such as a traveller
sweating in the noonday heat might make out
shimmering in the haze, then feel his dry throat
freshen at its signal that a spring is near.

And having drunk and put a random stone
on to the pile, might he then wonder whether
others who have placed an offering on that cairn
have also caught a glimpse of Hermes standing there?”

This lord of the threshold possesses a darker side and his rape of Chione introduces the world to Autolycus, grandfather of Odysseus the man of wiles. That figure of course also gives his name to the duplicitous snapper-up of unconsidered trifles in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale: woe betide he who encounters this singing knave as the Clown discovers to his cost!
In his ‘Note at the Threshold’, Clarke alerts us to an association between the Greek Hermes and the agent of transformation in alchemy, Mercurius Duplex. He offers us a “regular use of half-rhymes to suggest the elusive nature of the god – something almost grasped but not quite” and suggests that the format used for the opening poem, ‘Koinos Hermes’, “became more or less standard for the sequence of verses which followed hot on its winged heels almost by dictation”. This quality of elusiveness reminds me of the work of Edward Thomas and I am drawn back to those fine statements made by F.R. Leavis in 1932:

“Edward Thomas is concerned with the finer texture of living, the here and now, the ordinary moments, in which for him the ‘meaning’ (if any) resides. It is as if he were trying to catch some shy intuition on the edge of consciousness that would disappear if looked at directly.”

It is surely no accident that Jeremy Hooker, the man who wrote about Thomas in 1970 in an essay titled ‘The Sad Passion’, should have written the blurb on the back of this new book from Awen Press. In 1970 Hooker had referred to Thomas’s “quest for wholeness”, the relationship of a whole man to human society and its home on earth. Here, dancing with Hermes, he writes:

“This is an impressive collection, with an ancient and perennial wisdom”.

The Awen website can be located at http://www.awenpublications.co.uk

Ian Brinton, 23rd September 2017

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