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Category Archives: English Poetry

Casket by Andy Brown, 2019 the vase in pieces by Rod Mengham

Casket by Andy Brown, 2019 the vase in pieces by Rod Mengham

As I have mentioned before there is something powerfully elegiac threading its sinuous path through Andy Brown’s poetry and “the bloodlines that flow through our bodies are those veins and arteries that pump our sense of immediacy: they keep the here and now moving” (Review of Bloodlines, Worple Press 2018). Reading the recent Shearsman Chapbook by Brown I am struck yet again by the poet’s haunting use of language as he traces the runic symbols upon the lid of an 8th century Anglo-Saxon treasure chest:

“In all these figures, filigree and knots –
In all this yielding bone that’s swum across
Sea-lanes and history to a monk’s refuge –
The ghosts we see, of course, are no such thing,
But simply what remembrance makes of them;
The laden look we witness on a stranger’s face
That houses recollections of our dead.”

According to Ralph of Coggeshall in his Chronicon Anglicanum a merman was caught at Orford in Suffolk during the reign of Henry II in the 12th century. When Kevin Crossley-Holland produced his version of this event he added a note to say that the merman “was imprisoned in the newly-built castle, did not recognise the Cross, did not talk despite torture, returned voluntarily into captivity having eluded three rows of nets, and then disappeared never to be seen again.” And so a tale is told and the world of the long-gone reappears on the page not only of folk-lore but also of imaginative reconstruction: one might well look at Conrad’s short story of ‘Amy Foster’!

The Franks Casket, housed in the British Museum, is made of whalebone and is decorated with runic inscriptions, some Latin text and images from various religious and mythical traditions. Like all tale-tellers Andy Brown attempts “to capture something of the layered histories, from ancient times to present”. As a lyric poet of distinction he also gives voice to an attempt at translation “of the place where I now live: the river Teign and its surrounding area”.
The poem is in five sections and it opens with an account of the casket’s front panel:

“From the river’s curved calligraphy
We haul up a trawl-net of treasures
And tip the shells out on the sorting rack…
Dark mussels fall in clattering cascades.”

The second section opens with an Olsonian sense of istorin, as the lines echo the words offered by Olson to Dorn in his ‘Bibliography on America’ where he suggested that the young poet should absorb himself intensely and entirely in his subject, “to dig one thing” in a “saturation job” that might require a “lifetime of assiduity”,

“To reach the present day, dig deep
Through the level berm that runs above
The ditch and counterscarp of Castle Dyke”

It was in a workshop session given in Vancouver in 1963 that Olson said the great back door is not only Hesiod but also Beowulf and the poems of Casket open up a gateway through which we can peer at a past.

AND as if from a past the Oystercatcher’s beak pulls up a new treasure: seven substantial poems by Rod Mengham two of which are dedicated to other poets, Peter Hughes and Jeremy Prynne. As if to emphasise the emergence of a distant past the opening poem of this little volume is deeply unsettling:

“those are not the colours of the dawn
but the painted breasts of Iceni women
as fierce and stubborn as sap”

As the past feeds the present a shimmering light of the long-gone acts as a mirage but this can only emphasise the unsettling awareness of isolation. With its quiet nod in the direction of ‘The Waste Land’ it must be clear that “there is no spirit who walks beside you / only a coincidence and its shadow”. In the Preface to ‘Inhabiting Art’, the second section of Grimspound (reviewed on Tears blog, a month ago) Mengham expressed his interest in different types of history:

“Although I have a personal interest in natural history, these essays are about cultural history in relation to landscape and cityscape, cultural history viewed episodically or in the form of a palimpsest, where the present state of the habitat both reveals and conceals its own prehistory, the record of its own formation and transformations.”

‘As It Is’ (to J.H.P.) opens with “Memory is recast from the ground up” and closes with fishes that swim down “under five crushing fathoms”. Ariel’s song to Ferdinand’s ears sinks deep to discover that “the bottom of all the land is this stone”.
Andy Brown’s conclusion to the opening of the casket, to the lifting of the lid, is to demand that “These fragments” are given “back to the machinery / Of the world…this shared and ever constant now.”

Ian Brinton 9th August 2019

Below This Level by Kelvin Corcoran (Shearsman Books)

Below This Level by Kelvin Corcoran (Shearsman Books)

Poetry of any real importance was never going to be the same after T.S. Eliot’s assertion that “A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility” (‘The Metaphysical Poets’). In that essay from 1921 he continued in the manner often quoted as an example of Modernism:

“When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”

It was one year earlier than this statement that Paul Valéry composed his ‘Le Cimetière Marin’ and only a few years later that he wrote some comments upon the composition of that startling account of a peaceful roof in Sète “trodden solely by the doves” and quivering “between the pines, between the tombs” (Tr. Brinton & Grant):

“…the memory of my attempts, my gropings, inner decipherings, those imperious verbal illuminations which suddenly impose a particular combination of words – as though a certain group possessed some kind of intrinsic power…I nearly said: some kind of will to live, quite the opposite of the freedom or chaos of the mind, a will that can sometimes force the mind to deviate from its plan and the poem to become quite other than what it was going to be and something one did not dream it could be.”

From mind to words on a page a transformation is in action and perhaps this is what most of all in-forms Kelvin Corcoran’s deeply moving lyric sequence recounting his experience of prostate cancer; its diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.

The sequence of fourteen poems and a letter opens with a sonnet titled ‘What the Birds Said’:

“I sit by the window and read the poetry received.
I can smell smoke from a neighbour’s garden,
hear a collared dove coo, a buried piano, a distant aircraft.
I can understand these things but in my reading
I lose track of the world in the would-be samizdat.”

Four of these lines from the opening stanza assert the focus upon self but it is a self in motion as sitting moves towards losing track. Awareness and memory are alert to senses of scent and sound but the increasing distance from the opening stasis is felt through “buried” noise becoming “distant” and “understanding” moves in the direction of an underground movement of forbidden publication: one should not talk about these naked feelings!
It is no surprise then that the second stanza should open with a repeated apology: the first being to the poet whose work Corcoran is occupied in reading, the second registering the awareness that “light is draining from the sky” so that “affective meaning has gone in darkness”. Any attempt at distracting the mind by focussing on names (“Rue des Hiboux and Zaventem”) is thwarted by the approaching white-out of snow being forecast. The sonnet closes with the most understandable of returns, to that of childhood when the mother’s song of “To bed, to bed…” concludes with the wise old rook suggesting opening a book so that “we’ll have prayers before we go”:

“a return to first things is forecast – I like that, said the rook,
I can pick at that, I might eat it and then take off into the sky.”

Proximity becomes distance and the act of reading merges with “a distant aircraft”.
Kelvin Corcoran’s poems are deeply moving and they are composed of lyric poetry of the highest order. Prufrock-like he wonders if the mermaids which sing “each to each” (transposed in ‘Oitgang, provisional’ to “Two older nurses” who “work the nightshift”) can be heard “singing in the night / on kitchen chairs in the hospital garden”. And just as Prufrock reflects that “I do not think that they will sing to me”, Corcoran knows the almost overwhelming power of imaginative association:

“Of course there is no garden,
and there is a garden where apophenia blooms” .

This is a major work written by a master and copies should be sought immediately from Tony Frazer at Shearsman Books at http://www.shearsman.com

Ian Brinton 5th August 2019

Truth, Justice and the Companionship of Owls by Peter Riley (Longbarrow Press)

Truth, Justice and the Companionship of Owls by Peter Riley (Longbarrow Press)

‘Hushings’ is the second group of poems published here and yet again one is struck by the immaculate presentation achieved by Brian Lewis’s Longbarrow Press. It is precisely this care and attention to detail that justifies this Northern Press’s reputation as one of the finest and most professional of the Independent Poetry Presses active at the moment.

There is a quiet and witty intelligence which threads its way through these eighteen poems: the most serious themes of truth and justice are meditated upon within a world of approaching darkness. Writing about humour in Janus: a summing up (1978) Arthur Koestler had suggested that ‘Comedy and tragedy, laughter and weeping, mark the extremes of a continuous spectrum’ and here
just below the surface of Peter Riley’s quiet reflections upon movement and change there lurks the wry smile that can open a poem with an echo of a joke:

‘Two buzzards wheeling over the top of the woods
and one of them says to the other, What
do you see down there, brother,
with your little eye?’

The opening of that second line creates the picture of the joke as it might be shared perhaps in the Hare & Hounds, a pub near Hebden Bridge which appears a few times throughout this collection. However, the reference to a game of ‘I spy’ echoes also the world of childhood which also glimmers just below the surface of these lyrical and elegiac responses to landscape. I am reminded here of Basil Bunting’s comments about music made in an interview with Hugh Kenner for National Public Radio in early 1980 when he suggested that music ‘is organized in various ways, and one of the inventions…was the notion of a sonata, where two themes which at first appear quite separate, and all the better if they’re strongly contrasted…gradually alter and weave together until at the end of your movement you’ve forgotten they are two themes, it’s all one.’ When writing Briggflatts Bunting had perhaps Scarlatti’s B minor fugato sonata (L. 33) in his mind from the outset and the eighteenth century composer’s readiness to modulate between the light and shade of major and minor informs the shift from the spirit of spring which opens the first section and the more sombre note of death and betrayal which soon follows.

In his notes at the end of this new collection of poems Riley tells us that ‘hushings are places where limestone has been exposed and broken for extraction of ore, or for burning into lime, by unleashing a rush of water down a hillside from a reservoir on higher ground’. The eighteen twelve-line poems in the group offer the reader that sense of movement, the rippling effect which Bunting echoed from his knowledge of the Scarlatti sonata, and their sound is ‘always water running over stone’. Movement brings different perspectives and the first of these hushings places the poet’s childhood on the steps of Banks Lane Council School in 1945:

‘a first step into the nation, to be followed
by 68 years starred and scarred with gains and losses
and gates opening upward and pits closing down.’

The landscape here is one of ‘widening regard’ and a realisation that in

‘all this land, this nothing-much, there are
hidden values, seeds waiting to announce themselves
as cotton grass and bugle.’

The wit I was referring to earlier lies bleakly in a comment which appears only two lines above this faith in ‘hidden values’:

‘…Here we wait, as if waiting
for the return of truthful politics.’

And in poem xvi the modulation of the music gives us the ‘end of the chorus’ which is also the ‘end of public truth’.

These poems are in no way infected with rural sentimentality and they are closer to the photographs of Don McCullin in which the images provide their own commentary: they are archways through which the poet can contemplate an intelligent awareness of who he is in relation to the geographical world around him and in relation to a past which disappears down the stone steps:

‘down the stone, down the air, down the darkness
singing Dove sei, amato bene? viewing bright below
everything we have.’

Ian Brinton, 11th June 2019

http//:www.longbarrowpress.com

Psycho-Neurological Poem in 3 Parts & A Clean Heart and a Cheerful Spirit by Felicity Allen (Litmus Publishing 2019)

Psycho-Neurological Poem in 3 Parts &  A Clean Heart and a Cheerful Spirit by  Felicity Allen (Litmus Publishing 2019)

In the State run Panopticon of the ‘Institute of Psychology’ in Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest Big Nurse sits at a ‘centre of this web of wires like a watchful robot’. She tends ‘her network with mechanical insect skill’ and knows every second ‘which wire runs where and just what current to send up to get the result she wants’. This is the world of the early Sixties in the United States of America. She works for what one patient calls the ‘Combine’, a large organization that aims to adjust the Outside as well as the Inside and according to Chief Bromden who has been there for longer than he can remember she has been ‘dedicating herself to adjustment for God knows how long’.
Felicity Allen’s astonishing illustrated ‘Poem in 3 Parts’ was written ‘in response to and from recordings made when visiting the Art Studio of the charity Perspektivy, situated in The Psycho-Neurological Centre No, 3’ outside St. Petersburg in Russia. The scene: a confined residential home in which most residents have either grown up or come from other orphanages at the age of eighteen. Qualifications for entry to the home: some type of disability ‘either at birth’ or in ‘early years’. Life inside: ‘the only activities generally offered to residents are watching television or eating. Numbers of inmates: ??? [‘Numbers are missing’].
Sound haunts the fragmentary lines of this poem and we both read and listen to the ‘Caged heirs’. William Blake’s voice of outrage from 1803 gave us a ‘Robin Redbreast in a Cage’ which put ‘all Heaven in a Rage’; Maya Angelou’s autobiographical writings, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings came from 1969; Felicity Allen’s art as an ‘adventure into an unknown world’ is immediate, it is NOW. Her response to a reading of Angelou’s confrontation with a paternal world of sexual violence is to assert that ‘our function as artists’ is ‘to make you see the world our way not / his way’. Art and Music are assertions; look and listen to this remarkable book and foul up those Big Nurse wires as McMurphy does when he runs his hand through the glass window of her Nurse’s Station:

“I’m sure sorry, ma’am,” he said. “Gawd but I am. That window glass was so spick and span I com-pletely forgot it was there.”

Ian Brinton 18th May 2019

http://litmuspublishing.co.uk

Dogtown by Andrew Spragg & Beth Hopkins (Litmus Publishing)

Dogtown by Andrew Spragg & Beth Hopkins (Litmus Publishing)

When Andrea Brady wrote a comment for the back cover of Andrew Spragg and Beth Hopkins’s Dogtown, an ambitious new publication from Litmus Press, she referred to the ‘uneasy labour of embroidery’ and the ‘arterial drawings’ which are assembled into a book of ‘unsettling beauty’. Derived from the Old French, embroder, the common recognition of embroidery is needlework ornamentation upon cloth and it has a figurative use as a form of making something splendid. There is, however, another ironic association which links the word to James Shirley’s 1649 play The Country Captain and the arrival in London of folk ‘in our torne gowns, embroidered with Strand dirt.’ This embroidery is closer to the outlaw world of Cormac McCarthy where folk ‘sleep that night on the cold plains of a foreign land, forty-six men wrapped in their blankets under the selfsame stars, the prairie wolves so like in their yammering, yet all about so changed and strange’. In Andrew Spragg’s Dogtown the words, embroidered on dark cloth, echo with isolation, movement and awareness of an alternative polis:

‘poetics of disused railyards
distribution centres
gone for rot
canals at
borough boundaries’

Andrew Spragg’s embroidery weaves for the reader ‘a book that moves / to a centre / where dogtown / is vacated’. This is a world where the ‘spirit has / already migrated’.

Charles Olson’s Dogtown, forming part of the geographical background to the Maximus Poems, is an uncultivated section of Gloucester (Mass.) strewn with glacial deposits in the central part of Cape Ann: ‘a deserted village, said to have its name from the dogs kept for protection by widows and elderly women who lived there during the latter part of the eighteenth century’ (Butterick’s Guide to the Maximus Poems). It is an area that looks druidic according to the painter Marsden Hartley who wrote about his 1931 visit to Dogtown: ‘It gives a feeling that any ancient race might turn up at any moment and review an ageless rite there…’. Andrew Spragg’s visit, ‘On coming to dogtown’, is a spiritual journey as well as a physical one and on the outskirts of the domain

‘…we destroyed all
our remaining resources, set fires
as a point of pride. This was the last
of our unspecified hours and it was
marked with a feast of cold meat.’

Fires are set for more than one purpose. They may devour all the accumulation of a past on which the travelers are turning their backs but they may also act as torches in the wilderness, lit with a sense of combative pride. The sketches of Beth Hopkins stalk their spidery way through these pages and the broken twigs make us aware of the fragility of a ‘pattern / of derelicts, a presence / of dust and peace and / stillness’.
Sitting along with the comments made by Andrea Brady on the back cover we read Verity Spott’s acute suggestion that these poems ‘feel like rituals for entry, towards new worlds whilst trailing the flotsam of subjective pain and recovery’.

Reading these poems by Andrew Spragg and looking at the artwork by Beth Hopkins I wish to suggest a way forward for readers. The next stop might be Harding, the nearly deserted town that the old guys find when they leave the commercialism of the East Coast to head westwards in Douglas Woolf’s 1959 novel, Fade Out. As one of the citizens of this new/old polis tells them:

‘Meantime a man can live for sixty-seventy dollars a month. Food is high, but rents are cheap. The climate’s nice, and we’ve got our shelters ready-dug all through this hill. That’s the hospital up there on top, they’ll open that again someday. That was the high school, the grammar school, the church, the theater there, the mortuary, the barbershop—they’ll open that someday too.’

But the last word should be given to Andrew Spragg whose Dogtown gives us ‘a stitching town an embroidered / point haunted by this flight or / all our layers at once.’

Litmus Publishing, edited by Dorothy Lehane and Elinor Cleghorn, runs both a Press and a Magazine and it explores the interaction between poetry and science. My next review will look at another of its recent publications, Felicity Allen’s Psycho-Neurological Poem in 3 Parts & A Clean Heart and a Cheerful Spirit.

Ian Brinton 5th April 2019

Tears in the Fence 69

Tears in the Fence 69

Tears in the Fence 69 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward/

This issue has a front cover designed by Westrow Cooper from a photograph entitled, God and Man, and was designed by Westrow Cooper. The creative section consists of poetry, visual and prose poems, fiction, flash fiction and creative non-fiction by Martin Stannard, Valerie Bridge, Marcin Podlaski, Sharon Olinka, Sheila E Murphy, Jeremy Reed, Clive Gresswell, Gerald Killingworth, Michael Farrell, Serena Mayer, Will Hall, Holly V Chilton, Annemarie Austin, Robert Hirschfield, David Harmer, Maria Stadnicka, Jazmine Linklater, David Felix, Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani Mina Ray, Jennie E. Owen, Regi Claire, Emma Stamm, Drew Milne, Peter Dent, Tess Jolly, Charles Wilkinson, Basil King, Yvonne Litschel, Arpit Kaushik, Richard Foreman, Ceinwen E.C. Hayden, Amy Acre, Mandy Pannett, Jane R Rogers, Louise Wilford, John Brantingham, Laurie Duggan, Andrew Shelley, Ezra Miles, Greg Bright and Beth Davyson.

The critical section consists of Ian Brinton’s Editorial, Jennifer K. Dick’s Of Tradition & Experiment XIII: Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Caroline Clark’s In Praise Of Artifice on Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Olga Sedakova, Sarah Connor on Poems For Grenfell Tower, A Tale of Two Londons, Norman Jope on Games Across Frontiers: Twitters For a Lark, Andrew Duncan on Edge of Necessary, Martin Thom, Barbara Bridger on JR Carpenter, Sheila Hamilton on Melinda Lovell, Tim Allen on Andrew Duncan, Seán Street on Eleanor Rees, Guy Russell on Martin Gray, Simon Collings on Alan Baker, Jessica Mookherjee on Rachael Clyne, Mandy Pannett on Reuben Woolley, John Welch on James Sutherland-Smith, David Pollard – What Is Poetry? A Response, Why are we writing and who are we writing for? A Conversation between Lisa Kiew and Amy McCauley, Notes on Contributors and David Caddy’s Afterword.

Meridian by Nancy Gaffield (Longbarrow Press)

Meridian by Nancy Gaffield (Longbarrow Press)

“The idea was to walk the line from Peacehaven to the Humber. I had devised the notion that the physical act of walking would help me to locate what was lost”.

We are immediately presented with a topographical focus and I can feel myself wanting to reach for Edward Thomas’s The Icknield Way in which he opened his 1913 walk with the words

“Much has been written of travel, far less of the road. Writers have treated the road as a passive means to an end, and honoured it most when it has been an obstacle; they leave the impression that a road is a connection between two points which only exists when the traveller is upon it.”

However, it very quickly becomes clear that Nancy Gaffield’s 270 mile walk, the Greenwich Meridian Trail from Peacehaven to Sand le Mere, is immersed in far more than topography. Her opening epigraph is taken from Charles Olson’s study of Herman Melville, Call Me Ishmael, and it is neatly adapted to her venture of discovery, a venture which prompts her forward whilst reawakening the past: “SPACE” is the “central fact to [wo]man born in America” and Gaffield’s movement through space is guided by Robert Moor’s exploration of trails:

“The key difference between a trail and a path is directional: paths extend forward, whereas trails extend backward”.

The reference to Olson at the very start of the book’s journey is by no means accidental and in the opening poem ‘ORDNANCE SURVEY MAP 122: BRIGHTON & HOVE’ we read of “Disturbances within the threshold / of hearing are sampled in time” and those disturbances have a lyrical echo down the years. This is a person who is “six years old again / learning to read / the landscape”. The musical echoes of wisps of language become

“The song that the rigging makes,
Port of Gloucester. The acoustics
of the sea. Here / there”

If we can hear Olson in that reference then when, extending backward, we look at the trail that got us moving we can also hear T.S. Eliot and the Gloucester poet’s “space of enunciation” traces a landscape that contains a reference to the last section of Bostonian ‘Preludes’ which itself looks backwards to the Whitman who sings the body electric “out on the vacant lot at sundown after work”.
In the generous section of Acknowledgements at the end of this book’s adventure Nancy Gaffield expresses her gratitude for those who accompanied her on the walk (Kat Peddie) and those who were there “in spirit”: Helen Adam, John Clare and Paul Celan. And here lies a major point about this autobiographical expression of how path and trail belong within the same covers: we carry our reading, our influences, with us as they have formed the person who we are. Some of these influences lie buried and do not obtrude themselves as landmarks on the pathway and in this way Edward Thomas’s ‘Lob’ emerges as

“The man in the street says: “I’ve
lived here all my life. I’m telling
you there’s no road in or out. You
could slip into a ditch. No one
would ever find you.””

Thomas gives us an old man who has a “land face, sea-blue eyed” who says

“….Nobody can’t stop ’ee. It’s
A footpath right enough. You see those bits
Of mounds – that’s where they opened up the barrows
Sixty years since, while I was scaring sparrows.
They thought as there was something to find there,
But couldn’t find it, by digging, anywhere.”

Nancy Gaffield is following the Greenwich Meridian Trail as a path, walking forward in a northerly direction “recalling snippets from books, scenes from films, or events… following a trail backwards”.
Meridian is no mere scrap-book of reminiscences but instead is a carefully wrought accumulation of reflections. The notes offered at the end of each poem are helpful and they echo the very movement of the poetry itself. In the second poem which deals with Greenwich and Gravesend we are confronted with a reference to a notorious pub, The Grapes, in which strangers to the area were known to have disappeared before turning up on the dissecting table. Dickens had presented us with that pub now disguised as The Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters in his mid-1860s novel Our Mutual Friend and Gaffield offers us a quotation from the early pages which includes the reference to being able to “trace little forests” on the surface of an old corner cupboard. This is no chance quotation and the paragraph had earlier included the suggestion that the pub seemed in its old age to also look back at its youth: both trail and path. The little forests, where the very word conjures up the world of the fairy-tale, are part of the “gnarled and riven appearance of old trees” where the past “seemed to twist itself into some likeness of boughs”. In Nancy Gaffield’s “migrant” language she contemplates being at the “forest’s fringe” and the whole sequence of poems becomes as Jeremy Prynne suggested about Olson’s Maximus IV, V, VI “a lingual and temporal syncretism”.

Ian Brinton 3rd March 2019

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