RSS Feed

Category Archives: Essays

Études: The Poetry of Dreams & Other Fragments by John Marx (ORO Editions)

Études: The Poetry of Dreams & Other Fragments by John Marx (ORO Editions)

études: The Poetry of Dreams & Other Fragments brings together John Marx’s watercolours first published in The Architectural Review and a range of his visual and concrete poems, with essays providing introductory contexts to the work. Marx, an award-winning designer and architect, based in San Francisco, works as Chief Artistic Officer for Form4 Architecture, and this sumptuous book takes the reader on a journey through his creative landscape. 

The book is divided into eight sections moments in time, apertures, absent nature, objects in nature, without intention, approaching abstraction, deconstructing perception and improvisations, indicating the book’s focus. 

The reader is instantly drawn by the quality of the watercolours, which are simple, precise and thought-provoking. They strike me as having both an intellectual and emotional meaning through their pared down simplicity and exactitude. Laura Iloniemi’s essay places them in an American Tradition showing their relationship to Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keefe and Franz Kline. She notes how they connect an emotional urban atmosphere with natural ‘built landscapes’, such as a sand dune or rock formation through memory and association.

Each watercolour is juxtaposed next to a visual and concrete poem. The poems are similarly pared down to simple statements spread across the page with lines positioned horizontally, vertically, diagonally and so on. The impact is powerful in that a range of potential correspondences are suggested. Thus, the poem, ‘Étude 11, 1980’ precedes the watercolour, ‘The Edge of Possibility, 1990’ and the juxtaposition enhances both as the reader’s eye moves from left to right, right to left, assimilating the forms and dream-like connection of clouds with possibilities beyond the self. The impact is utterly beguiling and accumulates as one follows the journey. 

Whilst the poems may be closed statements presented as shapes and visuals, they are in essence linked to the hypnotic watercolours through juxtaposition and the movement of the eye and mind’s eye. The poem ‘Étude 48, 2005’ has a whirlwind of broken circular lines around the words ‘In the cycle of change / we endure those extremes / each adding / a layer of humanity / to our journey’, and ends with the thought that life asks

‘that we / live intensely / and in the moment’ (in blue). It is placed opposite the watercolour, ‘Ethereal Construct, 1998’ with its two narrow windows and a door within large and rigid building blocks. The eerie atmosphere of the buildings, reminiscent of Hopper, are in contradistinction to any intense living in the moment. The eye returns to the smallness of the windows and door, suggestive of a narrowness of vision and line of thought around scale, balance, opportunity and extremes leading back to the poem’s content. This reflective approach is enhanced by each successive combination in the book and is thus thoroughly provocative.

The work is ultimately philosophical despite its dream like qualities and concerned with vision and a visible language linking our inner and outer worlds. The watercolours often evoke, or imply, an absence. We are, I think, ultimately being asked to consider how we find balance in a world of constant change. This is an utterly beguiling book creating a wonderful synergy between the poems and watercolours. 

David Caddy 13th November 2020

Tears in the Fence 72 is out!

Tears in the Fence 72 is out!

Tears in the Fence 72 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, multilingual poetry, prose poetry, flash fiction, fiction and translations from Mandy Haggith, Andrew Duncan, Elzbieta Wojcik-Leese, Charlotte Baldwin, Jeremy Reed, Lynne Wycherley, Joanna Nissel, Mandy Pannett, Sam Wood, Genevieve Carver, Sarah Acton, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Mike Duggan, Daragh Breen, Tracey Turley, Karen Downs-Burton, Barbara Ivusic, John Freeman, John Millbank, Olivia Tuck, Rowan Lyster, Sarah Watkinson, Greg Bright, Robert Vas Dias, Lucy Sheerman, Andrew Darlington, David Punter, Beth Davyson, Michael Henry, Judith Willson, John Gilmore, M.Vasalis translated by Arno Bohlmeijer, Paul Rossiter, Charles Wilkinson, Rupert M. Loydell, Reuben Woolley, Kareem Tayyar, Peter Hughes, Zoe Karathanasi, Lucy Hamilton, Lydia Harris, Lucy Ingrams, Mark Goodwin, Simon Collings, Aidan Semmens, Vasiliki Albedo and Ian Seed.

The critical section consists of David Caddy’s Editorial, Jennifer K. Dick’s Of Tradition & Experiment XIV, Andrew Duncan Apocalypse: An Anthology edited by James Keery, Lily-Robert-Foley on Jennifer K. Dick’s Lilith, Clark Allison on Geoffrey Hill, Alice Entwhistle on Frances Presley, Belinda Cooke on Peter Robinson, Nadira Clare Wallace on Ella Frears, Ian Brinton on Ray Crump, Norman Jope on Menno Wigman, Oliver Sedano-Jones on Anthony Anaxagorou, Steve Spence on Gavin Selerie, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue 7 and Notes on Contributors.

The Allen Fisher Companion Eds: Robert Hampson & cris cheek (Shearsman Books)

The Allen Fisher Companion Eds: Robert Hampson & cris cheek (Shearsman Books)

For readers interested in the complex and challenging work of poet Allen Fisher, this publication provides a useful, and very readable, range of resources. The essays trace the development of Fisher’s creative output, from early Fluxus-related pieces, through the major projects of Place and Gravity as a consequence of space, to the more recent SPUTTOR. Together they offer an informative set of commentaries on the poet’s working practices, influences, and values.

The introduction by Robert Hampson provides a helpful initial survey of Fisher’s writing career, which began in the late 1960s with links to the ‘British Poetry Revival’. The essays that follow discuss the evolution of Fisher’s work in a more or less chronological sequence.
The first piece, by Will Rowe, provides an interesting analysis of Place, the poet’s ‘decade long investigation of the limits of knowledge and truth’ (as Rowe describes it). Rowe examines how Fisher deals in this poem with different types of ‘knowledge’ and their relationship to ‘desire, will, politics and truth’. Some of the key influences on Fisher are usefully traced, including the writings of Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem. Rowe also offers interesting reflections on the differences between Place and Fisher’s second major project Gravity as a consequence of space.

Pierre Joris follows this with a focus on the extent to which ‘health’ (both bodily and societal) is a key theme in Fisher’s early work. Redell Olsen’s essay, ‘Start Place in Flux’, offers insights on Fisher’s early work with a detailed account of his involvement in Fluxus-influenced activities in Britain in the early 1970s. Olsen traces the connections between Fisher’s performance-based work and texts produced during this period, and how these ‘find their way into the synthesis of materials that make up Place.’
Performance and its relation to the text is also discussed by cris cheek, in an account of a reading of ‘Vole’ and ‘Volespin’ (two of the poems in Gravity) which Fisher recorded on video tape. The nature of Fisher’s performance of these poems, which includes visuals and an element of improvisation, and the status of the recording as ‘documentary’, are discussed in relation to concepts of stability, damage, and process, key preoccupations in Fisher’s work.

The essays which follow mainly focus on Fisher’s magnum opus, Gravity as a consequence of space, ‘factured’ between 1982 and 2005. Particularly interesting are Will Montgomery’s examination of the racial context informing ‘Brixton Fractals’ (the sequence with which Gravity opens), Robert Sheppard’s reflections on Fisher’s Apocalyptic Sonnets, written in the late 1970s, as marking a transition between Place and Gravity, Scott Thurston’s close reading of ‘Mummer’s Strut’ from Gravity, and Clive Bush’s critical evaluation of the influence of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatari on Gravity.

Both Place and Gravity include extensive lists of resources upon which Fisher drew in facturing the work. Sheppard quotes Peter Barry saying that Place requires the reader to ‘reactivate a body of reading’ not as a preparation for reading the text, but as a process in which we ‘read the sources in the light of the poem and the poem in the light of the sources.’ This is a process equally critical to an engagement with Gravity. Sheppard describes Gravity, with its complex collaging and overwriting of source texts, and internal cross-referencing, as ‘no longer content-specific poetry. Fisher is not making references for readers to ‘study’; he is making art for readers to engage with.’
Fisher has provided detailed notes on the use of source material in Mummer’s Strut, and Thurston’s analysis of this poem is a helpful exploration of the poet’s method. ‘To read Fisher’s work,’ Thurston writes, ‘is to experience a complex tension between rapid juxtapositions of different materials and patterns of continuity generated through repetition and rhyme: between discontinuity and continuity. A reader must actively negotiate the jumps and continuities in order to build his or her own reading of the poem.’

The Allen Fisher Companion concludes with an interview with Fisher (and his partner Paige Mitchell) conducted by Shamoon Zamir, which forms part of Fisher’s book Imperfect Fit (University of Alabama Press, 2016), and an edited version of an exchange of texts between Fisher and the poet Karen MacCormack, plus commentary by others, originally published online by the Slought Foundation as Philly Talk 19.

‘Discontinuites and continuities’ extend across Fisher’s major texts, each individual poem being ‘entangled’ with others. Gravity is a highly structured work, as is Place. This aspect of Fisher’s oeuvre is not really addressed in this volume, which for me is something of a gap. Gravity is organised around a number scheme subjected to damage by physically compressing a cardboard tube on which the sequence was marked. The ‘damage’ can be seen in the breaks in the alphabetical sequence of the titles and the parallel presentation (vortex) of texts in the middle of the book.

Fisher uses contemporary ideas of space-time, derived from physics, to structure Gravity, in the same way Elizabethan writers used Neoplatonic number symbolism in the ordering of their work. A contribution on this would have been a useful addition. But this criticism does not detract in any way from the many insightful essays mentioned above. This welcome collection adds significantly to the available resources on Fisher’s work.

Simon Collings 14th June 2020

Grimspound & Inhabiting Art by Rod Mengham (Carcanet Press)

Grimspound & Inhabiting Art by Rod Mengham (Carcanet Press)

Referring to the photography of Marc Atkins whose contributions are central to the whole narrative of disappearances in two of Iain Sinclair’s books Rod Mengham writes:

“Photography is often thought of as a medium that fixes the moment, cryogenising it for future generations, but it can also become the means of showing how nothing is ever fixed, how the moment will always elude us, how all that can be recorded is irrevocable loss.”

Grimspound and Inhabiting Art is divided into two separate sections but as one reads more of the second half one realises how connected they really are. The first section looks closely at Conan Doyle’s novella from 1901, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the second larger section is comprised of twenty-nine short essays on different cultural habitats. Both sections focus on the elusiveness of reality and I am put in mind of Lewis Carroll’s 1872 publication, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There:

“The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things – but the oddest part of it all was, that whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty: though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold. ‘Things flow about so here!’ she said at last in a plaintive tone, after she had spent a minute or so in vainly pursuing a large bright thing, that looked sometimes like a doll and sometimes like a workbox, and was always in the shelf next above the one she was looking at.”

In writing about the Sherlock Holmes story, much of which takes place on Dartmoor, Mengham writes convincingly about the satisfactory nature of the detective tale by suggesting that its allure is the “harmony” it gives “to seemingly discordant elements; the underlying pattern that Watson gives voice to”. In a way this “harmony” is a piecing together of language in which its reconstruction “is what loosens the story’s tongue”. Language becomes a souvenir of a specific history. With a close examination of Conan Doyle’s story Mengham identifies some of the roots of this form of communication by alerting us to the fact that the murderer’s wife, Mrs Stapleton, is discovered bound round the throat and the hound itself attacks the throats of its prey:

“The legend reaches its climax with the spectacle of the giant hound standing over Sir Hugo Baskerville and ‘plucking at his throat; the Sherlock Holmes story leads to the same point: ‘I was in time to see the beast spring upon its victim, hurl him to the ground and worry at his throat’. Up until now, the hound has been heard but not seen, with its ‘muttered rumble’ seemingly dislocated from its source in the animal’s throat. Both in the legend and in Watson’s case history, the immediate object of the hound’s attack is the victim’s throat and the root of the tongue; which is where the voice originates; where language is housed.”

Given this context it is highly appropriate that in the old stone hut which is used by Holmes as a hidden lair there are a few items on the flat stone which serves as a table and they include a loaf of bread, two tins of preserved peaches and, notably, “a tinned tongue”. For the detective as things take shape they become coherent and the historian pieces together a version of the truth. However, as Julian Barnes pointed out “History isn’t what happened, history is just what historians tell us” and in his novel Flaubert’s Parrot Barnes’s narrator recalls the difficulties of seizing the past when he tells us of his experience as a medical student when “some pranksters at an end-of-term dance” released into the hall a piglet which had been smeared with grease:

It squirmed between legs, evaded capture, squealed a lot. People fell over trying to grasp it, and were made to look ridiculous in the process. The past often seems to behave like that piglet.”

When he writes a short essay about the photography of Marc Atkins in 2003 Rod Mengham brings to our attention the artist’s focus upon urban iconography. The photographs of Warsaw record a “city of disappearances” which also brings to mind the terrifying dystopia revealed in Paul Auster’s novel In the Country of Last Things. For Mengham the city brought to light by Atkins reveals a history “leaching out through the stone and brick of a fabric that could not be more distressed, whose patched and stained facades offer maximum resistance to the wipe-clean surfaces of modernity”. This is a city “whose foundations lie in sands and gravels” where the archaeology is all “above ground” and the record of past conflicts appear “only skin-deep beneath a thin layer of badly mixed plaster, apparently designed to fall away in time for each generation to have to rehearse its own strategies for oblivion”.
Grimspound and Inhabiting Art is a fascinating read that invites one to return to it time and time again as the roots of language feel out towards the conversation which had been “begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries” (Michael Oakeshott, ‘The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind’).

Ian Brinton, 13th July 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.

Tears in the Fence 68 is out!

Tears in the Fence 68 is out!

Tears in the Fence 68 is now available from https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, prose, creative non-fiction and prose poetry from Ian Seed, Simon Collings, Melisande Fitzsimons, Anna Backman Rogers, Beth Davyson, Robert Sheppard, David Miller, Peter Hughes, Tracey Iceton, Jill Eulalie Dawson, Kate Noakes, Taró Naka Trans. Andrew Houwen & Chikako Nihei, Aidan Semmens, Mark Goodwin, Barbara Bridger, Alexandra Strnad, Daragh Breen, Andrew Darlington, Caroline Heaton, Peter J. King, Amelia Forman, Clive Gresswell, Steve Spence, Rebecca Oet, Sue Burge, Chloe Marie, Lucy Sheerman, Peter Robinson, Michael Henry, Wendy Brandmark, Abeer Ameer, Reuben Woolley, Kareem Tayyar, Sarah Cave, Angela Howarth, Norman Jope, John Freeman, Eoghan Walls, Jennie Byrne, Marcel Labine Trans. John Gilmore and Peter Larkin.

The critical section features Ian Brinton’s editorial, Andrew Duncan on Sean Bonney, Mark Byers on Jasper Bernes and Sean Bonney, Nancy Gaffield on Zoë Skoulding, Frances Spurrier – Poetry, resilience and the power of hope, Simon Collings on Ian Seed, Peter Larkin, Clark Allison on John Hall, Astra Papachristodoulou on Nic Stringer, Greg Bright – What Is Poetry?, Mandy Pannett on Seán Street, David Pollard on Norman Jope, Louise Buchler on New Voices in South African Poetry, Anthony Mellors on Gavin Selerie, Linda Black on Anna Reckin, Jonathan Catherall on Nicki Heinen, Richard Foreman on M. John Harrison, Morag Kiziewicz’s column Electric Blue 4, Notes on Contributors and David Caddy’s Afterword.

Heretics of Language by Barry Schwabsky (Black Square Editions)

Heretics of Language by Barry Schwabsky (Black Square Editions)

This is a compelling collection of essays focussing upon a wide range of artists and led by the pied piper of the Arts, Barry Schwabsky. We can engage with Jack Spicer and John Ashbery, Samuel Beckett and Italo Calvino, Peter Manson and Denise Riley…Paul Celan and more…and more.
A taster: the review of Rasula and Conley’s anthology Burning City: Poems of Metropolitan Modernity (Action Books, 2012) opens with an uncompromisingly clear tone:

“There’s nothing like an ambitious anthology for redistricting your inner map of poetic possibility.”

There is a clean sense in Schwabsky’s use of the word “redistricting” which locates us firmly in the urban world that Blake might have recognised in his use of the word “charter’d” in ‘London’. Ambitious anthologies might include Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960), Crozier and Longville’s A Various Art (1987) and Iain Sinclair’s Conductors of Chaos (1996); they certainly include the one mentioned by Schwabsky, Jerome Rothenberg’s Poems for the Millennium. The time-frame of Burning City is approximately 1910-39 and “Jed Rasula and Tom Conley have given us a historical anthology with clear implications for our present sense of what literary modernity might be and of how we could still be implicated in it”. As the editors assert “We still inhabit metropolitan configurations pioneered under the auspices of Modernism” and therefore, implicitly, our writing is still conditioned by such habitation. It was Ben Jonson who wrote that “Language most shewes a man: speake that I may see thee” following that dramatic statement with the assertion that language “springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the image of the Parent of it, the mind”. Barry Schwabsky’s review of this anthology reflects his own sense of mind: a fairness concerning the enormous amount of work done by the editors spending “untold hours leafing through half- or entirely forgotten magazines in seemingly every European language (there are a few Asian writers included as well)”. It comes of course as no surprise that Schwabsky should also pick up on what he sees as something rather surprising, that this complex piece of publishing “has been undertaken by a small press like Action Books:

“One would have thought this kind of project to be the preserve of the university presses…but these days, apparently, such things depend less on institutions than on the heroic efforts of a few individuals. Action Books had long since won my admiration for its publications by contemporaries like Glenum, Aase Berg and Kim Hyesoon, but Burning City puts the press on another level altogether”.

Towards the end of this essay on the Poetry of the Modernist City Barry Schwabsky points us to a central aspect of the urban when he says that the city “seems to be constantly in the process of destroying itself but – through (or as) that very destruction – it persists”. In my mind this seems to point back to Paul Auster’s terrifying picture of the future of urban living in his 1987 novel In the Country of Last Things:

“When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you mustn’t waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it.”

In the opening words to this remarkable collection of essays Barry Schwabsky tells us that to use language is always, in some degree, to disturb it, “to trouble the solidity of the identification through which it is structured – to induce a mutation, momentary or momentous as it may be.” My response is YES! And that is what makes reading so engaging and so important.

http://www.blacksquareeditions.org

Ian Brinton, 1st March 2018.

Benjamin Fondane’s Cinepoems and Others, and Existential Monday (New York Review Books)

Benjamin Fondane’s Cinepoems and Others, and Existential Monday (New York Review Books)

Benjamin Fondane, Cinepoems and Others, ed. Leonard Schwartz, bilingual, trans. various hands (New York Review Books, 2016)
Benjamin Fondane, Existential Monday: Philosophical Essays, ed. & trans. Bruce Baugh (New York Review Books, 2016)

I am confused. I have two books to review, a volume of poetry and a collection of philosophical essays. They are by the same person, Benjamin Fondane. This is unusual. Philosophers do not usually write passable poetry, nor poets philosophy. I am reminded of a Tommy Cooper sketch. He finds an old violin and an oil painting in the attic, which he takes to an expert who says: “What you’ve got there is a Stradivarius and a Rembrandt. Unfortunately, Stradivarius [sic] was a terrible painter and Rembrandt made rotten violins.” With that the much-loved comedian thrusts the violin through the painting demolishing both. I think Fondane would have appreciated this and laughed his head off. He retains such a sense of humour in the face of the most atrocious circumstances to which he fell victim, though in 1943, the year before his death in Auschwitz, he is quoted, “I publish more prose than poetry; one of my activities harms the other.”
I did not know anything about Fondane until now, which is the point of publishing these two books at the same time. Almost no one, at least in the English-speaking world, has known about him and, it seems, only recently has he truly entered into the post-war literary consciousness of France, whose language he ended up writing in. Fondane was a Romanian Jew, born in 1898. He contributed hundreds of articles and poems to Romanian periodicals, immersed himself in French literature, and in 1922 published a study of Mallarmé, Gide and Proust: “I have not come to know French literature as I might know German literature: I have lived it.” The following year he moved to Paris. His friends there included fellow countrymen Tristan Tzara and Constantine Brancusi. He was photographed by Man Ray around 1925. One double-portrait appears on the cover of Existential Monday and another double, with elongated distortions, as the frontispiece to Cinepoems and Others. He fell under the spell of André Breton’s first Surrealist Manifesto and then the two fell out in fisticuffs in 1930 at the Maldoror, a Montparnasse bar.
I can see, saleswise, why the title of the poetry selection highlights Cinepoems but that really is misleading. Fondane’s Trois scenarios: cinépoèmes was a 1928 exercise in soon-to-be-abandoned surrealism, consisting of numbered single line sentences: “let’s kick off the era of unfilmable scripts” he wrote in the preface. Fondane was a movie buff. He was employed for a time as a script editor at Paramount Pictures in Paris. He worked on the film Rapt aka The Kidnapping. He twice visited Argentina at the invitation of Victoria Ocampo, editor of Sur, first to present screenings, then to make a film of his own, which by all accounts does not survive. Ultimately, “cinepoems” are funny, mildly interesting, and, of course, quite experimentally filmable if you want, but unimportant and nothing to do with his subsequent formidable work.
The Others of the poems are lengthy extracts from Ulysses, Titanic, Exodus, lines from which are displayed at Israel’s Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, In the Time of the Poem, and The Sorrow of Ghosts complete. Fondane is very much a formalist, often in rhymed triplets aba, but there is nothing old-fashioned about him. There is a distrust and subversion of language in densely packed images: “The gods prayed to with the same hieroglyphics / no longer kiss us with the kisses of their mouth; / our cries used up like old nails / no longer penetrate the Eternal. / / It’s been a long time since words lost their meaning / / such a long time— / and there they are, for heaven’s sake, ripening / / on the threshold of time to come— / of great events now past.—“X-Rays” from Titanic.
Unsurprisingly, with translations by eight different hands, the English versions range from slightly suspect to excellent. End rhyme has been eschewed, probably wisely, although there are often good internal compensations: “. . . As hunger plays a pretty song: / when no one’s listening, it tunes up / intestines for a fiddle-string,”—The Sorrow of Ghosts. It is no special wish of mine to play translation detective here but it is intolerable to translate cèpe as mushroom—In the Time of the Poem. Are we to suppose that English-language readers are expected to be too ignorant to know, or to discover, what a cep (or, if you like, a penny-bun, a porcini) is? Or have we learnt something about the translator? Surely, in The Sorrow of Ghosts, “Quel Dieu ordonne” should be “What God ordains”, not “requires”. And why, in the same sequence is “—Prier? mais OÙ?” translated “—Where can we pray?” and not “—Pray? but WHERE?” That sort of thing.
What I really do not like is the inclusion of a 1985 conversation between Leonard Schwartz and E. M. Cioran. Romanian Paris-resident Cioran may have been Fondane’s dear friend but in the 1930s he described himself as a Hitlerist and was an apologist for the Romanian extremist Iron Guard, whatever later renunciations of all that he may have sought to make. Much of what Cioran says leaves a bad taste in the mouth; he is right to discredit Edouard Roditi’s wholly deplorable utterances about Paul Celan—in full in “Paul Celan and the Cult of Personality”, World Literature Today, vol. 66, no. 1 (Winter 1992)—but he is prone to deplorables himself: “We were friends. He [Celan] translated one of my books. But we ceased to be friends when he moved to the 16th. That is for me another world—the haute bourgeoisie, and so on, live there: Celan too, since his wife was a marquise. It was finished. In Paris, friendships are a question of neighbourhood.” As far as I am aware, from my knowing Gisèle Celan-Lestrange and Edmond Jabès, that was no bar to the friendship between Celan and Jabès. And about Fondane: “Yes, but all the same he’s not a French poet. He’s not considered a French poet by the French, and he isn’t one.” Oh, what, another rootless cosmopolitan? I don’t think so.
Turning now to Existential Monday, which includes a thorough introduction, copious notes, and a bibliography, I find myself more than a little out of my depth. I am no student of philosophy though I like to think I am a philosophical poet, to the ribbing of a French philosophy teacher who tells me I am not. I once wrote about George Oppen: “I think—I am often thinking—Oppen was a philosopher without philosophy. That doesn’t matter because a poet’s philosophy will never amount to much more than a partial attempt to justify or explain that particular poetry. Only the poem can be held to account as exemplary or rotten, or somewhere in-between, not its sources, those that are objective—the language, shall we say, which appears as a ready-made above one’s head, at the ready to be remade—and those that are subjective—I shall say only, if evasively, that we know all about that.”
I am told that Fondane’s philosophy, closely allied to that of his mentor Leon Shestov, is naïve. So be it. “In the one case, it is the outer bark of reality that is at stake; in the other, it is the condition of man in reality.” It is certainly readable. The selection is small. It consists of a mere four essays from his immense output. We must take it on trust that this is a truly representative selection: “Existential Monday and the Sunday of History”—Kafka provides the title, “Preface for the Present Moment”, “Man Before History, or, The Sound and the Fury”, “Boredom”, which is an essay about Baudelaire. In fact, Fondane’s first philosophical work was a study of Rimbaud. So you see there is no escaping the cross-fertilization—or “harm” as he put it—of poetry and philosophy in Fondane’s work. I need to take the easy way out here and ask that you simply—for these things are either complex or simple—read what Fondane has to say about existentialism and historical philosophers, and the then state of the world. Fondane’s fate was dreadful yet at the same time noble. He wrote to the end. He could have escaped France. There was some temporary respite following a first arrest and then release because his wife was not Jewish. But he refused to abandon his sister, with whom he was rearrested, and they perished. God alone knows what he would make of our current socio-politico-philosophical mess and evident refusal to learn from history.

This review was written at the invitation of Jewish Quarterly, where it appeared in 2017 with heavy cuts, ostensibly for space reasons. This is the full review.

Anthony Barnett 15th January 2018

A Tale of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation edited by John Freeman (OR Books)

A Tale of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation edited by John Freeman (OR Books)

This anthology of 36 essays, short stories and poems concerned with addressing the financial inequalities, systematic injustice, entrenched racism and oppression, poor treatment of immigrants and increased mechanisation possesses a depth of shared experiences within an impassioned plea for a more emphatic ethics. This begins in the editor’s introduction with calls to look beyond the statistics of broken America to the wider human cost and need for a greater ‘bandwidth of care’.

Rebecca Solnit’s essay ‘Death By Gentrification: The Killing Of Alex Nieto’ concerns the shooting of a young security guard by San Francisco police in 2014 and shows how his past and Latino identity were used against him and how this relates to the gentrification of the victim’s neighbourhood. Solnit, known here for Wanderlust: A History of Walking, produces a memorable account of the events, trial and aftermath for the Nietos, with minimal English and Spanish, and neighbourhood who came together for one of their own.

Manuel Muñoz in ‘Fieldwork’ writes of his dying father who migrated from Central America to pick lettuce and cotton to support his family in jobs that are now vanishing. The poet, Juan Felipe Herrera recalls the unnamed and undocumented workers searching for ways out. Many contributions pivot around travel. There is a sense of the contributor’s ability to fly, as in Julia Alvarez’s ‘Mobility’, and the circumscribed social and economic mobility, language barriers and difficulties faced by the majority of Americans.

Natalie Diaz contributes one of the strongest poems, ‘American Arithmetic’. She points out that Native Americans constitute less than one per cent of the population yet 1.9 per cent of all police killings.

In an American city of one hundred people,
I am Native American – less than one, less than
whole – I am less than myself. Only a fraction
of a body, let’s say I am only a hand –
and when I slip it beneath the shirt of my lover,
I disappear completely.

Displacement and loss of sustainable employment and community permeate the anthology as facts of life with many contributors seemingly echoing Freeman’s notion that the solution lies ‘between us, not above us’ and not with governments. For example, in Joyce Carol Oates’ short story ‘Leander’, a white woman visits an African American church hosting a Save Our Lives protest and experiences a sufficient range of emotional and psychological pulls and uncertainties that she contributes financially to the cause and finds an elevated self-consciousness. Anne Dillard contributes a concise flash fiction calling upon artists unable to create on some days to work in a soup kitchen, give blood as part of a good day’s work.

There is an undertow of laying bare inequality without developing a narrative arc beyond precarious employment or having to sell blood plasma to survive, as well as a tendency to nullify raw experience and anger for sophistication. Notwithstanding, this is an important and nuanced anthology.

http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/talesoftwoamericas/?utm_source=Tears%20in%20the%20Fence&utm_medium=review&utm_campaign=Tales

David Caddy 16th October 2017

For The Future (Shearsman Books)

For The Future (Shearsman Books)

In June 2016 David Caddy wrote a fine review of this little book. In October Tom Phillips also wrote a review and this was sent to all the contributors whose work had made the book important. As a consequence of some computer difficulties suffered by Tony Lewis-Jones’s Various Arts website, based in Bristol, this review never saw the light of day and so it is with great pleasure that I include it here under his name as a guest-blogger. It is important that Tom’s work is seen at large not least because it can now be included in Michael Tencer’s Full Bibliography of the work of J.H. Prynne.

Ian Brinton 8th July 2017

Review: For The Future: Poems & Essays In Honour Of J.H. Prynne On The Occasion Of His 80th Birthday, Ian Brinton (ed.), Shearsman Books, 2016

Of course, the usual starting point for discussing Jeremy Prynne’s poetry is to say something about how difficult or daunting it is. Saying this, however, is tantamount to not saying much at all. As several contributors to A Manner Of Utterance – the 2009 collection of essays about Prynne also edited by Ian Brinton and published by Shearsman – pointed out, if you start from the assumption that Prynne’s poetry is ‘difficult’ and therefore like a puzzle which needs solving, you’re probably coming at it from the wrong angle. Indeed, as Prynne himself has demonstrated with his extraordinarily expansive critical investigations of poems like Wordsworth’s ‘The Solitary Reaper’, even relatively simple-seeming work has multiple complexities and, yes, ‘difficulties’ if you look at it hard enough.
As in A Manner Of Utterance, then, the poems and essays in this insightful and wide-ranging new collection edited by Brinton counter the notion that Prynne’s work is the literary equivalent of the north face of the Eiger and that all it does is make exhausting intellectual demands of its readers. To be sure, the absence of a recognisable and autobiographical lyric ‘I’, the polyphonic assemblage of idiolects and specialist vocabularies and the unexpected shifts in grammar are disorienting, unfamiliar and have been at odds with the predominant modes of poetic expression for the fifty years that Prynne’s been publishing his work, but as the poet Peter Hughes puts it in his contribution to For The Future, that work has a “peculiar mass” nevertheless – and with mass comes gravity and you are drawn in.

Hughes also likens reading a Prynne poem to arriving in a foreign country – “Everything is going on around you and you do your best to go with the flow and pick up what you can” (which seems like very sensible advice) – while for Peter Gizzi the poems in the 1969 volume The White Stones have a “necessary and productive restlessness”. For Anthony Barnett – the first publisher of Prynne’s Poems (the steadily evolving ‘collected’ whose latest manifestation appeared from Bloodaxe in 2015) – it is a question of refusing “to be intimidated by the so-called difficulty or those critiques on difficulty, positive or negative, that have infected our academic and popular literary cultures both.”

Despite its sometimes abrasive surface textures, then, there is an energy coursing through Prynne’s work which keeps you reading it even if “the figure in the carpet” isn’t always readily apparent. Some of the essays here, of course, do posit hypotheses about what the ‘figure’ might be in specific poems or collections. Matthew Hall, for example, makes a persuasive case for understanding 2002’s Acrylic Tips in the context of “the physical landscapes and colonial history of the Australian continent” while Masahiko Abe finds a way into 1989’s Word Order through Rosalind Krauss’ concept of the ‘grid’ (as she applied it to modernist/minimalist art). Michael Tencer, meanwhile, unpacks the allusive density of Prynne’s ‘Es Lebe der König’ and identifies the multiple sources which feed into one of the very few poems dedicated to a specified individual – in this case the Romanian-German poet Paul Celan. Harry Gilonis’ discussion of Prynne’s Chinese poem ‘Stone Lake’ also illuminates how the indeterminacy and myriad ambiguities of Chinese poetry in general might offer a way of understanding how Prynne’s English poems operate and how we might approach them as readers. With Chinese poetry, after all, the general assumption is that it takes a lifetime to understand a poem as fully as it’s possible for any individual reader to do so.

For The Future, though, is not a book of critical essays per se and while the insights into specific corners of the writerly labyrinth sent me back to Poems with the thought “Ah, so this might be a potential starting point …”, the memoirs about Prynne and the poems dedicated to him also shed light on the man, the poet and the teacher. Brinton himself, for example, details the protracted negotiations between poet, publisher and printer over the publication of 1971’s Brass – thereby illustrating the care with which Prynne approaches the physical appearance of his texts – while John James’ poem ‘Affection’ steers a course through the ethical and political concerns which animate the work of a poet whose avant gardism is not an affectation but the inevitable product of a heterodox set of ethical and political concerns about transaction, encounter, power and language. Above all, perhaps, what the many and varied contributors to For The Future do is provide a reminder that Prynne is also a generous and profound teacher (more than a few of the essays here are by former students who encountered him at Cambridge) and that, whatever response you have to his poetry, he’s the kind of writer whose work needs to be read – much like that of the Black Mountain poets he did so much to champion – if you’re going to have any kind of understanding of what poetry has done in the past and what it might do in the future. As Nigel Wheale writes in his essay here: “What comes across so vividly is the range of concerns vigorously worked through, worked over, in these books, an intellectual project uniquely ambitious.”
With both A Manner Of Utterance and now For The Future, Ian Brinton has served that uniquely ambitious project well. In so doing, he is also helping to restore the contours of contemporary English-language poetry to the shape they might have assumed had the silly/shameful ‘poetry wars’ of the 1970s not disfigured them or turned them into the boundary markers of the literary cliques which are, as Michael Haslam observes in For The Future, “the scandal of poetry in England”.

Tom Phillips, October 2016

%d bloggers like this: