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Barry MacSweeney and the Politics of post-war British Poetry: Luke Roberts (Palgrave MacMillan)

Barry MacSweeney and the Politics of post-war British Poetry: Luke Roberts (Palgrave MacMillan)

One of the immediately refreshing aspects of Luke Roberts’s book about Barry MacSweeney is the clear manner in which he distances himself from the mythologizing and gossip which surrounded the poet soon after his death in May 2000. It is highly appropriate that he should open his introduction with a reference to the obituary written for The Guardian in which Andrew Crozier addressed the alcoholism which had caused MacSweeney’s death and was, as Roberts puts it, the “intractable subject of MacSweeney’s later books”. Crozier made the point, in his inimitably careful way, that “It would be unfortunate if this final self-identification became his own myth”. Luke Roberts’s fine engagement with MacSweeney’s work goes some considerable distance towards avoiding the world of gossip; instead he directs us to the poems themselves and how much of MacSweeney’s writing arose out of social and political commitment. The focus Roberts presents us with gives “a serious account of the communities he moved through from the mid-1960s to the end of his life”. This is an important book which provides a literary context within which to view MacSweeney’s lyrical intensity and to re-view his powerful political commitment.
This is the first major study of MacSweeney’s work and what is so attractive about it is the fine mixture of close textual criticism and historical literary context: in two ways we are reading a world which comes alive. Roberts looks at the Menard Press publication of MacSweeney’s lecture on Chatterton which was delivered at the University of Newcastle in 1970: Elegy for January. MacSweeney’s interest in the work of Chatterton may well have started as a recommendation by J.H. Prynne as did his reading of Death’s Jest Book by Beddoes:

“Though he begins by taking a sceptical view of the ‘romantic myth we are led to believe’, MacSweeney drifts into a glorification of youth and early death, In a manner not dissimilar to the ‘melancholy raptures’ of Dr. Knox, quoted at merciless length by Hazlitt, he addresses Chatterton directly: ‘You are the elegant, eloquent poet, my brother!’; ‘Thomas, what is there, after all, after youth’. Nevertheless, over the course of the lecture, MacSweeney does speak of a number of Chatterton’s poems precisely as if they were ‘old well-known favourites’, and this is borne out by the order of engagement we find in the poems. MacSweeney’s language and imagery is persistently inflected by Chatterton in Odes, ranging from subtle single-word allusions to the extended ‘Wolf Tongue’, which revels in his vocabulary for well over a hundred lines. Some of the most intense passages in Colonel B feature interruptions and excursions drawn from ‘AElla: A Tragycal Enterlude’ and ‘Elinoure and Juga’. Far from emptily enthusing about the circumstances in which they were produced, MacSweeney used these texts as a vital resource for his own writing.”

Luke Roberts then provides us with a vignette of the “true poète maudit”, Mark Hyatt, MacSweeney’s friend who killed himself in early 1972. He points us to the publication of some of Hyatt’s work in the posthumous edition published by MacSweeney’s Blacksuede Boot Press and Crozier’s Ferry Press, How Odd, before taking us forward to the collection of MacSweeney’s own work, Fog Eye which was dedicated to Hyatt and in which ‘Elegy’ appears:

“Invulnerable nothings. Nothing
indecipherable as those ghost
messages. The seed burns by
a grey unblinking plant or moon.
You tear pages from a diary
written many years ago, but
the stories are the same today.
There are chapters like hidden doors
and they do not bear closing.”

The final chapter in this book looks at Pearl and Blood Money: The Marvellous Secret Sonnets of Mary Bell, Child Killer and Roberts suggests that there is no simple coincidence in MacSweeney “thinking about the figure of the child and the idea of innocence”:

“These poems were written with extremely high-profile trials of children going on in the background, and a change in how the child is constituted as a legal subject.”

I have said that this is an important book and I hope that it may be just the first major study of a neglected poet whose explosive lyricism and deep political commitment to justice, (one who hated secrecy and deception), deserves to be more widely known. As Chris Hall wrote on hearing of the death of Barry MacSweeney:

“It is to be hoped that his untimely death will stimulate a genuine reassessment of this important, brave and undervalued poet.”

Ian Brinton, 26th May 2017

Discovering Dylan Thomas, A Companion to the Collected Poems and Notebook Poems John Goodby University of Wales Press

Discovering Dylan Thomas, A Companion to the Collected Poems and Notebook Poems  John Goodby  University of Wales Press

In PN Review 222, March/April 2015, I reviewed John Goodby’s superb edition of Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems and made a point of highlighting the very fine quality of the notes included in what will surely be the standard edition of Thomas’s poetry for many years to come. The notes occupy the last 180 pages of the volume and they act as genuine literary criticism. I suggested that these clear and unobtrusive notes ensure that the reader gets an immense amount out of recognising the contexts within which the poems were written. When I contacted John Goodby to bemoan the fact that there didn’t appear to be any quick way of locating the notes from the poems, something which occurs also in the George Butterick Collected Poems of Charles Olson, he replied that the lack of locational referencing was part of the huge cuts (55,000 words) that the publishers insisted on. He also suggested that there were battles “every step of the way” to preserve as much of the integrity of the edition as he could; notebook poems and juvenilia had to be dropped as well as drafts of poems which he had intended to include in the notes. John’s communication concluded on a highly optimistic note:

“I have persuaded another publisher to publish the material I was forced to cut from the notes as a Guide to the Collected Poems.”

Well, it is here! And it is terrific! Everyone who now possesses a copy of the Collected Poems (it is available in paperback now with added page references in the notes) will want to purchase this substantial new book: a real Companion to both the Collected Poems and to the Notebook Poems. The rationale behind Goodby’s new book is clear:

“That rationale is primarily a critical and scholarly one, unshaped by commercial criteria, even though I hope this book will appeal to some non-academic lovers of Thomas’s poetry too. A coherent work in its own right, it offers, for example, critical histories for most of the poems, at a level of detail which would never have been tolerated in the edition, as well as material which has come to light in the two years since the edition was published.”

One of the exciting things about this new book is that as readers we are aware of being part of a work in progress: Goodby’s magisterial understanding of the importance of Thomas’s work ensures that any academic dust has been blown off the pages before we start to become immersed in an adventure of continuing discovery.
This new book is divided into sections including ‘Supplementary Poems’, ‘Textual annotations and critical histories’ and ‘drafts’and time and again we are reminded of the omnivorous reading which the poet undertook in different disciplines. In his introduction John Goodby raises the interesting question as to “just why Thomas alludes to and echoes other writers so obliquely”. By way of answer he points out a path for the reader which avoids simple references to other literary works incorporated within that reading:

“Dylan Thomas was a trickster-poet, one who resisted the display of metropolitan insider knowledge which allusion, quotation and echo of ten signify. Defining himself against Eliot and Auden, with their well-bred canonical assurances, he opted instead for a subversive, cryptic mode of allusion.”

Goodby recognises that Thomas’s volume 18 Poems “is very different to The Waste Land or The Cantos in smothering its allusions deep within its traditional forms, rather than flaunting them on a broken, variable verse surface”. He also recognises that there is a need for an overhaul “of standard accounts of 1930s and 1940s poetry and its relationship to the present-day scene”:

“Critics such as Andrew Duncan and James Keery have for some time been preparing the way by teasing out the 1940s inheritance shared by such unlikely bedfellows as Hughes, Plath, Roy Fisher, Geoffrey Hill, Philip Larkin and J.H. Prynne, as well as tracing the influence of W.S. Graham on poets, such as Denise Riley, associated with the ‘Cambridge School’”.

One might add to that list by including the name of Andrew Crozier whose ‘Styles of the Self: The New Apocalypse and 1940s Poetry’ was included in my edition of his selected prose, Thrills and Frills (Shearsman Books, 2013). One might further add an example of precisely the sort of “subversive, cryptic mode of allusion” by referring to a couple of examples contained within the poetry of J.H. Prynne. As was pointed out to me some time ago by Anthony Mellors, in ‘Of Movement Towards a Natural Place’ (Wound Response, 1974) there is a quotation from Dickens’s Great Expectations embedded within the text:

“upon his lips curious white flakes, like thin snow”

In ‘As Mouth Blindness’ (Sub Songs, 2010) King Lear’s words as he bears his dead Cordelia onto the stage are echoed, buried within the text:

“What is’t thou sayst? Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle and low….” (King Lear, V iii 270-271)

“…Her voice was ever low…” (Poems, p. 609)

Discovering Dylan Thomas is an indispensable book. Buy a copy and you will discover much more than appears on the title page.

Ian Brinton, 14th May 2017

A History of Modernist Poetry Ed. Alex Davis & Lee M. Jenkins (Cambridge University Press)

A History of Modernist Poetry  Ed. Alex Davis & Lee M. Jenkins  (Cambridge University Press)

I have rarely come across a readable, engaging and infectious introduction to the world of Modernist Poetry…until NOW.
The opening lines of this History set the scene:

“What, When, and Where was modernism? Is modernism a period or a paradigm, an era or a style? Is modernism solely the product of metropolitan modernity, or equally of local, even peripheral, spatialities? Is modernism an ‘international’ or even transnational phenomenon, or is it wedded to notions of cultural nationalism and regional identity?”

The questions are set out and the twenty-three chapters of this fine book attempt to answer them. A concern for placing modernism within an historical context leads the editors to wonder if it marked a moment of avant-garde rupture with its late nineteenth-century poetic antecedents or did it consist, instead, of “a reinflection and continuation of their preoccupations”.

“In what follows, modernist poetry is understood as having its roots in the fin de siècle even as it reflects and refracts the climate of the new century, as an affair of the city and imperial centre, and of what Scottish poet High MacDiarmid termed the ‘stony limits’ of the periphery; and as a variegated field of formal experiments, whether iconoclastic rejections of the past or embattled recuperations of it.”

There is an engaging directness of address in the editorial introduction and I found myself held by a contextual comment such as the difference between modernism and the broader “modern movement”:

“Both register the shock of the new in terms of content and push at the envelope of conventional form; nevertheless, there is a distinction to be made between, for example, the Edwardian verse of John Masefield and the early poetry of Mina Loy.”

The point is made even clearer when one compares the representation of the First World War in David Jones’s In Parenthesis (1937) and the shell-shocked Georgianism of the lyric war poetry of Sassoon and Owen. Jones’s “mixed prose and verse narrative underpinned by the deep time of the mythical method common to many modernist works” is very different from the world addressed by J.H. Prynne in his unpublished lecture to the Edmund Blunden Society in 2009:

“In different ways each one of what we now can’t avoid calling war poets had to make do with traditional modes and genres of composition, as compellingly the default option. With so much of their cultural equipment at risk of destruction, they were deeply conservative in formal poetics, even as they experimented towards far limits in the expression of personal and ethical feeling…Pound, Eliot and Joyce defined major new initiatives, but the surviving war poets lapsed into survival. This stand-off stakes out the territory for literary antagonism and contest, between old-style cultural continuities and the progress of Modernism, both rooted in the modality of the English language but in the case of Eliot and Pound determined to break the mould of inherited practice, to fight free of suffocating influence from the past.”

It is little wonder that In Parenthesis was championed by Eliot sharing, as it did, a fragmentary presence heralded in different voices through whose tones of expression mythology provided a framework for contemporary analysis.
Rather than give a list of all 23 chapters in this new History I urge readers to look the details up on-line: this is probably the most important collection of essays on Modernism to appear for some time to come. What I can do is highlight two little delights, tasters as it were. Mark Scroggins wrote a biography of Zukofsky (Shoemaker Hoard, 2007) and it comes as little surprise that his chapter on ‘Objectivist Poets’ should be so clear in its purpose and details. Scroggins highlights the sense that whilst several writers saw their work published by The Objectivist Press (TO) “the poets now discussed as Objectivists never formed anything like a coherent movement”. He concludes his survey with the statement from Zukofsky who wrote that their interest resided “in the craft of poetry, NOT in a movement”. The final chapter of the History, this history, not where history ends(!), is written by Anthony Mellors whose Late Modernist Poetics, From Pound to Prynne (Manchester University Press, 2005) provides a major focus on Pound, Celan, Olson and Prynne. Mellors concludes his summing-up of A History of Modernist Poetry by quoting Allen Fisher who describes his own poetic strategy as a truth to materials which “involves slow decomposition, disruption of autobiographical voice through the use of many voices”. In response Mellors writes “The danger here is for multiplicity to become a new orthodoxy”. David Jones might well have been interested in this view of the future as well as the past when he opened his Preface to The Anathemata (1952) with the quotation from Nennius (or whoever composed the introductory matter to the Historia Brittonum):

“I have made a heap of all that I could find.”

Ian Brinton 4th April 2017

Paris, Painters, Poets by Jim Burns (Penniless Press Publications)

Paris, Painters, Poets by Jim Burns (Penniless Press Publications)

An abiding feature of Jim Burns’ informative series of critical books is their range of interests and his passion in recalling neglected and marginalised artists, poets and jazz musicians. This eighth collection of reviews and essays has a sequence of essays on Paris, sections on neglected British artists and American poets, the effects of the Hollywood blacklists, the early days of communism in Russia and America, as well as some of his own short fiction.

The Parisian section has essays on Chaim Soutine, Marc Chagall and other Montparnasse outsiders, Picasso and his milieu in 1900, existentialists, including Edmund Husserl, the way the work of photographer, Felix Nadar, shaped images of the city, and the role of the barricade in successive insurrections. As ever, Burns writes in a richly contextual and inviting manner and gives useful overviews and plenty of references for further reading.

The reviews of recent exhibitions and books on Sven Berlin, John Bratby and Stanley Spencer are illuminating. I did not know, for example, that Bratby was also a novelist. He also writes the Forties and Fifties Soho bohemia that produced
Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, John Minton and Michael Ayrton, through the lens of the lives of artists, Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller, who frequently feature as minor artists in accounts of the period. As Burns makes clear any sense of transgressive artistic practice was over by the Sixties and the scene had degenerated into the same old faces drinking away their lives.

Amongst the highlights of this book for me is the discovery of the poetry of Lola Ridge (1873-1941) in the essay, ‘Lola Ridge, Radical Poet’, and of Cambridge Opinion 41 (1965), an issue devoted to the impact of William Carlos Williams on English poets. The former essay sets her work firmly in the context of American modernist poetry and its social background. Irish born Ridge came to become a Greenwich Village bohemian via New Zealand, Australia, and San Francisco. Her feminist, street poetry, voicing class conflict, social protest, won the Shelley Memorial Award in 1934 and 1935. Her first poetry book, The Ghetto and Other Poems (1918) centred on the Jewish community of the Lower East Side, and created quite a stir, despite the fact that her portrayal was mostly second hand.
There is currently a revival of interest in her poetry and Light in Hand: Selected Early Poems introduced and edited by Daniel Tobin appeared in 2007. Terese Svoboda’s biography Anything That Burns You (2015) extends to 627 pages. Burns found a copy of Cambridge Opinion 41 in his archives, as he was a contributor. The magazine is not referenced in any of the histories and bibliographies of little poetry magazines produced by the British Library and elesewhere. This significant issue features the work of Basil Bunting, Andrew Crozier, Roy Fisher, Tim Longville, Tom Pickard, J.H. Prynne, John Temple, Gael Turnbull and others. Burns provides plenty of background information on the editors and the various approaches of contributors and various other related magazines and presses. It is the kind of recovery that aptly illustrates the great value that Burns offers to us all.

David Caddy 8th February 2017

Poetic Artifice Veronica Forrest-Thomson Edited by Gareth Farmer for Shearsman Books

Poetic Artifice  Veronica Forrest-Thomson  Edited by Gareth Farmer for Shearsman Books

Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s Poetic Artifice, subtitled ‘A theory of twentieth-century poetry’, was published by Manchester University Press in 1978 and I bought my copy from a remaindered book-sale of University Press publications which was taking place at Austick’s in Leeds in May 1983. I seem to recall that I paid 50 pence for it. Nowadays I gather that copies of this hard-back first edition of what transpired to be a remarkable book are on sale for £60 and above. Thank goodness for Tony Frazer and Shearsman Books that can bring back into a public eye such a provocative and interesting survey of twentieth-century poetry at a price that is not prohibitive! And thank goodness for the expertise and dedication of Gareth Farmer who has edited this new edition of Poetic Artifice.

Farmer’s research-work on Forrest-Thomson, ‘Poetic Artifice and the Struggle with Forms’, contains one of the most clear and direct introductions to her world:

‘Throughout Poetic Artifice, Forrest-Thomson implies that the poem contains within itself a codified intent which it is a reader’s passive duty to identify. Her position is perhaps derived from the structuralist argument of Riffaterre who proposes the text’s self-sufficiency whereby, “the mythology we need for the text is entirely encoded in the words of text”. A reader need look no further than, as Riffaterre neatly puts it, the “necessary […] verbal artefacts” of the poem’s structure. In illustrating what she means by the function of the image-complex, for example, Forrest-Thomson describes the activity of interpreting the Shakespearean metaphor, “Out, out brief candle, / life’s but a walking shadow”. As she argues, a reader understands by the context of the passage that only certain features of candle are relevant (not that it’s waxy, but that it’s finite and frail). However, she also stresses that “the level of coherence” is “established by the lines” and that this “tells us that only certain features of empirical candles are relevant to the passage.”’

This statement concerning the ‘certain features’ of a candle in one of the most well-known of quotations from Macbeth appears in Forrest-Thomson’s own Preface to that 1978 M.U.P. edition of Poetic Artifice and, as Farmer points out, it illustrates what the author would later describe as the ‘latent intentionality of poetic language’.

Gareth Farmer opens this long overdue and most welcome republication of Forrest-Thomson’s theoretical stance in an engaging manner. He quotes from ‘an intriguing letter’ written by Forrest-Thomson to Paul Buck in July 1972 in which she says that she is in the middle of writing a book ‘centred on William Empson but very post-structuralist orientated, a sort of ars poetica…’. He then provides us with a very precise contextual picture: black-ink calligraphic handwriting, Forrest-Thomson’s typewriter on her desk in Flat 5, 17 West Road Cambridge, an audacious challenge to the claims of another poetic and critical Cambridge voice, that of William Empson. As Farmer puts it, ‘This 1972 letter affords us a window into a Cambridge literary world of the early 1970s’ and he provides us with a context within which to read this stimulating and energetic engagement with the art of reading poetry:

Poetic Artifice and Forrest-Thomson’s other writings from this time are useful historical documents registering shifts in literary-critical terminology, the type of questions being brought to bear on literary texts, as well as the role and function of language.’

Gareth Farmer’s serious academic interest in the work of Veronica Forrest-Thomson was evident when he edited some previously unpublished prose in Chicago Review 56 in the autumn of 2011. ‘His True Penelope Was Flaubert: Ezra Pound and Nineteenth-Century Poetry’ is a ‘condensed’ version of the project Forrest-Thomson was working on after Poetic Artifice. Those essays which Farmer edited in 2011 exist only in single versions and are clearly drafts of her application of poetic theory to nineteenth-century verse, something to which she alluded in the third chapter of Poetic Artifice:

‘One might say, in fact, that both the poetry Pound recognised, such as the Cantos, and the poetry he repudiated, such as early Canzoni, are relevant to our situation today. This matter must wait for another book, though, which will concern Pound, the ’Nineties, and the great fictionalisers, Tennyson, Swinburne, Rossetti, who lie behind them.’

In referring to the tracking down of some of Forrest-Thomson’s unreferenced quotations in her work Gareth Farmer again arouses our interest and intriguingly directs us to the Dame Ninette de Valois epigraph to the book’s second chapter:

‘I knew from talking to Jonathan Culler that Forrest-Thomson had been fascinated by ballet when they had met and had been attending classes in Cambridge. I had attributed this to the influence of Mallarmé and Baudelaire, but the concentration on form, perfection and mastery in the quotation also belies her restless pursuit and fetish of pure form. Indeed, the presence of the balletic body in Forrest-Thomson’s theory and work is a demonstration of both perfection and imperfection—the notion of pure and controlled form occurs at the same time as the presence of an irreconcilable body, gangly, impure, imperfect and never able to attain the perfection to which it strives. The ballet dancer reaching for perfect form, striving to control the unwilling and ever-impure contours of the body, is a figure which describes Forrest-Thomson’s own struggling aesthetics.’

The conclusion to Gareth Farmer’s major editorial work reflects not only the pleasure of having discovered the above aspect of Forrest-Thomson’s ‘ever-engaging and surprising’ critical focus but also contains an invitation to others ‘to find more and to let me know.’ Congratulations to the Farmer-Frazer partnership!

Ian Brinton 17th November 2016

Tears in the Fence 64

Tears in the Fence 64

Tears in the Fence 64 edited by David Caddy is now available from https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, fiction, prose poetry and translations from Jeremy Reed, Jim Burns, John Welch, John Freeman, Sally Dutton, Chris Hall, Michael Henry, Beth Davyson, Kinga Tóth, Paul Kareem Tayyar, D. I., Lydia Unsworth, David Pollard, Mike Duggan, Jeff Hilson, Sheila Mannix, I.S. Rowley, Richard Foreman, Jay Ramsay, Alison Winch, Andrew Taylor, Alan Baker, Sophie Herxheimer, L. Kiew, Ric Hool, S.J. Litherland, Rachael Clyne, Andrew Shelley, Tom Cowin, Morag Kiziewicz, Matt Bryden, Jessica Mookherjee, John Phillips, Ian Brinton & Michael Grant trans. Mallarmé, Terence J. Dooley trans. Mario Martin Giljó, Greg Bachar, Jennifer K. Dick, Matthew Carbery, Mark Goodwin, Aidan Semmens, Peter Dent, Sarah Cave, Julie Irigaray and Maria Isokova Bennett.
The critical section features John Freeman on Jim Burns: Poet as Witness, Andrew Henon on Timeless Man: Sven Berlin, Mary Woodward on Rosemary Tonks & Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Jeremy Reed on John Wieners, Norman Jope on Chris McCabe, Marsha de la O in conversation with John Brantingham, Neil Leadbeater on Jeremy Hilton, Nancy Gaffield on Geraldine Monk, Lesley Saunders on Alice Miller, Belinda Cooke on Carole Satyamurti, Steve Spence on Dear World and Everyone in it David Caddy on Andrew Lees’ Mentored by a Madman, Nigel Wood & Alan Halsey, Duncan Mackay on E.E. Cummings
, Notes on Contributors, and Ian Brinton’s Afterword.
The front cover is a black & white detail of a Sven Berlin watercolour (1982, private collection) and the magazine is designed by Westrow Cooper.

ANTONYMS Anew Barbs & Loves Anthony Barnett (Allardyce Book)

ANTONYMS  Anew  Barbs & Loves  Anthony Barnett (Allardyce Book)

Let matters become clear: I have an immense respect for the poetry and prose of Anthony Barnett and this must be evident to anyone who wishes to look up the review I did nearly four years ago for Poetry Review (Vol. 102: 3, Autumn 2012). My opening statement pulled no punches:

‘As poet and publisher for the past forty-five years Anthony Barnett has ploughed a solitary furrow, unerringly straight and hauntingly evocative, across the field of English poetry’.

As I read the recently published book of Antonyms, many of which have never been published before, my respect for the careful footfalls of this fine writer was only increased. I use the word ‘footfalls’ quite deliberately since it was in Samuel Beckett’s 1974 play of that name that May, perhaps named after the dramatist’s mother, ‘…must hear the feet, however faint they fall’; an echo perhaps of Beckett’s mother who had difficulty sleeping through the nights at home in Cooldrinagh and who had removed the carpets in some areas of the house so that her steps should sound her reality.
In Antonym xxxii, on George Oppen and J.H. Prynne, Barnett writes about a review he did on a critical appraisal of the American poet:

‘Here are some moderated bits from that review. If they appear impressionistic, a trait I am quick to criticize in others, it is because I do not know quite where to tread. “Think how careful George has been” I wrote in “A Note About George Oppen”, later allusively retitled “Note Through a Lens”, in which I related the reading, and the writing, of a poem with walking and wandering in the mountains. Of course, care is not enough. Without risk there is no meaningful, useful, process and progress.’

The reference to an appearance of impressionism is interesting because the accumulation of references, of focal points, throughout the thirty-eight short pieces of prose might indeed give the reader a sense that one was moving across a wide field of literature and music without ever settling long on any individual moment. However, nothing could be further from the truth! Each sentence has a clarity to it as if chipped from stone and the whole book has a sculpted quality to it which allows it to rest, still, on the page.

‘THE GRASS HAS BEEN MOWN on the path that winds alongside the brook. It makes it easier to walk and avoid the nettles on either side but somehow I wish they’d left it overgrown.’

Opening with this washed-clean writing in Antonym xxix Barnett moves forward, step by step, to glance at the difference between ‘three’ and ‘four’:

‘Three pigeons are drawing near to my feet. I’m sitting on a semi-circular wide-depth backless wooden plank bench. They are pecking at grass seed it seems, not particularly paying attention to anything or anyone else. A fourth pigeon has arrived and now they are moving away in concert, still pecking.’

That glance leads the writer to contemplate death:

‘Ever since I learnt that the figure four is inauspicious because in Japanese the kanji for four sounds exactly the same as the kanji for death—it’s like that in Chinese—I have, I have to admit, been superstitious…’

My reading has been taken from a landscape, slightly humanised by the mowing down of nettles, to the near-at-hand of the pigeons. The observation of one more bird arriving has prompted a reflection on the opposite of arrival, departure. The very human response to this accumulation of thoughts is to admit to an illogical sensation of superstition but watch how exactly this is arrived at as the repetition of the words ‘I have’ give us a stutter, a stumble forwards into acknowledgement. This is careful writing of the most serious kind. This language-sculptor’s care has affinities with the clarity of Samuel Beckett’s writing and it is a delight to read Antonym xxiv, ‘Beckett and Jazzality’ with its reference to Harold Bloom’s vivid account of the director Herbert Blau’s ‘apprehension before a performance [of Waiting for Godot] at San Quentin in 1957—the first play performed at the penitentiary since Sarah Bernhardt appeared there in 1913.’
One of the best recognitions of the individual quality of Barnett’s style of writing can be found in PN Review 212, from the summer of 2013, where Tim Harris opened his review of Barnett’s collected poems by referring not to impressionism but to Paul Klee whose ‘fine but strong lines…set out from some arbitrary point and sharply change direction’. Harris refers to ‘enigmatic structures that are at once sturdy and yet not quite stable’ which ‘seem to possess an infectious surprise at their own emergence from the fertile nothingness of the white paper.’
In a quiet tone of acknowledgement Barnett focuses upon losses and in Antonym xx a colourful beach bucket from childhood is washed out to sea:

‘I watched it sinking with the water spilling over its rim’.

In a quiet tone of enquiry in Antonym xxxiii he then focuses upon the act of reading:

‘I do wonder why I have a tendency to open a book or leaf through a magazine in the Chinese or Japanese or Hebrew or Arabic direction. Right handed. Holding it in the right hand and leafing with the left. I wondered whether this was a common phenomenon so I conducted a little survey. Not uncommon. Not so common. A vestige of the past.’

I recommend this book very strongly indeed: it is a treasure-trove, a trouvaille.

Ian Brinton 7th April 2016

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