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Category Archives: Memoir

A Lawnmower In The Loft by Bruce McLean (21 Publishing)

A Lawnmower In The Loft by Bruce McLean (21 Publishing)

This collection of anecdotal vignettes by celebrated Scottish action sculptor and painter, Bruce McLean, offers a compelling lop-sided account of his artistic life. It is full of a louche bon vivant’s interest in food and drink stretching from the food parcel that his parents posted from Glasgow in 1963 when he was studying sculpture at Saint Martin’s School of Art to the day he ate five steak and kidney pies during his tenure as head of painting at the Slade School of Fine Art.

Here we have the usual elements of autobiographical memoir arranged alphabetically to create a deeper impression and unorthodox tone. A bit like Daniel Farson’s memoir, Never A Normal Man, only funnier and more reliable. It was Bruce’s eccentric father that kept a lawnmower in his loft, which gives the book its title. McLean also employs some beguiling list poems of menus, the informal and formal names of his mother’s neighbours, orders at the Bull’s Head, Barnes, and other quirky lists.

The focus on sustenance and bodily functions offer opportunities throughout to debunk conceptions of the artistic life as impractical and outside of social relations. Thus, the reader learns that horse urine was once used to etch plates and that Bruce spent a day at Covent Garden Market waiting to collect horse urine in order to make some not very good etchings of a horse peeing in a bucket.

Much of the material has a wit that partially serves to camouflage the wider purposes of the stories. Humour always serves a social purpose and here the reader is immediately drawn in to savour the fun and joy of a man intoxicated by food, drink and storytelling. The back cover features one of his plinth pictures from Pose Work For Plinths (1971), originally created as an ironic joke in performance in 1970 around the use of plinths in sculpture with the artist bending his body to fit on and around three plinths.

Inevitably, reader’s will seek out celebrated artists that appear in the stories. I must admit to noting references to Kathy Acker, Joseph Beuys and John James, who wrote ‘Poem For Bruce McLean’, which appeared in Bruce McLean: Berlin/London (1983) rewriting McLean’s colourful linear paintings as a series of images. James’s poetry engages with the visual, phenomenology and visual art, in many ways and he has written on artists, Barry Flanagan and Richard Long, who also feature in stories. His latest collaboration with McLean is On Reading J.H. Prynne’s Sub Songs (QoD Press, 2016) where McLean provided original lino cuts to poems written in response to J.H. Prynne’s poems, in a book designed and hand printed by Bridget Heal using a Hopkins letterpress in a limited edition. McLean recounts the occasion when John James was invited to read a new work before for the opening of The Masterwork: The Award Winning Fish Knife at the Riverside Studios in 1979. After some pre-show drinking the performers were miked up ready to start. James goes for a nervous pee. The lights go down, audience silent in expectation, suddenly there is the sound of someone’s zip being undone, followed by an enormous fart, and what ‘sounded like a fire hose wazzing and skooshing on the porcelain’ and finally James appearing to tumultuous applause and cheering. Never, writes McLean, had a poet had such a welcome, and a great fart to this mediocre work.

McLean is eminently recognisable in these stories with their self-deprecating non-conformism and debunking of assumptions around what sculpture is and should be. There is a strong sense that he has ploughed his own furrow making his way by single-mindedness and continual probing. Moreover, he allows other figures to emerge in their full glory. Leonard Swartz, for example, who despite disliking McLean’s lecture at Maidstone School of Art nevertheless gave him a day’s teaching job. The stories are distinctly noteworthy and great fun rather like his self-interviews and refusal to be constrained by pre-set conceptions. This is a memoir that I shall re-visit with pleasure.

David Caddy 19th October 2017

Richard Swigg

Richard Swigg

Richard Swigg, formerly Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Keele, died last week. His books on the poetry of Charles Tomlinson constitute probably the most important contributions to a full recognition of that poet who was primarily responsible for introducing the world of post WWII American poetry to the shores of England. Swigg’s publications included Charles Tomlinson and the Objective Tradition (Associated University Presses, 1994) and it is worth recalling the opening statement of that book:

“My subject is the poetry of Charles Tomlinson and the Anglo-American tradition that he illuminates. The lineage of concrete particularity to which he belongs is one that reaches back in verse to the English Augustans, and forward, through Blake, Whitman, and Hopkins, to William Carlos Williams. Above all, it is a tradition of objectivity that has special regard for the world in its solid, separate otherness – for a plurality of phenomena independent of our egotistic projection and unblurred by myth or symbol. Tomlinson, I believe, is unique among contemporary English poets in the way that he has provided the terms by which we see the distinctness of that world and the tradition that describes it.”

Swigg went on to focus on that “distinctness” and in his next book on Tomlinson, Look with the Ears, Charles Tomlinson’s Poetry of Sound (Peter Lang, 2002) he traced the way in which Tomlinson’s poetry evolved from the 1940s to the 1990s as an acoustic means of “seeing” and voicing the physical world. That concern for the voice prompted Swigg to put together the most comprehensive collection of taped readings by Basil Bunting and in 8 separate cassettes he recorded the poet reading Briggflatts (1967) and ‘The Well of Lycopolis’ (1982) as well as interviews with Tom Pickard in Northumberland between 1981 and 1982. Richard Swigg’s energetic involvement with the world of modern poetry is also evidenced in his work done on the poetry and letters of George Oppen and in 2007 Penn Sound published his collection of William Carlos Williams recordings online before going on in 2009 to publish his collection of Oppen recordings. In 2012 University of Iowa Press published his book on Williams, Eliot and Marianne Moore, Quick, Said the Bird and this also is a book worth seeking out:

“It is the keen-edged life tracked as much by Moore in a frigate pelican, a Virginian mockingbird, or the eagles of Mount Rainier as it is by Williams following through the gymnastics of starlings in the wind, a bird winging down to its watery image, or the notes of a redbreast by the Passaic Falls: all instances of a poetic outreach into the zestfully unsilenced which still persists in the later Eliot’s call, “Quick, said the bird,” as the thrush of an English garden points the acoustic memory back to the cries of the Philomela nightingale or the water-dripping song of the North American hermit-thrush in The Waste Land.”

In the early years of this century I was the reviews editor of The English Association’s magazine for teachers, The Use of English, and I arranged for Richard to review Tomlinson’s Carcanet Press edition of Metamorphoses: Poetry and Translation. Needless to say the review was terrific as he noted that “Frontiers divide, fissures break open, but in Charles Tomlinson’s poetry they also impel the mind across borders to new connections”. That review appeared in Vol.55, No.2, Spring 2004. Richard Swigg was an academic and teacher who committed himself wholeheartedly to what he regarded as the central work of his life. His eye for detail was precise and his awareness of what was going on in the world of research made his work very important indeed. In a letter that he sent me some fifteen years ago one can detect the investigator at work. The letter was in reply to some little details I had sent him concerning the Oppens and the Tomlinsons:

“As to Oppen coincidences, I have mine! While reading the Selected Letters recently, I noticed that Oppen had done a 1964 reading for the American Academy – a recording which I mentally noted as worth pursuing (since I have several, post 1967, where he reads Of Being Numerous and later poems). The 1964 one must, I thought, include The Materials, surely. Well, hardly had I noted this than I had a reply from the Harvard Poetry Room – the new Curator there, Don Share, who’s done a Ph.D. on Bunting (under Ricks, I think) – about my request for another Oppen tape, to say that he also had the 1964 one. So now he’s sending them over. I’ve also located ones that Oppen did for the Bay Area local radio station, KPFA, in Berkeley, and hope to get these one of the days.”

Don Share of course is now the editor of Poetry Magazine and published the very fine critical edition of Basil Bunting’s complete Poems for Faber & Faber last year.

I last met Richard Swigg at the celebration of the poetry of Charles Tomlinson held in the Wills Memorial Building, Clifton, Bristol on 30th September last year. It was a joy to hear his open-hearted enthusiasm for Tomlinson’s contribution to British poetry.

Ian Brinton, 26th March 2017

Barney Rosset – Rosset: My Life In Publishing and How I Fought Censorship (OR Books)

Barney Rosset – Rosset: My Life In Publishing and How I Fought Censorship (OR Books)

Barney Rosset, born in Chicago in 1922 to a Russian Jewish father and Irish Catholic mother, bought Grove Press in 1951 and became America’s most significant avant-garde publisher in the second half of the twentieth century displaying a determined independent streak.

Grove Press, and its seminal literary magazine, Evergreen Review, helped shape modern culture through its catalogue and legal challenges to publish banned literary works. Rosset’s ethos that a publisher should be free to publish anything drew upon his rebellious Irish ancestry and a progressive education at Parker High School. My Life In Publishing shows that Rosset was interested in radical politics as much as sex and that he had an inquisitive mind. His War years were spent in India and Shanghai with the Field Photographic Unit, and he later made films, inspired by the French New Wave, with his Evergreen Theater. He commissioned scripts by Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter, Robbe-Grillet and Duras, making films with Beckett and Norman Mailer, and got into trouble with US Customs by importing and showing the Swedish film, I Am Curious (Yellow), eventually winning several court cases and grossing a foreign film profit second only to La Dolce Vita in 1969. Evergreen published translations from Cahiers du Cinéma and Grove published a cultural history of underground film by Parker Tyler.

Returning to Chicago in 1947 he fell in with abstract expressionist and former Parker student, Joan Mitchell. Together they went to New York and Paris, and became integral parts of the Cedar Tavern scene in Greenwich Village with Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Frank O’Hara, a future Grove author. Mitchell emerges as a fascinating figure in her own right enlarging the range of abstract expressionism. She was a life long friend and contributor providing cover art to many books before moving to Paris in 1959, where she became a close friend of Beckett.

Rosset’s approach was to obtain critical support for each of his books. This began with John Berryman supporting his first book, Matthew Lewis’ gothic novel, The Monk. Rosset fearlessly published three banned books, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer and The Autobiography of Malcolm X with extensive critical and legal support. The legal successes were major victories against censorship and very much part of the counterculture of the Sixties and Seventies. He was adept at finding fellow editors and allowing them to develop. A good example is Donald Allen who edited Evergreen Review 2, San Francisco Scene in 1957, featuring Ferlinghetti, Robert Duncan, McClure, Spicer, Snyder, Kerouac and Whalen, and the all-embracing New American Poetry anthology in 1960. Rosset published Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, seeing the Dr. Benway character as comic genius and reading the book as an abstract painting, after several others had declined. When Chicago Review banned an excerpt he mounted a legal challenge getting Norman Mailer and a host of critics to appear for the defence case. He was also prepared to enter dangerous situations, such as his attempt to locate Che Guevara’s diaries in Bolivia, which led to his offices being bombed by Cuban exiles in July 1968.

Rosset worked closely with international publishers, such as John Calder in London and Maurice Girodias in Paris. Sylvia Beach, owner of Shakespeare and Co., introduced him to Samuel Beckett. His unswerving dedication to publishing what he wanted combined with great critical awareness and a wide internationalism saw him publish Artaud, Behan, Genet, Ionesco, Lorca, Neruda, Paz, Pinter in the early years, and subsequently Brecht, Orton, Borges, Stoppard, Kenaburō Ōe, Havel, Mamet, and much more Beckett. He emerges as an impatient, unpredictable, passionate, spiky and intractable figure with a feverish desire to challenge accepted views and authorises. This is an inspiring account of a difficult figure, shows the importance of alternative publishing, and will surely be the basis for subsequent biographies and feature in critical studies of those he published.

More book details here:
http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/rosset/?utm_source=Tears%20in%20the%20Fence&utm_campaign=Rosset&utm_medium=Review

David Caddy 12th December 2016

Brandon Pithouse: Recollections of a Durham Coalfield by John Seed (Smokestack Books)

Brandon Pithouse: Recollections of a Durham Coalfield by John Seed (Smokestack Books)

Brandon Pithouse is a quest to discern the accomplished fact of colliery life in County Durham from 1700 to 1990 now that there are more traces left by the Roman than the colliers. There is then a personal element to these largely documentary poems and prose pieces that draw upon a wide range of historical resources, documents written, printed and transcribed oral sources from recorded interviews on radio and television. These are offered against ‘organised amnesia’ and erasure. The sources have been cut, rewritten and spliced together in various forms of prose, poetry, with and without punctuation and arranged on the page in visual forms to slow the reader down to hear the testimony of multiple voices from a long history. The singular fragments, juxtaposed and in disjunction, accumulate to produce a deeply moving montage of statistics and documentary experience. The rhythms and cadence of the vernacular emerge in both pain and humour:

Anyway, we’re aall in the cage. It was about ’62, ’63, when they
were starting to close the pits, and we were aall in the cage this
day, and we’re crackin’ on about that. They’d just shut that one
where the lad was supposed to have hit Robens, was it Lambton D?
It was just after that and we’re coming up in the cage talkin’ about
it, which was next on the line.

We were in the top deck. Well the top deck has a bar runs across it,
and you can sort of lean on it, well S. was leaning on it. And our Len
says: ‘Aye, aa knaa two bliddy mair they should shut.’
S. says: ‘Aye what’s that?’
‘Thy bliddy ARM pits.’

The ordering of the montage serves to quickly establish the historical-geographical position and reach of the work within a locality. After an extensive list of what constitutes the work of a miner, we read

You walk into any pit house ten o’ clock at night
find the same thing
red hot fire
a tired-looking woman
heavy damp clothes hanging up
all over the place

And later we read of the worst of the work such as ‘putting’, the dragging of coal tubs using a harness called the ‘soames’ with a chain between the legs hooked to an iron ring attached to a leather belt.

When I was putting I used to have an Elastoplast the length of my
back on here the scab would be catching the strut it was that low
the seam was only 13 inches high in places just about high enough
to get a tub in and you had to push it in bent like that
catching your back scabs on your back

This is followed with some gallows humour:

Hangman to a murderer on the scaffold at Durham Gaol:
‘You can have a repieve if you start work, putting at the drift.’

Condemned man: Pull that lever.’

There are also quotations from James Agee, Book of Job, Sid Chaplin, Bill Griffiths, W. Stanley Jevons, J.B. Priestley as well as named colliers. Agee’s phrase ‘the cruel radiance of what is’ sums up a way of viewing the testimonies presented here.

Seed sees the volume not as a collection of poems but rather as ‘an investigation of what can be done with source materials. It asks questions of the reader.’ It is not trying to ‘aestheticise’ painful realities but rather to reconnect the reader to a world that ceased to exist in the 1990s. Brandon Pithouse, dedicated to the memory of poets, Ric Caddell and Bill Griffiths, is a work of recovery retrieving the core of colliery life pitched between historical record and literary investigation.

David Caddy 21st July 2016

UnNatural Music: John Lennon & Yoko Ono in Cambridge 1969 by Anthony Barnett Allardyce Book

UnNatural Music: John Lennon & Yoko Ono in Cambridge 1969 by Anthony Barnett Allardyce Book

In the closing lines of this attractively produced little piece of history Anthony Barnett refers to Yoko Ono as Eiko and thereby brings back into focus another little fragment of history. Some eight years ago I received an email from Michael Rumaker, Black Mountaineer who had been taught by Olson in the 1950s, in which he commented upon my determination to locate and read his first novel, The Butterfly:

‘You mentioned you plan to read my Butterfly this weekend with an eye to comparing it to Douglas Woolf’s Wall to Wall. I’m glad I have the chance to warn you the comparison will not stand up. Butterfly was my first novel and as with all first novels is riddled with flaws, and in this case, excessive emotion and not as direct as I would have written it in a later time. That, despite its being highly autobiographical, and also perhaps its being of some historical interest, since the character of “Eiko” is actually Yoko Ono (no secret anymore since Albert Goldman wrote about that fact in his 1988 The Lives of John Lennon) and the character of “Alice” is actually Joyce Johnson, former girlfriend of Jack Kerouac who was with him when On the Road hit it big).’

When Barnett’s recent publication was reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement on May 20th J.C. opened his piece with a fine piece of tongue-in-cheekery:

‘There is something appealing about a music memoir that opens “I do not have to tell you how disgraceful John’s attitude was and Yoko’s is”. The author of UnNatural Music is the poet Anthony Barnett who produced the Natural Music concert in Cambridge in 1969…’

The tongue-in-cheekery is of course that Barnett does have to tell us and what he tells is clear and to the point. His historical reconstruction, a past that never simply gets swallowed up in a present, is immaculate and the whole book is presented in a style that over many years Anthony Barnett has made his own: a type of signature publishing dish. Buy a copy NOW!
The historical reconstruction undertaken here is not simply about that concert in 1969; we enter into a spectral world of the past as the book opens with the words ‘For a while from 1965 I worked at Better Books, New Compton Street, round the corner from their Charing Cross Road shop. That section of New Compton Street no longer exists. A redevelopment covers it.’ We are immediately drawn into a world that will include Nothing Doing in London One, ‘which included a music score by John Tchicai’; the letterpress literary and arts loose-leaf folio review also included work by Samuel Beckett and Anne-Marie Albiach. In January 1968 Nothing Doing in London Two appeared with work by George Oppen as well as Yoko Ono’s ‘On Paper’. As Mr Barnett tells me the title page was ‘set in Castellar font, and the names in Plaintin font’. Needless to add that both are now collectors’ items!
Rumaker’s novel opens in a hospital which conveys a haunting sense of the prophetic for Ken Kesey’s later masterpiece, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:

‘The low stucco buildings of the hospital with their harsh green windows and heavy wire screening stretched out in all directions as far as the eye could see.’

Anthony Barnett’s magical reconstruction of long gone days comes off the page with similar focus.

Ian Brinton 29th May 2016

In Memoriam: Charles Tomlinson

In Memoriam: Charles Tomlinson

III

I first came across the poetry of Charles Tomlinson in 1970 when I was studying English in Cambridge at Gonville and Caius. My supervisor, J.H. Prynne, gave me a copy of ‘At Holwell Farm’ to write about as an exercise in Practical Criticism and I was immediately struck by a tone of measured quietness that I recognised as belonging, in my own mind, with the poems of Edward Thomas that I had studied for A level eighteen months earlier. In the way coincidences work, seeming sometimes to offer a haunting sense of woven tapestry, my English teacher at Sevenoaks had been a St Dunstan’s pupil just after the war. I was to learn some years later that my supervisor at Caius was also a St Dunstan’s product who had dedicated his first book of poems, Force of Circumstance, to his teacher there, Basil Harvey. I suppose that some of my liking for the Thomas poems also came from my living at the top of the hill overlooking Sevenoaks Weald where Thomas had lived in Else’s Farm in the early years of the twentieth century. But it was the tone of quietness which spoke to me most nearly.

‘It is a quality of air, a temperate sharpness
Causes an autumn fire to burn compact,
To cast from a shapely and unrifted core
Its steady brightness.’

Prynne pointed out the quotation in that first line and I recall hurrying back to my digs to look up the letter Keats had sent to J.H. Reynolds on 21st September 1819 from Winchester. After all, I had the two-volume Hyder Rollins letters which had been on the reading list Prynne had sent out to prospective undergraduates:

How beautiful the season is now—How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather—Dian skies—I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now—Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm—this struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.

The ‘composition’, of course, was titled ‘To Autumn’. Tomlinson’s image of the fire, presumably of leaves and weeds, struck another chord with me because it brought back the number of times I had helped my father rake together fallen leaves in Autumn before pulling them all together and lighting the slow-burning, smouldering, fire. That was in Keston, not very far away from the first school I attended which was run by Muriel Prynne, the mother of the teacher who introduced me to Holwell Farm!
Prynne’s first collection of poems contained ‘Before Urbino’ which opened with lines that were clearly written after reading Tomlinson:

‘House next to house; tree next to tree; a wall
Tokens a winding road. The air across
The distant slope is palpable with light,
A clarid flood of silence.’

On December 24th 2002 Tomlinson wrote me a card:

‘Prynne’s use of the word ‘clarid’ makes me think he had been reading Stokes as well as CT. I see there is at last a new edition of Adrian Stokes Stones of Rimini, a marvellous book on limestone & sculpture CT was also reading long ago. Details in TLS last week—plus news that CT has won the New Criterion Poetry Prize, N. York.’

In May 1961 Prynne had indeed written to Tomlinson about Stokes and I referred to this in some detail in my article published in Salt 2 six years ago, ‘Prynne in Prospect’:

‘Immediacy for Stokes is the simultaneous apprehension of a two-dimensional surface in space: this seems to me to be his primary concern. Elements of recession and protuberance, texture and contrast, are allowed to articulate our awareness, but not to violate its separateness and lucidity. Music and the dimension of succession generally is an arrière-pensée, draining the impact of this confrontation by insisting on the context of a linear dimension through time. Stokes manages in spite of this arbitrary self-impoverishment (he has lost, after all, effective use of two out of four dimensions), both to see with accuracy and to feel the full emotional relevance of what we see—the Cortile d’Onore at Urbino (seen almost completely through his eyes) was an extraordinary experience, and one in which I felt a full deployment of my entire capacities for response.’

Ian Brinton August 28th 2015

Lee Harwood III: the palpability of loss

Lee Harwood III: the palpability of loss

In early March 2012 Lee and I were invited by Kim Wyatt, the Head of English at Warwick School, to give a talk and a reading. I wanted to look at some Olson and some Hardy in relation to what I saw as Lee’s astonishingly powerful awareness of how tangible loss can feel. Some notes:

‘It is by their syllables that words juxtapose in beauty, by these particles of sound as clearly as by the sense of the words which they compose. In any given instance, because there is a choice of words, the choice, if a man is in there, will be, spontaneously, the obedience of his ear to the syllables. The fineness, and the practice, lie here, at the minimum and source of speech’. Charles Olson, ‘Projective Verse’.

Olson goes on to refer to the anonymous late medieval lament

‘O western wynd, when wilt thou blow
And the small rain down shall rain
O Christ that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.’

This short poem was one of George Oppen’s favourite lyrics and it is worth comparing it with his poem ‘O Western Wind’ from the 1962 collection The Materials:

‘A world around her like a shadow
She moves a chair
Something is being made—
Prepared
Clear in front of her as open air

The space a woman makes and fills
After these years
I write again
Naturally, about your face

Beautiful and wide
Blue eyes
Across all my vision but the glint of flesh
Blue eyes
In the subway routes, in the small rains
The profiles.’

Douglas Brown called Hardy’s language one of ‘thorough integrity, of actual and human relations; his matter is mutability and the place of loss in the texture of life’ (Thomas Hardy, Longmans 1954). One attempt to retrieve moments gone might be a reconstruction of the absentee’s presence by imitation, giving empty space a palpability, a sense of almost being still there. With the image of an ‘air-blue gown’ in Hardy’s ‘The Voice’ colour and emptiness are located in something as substantially matter-of-fact as a dress. Compare this with Lee’s early poem ‘As your eyes are blue’ especially with reference to the image of the shirt on the top of a chest-of-drawers. And then Hardy’s poem ‘The Walk’ from January 1913:

‘You did not walk with me
Of late to the hill-top tree
By the gated ways,
As in earlier days;
You were weak and lame,
So you never came,
And I went alone, and I did not mind,
Not thinking of you as left behind.

I walked up there today
Just in the former way;
Surveyed around
The familiar ground
By myself again:
What difference, then?
Only that underlying sense
Of the look of room on returning thence.’

It’s worth comparing Hardy’s register of loss in this poem with Lee’s ‘Y garn, Glyderau’ written in memory of Paul Evans and published in In The Mists (Slow Dancer Press 1993): memory is linked to a particular venue and, as with Hardy, opens up a different vista: ‘tugging winds and squalls’ give way to ‘clear days’:

On a cloud bound summit
you don’t stride out of the mists
across the rocks and dirt,
as I felt you might,
maybe cursing,
as I just stood there.

Instead
I plod on,
reach the familiar cairn.
No one there except the silence
and a heaviness.
The tugging winds and squalls
died down into this grey calm.

In the fifth of the interviews with Kelvin Corcoran, February 2008, Lee referred to the poem ‘September Dusk’:

‘The poem ‘September Dusk’ touches on that indescribable feeling that one has at moments, am amazement at the surrounding world, its colours, its appeal, the taste, the smell of it, the touch of the wind on your skin. Most of all it’s the feeling of being totally present.’
This puts me in mind of the quotation from Maritain which Oppen used as the epigraph to The Materials: ‘We awake in the same moment to ourselves and to things.’ The first poem in the collection is ‘Eclogue’:

‘The men talking
Near the room’s center. They have said
More than they had intended.

Pinpointing in the uproar
Of the living room

An assault
On the quiet continent.

Beyond the window
Flesh and rock and hunger

Loose in the night sky
Hardened into soil

Tilting of itself to the sun once more, small
Vegetative leaves
And stems taking place

Outside—O small ones,
To be born!

Lee in conversation with Aodhán McCardle, September 2003:
‘There’s a thing Oppen says which knocked me out the other day…He says ‘I want to be free from the career of poetry, I want to know what I will be able to say to myself in my life, and I mean…to myself. And that, that there shall be an area of silence where the poem lives, if it lives.’ It’s very personal in the sense that it’s not trying to convert anybody…’

The reply highlights a central element in Lee’s poetry:

‘I find it everywhere in your poetry, relationships between time and space, as in time between when the writing seemed to be happening and time that jumps from one line of the poem locating you somewhere, anywhere, doesn’t have to be specifics, and by the next line there’s a different location, not just spatial but in time, so therefore there are things happening simultaneously.’

And this in turn prompts a connection with John Ashbery when Lee said:

‘I think it’s probably what Ashbery, unconsciously or indirectly taught me is the foolishness of the egotistical voice. You’ve got to have that ‘meanwhile back at the ranch’ stuff. It may be a description of, say, a love poem, the two individuals, but meanwhile out in the street people are going about their business to whom the scene in the room is irrelevant or they don’t even know it, and, ah, by bringing in what’s going on outside the room, what’s going on in other parts of the world, makes the thing in the room much more…real, it puts it in perspective, makes it part of a bigger thing rather than being some giant romantic monument.’

And in conversation with Robert Sheppard, April 2005, Lee emphasized again that Ashbery concern for juxtaposition:

‘If you are describing a very intense emotional experience, and if you also then mention the noises outside in the street, or even in the next room, it makes it much more real than having just a vision of this one isolated experience. One reason is that the readers can be involved as well. They’re aware of all those things surrounding them too.’

After the talk Lee sent me the John Wayne picture. ‘I thought this old favourite might amuse you. There’s something so ham, almost camp, about John Wayne—and yet we (almost) believe in him. Or I do, anyway!’

Ian Brinton 1st August 2015

Lee Harwood II The Miracle of Existence

Lee Harwood II  The Miracle of Existence

In January 2010 I gave a talk at Eltham College Literary Society alongside Lee reading his poems and these bullet-points are extracted from some notes I used as a handout for the boys.

• The epigraph to HMS Little Fox (Oasis Books 1975) is taken from Pound’s ‘Canto 77’: ‘things have ends (or scopes) and beginnings. To know what precedes and what follows/will assist yr/comprehension of process’
Pound’s lines are accompanied by the two ideograms placed at the head of this blog.

• ‘The Long Black Veil: a notebook 1970-72’ is the opening poem in the collection and Lee’s own notes on the cover account for the ordering of the poems in the volume:

‘This collection was written between 1967 and 1972. The work really has its seeds in my book The White Room (1968), and also is where The Sinking Colony (1970) left off, even though some of the work here was written at the same time as the work in that book, and a few poems even before that time. (I want to state here my sense of this continuity.) It is a development from there—towards a greater complexity and range. Not only containing varied information, but having an energy and necessity as well. The two qualities—presentation of informations and the art as mover, catalyst—to somehow work together, be one. The collection is set out to be seen the way you see a plant. It begins with the sequence ‘The Long Black Veil’, the end-product, the ‘flower’ of my work to date, and then moves on down to the origins, the roots of that work, the earlier poems and the poems written at the same time as I was writing ‘The Long Black Veil’. The whole book is one crystal in which things ricochet back and forth, echo and re-echo. In which light enters and bounces out again changed in form and direction. And the crystal itself alive and growing.’

‘There are very many references to enclosed spaces/gardens/cloisters in your work, right from the early days up until now. What are these metaphors?’

This question was asked in an interview with Andy Brown in The Argotist Online, August 2008 and in reply Lee related this sense of an enclosed space to a comment made to him by Douglas Oliver: ‘Inside the harm is a clearing’ and it is one of Lee’s finest qualities as a poet to make this ‘clearing’ more than something metaphorically abstract. In the same interview he referred to a ‘Reznikoff quality to these images too, in that they’re real, solid—the courtyard with the fountain is an actual place.’

• Charles Reznikoff, a Jewish New York poet 1894-1976 wrote the lines

‘Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies
A girder, still itself among the rubbish.’ (Jerusalem the Golden, 1934)

• The Objectivist poet George Oppen was deeply moved by these lines and wrote to his half-sister June Oppen Degnan in February 1959: ‘Likely Rezi could mull along and tell you what he had in mind. But how other than with this image could he put into your mind so clearly the miracle of existence—the existence of things. It is only because the image hits so clear and sudden that the poem means what it means. I don’t know that he could make it any clearer by talking about it.’
Late in the Second World War while he was driving a truck in a convoy, Oppen came under enemy fire and was forced to dive into a foxhole. Two other men also leapt in the foxhole, and both were killed, while Oppen was seriously wounded from exploding shrapnel:
‘…found myself trapped in a fox-hole, slightly injured, and with no apparent means of escape, certainly no possibility until night-fall. I waited, I think, some ten hours, and during those hours Wyatt’s little poem—‘they flee from me’—and poem after poem of Rezi’s ran thru my mind over and over, these poems seemed to fill all the space around me and I wept and wept. This may not be literary criticism, or perhaps, on the other hand, it is.’
(Letter to Milton Hindus, late Spring 1977)

• In the first interview with Kelvin Corcoran, published in Not the Full Story (Shearsman 2008), Lee referred to ‘little intense scenes shifting round…You do get these moments of goodness, whether it be in some of the pastoral scenes or a landscape of suburban railway tracks and oil refineries.’ When talking about his education at Queen Mary College, University of London, he placed the reading of literature firmly in the world of objectivity:
‘I did a degree in English literature and language. I had this terrific thing of walking from Mile End tube or Stepney Green—I was living in Stepney anyway—to lectures and then coming out of the lecture and walking back along Mile End Road. So all that business of maybe going to a place like Cambridge where you would float out of your lectures in your gown and walk to the quad, and you could keep on living in that world was avoided. It was knocked out of you because you immediately had reality in your face and you didn’t go to high table. You had bubble and squeak at the local transport café. I think that gave me a lovely sense of the importance of literature but also in the world, not in some isolated, privileged world. So you’d always have the measure of what you’d read, of the poetry existing in a working society.’
In the same interview he referred to a poem as ‘a bundle of stories’; ‘this building with fragments and suggestions’; ‘building up, like a chemical build up’; ‘a bundle of voices’; ‘getting to know the building bricks’; ‘an interest in displaced locations’ and ‘incomplete narratives’; ‘the heaping up of fragments’.
With reference to this last comment I suggested that the pupils might want to look at the accumulation of fragments in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land; the ones he shored against his ruin. I also recommended them to look at Eliot’s 1919 essay on Hamlet: ‘The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.’

Part III of my Lee Harwood memorial will continue tomorrow.

Ian Brinton 31st July 2015

‘Living life totally…as a moving, growing thing’. In memory of Lee Harwood Part One

‘Living life totally…as a moving, growing thing’.  In memory of Lee Harwood Part One

On March 22nd 2009 I had written to Lee asking him to come to Dulwich College to give a poetry reading alongside Peter Robinson. I mentioned that I had been teaching ‘The Long Black Veil’ to my sixth form pupils and that I had also sent a copy of the poem to Michael Rumaker in New York. I thought that Mike would like to see this since he had been a close friend of both Olson and Wieners at Black Mountain College and after. Mike’s letter back was typically ‘on the nail’:

‘Finished Lee Harwood’s ‘The Long Black Veil’ this morning. Enjoyment more than I can say, except: herein, the process of a passion, lightly, deftly, touched on over wide, enchanting fields of language, spatially breathing, its poignancy leaving me breathless—passion worth anything beyond it, any pain, any pleasure before it. To have it, to have lived, to know one is alive. The singer is alive, his song alive. What more can one ask? Many thanks for sending me this lovely gift of a poem.’

On Friday April 24th the reading took place in the Masters’ Library in the College and in addition to the sixth form boys present the audience included the Australian poet Laurie Duggan and John Welch. We were also joined by Roy Fisher’s bibliographer, Derek Slade. As Peter Robinson wrote to me this morning, ‘It was such an honour to have the chance to read with Lee’. This, of course, was a memorable moment also on account of the review Peter had written for the TLS on 26th November 2004: ‘In the reader’s hands: Collected Poems of Lee Harwood’. A few days later Lee rang me at home to suggest meeting up for a drink in the Alleyn’s Head in Dulwich since he was staying in the area for a couple of weeks. We met up on May 6th and spent a lot of time talking about loss, the impossibility of registering absence in presence. I gave him a copy of Long Distance, the Ferry Press publication of poems by Lewis Warsh, since we had been talking about the famous photograph. Lee had sent me a copy of that Boston Eagles at Walden Pond, 1973, Judith Walker’s photo of John Wieners, Lee Harwood, Lewis Warsh & William Corbett, on the back of which he wrote ‘I thought this photo of four dodgy characters might amuse you. I don’t think you’d buy a used car from them, nor have them tarmac your drive. Though Mr Wieners’ gold lamé jacket and winning smile might fools some people.’ In May he also sent me a copy of The Hotel Wentley Poems which Joy Street Press put out in 2006:

‘This was, I guess, the final proof copy and they were ready to roll when Bill Corbett saw the many typos. It seems a Boston custom to have as many mistakes as possible, from my own experience of publishing there! Anyway Bill got it all right before the book was released’.

Sitting in the Alleyn’s Head we were talking about O’Hara and Lee gave me a copy of the piece he was asked to write by Robert Hampson, a personal angle, titled “Generosity of Spirit, Memories of Frank O’Hara and Israel Young”. We talked about Charles Tomlinson’s poem written soon after George Oppen’s death and about Lee’s own poem from In the Mists, ‘For Paul / Coming out of Winter’:

‘On a bright winter morning
sunlight catching the tops of white buildings
a tree outlined against the sea
a wall of flints

To be able to stop and see this
the luxury of being alive
when the waves crash on the shore
and a fresh wind streams up the narrow streets
A moment like this lightens the darkness
a little, lifts the heart until
you can walk down the hill near careless

How can that be? suddenly slammed up
against a wall by memories of the dead
loved ones completely gone from
this place

Shafts of sunlight cutting through the clouds
onto the everchanging sea below

How many times we discussed the sea’s colours
all beyond description words a mere hint
of what’s beyond our eyes then and now

On October 24th I drove over to Abertillery to stay with Ric Hool. Lee was staying as well and we three drove over to The Hen and Chicks in Abergavenny. Jeremy Hilton, Phil Maillard, Chris Torrance, Will Rowe, Lee and myself did an evening of readings in memory of Barry MacSweeney. We talked of Reznikoff and Oppen and Lee wrote to me in January of the next year:

‘To have the tangible, to have real objects in a poem. To be believed that what happens in a poem happens in this world we live in, not just in books. Reznikoff’s ‘girder’, or in that marvellous sequence by Oppen ‘Of Being Numerous’:

‘The great stone
Above the river
In the pylon of the bridge

‘1875’

Frozen in the moonlight
In the frozen air over the footpath, consciousness

Which has nothing to gain, which awaits nothing,
Which loves itself

Ian Brinton, 30th July 2015

Belief is its own kind of truth, Maybe by Lori Jakiela (Atticus Books, 2015)

Belief is its own kind of truth, Maybe by Lori Jakiela (Atticus Books, 2015)

This engaging, multifaceted creative nonfiction memoir is exquisitely written and effortlessly draws the reader into a series of philosophical issues. Ostensibly the narrative concerns the narrator’s quest for her biological mother and medical history through the Catholic Charities following the death of her adopted mother. However, it soon develops a series of narrative threads moving back and forward in time, which concern nature versus nurture, motherhood, authenticity and mapping a life. What emerges through short, stabbing paragraphs of gritty, self-deprecating and emotionally charged versions of being raised by foster parents is the trail of how that narrator was formed and became the woman who writes.

The story of the search for her birth mother highlights Jakiela’s extensive narrative gifts. She is sharp, insightful, adept at the use of detail to show the wider social-economic or family context, brutally honest and concerned with using language to uncover deeper layers of meaning. Her use of language with its movement from staccato jazz to the darkly funny is reminiscent of Geoff Dyer in The Colour of Memory and Paris Trance. However, Jakiela offers another layer than Dyer in that she is concerned with probing the archaeology of words. This takes two forms. One is a concern with naming and names, and the other is a fascination with adding words to develop vocabulary and selfhood. Both concerns are shown in the narrator’s exploration of her daughter’s first word, ‘abre’ meaning open and her son’s first word, ‘duck’, which she views as ‘blood things’. There is also a sense that words carry possible transcendence through the uncovering of older meaning. Like Dyer, Jakiela wears her learning lightly and is a joy to read.

Years ago, I saw a palm reader in a basement storefront in New York. She held my wrists, turned my palms up, both hands. “This,” she said, tracing a finger down the lines of my left hand, “is what you were born with. ”Then she traced a finger on my right palm. “And this,” she said, “is the map you make yourself.”
The she asked for $50. She took MasterCard and Visa, not Discover.

Blood is a strong motif running through the memoir. There is a moving scene in her in-laws’ kitchen when the narrator has received a series of abusive messages from a woman purporting to be her birth sister following her efforts to contact her mother. This is cleverly juxtaposed through the décor of pears reminding her of Odysseus’s use of pears, his homelessness, her old classics Professor’s urging her to read the original, and cutting her palm when trying to slice a bagel in two. “Cut away from yourself,” my mother always said. She inspects the ragged cut between the heart and life lines, and the blood ‘coming up in spots, flecks.’ The scene builds up through a series of emotions. ‘Anger comes after grief and fear, a logical thing, but I can’t sort this. I want the truth and I want the lie I was born with. I want connection and I want to get as far away as possible.’

Underlying the narrative are some interesting premises, such as the desire to write to discover what one does not know, and the boundaries and limitations of one’s own life story. Jakiela is a knowing and explorative writer seeking to expand and grow. An adopted person’s story, she writes, ‘is someone else’s secret.’ Indeed this leads her to write an imagined and seemingly authentic account of her birth mother’s situation at the time of her birth. Her birth mother subsequently refuses to acknowledge and communicate with her daughter. Here lies the agony, the persistent unease, and joy of this well filtered narrative. From the darkness of a crippling past, Jakiela finds light.

Her quest for connection ultimately stems from her own selfhood, family and relationships, and an ability to draw from literature and upon the life experiences of other writers and poets, such as Anne Sexton, Gerald Locklin, whom her son is named after, and Lucille Clifton. Beneath that is a quest for the roots of words and an understanding of the role of translation.

My birth mother’s name is such an ordinary one, as ordinary as podium, as plant, as pen. “Do you ever wonder about that?” Lucille Clifton wanted to know, how something plain could have so much power. But in Grimm’s fairy tale, Rumplestiltskin demands the queen learn his name or lose her child. Ancient people believed to know someone’s name was to know that person’s essence. To change a name meant to change destiny. The name I was born with means work and strain. The name I was born with was a wolf.
Lori is a laurel tree. Lori is a celebration.
A name can be a transformation or a cage, both.

Lori Jakiela is a most accomplished writer. You will not be disappointed by the range and scope of this provocative memoir.

David Caddy 16th April 2015

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