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Maldon – A Version by Michael Smith (Shearsman Library)

Maldon – A Version by Michael Smith (Shearsman Library)

I think that this is a startlingly powerful version of the Anglo-Saxon poem from 991 in which the fragmented narrative of the battle between invading Vikings and the East-Saxon earl, Byrhtnoth is given to us with an immediacy that is recognisably modern. Michael Smith’s note to his translation recognises the powerful influence of both Ezra Pound and Basil Bunting and in this way echoes the words of David Slavitt whose version of the Old English poem was published in The Word Exchange, Anglo-Saxon poems in translation (Norton 2011). Slavitt had suggested that his willingness to undertake the task of translation “was informed…by the echoes of Ezra Pound’s rendition of The Seafarer…in which the weird mannerisms of much of his own poetry look to be normalized and functional”:

“To a considerable degree, The Seafarer opens the door, then, to the rest of his work and illuminates it. The effort seems to be to depart as far as possible from normative English and still be intelligible. And what comes of that is a freshness, a response to his own imperative to Make it new.”

Michael Smith’s version of The Battle of Maldon is dramatically alive:

“…it was sundered.

He said to his soldiers

to set free their horses,

to drive them far off,

and on foot to fare forth,

to think of their hands

and boldness of bravery.

Then the kinsman of Offa

first found out

that the earl was unwilling

to countenance cowardice.

From his hands he let fly

his falcon, his fair one,

toward the wood in the distance,

and he went to the battle.

In his introduction to this lovely addition to the Shearsman Library, Smith tells us that he consciously retained the fragmentary nature of the piece because he felt that it added a sense of authenticity and realism. In terms of this ‘realism’ he then points us to a statement made by Borges about that small moment of the releasing of the falcon in which the Argentinian writer asserted that “Given the epic harshness of the poem, the phrase lêofne…hafoc (literally, ‘his beloved hawk’) moves us extraordinarily”.

In January 2016 I reviewed Kat Peddie’s Spaces for Sappho (Oystercatcher Press) and referred to Hugh Kenner’s fourth chapter of The Pound Era in which the American critic had focussed on one of Sappho’s fragments. Pound had written to Iris Barry in 1916 to complain about the “soft mushy edges” of British poetry and concluded with the suggestion that concision, “saying what you mean in the fewest and clearest words” was essential to the stirring of the reader. I go back to Kat Peddie’s poems to see once more those spaces on the page and those clearest of words which she leaves as stone markers.
And where else do I go? Well, to Christopher Logue’s version of extracts from Homer’s Illiad in War Music (Cape 1981):

“Consider planes at touchdown – how they poise;
Or palms beneath a numbered hurricane;
Or birds wheeled sideways over windswept heights;
Or burly salmon challenging a weir;
Right-angled, dreamy fliers, as they ride
The instep of a dying wave, or trace
Diagonals on snowslopes”

Michael Smith makes it clear from the start that he is not attempting “to replicate slavishly the original metre” of the Ango-Saxon but that he is instead making a new poem. It is with this in mind that one should recall the words Samuel Johnson used when asked about a newly published translation of Aeschylus:

“We must try its effect as an English poem; that is the way to judge of the merit of a translation.”

Michael Smith’s Maldon is a fine poem and I encourage all budding poets to read it!

Ian Brinton, 17th August 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ian Brinton 9th August 2019

Letters from the Underworld by Alan Baker (The Red Ceilings Press)

Letters from the Underworld by Alan Baker (The Red Ceilings Press)

One of the many striking points about the realism of Dante’s work made by Erich Auerbach in Mimesis concerns the way in which the Italian poet achieves such an intensity of dramatic presence. Auerbach refers to Dante’s journey as representing the only opportunity the souls of the dead have of expressing themselves: they have one moment in all eternity to speak to a hearer from among the living. Hegel suggested that into the changeless existence of eternal damnation Dante “plunges the living world of human action and endurance and more especially of individual deeds and destinies.” It is scarcely small wonder that Samuel Beckett admired Canto V of Inferno with such passion and took his admiration to the point of imitation in the 1962 drama Play.
The twenty prose-poem sections of Alan Baker’s Letters from the Underworld present us with a dystopian vision of the contemporary world and they are threaded with literary references which act as context for the eerie cries haunting this small but profound collection from The Red Ceilings Press. In the form of letters sent out from our “forests of the hinterland” we are presented with echoes of John Donne’s “year’s midnight” as we are informed of our “currency” being “worthless”:

“Th’hydroptic glass hath never sunk so low.”

However, as Donne’s ‘Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day’ reminds us that the moments shift from the year’s midnight and this hour’s vigil is held with a sacred sense of particularity so do Baker’s epistles move forward with fractional exactness:

“You know me by now, after all this correspondence. I cannot rest from travel.”

The voice is that of Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem from 1833 in which the voyager who has spent so long searching for home is confined to Ithaca where “I mete and dole / Unequal laws unto a savage race”. Tennyson’s dramatic recreation of the Greek hero is partly taken from Inferno Canto XXVI as the condemned soul tells us of his “inward hunger…To master earth’s experience” (Binyon). In Alan Baker’s conclusion to these remarkable epistles there is another voice from the mid-nineteenth century as we recognise that mournful cry of Matthew Arnold from the coast-line of Kent:

“This evening, all is calm, here, on this tideless coast. The deep moans round with many voices. The late sun slants into my open window and the lights begin to twinkle from the rocks.”

Arnold’s plea to his newly-wed wife in June 1851 is commanding in its seriousness:

“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

Alan Baker’s twentieth letter tells us “My government has withdrawn funding from the rescue service and other member states argue amongst themselves while the hungry sea doesn’t rest unburnished, but shines in use.” Victims of political indifference we can only wonder “exactly what the future holds”. That future certainly seems here to be bleak as we confront the desperation of migrating people:

“One, who has a particularly plaintive lilt, said he paid $3000 in cash, but the boat was just a cheap inflatable. They wanted safety but the ferryman told them they were already dead; he looked in their mouths for a coin to pay for passage.”

This is a world composed of those “fleeing persecution…wide with wanderers displaced and dispossessed, seeking refuge and finding razor wire and shipwreck.” However, having acknowledged that we are also aware of why one would write letters at all:

“I sometimes feel, when I read your letters, that I could reach out and touch you; the words have your voice, the phrasing the contours of your tongue, the handwriting the morphology of your mental landscape whose valleys I’d like to wander in, perhaps to find a river by whose banks I could fall asleep and dream of the world as an emerald of unreachable beauty, a crystallographer’s dream; such a thing is possible, although, as we know, the possible as a dwelling, be it a garden or a sunlit garret, is as mortal as you or I.”

Language and thought merge together in these prose-poems and the concluding question is an assertion of the importance of the writing itself:

“It’s not too late to seek a newer world, is it?”

http://www.theredceilingspress.co.uk

Ian Brinton, 25th October 2018.

The Swell by Jessica Mookherjee (Telltale Press)

The Swell by Jessica Mookherjee (Telltale Press)

The title of the opening poem in Jessica Mookherjee’s short collection is ‘Snapshot’ and the poem opens with an assertion:

“There is photographic evidence
of when she shifted her gaze,
the exact time that her eyes went out of focus.”

A much-quoted cliché informs us that the camera never lies and yet it does not of course also always tell the truth.

“In February 1948, Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to address the hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens packed into Old Town Square. It was a crucial moment in Czech history—a fateful moment of the kind that occurs once or twice in a millennium.
Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing next to him. There were snow flurries, it was cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. The solicitious Clementis took off his own fur cap and set it on Gottwald’s head.
The Party propaganda section put out hundreds of thousands of copies of a photograph of that balcony with Gottwald, a fur cap on his head and comrades at his side, speaking to the nation. On that balcony the history of Communist Czechoslovakia was born. Every child knew the photograph from posters, schoolbooks, and museums.
Four years later Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of history and, obviously, out of all the photographs as well. Ever since, Gottwald has stood on that balcony alone. Where Clementis once stood, there is only bare palace wall. All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald’s head.”

The opening paragraph of Milan Kundera’s novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting refers to a famous photograph that was indeed taken on February 21st 1948 and when Vladimir Clementis was executed in 1952 he was indeed erased from the photograph. Mookherjee’s poem allows us the see how

“The pictures show me growing bigger,
in pigtails, often alone.”

What the photographs, those records of a domestic past, cannot show is the world that remains beyond the surface:

“There is no photograph of me climbing stairs
two at a time, no evidence that I tried
not to slip and break my neck.”

The Swell is a thoughtful slim volume of poems from Telltale Press, a publishing collective founded in 2014 which focuses on getting out short, first collections from emerging poets. It has a voice which I can hear. There is both an immediacy and a quality of meditation about these poems: they are both fiercely in the here-and-now and yet they offer a shrewd aftertaste. ‘Trying at Stratford East’ opens “When I hurled myself slap bang / into him near the Westfield at Stratford East, I was / trying to catch the Tube”. It concludes

“We stood near the ring road
and lamented They’ve chopped down the willow trees
I said to him,
Well it’s only natural they would do that;
nothing lasts.
Well I must fly
I said to him.
When I got onto the Tube, my faced bruised like a bin,
I think I was crying.”

In The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat Oliver Sachs suggested

“We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative—whose continuity, whose sense is our lives. To be ourselves, we must have ourselves—possess, if need be repossess our life –stories.”

We all need narratives, continuous inner narratives to maintain our identities, our selves. We shall hear more of Jessica Mookherjee. And of Telltale Press:

The Hive, 66 High Street, Lewes BN7 1XG

Ian Brinton 15th January 2017

Air Vault by Andrew Taylor (Oystercatcher Press)

Air Vault by Andrew Taylor (Oystercatcher Press)

In 1923 a doctor from Rutherford was convinced that something important depended upon a ‘red wheel / barrow’ and the picture that his sixteen words conjured into being was a firm belief that American culture was based in a realization of the qualities of a place in relation to the life which occupies it. Andrew Taylor’s Air Vault, where the mind is prompted to jump into echoing spaces, realises that

‘there is a poem in that
no, there is a poem in that’

John James’s poem of recollection from a 2012 Oystercatcher volume, Cloud Breaking Sun, was subtitled ‘Les Sarments’ with its reference to the twining growth of vine-shoots. Taylor’s ‘Poem beginning with a line of John James’ opens with an echo of that earlier ode:

As August counts itself out

As if to herald a clear sense of tradition Andrew Taylor not only opens his poem with the James quotation but has a clear sense of how the older poet had himself published a ‘Poem beginning with a line of Andrew Crozier’ in that 2012 collection. And it is in that earlier poem that we read the statement ‘I reach toward the poetry of kindred’.

The precision of Andrew Taylor’s writing is an infectious delight:

‘The respite of a rest area
temperature drops at midnight

Carried sandwiches foil & plastic
wrapped evening before

some kind of souvenir bread
like bread bought from a post office

Treated like a treat some things taste
better away from home

Mattresses floored a camp
shutters shut this is France after all’

John James’s ode counted August out ‘like a Rosary worn with kisses’ and autumn ‘arrives when you least expect it’. The patience of devotion is a reminder of Keats’s ‘last oozings hours by hours’ and is followed by the unexpected shift of time. Taylor’s jazzing rhythms give us ‘Fig’

‘drop with days between
a rustle’

and ‘Kenny was right’

‘Autumn falls early’

Jeremy Hilton referred to Andrew Taylor’s poetry in Tears 60 when he reviewed the Shearsman collection Radio Mast Horizon and noted the ‘expression of everyday life in all its vivid details’:

‘Colour, sound, speed and technology weave through the poems…This is a poetry of the present-time’ which carries with it a ‘full awareness not just of history but of the impact of historical changes on the lives of people’.

As I race along the tracks of this new volume I am confronted with that colour, sound and speed’: ‘Pitted repaired // there is a preference / for the plaque Michelin’

‘send a postcard
to arrive after return’ [.]

This is a world of evocative moments as the ‘square folds into quietness // after lunch’ and a ‘woodpecker feather // falls onto gravel’. The feather ‘finds a place in the notebook’.
The front cover of Air Vault invites us to peer into a room framed in blue and we have a snapshot of that poetry which reaches toward kindred: the domesticity of the scene has a privacy and austerity which is emphasised by the table-lamp on a chair and its reflection in the cabinet. Looking back at my copy of John James’s Cloud Breaking Sun I sit in front of the bold type of the introductory lines:

to the side of the terrace

the painted blue brick in the wall

warmed by the sun

spoke to me in the afternoon

it said

only you can do this

Wallace Stevens referred to Carlos Williams’s red wheel / barrow as a ‘mobile-like arrangement’ and Hugh Kenner suggested that the words ‘dangle in equidependency, attracting the attention, isolating it, so that the sentence in which they are arrayed comes to seem like a suspension system.’ I find this balancing of word in relation to word attractively present in the light swift movement of Andrew Taylor’s new poetry

‘Sunflowers bow
row after row

season seems
hardly done

time for Autumn
reflections

so soon?’

Ian Brinton 21st August 2016

Correspondences by Nisha Ramayya (Oystercatcher Press)

Correspondences by Nisha Ramayya (Oystercatcher Press)

Drawn by Tantra’s radical Otherness, ‘its experiments, oddities, contradictions, and secrets’, Nisha Ramayya’s pamphlet offers etymological definition and investigative, immersive poetry in a work of crystalline beauty. Her writing and thought on Tantra has a magical quality.

Tantra is the practice of extending, of stretching to make
connections, of creating something from those connections.
Tantra is the weaving of multiple threads and the extrication of
one essential part from the whole.

Tantra, she writes, is ‘a process, a set of instructions and values, a dialogue, a desire, a promise’. She effectively investigates through etymological definition in various languages the possibilities of what Tantra may be to create a Tantric poetics in action. She allows a rich dialogue and process through both the openness of Tantra and its resistance to definition, and the various correspondences the poetry explores. She effectively takes the Sanskrit definition of ‘woven together’ and spreads the threads apart, opening up avenues of possibility, and enacts practical applications in the poems. Here’s the beginning of ‘Correspondence as Writing System’:

Correspondence is a garland of skulls that may be divided
absolutely into 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 or 10 or 50 or 51 or 108 or 1000 or
1008 skulls. This calculation is correct, repeatedly, to the point of
vivisection.

For example, a mother as not less than measure as not less than
authority as not less than light as not less than knowledge as not
less than binding, fettering as not less than death as not less than a
woman’s waist.

The long poem, ‘Her Voice as an Instrument of Thought’, at the collection’s centre, explores the verbal root of ‘mantra’ and stages of Vãc, the goddess of voice, speech, language, and sound, to which it is oriented. This combination of analysis and poetry opens up worlds of possibility for a Tantric poetics. The ‘vaikharī’ stage has ‘words with hard faces that you don’t want to look at in case you hear too much’ and is ‘speech for bodies and for differentiation’. The ‘madhyamã’ lies between the gross and the subtle and here ‘the lights in your house shine blue’. The third voice stage, ‘paśyanti’, meaning from a harlot is known as ‘the Visionary, and leading to the ‘parãvãc’ the supreme voice, the relentlessly throbbing of ‘I am’, the all-voice in the all-head’. The stages correspond to stages of knowledge, belief and practice, ‘which may be understood as a key.’

Ramayya’s tantric poetics allows for the possibility of voicing parts with sounds and text, and ‘the first stirring of the air or breath, articulate utterance’ as in ‘vaikharī’, and images and video, as in ‘madhyamã’, and so on. In this way, she takes something that might be considered ‘dark and dangerous’ from Aryan, Sanskrit and Vedic cultures to give utterance to distinct female voices as instruments of thought. What excites this reader is that her angular contextualisation combined with etymological definitions and variant root meanings opens up such possibilities as practice that can be feminist and oppositional within a range of cultures. It takes something that is emphatically different and makes a corresponding outward poetics.

David Caddy 2nd August 2016

Du Bellay by Philip Terry (Oystercatcher Press)

Du Bellay by Philip Terry (Oystercatcher Press)

The opening sonnet in Joachim Du Bellay’s sixteenth-century sequence of Les Regrets is immediately assertive:

‘Je ne veux point chercher l’esprit de l’univers,
Je ne veux point sonder les abîmes couverts.’

This tone of defiance eschews the world of sublime aspiration; it turns its back on any plumbing of depths; it draws no architectural designs from a skyscape. This is a mode of writing which is the product of ‘l’aventure’ and ‘accidents divers’. In Philip Terry’s fizzing rendition he doesn’t ‘paint my pictures in such rich colours’ and his sonnets enclosed in this fine Oystercatcher’s beak don’t ‘seek such lofty subjects for my verse’. In the world of ‘l’aventure’ he keeps his ‘eye on shit that happens’ since after all

‘I moan right here if I have something to moan about,
Make a joke of it or, if I wish to act the whistleblower, speak out loud,
In the sure knowledge that no-one ever reads poems.
I don’t tart them up to look presentable at award ceremonies,
Knackered times require knackered words,
But regard them as no more than minutes or blogs.’

These twenty-four sonnets are published ‘In Memory of Stephen Rodefer’ and they bring to mind of course those energetic masterpieces, Four Lectures, published by The Figures in 1982. The ‘Pretext’, an excuse perhaps for what comes first, gives the tone:

‘Then I stand up on my hassock and say sing that.
It is not the business of POETRY to be anything.’

Rodefer sees his job as ‘quality control in the language lab, explaining what went / Wrong in Northampton after the Great Awakening.’ The reference is to the religious revival in Northampton, Mass., led by Jonathan Edwards, 1739-40, in which Edwards held that true conversion was marked by, if not uniquely distinguished by, distinct bodily signs (of emotion and personal submission to God’s power), although later he qualified and even rejected this belief. Philip Terry’s poetic outburst is certainly palpable but it moves far beyond the physical into the realms of outrage:

‘It is not the rubbish-heaped banks of this Essex river,
It is not the exhaust-filled air, nor North Hill Barbers,
Which makes me pour out my misery in verse…’

It is instead the manner in which ‘Capitalism unrolls its business plans on campus.’ The campus, which is fast-becoming ‘a space allocation’ where every academic has ‘a workload allocation’ (represented by everything which ‘must be measurable and quantifiable’), presents us with a world in which ‘everything is run on a business model’.

‘We are now “stakeholders”, students “clients” –

This campus of the University of Essex was once the place of Donald Davie and Andrew Crozier and it hosted a trans-Atlantic push from Ed Dorn and Charles Olson. Now ‘We don’t spend our time here writing poetry’ and if you really want to know what goes on then here are one or two granites:

‘There is no time for teaching, we are too busy on curriculum review,
There is no time for real conversation, we are too busy on email…
There is no time for literature, we are too busy on transferable skills,
There is no time for thought, we think only of outcomes.’

In the ‘Preface’ to Four Lectures Rodefer’s poetry was ‘painted with every jarring colour and juxtaposition, every simultaneous order and disorder’ and that anarchic energy, that uplifting sense of anger and urban spleen, sparks off the pages of these twenty-four sonnets. Philip Terry’s collection is exhilarating to read and I recommend it to every teacher of English within the university system. It is, to quote Rodefer once more, ‘as deep as a museum and as wide as the world’.

Ian Brinton 31st July 2016

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