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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

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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

Pennine Tales by Peter Riley (Calder Valley Poetry)

Pennine Tales by Peter Riley (Calder Valley Poetry)

Peter Riley’s 1992 chapbook Reader opens with a quotation from J.H. Prynne dated from 15th September 1985:

‘It has mostly been my own aspiration, for example, to establish relations not personally with the reader, but with the world and its layers of shifted but recognisable usage; and thereby with the reader’s own position within this world’.

I was alerted to this when I looked this morning at Tony Baker’s fine little contribution to the compilation of essays on Riley’s work published as The Gig 4/5 in which he suggests that the ‘meaning of landscape as I read Alstonefield has surely something to do with my own relation to the place, recognized afresh in the light of the poem’. A finely-tuned awareness of the relation of people to their landscape threads its path through the twenty-four poems in Pennine Tales and it comes as no surprise to meet not only Prynne along the way but also Wordsworth, ‘poor Clare’, Michael Haslam and Thomas Hardy, ‘guide and spokesman’. As Peter Riley puts it

‘Sometimes
hundreds of us walk the tired dark page, water
with stars in it leaking into our boots, eradicating belief.
But a crowd worth joining.’

In a fine book about Hardy, written by Douglas Brown in the mid 1950s, we were pointed towards the ‘hard centre of controlled nostalgia, the profound awareness of lost stabilities and certainties, and the mordant humour insinuating actuality into time and place and person’. Brown was referring particularly to ‘The Dead Quire’ from Time’s Laughingstocks and other verses (1909) in which the ‘Quick pursue the Dead / By crystal Froom that crinkles there’ and the voices of time past drew toward the churchyard the music of that choir of singers ‘smalled, and died away’. The first of Riley’s lyric hauntings opens with the ‘last minibus’ leaving from the station

‘heading for the tops
full of ghosts, ghosts with notebooks, ancestors
from Halifax: farmers, publicans, clerks, looking
for me, wanting me back in the peace and jubilee
of diurnal normality. But they have caught
the wrong bus and will be delivered into nothing,
the nothing of death they came from, and came here
to welcome me to. Passing the abandoned chapel
they start singing hymns, and will soon begin to fade.’

That use of the word ‘fade’ echoes a later Hardy poem, ‘Exeunt Omnes’, which concludes

‘Folk all fade. And wither,
As I wait alone where the fair was?
Into the clammy and numbing night-fog
Whence they entered hither.
Soon do I follow thither!’

Hardy’s air of ‘blankness’ and recall of ‘littered spaces’ where the fair once stood finds its echo now outside the Hare & Hounds at 11.20 pm as the poet waits with Mike Haslam and stands ‘on the edge of the moors’:

‘There is nothing here but stone
walls and distance. We are alone. We are nowhere.
We are the length and breadth of a dark nowhere
which encompasses the world.’

But the mournful wisps of sound in Riley’s poems are heard against a larger background:

‘Come all you little vermin that dwell under stones
crushed underfoot of the earth and make together
a faint hissing and rustling in the night which
grows greater towards the central principle
and the separate sounds build to a chorus
saying that 500 years of degradation and humiliation
is as nothing to us, we can persist ten times as long
working towards a modern condition which
recognises at long last the day of the many’.

These Pennine Tales, ‘night music’, offer ‘some tremble between beliefs’ and as the music ‘draws / our thoughts into the distance’ Peter Riley, poet of people and landscape, registers a reaffirmed presence ‘at home, site of mind / heart decisions’. This is elegiac poetry at its very best.

Ian Brinton 29th July 2016.

(the book of seals) by Mark Russell (The Red Ceilings Press)

(the book of seals) by Mark Russell (The Red Ceilings Press)

The Red Ceilings Press (http://www.theredceilingspress.co.uk/) limited edition chapbook series is in A6 in format and a joy to read and collect. Recent publications in the series include Fidelities by Ian Seed, First & Last by Rupert Loydell & Nathan Thompson, Taxi Drivers by Paul Sutton and Unnecessarily Emphatic by Kathrine Sowerby. They are pocket size booklets are easy to carry around and read as part of your daily routine.

Poet and dramatist, Mark Russell’s 2015 chapbook with Red Ceilings Press, Saturday Morning Pictures has sold out. His latest, (the book of seals), effortlessly draws the reader into a disturbing dystopia, where the first person, singular and plural, narratives are imbued with insecurity, uncertainty and lost innocence. Each poem in the sequence falters under the strain of dislocation, denial of anger, seemingly self-inflicted disasters and drought. The social landscape somewhere in Eastern Europe appears close to a police state, divided, under arrest and dominated by fear:

fear of bottleneck fear of fire fear
of crème anglaise fear of the eggs
that bind it fear of blindness and
light fear of being a suspect fear of
fear of the fingers in the ears fear
of the dried river bed fear of fools
fear of three days and nothing to
show for it fear of now fear of then
fear of now now now

The fear of three days may be an echo of Othello’s demand to hear of the death of Cassio from Act 3 Scene 3 of Othello, or some revelation of three day shortage or darkness, or another connection going back to the Book of Revelation. The narrative uncertainties serve to propel the reader forward. Each poem, inventive and plaintive, works serially in an evocative and suggestive manner.

It won’t be long now.
Three days at most.
Time enough to tie up the runners.
Time enough to close the books.

It won’t be long.
We are surrounded.
We ask for torments.
We fear belonging.

The poems echo and interrogate recent protest movements, extreme migrant
experience and dislocation through circular repetition of limited data from the perspective of the victim. The first person narrative voice, knowing, dramatic and pleading, comes across with force and musicality.

when we can no longer take the
amount of blood on the walls stairs
and carpets on the windows and
mirrors in the cups and saucers on
the plates and forks and spoons
and knives when we can no longer
accept the amount of blood sold in
the marketplace when we can no
longer agree to the amount of
blood discussed at committee
meetings when we can no longer
drink another drop of blood

The ‘when we can longer’ refrain echoes throughout the poem, disintegrating into ‘when we can take no more’ and ‘we can take no’ and ending ‘when the / blood is blood nothing but its own / blood nothing but blood’.

This compelling sequence is a worthy addition to the Red Ceilings Press output and comes highly recommended.

David Caddy 28th July 2016

Trouble by Alison Winch (The Emma Press)

Trouble by Alison Winch (The Emma Press)

Trouble explores intimacy through a range of different relationships, from that of a lover, polymorphous lover, wife, granddaughter, during the breakdown of a relationship, pregnancy, and in moments of fantasy. The poems are played out against a past and present London backdrop filled with betting shops, a horny marriage counsellor, ballrooms, male attraction and power.

The wife narrator pretends to be ‘one woman’ and has in her head ‘a pack of spaniels so dense they are a mind. And they fawn over men.’
Driven to Eastbourne, which is like ‘a day trip to Seven Sisters, without the bookies’, her ambivalence is revealed:

We’re the youngest guests at the Queen’s Hotel
and you’re 52. It’s the summer solstice and we’re breaking up

except we’re making love on the fifth floor
in an evening light as yolky as an afternoon.

The sexy doom of the split
is like falling in love and a stay of execution.

At the collection’s core is the sequence ‘Alisoun’s’, which uses material from the medieval pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome and the figure of Alisoun from Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale to further explore of female sexuality and reproductive power. The spirited ribaldry is counterpointed by material quoted from key medieval texts, by Marbod of Rennes, St. Thomas Acquinas, Galen and others, attacking or denying female lust and disobedience positioned on the right side margin. The sequence has a wonderful wanton sensuality and period feel ‘Of Wykked Wyves’.

Spanking! he bondaged to feel the passiun of muscle my myt without murder – Dirty Dog!

he pelts my mind – Nicholas – as May’s cuckoo spyt pysse-drys to June

below the river’s a pour of mellow wine that cools the caterwaul cockles of my bihynde

There is, as Sarah Howe notes in her introduction, a great deal of tongue in cheek humour mixed with affectionate lyricism. Many of the poems, such as ‘from Expecting The Gourd’, are extracted from larger works. The poem deals with pregnancy in a direct and visceral way:

Note polycystic ovaries and oleander bushes. Remember the ovulation cycle, wonky uterus, the way you circled your tongue around the salt prod of his cock.

You’re puking cabbage-green skies like a drunk without romance
ulcerous anus, swollen tits, a snatch no one wants –

Winch’s language use and metaphorical thrust has an undercurrent of sexual desire and nourishment. The poems dealing with her dying grandmother are counterpointed with life enhancing images of pomegranate, magnolia, potato and hops. There is an overriding sense of female power and voice arising from various states of intimacy, and that chimes in well with other recent works by Dorothy Lehane, Sophie Mayer, and Sarah Howe. I greatly look forward to reading more of Winch’s poetry and warmly recommend this debut collection. The pamphlet has a great cover by Sophie Herxheimer and is beautifully designed by The Emma Press.

David Caddy 13th July 2016

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