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A Journal of Enlightened Panic by Alan Baker (Shoestring Press)

A Journal of Enlightened Panic by Alan Baker (Shoestring Press)

Good poetry often creates a sense of release, of being returned to a point of wonder and attention. Alan Baker’s latest chapbook, A Journal of Enlightened Panic, has that quality. There’s an integrity about the writing which is enlivening.

The metaphor of life as voyage, journey, or walk dominates the volume. The longest poem, ‘Voyager,’ has perhaps the most complex use of these tropes. The poem is dedicated to Baker’s mother, who died in 2015. The text mixes information concerning the Voyager space probe, and material about life on a container ship, with the night-time wanderings of ‘Alan’, a cleverly objectified version of the poet himself.

The probe in outer space, the ship often travelling for days without seeing another vessel, have a resonance with Alan’s nocturnal perambulations, walks which have ‘the quality of dream’ but are also punctured by the unwelcome intrusions of time and unease.

Alan would like to inform us that he was tired
and became irritated
when Time appeared in the form of a bird
Uncertainty, in the form of the rising wind

The refusal of the bird to ‘accept itself as an illusion’ prompts a question:

…whether the double night of dark
and the dark of dreams
invests us with a kind of wisdom,
or whether in fact, the night is peopled by lights
and reflections from which
there is no escape.

Later in the poem a night-time journey by car is a voyage into a wordless and indifferent universe accessible only through dream. A river ‘bears him off his feet’, carrying him back to childhood memories of a coal fire, Dr Who and ‘Geordie gabble’ like the ‘residual sound/ of the creation of the universe.’ The poem ends:

…but here he is, not having expected
to lose the path, or care too much about the old guard
when they’d gone, but he does, surprisingly much.

Another fine example of Baker’s ability to articulate the conflicting tensions of life, and the possible consolation of imaginative attention, is the opening poem in the collection, ‘When a man goes out’. Here it’s an awareness of a worsening ecological crisis and the poet’s contribution to this in the acts of daily living, such as using a fridge, which preoccupy Baker. This is the ‘enlightened panic’ from which the chapbook takes its name. In such a context is it ‘decadent’, he asks, to be absorbed with questions about art?
The poet’s answer is that he does not ‘trust the voices that separate/ the inner from the outer, that sit at the threshold and ask for ID.’ Through attention to the present moment, the poem suggests, ‘a man may be transformed each morning, / like the day’s colours mirrored in the windows of a sleeping house.’

Other poems in this collection are tributes to fellow writers with whom Baker shares an aesthetic affinity – Geraldine Monk, Peter Hughes, Lee Harwood, Peter Gizzi. There are also two poems written in collaboration with Robert Sheppard and previously published in Sheppard’s EUOIA anthology. Baker shows himself equally at home in short-form poems as in the longer discursive texts. A number of the poems make use of embedded quotations– I noted Donne, Shakespeare and Joyce.

In ‘The Right’, Baker speaks of the ‘physicality/ to some texts’, which can ‘create an inner sound/ that takes on a life of its own/ aside from literal meaning’. He speculates that this might be something at one with ‘laugher or weeping,/ or wordless expressions of love.’ Or like the effect of someone making small talk before asking ‘an awkward question’, a question we do not have to answer because as guests we have ‘a right to silence.’

Can ‘a sound that transforms/ and continues the world…illuminate malignancies,/ soothe them with a process/ incompletely understood’ he asks in ‘Hematopoiesis’. Many of the poems in this volume offer precisely this kind of sustaining possibility.

Simon Collings 22nd September 2020

The Celestial Set-Up (Oystercatcher Press) & A Revolutionary Calendar (Shearsman Books) by Zoe Skoulding

The Celestial Set-Up (Oystercatcher Press) & A Revolutionary Calendar (Shearsman Books) by Zoe Skoulding

When Harriet Tarlo’s challenging and deeply rewarding anthology of ‘Radical Landscape Poetry’, The Ground Aslant, appeared in 2011 from Shearsman Books it attracted a review by Robert Macfarlane for an issue of Saturday Guardian. Referring to details of landscape providing ‘no reliable resting place for the eye or the mind’ the reviewer alerted us to the movement onwards ‘in an effortful relay of attention from speck to speck’. He also pointed to Peter Larkin’s awareness of particularity, ‘highlights in the moving light of the ordinary’, which brings to mind the ‘message from far away’ that Jeremy Prynne wrote in 2005 for the opening issue of Pearl Contents, the First Students’ English Magazine of Guangzhou University:

‘Out on the Pearl River enjoying a festive excursion I was watching the water currents slide by, flashing with lights from the banks on either side and lightning from the sky; and I realised how brilliant would be the new magazine of the Guangzhou University English Writing Classes, full of pearl-bright moments and shining articles all moving along in the currents of these changing times.’

In Zoë Skoulding’s new group of poems from the Oystercatcher’s beak we are offered ‘The Celestial Set-Up’, ‘star clusters’ which scatter into ‘islands breaking into archipelagos’: pearl-drop moments of a ‘network of events’. Their relation to time as well as distance is given to us as the possibility of ‘love moving on the epidermis’, ‘a crackle on a hand’, and they unravel ‘in tenses / between your past and my future’. This poetry is a finely-tuned gaze at the particularity of who we are and what we see and it prompts me to look back at Ruskin’s concern in Modern Painters for the ‘Truth of Space’ as dependent on ‘The Focus of the Eye’:

‘First, then, it is to be noticed, that the eye, like any other lens, must have its focus altered, in order to convey a distinct image of objects at different distances; so that it is totally impossible to see distinctly, at the same moment, two objects, one of which is much father off than another.’

Skoulding’s awareness of the possible relationships between the near and the far is central to her focus upon the Menai Straits that separate the coast of North Wales from the Isle of Anglesy. In ‘A Strait Story’ she waits for the tide to turn:

‘Under morning sun, the surface stirs and flicks: this is how it appears, as retreating blue looking black. But what do I know? Soundings off the sea floor come up in layered patterns as the data stream flows in different intensities: a cobalt speckled band of fish; refracted harmonics of the lower levels. You’d be swayed by the glimpse of a seal led by fish led by movement led by transfer of energy, but who’s to say who sways what in the dip and shudder of knowledge, a vessel.’

This range of thought, soundings, brings to my mind the moment in Charles Olson’s ‘Letter 5’ of The Maximus Poems in which he refers to reading ‘sand in the butter on the end of a lead, / and be precise about what sort of bottom your vessel’s over.’
The precision and awareness of depth which prompts Zoë Skoulding’s poetry to compel the past to pierce the present, to speak of days which give utterance ‘all at once, their tongues punctured with green blades’ (‘A Divinatory Calendar’) is central to her reconstruction of A Revolutionary Calendar. As Lyn Hejinian puts it on the back cover of this compelling new publication from Shearsman Books:

‘With expert grace and subversive panache, Zoë Skoulding has written a collection of 360 five-line poems gathered into twelve sections of thirty poems each – a form that replicates that of the ‘Republican Calendar’ created in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution…The resulting sequence of meticulous observations and penchant forays…maps out a temporal intersection, bringing historico-political time (linear and progressive) into conjuncture with seasonal agricultural time (cyclical and recursive).’

Just as all time is irrecoverable all matter changes shape and ‘oil pressed from / dark fruit won’t / hold summer’s shape’: the ‘Olive’ from Frimaire, the November of frost, will ‘ooze’ into a new day. The connection between what was and what is may be held in scents as the axe from Pluviôse (January / February)

‘felled at the root:
here’s an endpoint
sharpened by split
wood scented
with beginning’

Zoë Skoulding’s poetry is meditative, a drawing aside of curtains to allow a scene to be discovered to the reader: it seems like an act of instant as if a light is suddenly turned brightly focused upon a moment. As the poems rest securely on the page the focus is altered in order to permit the poet to convey a distinct image of objects at different distances. This is a poetry to go back to time and time again.

Ian Brinton, 30th August 2020

Seven Leaf Sermons by Peter Larkin artwork by Rupert Loydell (Guillemot Press)

Seven Leaf Sermons by Peter Larkin artwork by Rupert Loydell (Guillemot Press)

In Part I of A.N. Whitehead’s Process and Reality, the title of which suggests the connection between being and movement, the philosopher asserts that the number one ‘stands for the singularity of an entity’ and that the term ‘many’ presupposes the term ‘one’. A quarter of a century later Charles Olson was to write to Robert Creeley that the term ‘One makes Many’ had been overheard by him as being uttered by Cornelia Williams, the cook in Black Mountain College and the phrase was then adopted by Olson as an epigraph for The Maximus Poems. On similar lines Olson wrote an autobiographical note in November 1952 stating

‘that there is no such thing as duality either of the body and the soul or of the world and I, that the fact of the human universe is the discharge of the many (the multiple) by the one…’

In the opening stanza of the sixth of Peter Larkin’s intensely focused poems we can recognise this inseparable connection between the one and the many as ‘a bough is poised between heaven / and earth, full in leaf points to its latent interceding.’ The moving outwards of ‘points’ leads on to the later thought in the same poem:

‘,,.The tree would have no firmament without its
cloud of leaves’

In its Hebraic origins the word ‘firmament’ may well suggest ‘expanse’ as in the treading out of metals, the beating out, the making firm of a primal source. All journeys have sources and the ‘many’ is an outspreading of the ‘one’; in terms of travel, however, there is always loss as well as gain and the opening poem contemplates this inevitable relationship:

‘…The tree was soon parted
from its leaves, but not its wintering seed: what’s this
casts off any distress of tree, simply wrinkles in leaf?’

Like leaves from a tree words have an outward yearning towards different meaning and ‘leaves’ contains an echo of parting just as the word ‘wrinkles’ hints at the Thomas Nashe lines from ‘Summer’s Last Will and Testament’:

‘Beauty is but a flower,
Which wrinkles will devour,
Brightness falls from the air’

In his ‘Journal’ dated 17th October 1873 Gerard Manley Hopkins noted the unending connection between tree and leaf, the one and the many, as the end of the month brought severe frosts:

‘Wonderful downpour of leaf: when the morning sun began to melt the frost they fell at one touch and in a few minutes a whole tree was flung of them; they lay masking and papering the ground at the foot. Then the tree seems to be looking down on its cast self as blue sky on snow after a long fall, its losing, its doing.’

Contemplating movement which is loss Peter Larkin uses language in his Seven Leaf Sermons which breathes an echo of the early seventeenth century:

‘Lacking leaf a tree is not unhoused, but homeless enough
a leaf at last turns its page. It became apron
only to the underclothing of indigent tree, litter for free.
Saw-leaves, no longer interior scapes of trunk passed across
branch-scape, but sole sly ratchet in gear above tree’

The homelessness of ‘unhoused’ brings before us the King Lear whose address to the Fool signals the opening of a moment of meditative prayer the rhetoric of which would be at home in an early dissenting sermon. He exclaims ‘You houseless poverty’ before falling to his knees and addressing the world peopled with ‘houseless heads’ and ‘unfed sides’.
Peter Larkin’s ‘Sermon 3’ presents us with a leaf that ‘breathes in rain but drinks from the root’ and the etymology of words, the foundation of language, is the precursor of expression: the one leading to the many. ‘The sound of rain is its light rattle’ itself offers a continuation from Larkin’s publication from last year, Trees Before Abstinent Ground (Shearsman Books, 2019) in which

‘an out-where of
woods feathered at
joint, a fledgling
withinness with
which they flaunt

articulatio

‘Rooted from edge’ (‘exposure (A Tree) presents’, 2011 and published by Shearsman Books in 2014 under the title Give Forest Its Next Portent) had already suggested an indissoluble link between the moment of setting out and the landscape arrived at within the act of journeying and ‘Sermon 3’ offers us

‘The rain-swirl is what leaves didn’t filter, they fold
around one main curl further down, how root-scope gets
to think (sank) the shape of its drink trunk-spiralled.’

This is a beautifully produced book from Guillemot Press and the illustrations provided by Rupert Loydell add to the contemplative sense of presentation matching content; Olson would have been rather pleased with that too!

Ian Brinton, 19th August 2020

1348 & Other Equations by Valeria Melchioretto (Eyewear Pamphlet Series)

1348 & Other Equations by Valeria Melchioretto (Eyewear Pamphlet Series)

Poems about plagues have an understandable fascination nowadays, and this one, published in 2019, was ahead of the curve. 1348 was the Western European advent of the Black Death, and the title’s ‘equation’ here appears in its root sense of ‘making equal’ – not only in the irreparable way that death does, but also in terms of social re-stratification in the plague’s aftermath. Starting from England, and travelling with the Arthurian Prince Galehaut, the poem quickly reaches Italy, for 1348 is also the year The Decameron is set, its narrators wintering out from the carnage in Florence. Events in Boccaccio’s narrative and Pasolini’s film version are alluded to, but especially their themes: fortune, sex, trickery, mercantilism, class conflict and Church corruption. The poem has a lot of fun, too, with medieval numerology, expanding (or detouring) onto the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man.

Some readers might be attracted less by the subject-matter than by hopes for more of the unique flavour of The End of Limbo, this poet’s earlier collection; for her far-out metaphors and eye-popping turns of phrase. They do reappear, but in place of the personal and family histories the voice here is of an annalist and purveyor of sententiae, reporting, lamenting, bewailing, and making historical and philosophical assertions. It does so in long, end-stopped lines, building into tercets that claim ancestry from the era’s terza rima, but with its devices of rhyme-scheme and metre now faded and only flickeringly detectable.

Those few left behind are without oat to cook or sprout
But now they own plenty of land to firmly plant their feet.
The righteous are said to bloom honourably as bay trees.

The marvellous quirkiness is still there: creditors ‘ascend the layers of millefoglie to reach heaven’; death ‘wears the skin of the living like the latest fashion’; dead peasants ‘went to plough the clouds’; poetry ‘is a scream under the skin’. On the other hand, in such a high-risk style some of the wordplay will inevitably be a matter of taste: ‘their issues take no issue with ill cruelty’; ‘overflowing coffers turn into overflowing coffins’; ‘the apple of the eye doesn’t keep the doctor away’. Unless perhaps it’s all the more fitting for The Decameron’s own blends of the sublime and the ridiculous. In either case, where the thoughts’ content (as befits the annalist’s character) is conventional, wit and readerly pleasure necessarily lie in the mode of expression. But there are occasional jump-cuts and flat lines and sometimes great ideas seem to be just missing a final edit:

Alas, rich patrons still carry cathedrals on their bad backs,
buy indulgences to fill treasure-troves and secure bliss,
bribe Saint Peter to turn a blind eye – turn heaven’s key.

This unusual and intermittently brilliant poem ends by briefly sketching Pasolini’s murder at Ostia, and then alerting us that the plague bacillus is still around, carried by rodents and occasionally infecting humans. Well, these days I suppose we can never be reminded too often.

Guy Russell 16th August 2020

Moveable Type by Jo Clement (New Writing North)

Moveable Type by Jo Clement (New Writing North)

Already established as an editor, poet, workshop leader and researcher, Jo Clement published her first collaborative pamphlet with fellow writer and Traveller, Damian Le Bas, and printmaker W. John Hewitt in the weathered poems of Outlandish (NWN 2019). Together, the artists used St Cuthbert’s Way on Holy Island as a starting point for poetry and art inspired by the edgelands of the North East. Several of those poems touched on her Gypsy heritage. But it is in Moveable Type, Clement’s solo debut pamphlet, where the poet examines the poetics and politics of her Traveller ethnicity in depth through the engravings of printmaker Thomas Bewick (1753-1828).
These contemporary and lyrical poems evolve from family and childhood, and culminate in a homecoming at Appleby Horse Fair, the largest annual gathering of Gypsies and Travellers in Europe. On pulling back the eye of a cob the skillful rhythms of ‘The Impression of Water’ resonate:

How fast the water flows in lines
against the Traveller’s face, her clothes,
the supplementary weight.

In this multi-layered poem we feel the pressure on both the Traveller and on the wood carver’s images. This ekphrastic practice continues as Clement assigns artwork with titles, juxtaposing an 18th Century man pole-vaulting across a river with the poem ‘Vault’. This poem teems with imagery from the northern council estate, Lascelles:

til his fists scream
on the glass
and they flush out
like so many bees
or game, back to the Moor,
where porn pulps open crotches

a powerful combination of the musical and the visceral. The final stanza in this poem is a reminder of how her own journey as Traveller, academic and poet has involved a certain ‘kicking back’ inside mainstream society: ‘His sloe arm moves her still, / lifts ‘til vaulting, she stamps the air.’
Two revealing poems then face each other, both corralled and blown free, first in ‘Teesdale Erratics’, and then ‘Market’:

The photographer says
turn a cartwheel, girls

but they shy away
pinch petunias

from pub planters
push stalks behind ears.

Here, the subtle imagery exposes the exploitive media succinctly.
We come across enviable terms such as ‘King Faa’, a poem smattered with delightful kennings like ‘fiddlescrape’ and ‘kettleflute’, as well as the Romani patrins: signposts for fellow Travellers made from twigs. Clement beautifully illustrates the horse dealer’s traditional haggle: ‘let horse dealer hands / take wing in soft claps / that swoop and slap / themselves away’. Meanwhile, Bewick’s tail-piece engraving of a powerless father and son next to the sign: KEEP ON THIS SIDE, reminds us of centuries of land-grabbing Enclosure Laws, and their impact on not only Travellers but on the rural community as a whole.
Clement certainly doesn’t shirk the uncomfortable. In ‘Knots’, Wordsworth is held to account in his poem ‘Gipsies’: ‘He saw us as spot, a spectacle, knots’. ‘Playing Cards’ also delivers a palpable shudder as the speaker falters when asked to tick a box pertaining to ethnicity as either ‘White or Gypsy’:

Black triangles
Needled to our chests like stars, badges of shame
That marked us work-shy Zigeuner.
The death camps devoured us

a reminder of how 200,000 Roma and Sinti Gypsies were put to death during World War II. But it is the pride in her heritage that defines Clement’s writing. ‘Homecoming’, in which the poet takes us to Appleby Fair, is sensuously charged:

In black-wet denim
all teeth and chest shining
half-boy
half-hoss
all bray

Walk alongside a young woman through the joys and frustrations of modern Traveller life inside poems of blood, politics and honesty, and you will see how ‘Gypsiness’ is inextricably linked to heritage and ethnicity, regardless of whether home is house or road. Moveable Type is an anthem, a celebration, and a timely reminder of all our histories.

Notes:

Traveller – the contemporary collective term for Gypsy/Roma/Traveller (GRT).
Zigeuner – the German noun that described Gypsies.

Sarah Wimbush 29th May 2020

The Gospel of Trickster by Nancy Charley (Hercules Editions)

The Gospel of Trickster by Nancy Charley (Hercules Editions)

From its quirky pocket size, that makes the book very portable, to its bible black colour, with gothic lettering the reader knows they are about to read something rather unusual. The title itself teases, the use of Gospel seems to subvert the Christian sense of the word, which involve the teachings of Jesus and his followers but has been it seems appropriated by a character called ‘Trickster’ whose origins are unfamiliar. Throughout, the book is dramatically illustrated with drawings by the artist Alison Gill that reinforce the gothic nature of the work.
The book much like a conventional gospel is divided into chapters. Broadly the piece follows the ambiguous Trickster as he encounters and tries to subvert the story of Jesus. It has the feel of a dramatic monologue and does indeed make an excellent piece of theatre as demonstrated by Charley’s run of one woman shows that bring Trickster and his machinations to life with great effect.
A word should be said about the inclusion of the Christian story throughout the narrative. The writer has an impressive knowledge of the bible. However, I really don’t think it is necessary to have these points of reference to enjoy the text. In a secular society the rise and fall and rise of an extraordinary man resonates with us all and recalls such leaders from Gandhi onwards. Whilst a knowledge of the Christian story adds an extra dimension for the reader, it is not preclusive. This is after all Trickster’s story and the focus really is upon the existence of such meddlesome and amoral beings in our world.
Charley makes it clear in the useful afterward that trickster is not the Christian Devil. He seems though to have a nodding acquaintance with Satan in the tale, and is quite willing to do his bidding, especially in the context of the Jesus’ narrative, where he has a word in Judas’ ear amongst other mischief making. What makes the character so appealing is as The Rolling Stone’s say in Sympathy for the Devil ‘Just what is the nature of your game?’ Certainly, he likes to meddle, to make trouble, to stir things up. He is like a malcontent but with a sense of humour. His aim seems to be to debunk or at least subvert the works of good men.
What makes him such a compelling character is his natural whit, but also the ways in which his efforts to disrupt good are always defeated. Trickster is the anti-hero to the Christ hero, and as with all such dynamics the more he seeks to debunk his enemy, the more good prevails. Yet this is not just a simple tension between good and evil. Trickster is more ambiguous. He at times seems to stand apart from both moralities and represent a very modern cynicism which challenges the nature of Christianity. Indeed, the character is not two dimensional but complex with moments of philosophical reflection and a genuine sadness that he cannot fully commit to being good. In this way he is reminiscent of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
What this gospel does is humanise the Christ figure by use of small vignettes that dramatize the stories very familiar to some of us, for example that of Lazarus. The Trickster’s negative reaction in the face of such miracles and their agenda gives us a fresh perspective on the Jesus story. By challenging the character and motives of Christ, we are given a fresh view on the original gospels. This is not a modern atheistic standpoint, rather that of someone who challenges the modus operandi of Jesus. Moreover, the focus is not about God himself rather that of the role of his son.
We see by the very existence of Trickster and his rationale that in real life there are grey areas. In many ways he resembles those creatures in Hilary Mantel’s novels, who are distinctly uncanny and dark. Trickster seeks to meddle and trick us for his own delight and entertainment. Ironically though, seen through the prism of his jealous eyes, the reader comes to regard the story of Christ in a fresh and favourable light. This is particularly seen in the dramatization of the Jesus’ days in the wilderness where he is shown to be stoic and brave, traits a little lacking today.
The literary devices used by Charley are highly effective. There is much use of alliteration as befits a gospel or narrative poem and is in this way again pays homage to Milton’s Paradise Lost, where his devil has all the best lines too. Internal rhyme ensures the poem flows at a pace as events transpire. The use of humour and wit is excellent and highly enjoyable. There are some fine vignettes as the Trickster interacts with other characters. The dramatization of such figures as Mary’s father enraged at his daughter being knocked up by an angel are playful but also bring out the humanity of the biblical story. Trickster’s tone is by turns deliciously spiteful, self-pitying and jubilant. He uses a combination of demotic language as befits his character but this also this serves to make the original bible story more current and relevant today. This language is blended skilfully with higher case lexis such as ‘piquancy and punch’ that makes the tale fun to read and indeed to listen to and indicates that Trickster has great verbal dexterity and can trick us with his language.
Clearly Charley has an enviable knowledge of the original gospels. But this is Trickster’s gospel and it invites us to look from a different perspective at the nature of good and evil. Similarly, the character serves to reveal our own complex humanity. Trickster is that part of us that wants to be bad, to break rules, to be anti-establishment. But watching his shenanigans against the actions of a thoroughly good man allows us to decide which camp we follow. In fact, Trickster himself on observing Jesus’ sacrifice, comes close to redemption, but in the end, he finds being good too restrictive, no fun and elects to continue meddling on down the ages. Yet by the end of the book there is an indefinable and very subtle sadness about his inability to be virtuous.
In the afterwards by publisher and writer we are informed that Trickster’s role is to meddle. he remains ambivalent in origin which makes him even more intriguing. Whereas Christ through his example of self-sacrifice offers a redemption we must earn, Trickster is all about instant gratification. This is a book that challenges the reader with its suggestion of a chaotic universe where there are more things in Heaven and Hell…. And warns us that wickedness is very real.

Fiona Sinclair 21st October 2019

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

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