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Category Archives: Pamphlet

(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

My Life As A Mad King by Alasdair Paterson (Oystercatcher Press)

My Life As A Mad King by Alasdair Paterson (Oystercatcher Press)

Having published The Floating World (Pig Press) and Brief Lives (Oasis Books) in the Eighties, Alasdair Paterson returned to writing with on the governing of empires (Shearsman, 2010), Brumaire and Later (Flarestack Poets), in arcadia (Oystercatcher Books) in 2011, and Elsewhere or thereabouts, (Shearsman 2014). His latest collection, My Life As A Mad King, is a wonderfully playful, energetic sequence of villanelles. The madness of the king is mirrored in the gradual break up of the villanelle’s refrains, repeated rhymes and their repetition in the final stanza. The nineteen line structure of five tercets and one quatrain remains intact until the final ‘Villanelle the ultimate and’ which consists of twenty two words. Here each word per line, apart from the elongated seventeenth line, and their repetition encapsulates the essence of villanelle. The linguistic wordplay is highly controlled and compressed with the possible variants of each set played out within a confined word field.

A pandemonium of smoke and fire
a panoply of wine and roses
a pantomime of flesh and blood

A panjandrum of cap and bells
a pantaloon of shreds and patches
a pandemonium of court and spark

Paterson has the ability to tease and freshen language, and invest his word play with precision and dry humour. This is a work of quiet authority testing a difficult form. Indeed, beyond Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop’s famous examples it is hard to recall other memorable villanelles. Paterson deftly plays around with clichés and misplaces repeated lines, sometimes reduced to one word, in order to explore the boundaries of the form. His villanelles are rhythmic, ramshackle and fun, punning on rock album titles.

A banquet of greased beggars
a glass with added glass
a saucerful of secrets

A locket drenched in lachrimae
a joint spiced with jacquerie
a saucerful of sanctitas

The sequence culminates with the aged narrator losing his memory:

A man walks into an oubliette / I forget what happens next / forget what happens next / forget

And moves into the final villanelle with its chilling opening:

Crack

head

forget

Windows

fire

crack

My Life As A Mad King is a joy to read and yet another wonderful sequence from Oystercatcher Press.

David Caddy 12th July 2016

Umwelt by Dorothy Lehane (Open House Editions, Leafe Press)

Umwelt by Dorothy Lehane (Open House Editions, Leafe Press)

Umwelt, a term in biosemiotics theorised by Jacob von Uexküll and Thomas A. Seboek, unites all the semiotic processes of an organism into a whole. Each functional component of an umwelt has a meaning and so represents the organism’s model of the world. These functional components correspond approximately to perceptual features, and thus to understanding. Dorothy Lehane’s Umwelt takes the semiotic parameters of the body in trauma as its impulse and uses this frame of reference as a way of exploring patient experience, clinical measures and embodied phenomenological practice.

Umwelt begins with a strong sonic and rhythmic surge into the abyss
of the traumatised body with ‘verbal machinery annexed’ as ‘the body still roams’ and ‘is a throne of abuse’ delineating a split between body and speech. There is a clash between an impersonal use of medical language, as in ‘social pleasures rely on the pineal gland’ or flowing backwards / from the alveolar ridge’ and the implied problems of dysfunction, and a personalised anger leading to a ferocious rant with witty asides. This clash of register is at the heart of the poem’s momentum and success. The poem is both personal and impersonal, being imbued in medical language, emotionally and linguistically powerful as shifting attitudes and understanding of the self and the body’s condition change over time. This produces a powerful testimony, as it is both detached and emotionally charged. The reader feels each attack on the body as they are liberally spread throughout the poem’s 424 lines.

The poem charts the ebbs and flows of the illness, tussles with a surgeon and impending surgery, and how it impacts upon the tongue:

The throaty oesphageal tissue dislodges
as if to say here be nourishment & battle
Keep going & Peer at the womb that haemorrhages post-coitally
Remove the tube & it’s still a sticky mess

The sense of struggle around the mouth, tongue and throat is palpable and leavened by the constant reminder that the female body is specific and under attack.

A comparable recent work might be Sophie Mayer’s (O, 2015), where a series of traumas are registered against the female body and voice. Lehane, though, has her own distinct poetic approach and utterance to the point of rage:

At times I called out MONSTER
We never talk body fluids
The couch & my vicarious trauma
“informed” breach

Much of the poem turns on the concept of ‘disfluency’, a term from pathology meaning ‘impairment of the ability to produce smooth, fluent speech’, or an interruption by a pause or the repetition of a word or syllable. The poem starts with a disfluency in the repetition ‘so tongue in throat’ / ‘so tongue in heart’ / … ‘so tongue in rouge’ / ‘so rouge in ruin’, and favours disfluency as an act of disobedience, which the poem in turn embodies. This embodiment comes through its enjambment, shifts, repetitions and returns, as well as all the internal arguments and self adjustments, which serve to register changes to the body and gives the poem its narrative twists and turns.

What has happened to you is everywhere on the lips of strangers
tiresomely
& I’m never sure if they are talking about my faith or my body

Umwelt imprints on the memory through its linguistic force, strident defiance before and after surgery, and the sheer number of striking lines.

David Caddy 27th June 2016

Between So Many Words (Red Squirrel Press) Hut (Woodenhead Pamphlets) by Ric Hool

Between So Many Words (Red Squirrel Press) Hut (Woodenhead Pamphlets) by Ric Hool

The seven pages of text in Ric Hool’s little pamphlet, Hut, open with three assertive lines:

‘Hut is mind
by which man lives
within & outside himself.’

With his hallmark concern for the etymological sources of language J.H. Prynne wrote about the derivation of that little word ‘hut’ and, in his essay ‘Huts’, tells us that its use was first recorded in the seventeenth century, ‘probably from French hutte which is only a little earlier, cognate with Middle High German hütte, Old High German hutta, huttea, perhaps from Old Teutonic hudja with connection from roots meaning to hide, protect, conceal.’ In this 2008 essay, originally published in Textual Practice, Prynne looks closely at ‘Ode to Evening’, the 1746 poem by William Collins before moving from there to focus on the word ‘hovel’ in Shakespeare’s King Lear. He concludes with some thoughts about the meeting that took place in July 1967 between Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger in the latter’s writing hut near Todtnauberg.

Ric Hool’s contrast between ‘within & outside himself’ becomes in that poem’s second stanza (and I use that word advisedly thinking of its own derivation from the Italian for a room) ‘A place of shelter / & invention & / close to the wildwood’. The contrasts between shelter and danger which are contained within the purposes of building a hut are suggested in visual terms in Prynne’s essay when he refers to the title-page of the first edition of Collins’s Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegoric Subjects:

‘The title-page…was adorned with a quite distinctive engraved device, even if not original in this use: within an oval chaplet of leaves and flowers, of which part is laurel and part fruits of the woods and fields, and all surmounted by the twin face-masks of joy and sorrow, is set a pair of musical instruments. Uppermost is a classical lyre, signalling the composure and equipoise of Apollo; and beneath can be seen a set of panpipes, signal of panic urgency and ungoverned passion.’

Ric Hool’s opening poem ends with ‘estrangement’:

‘man from nature
nature from man.’

In ‘Hut 3: Castles & Cabins’ the poet contemplates that space between the self and the other, ‘within & outside himself’, and wonders what might warm a man whose separation from the outside world has been emphasised by a closed door. The conclusion to these contemplations is a trust in language since surely

‘it is nothing that is kept
so bolted and secure it cannot
radiate into the world.’

It is the poet’s words that radiate beyond the closed door and when he goes on to contemplate ‘Why We Use Language’ in the first section of the substantial publication from Red Squirrel Press Ric Hool arrives at the conclusion that ‘There is something / in a word towards reality’. Prynne’s conclusion to his focus on the double-edged sense of huts is that the ‘house of language is not innocent, and is no temple’:

‘The intensities of poetic encounter, of imagination and deep insight into spiritual reality and poetic truth, carry with them all the fierce contradiction of what human language is and does. There is no protection or even temporary shelter from these forms of knowledge that is worth even a moment’s considered preference, even for poets or philosophers with poetic missions.’

Whilst this sense of the baggage of meaning carried by the word-porters is web-like in its binding I have a quiet admiration for the type of experience which Ric Hool seeks to clarify in one of his ‘La Gomera’ poems in Between So Many Words:

‘There is a central idea extending from the kitchen out,
by whatever means, and back, which sustains. It is
not just food but the prattle of everyday happenings
that nourish these people, sure as transfusion,
from the coastline inward; from the island’s heart out.’

These are lovely books and I recommend them both to everyone:
• Woodenhead Press: 5 Merthyr Road, Abergavenny, NP7 5BU;
• Red Squirrel Press: http://www.redsquirrelpress.com

Ric Hool, of course, runs the Hen & Chicks Poetry Readings in Flannel Street, Abergavenny and it will be worth going to hear Peter Hughes read next week on June 14th.

Ian Brinton 9th June 2016

Love’s by Lou Rowan (Oystercatcher Press)

Love’s by Lou Rowan (Oystercatcher Press)

In his 1640 publication of prose, Timber: or, Discoveries, Ben Jonson suggested that ‘Language most shewes a man: speake that I may see thee. It springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the Image of the Parent of it, the mind.’ It brought to the fore a sense that the words we use are an integral aspect of who we are: the language we use gives our audience a picture of what is lying hidden in our minds. I recall telling Year 7 pupils that no one can see inside your mind and that therefore language, moving like a shark’s fin carving its path through the waters, gives an indication to the observer of what lies beneath the surface, hidden. I am also old enough to remember that Penguin Modern Poets 10, The Mersey Scene, which appeared in 1967. It contained glimpses of the world made new by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Adrian Henri’s accumulation of one-line pictures of the new world of sexuality, nostalgia and urban isolation:

‘Love is feeling cold in the back of vans
Love is a fanclub with only two fans
Love is walking holding paintstained hands
Love is’

Lou Rowan’s merging of memory and desire, which has the effect of stirring dull roots with spring rain, is an altogether more serious affair than Adrian Henri’s and one which must be returned to time and again as the layers of meaning yield themselves to engaged reading. When Toby Olson wrote about Rowan’s Reality Street publication of stories, Alphabet of Love Serial, he referred to the ‘weave’ of stories, the ‘haunting sense of connection between them’ and the way that the ‘imagined emerges into autobiography’ presenting the reader with something ‘brand new, often wonderfully coming forth in their syntax and development…as if…writing in a new language.’ Perhaps those qualities hinted at above can be seen with increasing clarity in ‘Fights’, the opening poem of this new Oystercatcher:

‘won’t dim your eyes harden
your lips flatten my chin
or abort this spring

days will stretch and nights strain
there will be blood and sobs
I doubt we’ll die…

twined kittens,
I’ll lick your whiskers

so close we blur
eyes widen in the dark
tails twitching’

As the negatives of the first stanza, the denials, move towards the embracing gesture of expansiveness in line four there is a sharpening of focus which concludes with a wry smile. The closeness of the relationship in the last two stanzas has required language’s magnifying glass to focus upon a movement of particularities: twining and licking moves to widening and twitching.

The second poem in the collection, ‘Vain Letters’, with its double sense of both vanity and uselessness (these letters are in vain!) weaves the names Jocelyn, Ann and Rowan into a musical jamboree of ‘Jas, roc, an’ simfanny’. A later piece of lyrical effusion concerning the closeness of love offers us something far beyond that world of Adrian Henri’s distant twist of ironic lips. The fourth stanza of Henri’s ‘Love Is…’ dwells upon loss, regret and a sweet sense of nostalgia:

‘Love is white panties lying all forlorn
Love is a pink nightdress still slightly warm
Love is when you have to leave at dawn
Love is’

Lou Rowan’s poem opens with a greater sense of clarity and thought:

‘I can’t want
to know where I begin or
you don’t end

soft and smooth you lie back
flesh rising to me at each breath
hips solid like sea-clams
dream-limits to my desire’ [.]

This is a poetry where the personal and the public entwine as they might have done in late sixteenth-century songs or sonnets and it comes as no surprise to read the metaphysical idea which opens one page

‘a line is formed by two planes or
it’s a set of points connecting two points
the most directly

there have to be laws
so each touch engenders
a sheaf of lines right there
lines joining feeling longing knowing wanting
and each sheaf
set awhirl
bouquets of grasses and stems
at each touch
the atom kernel whole point or crux [.]

These are thoughtful and playful poems: a delight to the mind.

Ian Brinton 13th March 2016

STANZE by Simon Marsh (Oystercatcher Press)

STANZE by Simon Marsh (Oystercatcher Press)

In an interview with Jane Davies, published by Shearsman in Talk about Poetry (2007), Peter Robinson focused upon one of the most damaging aspects of poetry-writing since the world of The Movement. The interviewer made a short and clear point when in suggesting that Robinson’s poems ‘seem to address lived experience in recognizable forms of human expression’ to which the reply came:

‘You’ve put your finger on something that absolutely baffles me about the contemporary poetry scene. I thought this was what poetry did or does, and it often doesn’t seem to, strangely enough, because most poetry now isn’t much like this’

Robinson went on to quote the Italian poet Franco Fortini who had addressed him at a Cambridge poetry festival with the disarming question ‘Why do all the English poems end with a little laugh?’ It is as though being scared to be seen as serious we have to adopt layers of thick-skinned irony.

When I read Simon Marsh’s sixteen sonnets, each placed in its own stanza, its little room of memory, clouds lifted: here was a deeply moving poetry of lyricism and grace. Shafts of light break through cloud as memories and hopes surface in such a manner as to remind us of a world of love that has been central to poetry since the earliest writing. This is an uplifting and wonderful book!

In a short essay about the poetry of Peter Hughes (‘Pulling on the Feathered Leggings’) Simon Marsh quoted Gene Tanta saying that ‘writers who use language as a fluid artefact of the commons help to dislodge static notions of selves’. He also referred to Peter Hughes’s ‘attentive crafting’ and ‘uncommonly complete freeing up of the powers of observation.’ This precision, an awareness of the moment, filters its light through the joint volume Hughes and Marsh did for Shearsman five years ago, The Pistol Tree Poems. The last section of that remarkable book was written the year before publication and after the death of Simon Marsh’s partner Manuela Selvatico to whose memory these Oystercatcher STANZE are dedicated. In number 86 of The Pistol Tree Poems we read

‘tiles of
primary brightness
cast in
muntin shadow
a tattered map
fallen
at my feet
whenever
we were lost
we held
each other’s breath’

That ‘tattered map’, with its seventeenth-century sense inherited from Donne, is a future fractured and in number 102 we are confronted with an Odyssean figure ‘tied to the mast’ who may ‘settle back alone’ but whose awareness of life is so strong that ‘kelp shadow stuns the air’. The muntin strips which divide up a pane of glass provide a frame, a structure, within which the glass can remain as filter for the light of prospects now dissolved. A map may be tattered but as with Donne’s experience on the shortest day of the year the poet can be ‘re-begot /Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not.’ This sense of presence within absence is hauntingly caught on the cover of this compelling Oystercatcher: lines which could be empty musical staves, horizons, skylines are also the strings of a guitar which is there poised to play again. And so in the third of these little rooms, fourteen-lined STANZE, we hear a voice

‘you gave me back the poetry
the will to breathe in tunes
unravelled the strings of years
& tied light bows to my tail’

The escaping from past imprisonment, the unravelling of those netting strings woven by the years, brings to my mind Charles Olson’s urgent plea in his poem ‘As the Dead Prey Upon Us’, ‘disentangle the nets of being’. The opposite of the entanglement is graceful movement as a kite lifts in the air and streams its ‘light bows’ out behind it.
Serious Art allows the fleeting a place to rest; it also looks far forward as well as back; it is movement which does not just atrophy:

‘you promised me Dante after supper
the circumstances no longer exist
only changes in air scent
intensely captured light
page-bound radiance of individual days
when we last scooped vacant autumn oysters
from low tide silt at Minnis Bay’

Dante’s ‘lucerna del mondo’ is of such brightness and human reality is not easily put aside. As Simon Marsh puts it ‘sentiment as fluid / can cross oceans due to light’. This is not ending a poem with ‘a little laugh’; it is coming to terms with the individual ache of loss and the common grounds of human thought which we share.

I don’t think that I can make it much clearer: GET A COPY OF THIS BOOK NOW. Copies are available from Peter Hughes at Oystercatcher Press, 4 Coastguard Cottages, Old Hunstanton, Norfolk PE36 6EL.

Ian Brinton 7th March 2016

The Drop by Robert Sheppard (Oystercatcher Press)

The Drop by Robert Sheppard (Oystercatcher Press)

When J.H. Prynne gave his Keynote Speech at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in China on 18th April 2008 he referred to the art of translation in terms of poetic composition:

‘The activity of composing a poem in the first place shares some features with translation-work: pausing to consider exactly which words and expressions to use, building up the form and sound of a poem as if it already exists in your mind and as if you are translating this idea or process of thought into words on a page.’

‘Building up the form’ echoes the note Prynne made one year before that speech in China when he suggested that translation was ‘a noble art, making bridges for readers who want to cross the divide between their own culture and those cultures which are situated in other parts of the world’. Those bridges may be made stone by stone, brick by brick, word by word, or, perhaps when the bridge connects a world of the present with a world of the past, drop by drop. The drop may suggest Donne’s ‘A Valediction: of weeping’ where ‘each tear / Which thee doth wear’ creates ‘a globe, yea world’. The drops of sorrow at the loss of someone close to one’s whole life may, in Donne’s terms, become

‘Fruits of much grief they are, emblems of more,
When a tear falls, that thou falls which it bore,
So thou and I are nothing then, when on a diverse shore.’

That disyllabic adjective emphasizes the distance between the lovers, each on their separate shore.
Near the end of Robert Sheppard’s elegy to his father, the poet writes that the ‘Desire the task / Of the poet is elective translation’:

‘To transmute the nothing said
Into the nothing that could

That could talk itself
Into the world the

Shadow that casts wings between
The pillars the poem’s

Ear vibrates unthreads the
Love-whisper

By interruption
Quickens the sparkle-speech scattered

Among injured words love
Intervenes

Cannot resist too
Much in love with its own resisting

Earlier in this powerful elegy Sheppard had referred to the ‘longest story ladders / Up sides of tombs’ and the whole poem explores the ability of language to explore the inability of the past’s reconstruction. Words can never bring back the dead, never ‘talk’ themselves ‘Into the world’, but the ‘translation’ referred to is ‘elective’ and the stumbling forward of language in its climbing out of the past to reconstruct what can never bridge those distances is caught in the repetition of ‘that could’. That passage from near the poem’s end brims over with suggestion: the ‘Shadow that casts wings’ inevitably echoes the valley of the shadow of death in Psalm 23 and I found myself looking back at Robert Duncan’s ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’ where the poet links the present to the past through imagination. Duncan’s scene is ‘made-up by the mind’ but is definite enough in its concrete reality to be ‘a made place’. Although personal to the poet, it is a place to which he is permitted to return; it has mythological existence as the underworld to which Kora was taken. The architecture of the hall, the domain of the subconscious/past/underworld promotes the palpability of the present in which the poet lives: ‘Wherefrom fall all architectures I am’. Olson also wrote about the impossible distances and suggested that because love is so intense and alive in its feelings it ‘knows no distance, no place/is that far away’ (‘The Distances’).

Robert Sheppard’s elegy opens with two comments which are central to understanding the nature of this unbridgeable loss. The first page opens with the italicized phrase ‘Standing by’ and the fourth stanza concludes with a reference to ‘Elegy lost in action on the outskirts of an event’. The immeasurability of the gap between NOW and THEN, the living and the dead, means that all writers of elegies stand on the outskirts of an event. As Thomas Hardy recognized in the first of his poems about the death of his wife, ‘The Going’, her death was the closure of a term and the single word ‘gone’ on line five has a musical resonance of bell-like clarity. Hardy’s image of the swallow then emphasises the impossibility of bridging the distance between that past and this present. The past cannot ever be reached despite the ability of the migratory bird to fly swiftly over extraordinarily long distances.

Beckett’s short play Krapp’s Last Tape is one of the great elegies and as the recorder of events puts it, listening to himself on tape from a former year, ‘The grain, now I what I wonder do I mean by that, I mean…[hesitates]…I suppose I mean those things worth having when all the dust has—when all my dust has settled I close my eyes and try and imagine them.’ In Robert Sheppard’s world this has become

‘My mind mummified with emotion
I thought everything

Was compiled
On reels of tape piled into temple walls’

The walls of the temple, as Krapp is compelled to recognise, do not keep memory fresh and Robert Sheppard’s ‘drop mourns itself’ and it is not only morphine which will thicken the ‘glassy eye’. The Drop is an extraordinarily powerful poem which grows more lasting each time I read it.

Ian Brinton 8th January 2015

Spaces for Sappho by Kat Peddie (Oystercatcher Press)

Spaces for Sappho by Kat Peddie (Oystercatcher Press)

Post-Poundian-Ppppsappoppo

The fourth chapter of Hugh Kenner’s masterful The Pound Era is titled ‘The Muse in Tatters’ and it focuses on fragments of Sappho as presented through the mid-Victorian bluster of Swinburne, the Georgian tushery of Richard Aldington (via Prof. Edmonds) and the Poundian engraving of ‘Papyrus’:

‘Spring………
Too long……
Gongula……’

When Pound wrote to Iris Barry in the summer of 1916 he complained of the ‘soft mushy edges’ of British poetry (‘We’ve been flooded with sham Celticism’) and suggested that the whole art could be divided into:

a. concision, or style, or saying what you mean in the fewest and clearest words.
b. the actual necessity for creating or constructing something; of presenting an image, or enough images of concrete things arranged to stir the reader.

Kat Peddie’s poems leave spaces on the page and only the clearest of words are left as stone markers, memorials, echoing the words that Walter Pater (former pupil of King’s School, Canterbury) wrote about lyricism and loss:

‘Who, in some such perfect moment…has not felt the desire to perpetuate all that, just so, to suspend it in every particular circumstance, with the portrait of just that one spray of leaves lifted just so high against the sky, above the well, forever?’

In Peddie’s ‘105a [for Page duBois]’ this idea becomes ‘The poem is the absence of an apple / anakatoria’.

To place greater emphasis upon this fragmentary world of concision one might turn up Swinburne’s early poem ‘Anactoria’ with its epigraph of lines from Sappho. My copy of this poem covers ten pages and the opening lines sound hollow some twenty years after Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’:

‘My life is bitter with thy love; thine eyes
Blind me, thy tresses burn me, thy sharp sighs
Divide my flesh and spirit with soft sound,
And my blood strengthens, and my veins abound.
I pray thee sigh not, speak not, draw not breath;
Let life burn down, and dream it is not death.’

Lines from Kat Peddie’s fragment ‘6’ are worth considering here:

‘Consider Helen [whose beauty outshone all]
sailed from country
husband
parents
children to
follow hers

some men say
without a thought I think
of Anaktoria gone
her walk
her face outshines armour’

The echo of Eliot’s echo of Dante is there immediately with the dramatic command ‘Consider’. Eliot used the word to remind the reader of Phlebas ‘who was once handsome and tall as you’ while Odysseus, in Inferno XXVI, used the word ‘Considerate’ as a reminder to his ill-fated crew that they owed it to themselves and their heritage to pursue the paths across the ocean. Kat Peddie’s Spaces for Sappho are dedicated ‘for & from Anne Carson’ and the Canadian poet’s rendering of the Sappho fragment reads

‘For she who overcame everyone
in beauty (Helen)
left her fine husband

behind and went sailing to Troy.’

Peddie’s Helen ‘outshone’ all others rather than ‘overcame’ them and this is woven seamlessly into the reference to Anaktoria whose ‘face outshines armour’ as amor vincit omnia. The sense of loss in Peddie’s poem is held, for a moment, with that pause between ‘I think’ and the new line’s opening ‘of Anaktoria gone’. Swinburne wouldn’t have been able to resist a capital letter for that little word ‘of’. With a recall of the absent figure of Anaktoria what is remembered first is ‘her walk’ (after all that is what takes her away) and then her face, presumably turned away, which ‘outshines’ the clothing she wears, leaving a glimmering behind her for the reader to ‘Consider’.
At the beginning of this handsome new Oystercatcher Peddie gives a short lesson on pronunciation:

‘Today, in English, she [is] all soft sibilants and faded f’s, but in fact she is ‘Psappho’. In ancient Greek—and indeed in modern Greek—if you hear a native speaker say her name, she comes across spitting and popping hard p’s. Ppppsappoppo. We have eased off her name, made her docile and sliding, where she is really difficult, diffuse, many-syllabled, many-minded, vigorous and hard’.

Kat Peddie’s versions of Sappho are both hard-edged and personal; they are full of meetings, as are Eliot’s poems, and partings as both poet and reader ‘seem to our / selves in two / minds’.

Ian Brinton 6th January 2016

The Time We Turned by Martyn Crucefix (Shearsman Chapbooks)

The Time We Turned by Martyn Crucefix (Shearsman Chapbooks)

In Mary Lavin’s short story ‘The Widow’s Son’ a woman waits outside her gate for her son to come home from school. A passing neighbour stops and comments upon the steepness of the hill next to the farmhouse and suggests that it is a feature of such prominence that it will be found on the Ordnance Survey map:

“If that’s the case,” said the widow, “Patrick will be able to tell you all about it. When it isn’t a book he has in his hand it’s a map.”
“Is that so?” said the man. “That’s interesting. A map is a great thing. A map is not an ordinary thing. It isn’t everyone can make out a map.”

The conversation is central to the story because the widow is incapable of seeing ahead; she is incapable of recognising how her bullying manner in bringing up her son will lead to her losing him. Maps not only refer to the way places relate to each other; they also bring back memories and arouse expectations. They reveal a sense of how we relate to the world around us.

In his powerful poem ‘The map house’, the opening piece in the volume The Time We Turned (Shearsman Chapbook, 2014), Martyn Crucefix presents us with a delicate and moving understanding of how maps and memory intertwine.

‘When I knew him I knew him in the city
then in this northern town

there he was walking towards me
still balding aggressively though slate-grey tufts

and corkscrews the colour of the skies
on that morning above the fells

proliferated over and round his ears—
there beside him the son I’d never seen

though by then he was already six years old
and that morning already two Easters ago

The man recalled! The opening statement in the past tense, emphasised by the placing of ‘then’ as the first word of the second line, gives way to movement as ‘was’ is juxtaposed with the present participle, ‘walking’. The looming reconstruction has a cinematic effect with the phrase ‘towards me’ and the vista widens to include ‘the son I’d never seen’. An elegiac tone is introduced with the sense of a particular moment of the past being high-lighted with the distance of ‘then’ giving way to ‘that morning’ and the poet’s removedness from the picture, the map, is offered to us with the finality of ‘already two Easters ago.’
The second section of the poem gives us the context for the thoughts which have returned now although the poet lost touch with his friend. The owner of the temporary accommodation in which the poet sits has ‘decked’ (note the association with oceans of travel) the house ‘with maps of all kinds / both upstairs and down’. In looking at these maps Crucefix discovers what Philippe Jaccottet was to term an ‘ouverture’: a rent in the world, an opening through which the past becomes immediate once more:

‘One of those evenings we met in the city
he confessed his love of the thrill

of standing on the ground floor of Stanfords
on Long Acre of being surrounded

by maps and globes and charts in books’

The shop in Covent Garden, on Long Acre, merges the rural and the urban in its placing and the poet remembers that what really excited his friend about maps was not to do with dimensions (‘the length or breadth of a map’) but with its ‘other hidden dimension…something always there if you look for it’.
This is a serious elegy and its conclusion points to a dimension which goes far beyond the particular:

‘I’d want to tell it right—some obscurely-
inherited sense of debt or what promise is it
we make to those we hardly see for years—

I’d want to say it was past seven o’clock
or perhaps by then even seven-fifteen—

I’m sure of it now—a quarter past the hour
was the time we turned and part of what it meant’

The tone of voice is that of W.S. Graham’s ‘The Thermal Stair’. But as I re-read the poem for the third time what came most to my mind was a letter written in 1842 describing Matthew Arnold’s reaction to the death of his father, Thomas, the famous Headmaster of Rugby School:

‘Matthew spoke of one thing which seemed to me very natural and affecting: that the first thing which struck him when he saw the body was the thought that their sole source of information was gone, that all that they had ever known was contained in that lifeless head. They had consulted him so entirely on everything, and the strange feeling of their being cut off for ever one can well imagine.’

The Time We Turned
is a chapbook of ‘New Poems’ and it contains a sequence of sixteen sonnets inspired by the writing of the Galician Rosalia de Castro and, as the blurb on the back of this lovely little book states, these sonnets ‘explore the way in which we inhabit time’. I urge you to get hold of this little thirty-page volume: you will return to it time and time again.

Ian Brinton 2nd December 2015

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