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Astéronymes by Claire Trévien (Penned in the Margins)

Astéronymes by Claire Trévien (Penned in the Margins)

In July 1979 Charles Tomlinson composed ‘The Flood’ recording the night which first took away ‘My trust in stone’. The waters which invaded the Tomlinson’s home at Ozleworth filled in the spaces as opposed to delineating them and the poet vainly erected structures to channel the water back to its origins:

‘……………………..I dragged
Sacks, full of a mush of soil
Dug in the rain, and bagged each threshold.’

However, for some types of flood these measures are ineffectual and the poet who had tried on D.H. Lawrence’s hat when he was staying at Kiowa Ranch in New Mexico might have recalled a moment from one of that earlier writer’s essays:

‘The individual is like a deep pool, or tarn, in the mountains, fed from beneath by unseen springs, and having no obvious inlet or outlet.’
(‘Love was once a little boy’)

What Tomlinson discovered as his trust in stone was questioned was that there appeared to him a ‘vertigo of sunbeams’ reflected off the water onto the ceiling next morning. No surface was safe from swaying and that seeming permanence of the immovable appeared as ‘malleable as clay’.
The intriguing and magical world of Claire Trévien’s poems has a playfulness about it as the stone circles of Britain, Ireland, and Brittany appear in company with the language of the internet. It leaves one with a sense of ‘shaking hands with a ghost’: ‘They say that each time you blink / a stone will hide behind another’. In this shifting reality ‘men cut / and paste, becoming slighter’ and the result is that ‘Their arms are full of peepholes’.
Another figure of twentieth-century poetry whose awareness of the transient nature of a stone’s stability was Ken Smith whose ‘The Stone Poems’ sequence brings before us ‘stone on the move’:

‘Some arrive strangely by night
or happen as comets do. In New England
frost forces them out….

And some lie continually
in the field’s road
finding their ways back
into bleak malevolent creatures
wanting to sit in open fields.’

In Trévien’s world ‘Some places rehearse the same / landscape over and over’ and ‘Stromatolites / timehop to the Precambrian’. These stone beds suggest permanence but the poet scrolls ‘through the same living skin’ to ‘find your comments ossified’. I am left wondering about the tone of this last word: is there a questioning offered to Richard Fortey, author of Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants that Life has Left Behind, which might suggest that the book itself is by no means as permanent as its detailed title might lead one to imagine? As Trévien suggests ‘Tracks are left for the next / caretaker’: those marks may be fossil tracks but ‘We used to think / the earth was as old as a cooling-off period’ and now ‘I’ve changed my mind’. The delicate humour behind these shifting perspectives is playfully endorsed by a technique which the poet refers to in her ‘Notes’ at the end of the volume:

‘Several of the poems have been created using a technique I’ve not found a name for, which involves taking a word, slicing it in two and placing it on either end of the line.’

In ‘Expiry Date’, the poem dedicated to Richard Fortey, the first line reveals itself as opening with ‘Some’ and closing with ‘same’; the seeming permanence of selection and repetition is emphasised for us with the opening two letters and the two which close the line. The eighth line is more mischievous as the opening two letters give us ‘ha’ (‘have….’) and the closing two are ‘ts’ (‘…lists’).
The six poems which make up the ‘Arran Sequence’ weave a witty dance with these ideas of form:

‘Start on the first page, the scone-
coloured path to the croft’s collapsed slates.’

The reminder of ‘St…one’ is softly juxtaposed with the steady workings of time and those collapsed slates prefigure an image of ‘fern tentacles’ which

‘steer through bricks, a chimney of nettles gone
dry…’

As the boundaries of Time move around…the ‘Track Changes’ and cars which park ‘on the hardboiled / tarmac’ do not know ‘how quickly it’ll give out’ to leave us ‘footnoted history and an unwritten dance’.
Basil Bunting’s elegiac firmness of statement from the first section of ‘Briggflatts’ is seen as soluble. When he wrote that ‘Pens are too light. / Take a chisel to write’ he was asserting a permanence which is cast now into a different perspective. Tomlinson found stone too unyielding for a poet taking stock of himself and within his Gloucestershire Noah’s Ark in 1979 he found a new way of seeing, quiet in tone, waiting patiently ‘upon the weather’s mercies’. I think that he would have admired and valued these new poems by Claire Trévien.

Ian Brinton 8th August 2016

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Meridian by Nancy Gaffield (Oystercatcher Press)

Meridian by Nancy Gaffield (Oystercatcher Press)

Peter Riley’s comment on the back of this new Oystercatcher delight from Nancy Gaffield points us in the right direction:

‘Each book by Nancy Gaffield seems a new venture—not a new poet, for there is considerable continuity of her way with words, but rather a new way of projecting the text, a new ancestry, and a new form of engagement with the reader’.

1. ‘A new venture’

An aphetic version from late Middle-English of ‘adventure’: a risky undertaking, a journey the conclusion to which is unknown. Nancy Gaffield’s ‘new venture’ starts with both literature and geography, the self and the place. The opening section offers a quotation from Lorine Niedecker’s ‘North Central’. This short piece of aphoristic poetry looks outward as the opening of both writing and a journey: ‘For best work / you ought to put forth / some effort / to stand / in north woods / among birch’. First published in Cid Corman’s Third Series of Origin (July 1966) the American tone is immediately set for this discovery of a British meridian: the Niedecker quotation is closely followed by a reference to Ordnance Survey Map 122 and a title ‘Peacehaven to Lewes’.

‘Everywhere there are signs / of the North / sudden turns / in weather / a fierceness / of light / trace landscapes / vacant lots / a pivotal place’

The poetry is placed on the page in the three-ply line so loved of Carlos Williams and I only don’t produce it like that on account of the fear that it will not appear correctly when placed on-line. Niedecker, Williams; and I recall writing about Gaffield’s Zyxt (Oystercatcher) last year and referring to Robert Duncan and Charles Olson.

2. ‘considerable continuity’

The continuity referred to by Peter Riley can be traced back to that previous Oystercatcher publication in which Gaffield said that ‘each poem is an exploration / of language in place’ following it with a reference to Gaston Bachelard’s assertion that ‘Inhabited space transcends geometrical space’. This new journey along a meridian takes the reader through those inhabited spaces: ‘vacant lots’, pivotal places, churchyards, epitaphs and fields which ‘lie fallow / waiting for the sun / waiting for the yoke.’ There is perhaps a new voice here as well, that of R.F. Langley whose early poem ‘Matthew Glover’ explored the ideas inherited from both Black Mountain College on the one hand and Carl Sauer on the other. Getting the outside world in has echoes of the advice offered by Olson to his Black Mountain student, Edward Dorn, to follow the model of history set down by Herodotus: ‘istorin, to find out for oneself; to absorb himself intensely and entirely in his subject, “to dig one thing” in a “saturation job” that might require a “lifetime of assiduity”. Carl Sauer was an example here: “to dig one thing or place or man” until the subject was exhausted, as Sauer had done with his early studies of the land and culture of the prairie, was to be “in forever”’. In Nancy Gaffield’s digging

‘Reliable markers include: long barrows, cairns, dolmens, ponds, springs,
wells, castles, churches, hill-forts, quarries, notches in hills, cross-roads. This
is a spatial practice.’

In Mircea Eliade’s 1959 book, The Sacred and the Profane the author suggests that a sacred place has a unique existential value for religious man, whereas for non-religious man space is neutral:
‘A universe comes to birth from its centre; it spreads from a central point that is, as it were, its navel…just as the universe unfolds from a centre and stretches out towards the four cardinal points, the village comes into existence around an intersection. In Bali…when a new village is to be built, the people look for a natural intersection, where two roads cross at right angles. A square constructed from a central point in an imago mundi. The division of the village into four sections…corresponds to the division of the universe into four horizons. A space is often left empty in the middle of the village; there the ceremonial house will later be built, with its roof symbolically representing heaven. At the other end of the same perpendicular axis lies the world of the dead.’

Along Nancy Gaffield’s meridian that human sense of place is sharply caught: it is there. Knowledge accumulates and ‘Landscape remembers’:

‘Danehill Anglo Saxon for swine pasture on the hill
is surrounded by woods
Cowstock Wood
Down Wood
Enholm’s Wood
High Wood
Withy Wood Sedge Wood
“thick and inaccessible” (the Venerable Bede)
Itineration a form of salvage’

3. ‘a new ancestry’

Nancy Gaffield is a reader of poetry as well as a walker of the landscape and one’s reading becomes a part of who one is. In this new volume we meet Helen Adam and John Clare, Walt Whitman and, perhaps, Philip Larkin’s sharp eye for the wreckage of the suburban:

‘The edges of arable land give way
to housing estates wasteland
this part of town
isn’t meant to be gawked at
newly-built business parks
abut abandoned warehouses
brownfield sites
ripe for development
in the distance the yelp of a dog’

It seems so entirely appropriate that the blurb for this excellent new Oystercatcher should have been written by Peter Riley whose own poem ‘From Romney Marsh’ recollected ‘my track across the land’.

Ian Brinton, 29th February 2016

Country Life by Ken Edwards (Unthank Books)

Country Life by Ken Edwards (Unthank Books)

This is a strange journey into a twilight world of sea and land and ‘We may observe two figures moving in this landscape of cold, dark matter’. The friendship between two young men, based upon mutual dependence and then betrayal, placed against a socio-political background of unrest, dominates Flaubert’s great novel L’Éducation Sentimental. Having found its first contemporary counterpart in Julian Barnes’s Metroland it now finds its second in Ken Edwards’ humorous and moving account of youthful idealism in Country Life. The geographical landscape shifts between a coastal country which has echoes of Dungeness and city life, as Flaubert’s contrasted the world of the upper Seine and the Paris of the 1848 revolution.
In Ken Edwards’ narrative one dominant image is that of the nuclear power station:

‘South of the glory that is the illuminated nuclear power station, lies the Peninsula, a tiny settlement beginning to glow in the shadow of a Sunday evening, under the cold, dark mass of the sea.’

That little word ‘glow’ is mischievously uncomfortable as the world of nuclear power is juxtaposed with the homing sense of lighted rooms with their illusive hint of safety. As the two figures, Dennis and Tarquin, move towards the aptly-named pub ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ they discuss relative positions:

‘The question is, says the big lad with the spiky hair and glittering glasses, where are you in the human food chain? It’s that savage.
He has been talking non-stop since they came out to walk on the strand, here at the end of the world. The talk has been of human handwidth, negative space, power structures.’

Tarquin, the non-stop talker, gives the younger Dennis (a budding musician who is working on World Music Parts 1-25, ‘based on rhythmic patterns’ given off by the surroundings) a lesson in political hierarchies. After all, Tarquin has just finished a 550-page book on Neo-Marxist Aesthetics and the Marketing of the Moment:

‘Like, in the human food chain you might say, the fucking bosses, captains of industry as they used to call them—these days, CEOs of mega-corporations, or chairmen or persons or big-shot shareholders or hedge fund investors, you know what I mean, the Great White Sharks…’.

At the bottom of the food chain, according to the political wisdom of Tarquin, are the tiny ones which are eaten by everything else: krill.

‘Yeah, that’s right, krill. Food for everything else. you understand what I’m saying? that’s the kind of capitalist society we have. At the bottom of the food chain.
Right, says Dennis.
At the bottom. Then you’re fucking krill, man!’

This is an eerie world where the style of Paul Auster meets that of Douglas Woolf: the landscape, brutality and barely submerged violence conjures up the world of Auster’s The Country of Last Things while the quiet but determined humour of domestic engagement brings to mind Doug Woolf’s Ya! in which a father finds his daughter and they both roll out into the darkness. As his daughter, Joan, says “This is wild”, Al replies with a clear sense of what is important, “Yes, it is”. In Country Life an elderly woman clutching a plastic supermarket bag carrying the hopeful logo SAVERS PARADISE weeps quietly because she doesn’t know where she is. When asked by Tarquin and Dennis if she is from round here she nods “Yes, I…don’t know where. I am.” That full-stop after ‘where’ is something to hang on to. She thinks that she lives on the mainland, on an estate, and she thinks that she went to a hospital last week to see her dying husband who has ‘been resting in his grave all these years, the poor dear’. With that glimmer of recognition known only perhaps to the lost she says of her ‘home’ “I’ll know it when I see it…I came out too far.”
This is a world turned upside down with an amphibious life drifting along, a world in which the nuclear reactor ‘will produce enough controlled energy to satisfy the electricity needs of the entire region’:

‘Large magnetised rotors turn inside thick copper coils to generate the electricity that is fed to the grid. Turning each rotor is a large turbine. High pressure steam drives its blades and the rotor revolves inside the copper coils to produce the electricity. Each morning, central heating system boilers will be triggered by time-switches, kettles will be plugged in, radios and TVs will be switched on. The people will wake from their individual dreams, and re-enter a collective dream.’

Country Life has echoes of J.H. Prynne’s Kitchen Poems in which ‘we all share the same head, our shoulders / are denied by the nuptial joys of television, so that what I am is a special case of / what we want, the twist point missed exactly / at the nation’s scrawny neck’. And it draws to a close with a poetry reading given by Tom Raworth in a venue that one could be forgiven for thinking resembles the Lamb in Lamb’s Conduit.

This novel is wonderfully funny in places and it allows the reader to produce his or her own key to characters that play out their roles on a stage of such poignant shifting moments.

Ian Brinton 16th February 2016

Excess Measures by Adrian Clarke (Veer Books)

Excess Measures by Adrian Clarke (Veer Books)

As I sat down this morning to read this little book I became engrossed by the mixture of urgency and outrage which threads it way through the linguistic labyrinth of Poetry and University, Creative Writing and Consumerism. The book is a delight!
In the opening section, SO WHAT, extradition to a poem sequence, we move from Godard to Bruce Andrews—I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism)—from Schloss on Joyce to Prynne on ‘performance poetry’. Interleaving its path through the outrage and humour we are confronted by some extremely disturbing ideas which cannot be easily dismissed:

‘So is what I say something else? or is that what I do? As for a common language, if you really believe it’s enriching itself at an ever-increasing rate, it’s in willful ignorance: overall, variety of and within languages—mine included here?—is withering fast. Basic English dropped the adjective. And buzz words and argots usefully alter no-one’s perception of anything with the redundancy of their faddish affectedness and phony exoticism.’

The echo of Syme’s work on the Dictionary in 1984 (‘It’s a beautiful thing, the Destruction of words.’) is uncomfortably close and it is followed by the sort of self-questioning which is increasingly necessary in the global political arena:

‘There’s a social orchestration of me-meaning in which the “me” is still usually white, at least as rich as Croesus in an African villager’s eyes and mindful of its moral duty to trade any pretender to a share in the action off the planet’s face. You don’t need the subjunctive for that.’

In terms of what goes on within the world of universities it is refreshing to read about the ‘Communities of poets’ who ‘risk becoming marketing strategies before or after the event.’ And, of course, those marketing strategies lead right on to the awarding of prizes. Judith Palmer, director of the Poetry Society, is quoted from The Guardian concerning the fact that prizes have a role in the marketplace:

‘Within the arts, the measurability, the ability to make excellence quantifiable and defined has become much more important. So you’re trying to offer your arts funders evidence that you have met key performance indicators of excellence’.

Aaagh! I detect a word like ‘Impact’ lurking beneath this maelstrom.

However, just as you might consider the author of this window-smashing little pebble to be simply of the side of some brave new world we read the following:

‘Tangentially, J.H. Prynne thinks that the printed poem’s sound is donated by the language—or rather “a distinct sub-variant of the generic phonology of a specific language”—and nothing is added by “performance of poems in their author’s own voice”—an attitude I might be inclined to characterize as anal-retentive if I could take Freud seriously. The poetic text may be more than a musical score, but, when available, it would be stupid to ignore the information from its creator’s performance of its rhythms, tempi, volumes, emphases and pauses’.

Very recently a retired university Professor commented to me that in his opinion Prynne spoke different languages. He wasn’t referring to German, French, Old Norse or Mandarin but to the different registers which the poet uses, a register that includes a rich sense of humour. My response to this very reasonable suggestion was to include words like Plantagenet Palliser, Christopher Tietjens and Jonathan Swift. And so when Adrian Clarke concludes his sideswipe against Prynne by adding ‘as I’ve observed elsewhere, unignorable poet though he be, it’s hard imagining any question of a debt to pleasure when Mr Prynne is auditing the books’ I find myself reminded time and again of the humour behind those shifts of register referred to by that Professor. They come to mind as cool as a mountain stream.

This is a most refreshing book and it should be looked at by all first-year undergraduates and by Vice-Chancellors. When I had finished that twelve page introductory piece I turned to the poem ‘After Oppen’ and delighted in the shrewd understanding Clarke has of the American Objectivist’s style:

‘sensed at
their limits
numerous means
rootless wanting
a language
a state
of matter
the city
would appropriate
to know
ourselves in
its reflection
a light
for the
times rolled
over before
the mineral
fact’

The gentle humour behind pastiche suggests that it certainly is the ‘road of excess’ that leads to the ‘palace of wisdom’. Thank you, Adrian, I shall return to this book again. After all, I want that word ‘Excess’ as a noun as well as an adjective!

Ian Brinton 22nd September 2015

Frances and Martine by Hilda Sheehan (dancing girl press, 2014)

Frances and Martine by Hilda Sheehan (dancing girl press, 2014)

Hilda Sheehan’s follow-up to her first collection, The Night My Sister Went to Hollywood (Cultured Llama, 2013) develops the domestic imagery of earlier work into a sequence of short prose poems based on the relationship between two female characters who share their home together. Part of the dancing girl press limited edition chapbook series, Frances and Martine, resplendent with drawings by Jill Carter, more than adequately fills the series remit of being work that is fresh, innovative and exciting.

Frances and Martine effortlessly combines magical realism with absurdist humour in sharply defined prose poem vignettes. Written retrospectively, in a matter of fact manner, the narrative employs short precise sentences without recourse to excessive baggage. The poems are cut to the grin.

The Arm

Martine had an arm off. Frances was worried. How would
Martine ever get repaired? She was never a looker, as it
was, and relied on her second arm to make up for her lack
of beauty. How will you ever get repaired Martine?
Or get a man, or another job without it? I have two legs
and I can cook. You can’t cook, not without your
second arm, because you will never control onions or slice
carrots. You are much less with one arm. I will get
something that one-armed women can do and I never planned
to marry. You are now enormously difficult, Martine, not
owning up to the disability one armed ugly women face.

The sequence works through to its exact use of domestic detail and what is not said. By withholding information the reader excitedly reads on for the next instalment of the odd couple. It is a form of the magical prose poetry, as recently developed by poets such as, Luke Kennard, Linda Black and Ian Seed. After ‘The Arm’, first published in Shearsman, comes ‘The Goose’, first published in Tears in the Fence 58:

Frances bought a goose. When she got it home she discovered
it was far too small for her. I can’t take it back, this
was the biggest goose in the shop, she told Martine. What
would that say about my weight gain? Just wear the beak,
suggested Martine. I don’t wear beak, not without the whole
goose body. Then eat the thing. I can’t eat goose! That
would be like eating my dog. Does the dog still fit you?
That’s not the point. It wouldn’t be right. Are you sure
they haven’t sold you a chicken? It looks a bit small to be
a goose. Or is it a size 10 duck?

The use of unadorned domestic detail deceptively ground the prose poems in a well known setting to produce a sense of identification which, with its deadpan ordinariness, produces the laughter. The prose poems are joyously funny whilst simultaneously discussing disability, animal rights, racism, size, the menopause, love, female relationships and other issues. It is comic writing with bite and the collection repays rereading.

David Caddy 5th November 2014

Back Channel Apraxia by Juha Virtanen

Back Channel Apraxia by Juha Virtanen

(Contraband 2014)

‘It is the imagination’s peculiar function to admit, draw sustenance from, and celebrate the ontological priority of this outside world, by creating entities which subsequently become a part of the world, an addition to it. Hence the tensions between metre and rhythm, between credibility and dramatic cogency, in fact the stringencies of artifice and discipline generally which constitute the dimensions within which the imagination is realised and becomes intelligible, embody both the process and its difficulties, and the resistances proper to its substance. Just as for Marcel and Merleau-Ponty the existence of my body, as mine, bridges the gap between my consciousness and the world, so the substantial medium of the artist and the autonomy of his creation establish the priority of the world while at the same time making it accessible.’

J.H. Prynne’s essay on ‘Resistance and Difficulty’ appeared in issue number 5 of the Cambridge magazine Prospect during the winter of 1961. Interestingly Prynne wrote a letter to Charles Tomlinson in May of that year in which he commented upon what he saw as Charles Olson’s poetry being almost entirely lost to the world of self sufficient forms ‘where a disciplined emotion can command our insight without insisting on a participating involvement in the final construction.’ In this early critical stance one can feel the journey here away from self and on to a sea of language, or what Prynne would later refer to as a ‘great aquarium of language’ in which the ‘light refracts variously and can bounce by inclinations not previously observed.’

To read Juha Virtanen’s sequence of three separate, but intriguingly inter-referring, texts in this new publication from Contraband is to be immersed in a sea of language: a welter of textual presentation in which we bump up against diagrammatic forces and photographs in which words emerge on the seemingly fluid surface of the printed page. It is a journey, eerie and uncomfortable; a geography in which ‘Multiple fractal types: tectonic sig- / natures familiar as disintegrations / into subatomic matter’ place us in an environment of inherited language structures which are themselves splitting and re-forming. I urge readers to get aboard the ship and ‘set keel to breakers’ in order to be faced with ‘oligarch authority underneath // going under chemical change // exerted on the bodies by the // agents to enact with within // history as much in shadows // as with substance the engine // outside was outlined by rot’.

Nor is this floating language a ‘cruising yawl’ which swings ‘to her anchor’. There is no Marlow here to face the Accountant or the Lawyer, a guide to show us the heart of darkness and we recognise all-too-well the fracturing of language to which we are day-by-day exposed.

‘Fixed organ safaris mapped on the signal box now
convulsive as velocity in Kevlar ring fence formed
at the openings the sutures were such a wealthy dis-
play.’

The bullet-proof vest and the surgical strike are both show and fun: war-games for the wealthy, wounds for the healthy.

On the Contraband website, where you can buy this high-charge poem in three sections, Allen Fisher writes

Back Channel Apraxia has three distinct sections. ‘Some of its Parts’, the first, immediately engages the reader through graphic text shifts, interruptions, and at once thought-through and heart-felt resistance to a range of planetary and local conditions. The section is followed by ‘Orathera’, a textual immersion in which the verbal DNA sinks in and out of view. The last section, ‘10,000! YRS’, brings a high octane vocabulary, or many vocabularies, wonderful collisions and then openings through constructed clarities. The book has an eloquence that shudders.”

Ian Brinton 1st October 2014

Tears in the Fence Festival

Tears in the Fence Festival

Tears in the Fence is delighted to announce that we will be holding a Festival, in celebration of the magazine’s Thirtieth Anniversary, at the White Horse, Stourpaine, on 24-26 October 2014. There will be readings, talks, discussion, bookstalls and displays, a Festival Supper, music from No Fixed Abode and open readings in a large Marquee situated next to the White Horse. Among the speakers will be Ian Brinton, Sarah Crewe, Jennifer K. Dick, Carrie Etter, John Freeman, Cora Greenhill, Lucy Hamilton, Jeff Hilson, Peter Hughes, Norman Jope, Dorothy Lehane, Pansy Maurer-Alvarez, Chris McCabe and Steve Spence. Others will be announced in due course.

We will also be celebrating Dylan Thomas’s centenary, and looking at future poetic developments. The pub will be open all day for refreshments from Friday morning onwards. The spirit of the Festival will be in the tradition of the international Wessex Poetry Festivals 1995-2001 and it is hoped that this event will lead to a new series of annual Festivals.

We will be running a bookstall throughout the weekend. Please bring your books, pamphlets and magazines. There will be two sessions of open readings during the Festival. Please book a slot.

Advance weekend tickets are £50, including the Festival Supper from a choice of meals on Saturday evening. Please send a cheque, made out to Tears in the Fence Festival, to David Caddy, Portman Lodge, Durweston, Blandford Forum, Dorset DT11 0QA.

It is also possible to pay directly through BACS:
Bank: HSBC
Account name: Tears in the Fence Festival / ‘TITFF’
Sort Code: 40-46-37
Account number: 31501534

A full Festival programme will be announced shortly. There will be regular updates to the website’s Festival page.

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