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Islands of Voices: Selected Poems of Douglas Oliver edited Ian Brinton (Shearsman Books)

Islands of Voices: Selected Poems of Douglas Oliver edited Ian Brinton (Shearsman Books)

The eight titles of Douglas Oliver’s works included by Ian Brinton are supported with a preface by Joe Luna and introduction by the editor along with eight pages of notes at the end of this 180 page book. The inclusions by Joe Luna and Ian Brinton make clear Douglas Oliver’s stance towards poetry as indeed does reading his poems.

         The poet’s inward conversations held within poems being the very thing with which he wants to confront possible readers: the immediacy of language acting in the moment of experience and in the reported experience, each being reliant on the other. Clear indication of this evident in:

                  ‘Oh you are born already!’ cries the English mother

                  in pained surprise to her hanging baby,

                  as though the finished phrase

                  has slipped, unfinished, out of anguish

                  still continuing, into its adventures.

                                                               ‘Beyond active and passive’

and strongly so, in:

                  … The moment we will speak has

                  already happened: it waits

                  in the silence of the subterranean hall

                  as meaning stumbles downstairs to articulation.

                                                               ‘The earthen stairs’

There is no escaping the disruptive syntax, especially in poems from ‘Oppo Hectic’ and ‘The Diagram Poems’ but then poetic articulation has its tradition in ‘strange and wonderful language’ (Aristotle), in order to estrange itself from normalcy. The core concern of defamiliarisation as outlined in Viktor Shklovsky’s essay, ‘Art as Technique’, is that language should be non-normative

so that the author creates a vision from de-automized perceptions.

Certainly Douglas Oliver’s earlier poems invite such a step into them, not to understand, but to believe them. Once done the presumptions of comprehension give way to other experiences.

                  Kindness acts idly or unnaturally,

                  leads you into fear. Act in kind.

                  Kindness makes you idle, worse, unnatural.

                  Don’t be afraid of the darkness of kind;

                  for it’s the birth of darkness, vertical twist

                  of opening lips in the night:

                                                               ‘For Kind

However not all the poems are difficult but most are arresting:

                  …on their marital bed she, the Haitian

                  changed his skin sympathies, unshackled his stiff pelvis

                  by mounting him, squirting black womanly sperm into him,

                  remaking his mind and his tongue while he was still

                  asleep, new conceptions warm and liquid in his pelvis.

                  The opening of eyes, changing of person, exchange of sexes,

                  Black for White, We for They, Woman on Top, all this is

                                                               ‘Penniless Politics’

That book ‘Penniless Politics’ advanced the notion of a people’s political party in the multicultural Lower East Side of New York and, as with the sweep of his writing, politics and social comment was its fuel – that and the manner in which it was sourced from his personal life.

                                                         … for my father

                  now spoke, in death still a typical Scot:

                  ‘Please yourself with all this palaver

                  about Socialism; the cemetery is certainly not

                  a Tory stronghold. The truth is, I’d rather

                  your Socialism shone with your past; you’re not shot

                  of that fatherly honesty,  walk humbly but

                  remember your innocent days; who refuses

                  his childhood’s a booby – and I haven’t forgot

                  your politics, with its blindness and pearly roses.’

                                                               ‘The Infant and the Pearl’

There is a quantity of information regarding Douglas Oliver and that’s good – it is very good and purposeful. What I hope to have achieved in this review is to set out the push in the publication of Islands of Voices.

         Ian Brinton has selected poems by Douglas Oliver that he considers should be read. There is no getting away from this. His selection is generous and scopes the poet’s life, to wit (and it’s quoted in Ian Brinton’s introduction) Douglas Oliver said, ‘A poet’s full performance is the whole life’s work; …’

Some of it is here and Ian Brinton instigates a reading of it all.        Yes.

Ric Hool 29th May 2021

When It’s Called Not Making Love by Karen Jones (Ad Hoc Fiction)

When It’s Called Not Making Love by Karen Jones (Ad Hoc Fiction)

Karen Jones’s heartbreaking flash fiction collection, When It’s Called Not Making Love, is published by Ad Hoc Fiction which specializes in flash fiction authors and has published writers like Meg Pokrass, Diane Simons, and Jude Higgens. Jones’s collection takes a look at adolescent and young adult sexuality from the point of view of Bernadette, someone who is on the outside because she is considered overweight and just a little different. Jones is a master of point-of-view and draws us into Bernadette’s interior life allowing us to live in the awkward body of someone who wants and needs love but does not know exactly how to engage meaningfully with other people. It is an exceptional collection showing how people are at the same time used and rejected sexually and what that does to the psyche.

The most powerful flash piece for me was the final and titular story. In it, we are given three moments with three young men who have sex with Bernadette from behind, so they do not have to look her in the eye. They brag of the numbers of their sexual conquests, and she tells each they are her first in an attempt to elicit a stronger emotional reaction from them. The problem is in the way that these boys look at her and in how she sees herself as undeserving or incapable of having a fulfilling emotional experience involving sex. It ends with the line, “Maybe someday another boy would like her enough to look her in the eye while he fucked her. Maybe she’d even call it making love” (38). The difference between making love and getting fucked is the key concept of the story and collection. Bernadette does not seem to know how to achieve love, so she settles for what she can get. Of course, this is the key problem for many of us when we are young and are just trying love out. She captures that problem so well, and she had me musing about my own youthful fumblings toward emotion.

Her awkwardness in her own body is her defining characteristic in her world. Early in the collection, she begins a friendship with a girl named Jenny, whom everyone thinks is superior. Her grandmother tells the main character, “‘She’s half the size of you and twice as smart  . . . And so pretty. Why can’t you have silky hair like hers? Why are you such a lump of a girl, Bernadette?’” (3). This is a social condition that we are all aware of, but Jones does an exceptional job of drawing out what it means to be a human being who is seen as an insufficient accessory. This expectation that she is Jenny’s accessory and a bad one at that drives her early sexual encounters where she is often offered sexually to a friend so that Jenny can get the boy or the experience she wants. She is abused and neglected. She is a person capable of exceptional emotional range and she is denied the chance to have those emotions.

When It’s Called Not Making Love captures so well the pain of young people who want a kind of physical perfection and think they will never have it. It also captures the trap of thinking of this world in terms of perfection and imperfection.

John Brantingham 29th March 2021

Pin Ups by Yi Shun Lai (Little Bound Books)

Pin Ups by Yi Shun Lai (Little Bound Books)

Yi Shun Lai, author of Not A Self Help Book and weekly columnist in Writer magazine, is a New Yorker who honed her craft writing for the J. Peterman catalog. Yes, that J. Peterman. So, on face value, it might be surprising that her latest book recounts a grueling journey into the world of outdoor adventure sports. However, the brisk, 46 page, Pin Ups is exactly that, a portrait of the author’s sporting experience. It begins with a childhood fascination with BMX racing, progresses through skiing, hiking, and windsurfing, and finally culminates with her love for adventure racing. However, while Yi Shun’s passion for the outdoors radiates from the page, at its core, Pin Ups also presents a more personal and universally relatable story, the quest to discover one’s identity.
The memoir opens with Yi Shun’s childhood where, like many of us, her search for meaning relies upon the emulation of media figures. In her youth, her mother supplied her with copies of Teen magazine in an attempt to sway Yi Shun into more traditionally feminine interests. Instead, she perused them and cut out articles on BMX biking and football, already drawn to outdoor sports, but participating vicariously through the girls on the page.
Later, throughout college and living in Manhattan, she attached her identity to the activities of the men she dated. With each new relationship came a new fascination, from volleyball to windsurfing to mountain biking, each discovery a step further to an understanding of herself. However, none of these pursuits inspired a genuine passion. Still, Yi Shun continued to stay active. In her words, “When you are hungry, you’ll eat anything.”
Her journey comes to a climax when, through camaraderie with other women, she discovers adventure racing. It is a teamwork centric, outdoor sport that involves a variety of activities, including mountain biking, trail running, paddling, and rock climbing. Through adventure racing and the people she meets both on and off the trail, Yi Shun comes to embrace herself as a woman, a minority, and an athlete.
Naturally, finding oneself comes with the acceptance of some ugly truths. Yi Shun experiences a classic, dreaded moment, the oh god, my parents were right. During a trip to Carmel, California, she enjoys the quaint, diverse area and considers moving there. In this moment, Yi Shun is distressed to realize that her mother had been correct. She enjoys the traditionally comfortable, upwardly mobile lifestyle. However, Yi Shun takes this jarring realization in stride, as we all should when moments of sudden development strike. Through work and family, she finds the way to balance her want for comfort with her yearning for the dirt and the danger of the outdoors. Such a response is admirable and should be looked upon as an example of how to embrace the uncomfortable realizations that accompany personal growth.

In the most tender and moving passage, she recalls herself walking through Manhattan on a particularly windy day when she spots the shadow of a woman.
“”(She was) Brisk and efficient, collar popped against the wind, making her way around the corner. “Hm,” I thought to myself, echoes of my father’s sentiment creeping through my brain, “that’s the kind of woman I want to grow up to be.” It was a split second before I realized that the shadow belonged to me.””

Fully realized, brisk in pace, and deep in meaning, Pin Ups is a motivational and thought provoking piece reminiscent of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild or Laura Bell’s Claiming Ground. Yi Shun has crafted a book that is essential for anyone who feels a calling for outdoor competition or who has ever wondered what it really means to be themselves in this complicated world.

Little Bound Books has also published work by L.M. Browning, Heidi Barr, and Will Falk.

Andrew Hughes 2nd February 2021

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Faber & Faber)

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Faber & Faber)

Much has been written and said about Natalie Diaz’s second collection, Postcolonial Love Poem. It is an extraordinary and complex book that discusses among many other things the long history of oppression in the United States of the Mojave people and the legacy of that oppression. As a nature poet however, I would like to focus on its power as a collection of nature poetry. Diaz discusses the function and power of water in California in a way that I have never seen it done before, directly addressing its importance to the person and the community and the casual way that we in the United States treat it.

            I live in an area called the Inland Empire just to the east and north of Los Angeles that is much warmer and drier than Los Angeles itself. My friend who works for the water district tells me that typically a drop of water that lands in the mountains near my house will pass through three people before it reaches the ocean. It must be processed and reprocessed if we are to keep up with water supply demands. Diaz lives even farther inland where there is much less water.

            There are people in inland California that treat water casually and do not understand its importance, and Diaz’s poetry illuminates the threats to it and its importance. In “The First Water Is the Body,” She writes, “The Colorado River is the most endangered river in the United States — also, it is a part of my body . . . We carry the river, its body of water, in our body” (46-47). Here, she illustrates the connection of river and person. In a real way, the two are not just interconnected. They are one. A river is not just the riverbed, but the entire watershed of a region, and humans, who carry that water are a part of the watershed, so much so, that the water district considered the people in the Inland Empire are considered a resevoir themselves. We often forget this, but here and throughout the collection, draws our attention to the fact again and again.

            Having established the importance of all rivers to human existence and experience, Diaz then demonstrates how badly Americans treat all of their rivers. Perhaps, she does this most powerfully in “exhibits from The American Water Museum ” when she discusses the tragedy of Flint, Michigan where ill-conceived cost-saving measures ended up with lead being introduced into the drinking water. Though this happened years ago, the lead levels have been diminishing at a frustratingly slow pace, and people are not sure what effect this will have on the children of the area. Diaz uses the callous treatment of the people who live there as emblematic of the way water is treated throughout the United States. She writes of those children as she imagines a diorama in her Water Museum, “Now the children lie flat on the floor of the diorama, like they are sleeping, open-eyed to the sight, to what they have seen through their mouths” (65).

            Diaz’s insight into the way the United States is destroying itself is tied to her postcolonial perspective. It is, of course, the marginalized communities who suffer most from environmental degredation because there is a false sense that some communities are in some way divorced from the natural world. Diaz illustrates how wrong and dangerous this notion is.

John Brantingham 26th January 2021

Five Ghost Stories by Dennis Callaci (Bamboo Dart Press)

Five Ghost Stories by Dennis Callaci (Bamboo Dart Press)

Dennis Callaci’s Five Ghost Stories is a book that I think could only have been written in quarantine. In five very short stories, Callaci explores the way that so many people’s interior worlds, or at least mine, have changed. This kind of exploration might have felt overwhelming. After all, we are still in the midst of the lockdown. However, it was refreshing. Fiction has the ability to let us know what we are not alone in the world, and that our pains and joys are shared. Callaci’s book did this for me.

I find myself often going into an interior space these days where I replay odd memories of my youth, meditating on things that I had forgotten but had a strange power when I was young. Callaci does so as well, developing a kind of David Sedaris approach to memory albeit intentionally without humor. So, in one of the stories, he writes a story of memory, two brothers putting together a model, the emotions of two children bent on finishing a project becoming all consuming. And that memory becomes powerful to the author and reader in the moment, reminding us that while the passions of youth might seem silly and strange now, when they were happening, they truly did matter to us. They were important and part of our formation. He discusses these early relationships with family members in all their complexity, laying out vignette memories and allowing us to draw out meaning for ourselves.

In ‘The Cemetery Calendar of Days,’ he creates a kind of alternative universe where a creeping disease and its political impact has created a world of tension where communities feel that they have to patrol to keep themselves apart from others. In doing so, he captures this current alienation that I am feeling as well. It’s not just that the characters in the story are self-isolating; it’s that they are creating a social climate that divides them even farther. This sense of alienation spills into the next story where the main character tries to help a woman the way his father used to help people. Her car has a flat tire, and he wants to change it for her, but she does not speak English, and he does not speak her language. She does not even roll down her windows for him though because our world is often terrifying, and she is frightened of him.

Five Ghost Stories reminded me often of the work of Meg Pokrass, flash fiction pieces that capture a moment in time and the emotion of it, and like Pokrass’s work, Callaci’s draws us into those moments to show us that what seems mundane truly does matter. 

John Brantingham 18th January 2021

Light-Fall by Lucy Ingrams (Flarestack Poets)

Light-Fall by Lucy Ingrams (Flarestack Poets)

Lucy Ingrams poems in Tears in the Fence 72 impressed readers with their slowed down attentiveness to the moment and invigorating language use. I was thus thrilled to discover her Light-Fall pamphlet from 2019 and to find more of her mindful poetry.

The opening poem, ‘Swimmer’, where the title is the last two words, with ‘fall’ occupying the last line alone, is worth the price of the pamphlet alone. 

The poem, like the best of Ingrams work, recalls the poetry of Lee Harwood and Elizabeth Bishop and yet is distinctly her own. This emerges through her confident use of space, lineation and punctuation. Note her use of brackets, hyphens, space and counter voice, within a sonically rich low pitched delivery.  The poem, written in the living present, in the manner of Harwood’s sea poems, such as ‘Salt Water’, slows the reader’s attention down to each modulated movement within a wide-eyed focus. The narrator’s eye hovers on a series of physical objects, with slight movements in declining light, so that their actions combine to draw in the movements of sea, breeze and light. The layout, sound and sense combine to produce a balanced and clear-sighted focus. The key is that the poem remains in the variable and active present and eschews any extraneous commentary. 

   the is and will-be of its

the single source   of everything

air, its bubble   coast, its run-off – petrified

world’s counterweight.   its balance-tip

(cloud, the shadows of its rougher swells)

sorted   with that

                 and you   back-stroking

                 next    a flotsam speck    floating

                 only at its pleasure

Ingrams is at her best when she takes risks and moves beyond the rigidity of mainstream poetry to explore and engage the reader with a wide-eyed focus and attention to subtle movements and responses. She has a quiet and strong narrative voice. 

I enjoyed revisiting the poem, ‘Signs’, previously published in the Nine Arches Press, Primers Volume One (2015), with its attention to time, hesitancy and doubt through its spatial use, and controlled form.

And whether you loved me   loved me not

would come with a letter    come with you

would come    would come with some sign

of which there was no sign    yet

Here each movement and change of attention matters in the present. Such poems live, are alive, and are cut through fresh language with moments of 

vividness.

red in the willow crowns    plum in the birch

patterns of gnats     looked for a language

larger than us     tremor of catkins

folds of a bud    for meaning like runes

harder than answers   length in the light

the over and over of wood pigeon music

Ingrams also registers time and its gradual movement from moment to moment in fading late, as one would expect from a poet concerned with being alive to the world and its surprises. ‘Blue Hour’, written in crisp couplets, ends ‘and I turn and my step in the wind-drop quiet / is a thread to tack night / to night.’ I love the precision of ‘wind-drop quiet’ and the dropping ‘to night’ on to the next line to register and emphasise time.

There are many other subtle, quite and well measured poems with slight changes of attention within a perceptual roundedness that suggests Ingrams is an emerging and accomplished poet to follow.

David Caddy 23rd November 2020

Life, Orange to Pear by John Brantingham (Bamboo Dart Press)

Life, Orange to Pear by John Brantingham (Bamboo Dart Press)

John Brantingham’s newest book, Life, Orange to Pear, begins and ends with fruit.

I’m not spoiling anything for you. It’s right there in the title. It’s also, surprise, about life–how it begins, ends, and everything in between. The simple act of eating fruit in the opening and closing scenes of this book poses the idea that we can find comfort in the simplest moments so long as we choose to look for it. This book proposes that we must appreciate simplicity while we, at the same time, grapple with complexity and existential terror.

Written in a casual, second-person voice, Orange to Pear follows the life and fatherhood of a very flawed but well-meaning part-time college professor and father who also happens to be a functioning alcoholic. Using this voice, this book argues that there are no easy solutions. Instead of groping for answers to the Problem of Evil, or whether we’re defined by our flaws, or how much we doom our children to repeat our lives, this story offers something else–an unadulterated, almost Christ-like empathy.

It also, however, demonstrates how even human beings with the best intentions can be ineffective, destructive, and self-sabotaging. How sometimes people will use any excuse to enact the destructive behaviors at their core. How passivity, over-intellectualizing, and destructive behavior masquerading as self-care can be paralyzing. That certain patterns of living leave a person completely adrift, wondering and hoping instead of acting. The narrator (and by extension the reader) is often left not knowing if he’s done his best. The story reaches a conclusion on this, and it’s carefully crafted, but I won’t summarize it. I can’t. Like many of the things that matter in this world, it can’t be retold, only experienced. One of the gifts of this book is that it revels in uncertainty while also being clear, direct, and brief. Brantingham captures what life is like moment-to-flawed-moment as we scrape (often unsuccessfully) for meaning, importance, and decency–and how painful, divine, and silly these moments can be.

The narrative centers around the flawed narrator’s connection to his daughter, Cyndi. As the story evolves, the uncertainty this man faces as his daughter, despite his every attempt to slow her down, grows up and then eventually outgrows him. This is the archetypal coming-of-age story from the unusual perspective of a broken parent–a man who drinks through breakfast, seems only marginally employed, and who never, ever, refers to his wife by her name. He makes mistakes in pursuit of what he thinks is right–and what he believes is right coincidentally serves to allow him to indulge himself.

At one point, he makes an indirect, not very collected attempt at confronting an acquaintance (who is proudly showing him the taxidermized foot of an elephant that has been made into furniture) about wealth inequality, gleefully burning an important social bridge for his wife:

And as you walk out your daughter beams at you for the first time in a long time and it makes you want to storm out, which you do, as well as anyone can storm and also stop off by the bar for one more glass of the good stuff.

He’s done the right thing. Maybe. He’s done it to earn the pride of his daughter, who finds the man abhorrent, but one can’t help but notice that he’s also getting another drink out of it. He’s–in the true mindset of an addict–earning another drink.

These characters have the simultaneously empathetic and pathetic qualities of Kurt Vonnegut characters. They’re whole, flawed, and alive in a way that lets us one feels their own aliveness. By the time you’ve reached the end of this book you hate the narrator. And you love him. You regret all of his mistakes and realize why they were so important. You wouldn’t undo them even if you could because you’ve found something divine in them.

Bamboo Dart Press are also publishing Dennis Callaci, Stephanie Barbé Hammer and Meg Pokrass in their fiction series.

Scott Noon Creley 11th November 2020

The Martian’s Regress by J.O. Morgan (Cape Poetry)

The Martian’s Regress by J.O. Morgan (Cape Poetry)

It’s the future. Earth, environmentally ruined and abandoned, has become the dead planet, and a martian – with the ‘m’ of species rather than the ‘M’ of locality – is sent back there by his unspecified supervisors to collect samples and seek for new life. 

Life on Mars itself isn’t great, as we learn bit by bit: the radiation, the pollen-storms, the food that’s basically mould, the terrible sex. And the culture is brutal: even martian fairytales and lullabies are grim and sadistic, and the planet’s Adam and Eve are vengeful, genocidal children. 

The martian, who’s small, fat and black, and his accompanying robot, who is tall, white and shaped with ‘overt femininities// all relics of an ancient era’, land and find a place to inhabit. They raid the shops and he goes out daily looking unsuccessfully for life. He casually destroys museum and cathedral artefacts, starts to think telephones are alive, and scatters the ‘prototype’ seeds from the university lab (causing further disaster). With Crusoe-ish irony, he thinks his own footprint is from another being and chases it round the world. Eventually, however, he finds a house with a functioning artificial garden capable of producing real food, abandons his sample jars and settles down to tillage. He puts the robot back into the rocket to go home, but ‘she’ deserts it before take-off, and the book’s end has them watching as the launch fails. 

This is all narrated – unusually for J O Morgan – in separate, titled poems, which build in a back-and-forth way into the story. It’s as deliberately anachronistic as At Maldon: sometimes Earth doesn’t seem all that long abandoned, while at other times ‘eons’ have apparently passed. It plays with our assumptions as to which poems are about Earth and which Mars. It exploits and ironizes the tropes of classic sf – colonisation, terraforming, fixed gender roles, the lone hero, the starward destiny of humanity. The big topics are all there: the utter loneliness of our planet(s) in space, the loneliness of individuals and the sheer stupidity of our environmental behaviour and of our faith in technological solutions; plus, for good ontological measure, our unlikely existence and our justifications of it: ‘if mere existence was itself a success’. 

It’s all done in a nicely-weighted free verse, powered with anaphora and polysyndeton, whose syntactical plainness and lack of obscurantisms makes it a speedy first-time read, although it needs (but merits) several iterations to tease out the narrative and pick up the full freight of the sour jokes about catastrophe. 

Have you swapped out the isotope scrubbers?

    Are the shoreline plastics waiting piously

    for their sublime incineration?

We’ve mapped out the stars to a depth of one third

    of the universe. We’ve ridden the gravity-quakes.

    We’ve noted how dingy it’s getting. 

The fish are gummed up with humectant.

    The crabs carry sandcastle shells.

    How long till the oceans are empty of all but their water?

We’ve unravelled the cryptogenera

    for all living things. We know the eye colour

    of prehistoric lice.

Sickening, depressing, violent, existentially bleak, and such great writing. 

Guy Russell 19th October 2020

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

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

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