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Whether by Alan Baker (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

Whether by Alan Baker (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

The critic G. Wilson Knight is perhaps best known for his work on Shakespeare: The Wheel of Fire, The Imperial Theme, The Crown of Life. However, he was also a great admirer of the novelist John Cowper Powys and wrote a short account of that underestimated Dorset giant, The Saturnian Quest. In Wilson Knight’s last book, Neglected Powers, he wrote about Powys as well as presenting us with a ninety page essay on ‘Poetry and magic’. In this essay he directed us towards chapter 14 of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria suggesting that ‘there is a reality being apprehended as surely as in ordinary sense-perception’. In that chapter Coleridge quotes from Sir John Davies’s 1599 poem ‘Of the Soule of Man’:

Doubtless this could not be, but that she turns
Bodies to spirit by sublimation strange,
As fire converts to fire the things it burns,
As we our food into our nature change.

From their gross matter she abstracts their forms,
And draws a kind of quintessence from things;
Which to her proper nature she transforms
To bear them light, on her celestial wings.

Thus does she, when from individual states
She doth abstract the universal kinds;
Which then re-clothed in divers names and fates
Steal access through our senses to our minds.

Wilson Knight commented on this: ‘Sublimation is a term from alchemy. Piercing through matter to essential forms, imagination grips what is universal, which is then re-clothed. The result is addressed to a new sense-perception, resembling yet transcending ordinary sense-perception.’
And then I turned to Alan Baker’s sequence of ‘Thirteen Spells Against Global Warming’, the second half of this fine little volume from last year with its intricate title that shifts from the conditional to the state of play, from ‘Whether’ to ‘weather’. I find these poems wonderfully eerie; they create a living world where the magical pierces through the mundane to tap on our windows.

‘Walk through rain
and dark
spitting leaves, cold
and here’s sleet.
Breath on the window
freezing frames
(what rhymes with breath?)
wind wails or is it squeals
and in silent rooms
curtains move by themselves.’

The sense of a living presence of the outside world, the non-human, is terrific here and it seems entirely appropriate that the poet should then take us to the world of Old English Charms and Gnomic Verses:

‘Shrink like water in a bucket.
Shrivel like coal on the hearth.’

The echo is of the Anglo-Saxon ‘Charm Against a Wen’:

‘Wen, wen wenlet little,
build not here nor find a home
but pass to the north to the next hill
and there discover your brother in pain.
He shall place a leaf on your face.
Under the wolf’s foot under the eagle’s wing
under the eagle’s claw grow into nothingness.
Collapse like a coal burnt in a hearth;
shrink like plaster in a ruined wall…’

In 1923 William Carlos Williams was convinced that ‘so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow’ and perhaps his conviction was based upon a feeling that American culture was based in a realization of the qualities of a place in relation to the life which occupies it. His little poem was written only a year after the publication of Eliot’s The Waste Land where the American hope for cultural distinction seemed to be based upon an inheritance of a European and classical tradition of placing oneself in a very different context from the one asserted by Williams. The doctor from Rutherford wanted to start with local materials, ‘lifting these things into an ordered and utilized whole’ (The American Background, 1934). However, if so much is to depend upon this localization of background then it must be because firm observation of the local will lead to greater insights into thoughts and emotions which transcend what could otherwise become simply parochial.
Reading Alan Baker’s poems this morning I found myself tempted into a slight frisson, a sense of an otherness which I shall want to return to many times again. He certainly takes the reader far beyond the parochial!

1
‘I wish she’d tap
at my window
and smile
when I’m far from home.’

2
‘Path, leading me
to the riverbank
to meet our ghosts
at daybreak:
so pale and wan
and fond, like lovers
expecting rain.’

Ian Brinton 9th July 2015

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It’s Open House: Leafe Press

It’s Open House: Leafe Press

Three very attractive chapbooks from Leafe Press arrived in the post as an example of Alan Baker’s fine new pamphlet series:

 

sea witch by Sarah Crew, Newton’s Splinter by Simon Perril and Chapters of Age by Peter Riley

 

When I read Sarah Crewe’s poem ‘bridge’ in her Oystercatcher volume flick invicta last year I was immediately aware of an eerie and uncomfortable voice, which came from the depths. This is a poet who listens ‘on ocean floor’ and whose sensitive awareness ‘tells me / you are near’. Opening this new volume of electric seriousness I realise that she is even nearer as ‘a cruising white american / king sized drag submerged / from bathing / to thrashing / to screaming / to nothing’. There is a clear sense that these poems matter: they explore the personal world as it segments with ‘silent glide’ into a social scene.

 

When Michael Schmidt wrote the blurb for the back cover of Simon Perril’s Shearsman publication Archilochus on the Moon he suggested that Perril’s eighty poems were themselves ‘shells and fragments that constitute a haunted narrative’ and as I leaf through Newton’s Splinter I can see again what he means by this. The two sequences here come from a larger manuscript called A Soft Book and they possess a thrusting forward movement which seems to catch at the reader as the words fly past

 

says pawn to dawn

break on, brag

at baize we’re snookered upon

 

The urgency of ‘on’ contradicts the slowing pun on ‘break’ and yet complements the morning shift between past night and new day, a new dawn which is shadowed by history as the American Space Shuttle Programme flew its final mission in July 2011 and reminded us of the connections between ‘then’ and ‘now’.

 

And as if to explore this theme with the measured depth of understanding that Peter Riley’s work invariably offers us we have Chapters of Age with its subtitle placed inside the book, ‘Stone landscapes of Inishmore and Burren, May 2010’. The photography by Beryl Riley on the cover gives us crag and grass, age and growth, and the opening poem juxtaposes ‘Ruins of small monastic settlements’ with ‘Dull pain to right of middle back.’ This is a hauntingly beautiful book of poems in which the reader, walker, observer contemplates not only those relics and remnants of another world but also, inevitably, the questions which are ‘flying at us every day’:

 

What is the plant with dark green leaves and

Tiny white flowers? What is the answer to fear?

 

These are beautifully produced chapbooks and are well worth getting from www.leafepress.com

 

Ian Brinton December 20th 2013

 

 

 

 

Alan Baker and Sarah Hayden from the Oystercatcher’s beak

Alan Baker and Sarah Hayden from the Oystercatcher’s beak

all this air and matter by Alan Baker

 

System Without Issue by Sarah Hayden

 

When these two little Oystercatchers arrived in the post they were accompanied by a note from the founder of the Press: ‘A brace of autumnal Oystercatchers for your table, with the compliments of the mizzly, leaf-littered season. These 2 are as alike as a dog & a cog in a pod.’

 

Alan Baker’s poems give us a clear sense of presence as this sequence contemplates ‘what might be made / from all this air and matter’. People and sounds shift their movements across the pages and the conditional ‘as if’ reminds us of a world which is waiting for words to give it shape. Whether reality can be found in ‘grey stone paths and stone-grey sky’ or in ‘wind in the grass’ will be a matter of the associations of language but what can never be doubted from a reading of these poems is that ‘the present has always existed’. It needs the lyrical poet to weave the outlines of a drawing that is ever on the move and so within a sonnet that begins with touches of O’Hara (‘stop for a coffee / at London Road Diner’) the fourth and fifth line move us forward

 

sunny day

 

and windy!

 

The foot of the piece holds the fragile construction up on the page as the waitress emphasises the present

 

in silhouette

as she wedges the wind-blown door

with a piece of cardboard

 

 

Sarah Hayden’s sequence of small-font texts present a feeling of authority from the beginning:

 

This is the song of the daughter born without a mother

This is how she spun out the cold nights when there was none to be tending [to]

This is how flat she lay

This is how clear the lines

How singular the purpose

How glossy her ripolin

And how ineffable her intention

 

That enamelled combination of the smooth, the glossy and the perfected sets a scene for a remarkable sequence of poems which, whilst at some moments eschewing any personal air, at other moments play within the linguistic associations of a lyrical tradition. One of the fascinating qualities of this writing is its ability to both keep the reader at arm’s length and at the same time to present an echoing yearning for attachment. The ‘system’ may be without issue but the interweaving of linguistic associations determine some very palpable issues.

 

Do order both of these splendid books; they are, in their different ways, just the right thing for the cold days ahead.

 

Ian Brinton, December 6th 2013

 

 

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