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Lithos by Anthony Barnett (Allardyce Book ABP)

Lithos by Anthony Barnett (Allardyce Book ABP)

From the subtitle to this carefully crafted new publication from the pen and press of Anthony Barnett we should immediately be alerted to a Joycean sense of humour:

“LITHOS: OR, GULLIBLE’S TROUBLES, OR, A DISACCUMULATION OF KNOWLEDGE BEING NOTHING MORE THAN DRAFTS & FRAGMENTS THAT, NOT WHICH, ARE NOT ENOUGH”

In the world of Anthony Barnett words spill and spin in different directions. A reference to the easily deceived character from the voyaging creation of an Irish clergyman from the early Eighteenth Century is merged with that of a glyphic sans-serif typeface designed by Carol Twombley in 1989 for Adobe Systems. A tale of Shaun or Shem from Finnegan’s Wake holds the reader within the webs of a poetry moving from “I” to “We” and “She” to “He”. Joyce’s language is dream-like:

“Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!”

As the prose merges sounds of night-time farewell (“Night! Night!” & “Night now!”), sounds in the mind merge words and Shem and Shaun become “stem or stone”. Language petrifies as characters move from the vegetal to the stone-like; moments of memory are caught, held, in lithos.
As if to confirm this Joycean humour Barnett has a short poem on page 15:

“Neverending but ending

Who has something to say
Who has nothing to say

I sigh at this speech this speechlessness”

The need to communicate, accompanied by a recognition that the tools of communication are inadequate possesses a sly reference perhaps to another Irish source, that of Samuel Beckett whose ‘Three Dialogues’ contain the cry:

“The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”

This is the painful world of the artist, poet or novelist, who recognises that whatever he/she says/writes it will never capture the ever-fleeing sense of what is thought. In an Anthony Barnett poem “speechlessness” is accompanied by a “sigh”: words become a noise of exhalation.
If there is a haunting theme weaving its way through these poems it is perhaps one of lost love, lost time, caught only in the sharp presence of language as in ‘What Bright Shoes’:

“Moss blown from the roof sweet mounds

Mistletoe blown from the red squirrel door knocker

Destined to repeat fallen for not spoken to

So very upset

What bright shoes you are wearing, thinking. You are a strange one. I think
it might be disruptive. Almost wandering, across the evening street, distracted disrupting sputtering”

In the words of ‘Sunday Post’, “She is present even when she is not” or ‘On a Starlit Night’

“On a starlit night, September 8th to 9th to be exact, I dream about you that
you are with me or I am with you or we are with each other”

Anthony Barnett is widely read and it is no surprise to find these pages containing references to writers and artists who have influenced him over the years. Zanzotto, Kästner, Nelly Sachs, Veronica (Forrest-Thomson?), Celan, Skvorecky, Walser… They become spectral presences throughout Lithos both in terms of styles and as shades both there and not there: present in their absence. Sometimes I am also reminded of the wonderful opening pages of Dostoevsky’s short novel White Nights in which the narrator finds himself alone in Petersburg during the summer vacation. Recalling his moral condition one day the Russian novelist writes:

“From early morning I had been oppressed by a strange despondency. It suddenly seemed to me that I was lonely, that everyone was forsaking me and going away from me. Of course, anyone is entitled to ask who ‘everyone’ was. For though I had been living almost eight years in Petersburg I had hardly an acquaintance. But what did I want with acquaintances? I was acquainted with all Petersburg as it was; that was why I felt as though they were all deserting me when all Petersburg packed up and went to its summer villa.”

The narrator in Lithos can feel ‘Much Better’ as he contemplates

“How lovely it is to sit in a café or a carriage and listen to languages one
doesn’t know very well or at all. Then one is shielded from all the latest or past its best nonsense.”

The closing lines of ‘Soliloquy’, the last full poem in Lithos before a short ‘Requiem’, refer us to flight

“I shall not try to worry too much about the perfect unless I am building / a spacecraft / Or a parachute.”

And this, as in Finnegan’s Wake where the ending takes the reader forward to the beginning, leads us back to the opening lines of the collection and “It is the way it is” with the “newborn bird dead on the ground” with the “rooks wanting it”. That first poem concludes with self-explanation:

“Everything can be explained with a dream. Once I did not believe that.

I want to say it doesn’t matter.

It will always be in the writing.”

Lithos…lithography, written in stone.

This book can be obtained from the author’s website: http://www.abar.net

Ian Brinton, 12th August 2017

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Something Other Than Other by Philip Rowland (Isobar Press)

Something Other Than Other by Philip Rowland (Isobar Press)

The line from John Berger which introduces ‘Birdsong’ introduces a note which goes on to haunt this serious, quiet and often profound collection of Philip Rowland’s poems:

The dead surround the living. The living are the core of the dead.’

Reading this line I was taken back to Herbert Butterfield’s truth from 1924 concerning the impossibility of history:

‘The ploughman whom Gray saw, plodding his weary way, the rank and file of Monmouth’s rebel crowd – every man of them a world in himself, a mystery of personality – these have left no memorial and all that we know about them is just enough to set us guessing and wondering. Things by which we remember an old friend – his peculiar laugh, his way of drawing his hand through his hair, his whistle in the street, his humour – we cannot hope to recapture in history [just as we] cannot hope to read the hearts of half-forgotten kings. The Memory of the world is not a bright, shining crystal, but a heap of broken fragments, a few fine flashes of light that break through the darkness.’

Those ‘few fine flashes’ are caught by Rowland in a poetry which aspires to a condition of music. The ‘Prelude’ which opens this beautifully produced volume from Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press, one of the finest contemporary poetry- presses, begins in a silence of anticipation:

‘in the hush before music
the music of who
I am not’

Amongst those ‘broken fragments’ one might discover the Quartet for the End of Time which Olivier Messiaen created for piano, violin, cello and clarinet whilst imprisoned in a Silesian camp in 1941. The first performance of this remarkable work pierced the darkness of an atrociously cold mid-January day in Stalag VIII. The audience included five thousand prisoners from all levels of society (priests, doctors, shop-keepers, professional soldiers, workers, peasants) and the composer, commenting later, is reported to have said ‘Never have I been heard with as much attention and understanding’. In Rowland’s ‘Birdsong’ the poet refers to Messiaen’s Quartet as ‘music directed towards eternity, timelessness’:

‘To praise – aspire – as though transcribing birdsong that the
dead might hear.’

From the silence, the ‘hush before music’, there is another music which is anticipatory; that music ‘of who / I am not’. And in this context another name comes to mind of course: the Black Mountaineer, John Cage whose 4’33” was premiered in New York in 1952 when a formally-dressed pianist went on to the stage, sat at a grand piano, opened the lid and sat quietly for four minutes and thirty-three seconds before rising, bowing to the audience and leaving. The work isn’t of course a silent composition at all. Although the pianist makes as little sound as possible, just the occasional turning over of the sheets of music, the audience’s attention is inevitably upon the sounds both within and outside the auditorium. The audience learns to attend to those noises, which might include their own memories of noise, which are routinely taken for granted and given no real attention. In 1992 Anthony Barnett suggested in an interview that ‘what you play acts upon the silence, determines the nature, the sound of the silence which follows’. Referring to the trumpet player Leo Smith, he said ‘each sound phrase has its corresponding silent phrase’. Rowland’s opening poem concludes

‘inhabiting repetition
listening for the sound
of our listening’

Those ‘few fine flashes of light’ which illuminate a past which we no longer inhabit, although we carry it within us, can bring into focus a ‘Man on a Ladder’:

‘wooden man
on a wooden ladder,
his narrow body
contoured and incised
with marks and lines
like language seen
from afar…’

They can also bring to mind the poet who died in 1978 in Leeds. Rowland’s ‘Found in John Riley’ attends ‘to objects’ which ‘flick away the one / fluttering down’ where the pun on the last word offers a vagrant movement through air. It was Riley who wrote in May 1977 that ‘the absolute is a room / without doors or windows’ and Philip Rowland writes ‘A Bach Fugue’ in which ‘dusk’ rearranges silence and

‘what’s left of the light the music absorbs’

Isobar Press can be located at http://isobarpress.com and I shall be writing a review of Paul Rossiter’s own Seeing Sights and the narrative haiku sequences of Masaya Saito, Snow Bones, over the coming week.

September 2nd 2016

For The Future Poems & Essays In Honour Of J.H. Prynne On The Occasion Of His 80th Birthday Ed. Ian Brinton (Shearsman Books)

For The Future Poems & Essays In Honour Of J.H. Prynne On The Occasion Of His 80th Birthday Ed. Ian Brinton (Shearsman Books)

This collection, with a beautiful cover designed by Ian Friend, ranges from the academic to the creative and anecdotal, and is both a festschrift and response to the poet and teacher, showing the awe and gratitude felt by many of his friends and admirers.

To begin with there are some fine poems by John James, Simon Smith, D.S. Marriott, Gavin Selerie, Elaine Feinstein and Rod Mengham in response to the man and his poetry. Several contributors recall the measure and force of tutorials in Prynne’s rooms at Caius Court and provide ample testimony to their challenge, depth and impact. Indeed Michael Grant responds fifty years later to a question asked of him about some lines by T.S. Eliot leading to a fine essay on retroactive and symbolic temporality enacted in the opening lines of Burnt Norton. John Hall eloquently draws the reader into the world of undergraduate Cambridge English 1964-1967, enlisting the memories of Paul Ashton and Colin Still for reading lists and poems discussed, to produce a moving insight into the world of a Prynne tutorial at that time. John Wilkinson recalls the staircase leading to the room that was open to all comers and the walk-in wine cupboard where Veronica Forrest-Thompson was once ‘propelled by the exasperated occupant’. Michael Haslam, Nigel Wheale, Masahiko Abe and Peter Riley also capture a sense of being and place.

Anthony Barnett describes how the first collected edition of J.H. Prynne’s Poems came about and set the template for future editions, a fact that Barnett is not sufficiently recognized for. His efforts are in stark contrast to the troublesome difficulties involved with the appearance of Brass in 1971 accounted for by Ian Brinton. Ian Friend and Richard Humphreys recall their literary and sporting conversations at the Morpeth Arms, Millbank, London leading to an evaluation of The Oval Window.

Prynne’s poetry and essays are covered in various ways and his interests and concerns are well illuminated. Harry Gilonis, for example, gives a highly informative and contextual reading of Prynne’s Chinese poem, ‘Jie ban mi Shi Hu’. Michael Tencer writes on the poem, ‘Es Lebe der König’, written in response to Paul Celan’s death, providing part of the poem’s historical, etymological and literary context in order to open up perspectives on the poem. The title comes from Georg Büchner’s play Dantons Tod and was discussed by Celan in his 1960 Georg Büchner Prize acceptance speech. Anthony Mellors shows how the exchanges in the English Intelligencer from March 1966 to April 1968 shaped a poetics and poetic intervention that has subsequently broadened whilst being cognisant of the sonorities and sedimented sense-patterns of language as historical record. This sense of how Prynne’s poetics and poetry widened and took on the shapes and approaches that it did also comes into the essay by David Herd on Prynne’s 1971 Simon Fraser University lecture on Olson’s Maximus IV, V, VI. Herd shows Prynne scrutinizing and reassessing the defining axis of the poem and Olson’s lexicon from the distinct outlook of viewing from another part of the world. This reassessment establishes a new tension between the rhetoric of lyric, view, geography, spatial geometry and coast and leads Prynne to question how language voices its condition and address the issue in The White Stones. Key terms such as lyric, localism, cosmos, planet, curve, border, home and wanderer are subsequently tested. He thus used the terms of Olson’s epic to reach an understanding of the necessity to register that we are all continuous within language past, present and future. Matthew Hall offers a compelling reading of Acrylic Tips as a response to the colonialisation of Indigenous people in Australia and the politics and lexical complexity of the female pronoun. Hall argues that the structural patterns of landscapes, argot, botanical studies and Indigenous knowledge in the poem are unique to Australia. He cites John Kinsella’s poem, ‘The Hierarchy of Sheep’ as a parallel text stemming from Prynne’s time in Australia with Kinsella.
Joseph Persad notes the way conventional formal structures help focus the emotive artifice employed in the later poems and locates Kazoo Dreamboats within a context of historical protest and resistance citing Prynne’s reading at the 2011 occupation of the Lady Margaret Hall against the government’s dismantling of higher education. This fittingly returns us to the dedication of the 2015 edition of the Poems: ‘For The Future’ and the privilege of being challenged by a mind that firmly believes in pressing on.

This treasure trove of celebratory thoughtfulness, affectionately introduced by Ian Brinton, is reminiscent of Tim Longville’s For John Riley (1979) in the way that it eschews any chronology for a more impressionistic and sonorous response.

David Caddy 14th June 2016

UnNatural Music: John Lennon & Yoko Ono in Cambridge 1969 by Anthony Barnett Allardyce Book

UnNatural Music: John Lennon & Yoko Ono in Cambridge 1969 by Anthony Barnett Allardyce Book

In the closing lines of this attractively produced little piece of history Anthony Barnett refers to Yoko Ono as Eiko and thereby brings back into focus another little fragment of history. Some eight years ago I received an email from Michael Rumaker, Black Mountaineer who had been taught by Olson in the 1950s, in which he commented upon my determination to locate and read his first novel, The Butterfly:

‘You mentioned you plan to read my Butterfly this weekend with an eye to comparing it to Douglas Woolf’s Wall to Wall. I’m glad I have the chance to warn you the comparison will not stand up. Butterfly was my first novel and as with all first novels is riddled with flaws, and in this case, excessive emotion and not as direct as I would have written it in a later time. That, despite its being highly autobiographical, and also perhaps its being of some historical interest, since the character of “Eiko” is actually Yoko Ono (no secret anymore since Albert Goldman wrote about that fact in his 1988 The Lives of John Lennon) and the character of “Alice” is actually Joyce Johnson, former girlfriend of Jack Kerouac who was with him when On the Road hit it big).’

When Barnett’s recent publication was reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement on May 20th J.C. opened his piece with a fine piece of tongue-in-cheekery:

‘There is something appealing about a music memoir that opens “I do not have to tell you how disgraceful John’s attitude was and Yoko’s is”. The author of UnNatural Music is the poet Anthony Barnett who produced the Natural Music concert in Cambridge in 1969…’

The tongue-in-cheekery is of course that Barnett does have to tell us and what he tells is clear and to the point. His historical reconstruction, a past that never simply gets swallowed up in a present, is immaculate and the whole book is presented in a style that over many years Anthony Barnett has made his own: a type of signature publishing dish. Buy a copy NOW!
The historical reconstruction undertaken here is not simply about that concert in 1969; we enter into a spectral world of the past as the book opens with the words ‘For a while from 1965 I worked at Better Books, New Compton Street, round the corner from their Charing Cross Road shop. That section of New Compton Street no longer exists. A redevelopment covers it.’ We are immediately drawn into a world that will include Nothing Doing in London One, ‘which included a music score by John Tchicai’; the letterpress literary and arts loose-leaf folio review also included work by Samuel Beckett and Anne-Marie Albiach. In January 1968 Nothing Doing in London Two appeared with work by George Oppen as well as Yoko Ono’s ‘On Paper’. As Mr Barnett tells me the title page was ‘set in Castellar font, and the names in Plaintin font’. Needless to add that both are now collectors’ items!
Rumaker’s novel opens in a hospital which conveys a haunting sense of the prophetic for Ken Kesey’s later masterpiece, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:

‘The low stucco buildings of the hospital with their harsh green windows and heavy wire screening stretched out in all directions as far as the eye could see.’

Anthony Barnett’s magical reconstruction of long gone days comes off the page with similar focus.

Ian Brinton 29th May 2016

ANTONYMS Anew Barbs & Loves Anthony Barnett (Allardyce Book)

ANTONYMS  Anew  Barbs & Loves  Anthony Barnett (Allardyce Book)

Let matters become clear: I have an immense respect for the poetry and prose of Anthony Barnett and this must be evident to anyone who wishes to look up the review I did nearly four years ago for Poetry Review (Vol. 102: 3, Autumn 2012). My opening statement pulled no punches:

‘As poet and publisher for the past forty-five years Anthony Barnett has ploughed a solitary furrow, unerringly straight and hauntingly evocative, across the field of English poetry’.

As I read the recently published book of Antonyms, many of which have never been published before, my respect for the careful footfalls of this fine writer was only increased. I use the word ‘footfalls’ quite deliberately since it was in Samuel Beckett’s 1974 play of that name that May, perhaps named after the dramatist’s mother, ‘…must hear the feet, however faint they fall’; an echo perhaps of Beckett’s mother who had difficulty sleeping through the nights at home in Cooldrinagh and who had removed the carpets in some areas of the house so that her steps should sound her reality.
In Antonym xxxii, on George Oppen and J.H. Prynne, Barnett writes about a review he did on a critical appraisal of the American poet:

‘Here are some moderated bits from that review. If they appear impressionistic, a trait I am quick to criticize in others, it is because I do not know quite where to tread. “Think how careful George has been” I wrote in “A Note About George Oppen”, later allusively retitled “Note Through a Lens”, in which I related the reading, and the writing, of a poem with walking and wandering in the mountains. Of course, care is not enough. Without risk there is no meaningful, useful, process and progress.’

The reference to an appearance of impressionism is interesting because the accumulation of references, of focal points, throughout the thirty-eight short pieces of prose might indeed give the reader a sense that one was moving across a wide field of literature and music without ever settling long on any individual moment. However, nothing could be further from the truth! Each sentence has a clarity to it as if chipped from stone and the whole book has a sculpted quality to it which allows it to rest, still, on the page.

‘THE GRASS HAS BEEN MOWN on the path that winds alongside the brook. It makes it easier to walk and avoid the nettles on either side but somehow I wish they’d left it overgrown.’

Opening with this washed-clean writing in Antonym xxix Barnett moves forward, step by step, to glance at the difference between ‘three’ and ‘four’:

‘Three pigeons are drawing near to my feet. I’m sitting on a semi-circular wide-depth backless wooden plank bench. They are pecking at grass seed it seems, not particularly paying attention to anything or anyone else. A fourth pigeon has arrived and now they are moving away in concert, still pecking.’

That glance leads the writer to contemplate death:

‘Ever since I learnt that the figure four is inauspicious because in Japanese the kanji for four sounds exactly the same as the kanji for death—it’s like that in Chinese—I have, I have to admit, been superstitious…’

My reading has been taken from a landscape, slightly humanised by the mowing down of nettles, to the near-at-hand of the pigeons. The observation of one more bird arriving has prompted a reflection on the opposite of arrival, departure. The very human response to this accumulation of thoughts is to admit to an illogical sensation of superstition but watch how exactly this is arrived at as the repetition of the words ‘I have’ give us a stutter, a stumble forwards into acknowledgement. This is careful writing of the most serious kind. This language-sculptor’s care has affinities with the clarity of Samuel Beckett’s writing and it is a delight to read Antonym xxiv, ‘Beckett and Jazzality’ with its reference to Harold Bloom’s vivid account of the director Herbert Blau’s ‘apprehension before a performance [of Waiting for Godot] at San Quentin in 1957—the first play performed at the penitentiary since Sarah Bernhardt appeared there in 1913.’
One of the best recognitions of the individual quality of Barnett’s style of writing can be found in PN Review 212, from the summer of 2013, where Tim Harris opened his review of Barnett’s collected poems by referring not to impressionism but to Paul Klee whose ‘fine but strong lines…set out from some arbitrary point and sharply change direction’. Harris refers to ‘enigmatic structures that are at once sturdy and yet not quite stable’ which ‘seem to possess an infectious surprise at their own emergence from the fertile nothingness of the white paper.’
In a quiet tone of acknowledgement Barnett focuses upon losses and in Antonym xx a colourful beach bucket from childhood is washed out to sea:

‘I watched it sinking with the water spilling over its rim’.

In a quiet tone of enquiry in Antonym xxxiii he then focuses upon the act of reading:

‘I do wonder why I have a tendency to open a book or leaf through a magazine in the Chinese or Japanese or Hebrew or Arabic direction. Right handed. Holding it in the right hand and leafing with the left. I wondered whether this was a common phenomenon so I conducted a little survey. Not uncommon. Not so common. A vestige of the past.’

I recommend this book very strongly indeed: it is a treasure-trove, a trouvaille.

Ian Brinton 7th April 2016

On Violence in the Work of J.H. Prynne by Matthew Hall (Cambridge Scholars Publishing)

On Violence in the Work of J.H. Prynne by Matthew Hall (Cambridge Scholars Publishing)

It may seem strange that I should be writing this review since a few lines of my blurb appear on the back of the book itself. However, the point of the review is that it enables me to say more about why I think that this highly intelligent book is one of the best accounts of Prynne’s oeuvre that I have read for some considerable time. It also gives me space to explain why I should think this!

Within the network, the weave, of Prynne’s language there is a compassionate sense of Humanity and a lament for the distortions of language and self-delusion which enable the Human to become soiled by his most basic aspirations. Hall’s comment on ‘Refuse Collection’, that terrifying glimpse into the atrocities of the Second Gulf War, refers to the poem’s elegiac quality which is ‘linked to the pastoral elegy by establishing spatial locations that are unified with ceremonial mourning’:

‘The use of the pastoral elegy establishes connections with the poem Acrylic Tips, as well as ‘Es Lebe der König’, where the elegiac is a feature associated with landscape constructions.’

There is a movement to and from within this book and individual chapters centre upon different texts while never losing sight of how the accumulation of reference builds up into a glimpse of the extraordinary range of Prynne’s work and recognition of the profoundly integrated nature of his poetry. After the first chapter on the Celan poem from Brass we are moved on to a close examination of News of Warring Clans, Bands Around the Throat, Acrylic Tips. The last thirty pages then focus upon that language of ‘Refuse Collection’, a poem which should stand among the most powerful War poems ever written.

Matthew Hall is very good in directing us to the backgrounds, the heritage, the traditions within which Prynne writes. In the introduction he refers to the importance of Keats as a presence lurking behind some of the lines in that poem Prynne wrote immediately after hearing of the death of Paul Celan, ‘Es Lebe der König’, published in the 1971 collection Brass. Hall directs us to look at how, in the second stanza, Prynne’s ten lines mimic ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and how Prynne’s line ‘It is not possible to / drink this again’ reverberates off Keats’s line ‘That I might drink and leave the world unseen’. Prynne’s poetry is well-known for its buried resources, its incorporation of his own reading, and one has only to recall the use of Dickens in ‘Of Movement Towards a Natural Place’ or the words of Lear in the opening lines of ‘As Mouth Blindness’ to recognise the wholeness of a life dedicated to reading, teaching and writing.

The first chapter of Matthew Hall’s book is devoted then to looking in close detail at the way in which that intensely important early poem actively investigates the ‘sense of alienation in the postwar world’. According to a letter sent by Prynne to Anthony Barnett that poem (for Paul Celan 1920-1970) was written on the same night that he heard of Celan’s suicide ‘from a Frenchman here in the city, long before it was reported in the Press’. It was not published until December of the following year.

It has been excellent to read some accounts in this book of the importance of music and its influence in ‘informing the poetic structure and technical operation of Prynne’s poetry’:

‘Throughout Prynne’s poetic oeuvre, music is represented and interrogated for signifying ontological sustenance. The reliance of ‘Es Lebe der König’ on the fugal pattern informs the technical and thematic orientation of the poem, by creating fidelity to the event of Celan’s death and evincing the role of ideology in perpetuating the Holocaust’s inescapable cycle of violence.’

Throughout this highly readable book we are left in no doubt as to the importance of Prynne’s poetry and I am reminded that in 1972 the Cambridge poet was deeply involved in reading early work by the French contemporary André du Bouchet. It seems just, perhaps, to end on a short quotation from one of du Bouchet’s Notebooks in which he commented upon the ‘Readable Poet’:

‘Poetry—this miracle—
the secret on the surface: what is most secret, unique, or so you’d assume, in broad daylight, and circulated through this ordinary language—as though it could only become aware of its secret through this public measure—man.’

Ian Brinton 22nd January 2016

Muted Strings: A Study of Louis MacNeice Xavier Kalck Presses Universitaires de France—Cned 2015 www.cned.fr

Muted Strings: A Study of Louis MacNeice  Xavier Kalck  Presses Universitaires de France—Cned 2015 www.cned.fr

A close friend of mine used to herald the onset of winter each year with a re-reading of MacNeice’s ‘Autumn Journal’. There always seemed to me to be something apt, a string plucked with a tone of melancholy leisure, about the opening of that fine poem:

‘Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire,
Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawn where close-clipped yew
Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals
And the spyglasses hung in the hall…’

A little like the taste of an almond cake, lying beneath the burned parts, in the opening pages of Proust, MacNeice’s rhythms brought to mind those shadows ‘on the perfect lawn’ that were the ‘shadows of an old man sitting in a deep wicker-chair near the low table on which the tea had been served’ some forty miles from London in Henry James’s most famous novel about how an archer’s aim had been brought low by a genius for upholstery. This is a world of muted strings and Xavier Kalck’s title for his book about MacNeice’s posthumous collection of poems, The Burning Perch, has been chosen with great care:

‘Muted Strings draws attention especially to the dynamic that exists in MacNeice’s poems from The Burning Perch between muting as a means to soften the tune of the song, and muting as a symptom of the deadening of the song.’

This delightful little introduction to the late poetry of Louis MacNeice clearly adheres to a formula and is aimed at students who are going to write essays and dissertations on the volume of poems published in September 1963, some ten days after the poet’s death. With a quietly unassuming sense of dignity Xavier Kalck, who lectures in American literature at the Sorbonne, tells me that the whole affair is rather standard although ‘I hope there was room enough for some small measure of originality’. There certainly is!

I had a good feeling about this book when a review copy arrived quite recently. This feeling was partly based upon my awareness of the careful attention Xavier Kalck had given to the poetry of Anthony Barnett, whose Shearsman Selected Poems he introduced ten years ago. In that introduction he had written

‘The origin of poetry, much like that of language itself, is a matter of the poet dealing with whatever origin he finds, finding out when and how it resists, letting the poem originate its own resistance, a language pared down to its first poetics.’

Given that focus it was no surprise when I opened up this little introduction to MacNeice to discover a quotation from Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (1938): ‘However much is known about the poet, the poem remains a thing distinct from him’. I was cheered by the knowledge that this book, however much it may adhere to a formula, would focus upon the poetry itself and therefore introduce readers to the ‘formal gymnastics’ of a poem ‘rather than psychological or biographical concerns’.

The opening poem in The Burning Perch is preoccupied with space and time. ‘Soap Suds’ presents a circular movement and Kalck quotes from Peter McDonald’s criticism of the poem before going on to suggest some subtle new approaches:

‘In terms of imagery, visual and otherwise, the poem resolves into an expanding (or contracting) series of circular figures: the soap, the ball, the globes, the gong, the hoops, and finally again the ball and the soap. The circular movement of the poem itself brings the reader back to the adult hands of the beginning.’ (MacDonald)

‘The pattern is unquestionably relevant. We are told the speaker visited the house with the lawn “when he was eight” (1), and mathematically, the return visit doubles that time into sixteen lines. However, the lines do not only pick up speed as they stretch within this highly circular poem. To put it tautologically, the linearity of the lines works against, as much as in accordance with, the overall cyclical pattern. The length of the lines conveys the distance that separates the childhood recollection from the speaker’s present.’ (Kalck)

Perhaps the real quality of this little book is that it takes one back, again and again, to the text itself and by looking with such care at Louis MacNeice’s last volume of poems one is compelled to recognize how good this poet is.

Ian Brinton 21st December 2015

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