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Tag Archives: Barbara Guest

A Forest On Many Stems edited by Laynie Browne (Nightboat Books)

A Forest On Many Stems edited by Laynie Browne (Nightboat Books)

This massive book (580 pages) is a collection of ‘essays on the poet’s novel’, which takes a look at contemporaneous and (mostly 20th Century) historical prose works written by poets. Most are written by poets, so we have an anthology of poet’s critical prose about other poets’ fiction.

I can’t pretend I know all of the critics or the authors and texts under discussion; even the many names I do know, I often haven’t read the works being considered. Yet these essays are open, inclusive and discursive enough to not only encourage me to find and read many of these works, but also to offer themselves as both experimental writing and as informed and more generalised contextualisation and discussion.

That is these essays are informed by and embedded within a sense of poetry and its playfulness, liquidity and experiment, with a particular focus on the works poets have chosen to produce as ‘novels’. Not prose poetry, but novels: fictional prose, although the book starts with a brief section on the ‘Verse Novel’ where texts by Lyn Hejinian, Anne Carson and Alice Notley are discussed and the fourth section includes ‘Prose Poem’ as part of its more elongated title.

Others of the seven sections are more intriguing and open to interpretation: ‘Genre Mash-Ups’, considers work by Barbara Guest, Gwendolyn Brooks and Gertrude Stein and others; ‘Metamorphic / Distance / Aural Address / Wandering’ could perhaps include anything, but its selection of author subjects includes Sebald, Pessoam Lewis Carroll and Leslie Scapalino; whilst Langston Hughes, Michael Ondaatje and Keith Waldrop are amongst those who feature in ‘Portrait / Documentary / Representation / Palimpsest’.

Some questions re-occur – usually with different answers. Why would a poet adopt prose? How does prose differ from poetry?  (‘Why does a poet choose another language to write a novel?’ asks Vincent Broqua.) Do we read poets’ novels with different expectations? What about narrative, authenticity, plot and momentum? Interiority and lyricism? And what genre is the poet’s novel?

Abigail Lang, writing about ‘Jacques Roubard’s poets’ prose, gets to the heart of the matter for me, suggesting that ‘[i]f poetry and prose are maintained as distinct, they can enter into a productive conversation’. Whether engaged in close reading, philosophical discussion, literary discourse or theoretical deconstruction, this book articulates and extends that conversation. It is a challenging, focussed and exciting read.

Rupert Loydell 28th January 2022

Averno by Louise Gluck (Penguin Modern Classics)

Averno by Louise Gluck (Penguin Modern Classics)

This is in the end is genuinely a persuasive book, though it also struck me as avowing quite a feminist outlook. This may in part be due to the Persephone/Hades myth, that lingers as part of the poem’s inspiration, though hardly overwhelmingly so. In the tradition of say, Emily Dickinson originally, and moving through to the likes of Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov or Barbara Guest, and it may be the latter whom I can think of as a kind of stylistic parallel. Gluck is relatively restrained, terse, not using too many words for what might require less; a very moderated tone rather than a loud one, often finessed.

The book consists of longer and shorter poems, the former generally subdivided into sections. There is quite a strong earth or ecology theme, and Gluck moves with changes to the weather or the environment.

I was struck early on by this piece of phrasing from the poem ‘October’;-

            ‘It is true there is not enough beauty in the world.

            It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.

            Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.’ (p13)

This is highly evocative, distinctive and original, reaching insights of bracing perception. The first line is a true but regrettable reflection on our present state of affairs. Beautiful world where are you recently said Sally Rooney. There are localised moments we can wonder at, evidence of intelligent design and aesthetic patterning, but few would be greatly optimistic about the current state of play, dealing with environmental degradation and pollution. Gluck knows very well that she herself can’t fix this; it is likely to take a long term coordinated effort. But she does suggest that she might be given to candor, of which she also feels there is not enough; call it openness, perhaps, or honesty or opening up about difficult topics truthfully.

Again another insightful passage occurs a little later,-

            ‘Who can say what the world is? The world

            is in flux, therefore

            unreadable, the winds shifting,

            the great plates invisibly shifting and changing –‘ (‘Prism’ I, p20)

Among other things we are finding Gluck attending to the state of the earth, rather than, say, male perspectives, and I’d say this kind of marks out the prerogative of the book as a whole; there is little in the way of critique of male prerogatives. This short passage, opening the poem ‘Prism’ is quite fascinating because it takes in both the shorter term and the long term views. The ‘great plates’ are noted, very slow organic and geological change. Meanwhile the world is perceived to be in flux, with those shifting winds. One might note also the lack of formalist design here, lines of quite unequal length not rhymed, but then it is highly readable. 

In part II we encounter a passage that further marks out Gluck’s view, from the poem ‘The Evening Star’,-

                                                ‘There were

            no other stars. Only the one

            whose name I knew

            as in my other life I did her

            injury: Venus, 

            star of the early evening,

            to you I dedicate

            my vision’ (p39)

This time working with a shorter line, again no rhyme, but there is certainly an intentness of focus. Gluck doesn’t quite dwell on this. There is no overriding mythos here, though she may be a watcher of the stars and the night sky. The flow of words is finely punctuated. 

Recounting a tale of a field burning, evidently by arson, Gluck ventures of the farmer,-

            ‘He remembers the day the field burned…

            Something deep within him said: I can live with this,

            I can fight it after awhile.’ (p68)

And some of this sense permeates the book. If there is not enough beauty or soundness in the world, one can strive to make things better. Struggle is an endemic, given part of the picture.

In terms of the book’s larger frame, the opening poem, ‘The Night Migrations’, does in so many ways set out the tone. An extraordinarily yet so subtly perceptive piece we are given to, that upon the soul’s reside in death, ‘maybe just not being is simply enough,/ hard as that is to imagine.’ (p1) This has fine insight, subtlety, and lack of pretence, and is philosophically quite searching. What we know of the place of the soul is that it will ‘just not be’, ‘hard to imagine’. The almost colloquial note of that last line takes off a lot of its weight, and yet it might feel a little strange encountering this at the very outset of the book. Gluck deals, indeed, with weighty subjects, but not in an anxious, deep or worried condition; whatever all this is one feels she has found a way to live with it and be finely expressive about it. It is also worth checking out her Collected Poems, recently published. 

Clark Allison 1st December 2021

Lyric In Its Times by John Wilkinson (Bloomsbury)

Lyric In Its Times by John Wilkinson (Bloomsbury)

First off, I think this is a good book to argue, feel and think against. There are some highly perceptive close readings here of the likes of O’Hara, Graham and Guest. What’s missing is any overt theory or credo, so for instance nary a mention of Language poetry or the Movement. Wilkinson does not try hard to justify his candidates for reading, intimating for instance that he was quite taken by Shelley’s poetry, of which disapproved, while at high school (p2) Wilkinson maintains that he perceives a need to think and respond ‘ahistorically’, although some enterprising student might be able to put together a chronology. There is little here earlier than Shelley and the choices are highly individualist. A near contemporary WS Graham is one bellwether.

There is nonetheless a kind of tacit theory here. Wilkinson is aware, for instance of Drew Milne’s radical ecopoetry, what’s been dubbed a ‘lichen Marxism’. Wilkinson takes on this notion of ecopoetic grounding, and feels we need to attach poetry to the breath, where Olson comes up, and the stony, wherein we have Adrian Stokes. An empathy say for old stones might seem elusive and inconsequential, but Wilkinson I’d say just about makes a case for it. Stone is the most intransigent and ingrained aspect of landscape.

As signposters each chapter, of ten, comes with a prefatory summary. Chapters 1 and 10 probably provide the better all round guidance. This at times can veer to the haphazard as, eg, what does Barbara Guest have to do with Frank O’Hara or Adrian Stokes, other than that they have caught John Wilkinson’s astute, if sometimes fervid imagination?

It is in Chapter 10 I think that one finds Wilkinson getting closer to staking out his perspective and inclinations, as –

            ‘The silence of the text prepares for the poem’s voice. As for my voice it will be engulfed in the             event, in the ‘abstract act’, as act is engulfed in abstraction and as abstraction gives rise to act.             Such coming-together…’ (p234)

Needless to say, Wilkinson is foremostly a poet, and quite an accomplished, challenging one before turning his hand to criticism or essay. The book in a sense joins other efforts by noted poet critics to establish their prerogative or world view, from Eliot’s Selected Essays to Auden’s Secondary Worlds to Davie’s Under Briggflatts to Geoffrey Hill’s Critical Writings. I might suggest that Wilkinson is less the traditionalist, more the progressive, with his Cambridge school leanings, and that on a certain level he has occupied and demarcated ground that is beyond these estimable precursors, albeit that he is unwilling to venture any chronological analysis or synthesis, but that then may be highly symptomatic of these global times we live in.

Strangely I sometimes feel as if I’ve been there, and certainly Marjorie Perloff set about a thorough critique of O’Hara that no doubt exceeds this in its depth and range of comprehension. But on the other hand one would not catch Perloff discussing Shelley nor probably WS Graham in quite this way.

Wilkinson, I tend to feel, is mapping out a space, a hopefully reliable space, from which we can view and apprise ourselves of developments in ecopoetry and lyric poetry. The sheer depth of range is foolish to dismiss. If Wilkinson is right such notions as dwelling or territory are apt to become more relevant even than they have been. Not just stony ground, but for the ‘breath’, wherein we have the instigation of Olson’s Projective Verse allied to place through myth. I’d say then that this is vital poetic criticism, quite at the cutting edge as much as anything comparable that might complement or counter it. Careful reading I’d say definitely leads to a sometimes searching reconsideration of what it is that we want or expect our poetry to do.

Clark Allison May 21st 2021

The Continued Closure of the Blue Door by Vik Shirley (HVTN Press)

The Continued Closure of the Blue Door by Vik Shirley (HVTN Press)

Vik Shirley’s pamphlet Corpses, which came out earlier this year, was a work of exquisitely macabre humour. Her collection The Continued Closure of the Blue Door continues the preoccupation with mortality in its sequence of witty poems called ‘death & the girls’. The first four, which are in unpunctuated prose, chart the zany responses of various women to the unavoidable presence of the grim reaper. 

eleanor kept banging on that death was a charmless motherfucker a charmless motherfucker she’d say fairly vindictively this actually wasn’t true but then she’d witnessed him eating pork pie jelly whilst wearing sock garters so no one could really argue

The six ‘death reveries’ which follow are in the form of calligrams, the first in the shape of a coffin, the sixth that of a bottle. The speaker of the poems imagines her funeral, wake, and legacy, but rather than being maudlin these texts are a rich and furious evocation of life. The coffin is to be decorated with an array of eccentric illustrations and objects, and to act as a stage for an impossible dance performance. The funeral procession, a meandering text of increasing width and font size, is equally fantastical, a carnival parade of bizarre characters with music to match. I particularly liked ‘Death Reverie #5’, in the shape of a cross, which begins:

I want my guilt and shame to be left to

the Catholic Church. It seems the most

reliable place for it to be successfully


The range of subjects covered by the collection as a whole extends well beyond mortality. The epigraph to the book is a quote from James Tate: ‘That whole day was like a dream leaking into our satchel.’ Shirley has said that Tate is a major influence, and there is a similarly absurd humour in the work of both poets, a transformation of everyday events into something strange and disconcerting, like the woman in the opening poem in the collection, who falls in love with her husband’s electric razor. 

Prose rhythms and cadences dominate in this poetry, though relatively few of the poems appear as justified blocks of text. The opening section includes lineated prose poems, and poems set as justified text but within a narrow margin. In the second section, ‘elephant’, the text is in an open-field format, but with each fragment of text terminating in a single or double forward slash. Some lines also have a slash/double slash within the line. The sequence describes the brief celebrity of its central eponymous character:

elephant out till all hours /

fallen in with /

            erroneous crowd /

                                                                        we ask / who released

                                                            the elephant /

the elephant watching /

smoking cigars /

Section IV, ‘the nervous tic’, like the first, groups poems in a variety of formats. ‘Nunchucks and Weather’ is a sequence of short lyrics. One of these describes how, despite having many visitors, a lighthouse has difficulty ‘meeting other structures / with similar hopes and aspirations.’ 

The final section, ‘the blue door’, returns to an open-field style but with a mix of font sizes for emphasis. Again some texts here use forward slashes, or in a number of cases vertical lines, as punctuation. ‘it’s not every day you find an opera singer in your tumble dryer’ is a wonderfully comic piece. Having discovered a tumble dryer singing ‘Che gelida manina’ (an aria from La Bohème) on an island in a lake, the narrator wonders who could be responsible:

                                                                              as the squirrels

                                             although fairly gung-ho and not lacking in chutzpah

where it comes to matters of nuts and trees   weren’t –

                                                      as far as I knew – familiar

                                           with the musical scores of Puccini

Another delightful piece in this last section is a set of reflections on a Barbara Guest poem, ‘Twilight Polka Dots’. The final poem, ‘Never been to Volkovo’, appears to be a collage of lines from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.  

The formal variety and inventiveness of the work collected here stretches the ‘prose poem’ beyond the confines of a static block of text. The playfulness and humour of the writing are highly engaging. It is an impressive first collection. 

Simon Collings 16th December 2020

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