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Tag Archives: Barry MacSweeney

Collected Poems by William Rowe (Crater 41, 2016)

Collected Poems by William Rowe (Crater 41, 2016)

In his chapter on Barry MacSweeney in Three Lyric Poets (Northcote House, 2009) William Rowe quoted Maggie O’Sullivan suggesting that Barry MacSweeney’s poetry resounded “with the spit of dissent and the edgy, wounded anger of revolt”. Rowe went on to make a comment that is as true today as it was then:

“It is written against the social amnesia, the ‘spin’, and institutionalized lying that have taken place in the name of modernization: especially against the language that anaesthetizes and makes submission easier.”

With an echo of the mid-Seventeenth Century world of the Ranters and Diggers Rowe’s volume of Collected Poems fizzes within its covers. In ‘start the civil war’ (and note the use of the lower case for the title, a little like keeping one’s hat on in Service or in Parliament) we are given language of muscularity and promise:

“as capital says
abandon all hope
death’s head descending
property & property & property

a horrible gleam
houses lawns cars eyes words children

validation of hate
= courage

revenge morning
against the arrow of time

weeping backwards tears backwards
validation of hate

herald of antigone brother
ayawaska sister

destruction and riot
= maximum intensity

produce
void

against prostitution of time
by Tory corporalities

fascinated by cruel
immortality of money

fascisted by the gleam
of that obedience

enjoy & enjoy & enjoy”

The merging of language which has literary, religious and scientific antecedents pulses with energy. The abandoning of hope which was so completely final in its inscription over the gateway to Dante’s Inferno becomes visually engulfing as the death’s head descends. The clatter of horse’s hoofs brings Tennyson’s ‘Northern Farmer’ into focus:

“Doesn’t thou ’ear my ’erse’s legs, as they canters awaäy?
Proputty, proputty, proputty – that’s what I ’ears ’em saäy.”

And the greed of accumulation is caught in the “horrible gleam” that shifts so smoothly from a shining car outside a house and lawn to the eyes and words of the children who are trapped. The enticing shine leads to an obedience in which unthinking hatred can be converted, by a twist of language’s expectations, to “courage”.
William Rowe contributed an important article on MacSweeney to the Shearsman publication Poetry and Public Language (ed. Tony Lopez & Anthony Caleshu, 2007). Writing about ‘Jury Vet’ he quoted MacSweeney’s introduction to the poem given at a 1982 reading in Goldsmith’s College at which an uncompromisingly clear statement was made:

“I wanted a title that was national and would reflect the way I was feeling at the time which was that life is very much made up of secrecy, betrayal, various codes, passions which can be quite meaningless except in the act of doing them and their result.”

Rowe’s statement which then follows is interesting as a disturbing comment upon modern consumerism and the State:

“The statement could apply equally well to a fashion show, a court of law, and the State, which are the theatres of appearance that the writing engages.”

In a world where cheap cladding bears some responsibility for multiple deaths we have moved language a long way from Spenser’s sense of protection in which a knight could be clad in “mighty arms and silver shield”. We have also moved a long way from the decorous and respectful sense that Puttenham refers to in terms of lamentation where friends show love towards the dead by “cladding the mourners their friendes and servauntes in blacke vestures, of shape dolefull and sad, but also by wofull countenaunces and voyces, and besides by Poeticall mournings in verse.” I find that Will Rowe’s poems speak with a voice more finely-tuned than I have heard for some time:

“the moral and spiritual damage that
comes from this situation is profound.
it is a scar across our collective soul.”

In a world where “we cannot pay you / because you have / as much or more money / coming in than / the law says / you need to live on” one can sense the outrage of what in 1650 would have been Abezier Coppe’s ‘Fiery Flying Roll’:

“Behold, I the eternal God the Lord of Hosts, who am that mighty Leveller am coming (yea even at the doores) to Levell to some purpose, to Levell with a witnesse, to Levell the Hills with the Valleys, and to lay the Mountains low.”

But make no mistake: William Rowe’s poems are not an evangelical return to a long-gone past. After all, as Sean Bonney writes at the end of this powerful collection:

“The catastrophe has already taken place, it’s just that all of its light has yet to reach us. It’s not clear from what or when that light might be coming. A burning city. A barricade. A refugee stumbling out from an already decided future, an insistent and illegible memory of something that happened long before any of us were born. A light that might illuminate the location of the emergency brake. A brake that by now is glowing far too hot to touch.”

Look out for the ghostly face starting to pressure outwards as the ribbon of blood pours down the face of the book’s cover (Aodan McCardle): this is a collection of poems which opens doors and tears down façades. Get a copy from Amazon Books NOW.

Ian Brinton, 23rd June 2017

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Barry MacSweeney and the Politics of post-war British Poetry: Luke Roberts (Palgrave MacMillan)

Barry MacSweeney and the Politics of post-war British Poetry: Luke Roberts (Palgrave MacMillan)

One of the immediately refreshing aspects of Luke Roberts’s book about Barry MacSweeney is the clear manner in which he distances himself from the mythologizing and gossip which surrounded the poet soon after his death in May 2000. It is highly appropriate that he should open his introduction with a reference to the obituary written for The Guardian in which Andrew Crozier addressed the alcoholism which had caused MacSweeney’s death and was, as Roberts puts it, the “intractable subject of MacSweeney’s later books”. Crozier made the point, in his inimitably careful way, that “It would be unfortunate if this final self-identification became his own myth”. Luke Roberts’s fine engagement with MacSweeney’s work goes some considerable distance towards avoiding the world of gossip; instead he directs us to the poems themselves and how much of MacSweeney’s writing arose out of social and political commitment. The focus Roberts presents us with gives “a serious account of the communities he moved through from the mid-1960s to the end of his life”. This is an important book which provides a literary context within which to view MacSweeney’s lyrical intensity and to re-view his powerful political commitment.
This is the first major study of MacSweeney’s work and what is so attractive about it is the fine mixture of close textual criticism and historical literary context: in two ways we are reading a world which comes alive. Roberts looks at the Menard Press publication of MacSweeney’s lecture on Chatterton which was delivered at the University of Newcastle in 1970: Elegy for January. MacSweeney’s interest in the work of Chatterton may well have started as a recommendation by J.H. Prynne as did his reading of Death’s Jest Book by Beddoes:

“Though he begins by taking a sceptical view of the ‘romantic myth we are led to believe’, MacSweeney drifts into a glorification of youth and early death, In a manner not dissimilar to the ‘melancholy raptures’ of Dr. Knox, quoted at merciless length by Hazlitt, he addresses Chatterton directly: ‘You are the elegant, eloquent poet, my brother!’; ‘Thomas, what is there, after all, after youth’. Nevertheless, over the course of the lecture, MacSweeney does speak of a number of Chatterton’s poems precisely as if they were ‘old well-known favourites’, and this is borne out by the order of engagement we find in the poems. MacSweeney’s language and imagery is persistently inflected by Chatterton in Odes, ranging from subtle single-word allusions to the extended ‘Wolf Tongue’, which revels in his vocabulary for well over a hundred lines. Some of the most intense passages in Colonel B feature interruptions and excursions drawn from ‘AElla: A Tragycal Enterlude’ and ‘Elinoure and Juga’. Far from emptily enthusing about the circumstances in which they were produced, MacSweeney used these texts as a vital resource for his own writing.”

Luke Roberts then provides us with a vignette of the “true poète maudit”, Mark Hyatt, MacSweeney’s friend who killed himself in early 1972. He points us to the publication of some of Hyatt’s work in the posthumous edition published by MacSweeney’s Blacksuede Boot Press and Crozier’s Ferry Press, How Odd, before taking us forward to the collection of MacSweeney’s own work, Fog Eye which was dedicated to Hyatt and in which ‘Elegy’ appears:

“Invulnerable nothings. Nothing
indecipherable as those ghost
messages. The seed burns by
a grey unblinking plant or moon.
You tear pages from a diary
written many years ago, but
the stories are the same today.
There are chapters like hidden doors
and they do not bear closing.”

The final chapter in this book looks at Pearl and Blood Money: The Marvellous Secret Sonnets of Mary Bell, Child Killer and Roberts suggests that there is no simple coincidence in MacSweeney “thinking about the figure of the child and the idea of innocence”:

“These poems were written with extremely high-profile trials of children going on in the background, and a change in how the child is constituted as a legal subject.”

I have said that this is an important book and I hope that it may be just the first major study of a neglected poet whose explosive lyricism and deep political commitment to justice, (one who hated secrecy and deception), deserves to be more widely known. As Chris Hall wrote on hearing of the death of Barry MacSweeney:

“It is to be hoped that his untimely death will stimulate a genuine reassessment of this important, brave and undervalued poet.”

Ian Brinton, 26th May 2017

Vanishing Points Eds. John Kinsella & Rod Mengham (Salt Publishing)

Vanishing Points Eds. John Kinsella & Rod Mengham (Salt Publishing)

The moment of change between one century and another is no easily defined discrete box into which ideas can be crammed later to become defined as Twentieth Century as opposed to Twenty-first Century. Thomas Hardy knew this well when he published his much anthologised poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’ on December 31st 1901. The poem looks forward to the newly defined Twentieth Century with a limited sense of blessed hope “whereof he knew but I was unaware” whilst also looking back at the Nineteenth Century’s corpse “outleant”. This sense of one eye being cast over the shoulder whilst the other is fixed firmly ahead is the hallmark of the Salt anthology of poems, Vanishing Points, edited by John Kinsella and Rod Mengham and published in 2004.
The backwards glance is towards the anthology Conductors of Chaos, edited by Iain Sinclair in 1996 in which, as Randall Stevenson suggested in Volume 12 of The Oxford English Literary History, there was a clear attempt to make great demands on readers to ensure that they “looked at the language on the page—rather than through it, towards a familiar, represented reality—transparency and ease of ordinary understanding had to be eliminated as far as possible”.
Sinclair’s introduction to Conductors of Chaos had thrown down a glove for the editors of anthologies and for serious readers of modern poetry:

“The work I value is that which seems most remote, alienated, fractured. I don’t claim to ‘understand’ it but I like having it around. The darker it grows outside the window, the worse the noises from the island, the more closely do I attend to the mass of instant-printed pamphlets that pile up around my desk. The very titles are pure adrenalin; Satyrs and Mephitic Angels, Tense Fodder, Hellhound Memos, Civic Crime, Alien Skies, Harpmesh Intermezzi, A Pocket History of the Soul. You don’t need to read them, just handle them: feel the sticky heat creep up through your fingers. If these things are ‘difficult’, they have earned that right. Why should they be easy? Why should they not reflect some measure of the complexity of the climate in which they exist? Why should we not be prepared to make an effort, to break sweat, in hope of high return? There’s no key, no Masonic password; take the sequences gently, a line at a time. Treat the page as a block, sound it for submerged sonar effects. Suspend conditioned reflexes. You don’t need to sign up for Tom Paulin’s masterclass to reap the reward. If it comes too sweetly, somebody’s trying to sell you something.”

As if to emphasise even more the links between one century and the next, three of the seven titles mentioned by Sinclair were published by Rod Mengham’s Cambridge based Equipage Press and there is perhaps a sense of appropriateness here in his being the co-editor of the first significantly challenging new anthology of the Twenty-First Century. In his introduction to Vanishing Points Mengham takes up the challenge of reading as thrown down by Randall Stevenson, looking at language on the page:

“The vanishing point lies beyond the horizon established by ruling conventions, it is where the imagination takes over from the understanding. Most anthologies of contemporary verse are filled with poems that do not cross that dividing-line, but our contention is that many poems in this volume are situated on the threshold of conventional sense-making. They go beyond the perspective of accepted canons of taste and judgement and ask questions about where they belong, and who they are meant for, often combining the pathos of estrangement with the irascibility of the refusenik.”

The thirty-two poets in this anthology are from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and United States of America but despite this wide geographical range what binds them together is “a strong insistence on finding ways of continuing and renewing the lyric impulse in poetry in English”. The British contributors include Caroline Bergvall, Brian Catling, David Chaloner, Andrew Crozier, Andrew Duncan, Roy Fisher, Ulli Freer, Tony Lopez, Barry MacSweeney, Anna Mendelssohn (Grace Lake), Drew Milne, Ian Patterson, J.H. Prynne, Peter Riley, Geoff Ward and John Wilkinson. Some of the poems in the anthology are from a much earlier date and Roy Fisher’s The Cut Pages first appeared in 1971 from Fulcrum Press before re-emerging in 1986 as a joint production of Oasis Books and Shearsman Books. Introducing the first appearance of the poem Fisher had told his readers that the “aim in the improvisation was to give the words as much relief as possible from serving in planned situations” and that the work “was taken forward with no programme beyond the principle that it should not know where its next meal was coming from”. This method of composition “produced very rapid changes of direction”. More on the cusp of the millennium Barry MacSweeney’s ‘Totem Banking’ and ‘I Looked Down On a Child Today’ were both written in 1998-1999 and included in his posthumous selected poems, Wolf Tongue, which appeared from Bloodaxe in 2003. ‘Totem Banking’ is dedicated to J.H. Prynne and the appropriate nature of its inclusion in this anthology is emphasised by Mengham’s introductory comments concerning the way in which “writers in this anthology have been part of a process of exchanging ideas manifested in little magazines, in the publishing programmes of small presses, and in the sheer volume of email and internet transactions”. It was Prynne, along with Andrew Crozier, who began much of this exchange of ideas with the creation and publication of The English Intelligencer back in the 1960s and it is a measure of the Cambridge poet’s professional commitment to new forms of writing that an extract from his own Red D Gypsum should form part of the new horizon posited by the editors of Vanishing Points.
Although Red D Gypsum was published by Barque Press (Andrea Brady and Keston Sutherland) in 1998 it was one of the later sequences which prompted Andrew Duncan in 2003 to write “Of course, Prynne’s aesthetic of difficulty often causes panic anxiety, feels like sensory deprivation, and invites misconstruction…people have different perceptions of what ‘good pattern’ is, and may experience incompleteness as anxiety as well as cognitive freedom”. Writing about the sequence in 2009 Nigel Wheale suggested that it is worth thinking about the sense in which reading it “may be a cumulative experience for the reader” requiring a different reading strategy. This, of course, is entirely in tune with the editorial comments in Vanishing Points and John Kinsella, the co-editor, stressed that “Typically, a poem gives the reader or listener something to take away from the text—an emotional gravitas, whimsical joy, intellectual or spiritual connection or awakening”.
At the end of the last century Kinsella had formed a publishing partnership with Clive Newman and Chris Hamilton-Emery and this new Salt Press heralded the world of Print-on-Demand (PoD). The press soon made a name for publishing a pluralist view of poetry and the 2004 publication of Vanishing Points was like the raising of a standard.

Ian Brinton 10th April 2017

The Meaning of Things: Poems and Prose by Elaine Randell (Shearsman Books)

The Meaning of Things: Poems and Prose by Elaine Randell (Shearsman Books)

There is an old saying about not judging other people until you have walked a mile in their shoes. In her reminiscences about her father, the concluding section of this powerfully moving new book, Elaine Randell puts it slightly differently:

“If anyone ever behaved badly or was criticised by my mother or me, he would always say, to know all is to forgive all, you have to understand why people do certain things and behave in a certain way before jumping in, Elaine.”

Elaine Randell’s career in social work and psychotherapy complements her substantial work as a poet which stretches back to Nos 3 & 4 of The Curiously Strong in November 1971 where she appeared alongside Barry MacSweeney in ‘The official Biography of Jim Morrison’, Just 22 And Don’t Mind Dying. Two years later a short book of poems appeared from MacSweeney’s Blacksuede Boot Press, Telegrams From The Midnight Country, and it is one of these short pieces that lingers in my mind as I read Randell’s new volume from Shearsman Books:

“See how the tree comes to
ward.
A heavy wind here pesters
loose wood.
Sky steps are light.
The birds fly up ex
static.”

In an interview the American Objectivist Charles Reznikoff suggested that poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling: it should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling. Of course the feeling is there in the selection of material: you pick certain things that are significant—that’s your feeling. You don’t go into the feeling; you portray it as well as you can, hoping that somebody else reading the poem will get your feeling:

“Now, as part of that, I should perhaps say that I try to be as clear and precise as possible….my own belief is to name and to name and to name—and to name in such a way that you have rhythm, since music (and I think George Oppen would agree with me) is also part of the meaning”.

I’m sure that Randell would certainly agree with Reznikoff and that early poem, titled ‘For You – Today’, would not look out of place in the 1934 Objectivist Press publication Jerusalem the Golden. For instance look at the three lines of ‘July’ in that Reznikoff volume:

“No one is in the street but a sparrow;
it hops on the glittering sidewalk,
and at last flies – into a dusty tree.”

Randell’s The Meaning of Things is divided into four sections the last being two autobiographical pieces of memory of the poet’s mother and father. In section II that naming and rhythm which mattered so much to both Reznikoff and Oppen is placed securely in ‘Easter 2014 Romney Marsh’:

“On such a day the skylark
heard above the tractor before seen
up that high.
Who could not be charged
by his ecstatic salute to life
upwards and yet further up he shows how to sing while flying
while
plummeting
vertically effortlessly hovering before parachuting back.
On such a day you had also heard this
known perhaps that despite their aerial activities,
skylarks nest on the ground not in trees which may catch the wind.”

Forty-four years ago in ‘For You – Today’ the second line opens with what might be perceived to be the second syllable of the word “toward”. However, by being placed where it is that word becomes a verb “ward” and the note of warning and care held in both sound and meaning of that small word leads the reader forward to the third line’s reference to “A heavy wind” and the repeated ‘w’s, agitated by the use of “pesters”, take us to the fragility of “loose wood”. In this new poem there is a contrast between the firm placing on a ground, “On such a day”, with the following nine syllables of line two ending in the open music of “seen”. The poem echoes the surge of movement and song as the lark moves “upwards and yet further up he shows how to sing while flying”.
George Oppen was a great admirer of the slightly older Reznikoff and in a 1959 letter to June Oppen Degnan, his half-sister and publisher of San Francisco Review, he wrote:

“Rezi wrote

Among the heap of brick and plaster lies
A girder, still itself among the rubbish.

Likely he could mull along and tell you what he had in mind. But how other than with this image could he put into your mind so clearly the miracle of existence—the existence of things. It is only because the image hits so clear and sudden that the poem means what it means. I don’t know that he could make it any clearer by talking about it.”

Elaine Randell’s new publication presents the reader with poetry and prose. The poetry stands clear on the page, THINGS. The prose, reminiscent of John Berger’s account of a doctor in the Forest of Dean in A Fortunate Man, gives us human voices that unsettle us with their convincing presentation of emptiness and perseverance, loss and determination. This is an important book.

Ian Brinton 4th March 2017

Your Scratch Entourage by Kris Hemensley (Cordite Books)

Your Scratch Entourage by Kris Hemensley (Cordite Books)

The introduction to this collection of poems by Kris Hemensley, the first to appear for some thirty years, makes an interesting and direct assertion taken from Alain (Emile Chartier):

“…men are afraid to complete their thoughts” [.]

This moment of realisation was shared between Lucas Weschke and Kris Hemensley as they were on their way to visit Greta Berlin whom Weschke had met in Zennor “as a small child and whose father, Sven Berlin, had enthralled a young Kris Hemensley in 1963 with the accoutrements of the artist and his first taste of red wine.”

One might be almost tempted to recall those words from the first chapter of Kenner’s The Pound Era where he refers to a moment on a Chelsea street in the early 1900s:

“Which is all of the story, like a torn papyrus. That is how the past exists, phantasmagoric weskits, stray words, random things recorded. The imagination augments, metabolizes, feeding on all it has to feed on, such scraps.”

The introduction goes on to give us a picture of how these poems relate to people in their places taking us “into deeply personal territory: the territory of sons and fathers, brothers and lovers; into the territory of war and its enduring shadows. The chapters are stakes embedded in the ground to mark what needed to be acknowledged”. The seven ‘chapters’, separate but connected areas of poetic ground, take the reader from 1971 to ‘Millenium Poems’, from Frank Prince to Ivor Gurney, from London to Weymouth:

“tracks along the shore
disappear almost as fast as they’re formed
in the sand”

The staked out land is a world of marked territory and as the poet looks back over a half-century of close involvement with the powerful urges and effects of language he recognises the clarity of “what’s the use of going against the wind?” :

“man, woman or child:
who walks here
whose footsteps disappear?”

This awareness of the effect of time is very different from Barry MacSweeney’s sharp outburst against the Colonel B and ‘Jury Vet’ mystification of truth from the ABC trial of 1977. Hemensley’s tone of voice uses the particular to point to the universal and his awareness of the way in which the staked out plots relate to each other is caught in the poem written in memory of MacSweeney:

“your scratch entourage
sans powder sans rouge
sans a sodding sausage
what’s it all in aid of
counted now on page 470 of Herodotus
inventory of spears swords daggers
shields bows & lassoes gold-plated helmets
of this & that regiment chain-mail tunics
women & tents horses & sheep
tanks & helicopter gunships
guided missile systems…”

An early poem which Kris Hemensley published in 1972 pointed us to ‘The Horizon’ where “the wider lights / lengthening days / the pink flood above / the tallest pine / blue grill of sky / talk of snow to come” lead on to a “question of occupation”:

“which time & place
awaiting spring…”

As Hemensley knows, we can only hope to occupy a here-and-now and his moving record of poems in this new collection offers a glance backward over a lifetime’s commitment. He might almost be thinking of Samuel Beckett’s Murphy who announced that “all life is figure and ground”. Meanwhile, as the seven sonnets which constitute the staked-out patch of ground titled ‘More Midsummer Night’s Dream Than Dante’ offer a mordant awareness of life passing we must also recall Flaubert writing to Louis Bouilhet in September 1850:

“Yes, stupidity consists in wanting to reach conclusions. We are a thread, and we want to know the whole cloth.”

Kris Hemensley is aware of the threads and, without wanting the whole cloth, he yearns to recognise how each field allows us a vision both backwards and for the future. This is a moving and serious collection of poems.

Ian Brinton 18th February 2017

The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan)

The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan)

I am no great reader of theoretical approaches to poetry but the name of the author of this one suggested something rather more exciting. I wasn’t disappointed! Of course when I first thought about reading this recent publication the well-worn quotation from Creeley to Olson about ‘form is never more than an extension of content’ sprang to mind. I have lived with this phrase for years and have often associated it in my mind with that early line from Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’:

‘Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy’

What I like about this new book by Robert Sheppard is the way in which I am taken back to the poems themselves (or the prose in the case of Veronica Forrest-Thomson) with that clear sense of what is at stake,

‘…the agency of form: how it extends, reveals or – in my terms – enacts, enfolds, and becomes content.’

This book is about how we read poetry and it is refreshing to hear Sheppard say that ‘form’ cannot be held any longer ‘to be a simple opposite to content, a vase containing water, or even a cloud permeated with moisture.’ As a former school-master I am delighted to read the reference to Wallace Stevens’s wry note ‘The poem is the poem, not its paraphrase’. That quotation itself should be given to all teachers of poetry to pin up in their classrooms!
There are chapters in this book dealing with, amongst many others, Tim Atkins and Peter Hughes, Rosemarie Waldrop, Geraldine Monk, Allen Fisher, Bill Griffiths and Barry MacSweeney. There is a chapter on ‘Translation as Transformation’ and it reads as if Sheppard had his copy to hand of Yves Bonnefoy’s The Curved Planks, translated by Hoyt Rogers with its terrific afterword about the French poet and the ‘Art of Translation’. Paraphrasing Mallarmé Rogers suggested that translations are not made with images , but with words, and goes on to refer to a letter sent him by Bonnefoy in which the focus is on the French word “bateau” which corresponds well with “boat”. In his poetry Bonnefoy often used the word “barque” but an English equivalent (“bark” or “barque”) simply won’t do since the word is far more unusual in our language. When Rogers settled for the word “boat” he recognised that the French “barque” was evocative because, as Bonnefoy put it, ‘between the consonants the vowel forms the same dark hollow we see in a boat between the curved planks of the prow and the stern’. In his translation Rogers settled for “boat” which itself has an accumulated lyric connotation through a precedent such as The Prelude with its episode of the stolen boat. In this chapter on ‘Translation as Transformation’ Robert Sheppard looks at the practice of rendering poetry from one language into another in terms of a textual engagement, a reading, a response to the original and suggests that ‘Poetry is what is found in translation, as we shall see’.
It was a delight to see a chapter on what I find the bizarre but intriguing world of Stefan Themerson, a world ‘like that of Lewis Carroll…in which logic and poetry wrestle’. In considering the building of cathedrals Themerson writes:

‘its tower
is the thought
of its buttresses’

An example of how Robert Sheppard prompts the reader into thinking closely about the poetry being read can be exemplified by the provocative consideration of Paul Batchelor’s Bloodaxe anthology of essays, Reading Barry MacSweeney (2013) and MacSweeney’s 1997 Bloodaxe publication, The Book of Demons where

‘…readers face two models of poesis, each of which may be seen doubly. The ‘Pearl’ poems, focused upon the figure of a mute young girl as reported by the suffering ‘Bar’, are either read as rich post-Wordsworthian pastoral or as sentimental bucolic. The second half of the volume, the contrasting ‘The Book of Demons’, is read either as the self-indulgent mythologizing of an alcoholic about alcoholism, or as evidence of MacSweeney’s deep, raw honesty about dependency and its attendant psychological horrors.’

Robert Sheppard’s book is one to keep dipping into: it prompts you to want to go back to sources whilst at the same time it offers advice about how to read poetry. It is no mere accident that the first chapter should look closely at Veronica Forrest-Thomson, the critic whose question was always ‘how do poems work’. Referring to the posthumous collection from 1976, On the Periphery, the question for Sheppard remains ‘how will the poems be made?’

Ian Brinton 21st October 2016

A Touch on the Remote Linda Saunders (Worple Press) Delineate Gemma Jackson (Lightning Source)

A Touch on the Remote  Linda Saunders (Worple Press)  Delineate  Gemma Jackson (Lightning Source)

Two events, one past and one to come: on Monday 4th April I was fortunate enough to hear Gemma Jackson read from her recently published sequence of poems, Delineate, in the Templeman Library at the University of Kent. On Thursday 12th May I intend going to the launch in Bath of Linda Saunders’s Worple publication, A Touch on the Remote. Both of these collections of poems deal with loss, its historical and geographical context, and the bridging quality of language that can make anguish appear both in its immediacy and in its more lasting ache. I wish that I had known of these two publications when I wrote about the phantom limb syndrome for Dorothy Lehane and Elinor Clegg’s neurological issue of Litmus in 2014…my loss!
Gemma Jackson is just completing her third year of a course in Creative Writing at the university and Delineate is her first chapbook publication whereas Linda Saunders has already published three volumes of poetry and been included in the New Women Poets anthology from Bloodaxe. Gemma Jackson’s work jumps off the page and stage in the manner of performance poetry but it also possesses a reflective quality which haunts one long after the performance is over. The opening piece catches the tone immediately: ‘I was just a little girl why didn’t you / stop me little girl stop why stop just / stop stop stop just j us t stop I was I / I iiiiii’. This fumbling towards expression brought back to me Barry MacSweeney’s ‘Pearl Alone’:

‘In good moments
I say smash down the chalkboard:
let it stay black.
Shake my chained tongue, I’ll fake a growl – a – a – a – a – a ’

MacSweeney was concerned with giving utterance to the trapped mind and Jackson gives voice to the stratum spinosum which can appear as a stain of ‘Human / whispering on hems’.
Linda Saunders’ forthcoming book from Worple Press is divided into four sequences, ‘Listening to Stone’, ‘A Touch on the Remote’, ‘Inflections of the Light’ and ‘The Sculptor’s House’. The epigraph, standing as an introduction to these linked sections, is from Ezra Pound’s version of Li Po’s ‘Taking Leave of a Friend’ and it opens with the words ‘…Mind like a floating wide cloud’ in which the word ‘wide’ is suggestive perhaps of the distance envisaged in John Donne’s ‘A Valediction: forbidding mourning’. In Donne’s poem the geographical sense of distance between two lovers can be bridged by contemplating the use of mathematical instruments, ‘stiff twin compasses’, or by the width of hammered gold beaten ‘to airy thinness’. In the language of Saunders’ ‘Thin Air’ this palpability of absence becomes

‘It’s the utter thinness
of what or who has gone,
the air less thick with presence –’

It is not by mere chance that another voice behind these poems should be that of Basil Bunting whose Briggflatts closes with the statement

‘Fifty years a letter unanswered;
a visit postponed for fifty years.

She has been with me for fifty years.

Starlight quivers. I had day enough.
For love uninterrupted night.’

One of the most effective of these poems of loss is in the title sequence in which the poet seeks ways of touching an absent son ‘across the latitudes / and lapse of years’. The very consonantal emphasis on the ‘t’ in the first noun is softened into a resolution of absence felt in the cadence of ‘lapse’ and the stretching out of time in ‘years’, a word so close to both ‘tears’ and ‘yearns’. The poem I am thinking of is titled ‘Twice as Far = Twice as Fast’. After referring to the Big Bang theory of universal expansion the poem asserts that

‘It’s only that space is growing.
All the atoms remain the same,

but are moved farther apart
by space ballooning outwards.’

The conclusion is that ‘as distance increases so does the speed // of parting’.

As if nodding to Bunting’s stonemason who had scorned ‘Words!’ on the ground that ‘Pens are too light. / Take a chisel to write’, Linda Saunders places steps of stone throughout her four sequences: from the opening, ‘Underfoot, it’s limestone’, to the concluding poem titled ‘Stepping Stones’ we are lead with deft confidence through a terrain that is receding. Pound’s epigraph closes with the words

‘Sunset like the parting of old acquaintances
Who bow over their clasped hands at a distance,
Our horses neigh to each other
As we are departing.’

Linda Saunders’ ends her volume with a child who finds the ‘foot-shapes of stone’ and wonders ‘Where will they go?’ A question to which the notes at the end of Gemma Jackson’s sequence give one type of answer: note to page 19, ‘6570 – the number of days in 18 years’.

Ian Brinton 5th April 2016

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