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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

I Heard It Through The Grapevine: Asa Benveniste & Trigram Press (Shearsman Books)

I Heard It Through The Grapevine: Asa Benveniste & Trigram Press (Shearsman Books)

As with the best contextual histories Jeremy Reed’s account of the Trigram Press and of Asa Benveniste’s poetry has a clear narrative quality to it. As readers we are drawn into the world of the ‘submerged cult’ which ‘takes as its resources a US-inflected tone’:

‘…an image-packed line as individual as any you’ll get in the blue transitioning air-miles of seventies trans-Atlantic poetry.’

Reed highlights for us the way in which Benveniste’s poetry ‘involves the real work of making language physical’ and he relates this most naturally to the poet’s acute awareness of the world of printing. The story of Trigram Press, based at 148 King’s Cross Road, London WC1 is told with an energy and sense of mystery that draws us in as we confront the mainstream British poetry of the post-1950s which Reed sees as ‘obdurately resistant to US experimentation via Black Mountain and the O’Hara / Ashbery bouncy New York influence’ which was feeding energies into the subcultures ‘like pop, sex, drugs, and the whole urban streetwise dynamic that was the signposting of modern life, and the breaking-up of formal poetics into edgier reconfigurated patterns.’

Towards the end of this lively little book we have a Trigram Press Bibliography and it is now possible to see how the world of Anselm Hollo and Tom Raworth moves towards an interest in George Barker and J.H. Prynne as At Thugarton Church is published in 1969 and Prynne’s News of Warring Clans appears in 1977 alongside two of Zukofsky’s “A” poems.

This volume contains a sequence of Jeremy Reed’s own poems about Asa Benveniste as well as the latter’s 1980 short essay ‘Language: Enemy, Pursuit’. In addition it contains Benveniste’s sequence Edge which appeared from Joe Di Maggio in 1975 and a further essay by Reed which is not a biography of Asa Benveniste and Trigram Press ‘but a personally selective mapping of significantly great aspects of both’. In the twenty pages of this section we read of Barry MacSweeney’s Odes, which ‘triggered a socially dissident and subversive thrust to the Trigram quota’, and how Ed Dorn recommended Benveniste to publish Prynne’s News of Warring Clans, ‘as a partial concession to the Cambridge curators of language-poetry’ which Benveniste preferred to call ‘wallpaper’.

One of the attractive elements of this book is the way Jeremy Reed talks about the importance of poetry as well as his own immense debt to this maverick man-in-black:

‘Even today I test what I write against his imagined approval or disapproval. If it isn’t weird enough then push it out further to the edge and saturate the image. Always write like you’re inventing tomorrow, that’s my reason for doing poetry, unlike mainstream poets who are frozen into a largely redundant past.’

Referring to Benveniste’s work as a publisher we are offered a picture of the late sixties which includes both Cape Goliard and Fulcrum Press. For my own money I would most certainly add Ferry Press to this list. After all, Andrew Crozier’s early productions made significant attempts to bridge that pond between the US and little England when he published Fielding Dawson and Stephen Jonas along with John James, Jeremy Prynne and Chris Torrance. In 1966 Ferry Press was responsible for Jonas’s Transmutations with its drawings by Black Mountain artist Basil King and introduction by John Wieners.

Perhaps I should conclude this short review by quoting from one of the many delights to be found in this short book:

Statement from Trigram 1969 catalogue

‘The writers and artists whose books have been published under the Trigram imprint appear to work in acute conditions of exile, living and thinking on the edges of society, some outside their own countries, others within, hallucinated by a series of mental doorways. In common, they have striven for an individual voice that in any circumstance has to be heard. No artist can do more or should do any less than that.’

Ian Brinton 4th March 2016

Tears in the Fence 62

Tears in the Fence 62

Tears in the Fence 62 is now available from https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, fiction and essays from Simon Smith, Nancy Gaffield, Patricia Debney, Andy Fletcher, Michael Farrell, John Freeman, Afric McGlinchey, Anamaria Crowe Serrano, Anamaria Crowe Serrano & Robert Sheppard, Sarah Connor, Samuel Rogers, Rose Alana Frith, Michael Grant, Charles Hadfield, Mike Duggan, Dorothy Lehane, Vicki Husband, Hilda Sheehan, Andrew Darlington, David Miller, Karl O’Hanlon, Amy McCauley, Rupert Loydell & Daniel Y Harris, Sam Smith, Rodney Wood, David Greenslade, Lesley Burt, L.Kiew, Graheme Barrasford Young, Andrew Lees, Michael Henry, James Bell, Rhys Trimble, Sophie McKeand, Haley Jenkins, Alexandra Sashe-Seekirchner, Richard Thomas, Alec Taylor and Steve Spence.

The critical section consists of David Caddy’s Editorial, Anthony Barnett’s Antonym, Jennifer K. Dick’s Of Tradition & Experiment XII, Alan Munton on Steve Spence, Andrew Duncan on Kevin Nolan’s Loving Little Orlick, David Caddy on Gillian White’s Lyric Shame, Robert Vas Dias on Jackson Mac Low, Laurie Duggan on Alan Halsey, Chris McCabe on Reading Barry MacSweeney, Mandy Pannett on Angela Gardner, Mary Woodward, Ric Hool on Ian Davidson, William Bonar, Steve Spence on John Hartley Williams, Linda Benninghoff on Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, Notes On Contributors
and Ian Brinton’s Afterword.

21st September 2015

Kelvin Corcoran’s Radio Archilochos (Marquette Press 2014)

Kelvin Corcoran’s Radio Archilochos (Marquette Press 2014)

The shadowy background to this carefully judged sequence of poems by Kelvin Corcoran is provided by both the Greek lyric poet Archilochus, from the seventh century B.C., and the Aegean island of Paros on which he possibly lived and died in battle with the men from Naxos:

‘Archilochos, his voice broken, sits collapsed,
legs splayed on the soft bed of summer dust;
a spear sticks out of his chest, its black length
rises and dips with his last breath and the next.’

In the Loeb Classical Library’s volume of Greek Elegy and Iambus the translations of J.M. Edmonds from the existing fragments of the work of Archilochus present the reader with a figure of humour and pathos, realism and a lyricism which echoes down the centuries:

‘I love not a tall general nor a straddling, nor one proud of his hair nor one part-shaven; for me a man should be short and bowlegged to behold, set firm on his feet, full of heart.’

The fragments of the Greek give us a man from over two thousand years ago ‘stood on the edge between sea and wind’. Kelvin Corcoran gives us a present-day world where ‘The whole place is out of season, buried, / the crested grey wave curls under a grey sky.’

There are of course other shadows in the background, poetic ones. I detect a voice of Robert Browning behind the spat words

‘Above all else I swear bad poetry will do for me,
the lickspittle decrepitude of our lolling tongue;
after invasion and the markets going yoyo mental
etymology alone counts, crooks make snots of words.’

There is the haunting voice of the folk ballad ‘Barbara Allen’ transferred from Scarlet Town to Candid Town and there is the uncompromising ‘I’ of Barry MacSweeney’s Ranter ‘calling / on VHF’:

‘Then I am a man.
One third, warming
the fipple.
His flute song.’

(Ranter, Slow Dancer Press, 1985, p. 11)

‘I am The Man I am I claim
to please the boys in the clinch;
think all the dirty work we did
tropes cast in blank memory?’

Most of all of course there is the voice of Kelvin Corcoran whose poems are ‘dense, intense, filled with sharp fast thought’ (Lee Harwood) and for whom myth is a living presence:

‘The ancient landscape overlays the modern and I see the mythology as local and useful and not detached from the everyday.’

(from an interview with Andrew Duncan published in Don’t Start Me Talking, Salt, 2006 and quoted in Andy Brown’s introduction to his indispensable Corcoran reader, The Writing Occurs as Song, Shearsman 2014)

The chapbook Radio Archilochos confirms one’s opinion that Corcoran is at the front of contemporary poetry: the lyric grace of his language is threaded with an historical perspective that raises the poetry far beyond the world of a localised present.

Radio Archilochos is published by Andy Brown’s Maquette Press and is the first in a new series of chapbooks which will soon include The Hospital Punch by Sally Flint and A Plume of Smoke by Jos Smith. Copies can be obtained from the Press at 7 Grove Terrace, Teignmouth, Devon TQ14 9HT.

Ian Brinton 21st November 2014

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