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Operations of Water by Ian Seed (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

Operations of Water by Ian Seed (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

Seashore scenarios, the fluidity of water and the hardness of ice are images that recur in Ian Seed’s second collection from Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, which is reminiscent of Montale’s ‘Arsenio’, who wanders around at the beach, where his thoughts and hopes are erased by the backwash after a storm. Arsenio’s ‘immoto andare’ (motionless motion) is a very good description of Seed’s uncertainties, his sense of displacement, the fragmentation of the self, his isolation and his loneliness as he engages in a heedless search for a meaning. These themes were already present in his first full collection, Anonymous Intruder (Shearsman Books, 2009), in which the protagonist’s ‘feeling of lostness’ cannot be resolved. Multiple encounters mark a meandering journey that does not reach a definite ending. While the first collection was composed of structured poems and prose poems, Operations of Water is more experimental in form; this emphasises a sense of letting go and an openness to even less defined perspectives. The themes are explored in a deeper way, revealing a profound sense of displacement and emptiness that nevertheless is always in process, like water that is flowing. Everything seems ever-changing, shifting, fluid; there are ‘fluctuating life stories to be shared’ in an ‘emptiness [that] is not nothing’. The estrangement from the body and the concept of authenticity are therefore even more challenged in this last collection. The poet is open to the mysteries of experience, which is unresolved, questioned and ultimately unknown.

The collection is divided into four parts that are mostly composed of sequences of poems that delve into the different concepts, mixing conversational language and abstract imageries. The dialogue is open and provisional, hinting at Baudelaire’s correspondence and the magical world of folk tales. The uncertainty of the human condition is acknowledged and so is the illusion of any faithfulness to firm theories. The protagonist ‘mix[es] a cocktail’, negotiating relationships in ‘a solitude that is not/in your control and cannot be sweetened’. Seed’s questioning is stringent in some poems, addressing existential concerns which remain unresolved and distant. The search for a home ends in desolation; it is ‘a vanishing place’ or ‘an abandoned house’ where the protagonist experiences his inadequacy: his body is ‘a stranger to itself’. Striking images confirm this idea, as in ‘Phantom Limbs’ after Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in which the body and the mind merge in a multifaceted view and the amputated limbs can be renewed in the imagination as a memory; they are entities that do not exist anymore.

The reference to Dante’s ‘donna gentile’ is again an illusion and does not give respite to the poet. The woman’s spiritual healing power is reversed in reference to the trapping frozen lake that is reminiscent of the Cocytus at the bottom of Dante’s Inferno where the traitors are punished.

This incompleteness not only causes uncertainty but also anxiety. It is a consistent state of lingering and may end in a fall. The final section, ‘Operations of Water’, is a long sequence of poems composed of nine parts but it actually reads as a continuum of unpunctuated double-spaced lines; they are fragments connected by enjambments, recalling in their form and in the tone the flowing of water. Openness, tenderness, the inside and the outside play infinite roles in these final compelling poems. Imageries follow one another, developing in ‘rippling promises’ and ‘unwinding paths’ and rising ‘in abyss and within depth’. The protagonist strolls around in this reality whose essence is unreal and surreal and has the dual symbology of water, that is, death and renewal. Seed engages the reader in the whirlpool of his imagination, conveying his ideas in deft lines that always surprise with their freshness and consistently affirm his ideas.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 25th August 2021

The Underground Cabaret by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

The Underground Cabaret by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

The ‘small square of blocks of prose presented as poetry’, as Ian Seed once defined prose poems, is deftly crafted in this collection, which is the final volume of a quartet, following New York HotelIdentity Papers and Makers of Empty Dreams. The stories, or, more accurately, fragments of stories, are tight, sharp and fascinating in their essentiality, revealing a surreal perspective that exists at the verge of absurdity, an upside-down world that is real and unreal at the same time. As in surrealist thought, so-called tangible reality is considered artificial, and, in opposition to that, the world of dreams, or nightmares, becomes the ‘real’ world. It is a subversive perspective that challenges and questions not only our certainties but also our perceptions. The detailed descriptions present in Seed’s prose poems set his pieces in a credible environment that is nevertheless reverted and subverted in each prose poem. It is a play of mirrors where characters and images are always shifting and suggest different meanings or no meaning at all. This conveys a sense of deep uncertainty but also great freedom of thought and movement. Repetitive patterns give consistency to this collection in a relentless exploration of themes such as loneliness, isolation, loss of identity, absence of passion and alienation; they emerge from everyday life and obsess the protagonist.

We found what looked like a piece of light, unmoving, frozen in the shape of a human being. We were afraid to touch it – it looked cold enough to burn us. What would happen if we could unfreeze it? Would it melt and vanish, or would it keep its shape and come alive? Could we take it away with us? Would it make any difference to how we lived, or loved, one way or another? (‘In the Empty House’)

     Some settings recur, such as second-hand bookshops, tunnels, corridors, beds, cafés and different cities located in Italy, France and England where Seed has travelled and lived. They are claustrophobic environments where the protagonist feels lost, haunted by his visions, and diminished and ignored by his friends and family. People who are commonly considered vulnerable, such as elderly people, migrants, homeless people and orphans, are sometimes depicted, with deliberate irony, as threatening; they invade his space and he flees from them. The poet’s inner self observes this comedy of life of sorts and is detached and estranged; he strays from the main focus of his stories and is eventually distracted by marginal details that derange the apparent logic of the discourse. Thus, the stories are unresolved and each ending often contradicts the beginning in an exploration that seems to be triggered by pure curiosity for its own sake. As Baudelaire claims in the introduction of Paris Spleen, prose poems have ‘neither head nor tail, since, on the contrary, it is all alternately and reciprocally head and tail’. He adds that prose poems communicate a reverie in a ‘poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple and choppy enough to accommodate the lyrical movement of the soul’. Seed also refers to the prose poems of Kenneth Patchen (Love and War Poems, published in 1968) he read in his youth as well as to William Blake, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy and Jeremy Over. In his essay ‘Discovery and Rediscovery (published in Fortnightly Review on 19 October 2018), Seed remarks how much he admires the lyricism of the language of the prose poem that contrasts with the objectivity of the description. According to him, this greatly enforces the message and highlights a subversive side out of academic and commercial worlds. This strategy attracted his imagination to the point of inspiring him to write in new ways after two decades of silence and to publish his work eventually. Seed’s work is not only in line with the tradition of the prose poems of Baudelaire and those written by recent authors but he also incorporates unusual elements, uncanny views that involve the protagonist. He withdraws when life attempts to grip him, when nothing makes a difference and mud and gold might be interchangeable. Therefore, the inadequacy of the protagonist, who often slips and falls when he is near the goal, seems quite intentional, a way of ‘making fun of the authorities’ and so avoiding being involved in what is considered a meaningless game. This opens up the poems to different views and boundless freedom that are always in dialogue with who we imagine we are and who we would like to be.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 21st July 2021

In An Ideal World I’d Not Be Murdered by Chaucer Cameron (Against The Grain Press)

In An Ideal World I’d Not Be Murdered by Chaucer Cameron (Against The Grain Press)

In this visceral, utterly essential poetry pamphlet, described as ‘part memoir, part fiction’, Cameron gives voice to what is arguably one of society’s most unheard groups: women working in the sex trade. Significantly, here is a woman’s voice in marked contrast to the male gaze of poets such as Charles Bukowski or Charles Baudelaire.

The collection’s harrowing title immediately gives a flavour of the bitter irony that characterises this poetry. There is a formidable, compelling honesty here which, combined with a deft and well-judged use of subtext, draws the reader into the poem’s world. Note the first poem, ‘128 Farleigh Road’, in which the speaker candidly observes a man lying dead at the bottom of the stairs, ‘Body Marks’, in which Caprice, Eve, Grace and Morgan speak flash in the pan images of the scars on their bodies. A palpable thread of dissociation runs throughout the book; love is ‘a forewarning of attack’, and the pamphlet’s characters ‘try to disarm you with laughter’. In ‘Cartoons’, the speaker tells of having ‘a near miss’, and of coping with this trauma by remembering her childhood spent watching The Flintstones.

Reading this pamphlet following the murder of Sarah Everard intensified the emotions stirred by the pamphlet’s narrative arc. Poems such as ‘The Green’ were all the more terrifying. Its ominous second stanza – ‘It was a dark winter evening. / Ellen still had a twenty-minute walk home’ – paves the way for the bleak declarative description of Ellen’s fate in the third stanza: ‘It took three days to discover the body, / reporters said it was hard to identify // – devoured mostly’. Ellen’s italicised thoughts surge out of the night – ‘That rustling crack closing in / must be animal.’ This line conveys what women have always known – that many monsters we encounter in life are not animal: rather, they are human. 

Of all the book’s affecting voices, Crystal’s is both enduring and particularly moving. It is rare to come across such a convincing character conveyed entirely through lines and stanzas. In ‘Switchblades’, when the pamphlet introduces Crystal, she is on the defensive. In her italicised lines, she boasts that she ‘carries switchblades’, and taunts the speaker: ‘I’ve heard you with the punters – / you’re no escort, you’re a whore’. However, several encounters in a King’s Cross Café show Crystal in various states of vulnerability. In one such encounter, she refers to her body as ‘bought and sold’. In another, she delivers a dramatic monologue in prose poem form, where she examines abortion: ‘It’s not that hard to flush a foetus down the loo, unless you listen to that claptrap from the pro-life lot…how could you flush a little beating heart down the toilet and not commit suicide when you can’t live with the flashbacks?’ One cannot help but hope that, whether her character is based on a real person to any extent, as several of these characters are, or whether she is purely a fictional character, her story ends with her, as she says in ‘King’s Cross Café (III)’, ‘getting out of this’.

The pamphlet ends with a hauntingly beautiful image, ‘It’s busy on the Thames; / Canary Wharf, I hear it sing’. This final couplet is left ringing in the air, a fleck of heartbreaking beauty among the ‘eerie’ grit of the speaker and subject’s world – ‘it’s extra cold tonight’ – and nightly rituals – inserting tampons and assuring themselves that ‘the cramps will ease with Valium’. In the pamphlet’s title poem, the speaker says of Crystal, ‘she understood erasure, turned it into artforms’, and Cameron’s poetry accomplishes exactly this. There is something remarkably compelling about not only the sparing use of language, but also the use of white space throughout the course of the pamphlet. These words emerge from a blankness onto the page, starkly, bluntly, and irrevocably said. 

Olivia Tuck 19th April 2021

Sarments by John James (Shearsman Books)

Sarments by John James (Shearsman Books)

‘Recollection Ode: Les Sarments’ was originally published in Cloud Breaking Sun (Oystercatcher Press 2012) and it came as no surprise that John James should have read this poem at the launch of his new Shearsman collection in Swedenborg Hall on 10th April. It opens with time moving:

“as August counts itself out
like a Rosary worn with kisses
autumn arrives when you least expect it”

The tolled beads of moment “mark the narrative in earth” and that line itself takes the reader back to ‘Poem Beginning with a Line of Andrew Crozier’ which also appeared in the Oystercatcher of 2012.
This is a carefully put together volume of John James’s poetry and as one reads through it there is a compelling sense of how his world is constituted of interlinking ideas: we sense the man behind the poet. This new publication is a living testament to what he had written back in 1977 in the Street Editions sequence ‘A Theory of Poetry’:

“there you will discover
particular people at a particular time
& in a particular place
these people are the others
without whom you would not exist”

The poetry of John James is peopled with presences and it seems appropriate in the ‘Recollection Ode’ (note the title) that he should write “those who love must also hope”: an attention to the particular which constitutes love is closely bound up with a sense of the future as well as the past. The ode concludes

“I wish you the fruits of the four seasons
& every day as the sun beckons
may you be delivered to that daily glow.”

Given this focal stance which casts its eye both backward and forward it is also appropriate that the poem preceding the ode should be ‘October’ recalling the Cambridge days when the poet met up with both Tim Longville and Jeremy Prynne:

“I’m meeting Tim at Millers at 6.00 p.m.
the hearth will glow the ale will flow
the banter will be light & fancy
later we’ll go on to Jeremy’s rooms
& take a generous glass of Glenmorangie”

That poem also dwells with the particular nature of the Now in terms of the Future as the smell of “wet dust after rain” concludes with “I think it was called hope”.
This new volume also includes some of the poems from the fine Equipage publication from 2011, In Romsey Town. Here a ‘Nocturne with Baudelaire’ opens with “a singular glance” before going on later to appease the “thirsty heart” by invocation:

“pour again hope
la primeur”

The energetic move forward in the plea takes some of its power by casting a sly glance at one of Baudelaire’s ‘Spleen’ poems in which the sky “verse” (pours) a hopeless day upon our heads and hope is seen as a bat trapped by walls and rotted ceilings. James’s poem concludes very differently as “pride / the virtue of the work” restores “to us an inkling / of the sacred.” And it is that word “inkling” that took me back to a letter written in 2010 by Roger Langley in which he referred to his early poem ‘Matthew Glover’:

“The pleasure lay in writing about the little willow tree I knew and how it blew in the wind, the willow warblers I had watched in the bushes at dusk on the border of the parish. Nothing so personally particular in Olson. I would guess my deepest feelings have always been for Coleridge’s Conversation Poems, the Lime Tree Bower, the shock which begins where the particular strikes, beyond any general concepts, geographical, historical or whatever. The movement of the leaves as they are shaken in that particular little cutting by the water of the stream stirring the air around them, not even worrying too much about ideas of the One Life, for instance. Perhaps Peter Larkin’s Being Seen for Seeing: a tribute to RF Langley’s Journals gets it somewhere as I feel it, though I only saw this piece recently and it is mainly about the Journals, as it says. Something that happens just beyond the most exact observation, something that remains this side of the transcendental, and thus basically rather hopeless in a way, but yet, but yet…the particular spills further still, beyond what I am managing.”

Among the new and uncollected poems published in Sarments there is ‘On reading J.H. Prynne’s Sub Songs’, nine poems addressing the titles of the poems in Prynne’s 2010 Barque Press volume. The opening of the first poem titled after the original, ‘As Mouth Blindness’, presents us with a re-cadencing of the quotation from King Lear in which the reduced King bears the dead body of Cordelia. Prynne’s original had “Her voice was ever low” and the James poem opens “her low voice beguiles me / amid the tumultuous foul // eases my head / in sleep at night”. It is perhaps that beguiling that might lead one on to recollect
what John Hall once described as John James’s “quiet and tender acts in the departing shadow of the inevitably fugitive.”
This poetry places the smallest of individual moments, accurately recorded, against the backdrop of human frailty and being. Life is made up of the small moments intruding into which “a sudden enormity / changes everything”. That poem John James wrote soon after the funeral of Andrew Crozier in 2008 beginning with a line from ‘Free-Running Bitch’ perhaps affirms one of the most central aspects of this very fine poet’s oeuvre:

“I reach toward the poetry of kindred
Where we speak in our work as we seldom do otherwise”

Ian Brinton, May 8th 2018

Poems by Georges Rodenbach Selected, translated & introduced by Will Stone (Arc Publications)

Poems by Georges Rodenbach Selected, translated & introduced by Will Stone (Arc Publications)

When I reviewed Will Stone’s translation of Stefan Zweig’s Messages from a Lost World for The London Magazine (October/November 2016) I stressed the “clarity and insight” of his introduction. The substantial twelve page introduction to this attractively produced bi-lingual edition of Rodenbach’s selected poems is a clear reminder yet again of how the translator and literary critic/historian treads a path to the reader: Stone brings the world of Rodenbach’s eerie white shades to the fore and we can recognise the ways in which Baudelaire, Rilke and even the early Eliot can be seen within an urban landscape.
The introduction opens with the picture of a man, “half-framed by an open window” standing in front of a background which seems to be of Bruges:

“He is a spectral figure drifting across the canal’s greenish-black waters, his dark jacket blending naturally with its opaque surface, suggesting an area of confusion where dream and reality converge.”

Rodenbach’s treatment of Bruges, the Venice of the North, presents us with a supernatural landscape; a world where, as Will Stone puts it, “what is seemingly dead speaks, where the worn-away stone, even the grass and moss growing up through the cobblestones, have a voice detected only by those who are endowed with the sensibility to receive the true soul of the town”:

“It is this treatment of Bruges as a poetic vehicle for a mood, one of supreme melancholy, which forms the backbone of not only these poems but Rodenbach’s entire oeuvre.”

The melancholy atmosphere of the town and the haunted sense of the poet trapped within a chain of noises is vividly there for the reader from the very first poem chosen by the translator, ‘Dimanches/Sundays’. The “Mournful Sunday afternoons in winter” are made more vivid as “some inconsolable weather cock creaks / alone on a roof-top like a bird of iron!”. As if to emphasise the living death of this world where a long-gone Medieval history seeks refuge within the “vieux hôtels” and lanterns seem “to burn for the cortege of some deity”, the sudden clashing of bells intrudes to offer a complement to a funeral:

“And now of a sudden the restless bells
disturb the belfry planted in its pride,
and their sound, heavy with bronze, slowly falls
on the coffin of the town as if in spadefuls.”

As readers we are inevitably reminded of those bells of Baudelaire’s ‘Spleen’ which “tout à coup sautent avec furie” bringing with them not only the “esprits errants et sans patrie” but also the funeral cortege which files its way slowly through the poet’s mind.
There are four poems from the 1896 publication Les Vies Encloses (The Enclosed Lives) included in this selection and two of them, ‘Aquarium Mental / Mental Aquarium’ are particularly striking to my mind.

“Aquarium water, drear night, half-light,
where thought passes in brief appearances
like shadows of a great tree over a wall.”

Or again:

“Yet in the water, from time to time, something strays,
circles, opens out or obliquely shifts;
luminous shivers tense this water that drifts
– like spasms of light from a diamond! –
a murky fish undulates, a weed in mourning stirs,
the soft sand scree of the bed collapses as if
sand in time’s hourglass upended;
and sometimes too, on the transfixed crystal,
a flaccid monster, blurred image, shows on the surface,
while the water suffers, seeming to drowse,
and senses, in her morose lethargy, a thousand shadows
giving her ceaseless shivers as they pass
making her surface one great spreading wound.”

Without suggesting for one moment that there is a direct influence here I am drawn from this poetry to the ‘afterword’ that Jeremy Prynne wrote for his edition of Parataxis Number 7, Spring 1995, in which he introduced the reader to the Chinese Language-Poetry Group that had been based at Suzhou University in the summer of 1991:

“Within the great aquarium of language the light refracts variously and can bounce by inclinations nor previously observed. Some of the codes will unfold with merely adept connivance, others will swim vigorously into and by circulation inside their own medium.”

These thoughts may well have developed from a letter Prynne wrote in April 1992 to one of the Chinese poets represented in the Parataxis anthology, Zhou Ya-Ping:

“Language is an instrument of symbolic performance and representation that also has no independently direct connection to ‘a real world’: it belongs to men and to their sense of the possible just as much as of the actual…If the level and method of representation are shifted strongly into the language-world it may seem like fantasy; but it is a way of thinking about potential experience, liberating the mind from clumsy and doctrinaire ‘realism’ while keeping a complex connection with its components.”

In Rodenbach’s aquarium world “underwater dreams are ceaselessly voyaging” leading to an unending “buried life”.
Yet again Arc Publications, in this guest-edited volume by Olivia Hanks, has revealed itself to be one of the most important poetry presses working in this country. Long may it continue!

Ian Brinton, 8th May 2017

Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire trans. Jan Owen (Arc Publications)

Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire trans. Jan Owen (Arc Publications)

The arrival of a new translation of Baudelaire is always a moment of real interest and this recent publication which appeared last month is no exception. The Australian poet Jan Owen introduces her translations by highlighting what it was that drew her to Baudelaire’s work in the first place:

‘I was drawn to Baudelaire not through any intrinsic resemblance but by his ‘sorcellerie évocatoire’: the distilled power and daring images, the combination of intensity and grace, and the unpredictable mix of formality and intimacy. Those memorable first lines and resonant last lines, that shifting emotional terrain between!’

This is a fine introductory comment and I turned to one of my favourite ‘Spleen’ poems to see how the power and unpredictability came over. The poem, ‘Quand le ciel bas et lourd pèse comme un couvercle’ always seems to be to be a good test of a translator’s sensitivity. It is the poem written about by the great Erich Auerbach in an essay titled ‘The Aesthetic Dignity of the Fleurs du Mal’ where he talks of the temporal clauses describing a rainy day with low, heavy hanging clouds; a sky like a heavy lid closing off the horizon ‘leaving us without prospect in the darkness’.

The opening of Jan Owen’s version is very effective:

‘When the long low sky weighs down like a lid
on the spirit groaning with disgust and doubt,
and in at the far horizon rim is poured
a day that’s sadder than the darkest night;

when earth is changed to a narrow, fetid jail
where Hope, a frantic bat, twitching and reeling,
scrapes her timid wings on every wall
and knocks her head against the rotted ceiling’

I like this much more than the Richard Howard poem I have become used to from 1982:

‘When skies are low and heavy as a lid
over the mind tormented by disgust,
and hidden in the gloom the sun pours down
on us a daylight dingier than the dark;

when earth becomes a trickling dungeon where
Trust like a bat keeps lunging through the air,
beating tentative wings along the walls
and bumping its head against the rotten beams’

The alexandrine metre of the original French makes it clear that this is a solemn poem, to be spoken in grave tones. It includes allegorical figures written with capital letters and the reader is trapped between the lofty tone of the exclamation and the indignity of the emotional imprisonment. Reading Jan Owen’s version I like the drawn out lines with their beat of emphasis, nails in a spiritual coffin, and I like the merging of ‘disgust’ with ‘doubt’. The second two lines of that first stanza provide an interesting image of the day being poured in as if from a jug to a dish whilst the Howard version lacks that visual precision. In the second stanza Jan Owen’s bat (Hope) twitches and reels with a sense of the frantic prisoner trapped inside the cell of a room as opposed to Howard’s more nightmare-like noise of the bat ‘bumping its head’.

In his 2007 notes on ‘Some aspects of poems and translations’ Jeremy Prynne suggested that ‘Teachers of a foreign language often say to their students, if you can read and understand poems written in the foreign language, then you will have insights into the very heart of another culture; but the tasks are often very hard, and also frustrating, because it is mostly not possible to know whether an attempted understanding of a poem has been successful or not.’
He also suggested that translation is a noble art’ making bridges for readers who want to cross the divide between their own culture and those cultures which are situated in other parts of the world.’

Jan Owen’s translation of Baudelaire is a noble attempt and it is already becoming for me the version which I want to recommend to others.

Ian Brinton 10th July 2015

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