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Meridian by Nancy Gaffield (Longbarrow Press)

Meridian by Nancy Gaffield (Longbarrow Press)

“The idea was to walk the line from Peacehaven to the Humber. I had devised the notion that the physical act of walking would help me to locate what was lost”.

We are immediately presented with a topographical focus and I can feel myself wanting to reach for Edward Thomas’s The Icknield Way in which he opened his 1913 walk with the words

“Much has been written of travel, far less of the road. Writers have treated the road as a passive means to an end, and honoured it most when it has been an obstacle; they leave the impression that a road is a connection between two points which only exists when the traveller is upon it.”

However, it very quickly becomes clear that Nancy Gaffield’s 270 mile walk, the Greenwich Meridian Trail from Peacehaven to Sand le Mere, is immersed in far more than topography. Her opening epigraph is taken from Charles Olson’s study of Herman Melville, Call Me Ishmael, and it is neatly adapted to her venture of discovery, a venture which prompts her forward whilst reawakening the past: “SPACE” is the “central fact to [wo]man born in America” and Gaffield’s movement through space is guided by Robert Moor’s exploration of trails:

“The key difference between a trail and a path is directional: paths extend forward, whereas trails extend backward”.

The reference to Olson at the very start of the book’s journey is by no means accidental and in the opening poem ‘ORDNANCE SURVEY MAP 122: BRIGHTON & HOVE’ we read of “Disturbances within the threshold / of hearing are sampled in time” and those disturbances have a lyrical echo down the years. This is a person who is “six years old again / learning to read / the landscape”. The musical echoes of wisps of language become

“The song that the rigging makes,
Port of Gloucester. The acoustics
of the sea. Here / there”

If we can hear Olson in that reference then when, extending backward, we look at the trail that got us moving we can also hear T.S. Eliot and the Gloucester poet’s “space of enunciation” traces a landscape that contains a reference to the last section of Bostonian ‘Preludes’ which itself looks backwards to the Whitman who sings the body electric “out on the vacant lot at sundown after work”.
In the generous section of Acknowledgements at the end of this book’s adventure Nancy Gaffield expresses her gratitude for those who accompanied her on the walk (Kat Peddie) and those who were there “in spirit”: Helen Adam, John Clare and Paul Celan. And here lies a major point about this autobiographical expression of how path and trail belong within the same covers: we carry our reading, our influences, with us as they have formed the person who we are. Some of these influences lie buried and do not obtrude themselves as landmarks on the pathway and in this way Edward Thomas’s ‘Lob’ emerges as

“The man in the street says: “I’ve
lived here all my life. I’m telling
you there’s no road in or out. You
could slip into a ditch. No one
would ever find you.””

Thomas gives us an old man who has a “land face, sea-blue eyed” who says

“….Nobody can’t stop ’ee. It’s
A footpath right enough. You see those bits
Of mounds – that’s where they opened up the barrows
Sixty years since, while I was scaring sparrows.
They thought as there was something to find there,
But couldn’t find it, by digging, anywhere.”

Nancy Gaffield is following the Greenwich Meridian Trail as a path, walking forward in a northerly direction “recalling snippets from books, scenes from films, or events… following a trail backwards”.
Meridian is no mere scrap-book of reminiscences but instead is a carefully wrought accumulation of reflections. The notes offered at the end of each poem are helpful and they echo the very movement of the poetry itself. In the second poem which deals with Greenwich and Gravesend we are confronted with a reference to a notorious pub, The Grapes, in which strangers to the area were known to have disappeared before turning up on the dissecting table. Dickens had presented us with that pub now disguised as The Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters in his mid-1860s novel Our Mutual Friend and Gaffield offers us a quotation from the early pages which includes the reference to being able to “trace little forests” on the surface of an old corner cupboard. This is no chance quotation and the paragraph had earlier included the suggestion that the pub seemed in its old age to also look back at its youth: both trail and path. The little forests, where the very word conjures up the world of the fairy-tale, are part of the “gnarled and riven appearance of old trees” where the past “seemed to twist itself into some likeness of boughs”. In Nancy Gaffield’s “migrant” language she contemplates being at the “forest’s fringe” and the whole sequence of poems becomes as Jeremy Prynne suggested about Olson’s Maximus IV, V, VI “a lingual and temporal syncretism”.

Ian Brinton 3rd March 2019

In The Country of Last Things by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber)

In The Country of Last Things by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber)

Over the next few weeks I shall be teaching some aspects of literary dystopia to sixth-formers at a school in Kent and it has prompted me to re-read Paul Auster’s terrifying vision from 1987, In the Country of Last Things. This itself acts as a prompting background to a review I am starting to put together for Lou Rowan’s wonderful magazine from Seattle, Golden Handcuffs Review. The review is of Leslie Kaplan’s book-length poem L’excès-l’usine (Hachette 1982) which has been recently translated for Commune Editions by Julie Carr and Jennifer Pap under the title Excess – The Factory.
The word dystopia is derived from the Greek for bad (δυσ) and (τόπος) place and deals with a community or society that is undesirable or frightening and is, of course, a direct opposite of the world conceived of by Thomas More in the early sixteenth-century book Utopia. The opening paragraphs of Auster’s novel take us immediately into a world of the unsafe:

“These are the last things, she wrote. One by one they disappear and never come back. I can tell you of the ones I have seen, of the ones that are no more, but I doubt there will be time. It is all happening too fast now, and I cannot keep up.
I don’t expect you to understand. You have seen none of this, and even if you tried, you could not imagine it. These are the last things. A house is there one day, and the next day it is gone. A street you walked down yesterday is no longer there today. Even the weather is in constant flux. A day of sun followed by a day of rain, a day of snow followed by a day of fog, warm then cool, and then today, in the middle of winter, an afternoon of fragrant light, warm to the point of merely sweaters. When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you mustn’t waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it.”

Leslie Kaplan’s poem is divided into nine circles and the echo of a medieval Florentine legacy cannot be ignored. In this world “You move between formless walls” and become aware that as there is no beginning and no end “Things exist together, all at once”. One of the immediately frightening introductory statements to the First Circle is quite simple:

“Inside the factory, you are endlessly doing.

You are inside, in the factory, the universe, the one that breathes for you.”

There are some interesting literary forbears to this dystopian world of Paul Auster and one is prompted to return to the world of Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, 1844, where he describes a hidden neighbourhood in London called Todgers:

“You couldn’t walk about in Todgers’s neighbourhood, as you could in any other neighbourhood. You groped your way for an hour through lanes and bye-ways, and court-yards and passages; and never once emerged upon anything that might be reasonably be called a street. A kind of resigned distraction came over the stranger as he trod those devious mazes, and, giving himself up for lost, went in and out and roundabout, and quietly turned back again when he came to a dead wall or was stopped by an iron railing, and felt that the means of escape might possibly present themselves in their own good time, but that to anticipate them was hopeless.”

Or one might accompany Alice into her Looking-Glass World of the 1870s:

“The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things – but the oddest part of it all was that, whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty, though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold.”

Alice’s response is one of astonishment at this surreal world and she exclaims “Things flow about so here”! Anna, the narrator of Auster’s novel, responds more bleakly and with a sense of quickly-learned experience:

“The streets of the city are everywhere, and no two streets are the same. I put one foot in front of the other, and then the other foot in front of the first, and then hope I can do it again. Nothing more than that. You must understand how it is with me now. I move. I breathe what air is given me. I eat as little as I can. No matter what anyone says, the only thing that counts is staying on your feet.”

The translators of Leslie Kaplan’s poem added a shrewd and highly perceptive conclusion to their work:

“In writing L’excès-l’usine, Kaplan was wary of using an overproduced or too-familiar language to convey the workers’ experience of capitalist production. The usual discursive practices would only pervert, not reveal, her subject. A stripped-down language was needed, freed from the forms and expectations of discourse. Rather than being descriptive or explanatory, the poem’s language would be suspended, with objects and events seemingly let loose from their context.”

I now look forward this autumn to writing a full review of Kaplan’s poem for Golden Handcuffs Review. Thank you Lou, and I look forward to meeting you at this coming weekend’s Tears in the Fence Festival!

Ian Brinton, 9th September 2018

New York Hotel by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

New York Hotel by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

Some difficulties with visual particularism haunt the phantasmagoric world of Lewis Carroll and a moment from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There anticipates the nightmare world of Kafka whilst also casting a glance back over the shoulder at the world of Todgers’s Guest House in Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit:

“The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things – but the oddest part of all was, that whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty: though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold. “Things flow about so here!” she said at last in a plaintive tone, after she had spent a minute or so in vainly pursuing a large bright thing, that looked sometimes like a doll and sometimes like a work-box, and was always in the shelf next above the one she was looking at.” [1872, Chap. V]

“You couldn’t walk about in Todgers’s neighbourhood, as you could in any other neighbourhood. You groped your way for an hour through lanes and bye-ways, and court-yards and passages; and never once emerged upon anything that might be reasonably called a street. A kind of resigned distraction came over the stranger as he trod those devious mazes, and, giving himself up for lost, went in and out and round about, and quietly turned back again when he came to a dead wall…” [1844, Chap. IX]

It was in a comment on the back cover of Ian Seed’s 2011 collection Shifting Registers (Shearsman Books) that we are referred to the fragmented yet rich lyricism of the writing which “crosses borders between lost and rediscovered identity”: the poet’s “navigation of different realities” is expressed through his willingness to contemplate “new spaces through language.” This powerful focus upon shifting realities keeps the reader’s eye firmly on the pages of New York Hotel as we are confronted with what “felt familiar and yet like another world” (‘Baptism’). These short prose poems are haunting; they are compelling to read and John Ashbery’s comment upon Seed’s work is absolutely on the nail:

“The mystery and sadness of empty rooms, chance encounters in the street, trains travelling through a landscape of snow become magical in Ian Seed’s poems.”

I reviewed Ian Seed’s translation of Pierre Reverdy’s Le Voleur de Talan (The Thief of Talant) about one year ago and was struck then by the ability of both poets to render Orphic vision palpable. Both poets are struck by the sense that as they turn their heads to stare at the past “something flees much faster than us.” In that world of shifting realities (“Things flow about so here”) Reverdy sees how “Further off a forest merged with the city” and it was Philippe Jaccottet who recognised how Reverdy’s words focus upon “la fuite nes nuées, les lueurs des vitres” (the evaporation of dark clouds, glimmers of light through the shutters). Jaccottet’s words are absolutely right also for Ian Seed’s powerful understanding of how we live isolated lives haunted by the flickering images of a past that informs a present.
Perhaps it is because I spent so many years school-teaching that when I read something that holds my attention as firmly as does New York Hotel I am aware of looking around for what I want to read next, return to, advise my pupils to look at. One of the voices that came to mind as I read ‘Orphanage’ was that of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy:

“It was my responsibility to accompany the boy in a taxi to an orphanage on the other side of the city. When we arrived, I was surprised to see what a rundown area it was in. I wondered if we had come to the right place. Although I was worried about the expense, I told the driver to wait while I took the boy and went to find out.”

As readers we are held immediately by that opening word “responsibility” and its association with what we need to take charge of in relation to vulnerability. Rather like the Ancient Mariner Ian Seed has caught us with his version of “There was a ship…” and we cannot choose but hear what happens next. A rundown area, doubts about it being the correct destination, anxiety over cost, reliance upon the escape route. I shan’t tell you any more! Buy a copy of New York Hotel and read it for yourselves. In Auster’s City of Glass the shifting figure of Stillman, a man who imprisoned his son in an apartment with covered up windows for nine years, traces out the letters of TOWER OF BABEL on the “labyrinth of endless steps” that constitute New York watched by a private detective called Paul Auster who also uses the name of Quinn. In Ian Seed’s world of the phantasmagoric we are presented with a ‘Generation Gap’:

“My maternal grandfather turned up at my council flat with his father, who was a tiny bearded man in an ancient wheelchair. I hadn’t seen them for a long time. without saying hello, my great grandfather raised a fist in the air and began to berate me for being nearly sixty and still without a proper home or job. Even when my grandfather lifted him out of the chair, carried him to the toilet and put him down on the seat, he continued to scold me. The whole flat soon started to stink, but I said nothing through fear of offending them.”

When I return to the classroom for a term in September this year I shall present some of these wonderful fictions to my Year 10. After all it is now some fifty-five years since I first came to recognise the palpability of loss: before that there was the magic of the now.

Ian Brinton February 5th 2018.

Broken Stories by Reuben Woolley (20/20 Vision Publishing)

Broken Stories by Reuben Woolley (20/20 Vision Publishing)

As the Bishop orders his tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church in Robert Browning’s poem from Men and Women he mutters to those who stand around his bed:

“Swift as a weaver’s shuttle fleet our years”

And as if echoing down the years we read Reuben Woolley’s short poem, ‘weft’ which opens with the words

“i’m trying
to bring this crazy
into focus”

The word “crazy” is of Norse origin meaning crackle and suggests flawed, damaged, or, as Dickens used the term in 1844, “The court is full of crazy coaches” with a sense of travel that was unsound. In the tightly-bound lines of Reuben Woolley’s poems there is a desire to place order upon those shifts of Time which defy the storyteller’s art and neatness: these are ‘broken stories’.

In ‘weft’ dark unthreads every angle:

“is no next line
in mildew.old
forms crumble & this
is accidental”

The fabric which Browning’s Bishop had imagined from his deathbed as having been created over the loom of years is disrupted now. There is no next line! Forms, like patterns which are woven into shapes of recollection and purpose, “crumble”. The “accidental” has replaced the sense of purpose to be found in stories, narratives of whole remembrance.

“we wear
time like shuttles
waiting for patterns”

However, as the short poem ‘eurydice’ reminds us, the now dead wife of Orpheus looks backward into the darkness which attracts her. When she rises, as if from the dead, to follow her husband up the winding stair to light “she rises in black” and

“there is
no moon& strings
echo on distant walls”

From the world of fairy-tales the moon offers the brightness of a pathway which might lead the lost child home. Here not only is there no moon but the music for which Orpheus was so justly famed is now emptied into echo reverberating off distant walls. This is a world in which everything

“is seen
in shadows”

We cannot escape from our history and we need it in order to come to some patterning of our individual lives. But we also have to accept that history is the attempt to give an account, with incomplete knowledge, of actions themselves undertaken with incomplete knowledge. As Graham Swift’s novel Waterland made clear, if we can learn anything then it is “only the dogged and patient art of making do”. We have only ‘broken stories’ as we “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past” (Ulysses). In Reuben Woolley’s fragmented tales there are “black / sails on black seas”: the healing hands of Iseult will not reach the dying Tristan and rather like Browning’s Bishop the figure of Arthurian Romance can only contemplate the fleeting of Time.

Ian Brinton, 19th November 2017

More Flowers Than You Could Possibly Carry, Selected Poems 1989-2012 Simon Smith (Shearsman Books)

More Flowers Than You Could Possibly Carry, Selected Poems 1989-2012  Simon Smith (Shearsman Books)

Part I: CONTEXT

Simon Smith’s poetry is always on the move and Fifteen Exits (Waterloo Press 2001) is no exception. Although published at the opening of the new century the individual ‘exits’ are all dated in the closing years of the previous one. The place of first publication and the names of the travelling companions are also included. The volume’s opening poem, ‘The Nature of Things’, is dedicated to J.D. Taylor, carries an epigraph from Stephen Rodefer and begins in a slightly old-fashioned epistolary fashion suggestive of being on the cusp of change:

Dear John, my friend
can I call you that?
No news, but poetry.

First published in West Coast Line in the Fall of 1995 the poem was originally titled ‘Didactic Ode’ but with the new century a re-reading of Lucretius impelled ‘These coarsened times’ to ‘swallow the Works of the Ancients too’.
Reviewing Smith’s 2010 Salt collection, London Bridge, Ben Hickman had referred to the poems as ‘fast’ or, as if just to check that distance between perceiver and perceived, ‘rather, the world they intermediate in is’:

The achievement of the poems is to hang on to this world while remaining faithful to the fact that, in the twenty-first century, this is not easy. Smith, in a sense, has it both ways, reflecting the fragmentation of experience but also often enough able to grab it, celebrate it, mourn it or present its beauty.

Hickman’s use of the word ‘fragmentation’ here inevitably conjures up the world of early Modernism, particularly T.S. Eliot whose ‘fragments’ were ‘stored against’ his ruin in The Wasteland. London Bridge is peopled with literary ghosts, from the opening poem’s weaving of John Ruskin’s ‘Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century’ into Second World War air-raids over London to Chaucer, Keats, Baudelaire, Rilke, Kafka, Apollinaire, Pound and Saussure.

Smith’s concern with poetic voices had been announced earlier with the title of his 2003 volume for Salt, Reverdy Road. A reference to the French poet, translated by Kenneth Rexroth, points us to the end of one of Frank O’Hara’s most well-known pieces, ‘A Step Away From Them’ which itself concluded with his heart in his pocket, ‘it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.’ This link to O’Hara is central to Simon Smith’s poetry: poems which appear to present a quality of the random are in fact highly-wrought and careful vignettes of modern urban and suburban life. As a practitioner Smith is also concerned with the line as well as the music of verse and it is fitting that the short poem ‘Olson’ from Reverdy Road should focus not only on the geography of Fort Square but also on the emphatic Olsonian concern for the poetic line:

Looking off the watch-house quay into fog.

Olson scrawling walls and every surface.

Hi, gran pops! Information log-jammed.

Everyday is small. A few drops

The other way look the other way there

It goes the World harder than love. The line.

In 2011 Veer Books published Smith’s sequence of poems, Gravesend, reflections of a train journey between Charing Cross and Chatham. The volume opens with a desire for permanence within a shifting landscape, a narrative that contains ‘whatever occurred at that particular moment at the carriage window, or on the train.’ However, the hunger for permanence and some sense of stability in a fast-moving world is undermined by the subject material of potential catastrophe. Within these poems we will be confronted by the ghosts of Conrad and Dickens, Walter Benjamin and Paul Weller (Jam to Style Council), Juvenal, Claudius, Caesar, Vespasian, Neil Young and Browning, Spenser and Catullus. This wide frame of reference offers a living background to the ‘now’ and it is worth looking at Smith’s 2005 review of Josephine Balmer’s new translation of Catullus published by Bloodaxe (Poetry Review, Vol. 95, No. 1). In a scathing reference to the former Education Minister Charles Clarke’s pronouncement that educational subjects worthy of study ‘need a relationship with the workplace’ Simon Smith pointed out that if you want to become a politician perhaps you should read Cicero, Plato or Aristotle before going on to pose the question ‘where else is the foundation of Western democracy other than in the Ancient worlds of Greece and Rome?’
In contrast to this sense of continuity, however, one pervasive tone threading its way through the Gravesend sequence is that of impermanence and perhaps another shadow behind the literary urban scene is Paul Auster whose novel In the Country of Last Things (1987) drowned the reader in instability:

When you live in a city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone.

A child’s recognition of vertigo and terror finds one its most moving manifestations in the opening pages of Dickens’s Great Expectations where the young Pip is surrounded by the graves of his family as he stands on the marshland of North Kent one Christmas-eve. The presence of this little seed in the opening poem of Smith’s journey sets the scene for the injustice of life and the oppressive political insensitivity of the adult world masquerading as the language of ‘Progressive education’ and ‘liberal democracy’

Where ‘life’ became a history to cry out
About grey and brown flatlands tilted
Over the edge dangling Pip.

As the train approaches Bluewater shopping-city, itself an Auster or Ballard world, ‘Assessment elides policing’ and the prevailing sense of educational policy which would have doubtless found favour with that now historical Minister, Clarke, prompts the poet to mis-read a sign on a grey bin labelled ‘not working’ as ‘networking’! This is a world of captions and key-words which present themselves as mirrors of everyday narrowness.
Gravesend, republished in 2014 by Shearsman as the second section of 11781 W. Sunset Boulevard, is not a disconnected set of fragments shored against this poet’s ruin but is a collage where ‘Opposite Burger King’ there will be the outline of a Roman temple and where ‘Ghost landscapes slip the train window.’ As the reader arrives finally at Chatham, the ‘End of the line’, the journey has been a narrative in the sense used by Ortega y Gasset in Historical Reason, (published in 1984, the year of the miners’ strike and Big Brother):

So if we resort to the image, universal and ancient as you will see, that portrays life as a road to be travelled and travelled again—hence the expression “the course of life, curriculum vitae, decide on a career”—we could say that in walking along the road of life we keep it with us, know it; that is the road already travelled curls up behind us, rolls up like a film. So that when he comes to an end, man discovers that he carries, stuck there on his back, the entire roll of the life he led.

Or as Simon Smith, sardonic, shrewd and humane poet, concludes:

Me in pin-sharp form,
The ring-pull moment of chance,
Reality a line right through.

In his most recent poems, written in 2014 whilst on the West Coast of America doing research work for his forthcoming Paul Blackburn Reader, Smith pursues his concern with speed and place

father farther out with each act
of memory whilst I’m here
locked between the non-stop grind of trucks west
and endless gridlock east
trying to learn Italian
from reading Franco Beltrametti’s Face to Face
each neighbourhood a tight packet of stuff

Beltrametti’s book was published in 1973 by Grosseteste Press and Smith’s awareness of the Italian poet is not only a sly reference to John James’s sequence of poems published by Equipage in 2014 (Songs in Midwinter for Franco) but also to the poet whose merging of the immediate and the far produced embers which became fire and in whose own work ‘introspection creaks like stretched / leather, gaudy and plain, at half past / midnight 50 km out of town’.

Eating tangerines.
Missing people—lots.

Ian Brinton 17th April 2017

Chances of a Storm by Rod Mengham (Carcanet Press)

Chances of a Storm by Rod Mengham (Carcanet Press)

Rod Mengham’s tale, ‘The Cloak’, is written in a tone of voice that reminds me of the compelling power of storytelling as exemplified by Tolstoy in the 1880s with his tales such as ‘What Men Live By’, ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need’ or ‘A Spark Neglected Burns the House’. At the same time, the anger and bitterness of injustice that threads its way through the storyteller’s art makes one realise how much the tale is about the very language used to tell it. When writing about the focus Dickens brought to bear upon sliding scales of value Mengham has, in the past, suggested that ‘A specific human complexity is reduced to the level of the lowest common denominator—exchange value—’. In his 1995 book, Language, he went on to give the reader a powerful passage from Our Mutual Friend in which Mr and Mrs Boffin search for an orphan to adopt and uncover an endless supply of equally dispensable human units:

‘The suddenness of an orphan’s rise in the market was not to be paralleled by the maddest records of the Stock Exchange. He would be at five thousand per cent discount out at nurse making a mud pie at nine in the morning, and (being inquired for) would go up to five thousand per cent premium before noon…fluctuations of a wild and South Sea nature were occasioned, by orphan-holders keeping back, and then rushing into the market a dozen together. But, the uniform principle at the root of all these various operations was bargain and sale…’

The bitter humour that juxtaposes the language of ‘Stock Exchange’ and ‘mud pie’ can be recognised in Mengham’s powerful story of ‘The Cloak’ which had been first published in PN Review 222 earlier this year before taking up its place in this fine collection being published by Carcanet this November.

‘The most affecting stories of urban poverty—workers dying of cold, starving in basements—were penned by a neat bourgeois from a small town whose louvred windows were never opened wide on impulse; its aesthetic awareness was tailored by having to choose the right kind of paving slab, riven or smooth. The repair, maintenance, adornment, beautification of the urban fabric was discussed during the evening passegiate. The walking and talking was conducted through the main shopping thoroughfare, which itself became the focus for rival schemes of showy benefaction. In this way, the town acquired its world-famous drain covers. Their extravagant designs were meant to publicise the wealth of donors, but only put the lid on their stench.’

The image of unpleasant matters being swept under the carpet is powerfully placed here and calls to mind the passage Dickens wrote about Newgate Prison in Sketches by Boz in which he refers to ordinary people strolling along streets, walking and talking, passing and repassing (passegiate)

‘this gloomy depository of the guilt and misery of London, in one perpetual stream of life and bustle, utterly unmindful of the throng of wretched creatures pent up within it—nay, not even knowing, or if they do, not heeding, the fact, that as they pass one particular angle of the massive wall with a light laugh or a merry whistle, they stand within one yard of a fellow creature, bound and helpless, whose hours are numbered, from whom the last feeble ray of hope has fled for ever, and whose miserable career will shortly terminate in a violent and shameful death.’

The pictures that appear on our international news channels, filling up the space between sports news and a dancing competition, are of refugees and migrants searching the globe for something more than starvation and bloodshed. In Mengham’s powerful tale they become symbolized by the one figure of ‘a man sitting by the dusty road that stretched out of view’. When asked by the narrator what is the matter the ‘man could not reply but pulled aside his cloak revealing a dead child’. The echo of the second ghost, that of Christmas Present, in A Christmas Carol is loud and clear. In Dickens’s tale the figures lurking beneath the ghost’s cloak are ‘yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish’ and they are named ‘Ignorance’ and ‘Want’. The warning is given ‘Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.’
Rod Mengham’s prophetic tale ends with the only hope that can survive: ‘All that might be preserved was the memory of their flight; and the poor man could now relinquish this charge to his listener.’ Like a modern-day Ancient Mariner the fleeing man tells his story:

‘Into this deadened world came the smallest flicker of life, like the flare of a match inside a blackened dome. It was the poor man’s voice, feeling its way in the dark towards the gossamer-like trance of words leading him almost against his will towards failing light. He began to tell his story—for the first and last time, since in the act of listening the writer could not help changing words, adding several details while leaving many out; and in general making the story his own; and the poor man perfectly realised this before laying his burden down.’

The dead child is to be placed in the garden of the highest tower ‘For there is the grave that is nearest to heaven’. But the tower from the opening of Mengham’s book on Language is, of course, that of Babel. When stories are told they will be in different languages and there will be enormous confusion. Perhaps the only way to reveal what is under the paving stones before the stench becomes unbearable and deadly is to attempt to keep language clean from ‘exchange value’. Or as Mengham put it in Language

‘It is in the area of tension generated between a horizon of fixed standards and a horizon of no standards that the conditions of identity can be explored.’

This new collection of poems and prose-poems contains two sequences that were published last year, The Understory (corrupt press) and Paris by Helen (Oystercatcher), both of which I wrote about in blog reviews in June and July 2014. But it also, most valuably, contains much, much more and for me the volume would be worth acquiring even if it were just for that marvellous, moving and central tale, ‘The Cloak’.

Ian Brinton 5th November 2015

Tom Chivers: Dark Islands

Tom Chivers: Dark Islands

II

Terrors of the Dark Island

When Tom Chivers was interviewed by Will Barrett of the Poetry School in 2015 he was asked about his collection Dark Islands (Test Centre) and suggested in reply that it contained work completed since the end of the first decade of the century:

Dark Islands contains poems written over the past six years (since my debut collection How to Build a City came out). As such it’s not governed by any one defining theme; however, I hope that readers will discern a network of interconnecting ideas and motifs: bank collapse, urban geology, magic, ritual, the island as a stand-in for the body. The book also tests out—in various askew ways—the idea of faith; or, rather, what I call a ‘dodgy faith in the truth’. Can we find a centre, a still point, in this whirlpool of voices?

Dark Islands is an intriguing and often disturbing sequence of poems which is clearly revealed as the work of a London poet haunted by landscapes, hidden histories and constant movement. If Graham Swift’s Waterland is one of the influences upon Chivers’s early work the shifting phantasmagorias of Paul Auster seem to lean through this new volume of ‘night-work’. Auster’s 1987 novel In the Country of Last Things opens with a dystopian vision of the future of the city:

These are the last things, she wrote. One by one they disappear and never come back. I can tell you of the ones I have seen, of the ones that are no more, but I doubt there will be time. It is all happening too fast now, and I cannot keep up.
I don’t expect you to understand. You have seen none of this, and even if you tried, you could not imagine it. These are the last things. A house is there one day, and the next day it is gone. A street you walked down yesterday is no longer there today. Even the weather is in constant flux. A day of sun followed by a day of rain, a day of snow followed by a day of fog, warm then cool, wind then stillness, a stretch of bitter cold, and then today, in the middle of winter, an afternoon of fragrant light, warm to the point of merely sweaters. When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you mustn’t waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it.

Another significant influence lurking behind this work is, of course, Charles Dickens and this becomes immediately evident in poem xix of Dark Islands:

Jacob’s Island

blue linen shirt peppered
with unanticipated rainfall
on Tanner Street and river
so near first one then
two pedestrians with broken limbs
whilst architects and secretaries
close little windows on the dock
or Neckinger perhaps a shanty Venice

Holy Trinity is shut adrift
in its own isle and so
I’m thinking of my body
in the rookery a garden
across another fire station
apathetic bulldog in a dip
wild flowering from boundary wall
a purple especially

who is that crouching
in the highway and slipping
by the fenceline between
the dark water and the wall
I do not call it bank
no sewer here please
as armed police are shuttled
downstream by speedboat
only one looks south their
helmets are so very black

who is that frying onion
throwing balls into the Thames
closing windows racing
scooters thru the island
like it’s never even there

Jacob’s island becomes the last hiding place for Bill Sykes and it was described by Henry Mayhew in the Morning Chronicle of 1849 as the ‘very capital of cholera’ and the ‘Venice of drains’. The description given by Dickens in Chapter L of Oliver Twist suggests the more eerie and nightmarish qualities of the place:

Near to that part of the Thames on which the church at Rotherhithe abuts, where the buildings on the banks are dirtiest and the vessels on the river blackest with the dust of colliers and the smoke of close-built low-roofed houses, there exists, at the present day, the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants.

Dickens stresses that in order to even find this place the ‘visitor has to penetrate through a maze of close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the roughest and poorest of water-side people’. Once at Jacob’s Island the visitor will discover that the ‘warehouses are roofless and empty; the walls are crumbling down; the windows are no more; the doors are falling into the streets’. The world of phantasmagoria weaves its way through Chivers’s poem as the pedestrians ‘with broken limbs’ appear with Baudelairean menace and the subterranean river Neckinger winds on, ‘a shanty Venice’. The air of menace in the poem comes into focus again with the figure (s) ‘crouching’ and ‘slipping’ as well as the police, ‘armed’, being ‘shuttled downstream’. The evocation of this world concludes with senses: the smell of frying onions, the sound of scooters’, but they cannot be located in this shifting world because, after all, it is ‘like it’s never even there’.
The bleak humour which acts as a backdrop to Tom Chivers’s visceral sense of language can be noted from an early email in the Nine Arches Press volume, The Terrors:

Will, take out your field notebook. Make a tryst in blood. Employ your canines. Watch a shank of lamb slip off the bone as a woman stepping from her dress. This steaming viand, in its scrambled mess of lentils (puy), requires your total 100% concentration. I give you ‘The Huntsman’s Supper’, or some other peasant chic moniker.

Ian Brinton 15th June 2015.

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