RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

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

Advertisements

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.

Uncertain Measures by Aidan Semmens (Shearsman), What The Ground Holds by Rosie Jackson (Poetry Salzburg)

Uncertain Measures by Aidan Semmens (Shearsman), What The Ground Holds by Rosie Jackson (Poetry Salzburg)

In the fifth issue of Perfect Bound (1978), the Cambridge journal that Aidan Semmens edited with Peter Robinson, I find the following lines of a prose poem;

‘The remarkable amount of flotsam in the river could be small craft that have sunk. The water is only slightly ruffled by the breeze. It is so straight it could be a canal, with regular lines of trees along the sharp, precise banks.’

We could be casting a sideways glance at the opening of Our Mutual Friend or, as I prefer to think, we could be gazing at a landscape which anticipates the ‘ritual’ one with which this new Shearsman collection opens:

‘our origin myths are not set in stone
but gradually shift
in emphasis and tone from
generation to regeneration
mutating settling encrusted
with efflorescence of ore’

The obsession that Dickens had with the past ensured that bodies never remained underground for long and even in the late Great Expectations the sound of the returning Magwitch’s footstep can be heard on the bottom stair. Palimpsest-like Semmens’s earlier working out of perspective concerning an industrial landscape peers up at the reader through a new development and this newness bears an eerie reflection of a world that we might expect to discover in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:

down a winding path
in a shadowy scene
a woman and a man are pushing
a wagon loaded with industrial implements

(‘The Vanishing of Workers’ Settlement #3’)

However, the power of this poetry does not rest satisfied with imagery and threading its way through the texture of the verse are comments which hang together to provide analysis:

‘things have been falling apart
since the onset of modernity
fragmentation as the condition of knowledge
the extortion of desire extraction of obedience’

The myths of Demeter and Persephone seem recently to have become archetypes of the buried self and the emergence of newness from the controlling overlord of consciousness is seen as a regeneration that works; unlike that of Orpheus and Eurydice. It is there with vividness in David Almond’s novel Skellig:

‘She took wrong turnings, banged her head against the rocks. Sometimes she gave up in despair and just lay weeping in the pitch darkness. But she struggled on. She waded through icy underground streams. She fought through bedrock and clay and iron ore and coal, through fossils of ancient creatures, the skeletons of dinosaurs, the buried remains of ancient cities. She burrowed past the tangled roots of great trees. She was torn and bleeding but she kept telling herself to move onward and upward. She told herself that soon she’d see the light of the sun again and feel the warmth of the world again.’

It is there in the opening lines of Rosie Jackson’s ‘Persephone’:

‘I can’t tell you the terror of being down there.
All those miles of earth on top of me—
the stench, the dark—
and him on top
paddling my thin body like a piece of dough.’

However, here the focus is on the rape, the invasion, the claustrophobic sense of proximity to a body which has been imposed upon you. Perhaps it is no accident that the word ‘paddling’ echoes the sexually obsessive Leontes in The Winter’s Tale when he imagines the supposed adultery of his wife with his oldest friend in terms of ‘paddling palms and pinching fingers’. The emphasis upon rape is taken up in the second poem of the volume, ‘Persephone Blames the Dress’, where the silk of the garment seems to be a co-conspirator in the downfall of the girl. Not only does the material fall to the floor ‘like water seeking some underground pool’ but the moment Persephone puts it on the thunderous steps of a Classical Bromion can be heard and the victim is being hunted down: she ‘started’, ‘slipped’, disappeared between toppled birches’. The silk ‘snagged as I pulled the neck down’ and the stanza concludes with the ‘sound of something tearing.’
Rosie Jackson’s chapbook is titled What the Ground Holds and it could, of course, be seen as what the ground does not hold: Persephone returns. The collection also features Lazarus who ‘longs for light, just a slither / from the far side of that impossible stone’ and Orpheus who slips ‘easily through those seedy chinks / that lead downwards’ towards a Eurydice who will be forever barred from return. Most importantly, and to my mind successfully, there is ‘Visiting the Underworld, 1964’ in which the poet rattles down with her father ‘to these tunnels of hot darkness’. Within the confines of this workplace ‘we kneel on all fours / feeling our way, getting a taste / of what real men do’.

Some years ago, in Tears 45, Jackson had written ‘The absence of the lost one is subsumed into the present of the poem, as if the very act of the poem’s utterance reverses or undoes death, even as it laments it.’ I suspect that a reading of ‘Poems 1912-13, Veteris vestigia flammae’ may not quite support this.

Ian Brinton October 30th 2014

%d bloggers like this: