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Atlantic Drift edited by James Byrne & Robert Sheppard (Arc Press & Edge Hill University Press)

Atlantic Drift edited by James Byrne & Robert Sheppard (Arc Press & Edge Hill University Press)

The opening statement of Robert Sheppard’s short introduction to this exciting new volume of transatlantic poetic focus is uncompromisingly clear in its assertion:

“Contact and conversation between transatlantic poets has always been one of fluctuating relations. North American writers have always been an important presence in British and Irish poetries, sometimes physically so. Edward Dorn, who lived in and wrote about England was aware of these relations and what he called the ‘North Atlantic Turbine’. Often the traffic is reversed.”

The fluctuating nature of these relations can of course be traced back to the early Sixties when Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry was being recognised in England with a sense of excitement. Charles Tomlinson’s forty-page Black Mountain Poets supplement to Ian Hamilton’s the Review appeared in January 1964 and three months later Andrew Crozier edited an American Supplement to the Cambridge magazine, Granta. Unlike Tomlinson’s focus on the Black Mountain School Crozier’s was more largely based on the Allen anthology and contained work by Levertov, Eigner, Woolf and Loewinsohn as well as Dorn, Dawson, Duncan and Wieners. Crozier quoted a letter Olson had written to George Butterick which included the phrase “to freshen our sense of the language we do have” and this statement might well describe the impact of this new anthology from Sheppard and Byrne. However, it might be just worth recalling the rather mean-spirited editorial note which Ian Hamilton added to the Tomlinson supplement which had offered such new ideas to a world dominated by New Lines:

“It should, I think, be made clear that the foregoing pages were given over to Charles Tomlinson to fill, more or less as he pleased, with work by the Black Mountain poets. We are most grateful to him for his co-operation. The editorial motive of the Review in this project has been a documentary rather than, necessarily, a critical one. We believe that the movement ought at least to be known about.”

As if hurled in the teeth of Hamilton’s graceless editorial disclaimer, Robert Sheppard’s comments present us with a sense of the active and living importance of what he and James Byrne have collected together. It is located in a reference to one of the contributors, Jerome Rothenberg, whose concern for the urgency and scope of poetics is presented in the words used to relate this “directly to the way he sees the world”:

“But the world we share, & our interplay with it, calls again & again for discourse: in the case of Poets, the setting forth of a poetics. I have found myself involved with that also, at first tentatively & then, once into it, discovering ways suited to my own temperament & to the sense I have…that the discourse, like the poetry, must in all events resist rigidity & closure.”

It is this resistance to closure, this refusal to adopt the safe line for poetry that is presented year after year in too many Secondary Schools, that makes this new anthology a box of fireworks. One can read Sean Bonney’s lines of lyrical politics and hear a voice that possesses not only anger but acute observation:

“An invisible person has appeared in everyone’s simultaneous dream.
Oh look here I am. Fuck the police.
It is the surveillance laws. All ages are not contemporaneous.
We are outside this century. We are very glamorous. We are
waiting in the hall.
Somewhere near Moritzplatz the adepts are getting sick.
It is the stupidity of gardens. I love the tiny sparrows.
The janitor’s kids are not playing they are digging up gold.
It is the last song you will ever hear.”

And one can turn from that to Chris McCabe’s snarled lines about “John Whittaker Straw, Labour politician” who changed his name to steal unearned value from the Peasants’ Revolt figure of 1381, Jack Straw. And then one can turn again to Rosmarie Waldrop’s ‘By the Waters of Babylon”:

“Unless we recognize a language we do not recognize a man. We
wrap entire villages in barbed wire.

My father used to close his eyes and remain as motionless as
possible to let his body-image dissolve.

I repeat myself often.

Time has no power over the Id. But heat passes from a warm body
to a cold body and not in the reverse direction.”

Look in this anthology for the America of Charles Bernstein and Claudia Rankine, Nathaniel Mackey and Lyn Hejinian; look this side of the Atlantic for Allen Fisher and John James, Geraldine Monk and Zoë Skoulding. We are presented with “Poets in both directions across the water” who “have influenced, and continue to influence each other in terms of practice and poetics.”
Atlantic Drift continues this collaboration and exchange in its alphabetic juxtaposition of twenty-four contributors and these poems ignite to provide a most effective and immediate anthology of the living power of poetry and poetics. As such it takes its place in the tradition of Donald Allen’s 1960 volume and Iain Sinclair’s 1996 publication, Conductors of Chaos.

Ian Brinton, 1st October 2017

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The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century edited by Victoria Bean & Chris McCabe (Hayward Publishing)

The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century edited by Victoria Bean & Chris McCabe (Hayward Publishing)

This sumptuously designed, colourful and beguiling anthology begins with a compendium of quotations on the nature of concrete poetry from poets past and present. The Bolivian poet, Eugen Gomringer, sums up the spirit of the early concrete movement: ‘The purpose of reduced language is not the reduction of language itself but the achievement of greater flexibility and freedom of communication. The resulting poems should be, if possible, as easily understood as signs in airports and traffic signs.’ And: ‘The visible form of concrete poetry is identical to its structure, as is the case with architecture.’ Here we have recognition that concrete poetry was more than a working around the materiality of language and that it was a way of working with that materiality towards a fresh communication in a broad range of forms.

Kenneth Goldsmith’s introductory essay analyses the collapse of concrete poetry in its first period and subsequent re-emergence in the digital age in relation to the technology of the typeface, typewriter and computer. He sees the changes as broadly running in parallel with ‘larger changes across cultural output.’ He cites the Brazilian Noigandres group of poets as the movement founders, as opposed to the German artist Max Bill, or Swedish poet, Öyvind Fahlström, who named the genre, with their efforts to create a universal picture language, a poetry that could be read by all, seeing this visual Esperanto as revolutionary in intent. Goldsmith gives attention to graphic space, as opposed to notions of it being a hybrid of text and image, as the key to understanding how this movement emerged and was conceptualised. This is central to Gomringer’s 1968 poem, ‘schweigen’ / ‘silence’:

schweigen schweigen schweigen
schweigen schweigen schweigen
schweigen
schweigen schweigen schweigen
schweigen schweigen schweigen

The poem works on many levels and leaves space around its margins and in the centre for the reader to engage and return to with a growing sense of its importance.

Drawing upon Poundian imagery and Joycean wordplay, the movement dovetailed with compression in advertising slogans, technological and poetic language use, and was firmly modernist in its rejection of subjective expression and negation of metaphor, lineation and organic form. It grew through extensive correspondence between international practitioners and reached its zenith in the Sixties with two special editions of the Times Literary Supplement, influential anthologies and exhibitions in galleries around the world. He links its decline to attitudes to typeface, in particular the reaction against the narrowness of Helvetica, seen as a Cold War artefact expressing unwanted binaries, the success of mail art, and the lack of a new role.

The digital age gave concrete poetry that new role. It now remixes language through text and image manipulation in even more condensed and multidimensional ways. Victoria Bean takes up this theme seeing the new concrete as a response to our immediate world, to culture and its rapid change, citing Turkish artist, Sekan Isin’s attempts to produce anti-codes to intervene against the codes imposed upon us and Ron King’s 2003 anti-war poem ‘Blah! Blah! Blair!’ It also, as Bean implies and is shown in the contents, gives women more of a voice in the art world. The Internet has opened up the past so that it is easier now to re-discover the work of Dom Sylvester Houédard, sadly not in the anthology, or Bob Cobbing the subject of a recent year long series of exhibitions around the country, or virtually visit Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta garden.

Chris McCabe writes engagingly of the prehistory and stages of Shape Poetry, Pattern Poetry, Concrete Poetry (1953-1977), Visual Poetry and Vispo producing a more complex and satisfying account of the genre. He shows how the editors arrived at their anthology seeing the visual poets represented, following Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, as travellers in both antique and future lands.

The poet artists are presented alphabetically from A-Z producing an unpredictable and random effect. Some of the classic exemplars, such as Augusto de Campos, Cobbing, Henri Chopin, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Gomringer, Edwin Morgan, Décio Pignatari are represented here. The joy of this book comes more from the exuberance and vitality of the range of international contributors, the spread of generations from Susan Howe born in 1937 to Sarah Kelly born in 1985, and in opening any of its pages to be startled, excited and moved by words, such as Thomas A. Clark’s ‘the moment before / the moment before’, or Sophie Herxheimer’s ‘Disaster’, an Oulipian anagrammatic found in the word ‘disaster’ and shaped into a tear, and their transcriptions.

David Caddy 17th November 2015

Chris McCabe’s Speculatrix (Penned in the Margins, 2014)

Chris McCabe’s Speculatrix (Penned in the Margins, 2014)

The apparatus of capital, sexual intrigue, notoriety and death, and the City of London echo through the taut and visceral musicality of the sonnets that are at the heart of Chris McCabe’s Speculatrix. Written from the perspective of characters in Jacobean plays and set where the play was first performed, they offer a commentary on the chaotic, threatened and threatening world of early modern theatre. A ‘speculatrix’, meaning ‘she that spies or watches’ or female spy, introduces the idea of being watched and watching with the sense of anxiety and tension that accompanies such activity. The poems adequately convey that twitchiness and probe deeper.

Each sonnet is prefaced by a short introduction on the character, which speaks, when and where, with the implied undercurrent coming initially from the play’s sub-text. Thus the Duke of Brachiano from John Webster’s The White Devil at the Red Bull, Clerkenwell, in 1612 ‘who visits the home of Camillo’s wife, Vittoria Corombona’ where Camillo is killed by Brachiano’s secretary in what is staged to be a vaulting accident. Vittoria is put on trial for Camillo’s death and sentenced to a ‘house of convertities’. Whereas criticism mostly views Vittoria as the White Devil, and the Duke her seducer, the narrative spins off into the world of the audience and actor where ‘all / that is left behind is to make our bodies act out the desires / they now have words for.’ The speaker gives rise to doubt as to whom is the white devil, who is in charge of whom, and where purity may be found. McCabe echoes Webster’s concerns with sexual intrigue, the configuring of the double negatives of the flesh, and financial power within a chaotic and disturbed world.

Vindice, whose wife is murdered on their wedding day, from Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy says:

I’ve seen skulls with better teeth than this excessive
in death as an eunuch’s archived Playboys
after the extraction the black sock in the ditch of the
mouth a debit of bones cindered in corsets as
Southwark’s abscess drains green in the
Thames

The sonnets mostly eschew the vernacular of Jacobean drama for a taut and spiky contemporary language use, with claws, worms, zombies and maggots to indicate decay, which probes the role of gender and the City in both the early modern and our own period. When the Duchess from Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi speaks she says: ‘you imagine me wanting / you watching this who’s watching who? / Speculatrix’ and the narrative immediately quotes from the play, ‘Now there’s a rough-cast phrase to / your plastique’ bringing the matter of how language is used to frame gender relations and definitions into play. Beneath the narratives are the cloak of disguise and subterfuge, and the constant threat of discovery, labelling, imprisonment and death.

McCabe tackles the theme of contemporary social unrest in London, with a poem about the August 2011 London riots, ‘Teenage Riot, Daydream Nation’, commissioned for a Sonic Youth tribute and inspired by the music of Louis Zukofsky’s “A”, which ends ‘In these acts there are no skies, there are only bricks’. Other poems in the collection concern the artist, Francis Bacon, poets Rimbaud, Barry MacSweeney, and Tim Allen and the Plymouth Language Club. This collection is one of the poetic highlights of 2014. McCabe gave an intense and exhilarating reading from Speculatrix at the Tears in the Fence Festival in October and at the book’s launch at St John’s Priory crypt, Clerkenwell. It is well worth reading.

David Caddy 19th December 2014

Chris McCabe & Jeremy Reed’s Whitehall Jackals

Chris McCabe & Jeremy Reed’s Whitehall Jackals

Chris McCabe & Jeremy Reed’s Whitehall Jackals: A London Collaboration published by Nine Arches Press is a significant addition to the poetry of London. Their wide-eyed, X-rayed Cubist vision of London is more than a cultural mapping. Written between January and April 2011 it is partly a response to war atrocities in Iraq and the ‘oligarchical political regime of czars, spin, deception and pathological lies’ all left unopposed by mainstream British poetry.

 

Their poetry interacts and revolves around the underlying instabilities, historical and pyschogeographical interplay of the city. Horizontal and vertical layers of story are contextualized and abstracted to reveal multifarious states of being, control and flux.

The past and present of London’s streets, pubs, clubs are worked on and over so that the reader penetrates deeper into the experience of lived London. The near past echoing in the present and time-cut back and forth to embody an attitude that invokes subversive play:

 

Peckham Rye (Hymn For Blake)

 

February 8 : Levi banshee with cheek-scarf & iPod. No.63.

7.48 am. NO VISION.

 

February 13 : dreadnought Sunday, chalk-flecks of commuters.

No. 63. 7.32 am. NO VISION.

 

February 18 : white Mac motherboard reboot, joggers like

Data-strings. No. 12. 7.02 am. NO VISION

 

February 19 : concentrics of rain in puddles as if Scientologists’

Little gods are sticklebacks. No. 63. 8.12 am. NO VISION

 

 

Responding to each other’s obsessions, they use found and localized materials to anchor their edgy scripts. Their writing makes you smile, laugh, wonder and leave you wanting more.

 

David Caddy

Dear World & Everyone In It

Dear World & Everyone In It

New Poetry in the UK: Bloodaxe, publication date Thursday 21st February

As a new poetry anthology appears from Bloodaxe it is time to reassess the world of anthologies. Let me mince no words over this matter: ‘I think that Nathan Hamilton’s new collection/selection/anthology of poems is both exciting and long overdue.’

 

‘The Anthology is polyphonic. The Anthology is a collage of different, or opposing, voices, some enhanced by The Anthology, others working with or against The Anthology. The Anthology does not await the anointment of a Great Poet of The Age to speak for it. The Anthology believes this is an old way of thinking critically in the UK informed by the nation’s attachment to monarchic ideology / Ted Hughes. The Anthology will have none of that Spam.’

 

It is highly pleasing to recognise so many of the names contained in The Anthology as having been published in Tears in the Fence: Siddartha Bose, Hannah Silva, Tom Chivers, James Wilkes, Sarah Kelly, Chris McCabe, Luke Kennard.

 

‘The Anthology is described as containing work from young poets in the UK. The Anthology includes work from poets born, or stationed, overseas. The Anthology challenges a notion of UK poetry as parochial. The Anthology represents what and who young poets in the UK are reading as well as what they are writing.’

 

Long Live The Anthology.

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