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Selected Poems: 1989-2012 by Simon Smith (Shearsman Books) Part Two

On the reverse side of this selection David Herd is quoted from The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry where he comments upon Simon Smith’s sequence of poems from 2010, London Bridge:

“Simon Smith’s writing forges English language poetry out of the translated utterance, his most recent volume, London Bridge, fixing itself not to place but to the questions of crossing.”

In an article by John Wilkinson titled ‘Stone thresholds’, published in this year’s Textual Practice there is a fine reading of Andrew Crozier’s late poem ‘Blank Misgivings’, “built on the rubble of a postwar cityscape and of postwar political hopes”. Wilkinson notes that the poem’s title is borrowed from Arthur Hugh Clough:

“The ruined landscape fills with sounds and obstructions as well as ‘unbuilt monuments’; like the ‘extinct hiss’ which is still incendiary and the ‘static roar’ from space, it is haunted by futurity as well as the past. Neglected past participles throng in this poem, still hissing and burning. What is performed here and enjoined on a reader is a hermeneutic work of remembrance, reconnection and shaping.”

Reading through the selection of twenty-five sonnets from ‘Unfelt, A Poem in Forty-Four Parts’, which occupies a prominent section towards the end of this new Selected Poems I am drawn back to looking at Clough again. The awareness of ghosts haunting the ‘you’ and the ‘I’ in Smith’s sequence reminds me of the tone of ‘Amours de Voyage’. In section VIII of that fine poem from 1862 Claude writes to Eustace:

“After all, do I know that I really cared so about her?
Do whatever I will, I cannot call up her image;
For when I close my eyes, I see, very likely, St. Peter’s,
Or the Pantheon façade, or Michael Angelo’s figures,
Or, at a wish, when I please, the Alban hills and the Forum –
But that face, those eyes – ah no, never anything like them;
Only, try as I will, a sort of featureless outline,
And a pale blank orb, which no recollection will add to.
After all perhaps there was something factitious about it:
I have had pain, it is true; I have wept; and so have the actors.”

The shadows which haunt Simon Smith’s sonnet sequence offer glimpses of world lost in which “I cannot distinguish between your acts now” (2) and that world of ‘crossing’ which is perhaps pointed to in that quotation from David Herd may be seen most clearly in sonnet 41:

“The literal truth of history I feel you in the air
& the sun but not in detail everything is at once
Too near & too far enough to make me tremble
Quietly as we are, you at New Cross, & I here”

Simon Smith’s poems have often been located in a recognizable topography and the power of this sonnet sequence is located in the way the poet moves from this ‘here-and-now’ to an awareness of how we stand upon the flagstones of our pasts. This is a poet who has read his Olson as well as his O’Hara:

“we compare notes
we meet, shall I come
to you or will you come to me
unhappy as Mercury in our shape-shifting
as we row backwards always backwards rolling
towards beginning with all the inevitable permanence
of the concrete breeze blocks, their presence, their weight
their grey bulk

floats off
above
city
air
to be with”
(‘Ode to David Herd’)

Simon Smith is a major poet of the present and his voice is distinctive as the world of America and England meet in a manner that the shade of Clough may well smile at; after all, ‘Amours de Voyage’ was first published in the Boston Atlantic Monthly.

Ian Brinton, 25th April 2017

Simon Smith’s Navy (vErIsImILLtUdE, 2015)

Simon Smith’s Navy (vErIsImILLtUdE, 2015)

In these times of bewilderment and dislocation it is important to read poets who recognise the contours of the political landscape and it is vital to attend to voices that quietly insist upon pursuing truths despite being noised-out by the chatter from the island. Or, as one modernist poet put it in 1968:

And so slowness is
interesting and the dust, in cracks between
boards

The same poem, ‘A Gold Ring Called Reluctance’, written by a young poet in his early thirties continues ‘Fluff, grit, various / discarded bits & pieces: these are the / genetic patrons of our so-called condition.’
When Simon Smith was interviewed by Andrew Duncan for a book titled Don’t Start Me Talking (Salt 2006), a book incidentally that was dedicated to David Herd and Robert Potts, ‘visionary editors for a new sight’, he referred to poems being conceived as a type of dialogue with other poems. The precise background to Smith’s comment was his writing of Night Shift (1991), composed in ‘quite a strict or regular verse form’ in response, partly, to Peter Riley’s ‘Ospita’ and Tom Raworth’s Sentenced to Death and Eternal Sections:

‘There seemed to be some sort of dialogue going on between these poetries, formally I mean, and I found myself taking part in that dialogue, or should I say the poem found its way through this kind of engagement. The poems then ‘talk’ to one another within the sequence. Building poems in series like this is a feature of the so-called avant garde in this country—it’s a way of replacing linear narrative without losing scope, or compromising perception.

Simon Smith’s recently published volume Navy is an interesting movement forward from these ideas and it does not make for comfortable reading. The opening section of the book is titled ‘England, A Fragment’ and I am quickly made aware that this does not refer to a small part of the country but is itself a description of that which is in the process of falling apart.
The dialogue here is with William Carlos Williams and the use of the three-ply line stretches the eye down the page as we move from ‘dirt from under the nails / on Dover Beach’ to ‘a shrieking gull’. The whole sequence is threaded with fragments of poetic and musical reference and the Matthew Arnold backdrop to those opening lines soon becomes the early world of Olson’s poems as illustrated by Corrado Cagli. Debussy and Schubert are fragments stored against ruin but so is the early morning ‘station pie’ with its echo of Larkin’s change of trains at Sheffield in ‘Dockery and Son’. There is, however, another voice behind this moving and important poem-for-our-times and that is the hoof-fall of Ed Dorn’s ‘Gunslinger’. Through the world of East Kent the ‘UKKK’ are bringing ‘law to town’ and hooded men in pointy hats are on the move.
The epigraph to this terrific and terrifying volume includes words by that voice of sanity and careful consideration, John James:

‘but it’s wonderful to wake up & know that
despite everything
France is still there’

The book is, as a moment of connection to that early conversation, also dedicated to David Herd.

And to me; for which, Simon, many thanks; I am honoured.

Copies of this little collection can be obtained from the publisher at 58 Crescent Road, Ramsgate, CT11 9QY

Ian Brinton, 9th May 2015

Contemporary Olson edited by David Herd (Manchester University Press, 2015)

Contemporary Olson edited by David Herd (Manchester University Press, 2015)

Contemporary Olson, based upon talks given at a University of Kent conference in 2012, re-assesses Charles Olson’s work and place in recent poetic history. Written by writers, poets and academics, this book of essays contextualises Olson’s thought and work, placing him in his period, and focuses upon individual poems and essays. Olson’s ideas, assumptions and practice are examined and contested with a critical eye. These engagements are divided into sections, knowledge, poetics, gender, history and space, based on key preoccupations within Olson’s work.

There are some terrific essays in this wide ranging volume and I shall try to give a flavour of some of its contents.

Peter Middleton’s essay ‘Discoverable unknowns: Olson’s literary preoccupation with the sciences’ delineates Olson’s concerns with the sciences and scientists and points out the poetic consequences of inscribing scientific knowledge and methods into the field of the poem. Reitha Pattison analyses Olson’s understanding of cosmology and clarifies the function of ‘cosmology’, ‘space’ and ‘breath’ in his prosody. She concludes that ‘Apprehending the extent of Olson’s insistence upon the concrete and literal condition of all cosmic forms in his prose permits a more accurate sense of the textual space the writer heralded in ‘Projective Verse’. Michael Grant and Ian Brinton translate Olson’s concern with space and breath into one of void and voice, and place his postwar image of hell in ‘Cold Hell, in Thicket’ in relation to T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, where there is a different understanding of the physically projected voice.

Some notable facts are explored and deepened, such as Olson’s work as a poet-teacher, which is founded upon intellectual and poetic exchanges not only with male poets, such as Paul Blackburn as read here by Simon Smith, but also some relatively ignored women figures, such as Frances Boldereff, a relationship examined by Robert Hampson. Rachel Blau DuPlessis notes how Maximus, in its detailed attention of the world of work, ignores female labour, and is framed by its masculinity. There is recognition of the importance of Olson’s typographic work for several subsequent women poets from Susan Howe onwards. Stephen Fredman in his reading of Olson’s poem, ‘The Lordly and Isolate Satyrs’, first published in Evergreen Review 4, locates him, through the central image of motorcyclists at the heart of a cultural moment in the late 50s and early 60s. It might have been interesting to compare that poem to Thom Gunn’s ‘On The Move’ and other motorcycle poems published in 1957.

Gavin Selerie outlines Olson’s British contacts, travels and legacy, including his visit to Dorchester County Museum, to research Weymouth port records, in the summer of 1967. Ed Dorn would similarly visit south Dorset for the summer a few years later. Elaine Feinstein recalls the moment when Olson’s poetics first intersected with British poetry. Iain Sinclair, in an outstanding essay, recalls the effect of encountering Olson in July 1967 and returns the reader to Olson’s position in Gloucester, Massachusetts, at the sea’s edge, and recounts his visit there watching Henry Ferrini’s DVD of John Malkovich reading sections of Maximus at the Writer’s Center. ‘The real punch arrives at the end as one of the extra features’, writes Sinclair, when Olson reads and is ‘absolutely mesmerizing and lifted everything from the theoretical pitch … to a different register. You witness the man, the energy of him as he grasps his own poem; the practical demonstration of projective verse, the full body reading.’

Ralph Maud also takes the reader to the Cape Ann coastline that was the vantage point of Olson’s major writing and first poem, and emphasises that Olson’s work should always be read as a work in progress, a draft that is designed to stimulate and enable thought. As Olson wrote:

It is undone business
I speak of, this morning,
with the sea
stretching out
from my feet

Here ‘undone’ is read as ‘ongoing’ with a necessity to engage once more. The contemporary relevance of Olson’s work rests precisely in the opening up of possibilities, which it continues to do. To my mind, one of the greatest testimony to Olson’s achievements, and this could have been explored more, is the impact of Olson as a poet-teacher, at Black Mountain and elsewhere, on the likes of Ed Dorn, Jeremy Prynne, and others. In particular, the practical, as opposed to theoretical, knowledge that Olson gave Dorn. This knowledge, in turn, helped shape a way of reading people and landscape, of asking and shaping questions, of reading signs and history. Much could have been made of the fact that both Dorn and Prynne departed from Olson’s direction as very different poets from the ones they were before their encounters. Prynne one suspects drew many lessons from Olson, one of which is surely seen in his acknowledgement that thought is always ongoing, subject to correction and error.

I am looking forward to reading many more essays, including those by Charles Bernstein, Ben Hickman, David Herd, who also provides an introductory essay, Anthony Mellors, Miriam Nichols, Sarah Posman, Kalien van den Beukel and Tim Woods.

David Caddy 18th February 2015

Continental Drift by Nancy Gaffield (Shearsman Books)

Continental Drift by Nancy Gaffield (Shearsman Books)

When David Herd wrote that Nancy Gaffield’s poetry ‘speaks directly and beautifully to the contours of our contemporary moment’ he touched upon something very important indeed. Not only do these delightful pieces of writing resonate with a contemporary sound but also the contours of their language and focus take us into an imaginative world which breathes that salt-laden fragmentary lyricism to be found in Sappho.

 

The first of two epigraphs placed by the poet at the opening of this fine volume is a quotation from James Schuyler’s ‘Salute’ in which he asserts that the ‘Past / is past’

 

I salute that various field.

 

That salute to the field, that greeting to the long gone, brings to my mind the opening lines of Robert Duncan’s ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’

 

as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,

that is not mine, but is a made place,

 

that is mine, it is so near to the heart,

an eternal pasture folded in all thought

so that there is a hall therein

 

that is a made place, created by light

wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

 

I have written more about this Duncan poem some ten years ago in Tears in the Fence 44. That field to which Schuyler refers is ‘various’ as he thinks of the ‘clover / daisy, paintbrush that / grew in that field / the cabin stood in…’ and his poem is haunted by the inability to make a past stand still. As Nancy Gaffield recognises in this, her second collection of poems (Tokaido Road won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize three years ago) the world is in constant flux and the title, Continental Drift, bears a suggestion of both seismic trauma and reflective eyes cast back on a world now gone. I am reminded here of Walter Benjamin’s extraordinarily fine essay on ‘The Task of the Translator, published in Illuminations where he sees the translator not in the centre of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge. Translation, like bringing the past into a present, calls into that forest aiming at the single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one. The sounds of such movement can be heard in Continental Drift and as the short prose piece which closes this delightful volume makes clear

 

Something happens when you dislodge the outward aspect of the familiar. A border has been crossed. You become a world-builder. Place-making means multiple acts of remembering. Pas à pas imagination slides between the frames of reference. Not opposition, but apposition. We go by side roads.

 

In his monumental novel Les Misérables Victor Hugo tells us that the past is like a ghostly voyager who, like his main character Jean Valjean, convict and outcast, always travels with a false passport. But as Nancy Gaffield tells us ‘you cannot / wipe the slate clean / language gets used / over and over again / re-coupling / letting see / what has been hidden / beneath’

 

Ian Brinton 25th May 2014

 

Zone: A New Magazine

Zone: A New Magazine

The first issue of a new magazine from Kent University has just appeared and it is absolutely terrific.

 

Edited by Kat Peddie and Eleanor Perry this first number contains work by Allen Fisher & Jeff Hilson, Denise Riley & John James, Kelvin Corcoran & Tony Lopez.

 

It also contains exciting new work by the Canterbury Chapter and it is very good indeed to see new poems by David Herd, Simon Smith, Juha Virtanen, Ben Hickman, Dorothy Lehane, Nancy Gaffield.

 

The blurb on the inside of the back cover of this polished, illustrated and handsomely printed magazine makes the collaborative nature of the enterprise very clear: ‘We have commitments and enthusiasms to and for certain writers, writings, ideas, and actions.  We wish to share these with each other and with others. Some of these commitments are political. We have chosen essayists whose poetical and political commitments we think are important. One of these commitments is to the idea of the Commons…in a common, and commonly owned, ground in which individuals come to work together.’

 

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