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Averno by Louise Gluck (Penguin Modern Classics)

Averno by Louise Gluck (Penguin Modern Classics)

This is in the end is genuinely a persuasive book, though it also struck me as avowing quite a feminist outlook. This may in part be due to the Persephone/Hades myth, that lingers as part of the poem’s inspiration, though hardly overwhelmingly so. In the tradition of say, Emily Dickinson originally, and moving through to the likes of Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov or Barbara Guest, and it may be the latter whom I can think of as a kind of stylistic parallel. Gluck is relatively restrained, terse, not using too many words for what might require less; a very moderated tone rather than a loud one, often finessed.

The book consists of longer and shorter poems, the former generally subdivided into sections. There is quite a strong earth or ecology theme, and Gluck moves with changes to the weather or the environment.

I was struck early on by this piece of phrasing from the poem ‘October’;-

            ‘It is true there is not enough beauty in the world.

            It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.

            Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.’ (p13)

This is highly evocative, distinctive and original, reaching insights of bracing perception. The first line is a true but regrettable reflection on our present state of affairs. Beautiful world where are you recently said Sally Rooney. There are localised moments we can wonder at, evidence of intelligent design and aesthetic patterning, but few would be greatly optimistic about the current state of play, dealing with environmental degradation and pollution. Gluck knows very well that she herself can’t fix this; it is likely to take a long term coordinated effort. But she does suggest that she might be given to candor, of which she also feels there is not enough; call it openness, perhaps, or honesty or opening up about difficult topics truthfully.

Again another insightful passage occurs a little later,-

            ‘Who can say what the world is? The world

            is in flux, therefore

            unreadable, the winds shifting,

            the great plates invisibly shifting and changing –‘ (‘Prism’ I, p20)

Among other things we are finding Gluck attending to the state of the earth, rather than, say, male perspectives, and I’d say this kind of marks out the prerogative of the book as a whole; there is little in the way of critique of male prerogatives. This short passage, opening the poem ‘Prism’ is quite fascinating because it takes in both the shorter term and the long term views. The ‘great plates’ are noted, very slow organic and geological change. Meanwhile the world is perceived to be in flux, with those shifting winds. One might note also the lack of formalist design here, lines of quite unequal length not rhymed, but then it is highly readable. 

In part II we encounter a passage that further marks out Gluck’s view, from the poem ‘The Evening Star’,-

                                                ‘There were

            no other stars. Only the one

            whose name I knew

            as in my other life I did her

            injury: Venus, 

            star of the early evening,

            to you I dedicate

            my vision’ (p39)

This time working with a shorter line, again no rhyme, but there is certainly an intentness of focus. Gluck doesn’t quite dwell on this. There is no overriding mythos here, though she may be a watcher of the stars and the night sky. The flow of words is finely punctuated. 

Recounting a tale of a field burning, evidently by arson, Gluck ventures of the farmer,-

            ‘He remembers the day the field burned…

            Something deep within him said: I can live with this,

            I can fight it after awhile.’ (p68)

And some of this sense permeates the book. If there is not enough beauty or soundness in the world, one can strive to make things better. Struggle is an endemic, given part of the picture.

In terms of the book’s larger frame, the opening poem, ‘The Night Migrations’, does in so many ways set out the tone. An extraordinarily yet so subtly perceptive piece we are given to, that upon the soul’s reside in death, ‘maybe just not being is simply enough,/ hard as that is to imagine.’ (p1) This has fine insight, subtlety, and lack of pretence, and is philosophically quite searching. What we know of the place of the soul is that it will ‘just not be’, ‘hard to imagine’. The almost colloquial note of that last line takes off a lot of its weight, and yet it might feel a little strange encountering this at the very outset of the book. Gluck deals, indeed, with weighty subjects, but not in an anxious, deep or worried condition; whatever all this is one feels she has found a way to live with it and be finely expressive about it. It is also worth checking out her Collected Poems, recently published. 

Clark Allison 1st December 2021

Lunarium by Josep Lluís Aguiló translated by Anna Crowe (Arc Publications)

Lunarium by Josep Lluís Aguiló translated by Anna Crowe (Arc Publications)

John Berger’s fictional account of a doctor in the Forest of Dean, Dr Sassall in A Fortunate Man, presents the reader with that reality pointed to by Charles Tomlinson in his poem ‘A Meditation on John Constable’:

“…The artist lies
For the improvement of truth.”

Berger’s country doctor “exaggerates when he tells stories about himself. In these stories he is nearly always in an absurd position: trying to take a film on deck when the waves break over him; getting lost in a city he doesn’t know; letting a pneumatic drill run away with him. He stresses the disenchantment and deliberately makes himself a comic little man. Disguised in this way and forearmed against disappointment, he can then re-approach reality once more with the entirely un-comic purposes of mastering it, of understanding further.” Anna Crowe’s Preface to her convincing translations of the contemporary Mallorcan poet Aguiló highlights some similar ideas concerning the imagination of this tale-weaving poet:

“Already there is a sense that the reader may expect the unexpected. Reading these poems, what is striking is the power of the imagination at work, and the multiplicity of voices that speak through the poems. The power of the imagination might be said to be the underlying argument or leitmotif of Aguiló’s poetry.”

Aguiló creates worlds which can be visited secretly and we can begin “to search for the truth / by finding where the ink is hidden that tattoos us / in the world”. This is a poetry of doors and as they open, one by one, they invite the reader into the next stanza:

“The first stanza is the one that welcomes
you and drags you inside,
grabbing you by the arm and frowning at you;
the one that speaks to you with warmth and trust
while it makes you sit down in the armchair of the second stanza.”

These are magical poems which create a magical world of Mallorca in which “green and yellow words”, written by a botanical god, can be deciphered “every day on the pages of / the thicket of writing”.
This is a Mallorca known to the Americans of the 1950s from which Robert Creeley published his Divers Press books and Black Mountain Review and from which Robert Duncan could write to Denise Levertov in June 1955 about “the desire to have imagination freed again”. This is a world which exists with a perception of exact detail and an understanding that ouvertures are created through which we see another world:

“You had to walk stealthily. Every footstep echoed,
disturbing emptiness and time. The smells of food
from the kitchen did not reach this high and I scrabbled
among lumber and old clothes, savouring the smells
of chicken bran and the dung and damp walls
of this corner of Santanyí and bad Mallorcan cement.”

The importance of Tomlinson’s assertion about imagination and truth informs this whole collection and the emphasis noted in Anna Crowe’s introduction stands sentinel to a landscape which invites further exploration:

“There is a sense of a poet pushing the boundaries of the possible further and further out, of exploring what it means to live on the edge of whatever world he has invented, as well as, at the same time, going further and further in, exploring what it means to be human.”

Ian Brinton 23rd January 2017

Disappearing Curtains Edited by Paul Buck

Disappearing Curtains Edited by Paul Buck

In that indispensable volume about British Poetry Magazines 1914-2000 edited by David Miller and Richard Price the entry for Chapter D, 129, ‘Curtains’ , gives clear background details concerning Paul Buck’s innovative and exciting publication which was to cast its brightness over the 1970s scene: ‘Most issues are unnumbered and have alternative titles based on the Curtains theme’.

The most recent copy which was presented to me by the editor, Paul Buck, at the Free Verse Poetry Fair a few weeks ago is titled ‘Disappearing Curtains’ and it has a sense of summing up. The editorial account of what it means to start up a new literary magazine is essential reading for anyone wishing to set out on the worthwhile venture:

‘A magazine serves more than one purpose. If I am to be the editor it needs to be a personal document, an exploration of my interests. As I am a writer then being an editor revolves around the notion of editing as part of the research for my writing. However, I do see it as a wider project, that is, the magazine as a communal…a community work.’

The BPM account stressed how the series was ‘especially strong in translation of contemporary French literature’ and a steady glance through French Curtains (1973), Curtains, le prochain step (1976) and bal:le:d Curtains (1978) most certainly confirms this as one reads Rosemarie Waldrop’s version of Jabès, Glendale George’s Giroux or Paul Auster’s Georges Bataille accompanied by striking illustrations from Jeff Nuttall. However, that brief description falls far short of giving true recognition to the astonishing range and expertise reflected in this series of magazines.
Between 1971 and 1978 Paul Buck edited at least eleven issues of the magazine and published work by Roy Fisher, Larry Eigner, Anthony Barnett, Kris Hemensley, Allen Fisher, Barry MacSweeney, David Chaloner, Michael Haslam, Mark Hyatt, Peter Riley, John Riley, Jeremy Hilton, John Hall, Cid Corman, Eric Mottram, John Freeman, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Gael Turnbull… and the list goes on. One of the delights for me was coming across the work of Paul Selby, the founder of Sweet Dawn Publishing, about whom I have written in Infinite Riches, a History of Dulwich College Poets since the 1950s. In Safety Curtain (1972) there are eighteen pages of Selby’s work before we read both Carlyle Reedy and Larry Eigner. The last contribution in that issue of Curtains is a review by Kris Hemensley of Joanne Kyger’s 1970 Black Sparrow Press collection Places To Go:

‘These poems are what one might have expected to come from Denise Levertov in the light of her statements of intent of a decade & more ago – and whilst this is no criticism whatsoever of Levertov’s prosaic mood at present – it is exceedingly fortunate in these generally sparse & even trite times that Joanne Kyger can offer the rich & the fantastic.’

As if listening carefully to his reviewer of years ago Paul Buck’s final curtain contains work by Francesca Lisette and Holly Pester as well as his own ‘Notes In & Out of the Disappearing Mist’.

Ian Brinton 11th October 2016

Poetry Penguin

Fifty years ago this year Penguin started their series of volumes each containing the work of three poets. Penguin Modern Poets was a startling and splendidly eclectic venture than ran to 27 volumes over the next thirteen years and it says something about the faith a publishing firm had in both its readership and the value of the poets published. In 1962 the first volume must have sounded a safe note with its choice of Lawrence Durrell, Elizabeth Jennings and R.S. Thomas but by the following year Christopher Middleton was there and the American West Coast scene was represented by generous selections from Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg. To suggest a measure of the importance of the Penguin venture here it might be worth recalling that Andrew Crozier’s American supplement to Granta and Charles Tomlinson’s Black Mountain supplement to Ian Hamilton’s the Review did not appear until 1964. The series continued its highlighting of the Americans in 1967 with Penguin Modern Poets 9: Denise Levertov, Kenneth Rexroth and William Carlos Williams. Number 12 presented the punchy world of former San Quentin inmate William Wantling and in 1969 Charles Bukowski appeared alongside Philip Lamantia and Harold Norse. The series gave some context for the use of the word ‘Modern’ by re-issuing work by David Gascoyne, W.S. Graham (17), Adrian Stokes (23) and offering space to the more recent voices of Tom Raworth and Lee Harwood (19). It was a remarkable achievement and Geoff Ward’s comment in The Salt Companion to Lee Harwood is worth bearing in mind in terms of what it tells us about the poetry world of 1971: ‘Tom Raworth, packaged alongside John Ashbery and Harwood in volume 19 of the Penguin Modern Poets series, offers work that is broadly comparable at this early stage in its insistence on present tense actualities, rather than their ironised recovery by experience at a metrical remove.’

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