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Prynne’s ‘Refuse Collection’

Prynne’s ‘Refuse Collection’

In 2004 ‘Refuse Collection’, a poem written in response to the allegations of the torture of prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq, appeared in the Barque Press magazine, Quid 13 edited by Keston Sutherland.
In 2007 Jeremy Noel-Tod wrote a letter to the Times Literary Supplement in which he suggested that Jeremy Prynne’s recently published chapbook To Pollen (Barque Press) was ‘directly concerned with the “war on terror” and its vicious circles’, quoting the lines

“Afflicted purpose they hail we cut them they in
turn line the route denied, holding it most.”

In 2013 Noel-Tod went on to edit the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry in which he commented on Prynne’s concentration upon the etymological source of words and the extent to which the language is used by those in financial or political social power to control and command the thoughts of others. He suggested that the “presiding discipline of the oeuvre, however, is philology” and here he took over from Donald Davie who had commented back in the 1970s that “The structuring principle of this poetry, which makes it difficult (sometimes too difficult), is the unemphasized but radical demands it makes upon English etymologies.” Noel-Tod again alerted us to what has been for many years the fascination of Prynne as a poet:

“What has drawn readers to the demands it makes is the intellectual urgency and aesthetic intensity that animates Prynne’s reinvention of traditional lyric subjectivity in a world governed by market forces and scientific empiricism.”

That stratified field of rich linguistic construction is exemplified in ‘Refuse Collection’ written on May 8th 2004 in response to the allegations of torture at Abu Ghraib.

“To a light led sole in pit of, this by slap-up
barter of an arm rest cap, on stirrup trade in
crawled to many bodies, uncounted. Talon up
crude oil-for-food, incarnadine incarcerate, get
foremost a track rocket, rapacious in heavy
investment insert tool this way up.”

The brutality of the language here with its bitter puns crushing together idiomatic phrases with both slang and Shakespearian reference makes for difficult and uncomfortable reading. However, there is a clear difference between difficulty and obscurity: obscurity is to do with a range of references, in the manner that Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad is now an obscure poem which needs a considerable number of footnotes so that local and contemporary references can be recognised. Difficulty is where the language is not complicated in itself but its layers of meaning require the reader to be especially vigilant and alert to nuance. The controlled violence of those opening lines to ‘Refuse Collection’ is intricately bound up with some of the following ideas: the prison-like geography of a light leading to a pit in line one. The human outrage emphasised by the pun on sole/soul, is followed by the phrase ‘slap-up’, a term often used in reference to a festive meal but here tinged with the brutality of beating. In line two the reference to ‘barter’ presents us with the financial dealings involved with trade where the roots of that word of commerce are to be found in the Middle Dutch or Middle Low German trade and Old Saxon trada, footstep. The word ‘stirrup’ casts not only a glance back to the festivity of consumption (a stirrup-cup) but also presents us with the theme of dominance which appeared in one of the photographs taken of Iraqui prisoners being piled on top of each other as if to be ridden. The reference to ‘crude’ in line four is not only echoing the scientific term for unprocessed oil but also suggests a deeply embedded feeling of the uncivilised given a further emphasis with the word ‘incarnadine’ immediately recognisable as part of Macbeth’s vision of wading through a sea of blood. The final reference which merges finance (‘investment’) with technology (‘insert tool this way up’) is made grotesque as we recognise the well-known euphemism for a penis.
In his unpublished notes on ‘Some Aspects of Poems and Translations’, April 2007 Prynne commented upon language in a manner that is pertinent to a reading of his own later work:

Individual words are placed in close relation in a new way, so that it is
not easy to guess how the meaning of one relates to the meaning of the
other. Sometimes a whole string of words seems to be making uncertain or
doubtful connections, so that when the reader or translator consults a full,
inclusive dictionary the different meanings for each word all seem at least
partly possible, because the guidelines of sense and idiom seem to point in
so many different directions at once.

Ian Brinton 27th August 2017

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The Lovely Disciplines by Martin Crucefix (Seren Books)

The Lovely Disciplines by Martin Crucefix (Seren Books)

There is a tone of quiet humanity in these poems and that comes as no surprise as I look back on the versions of Laozi’s Daodejing that Martyn Crucefix published last year with Enitharmon Press (Tears blog 4/12/16). There is a seriousness in the poetry, an awareness of the passing of time, which does not resolve itself into an easily achieved sense of regret. There is no bitter twist that allows a reader to sport a wry smile to accompany his awareness of the value of lived experience. I make no apology for repeating some lines from Peter Robinson’s interview with Jane Davies (Talk about Poetry, Shearsman Books, 2007) that I used in my book Contemporary Poetry: Poetry and Poets since 1990 (C.U.P. 2009). Robinson was talking about poems which address lived experience in recognisable forms of human expression and in the interview he expressed some bafflement about the contemporary poetry scene. He was puzzled by the way by the way jokes are given such importance and recounted how the Italian poet Franco Fortini had approached him at a poetry festival in Cambridge in the 1980s to ask “why do all the English poems end with a little laugh?” It seems almost as if an ironic tone is adopted to protect the poet from being seen as nakedly serious and wanting to refer to genuinely felt emotions. In contrast, the quiet tone of Crucefix’s poems reinforces Robinson’s assertion that poetry is a response to other lives and the otherness of those lives.
In ‘House sold’ the poet records those moments when he unearthed the plastic urn containing his mother-in-law’s ashes which had been buried in the garden. Now that the house has been sold, that house “your mother dressed // and warmed all those years”, the urn will accompany the family on the next move:

“now she’s a little mixed
with its beloved soil and each step confirms

possession is temporary
even a place of rest
you lean against the car as if out of breath”

The word “mixed” could be an introduction to a tone of ironic laughter: ash and soil are combined as a result of the plastic jar (“the size of a sweet jar”) being punctured by the fork used to uncover it. But any hint of embarrassment is swiftly discarded with the tread of “each step confirms” and the overwhelming simple seriousness of the statement “possession is temporary” lifts the commonplace to the universal. Thomas Hardy’s squabbling mothers in the ‘Satire of Circumstance’ poem ‘In the Cemetery’ have no place here. Hardy’s women fall out with each other concerning whose flowers are placed over whose dead children whilst the sexton comments that the babies were laid in the graves at different times “like sprats in a tin”. In fact the women are crying over what is no longer there since “we moved the lot some nights ago / And packed them away in the general foss / With hundreds more”:

“But their folks don’t know,
And as well cry over a new-laid drain
As anything else, to ease your pain!”

There are other English voices behind this careful and patient poetry and it is impossible to ignore the presence of Larkin. The title poem focuses on the ward in a home which appears to be either a resting place for those with dementia or a hospice for those about to die. If I have any doubts about tone here it rests with the Larkinesque adoption of resignation which comes a little too easily; a resignation accompanied by a seemingly all-knowing distance.

“…no brighter hope

any more for Linda where she’s settled still
in her pink dressing-gown beside her bed

neat as a serviette her eyes fixed on a man
from her V of hands while he stares at her

from his V of hands at the woman he moved
coterminous with for years who now prefers

distance and darkness and being dumb –”

My doubts are raised by the word “prefers” with its sense of choice and commitment; it takes away from the sadness of the inevitable and becomes a matter of the poet’s awareness of the choices he assumes the woman to have made. However, there is another voice behind these crafted poems and it is that of Donald Davie. It seems no accident that Crucefix has translated Pasternak’s poem ‘In Hospital’ and his awareness of the importance of rhyme and music in the Russian poet’s work is movingly transcribed with subtlety and respect:

“As if window-shopping
crowds block the way
stretcher swung aboard
paramedics in place

street shadows carved
by the ambulance’s beam
city thunders past
police and pavements dancing

as doors swing on faces
gawping the nurse’s grip
on the saline bottle
loosening as she tips

to and fro – snowfall
filling gutters quickly
paperwork in triplicate
the roar of A and E”

In a radio talk he gave for the BBC’s Third Programme in 1962 Davie spoke about the music of poetry and quoted from Pasternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago:

“At such moments the correlation of the forces controlling the artist is, as it were, stood on its head. The ascendancy is no longer with the artist or the state of mind which he is trying to express, but with language, his instrument of expression. Language, the home and dwelling of beauty and meaning, itself begins to think and speak for man and turns wholly into music, not in the sense of outward, audible sounds, but by virtue of the power and momentum of its inward flow.”

Davie was a serious translator of Pasternak’s poetry and one of his finest poems, ‘A Winter Landscape Near Ely’ asks the sort of question that interested the Russian poet:

“What stirs us when a curtain
Of ice-hail dashes the window?”

Davie’s answer is in the sort of tone which I find in The Lovely Disciplines:

“It is the wasteness of space
That a man drives wagons into
Or plants his windbreak in.

Spaces stop time from hurting.
Over verst on verst of Russia
Are lime-tree avenues.”

Martyn Crucefix understands the central role language plays in our lives and in ‘Words and Things’ he places this awareness within the quiet context of an elderly individual who discovers “too late this absence of words” which now “builds a prison” – the poet recognises that “a man without language is no man” and that as the world of objects becomes too difficult to dominate he can only have knowledge of a world which “turns in your loosening grip”.

Ian Brinton 20th August 2017

Du Bellay by Philip Terry (Oystercatcher Press)

Du Bellay by Philip Terry (Oystercatcher Press)

The opening sonnet in Joachim Du Bellay’s sixteenth-century sequence of Les Regrets is immediately assertive:

‘Je ne veux point chercher l’esprit de l’univers,
Je ne veux point sonder les abîmes couverts.’

This tone of defiance eschews the world of sublime aspiration; it turns its back on any plumbing of depths; it draws no architectural designs from a skyscape. This is a mode of writing which is the product of ‘l’aventure’ and ‘accidents divers’. In Philip Terry’s fizzing rendition he doesn’t ‘paint my pictures in such rich colours’ and his sonnets enclosed in this fine Oystercatcher’s beak don’t ‘seek such lofty subjects for my verse’. In the world of ‘l’aventure’ he keeps his ‘eye on shit that happens’ since after all

‘I moan right here if I have something to moan about,
Make a joke of it or, if I wish to act the whistleblower, speak out loud,
In the sure knowledge that no-one ever reads poems.
I don’t tart them up to look presentable at award ceremonies,
Knackered times require knackered words,
But regard them as no more than minutes or blogs.’

These twenty-four sonnets are published ‘In Memory of Stephen Rodefer’ and they bring to mind of course those energetic masterpieces, Four Lectures, published by The Figures in 1982. The ‘Pretext’, an excuse perhaps for what comes first, gives the tone:

‘Then I stand up on my hassock and say sing that.
It is not the business of POETRY to be anything.’

Rodefer sees his job as ‘quality control in the language lab, explaining what went / Wrong in Northampton after the Great Awakening.’ The reference is to the religious revival in Northampton, Mass., led by Jonathan Edwards, 1739-40, in which Edwards held that true conversion was marked by, if not uniquely distinguished by, distinct bodily signs (of emotion and personal submission to God’s power), although later he qualified and even rejected this belief. Philip Terry’s poetic outburst is certainly palpable but it moves far beyond the physical into the realms of outrage:

‘It is not the rubbish-heaped banks of this Essex river,
It is not the exhaust-filled air, nor North Hill Barbers,
Which makes me pour out my misery in verse…’

It is instead the manner in which ‘Capitalism unrolls its business plans on campus.’ The campus, which is fast-becoming ‘a space allocation’ where every academic has ‘a workload allocation’ (represented by everything which ‘must be measurable and quantifiable’), presents us with a world in which ‘everything is run on a business model’.

‘We are now “stakeholders”, students “clients” –

This campus of the University of Essex was once the place of Donald Davie and Andrew Crozier and it hosted a trans-Atlantic push from Ed Dorn and Charles Olson. Now ‘We don’t spend our time here writing poetry’ and if you really want to know what goes on then here are one or two granites:

‘There is no time for teaching, we are too busy on curriculum review,
There is no time for real conversation, we are too busy on email…
There is no time for literature, we are too busy on transferable skills,
There is no time for thought, we think only of outcomes.’

In the ‘Preface’ to Four Lectures Rodefer’s poetry was ‘painted with every jarring colour and juxtaposition, every simultaneous order and disorder’ and that anarchic energy, that uplifting sense of anger and urban spleen, sparks off the pages of these twenty-four sonnets. Philip Terry’s collection is exhilarating to read and I recommend it to every teacher of English within the university system. It is, to quote Rodefer once more, ‘as deep as a museum and as wide as the world’.

Ian Brinton 31st July 2016

Michael Grant’s Cinderella’s Ashtray, Simon Smith’s Church Avenue (vErIsImILLtUdE, occasional bulletins)

Michael Grant’s Cinderella’s Ashtray, Simon Smith’s Church Avenue (vErIsImILLtUdE, occasional bulletins)

Some new productions have appeared from Simon Smith’s publishing house and I have been fortunate enough to have a glance at two of them. Reading Michael Grant’s work always gives me a sense of footfalls echoing down a corridor and that is no surprise of course since Grant is a major critic of T.S. Eliot. Back in 1982 he edited the two volume edition of The Critical Heritage for Routledge and I am fortunate to have acquired a copy of these books which used to belong to Donald Davie, himself one of Grant’s teachers at Cambridge. Davie was a great marker of his own books, often using a biro to draw clear lines of approval (or its opposite) down the page. One of the moments in the introduction to the first volume which Davie highlights with enthusiasm reads as follows:

‘The problem of unity and disunity was raised again by John Crowe Ransom in July 1923. Ransom considered that Eliot was engaged in the destruction of the philosophical and cosmical principles by which we form our usual picture of reality, and that Eliot wished to name cosmos Chaos’

Comparing this attitude with that of Allen Tate, Grant goes on to write ‘However, for Tate, it was precisely in the incongruities, labelled as ‘parody’ by Ransom, that the ‘form’ of ‘The Waste Land’ resided, in the ironic attitude of the free consciousness that refused a closed system.’

Irony and refusal both form part of this new collection of Grant’s poetry and the influence of Eliot can still be felt in the sound of ‘a footstep echo / on the flagstone’ as the ‘shadow defends me from the shadow’ (‘For the Present’). Michael Grant is a craftsman and in this way he also pursues the path taken by his master: his writing goes through many drafts before the spare realisation on the page presents the reader with those mysterious echoes which haunt a world that seems to lie beyond language. ‘Disappointment: After Benjamin Péret’ had started many months before as

‘the wings of insects brush against the cheek
the fragment renders visible
the pure contours of the absent work
error is not in violation

of the language
the word as such has fled before the sensual god
of late hours’

This has now been strained down, compressed, condensed, given mysterious vitality as we read

‘insect wings
scarcely thicker than the rain
and as delicate
beat against the cheek

in the casual flight of day the blood has trapped

a sensual god
so pale it is unknown

even to the black outlines of the foliage’

The echoes of course are not merely of T.S. Eliot but also of the great mystics of the seventeenth-century about whom Eliot wrote with much intensity.

Simon Smith’s little collection of twenty-three poems, each containing five lines and each presented as a block of language sitting decisively on the full white page which frames it, also contains echoes. Here I become aware not only of Frank O’Hara, whose steps along the street have been threading their way through Simon Smith’s lines for many years, but also of Paul Blackburn as he ‘hollers / from a window above decades ago’. The world of Scorsese’s Travis Bickle moves along ‘as glimpses / of Manhattan Brooklyn dirty old air / sirens and yellow cabs running along / Ocean Parkway cats held in bad odor’. I recall writing about Smith’s poetry as always being on the move and remember Fifteen Exits (Waterloo Press 2001). Although published at the opening of the new century the individual ‘exits’ were all dated precisely in the closing years of the previous one. The place of first publication and the names of the travelling companions were included. That volume’s opening poem, ‘The Nature of Things’ was dedicated to J.D. Taylor and carried an epigraph from Stephen Rodefer. It began 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.’

In Church Avenue the travelling companions include his wife, Flick, and both Barry Schwabsky & John Yau.

Ian Brinton March 1st 2015

Buried Music by Peter Robinson (Shearsman Books)

Buried Music by Peter Robinson (Shearsman Books)

On the back cover of this new collection by Peter Robinson Sue Hubbard is quoted:

‘Robinson is at his best when describing the strangeness of marginalia such as…”a creosoted shed / with ivy bursting through its boards”…where time is distorted and realigned like perspectives in a mirror so that a return “home” feels as strange as being in a foreign country’.

When I saw this it brought back to me those lines of the French poet Philippe Jaccottet from his 1970 publication Landscapes with Absent Figures:

And so, without desiring it or seeking it, what I discovered at times was a homeland, and perhaps the most rightful one: a place which opened up to me the magical depths of Time. And if the word “paradise” came to mind, it was also probably because I breathed more freely beneath this sky, like someone rediscovering his native soil. When you leave the periphery of things and make for the centre, you feel calmer, more assured, less anxious about disappearing or living to no purpose. These “openings” which were offered to the inner eye thus seemed convergent, like the radii of a sphere; they pointed intermittently but persistently towards a seemingly still centre.

This combined sense of the near and the far, a feature of many of Peter Robinson’s finest poems, is given to us here with the first stanza of ‘Estrangement’:

Suddenly, winter trees
appear like ruined monasteries
and, further, through wrecked architraves,
under blown clouds’ blanket cover,
grey skies, thinking, as you do,
why I see much clearer now,
again the season’s distances
have shaken up our lives.

A glance at Casper David Friedrich’s painting of an ‘Abbey in the Oak Forest’ seems to metamorphose into a Mr Bleaney who ‘watched the frigid wind / Tousling the clouds’ whilst he wonders if this is, after all, ‘home’. The second stanza of ‘Estrangement’ settles for what Donald Davie might have referred to as lowered sights, the shrug of the shoulders, the patient acceptance of a second best:

Then as circumstance would have it
in planning-blighted town or city
I find us living and lumping it, see,
with what creature warmth and comfort
we wrap about us for a start
in the distance’s vicinity.

In 1974 Cid Corman produced a beautifully presented volume of Jaccottet’s poetry, Breathings, illustrated by Anne-Marie Jaccottet and published as A Mushinsha Book by Grossman Publishers. In his introduction he commented upon the French poet’s volume, Lessons:

‘even as all the elegiac poems of Lessons, celebrating the death of his father-in-law beyond lament, where the words move off like smoke into the larger sky and the dust of words settles like ash upon the old tilled ground, reveal the constant note of mortality, the “invisible bird”, so often evoked, is sensed out there within.’

The fragility of the moment and the opening it creates in the surrounding world, so that we can look through the immediate to sense what happens if we cleanse the doors of perception, is there, for me, in the quiet beauty of many of these poems. ‘All Change’ is precise and echoing: it evokes a moment and yet leaves the guard’s cry resonating:

Then next thing you know
from a partial leaf-fall
come re-emergent distances,
new chill factors, time
shifting more quickly, and loss is
sensed as that bit more precise
now raindrops lit by streetlamps
are speckling the panes
and thunderheads, a shorting day,
its crepitations over us,
again, they cover such a range
of start-lines at each terminus
making our last hopes first past the post,
as when a train manager cuts in to say:
‘All change, please. All change.’

Peter Robinson will be reading at Swedenborg Hall this coming Tuesday, January 20th. I urge you to turn up if you can; it will be very good indeed!

Ian Brinton January 18th 2015

The Footing Anthology (Longbarrow Press, 2013)

The Footing Anthology (Longbarrow Press, 2013)

An anthology of poems by Angelina Ayers, James Caruth, Mark Goodwin, Rob Hindle, Andrew Hirst, Chris Jones, Fay Musselwhite.

(www.longbarrowpress.com)

The introduction by Brian Lewis sets the scene for this highly attractive anthology of poems which is the ‘result of a long-term engagement with the ideas and practices of walking; an engagement that, in many cases, starts at home.’ Brian reflects upon the idea attributed to Wordsworth that walking is not simply a mode of travelling, but of being. This reflection immediately made me think of the piece from Lyrical Ballads 1798, ‘Old Man Travelling, Animal Tranquillity and Decay, a Sketch’ which concludes with the lines

‘—I asked him whither he was bound, and what
The object of his journey; he replied
“Sir! I am going many miles to take
“A last leave of my son, a mariner,
“Who from a sea-fight has been brought to Falmouth,
“And there is dying in an hospital.”’

From Isabella Fenwick’s note, dictated to her by the poet in 1843, there is a suggestion that this poem was ‘an overflowing from the old Cumberland Beggar’ and that phrase ‘overflowing’ seems particularly pertinent to this beautifully produced volume from Longbarrow Press in which ‘Familiar ways are made unfamiliar by acts of attention to hitherto unseen details.’

In James Caruth’s poem ‘Procession’ there is a Wordsworthian moment in which the current scene is juxtaposed with the more distant world in which ‘Somewhere, important events are taking place’. Running throughout these poems there is a thread which links a sharply perceived moment with the world of distant wars. ‘Close of Play’ has a newspaper front page which lies on a pub table:

‘The front page of a discarded newspaper
flaps open on a picture of young faces
in desert fatigues, blank eyes staring
below headlines of zones, and new offensives.’

In ‘Memorial’ ‘another day ends in Helmand / as two young men kick the desert / from their boots, stare at a camera lens / and think of home as a village like this.’ There are echoes here of course of poems written during the 1914-18 War and both Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney spring to mind. Gurney’s ‘Crickley Hill’ concludes

‘You hills of home, woodlands, white roads and inns
That star and line our darling land, still keep
Memory of us; for when first day begins
We think of you and dream in the first sleep
Of you and yours—
Trees, bare rocks, flowers
Daring the blast on Crickley’s distant steep.’

Close to the end of this collection there is Rob Hindle’s ‘Nether Edge’ with its echoes of another great walker, Thomas Hardy:

‘Allotments terrace the edge,
the climb fenced with privet and old doors.
Light clings here, setting fires in the glass.
The soil beds are mounded with carpets
or left bare for frosts to crack them.

There is nothing here that bombs
would make a difference. All those houses
wrecked, lives spilled into the street
like seeds; but this low-rent fallowland
persists, all ruin and renewal.’

This is a wonderfully uplifting anthology of poems; there is a sense of continuity which reaches back into history and landscape. Fay Musselwhite’s ‘Path Kill’ focuses on returns as ‘Woodlouse and fly families later, / flat stacked in fraying layers / dog-eared rug-matted black / leaf-like in leaves, secret / in bramble and buttercup, ransacked, leaching back.’ The purposeful human connotation in ‘flat stacked’ is poised above a word of parting and growth (‘leaves’) before concluding with the present participle, ‘leaching’, in which the dissolution involved in an agricultural process is juxtaposed against the image of ‘Woodlouse’, ‘secret’ and ‘back’. It is as if we are being presented with a vulnerability overcome by a tenacity.

This is a poetry of inscription and record and a frost ‘will crust this nave / for stone years, bone years, well-deep years’ (Chris Jones, ‘The Doom or Last Judgement’)

Reading through this anthology prompted me to turn back to that 1973 book by Donald Davie, Thomas Hardy and British Poetry:

‘Hardy’s feeling for topography and locality, as somehow conditioning the human lives lived under their influence more powerfully than any theory available to him or to us can allow for, is something that can and does persist, as a tradition, quite athwart the evident discontinuities, between him and us, in the way that artistic form, and specifically poetic form, is conceived.’

These lines immediately precede Davie’s focus on some of the early poems of J.H. Prynne and glancing at these comments I rooted out that early piece of criticism by Prynne, a review of Samuel Hynes’s book The Pattern of Hardy’s Poetry, which appeared in Victorian Studies 5, 1961-2:

‘…the deliberate identification of “style” with “tone”, as a means of substantiating the poet’s self-effacement in favour of the real particular world, is well pointed up.’

Ian Brinton 25th September 2014

Gestation by Patricia Debney Shearsman Books

Gestation by Patricia Debney Shearsman Books

When I first came across the poetry of Frank Samperi, friend of Louis Zukofsky, I was struck with an overwhelming impression of whiteness on the page; space as if words were like bird-tracks in snow; words so laid out that they seemed as if they were yearning upwards to get to a rarefied world beyond the page. I remember being struck by Will Petersen’s short collection of Samperi’s poems, Of Light, published in Kyoto in 1965

going out
to
the backyard
to shovel snow

away from
the
cellar door
an old man

looked up
at
a shadeless
window

blinding
in
the sun
setting

behind the
homes
beyond
the freight yard

Patricia Debney’s new Shearsman Chapbook, Gestation, reminds me of those Samperi spaces. The nine sections explore fragmentation, delusion, and parental ageing and they form part of what will be her next collection, Baby. I think that what I was most struck by in these spare pages, these gaps for reflection, these spaces within which one is asked to pause and contemplate, is the bodying forth of a sense of identity: ‘Somewhere…….begins……the point when…….you know me…….a lifetime after…….I dig in……..hermit crab……..to your shell’. I have avoided quoting this poem as it appears on the page for fear of losing that enormous sense of margin which we are given and I urge you to go and buy a copy of this book to see the context for yourself. The opening of section five gives us a movement of growth which echoes the return of Persephone in the Spring. In Debney’s poem ‘the body grows / what the body grows / I am root vegetable / in rich soil / rain falls / a kind of sun shines / and I push past / the first feeble skin: / shed like dust brushed / away, blown glass’ . If I were still teaching I should want to place this exquisite passage alongside the description David Almond gives of the return of Persephone in his 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.

I recall asking Charles Tomlinson if he liked Samperi’s work and in an unpublished letter from February 2006 he wrote

You say you love the white spaces, but my world is so full of spaces of one kind or another, I love a bit of syntax. There’s something unsatisfying, I find, about poetry which welcomes what to me seems like a sort of arbitrariness in the way Samperi lays out things. Where is the anchor? With respect for syntax one knows where one is. Maybe I’m just too old to adjust to those spaces that refuse to notice that syntax exists.

Nearly thirty years earlier Donald Davie had written to Michael Grant about a similar topic concerning some of Grant’s poems which had been sent to the Grandfather of Grammarians:

Well! As you warned me, and as I suppose both of us knew in advance, your poems do indeed live at the opposite side of an impassable gulf from mine and from me. After all, what have I been from the first if not Doctor Syntax?—whereas your writing depends upon suppressing syntax, or leaving it carefully indefinite.

Both Davie and Tomlinson belong in a world which is rooted in a different approach to poetry from that presented by both Frank Samperi and Patricia Debney. Without wishing to present myself as sitting on a fence….I have a high regard for the work in both camps!

Ian Brinton, August 30th 2014

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