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The Personal Art: essays, reviews & memoirs by Peter Robinson (Shearsman Books)

The Personal Art: essays, reviews & memoirs by Peter Robinson (Shearsman Books)

The scope of this quite modestly pitched book of reviews and essays is actually quite considerable, it takes in quite a wide compass in a relatively unassuming way in some 440 pages. Robinson has authors he likes, but he is not into score taking or arguing canonically. I suppose this could have been called a collected or selected prose. But Robinson is not the kind to hammer his points, there’s a considerable openness here to many varieties of poetic expression. 

So the book is bold but lacking in ostentation, which makes a curious combination of assertion and humility. There are a great many reviews here and I’d say they’re all pretty insightful, and the final section is given over to some autobiographical essays. Among things to prioritise are perhaps, a vicar’s son,  Robinson’s 18 years of living and teaching in Japan. Also with considerable candour he discusses his surgery for a benign brain tumour, certainly a life changing experience.

There are actually some 55 pieces here, composed ‘over the last forty years’ (p7), so this in a sense a bit of a summa. But again, Robinson does not seem like someone with an axe to grind. The book is in five parts, beginning with British poets, then Americans, then a more retrospective note in Part 3 and on to more perhaps minor or esoteric pieces in Part 4, and memoirs to close. 

The title is from Marianne Moore,- ‘happy that Art, admired in general,/ is always actually personal’. Again that air of no grand claims. A number of very prominent poets get reviewed here, and the sense is of a close, rather than judgmental engagement, again little sense of what betters or words of a delineated evaluation. Robinson is an appreciative reader quite evidently. I thought perhaps the most indicative piece was on the American poet John Matthias, which is in Part 2, where Robinson reiterates the Marianne Moore quote.

Actually placing the memoirs at the end gives the book a wholly different tone, personal, indeed. What we might be lacking is a sense of an ethos, where what we get instead are, oh, here are some things I liked. Is literature of much help in making a way in the world. There’s a little bit of a sense of drift, ie we like these things, but we make no claims for them. There is a lack of taking position. One might find for example no address to such canonical figures as Hughes, Plath or Heaney. And modernism is acknowledged but we do not get wholly behind it.

This might tend to suggest that the book turns into a sort of miscellany, a grab bag. Here is Robinson for instance discussing Lee Harwood, about whom he is quite favourable,-

‘Presenting himself as a nice person and not afraid or ashamed of weakness, Harwood is frequently candid about the ironies and contradictions that have arisen with his projects.’ (p277)

Well one might think this is somewhere Robinson is coming from also.

Given that, a strength of the book is its wide range. We get, for instance, commentary on Peter Riley, John James, Roy Fisher, Bunting, Elizabeth Bishop and a good many more. Yet also that sense of being without sharp or precise delineation. Equally no or little sense of schools and where we are placed with them, although Robinson is certainly aware of the Movement, rather more than he is of the British Poetry Revival or the Cambridge school. The ‘personal art’ coinage is certainly a plus, and this sense that the introspect must figure, all to the good.

I get the sense I suppose that the book as a whole tends to come out as a sort of personal memoir rather than any positioning alignment regards schools or stylistic tendencies. And it is certainly an engaging read, that personal inflection keeps it well clear of academic journalese. 

The effect is perhaps of an odd sort of softening; the cover design is colourful but quite mild, lacking any jagged edges, red, yellow, green and peach. I suppose I’m of the view that this chimes most with the John Matthias, perhaps a relatively underestimated critic and commentator.

The back cover blurb says ‘an essential guide to the poetry that has shaped and fed the imagination of a distinctive and original poet.’ Now this strikes me as about right. Peter Robinson surely is an original. And again no wider claims; perhaps this is indicative of a certain catholicity. 

That said I think this is a very welcome instance of publication. While no partisan, Robinson has obviously read and appreciated widely, and there are many cues here to pick up on some of the authors discussed. Interested readers might wish to refer back to Robinson’s Selected or Collected.

But here am I thinking about all those things he didn’t say. There is assuredly candour and a welcoming sense, but it is not quite a position statement or a guide book. But there is a lot here, reflecting many years of reading and writing. It’s a satisfying book filled with many an insightful reflection on the present condition of poetry.

Clark Allison 13th November 2021

The Years by Jamie McKendrick (Arc Publications)

The Years by Jamie McKendrick (Arc Publications)

Jamie McKendrick’s enthralling new pamphlet merges visual art and language in an osmosis that allows interference but, at the same time, keeps the two elements at ‘an unsocial distance’, as the author claims in the foreword. His hope ‘is that image and poem can speak to each other without losing their autonomy’. The two media of communication are in conversation with each other, alluding to different perspectives and multiple interpretations. This gives space to multi-layered meanings and to a sense of ambiguity which seems embedded in the human condition.

     McKendrick has published seven poetry collections and won the Forward Prize for Best Collection in 1997 for Marble Fly and the Hawthorne Prize in 2012 for Out There. He is also an editor, reviewer and translator. He has translated Il romanzo di Ferrara by Giorgio Bassani and Valerio Magrelli’s poems (The Embrace, Faber and Faber, 2009), the latter translation winning the Oxford-Weidenfeld and the John Florio prizes, and Antonella Anedda’s poems (Archipelago, Bloodaxe, 2014). His essays on poetry, art and translations are collected in The Foreign Connection (Legenda, 2020).

     His thoughts and strategies for translation reflect in part his poetical practice. It alternates between free and loose interpretation which expresses ‘a feeling’ of the original text and a discipline that is connected to the literary tradition but reshapes or challenges it in a personal yet universal way. His translations take liberties and make deviations without betraying the core of the text. Therefore, adherence to the original does not exclude invention in a mobility that grants the possibility of further explorations in a different context.

     In the poems of The Years there is a sense of decay that alternates with an unquenched yearning for hope in a possible future renewal or reconstruction that nevertheless struggles to surface:

I know the feeling. I feel the knowledge

of that heron. The world is a con.

My quiff quivers. My shoulders hunch. My beak

is sharp as a tack, as a hatchet’s edge

but nothing swims or glints or gazes back 

beneath the surface of the pond I scan.          (‘Nothing Doing’)

     It is a stagnant world that has no answers to the poet’s existential questioning. This quotidian situation is symbolised in the River Mersey, which flows through Liverpool, his birth town, in its ‘immemorial miseries’ and ‘shadow layered on shadow’. In this bleak vision some structures are miraculously intact: a viaduct in the bombed city, an inscription on a tombstone ‘obscured//by bramble and weeds’. The overgrown vegetation metaphorically takes advantage of the neglect and abandonment that is particularly present during the pandemic. Language, poetic language that is connected with the literary tradition, and the inscriptions pencilled in the last picture, ‘L’amore che move il sole e l’altre stelle’ (the last line of Dante’s Paradiso, the last Cantica of the Divine Comedy), seem to be the barriers that humanity erects against failure and destruction. It is a complex construction that in Dante’s work is eventually resolved in God’s dazzling and embracing light that smooths all contradictions in a flooding love. In McKendrick’s poem, Dante’s words cannot be read on the headstone, which is significantly obscured by ‘an ugly shrub’.

     The frequent literary references throughout the poems not only allude to Dante’s work but also to that of Elizabeth Bishop, Pliny the Elder, Ibn Zamrak, and André Kartész’s photography as well as to Petrarch and Thomas Hardy in the epigraph. Thomas Hardy is also a point of reference in the dialogue between images and words that McKendrick found in Hardy’s Wessex Poems. McKendrick’s pictures are in ink and watercolour on paper with the occasional use of crayon and collage. They were created before or after each poem featured in the pamphlet and, as the author claims, the two media should ideally be ‘indistinguishable’ or ‘as though [the pictures] were made by an entirely different person’. The pictures are crowded with images at times and rather unsettling; at other times they are well defined, especially the ones featuring well-proportioned buildings, but most of them are blurred in a graffiato technique of sorts. The marks are layered one on top of the other as if the artist is trying to make sense of the human condition through memories of past years but above all through a relentless observation and recording of the present that is mapped in pictures and words. Our world looks like a labyrinth where ‘obstacles proliferate’. 

     Nevertheless, hope emerges from the futility of the contingent in the dialogue with a possible other person, a reader or another artist. In this conversation, McKendrick remarks ‘that only you/could understand the images’ which allow ‘the scattered city rising from its ruins’ (‘Viaduct’, Homage to André Kartész). There is a requirement, therefore, for a possible renewal and consequent recovery; it is a desire to gain understanding through keen observation and exploration that nevertheless cannot avoid pitfalls. Thus, despair and espoir mix in a ‘cheerful, desperate vista’ of two peaks the poet cannot distinguish. This reveals again the open and multi-layered vision delineated in McKendrick’s thought-provoking lines.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 11th May 2021

Light-Fall by Lucy Ingrams (Flarestack Poets)

Light-Fall by Lucy Ingrams (Flarestack Poets)

Lucy Ingrams poems in Tears in the Fence 72 impressed readers with their slowed down attentiveness to the moment and invigorating language use. I was thus thrilled to discover her Light-Fall pamphlet from 2019 and to find more of her mindful poetry.

The opening poem, ‘Swimmer’, where the title is the last two words, with ‘fall’ occupying the last line alone, is worth the price of the pamphlet alone. 

The poem, like the best of Ingrams work, recalls the poetry of Lee Harwood and Elizabeth Bishop and yet is distinctly her own. This emerges through her confident use of space, lineation and punctuation. Note her use of brackets, hyphens, space and counter voice, within a sonically rich low pitched delivery.  The poem, written in the living present, in the manner of Harwood’s sea poems, such as ‘Salt Water’, slows the reader’s attention down to each modulated movement within a wide-eyed focus. The narrator’s eye hovers on a series of physical objects, with slight movements in declining light, so that their actions combine to draw in the movements of sea, breeze and light. The layout, sound and sense combine to produce a balanced and clear-sighted focus. The key is that the poem remains in the variable and active present and eschews any extraneous commentary. 

   the is and will-be of its

the single source   of everything

air, its bubble   coast, its run-off – petrified

world’s counterweight.   its balance-tip

(cloud, the shadows of its rougher swells)

sorted   with that

                 and you   back-stroking

                 next    a flotsam speck    floating

                 only at its pleasure

Ingrams is at her best when she takes risks and moves beyond the rigidity of mainstream poetry to explore and engage the reader with a wide-eyed focus and attention to subtle movements and responses. She has a quiet and strong narrative voice. 

I enjoyed revisiting the poem, ‘Signs’, previously published in the Nine Arches Press, Primers Volume One (2015), with its attention to time, hesitancy and doubt through its spatial use, and controlled form.

And whether you loved me   loved me not

would come with a letter    come with you

would come    would come with some sign

of which there was no sign    yet

Here each movement and change of attention matters in the present. Such poems live, are alive, and are cut through fresh language with moments of 

vividness.

red in the willow crowns    plum in the birch

patterns of gnats     looked for a language

larger than us     tremor of catkins

folds of a bud    for meaning like runes

harder than answers   length in the light

the over and over of wood pigeon music

Ingrams also registers time and its gradual movement from moment to moment in fading late, as one would expect from a poet concerned with being alive to the world and its surprises. ‘Blue Hour’, written in crisp couplets, ends ‘and I turn and my step in the wind-drop quiet / is a thread to tack night / to night.’ I love the precision of ‘wind-drop quiet’ and the dropping ‘to night’ on to the next line to register and emphasise time.

There are many other subtle, quite and well measured poems with slight changes of attention within a perceptual roundedness that suggests Ingrams is an emerging and accomplished poet to follow.

David Caddy 23rd November 2020

My Life As A Mad King by Alasdair Paterson (Oystercatcher Press)

My Life As A Mad King by Alasdair Paterson (Oystercatcher Press)

Having published The Floating World (Pig Press) and Brief Lives (Oasis Books) in the Eighties, Alasdair Paterson returned to writing with on the governing of empires (Shearsman, 2010), Brumaire and Later (Flarestack Poets), in arcadia (Oystercatcher Books) in 2011, and Elsewhere or thereabouts, (Shearsman 2014). His latest collection, My Life As A Mad King, is a wonderfully playful, energetic sequence of villanelles. The madness of the king is mirrored in the gradual break up of the villanelle’s refrains, repeated rhymes and their repetition in the final stanza. The nineteen line structure of five tercets and one quatrain remains intact until the final ‘Villanelle the ultimate and’ which consists of twenty two words. Here each word per line, apart from the elongated seventeenth line, and their repetition encapsulates the essence of villanelle. The linguistic wordplay is highly controlled and compressed with the possible variants of each set played out within a confined word field.

A pandemonium of smoke and fire
a panoply of wine and roses
a pantomime of flesh and blood

A panjandrum of cap and bells
a pantaloon of shreds and patches
a pandemonium of court and spark

Paterson has the ability to tease and freshen language, and invest his word play with precision and dry humour. This is a work of quiet authority testing a difficult form. Indeed, beyond Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop’s famous examples it is hard to recall other memorable villanelles. Paterson deftly plays around with clichés and misplaces repeated lines, sometimes reduced to one word, in order to explore the boundaries of the form. His villanelles are rhythmic, ramshackle and fun, punning on rock album titles.

A banquet of greased beggars
a glass with added glass
a saucerful of secrets

A locket drenched in lachrimae
a joint spiced with jacquerie
a saucerful of sanctitas

The sequence culminates with the aged narrator losing his memory:

A man walks into an oubliette / I forget what happens next / forget what happens next / forget

And moves into the final villanelle with its chilling opening:

Crack

head

forget

Windows

fire

crack

My Life As A Mad King is a joy to read and yet another wonderful sequence from Oystercatcher Press.

David Caddy 12th July 2016

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