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George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace by Xavier Kalck (Peter Lang Publishing)

George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace by Xavier Kalck (Peter Lang Publishing)

A new critical account of the poems of George Oppen is invariably a delight; the arrival of such an intelligent and closely argued text as Xavier Kalck’s has turned out to be is something more.
In his introduction Kalck points to Oppen’s poems “as remarkably readable compositions, which are only elusive if one chooses not to listen to their specific formal characteristics”. He then outlines one of his major concerns:

“The first objective of this book is therefore the exemplification of a new methodology, based on new readings of Oppen’s poems. Bearing in mind that dysfunction often really shows function, I plead for a critical shift toward prosody as interpretive pragmatics.”

We are presented time and again with close critical analysis that reminds one of what it means to read with an engaged concern for what the poet is presenting. As a result we can both see and hear how Oppen builds a song from the common – though shattered – resources of language. The blurb on the back of this new book recognises an aspect of what Kalck has achieved:

George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace offers the first survey of the critical consensus which has now built up around the poetry of George Oppen, after over two decades of substantial interest in his work. It proposes a comprehensive perspective on Oppen and the criticism devoted to Oppen, from the Objectivist strain in American poetry to the thinkers, such as Heidegger, Levinas, Marx and Adorno, which critics have brought to bear on Oppen’s poetry, to pave the way for the consideration and exemplification of a new methodology which sheds a critical light on the ideas and practices in contemporary poetics, through well-researched close readings.”

And there we have it! What makes this book so important is not only the wide range of its focus and its placing of Oppen’s work within a background of substantial twentieth-century thought but also the fact that it takes one back time and again to the words on the page: we are offered an approach to POETRY .
When Michael Davidson edited the New Collected Poems for New Directions in 2002 he had referred to Oppen’s method of working, whittling and refining his poems “into tough, recalcitrant lyrics that would endure the test of time.” After the publication of Discrete Series, a short volume from the Objectivist Press in 1934, Oppen did not produce a second book of poems until 1962 when The Materials was published by New Directions and the San Francisco Review. Some of the poems in that volume had appeared in 1960 in Massachusetts Review and Poetry making the gap between Oppen’s published poems just over twenty-five years. During that quarter-century he saw active duty in the Battle of the Bulge, being gravely wounded in April 1945, became a custom carpenter in California, fell under the watchful glance of the FBI, went into exile in Mexico in 1950 and only returned to New York in January 1960. The epigraph to The Materials was a quotation from Maritain: ‘We awake in the same moment to ourselves and to things’ and it was those lines that Charles Tomlinson underlined in the copy which Oppen signed for him after they had become close friends. Tomlinson also wrote a brief but firmly-held statement just before George and Mary visited him in Gloucestershire in which he recognised that Oppen never wrote poems “where the powers of disquisition begin worrying to death the initial experience before it has been permitted to declare its own terms.”
In a letter from 1959 Oppen had written to Julian Zimet about what it was that so fascinated him about “Things and mechanisms” he said that “I like the things that people have wrested out of the idiot stone…All the poems are about the same thing. The shorter poems are shorter fragments of what I want to say, the longer poems are longer fragments.” In a cancelled opening paragraph to his introduction to the selection of Oppen’s poems edited for Cloudforms No. 4, Tomlinson had referred to making audible Oppen’s “characteristic voice, so distinct from the personality cults of Berryman, Lowell and Plath”. That voice is precisely what comes to the ear and eye in Xavier Kalck’s masterly account of the late poem “Song, The Winds of Downhill” and this book is worth getting hold of if only for those pages of “an architectural representation of the poem’s rhetorical framework”.
In conclusion Kalck refers to another letter sent by Oppen to a British poet. In this case the receiver of that letter was Anthony Barnett and the story behind the correspondence which lasted some thirteen years is told in SNOW lit rev 2. The letter in Kalck’s chapter earns its presence by epitomizing best the several threads which run through this book of criticism. I know that Peter Lang books are expensive but please do put some pressure on your Library to acquire a copy; you will not be disappointed.

Ian Brinton, 31st January 2018

Benjamin Fondane’s Cinepoems and Others, and Existential Monday (New York Review Books)

Benjamin Fondane’s Cinepoems and Others, and Existential Monday (New York Review Books)

Benjamin Fondane, Cinepoems and Others, ed. Leonard Schwartz, bilingual, trans. various hands (New York Review Books, 2016)
Benjamin Fondane, Existential Monday: Philosophical Essays, ed. & trans. Bruce Baugh (New York Review Books, 2016)

I am confused. I have two books to review, a volume of poetry and a collection of philosophical essays. They are by the same person, Benjamin Fondane. This is unusual. Philosophers do not usually write passable poetry, nor poets philosophy. I am reminded of a Tommy Cooper sketch. He finds an old violin and an oil painting in the attic, which he takes to an expert who says: “What you’ve got there is a Stradivarius and a Rembrandt. Unfortunately, Stradivarius [sic] was a terrible painter and Rembrandt made rotten violins.” With that the much-loved comedian thrusts the violin through the painting demolishing both. I think Fondane would have appreciated this and laughed his head off. He retains such a sense of humour in the face of the most atrocious circumstances to which he fell victim, though in 1943, the year before his death in Auschwitz, he is quoted, “I publish more prose than poetry; one of my activities harms the other.”
I did not know anything about Fondane until now, which is the point of publishing these two books at the same time. Almost no one, at least in the English-speaking world, has known about him and, it seems, only recently has he truly entered into the post-war literary consciousness of France, whose language he ended up writing in. Fondane was a Romanian Jew, born in 1898. He contributed hundreds of articles and poems to Romanian periodicals, immersed himself in French literature, and in 1922 published a study of Mallarmé, Gide and Proust: “I have not come to know French literature as I might know German literature: I have lived it.” The following year he moved to Paris. His friends there included fellow countrymen Tristan Tzara and Constantine Brancusi. He was photographed by Man Ray around 1925. One double-portrait appears on the cover of Existential Monday and another double, with elongated distortions, as the frontispiece to Cinepoems and Others. He fell under the spell of André Breton’s first Surrealist Manifesto and then the two fell out in fisticuffs in 1930 at the Maldoror, a Montparnasse bar.
I can see, saleswise, why the title of the poetry selection highlights Cinepoems but that really is misleading. Fondane’s Trois scenarios: cinépoèmes was a 1928 exercise in soon-to-be-abandoned surrealism, consisting of numbered single line sentences: “let’s kick off the era of unfilmable scripts” he wrote in the preface. Fondane was a movie buff. He was employed for a time as a script editor at Paramount Pictures in Paris. He worked on the film Rapt aka The Kidnapping. He twice visited Argentina at the invitation of Victoria Ocampo, editor of Sur, first to present screenings, then to make a film of his own, which by all accounts does not survive. Ultimately, “cinepoems” are funny, mildly interesting, and, of course, quite experimentally filmable if you want, but unimportant and nothing to do with his subsequent formidable work.
The Others of the poems are lengthy extracts from Ulysses, Titanic, Exodus, lines from which are displayed at Israel’s Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, In the Time of the Poem, and The Sorrow of Ghosts complete. Fondane is very much a formalist, often in rhymed triplets aba, but there is nothing old-fashioned about him. There is a distrust and subversion of language in densely packed images: “The gods prayed to with the same hieroglyphics / no longer kiss us with the kisses of their mouth; / our cries used up like old nails / no longer penetrate the Eternal. / / It’s been a long time since words lost their meaning / / such a long time— / and there they are, for heaven’s sake, ripening / / on the threshold of time to come— / of great events now past.—“X-Rays” from Titanic.
Unsurprisingly, with translations by eight different hands, the English versions range from slightly suspect to excellent. End rhyme has been eschewed, probably wisely, although there are often good internal compensations: “. . . As hunger plays a pretty song: / when no one’s listening, it tunes up / intestines for a fiddle-string,”—The Sorrow of Ghosts. It is no special wish of mine to play translation detective here but it is intolerable to translate cèpe as mushroom—In the Time of the Poem. Are we to suppose that English-language readers are expected to be too ignorant to know, or to discover, what a cep (or, if you like, a penny-bun, a porcini) is? Or have we learnt something about the translator? Surely, in The Sorrow of Ghosts, “Quel Dieu ordonne” should be “What God ordains”, not “requires”. And why, in the same sequence is “—Prier? mais OÙ?” translated “—Where can we pray?” and not “—Pray? but WHERE?” That sort of thing.
What I really do not like is the inclusion of a 1985 conversation between Leonard Schwartz and E. M. Cioran. Romanian Paris-resident Cioran may have been Fondane’s dear friend but in the 1930s he described himself as a Hitlerist and was an apologist for the Romanian extremist Iron Guard, whatever later renunciations of all that he may have sought to make. Much of what Cioran says leaves a bad taste in the mouth; he is right to discredit Edouard Roditi’s wholly deplorable utterances about Paul Celan—in full in “Paul Celan and the Cult of Personality”, World Literature Today, vol. 66, no. 1 (Winter 1992)—but he is prone to deplorables himself: “We were friends. He [Celan] translated one of my books. But we ceased to be friends when he moved to the 16th. That is for me another world—the haute bourgeoisie, and so on, live there: Celan too, since his wife was a marquise. It was finished. In Paris, friendships are a question of neighbourhood.” As far as I am aware, from my knowing Gisèle Celan-Lestrange and Edmond Jabès, that was no bar to the friendship between Celan and Jabès. And about Fondane: “Yes, but all the same he’s not a French poet. He’s not considered a French poet by the French, and he isn’t one.” Oh, what, another rootless cosmopolitan? I don’t think so.
Turning now to Existential Monday, which includes a thorough introduction, copious notes, and a bibliography, I find myself more than a little out of my depth. I am no student of philosophy though I like to think I am a philosophical poet, to the ribbing of a French philosophy teacher who tells me I am not. I once wrote about George Oppen: “I think—I am often thinking—Oppen was a philosopher without philosophy. That doesn’t matter because a poet’s philosophy will never amount to much more than a partial attempt to justify or explain that particular poetry. Only the poem can be held to account as exemplary or rotten, or somewhere in-between, not its sources, those that are objective—the language, shall we say, which appears as a ready-made above one’s head, at the ready to be remade—and those that are subjective—I shall say only, if evasively, that we know all about that.”
I am told that Fondane’s philosophy, closely allied to that of his mentor Leon Shestov, is naïve. So be it. “In the one case, it is the outer bark of reality that is at stake; in the other, it is the condition of man in reality.” It is certainly readable. The selection is small. It consists of a mere four essays from his immense output. We must take it on trust that this is a truly representative selection: “Existential Monday and the Sunday of History”—Kafka provides the title, “Preface for the Present Moment”, “Man Before History, or, The Sound and the Fury”, “Boredom”, which is an essay about Baudelaire. In fact, Fondane’s first philosophical work was a study of Rimbaud. So you see there is no escaping the cross-fertilization—or “harm” as he put it—of poetry and philosophy in Fondane’s work. I need to take the easy way out here and ask that you simply—for these things are either complex or simple—read what Fondane has to say about existentialism and historical philosophers, and the then state of the world. Fondane’s fate was dreadful yet at the same time noble. He wrote to the end. He could have escaped France. There was some temporary respite following a first arrest and then release because his wife was not Jewish. But he refused to abandon his sister, with whom he was rearrested, and they perished. God alone knows what he would make of our current socio-politico-philosophical mess and evident refusal to learn from history.

This review was written at the invitation of Jewish Quarterly, where it appeared in 2017 with heavy cuts, ostensibly for space reasons. This is the full review.

Anthony Barnett 15th January 2018

Richard Swigg

Richard Swigg

Richard Swigg, formerly Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Keele, died last week. His books on the poetry of Charles Tomlinson constitute probably the most important contributions to a full recognition of that poet who was primarily responsible for introducing the world of post WWII American poetry to the shores of England. Swigg’s publications included Charles Tomlinson and the Objective Tradition (Associated University Presses, 1994) and it is worth recalling the opening statement of that book:

“My subject is the poetry of Charles Tomlinson and the Anglo-American tradition that he illuminates. The lineage of concrete particularity to which he belongs is one that reaches back in verse to the English Augustans, and forward, through Blake, Whitman, and Hopkins, to William Carlos Williams. Above all, it is a tradition of objectivity that has special regard for the world in its solid, separate otherness – for a plurality of phenomena independent of our egotistic projection and unblurred by myth or symbol. Tomlinson, I believe, is unique among contemporary English poets in the way that he has provided the terms by which we see the distinctness of that world and the tradition that describes it.”

Swigg went on to focus on that “distinctness” and in his next book on Tomlinson, Look with the Ears, Charles Tomlinson’s Poetry of Sound (Peter Lang, 2002) he traced the way in which Tomlinson’s poetry evolved from the 1940s to the 1990s as an acoustic means of “seeing” and voicing the physical world. That concern for the voice prompted Swigg to put together the most comprehensive collection of taped readings by Basil Bunting and in 8 separate cassettes he recorded the poet reading Briggflatts (1967) and ‘The Well of Lycopolis’ (1982) as well as interviews with Tom Pickard in Northumberland between 1981 and 1982. Richard Swigg’s energetic involvement with the world of modern poetry is also evidenced in his work done on the poetry and letters of George Oppen and in 2007 Penn Sound published his collection of William Carlos Williams recordings online before going on in 2009 to publish his collection of Oppen recordings. In 2012 University of Iowa Press published his book on Williams, Eliot and Marianne Moore, Quick, Said the Bird and this also is a book worth seeking out:

“It is the keen-edged life tracked as much by Moore in a frigate pelican, a Virginian mockingbird, or the eagles of Mount Rainier as it is by Williams following through the gymnastics of starlings in the wind, a bird winging down to its watery image, or the notes of a redbreast by the Passaic Falls: all instances of a poetic outreach into the zestfully unsilenced which still persists in the later Eliot’s call, “Quick, said the bird,” as the thrush of an English garden points the acoustic memory back to the cries of the Philomela nightingale or the water-dripping song of the North American hermit-thrush in The Waste Land.”

In the early years of this century I was the reviews editor of The English Association’s magazine for teachers, The Use of English, and I arranged for Richard to review Tomlinson’s Carcanet Press edition of Metamorphoses: Poetry and Translation. Needless to say the review was terrific as he noted that “Frontiers divide, fissures break open, but in Charles Tomlinson’s poetry they also impel the mind across borders to new connections”. That review appeared in Vol.55, No.2, Spring 2004. Richard Swigg was an academic and teacher who committed himself wholeheartedly to what he regarded as the central work of his life. His eye for detail was precise and his awareness of what was going on in the world of research made his work very important indeed. In a letter that he sent me some fifteen years ago one can detect the investigator at work. The letter was in reply to some little details I had sent him concerning the Oppens and the Tomlinsons:

“As to Oppen coincidences, I have mine! While reading the Selected Letters recently, I noticed that Oppen had done a 1964 reading for the American Academy – a recording which I mentally noted as worth pursuing (since I have several, post 1967, where he reads Of Being Numerous and later poems). The 1964 one must, I thought, include The Materials, surely. Well, hardly had I noted this than I had a reply from the Harvard Poetry Room – the new Curator there, Don Share, who’s done a Ph.D. on Bunting (under Ricks, I think) – about my request for another Oppen tape, to say that he also had the 1964 one. So now he’s sending them over. I’ve also located ones that Oppen did for the Bay Area local radio station, KPFA, in Berkeley, and hope to get these one of the days.”

Don Share of course is now the editor of Poetry Magazine and published the very fine critical edition of Basil Bunting’s complete Poems for Faber & Faber last year.

I last met Richard Swigg at the celebration of the poetry of Charles Tomlinson held in the Wills Memorial Building, Clifton, Bristol on 30th September last year. It was a joy to hear his open-hearted enthusiasm for Tomlinson’s contribution to British poetry.

Ian Brinton, 26th March 2017

The Meaning of Things: Poems and Prose by Elaine Randell (Shearsman Books)

The Meaning of Things: Poems and Prose by Elaine Randell (Shearsman Books)

There is an old saying about not judging other people until you have walked a mile in their shoes. In her reminiscences about her father, the concluding section of this powerfully moving new book, Elaine Randell puts it slightly differently:

“If anyone ever behaved badly or was criticised by my mother or me, he would always say, to know all is to forgive all, you have to understand why people do certain things and behave in a certain way before jumping in, Elaine.”

Elaine Randell’s career in social work and psychotherapy complements her substantial work as a poet which stretches back to Nos 3 & 4 of The Curiously Strong in November 1971 where she appeared alongside Barry MacSweeney in ‘The official Biography of Jim Morrison’, Just 22 And Don’t Mind Dying. Two years later a short book of poems appeared from MacSweeney’s Blacksuede Boot Press, Telegrams From The Midnight Country, and it is one of these short pieces that lingers in my mind as I read Randell’s new volume from Shearsman Books:

“See how the tree comes to
ward.
A heavy wind here pesters
loose wood.
Sky steps are light.
The birds fly up ex
static.”

In an interview the American Objectivist Charles Reznikoff suggested that poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling: it should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling. Of course the feeling is there in the selection of material: you pick certain things that are significant—that’s your feeling. You don’t go into the feeling; you portray it as well as you can, hoping that somebody else reading the poem will get your feeling:

“Now, as part of that, I should perhaps say that I try to be as clear and precise as possible….my own belief is to name and to name and to name—and to name in such a way that you have rhythm, since music (and I think George Oppen would agree with me) is also part of the meaning”.

I’m sure that Randell would certainly agree with Reznikoff and that early poem, titled ‘For You – Today’, would not look out of place in the 1934 Objectivist Press publication Jerusalem the Golden. For instance look at the three lines of ‘July’ in that Reznikoff volume:

“No one is in the street but a sparrow;
it hops on the glittering sidewalk,
and at last flies – into a dusty tree.”

Randell’s The Meaning of Things is divided into four sections the last being two autobiographical pieces of memory of the poet’s mother and father. In section II that naming and rhythm which mattered so much to both Reznikoff and Oppen is placed securely in ‘Easter 2014 Romney Marsh’:

“On such a day the skylark
heard above the tractor before seen
up that high.
Who could not be charged
by his ecstatic salute to life
upwards and yet further up he shows how to sing while flying
while
plummeting
vertically effortlessly hovering before parachuting back.
On such a day you had also heard this
known perhaps that despite their aerial activities,
skylarks nest on the ground not in trees which may catch the wind.”

Forty-four years ago in ‘For You – Today’ the second line opens with what might be perceived to be the second syllable of the word “toward”. However, by being placed where it is that word becomes a verb “ward” and the note of warning and care held in both sound and meaning of that small word leads the reader forward to the third line’s reference to “A heavy wind” and the repeated ‘w’s, agitated by the use of “pesters”, take us to the fragility of “loose wood”. In this new poem there is a contrast between the firm placing on a ground, “On such a day”, with the following nine syllables of line two ending in the open music of “seen”. The poem echoes the surge of movement and song as the lark moves “upwards and yet further up he shows how to sing while flying”.
George Oppen was a great admirer of the slightly older Reznikoff and in a 1959 letter to June Oppen Degnan, his half-sister and publisher of San Francisco Review, he wrote:

“Rezi wrote

Among the heap of brick and plaster lies
A girder, still itself among the rubbish.

Likely he could mull along and tell you what he had in mind. But how other than with this image could he put into your mind so clearly the miracle of existence—the existence of things. It is only because the image hits so clear and sudden that the poem means what it means. I don’t know that he could make it any clearer by talking about it.”

Elaine Randell’s new publication presents the reader with poetry and prose. The poetry stands clear on the page, THINGS. The prose, reminiscent of John Berger’s account of a doctor in the Forest of Dean in A Fortunate Man, gives us human voices that unsettle us with their convincing presentation of emptiness and perseverance, loss and determination. This is an important book.

Ian Brinton 4th March 2017

The Ratio of Reason to Magic by Norman Finkelstein Dos Madres Press, Ohio

The Ratio of Reason to Magic by Norman Finkelstein Dos Madres Press, Ohio

In February 2006 Andrew Crozier wrote to me concerning the possibility of his poetry being republished and pointed out that he didn’t have ‘enough additional work to justify another collected edition’:

‘Furthermore, I incline to the view that when I have a worthwhile sheaf of new work it would be preferable to publish it as a separate volume rather than as an addendum to older work. The “new & selected” formula has always struck me as rather fainthearted.’

I never really understood what Crozier meant by this last statement and now seeing Norman Finkelstein’s The Ratio of Reason to Magic I understand it even less! This substantial new publication from Dos Madres Press is a landmark edition which places the poetry of Finkelstein within what Mark Scroggins termed the ‘idiom of hieratic quest and questioning, of wanderings within history, philosophy, and scripture both secular and sacred’. The selection is drawn from nine earlier volumes (nearly forty years of poetry) and in order to focus upon one aspect of this remarkable poet’s output I intend to just glance at one of the very fine new poems incorporated into the last section of the book, ‘Oppen at Altamont’.

In 1968 George and Mary Oppen attended the Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont Pass, near Livermore, in Contra Costa County and the first of Oppen’s ‘Some San Francisco Poems’ (published in Seascape: Needle’s Eye, 1972) opens with the image of ‘Moving over the hills, crossing the irrigation / canals perfect and profuse in the mountains the / streams of women and men walking under the high- / tension wires over the brown hills’. In an interview with David Gitin (Ironwood 5) Oppen commented on this image:

‘It was necessary to park one’s car and walk a mile. Nobody looked at my wife and me, and people had, what the poem says, before the music started, everyone turned sharply into himself or herself.’

Finkelstein’s poem opens with Heidegger’s concept of ‘Throwness’, that sense of dasein which presents us with the inescapable: we are thrown into the present and this leaves us with

‘The space of possibility
is always limited:
the past is
because it has been
insofar as we
have been thrown
insofar as we
are fallen
insofar as we
may project ourselves
forward

The movement forward felt in the short lines, the urgency, carries not only the speed that becomes ‘they are running / from or toward / the helicopters’ but also the Olsonian inescapability of the dead preying upon us. The entangled and entangling nets of being, the trammels which recur, lead us to the ‘fall of Saigon / re-enacted endlessly / in a musical’. The throwness is there in the music of the Stones:

‘And the music –
something we had never
heard before though surely
it had been heard before
long ago “the songs…
are no one’s own

The italicized words are taken from ‘Some San Francisco Poems’ and throughout Finkelstein’s re-creation of the importance of that attendance at that event we are given echoes from a long gone world which is our present. The ‘sickening acceleration / that no poem may stop’ does not prevent the poet as artist being in the privileged position of almost expecting ‘to see them / walking back toward the car’. The poet stills the moment…for a moment. In an interview with Kevin Power given some few years later and published in Montemora 4 Mary Oppen said

‘After we’d left the car we walked miles and miles. There were cars as far as you could see, up on the mountains in every direction representing millions and millions of dollars.’

They left Altamont before the murder of a concert-goer by a Hell’s Angels bodyguard took place.

Norman Finkelstein wrote the last essay in the Curley and Kimmelman collection from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller, which I reviewed for PN Review 229 earlier this year:

‘…Heller’s poetry, and his concomitant thinking about poetry, establish and maintain an ethics of meaning in the practice of the art. “What sets one free / within the sign and blesses the wordflow // without barrier?” asks Heller in “Lecture with Celan”. For the poet, it is a question which must always remain open, yet it is also one which he must perpetually seek to answer.’

Looking at this admirable collection of Norman Finkelstein’s poems we can see that search continuing.

Ian Brinton 27th October 2016

UnNatural Music: John Lennon & Yoko Ono in Cambridge 1969 by Anthony Barnett Allardyce Book

UnNatural Music: John Lennon & Yoko Ono in Cambridge 1969 by Anthony Barnett Allardyce Book

In the closing lines of this attractively produced little piece of history Anthony Barnett refers to Yoko Ono as Eiko and thereby brings back into focus another little fragment of history. Some eight years ago I received an email from Michael Rumaker, Black Mountaineer who had been taught by Olson in the 1950s, in which he commented upon my determination to locate and read his first novel, The Butterfly:

‘You mentioned you plan to read my Butterfly this weekend with an eye to comparing it to Douglas Woolf’s Wall to Wall. I’m glad I have the chance to warn you the comparison will not stand up. Butterfly was my first novel and as with all first novels is riddled with flaws, and in this case, excessive emotion and not as direct as I would have written it in a later time. That, despite its being highly autobiographical, and also perhaps its being of some historical interest, since the character of “Eiko” is actually Yoko Ono (no secret anymore since Albert Goldman wrote about that fact in his 1988 The Lives of John Lennon) and the character of “Alice” is actually Joyce Johnson, former girlfriend of Jack Kerouac who was with him when On the Road hit it big).’

When Barnett’s recent publication was reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement on May 20th J.C. opened his piece with a fine piece of tongue-in-cheekery:

‘There is something appealing about a music memoir that opens “I do not have to tell you how disgraceful John’s attitude was and Yoko’s is”. The author of UnNatural Music is the poet Anthony Barnett who produced the Natural Music concert in Cambridge in 1969…’

The tongue-in-cheekery is of course that Barnett does have to tell us and what he tells is clear and to the point. His historical reconstruction, a past that never simply gets swallowed up in a present, is immaculate and the whole book is presented in a style that over many years Anthony Barnett has made his own: a type of signature publishing dish. Buy a copy NOW!
The historical reconstruction undertaken here is not simply about that concert in 1969; we enter into a spectral world of the past as the book opens with the words ‘For a while from 1965 I worked at Better Books, New Compton Street, round the corner from their Charing Cross Road shop. That section of New Compton Street no longer exists. A redevelopment covers it.’ We are immediately drawn into a world that will include Nothing Doing in London One, ‘which included a music score by John Tchicai’; the letterpress literary and arts loose-leaf folio review also included work by Samuel Beckett and Anne-Marie Albiach. In January 1968 Nothing Doing in London Two appeared with work by George Oppen as well as Yoko Ono’s ‘On Paper’. As Mr Barnett tells me the title page was ‘set in Castellar font, and the names in Plaintin font’. Needless to add that both are now collectors’ items!
Rumaker’s novel opens in a hospital which conveys a haunting sense of the prophetic for Ken Kesey’s later masterpiece, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:

‘The low stucco buildings of the hospital with their harsh green windows and heavy wire screening stretched out in all directions as far as the eye could see.’

Anthony Barnett’s magical reconstruction of long gone days comes off the page with similar focus.

Ian Brinton 29th May 2016

Dianoia by Michael Heller (Nightboat Books)

Dianoia by Michael Heller (Nightboat Books)

The Scottish philosopher Sir William Hamilton proposed the term dianoiology for that portion of logic which deals with dianoetic processes of the mind: the thinking through of ideas. For a writer this may well involve what Michael Heller refers to as the ‘breaking apart’ of ‘clods of what was named’ because after all language is the ‘hardest / of earths, each word narrowing…’. So many of these poems in Dianoia deal with stasis and movement and they are deeply moving testimony to an artist who has spent a lifetime trying to let stillness convey fluidity.
In ‘Visiting Brigflatts with Ric’, written in memory of Ric Caddel, the opening lines plunge the reader into a memory:

‘Your car chugging up the pass
into snow’s unseasonal bursts,
all the while sun shining overhead,
then a plunge down to Bunting’s grave,
stone of Quaker plainness…’

The movement of that opening line followed by the unusual nature of the weather hardens out into ‘stone’ which in turn will become ‘austerity of row upon row.’ The picture we are given of Ric Caddel is of ‘an elm’s rooted trunk / or northern stone pillar’ but the metamorphosis of this poem’s language, the stasis of what is memorialised, is given fresh movement in the last line with ‘currents animating earth’. And there we have it! The poet at work!
In ‘Lecture’, we move between an account of the German artist Max Beckmann’s painting ‘Tot’ and the Number 30 London bus being blown up in July 2005. We move between the Japanese poet Bashō who ‘travels along paths and byways’ producing ‘spontaneous evocations in poetic form, haiku, linked haiku’ and the American poet George Oppen who writes of a highway accident with ‘The wheels of the overturned wreck / Still spinning – ’. As Heller looks closely at the photographs of both the London bombing and of a bus blown up is Israel he notes

‘No need here to go into “visual” languages, semiotics, etc. We’re talking about what gets communicated across the special loneliness between you and me and I and it.’

Referring again to Bashō and his journal writings in Narrow Road to the North Heller gives us one aspect of the artist caught in a moment: ‘that impression of spontaneity is part of the art of it’. He quotes the short piece of Bashō which evokes the memory of the heroic death of Lord Sanemori, an ageing warrior who dyed his hair to disguise his age, and whose helmet was carried to the shrine that the Japanese poet has just passed:

‘I am awestruck
To hear a cricket singing
Underneath the dark cavity
Of an old helmet.’

The living quality of stillness is central to Michael Heller’s art and in the opening page of ‘Lecture’ he focuses upon his own walking in which he is accompanied by all that makes him who he is. He walks with Bashō, ‘stopping at a shrine, experiencing awe and reverence, the surround of mountain peak and foliage, the pines he likened to solitary figures’. The image from the Japanese is part of who he is as he moves through a living world of gone things. Focusing on the July bombings in London he writes of the world of the here-and-now and how it impinges upon who we are:

The self. That’s what got me going here, the self alone against murderousness, the sudden “nearness” (I don’t know how else to put it) to random murder perpetrated by others against innocents.’

The Number 30 is the bus that often carried the poet from Islington to Bloomsbury, to the British Museum. ‘Had we arrived a day earlier…’. The sense of how we see ourselves in relation to the world around us is central to the vision:

‘…My sense that A can morph into B,
tenuous nets of companionship, that we ride
like they ride who elsewhere are killed.’

Heller writes that ‘We are exposed / to the possibility of unplanned ruin’ and he seems partly to echo Paul Auster’s comment at the opening of In the Country of Last Things:

‘When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you mustn’t waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it.’

The bitterness of the narrator in this apocalyptic novel from 1987 is, however, far different from Michael Heller’s determination to make the moment live, to give stasis currency and it seems appropriate to conclude not only with that image of ‘currents animating earth’ but also with the short poem Ric Caddel wrote for John Riley, the Leeds poet who was murdered in 1978:

‘What in the world we see
is what’s important. There
the days seemed shorter and our hearts
spun with the compass under

trees, magnificent pointers
out of galaxies. Continental drift,
an appointment we were late for,
an old friend missed.’

My review of The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller, ed. Curley & Kimmelman, has just appeared in the current issue of PN Review.

Ian Brinton 7th May

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