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The Country Gambler by Erica McAlpine (Shearsman Books)

The Country Gambler by Erica McAlpine (Shearsman Books)

The distrust that William Carlos Williams had of the poetry of T.S. Eliot is well known and for confirmation one could certainly turn up that letter Williams sent to James Laughlin in March 1939 in which he damned the American ex-pat with the faint praise of being ‘a cultured gentleman’ before going on to add ‘and cultured gentlemen are always likely to undersell the market’:

‘I’m glad you like his verse but I’m warning you, the only reason it doesn’t smell is that it’s synthetic…He can write. Granted. But—it’s like walking into a church to me. I can’t do it without a bad feeling at the pit of my stomach: nothing has been learned there since the simplicities were prevented from becoming multiform by arrest of growth…’

But we had been made aware of Williams’ distrust long before. In fact from Spring and All onwards! A couple of pages before ‘By the road to the contagious hospital’ there is the prose note ‘If I could say what is in my mind in Sanscrit or even Latin I would do so. But I cannot. I speak for the integrity of the soul and the greatness of life’s inanity…’. Maybe it’s that word ‘integrity’ that prompts me think of both Williams and Gerard Manley Hopkins when I read the introductory poem to this fine first collection put out by Shearsman: ‘Sempervivum’.

‘Long-living plant, that flowers on the ground and
spawns in circles round itself, whose low and quiet
center stores a gravity not surpassed by
stone, down to the pith,’

As the stones from a sonnet by Hopkins ‘ring’ and the ‘weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush’ in ‘Spring’ so do the houseleeks of Erica McAlpine ‘put forth into these leaves’ a sense of energy that feeds on ‘both drought and faith’. The resurgence of life that Williams captures in that roadside to the contagious hospital can be felt throughout this sensitive and uplifting volume of poems. Both poet and reader are immersed within this energy and we can recognise that ‘it’s in our power / to spend the whole afternoon drinking our fill / of sun (soaking now through the canvas over /us)’ confirming us in the feeling that ‘These are the Happiest Days’.
When George Oppen referred to the ‘isolation of the actual’ in Of Being Numerous he was thinking of rooms and ‘what they look out on’ and basements, ‘the rough walls bearing the marks of the forms, the old marks in the concrete, such solitude as we know’. McAlpine reminds us that ‘life is brief’ and therefore brings sharply into focus the immediacy of what is involved in being ‘The Country Gambler’:

‘You’ll find me in the clover patch from August
to October, detangling tangled stem from stem,
inspecting each one over, knowing three
seems four when two stems meet and send a leaf
from under, or if they cross along the neck then
six can be the number. And some are tall,
and bent with rain, and overtop the grass,
while others, tiny, clump their leaves in bunches
thick as moss.’

If there is a tone of Robert Frost’s ‘Mending Wall here there is also that of John Clare whose ‘Clock a Clay’ (ladybird) makes its home in a ‘pale green pillar topt wi’flowers’ which bends at the wild wind’s breath ‘Till I touch the grass beneath’. In the hunt for a four-leaved clover ‘shade can turn the leafage blond’ and wind ‘can push the petal-ends to ground’, making them ‘hard to sort’. With another sly glance at an English poet there is perhaps here a tone of Edward Thomas’s searching for the seemingly long-lost possibility of Eden and Erica McAlpine agrees with Thomas that ‘I wouldn’t cut the searching short’. After all, ‘Nothing’s better than the luck you find’.

I have merely scratched at the surface of these poems and I firmly recommend that you order a copy now; they represent a significant beginning of a serious poetic talent.

Ian Brinton 22nd April 2016

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Give Forest Its Next Portent by Peter Larkin

Give Forest Its Next Portent by Peter Larkin

Shearsman Books

In Robert Browning’s poem from the 1864 sequence Dramatis Personae, ‘Gold Hair’, the poet refers to the ‘beautiful girl…/ Who lived at Pornic, down by the sea’:

‘Yet earth saw one thing, one how fair!
One grace that grew to its full on earth:
Smiles might be sparse on her cheek so spare,
And her waist want half a girdle’s girth,
But she had her great gold hair.’

The word ‘sparse’ is derived from the Latin verb spargere, to scatter, and can refer to being widely spaced or spread out as well as distributed in all directions. In the section from this new book from Peter Larkin, ‘Sparse reach Stretches the Field’ (2011) the word is used on some twelve occasions and refers to an outward thrust of growth ‘stretched at drawn-out fully sparse’. In the earlier section of this lovely collection of writing, ‘exposure (A Tree) presents’, following on from an epigraphic quotation from Roger Langley (‘The Tree. It shows what we would call / constraint. It bursts through rock in calluses’) we are given a piece of prose which is unmistakably Peter Larkin:

Already unsealed from itself but poor enough to steal attached life to a kit of relation, a blunt jerk towards additions of acceptance, copiously sparse, rooted from edge.’

The words push outwards, unsealing, becoming movements which steal in stealth with an unstoppable ‘blunt jerk’: they are rooted from edge, prayer-like upwards and stretching towards what lies beyond the page.

‘Prayer takes the flightpath of a world not yet cleared of trees but they already betoken its etiolation the by-tallness of placing ascent to
obtrude through seems already stretching past the flattened way firs obsess a periphery beyond what is their focal legion, patrolling a prayer
at its slender successors of margin’

(Section III of ‘praying // firs // attenuate’, 2014)

When I wrote a short review three years ago of Harriet Tarlo’s anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry, The Ground Aslant, I referred to Peter Larkin’s work in comparison with the prose poems of Francis Ponge and suggested that the French writer’s eye had been attracted to contrasts, edges, contours, meeting places: those areas which define where one thing ends and another begins. Ponge’s interest in edges, boundaries, ‘bords de mer’, dispelled the vertigo of gazing at the overwhelming bulk of phenomena: the grand ocean of Victor Hugo’s language is dispelled by a focus on the particular and seashores offer a framework akin to the pages of a published piece of writing. Or as Charles Tomlinson put it in a poem composed in December 1952, ‘REALITY is to be sought, not in concrete, / But in space made articulate: / The shore, for instance, / Spreading between wall and wall; / The sea-voice / Tearing the silence from the silence.’

The taut and straining movement of Peter Larkin’s work inevitably brings to mind the complexity of language used by Gerard Manley Hopkins and I looked up the 1873 ‘Journal’ to find

‘At the end of the month hard frosts. Wonderful downpour of leaf: when the morning sun began to melt the frost they fell at one touch and in a few minutes a whole tree was flung of them; they lay masking and papering the ground at the foot. Then the tree seems to be looking down on its cast self as blue sky on snow after a long fall, its losing, its doing’

As Larkin suggests

‘Nothing squats in the midst of guileless void unless hollows a layer of intricate tackle out of the way of itself cunning of branch at a longitude of members if this is to allow itself at last there will be fewer withheld packets countering as sheer twist the vertical risk of thickets’

Note please the absence of a full-stop at the end of either of these quotations. Life continues to push outwards and ‘sparse’ will lead to ‘great gold hair’.

Ian Brinton, 23rd October 2014

Missel-Child by Helen Tookey

Missel-Child by Helen Tookey

Missel-Child by Helen Tookey

Carcanet, £9.95

 

One of the links connecting the prose poems of Francis Ponge and the early poetry of Charles Tomlinson is a concern for boundaries, edges, limits that define what is just visible before the limit is decided. Tomlinson called it ‘space made articulate’:

 

The shore between wall and wall;

The sea-voice

Tearing the silence from the silence.

 

Ponge wrote about steering to the edges of things so that we can recognise them. Helen Tookey’s first full-length volume of poems also brings into focus a clear vision of where one world meets another. Whether it be in the epigraph quotation from Sir Hugh Plat’s Herbarium of 1653, aptly called The Garden of Eden, or in the emergence of a lost world at Formby Point, these remarkably haunting poems give us a vision of ‘what’s lost’ being ‘everywhere’. The flatlands at Burscough and the flat lines on a page offer ‘black coffers’ which ‘lie rich with the drowned.’ I used the word haunting about these poems because time and again I am struck by a past which, palimpsest as it appears, has a vivid tangibility that can be uncovered: footprints which have become lithographic over time, uncovered, become alive with the validity of their presence:

 

four-toes, twisted, no use

at the hunt; this girl, months-heavy, inching

her way, clawed feet curled hard into the mud;

and the children, quick, unhurried, knowing

themselves alone possessed of a future.

 

These children suggest kinship with those whose hidden and excited quickness of laughter were connected to ‘Time past and time future’ in ‘Burnt Norton’.

Just as the tide uncovers the relics left by ocean the narrator of ‘Cockleshells’ contemplates the margin between presence and absence:

 

I carry

merely yesterday’s meanings but

 

you are already translated, turning

towards the bright months while I

 

collect October’s cockleshells,

curetted cleanly by the sea.

 

One of the most intriguing and compelling poems in this book is ‘Hollow Meadows’ which opens with a quotation from the early notebooks of Gerard Manley Hopkins in which he gives some definitions of ‘Hollow’ relating the word to ‘hull (of ships and plants)’ and then skulls/heads which are both hollow and ‘hold’. Hopkins ends by suggesting the shape of Hell. Tookey’s poem guides us through a range of memories and extracts circling around these definitions of hollowness before concluding with one of those boundary moments where one world intrudes momentarily and eerily upon another. Hopkins was well aware of Hell and in his 1883 ‘Meditation’ on the subject he wrote ‘And as it is by the imagination that we are to realize these things so I suppose it to be by the imagination that the lost suffer them and that as intensely as by the senses or it may be more so.’

Helen Tookey’s imaginative realization of worlds just beyond the visible horizons is both striking and deeply enchanting: take care!

 

Ian Brinton 27th January 2014. 

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