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Rhapsodies by Graham Hartill (Aquifer Press)

Rhapsodies by Graham Hartill (Aquifer Press)

Hartill’s poetry combines an interest in Buddhism with a political approach which manages to fuse an often sparse lyrical style with something more analytical so we have beauty and melancholy alongside anger and critique. We have ‘being in the moment’ and a celebration of the physical world together with a commentary on the negative consequences of capitalism and of the empire building realities of organised religion. I’m probably being a bit reductionist here but these seem to be the underlying themes of what is a wonderful book of contemporary poetry.

There’s a definition of the term Rhapsody from Cuddon’s Dictionary of Literary Terms at the end of the book which it’s worth bearing in mind:

          Rhapsody  means ‘stitch song’, a rhapsodist  one who recited, 

          stitched together and improvised on various elements of epic 

          poetry.  In   a  more  general   sense  a   rhapsody   may  be an

          emotional, perhaps even ecstatic, utterance.

      From ‘Proverbs of Sugarloaf’ we get the following encapsulations:

          If there’s no room in your boots,

              put your feet in your hat                     (Spring)

          “Peace is the milk of birds”                    (from a Khartoum newspaper – Summer)

          “We’ve all pissed in the bath son…”                      (on the Usk bridge, Autumn)

          The sky dragged across like a heavy sack              (Winter)

     The section entitled ‘Easter’ is an appreciation of the innovative and influential American Jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler where we get this:

          Love reaches and unfolds,

          a completed life

          can show this:

                                    Ayler,

          dead in the water at age 34 –

          his universe swims in the cup of his tune

          forever: folk-songs are flowers, flowers

          explosions of language – there is and there is no

          silence in inner space, the thud of the blood,

          the pulling of nerves,

          the picking up, between finger and finger,

          of intimate stars.

                         The tree in the ear,

                         The Easter in the throat.

     ‘Pay Dirt’ from ‘Letters from America’ is prefaced with the quotation (Not just to make poverty history / but also excessive wealth!) and is clearly a critique of American political machinations and the ideology of The American Dream which has surely crashed to ground if it was ever an admirable or attainable aim in the first place. Those of us in the west who grew up in the aftermath of WW2 and who were hugely influenced by tv and advertising allied to the culture of consumption may feel an inevitable ambivalence about ‘the reality’ but in the face of climate change, war and pandemic it’s hard to come to any sane conclusion that doesn’t point towards a serious change in direction. 

     There’s a lot of compassion in Hartill’s poetry and the section entitled ‘Crowd Scenes’ includes material related to mental illness and to a celebration of the human spirit in the face of severe adversity. He’s inclusive rather than exclusive but focusses on the dispossessed and how chance can play such an important part in anyone’s life:

           There are different kinds of drop out –

           those with proper jobs, who like to dress up and express themselves,

           and those who face or suffer St Anthony’s mental fire

           every day:                (from ‘St Anthony’s Well’)

     In an earlier sequence from ‘Only Human’ we have a description of prison life and I imagine this experience may have come from work as a prison tutor (I’m guessing) similar to that expressed by Ken Smith in his book Inside Time. “He’s lost it now, his tele, and his parole, Gray, / anywhere else they’ll have done him over, / fucked him up. / He can forget September now.’ The final short poem in this sequence is puzzling but resonant and filled with both a sense of disturbance and of compassion:

          Entire

          that the stone could be

               pulled from his chest

          and become his father again

          -that he could write an entire page

          and his father be in it

     From the chapter ‘Palaces’ we get ‘Pebbles’ a seven part reverie which ponders the nature of war and human culture, moving from the rhapsodic and a contemplation of beauty to something much darker and how the two are hopelessly entwined:

                                                         but Death,

           like cathedral stone, isn’t violent, just Culture:

           the beautiful carving of bear or leaf

           on the fortified tower, and yes, of course,

           a poem –

                                           in a Christian cross,

           the violence done

           to Love

           can coalesce, this is maybe how

           cultures solidify –

Similarly with ‘From A Chained Library’ where we have the following from ‘in violence we act as if we were alone.’   

               Like children, we are keepers of the sacred texts,

                       we want the same story, over and over again –

                  a theocracy’s job, or a capitalist’s,

                                                         is to chain the text –

                      but life is a language, a touch, and a timing:

                          faces flow past,

                               the altars are way markers –

                      and every lost book a lake

                                 in which we are free to imagine.                    (from 3 ‘From A Chained Library’)

This may sound overly didactic on a first reading but in fact it’s the opposite of that, an invitation to engage and to think outside of the box.                 

There’s a lyric tenderness in ‘Life Stories’ which is prefaced by what I take to be a tinted photograph of the author’s parents so there’s an autobiographical feel to this short penultimate section. In the final section ‘Lyrics’ we have fragmented open-field minimalism while in ‘Spring’ we have a commentary on the nature of being – …’that being human, the fight is always between the real and the / how we would like it to be,’ – which is interrupted by an evocation of the here and now:

          the wind is suddenly loud in the bushes,

          wrapped inside the hill

          the cuckoo’s

          song

     There’s a delicious sensuousness to some of these latter pieces which is enhanced by the cover art, a minimalist creation of line and texture. This is a nicely produced book which I thoroughly enjoyed reading and thinking about.

Steve Spence 25th April 2022

Slipping the Leash Graham Hartill, Phil Maillard & Chris Torrance Aquifer

Slipping the Leash  Graham Hartill, Phil Maillard & Chris Torrance Aquifer

In his poem ‘Little Haven’ Graham Hartill asks a serious question:

‘Where does the poem end?
Where are its outsides
in terms of the fields
that stutter away to the silent swollen river
bouncing along with its human trophies:
furniture, cars and mirrors?’

This last-line accumulation is not the same as Philip Larkin’s refusal to present a historical perspective to his lists of semi-industrial landscape detritus. As Donald Davie put it when writing about Larkin in Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, there is ‘no measuring of present against past’. Nor is there any sense of what Emerson saw in Carlyle’s The Diamond Necklace where he commented upon the British essayist’s picture of ‘every street, church, parliament house, barrack, baker’s shop, mutton stall, forge, wharf, and ship, and whatever stands, creeps, rolls, or swims thereabouts…Hence your encyclopediacal allusion to all knowables’. Hartill’s little list is not to do with a profusion of structureless facts and phenomena so overwhelming, according to J.H. Prynne’s notes on The Outlook and Procedures of the Post-Romantic Mind, ‘that the speculative mind, unwilling to re-direct its energies in favour of radical description, also fails to bring off any radical and coherent analysis’. Hartill’s question is about the relation of poem to place; at what point does the poet’s awareness of ‘plastic bags stuck high in trees’ become a mirror in which he is compelled to recognise himself within an environment? If I look for any form of tradition here it is bound to the world of Gary Snyder whose interview with Gene Fowler in 1964 emphasised reaching ‘beyond our social nature’ in order to recognise ‘our relationships in nature’, reaching inward to see the relationships ‘that hold there’.

Snyder’s focus upon the particularities of living also inform Phil Maillard’s work and the exercise of ‘Fixing the Light’ has that firmness of tone and precision of touch which Snyder brought to bear upon making a stew in the Pinacate Desert, ‘Recipe for Locke & Drum’. Maillard’s poem is much more than a list, it is an insight:

‘Remove light bulb
The only problem is the collar
round the fitting, which falls apart
with the removal of the bulb
Get new fitting purchased by Gwain
in Swansea market…’

The cadence of the poem’s conclusion presents the reader with the task done:

‘Put cover back on fuse box
Shake hands all round
Replace furniture
Total running time two minutes
thirty five seconds for
entire operation
Nobody died
Make coffee in new coffee pot
Sit by fire under new light
and drink it’

When Snyder wrote a late poem about ‘How Poetry Comes to Me’ he said that ‘It comes blundering over the / Boulders at night, it stays / Frightened outside the / Range of my campfire / I go to meet it at the / Edge of the light’.
This beautifully produced book from Aquifer (aquiferbooks@gmail.com) is a generous selection from three poets whose work is centred around South Wales and the World. Although Phil Maillard’s homage to Snyder, ‘To Snyder’s Avocado Stone’, does not appear here it is worth referring to and can be located in Grazing the Octave, a Galloping Dog Press publication from Swansea in 1977: ‘there are visions / before you, retained, / markers in the snow / ancient stone figures / seen from miles / still commanding the whole valley’.
Linked to this language of the immediate and the distant, visions marked in transient snow and more lasting stone, there is the work of the third poet riding aboard the troika, Chris Torrance. From his own Galloping Dog Press volume The Diary of Palug’s Cat we are presented with the nearness of the domestic and the reaches of a surrounding sky:

‘I have an idea
certain compartments in my head
are very firmly
locked
shut

WHAT THE HELL
WENT WRONG WITH MY MARRIAGE?

Others, equally,
are bolted
wide open

the sense of freedom

buzzards swirling. The blue sky
beckoning.’

When I wrote about Chris Torrance for PN Review some ten years ago or more (PNR 163, ‘Black Mountain in England 2’) I referred to the critical work of John Freeman, poet, prose-writer and teacher based in Cardiff. In a Stride Research Document from December 2000 he had compared Torrance’s work with that of Charles Olson:

‘Charles Olson set out with his own particular tools to make Gloucester, Massachusetts, real in the Maximus poems; his means of locating Gloucester include the context historical, geographical, geological, mythical and political. A similar range of interests and formidable expertise inform Torrance’s work, in part thanks to Olson’s example. Maximus is not easy reading, but it adds to the idea of what the long poem can do in making a place real, in recreating the whole context in which a living consciousness awakens to reality; rooted in particular location, but open to anything. Anything that can modify human consciousness can find its place in the field of forces constituting the poem.’

In the selection of Torrance’s work in Slipping the Leash we can move beyond boundaries and there is a ‘constant shift / from the frame / of the real / into an infinite, / mythic dissolve’. There are ‘no boundaries to the universe’ and any answer to Graham Hartill’s initial question about ‘where does the poem end’ is perhaps only to be found within the covers of this excellent publication.

Ian Brinton, 13th November 2016

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