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Tag Archives: J.H. Prynne

Symbiont: 50 Sonnets by Dominic Hand (Veer Books)

Symbiont: 50 Sonnets by Dominic Hand (Veer Books)

The emphasis in the environmental sciences nowadays is less on Darwinian competitiveness than on how organisms interact synergically in complex systems. Meantime old concepts of nature have steadily been eroded, both by posthumanism and the recognition of the Anthropocene. Changes have consequently been due in nature writing, which can often still be structured around the human, personal and agonistic. Since language itself is structured that way – subjects and accusatives, persons and possessives – it’s no easy project, but one which innovative poetries – more willing than the mainstream to radically disrupt conventions – have so far had most success in undertaking.

Dominic Hand’s ecopoetics is particularly inventive and visually dramatic. His sonnets’ full justification, small font, lower case and lack of punctuation mean they appear as striated squares, like something blockily manufactured. The same features make them a dizzying and dense read: each poem a single sentence whose clausal links are participles, prepositions or relative pronouns rather than conjunctions. The formalism evokes the connectedness of each poem’s ecosystem, while I guess the phrasal stacking enacts the complexity of entanglement and permeability within it:

tumbling like motes in an eye’s cold prism
the multi-dimensional non-motile drifts
of diatoms jinking through benthic plasm
constellate fragments of starlight in rifts
as subdued as the night sky’s deep and atlantean
gravities corralling dust clouds to maps
of compassless pyrenoids sequestering carbon
in scattershot nebulas of jet-propelled salps
where larvae of herrings and urchins revolve
in orbit around the ghost nets and nurdles
disjected from dead zones to gloam or dissolve
like space-junk a blank cyclorama encircles
with mass-shifting clusters of radiolarians
secreting  dark  silicas  crushed  down  to  aeons

The poems share a focused present tense and a vocabulary rich in scientific Graecisms, among diverse rhythms and novel part-rhymes (‘lily pad […] helipad’ was among my favourites). Their global metaphor is symbiosis: trees and fungi, oxpeckers and impalas, cleaner fish and eels, with the cognizance that humans are most often a parasitic part of the arrangements. Among much wordplay, the language of finance often infiltrates, a reminder that Donna Haraway and others prefer the term Capitalocene to Anthropocene. Allusions to Marvell, Hopkins, Dickinson and so on ‘versify’, I suppose, the ecological process of succession. Great titles like ‘In a Landskip’ and ‘To a Hyperobject’ made me smile (albeit bitterly). I also learned lots about botany, animal navigation, plankton (see above), fracking, bacteria, factory farming, plastiglomerates, polymers… Whew.

The main emotion I experienced, besides wonder or horror at what’s depicted, was admiration veering to reverence as to its creation. The posthumanist turn with its vanished narrator does risk, ironically enough, restoring deific qualities to writers as, appropriating the internet’s omniscience, they stride across the specialist lexicons of genetics, geology, water engineering and computer networking with their name on the cover still signposting a distinct locus of origin and control. In whatever case this collection hardly needs me as a commensual symbiont; it and its young author have already won several deserved prizes, and the back-page blurbs are from J.H. Prynne and Peter Larkin. But I’ll say it anyway: it’s just fabulous.

Guy Russell 25th May 2022

Nothing Is Being Suppressed: British Poetry of the 1970s by Andrew Duncan (Shearsman Books)

Nothing Is Being Suppressed: British Poetry of the 1970s by Andrew Duncan (Shearsman Books)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am glad Andrew Duncan has written his books about 20th century poetry, but I wish he’d do some proper research, reference material, and not be so opinionated (or at least use critical material to back up his arguments). But at least he is paying attention to what went on in the world of poetry (or parts of it), this time in 1970s Britain, the decade when I first encountered and paid attention to small presses and alternative bookshops, though in my case it was a weird mix of Brian Patten, Adrian Mitchell, Ted Hughes, Ken Smith and Julian Beck alongside T.S. Eliot and the WW1 poets I was studying at the time in school. For me though, postpunk and improvised music was in the mix, as well as experimental theatre and radical politics – and I wish poetry was sometimes considered in relation to what else was going on at the time.

There are, it has to be said, some great sections in this book, and it does feel like the most shaped and edited of Duncan’s critical volumes. That doesn’t of course, mean there isn’t his normal conjecture, assumption and generalisations, sometimes made using scant evidence. In fact the first chapter of Nothing is being suppressed is called ‘Generalisations about the Seventies’ which, despite my scepticism, is an intelligent series of statements ‘designed not to be controversial’ but ‘placed as the front as a basis’, a kind of foundation for what follows. It works well, even if one feels one can’t argue back to what is being presented as a given here.

Duncan it at his best when he writes at length about a subject, so chapter such as ‘Speaking Volumes’, a weirdly selective summary of what books were published when, and his quick dips into Conceptual Art and Visual Poetry are less successful. Yes, Michael Gibbs and John Powell Ward are good examples of the latter, but one can’t help feeling that Duncan is regurgitating information gathered up in a recent Uniform Books edition on the former, and that other visual poetry by the likes of Bob Cobbing also deserve attention.

Chapters on ‘Psychedelic Coding’ and ‘Post-western’ (not cowboys but Western society seen through fringe science, home and landscape: a good example of wider contextualisation) are better, if brief, whilst elsewhere Duncan seems to want to elevate a few selected names. There’s a whole chapter on Colin Simms and his poems of American experience, whilst the oddly titled chapter ‘The Bloodshed, the Shaking House‘ creates a kind of alternative history, or ‘folklore’, where ‘Martin Thom and Brian Marley are remembered as the supreme moments of the Seventies, the excelling goals for journeys to bring the dace back to life.’ Their work is interesting but one gets the feeling of a desperate attempt at literary mouth-to-mouth resuscitation long after the corpse has gone cold.

Elsewhere, another strangely titled chapter, ‘The Geothermal Turret: News of Warring Clans‘, turns out to be an erudite and considered critique of Prynne’s work; in fact one of the most lucid discussions of his poetry I’ve read. It’s a highlight of the book, along with chapters on Iain Sinclair, Allen Fisher (though I think this is mostly drawn from Duncan’s book of interviews with him – apologies if this is wrong), and a discussion about ‘Who Owns the Future?’, where Duncan questions the critical elevation of Ken Smith and Basil Bunting. This is mostly intelligent and well-reasoned, although I fail to see why Smith’s marvellous Fox Running prompts Duncan to ask ‘Why doesn’t Smith describe feelings?’ Because the reader can work them out from the events and description in the text; they don’t need to be explicit!

In a strange example of synchronicity, I’d been rereading and listening to Briggflatts before my copy of the book arrived. I can understand Duncan’s suspicions about the imposition of a new canon or hierarchy but it seems to me that there are obvious answers to be had. Ken Smith was one of two Bloodaxe authors who the publisher managed to get high profile publicity for: in Smith’s case this was mostly the result of him being writer-in-residence at Wormwood Scrubs prison. Bunting was very much a neglected modernist, and – as Duncan I’m sure knows – was reintroduced to the poetry world by Tom Pickard, at a time when modernism was being reconsidered, and ‘poetry of the North’, ideas of place and locale, as well as dialect and excluded voices, were in vogue. That doesn’t mean I don’t rate both these poets and texts highly, it’s just the way things happened. I for one am glad that both Fox Running and Briggflatts remain in print and continue to attract readers.

Strangely, neither of these texts get a mention in the other fantastic chapter, where Duncan considers ‘the Long Poem of the 1970s’ by discussing the long poems, plural, of the era. Duncan makes a strong case for them being ‘a feature of the 1970s’, offers up a lengthy but selective reading list, and then offers brief comments on a strange selection of these, often ­ missing out texts I’m not alone in thinking important, e.g Ted Hughes’ Crow. Perhaps Duncan feels enough words and time have been spent analysing the more famous poems he names, perhaps he is attempting to be inclusive, write about his favourites, or draw attention to neglected work? There’s also, of course, the possibility that what he writes about had more of a presence at the time, although I’m not convinced.

Whilst it’s good to see long poems or sequences by W.S. Graham, David Jones (a bit of a shoe-in), Harry Guest, (An)Tony Lopez, Allen Fisher, and Andrew Crozier included, I’m far less interested in the work of Jeremy Reed, Ian Crichton Smith and George Macbeth (who Duncan disses anyway). There’s an interesting conclusion to the chapter, noting the practical and financial difficulties of publishing long poems in magazines, proposing that long poems were ‘a line of advance’, and suggesting that 

‘The starting point for these poems is questions which are rather older and which were often put by readers of poetry. The questions where, what is your moral and theological vision? And what is your political commitment and system? The long poems connect to the questions but don’t answer them […]’

I’m not convinced, although Duncan is astute in realising that long poems were often written due to ‘internal exile, a rejection of the values of the news media and of what political and cultural authorities were saying.’ He also notes that ‘rejection could either be from the Right of the Left and was certainly more to do with the failure of authority than with dislike of their success.’

He mentions Judith Kazantzis here, someone whose work I certainly feel is neglected, but mostly adheres to the binary notion of ‘mainstream poets like Thwaite, Hooker, Wain, Hill, Humphreys’ (despite recognizing that their work is ‘similar to the alternative poetry’) in opposition to ‘the Underground’, cynically suggesting that ‘[t]here was an alternative everything‘ and that in the end ‘[t]he unavoidable questions of the mid-70s were resolved by a wide-spectrum surrender to the power of capital’ and that ‘[a]lternatives became less fascinating.’

Yes, but… Resolved or defeated? Isn’t there a difference? And what about new innovative and experimental poetries that emerged despite the collapse of the so-called Underground? Just as small publishers found new ways to sell their books after the collapse of alternative bookshops, just as society changed and adapted after the end of the 60s utopian dream, poets found new audiences, new forms, new media, new ways of publishing, new ways to write. In his ‘Afterword’, Duncan offers a different picture, accepting that ‘you can see the Underground as a river that breaks up into dozens of shallow streams and finally runs into the sand.’ I’m a cynic at heart, but this seems simplistic and negative, reductionist even. I’m interested in some of those streams, and believe that some find routes to other lakes and oceans.

I can’t help feeling that Duncan sometimes strays too close to the mainstream, focussing on published books, whilst choosing to stay away from performance poetry (where are John Cooper Clarke and Attila the Stockbroker in Duncan’s 1970s?), theatre or stand-up. Maybe even song lyrics (Howard Devoto anyone?), let alone the freeform improvisations of Julie Tippets and Maggie Nichols at the London Musicians Collective which might be considered as sound poetry? And where is Michael Horovitz? Surely he at least deserves a mention?

No, nothing is being suppressed, least of all by Andrew Duncan. There’s no conspiracy, but I want a bigger, different picture. I know  that part of this is to do with taste (it always is), but I can’t help feeling Duncan doesn’t quite play his cards straight here: is this a survey, a critical book, or Andrew Duncan’s extended desert island books? How critically detached or emotionally invested is he? ‘There is grey sludge underneath consciousness’, he declaims in his discussion of liminality and the sublime, a sludge Duncan thankfully keeps well away from, preferring to stay in the sludge-free thinking zone.

In the end, the ‘Afterword’ lets Duncan cover his tracks. He notes that the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn in 2019 has added another layer to his and our perception of radicalism, and altered the underlying thesis of how he began this book, and acknowledges that ‘[t]here is a whole world of alternative poets today’, at the same time giving a nod to visual arts and literary theorists. He concludes by answering some of my questions, stating that he wanted ‘to rescue things that have never been written down and which are threatened with forgetfulness and decay’, and declaring that he is ‘describing what people said and wrote in the 1970s’ whilst flagging up the problem with setting aside ‘what people in 2020 [and presumably 2022] think about the time and what selective memory processes have been set in motion to cover up deception.’ If he almost undermines the whole project with his jibe that ‘any kind of marketing is better than total oblivion’, he then recovers enough for an upbeat ending, where despite ‘discontinuity’ there is ‘a whole theme park of abandoned poetic projects’ to explore. I can’t see how Duncan can dissociate himself from contemporary poetry and thought, but once again he has produced an intelligent, provocative and sometimes annoying volume.

Rupert Loydell 31st March 2022

Encroach to Resume by Peter Larkin (Shearsman Books)

Encroach to Resume by Peter Larkin (Shearsman Books)

Peter Larkin has been publishing poems about trees for almost 40 years, yet with each new collection he brings fresh perspectives. This arises in part from his close attention to trees, an attention which he invites us as readers to share. It is also nourished by his interest in scientific research into trees and forests, and recent philosophical debate on the non-human and our relationship to it. 

In his latest volume, Encroach to Resume, ‘Bodies the Trees of’ is a good example of the way science informs the poetry. The poem takes as its principal source The Body Language of Trees: A Handbook for Failure Analysis by Claus Mattheck and Helge Breloer, a book given to Larkin by J H Prynne. The handbook is focused on the hazards that trees can pose: how they break, why they break, and why sometimes they break when we don’t expect them to. The authors identify a series of indicators of stress and potential failure, the ‘body language’ of the title. 

Larkin has written before about the interaction of a tree with its environment and how this shapes the eventual form a tree takes. In ‘Bodies the Trees of’ he explores the idea of a tree being the record of the various vicissitudes it has had to negotiate through its life. Each response a tree makes to stress generates potential lines of fracture. Thus ‘cracks radiate, the root-swerve revolves describes (sub-writes) a blow’ (para 2) and ‘silent signs render screams to seams’ (para 4). ‘Sub-writes’ here evokes ‘underwrite’ (risk insurance), and ‘screams’ suggests both the sound of sheering timber and the cry of someone struck by a falling branch. 

The poem goes on to explore various aspects of potential stresses which might cause failure, and the way in cities we deal with risks through pruning and felling, constraining ‘branches in harness’. It also generalises this image of vulnerability to say something about our own being in the world. In paragraph 7 we read: ‘excessive stalling into shape    trees share horizons of the body across all the unsheltered flesh of the world’. 

A very different poem is ‘Given Trees Their Other Side of Nature’, a text which engages explicitly in metaphysical speculation. The poem is prefaced by three epigraphs, the first from Rilke’s Erlebnis in which the subject of the text wonders if he has been ‘transported to the other side of Nature’. This is followed by the environmental philosopher Bruce V. Foltz asserting that ‘the other side of nature is the side that allows it to be more than…our own production. The other side is the side we sense but do not see…’. The third epigraph is from Emily Dickinson: ‘I could not find a privacy/from Nature’s sentinels –‘.

The sense of there being an otherness in nature, a numinous presence we scarcely apprehend, is a common theme in Larkin’s work. This for him is not a transcendent reality but something we experience phenomenologically, however mysteriously. Thus in the seventh section of the poem Larkin writes: ‘Nature’s other side no less born, sensory only as its gift bestirs     a fragility not quite nearby but companionate burden’. In the central part of section 10 we read:

rootedness scratches

at a dimensionless

deflective abiding

in welts of belonging

the unaccountable,

prongs of the trees

smack at nature’s

reserve

It is through the material presence of trees that we have a sense of this otherness. Section 9 includes the line:

No such erasure without a raised other side, what is not a lid     hidden only as leanest against, supportive until obstructive enough for prayer

Larkin has made increasing use of the word ‘prayer’ in his poetry in recent years, though who or what is praying in the poems is often ambiguous. Personal pronouns appear rarely in his work.  Here he speaks of prayer ‘not bridging but a thrown (penetrating) embankment, its own least-beyond-from-which’ (section 1). Ultimately it is prayer, understood as a reaching towards, which retains the initiative in this poem, rather than metaphysical argument.

‘As a Tree Not a Tree’ is another fine poem which anticipates many of the themes in ‘Given Trees’. I enjoyed the subtle ambiguities explored here, the sense of a tree containing what is literally ‘not tree’ while also being more than ‘tree’ in a metaphysical or spiritual sense – that a tree ‘shelters what it is not’. Four other poems on various tree-related themes make up the collection as a whole.

Larkin’s texts are challenging, demanding work from the reader. The ideas he explores are often subtle. But the effort is worth making. The global environmental emergency we confront demands of us a very different way of being in the world. Larkin’ poetry is an invitation to reflect on what that might feel like.  

Simon Collings 13th May 2021

Otherhood Imminent Profusion (Critical Documents), Athwart Apron Snaps (Slub Press) by J.H. Prynne

Otherhood Imminent Profusion (Critical Documents), Athwart Apron Snaps (Slub Press) by J.H. Prynne

J.H.Prynne has been presenting us with an extraordinary flow of late materials ever since his 4th ed  Poems (2015) from Bloodaxe. The dust, as they say, may take a while to settle. Most of this material has been in the shape of small press pamphlets from the likes of Face Press, Critical Documents and Broken Sleep. Probably the largest and most substantive of these issuings is Of Better Scrap from Face Press (2019), in large format, in an original as well as a later revised and updated edition. 

This as I’d be aware is a very unusual circumstance of late period lucidity and I cannot think of too many parallels, certainly it is not the Four Quartets. Geoffrey Hill gave us his late Book of Baruch, posthumously. 

We have two further entries in this large seam of productivity, although for Prynne 2020 was quite a momentous year. If he is trying to remind us that he is the ‘leading late Modernist poet’ he has no doubt reinforced and accomplished this in these late efforts. On the downside, many of these almost fugitive publications aren’t greatly easy to obtain; but we have the 5th edition of the Poems doubtless to look forward to. I think they may find it difficult to keep that to one volume, and where the bridge!

An immediate conclusion might be that Prynne is now surely the formalist, more so say than The White Stones, but rigorous in approach and making remarkable changes in style between different volumes. The two meeting comment here are quite different. Profusion has a much looser, almost prosaic line; Athwart takes on a brief lyrical surmise of six liners. Given that I think Profusion might be the more given and thoughtful read of the two.

Grasping Prynne has a lot to with process, I’d say. An exceeding grasp of vocabulary and attention to a compact astringency mean that all that might be comprehended may certainly not yield on a first reading. Here for instance is a very tight insistence of expression in Profusion

                                                                     Done over verified in

                        flame, nest weft pinnate ascended cloud open

                        unfold pride, lionise.                   (p13)

This I need hardly belabour is quite remarkably expressed, and, no, pinnate I had to look up, it means feathered or having branches. Not a word goes to waste. Equally Prynne is focused on his material, ie what is done in flame and how it is lionised. Beyond difficulty seems to beckon efflorescense or exuberance, but that exactly is a key point of contention in Prynne’s various writings. And here and there a certain humour shows through.

As an epigraph to Profusion we have ‘sweet sprites, the burthen bear’, the old use of burden and of course who refers to sprites these days. Might Prynne be trying to lead by example? Is he off the track or lost the plot, as some protest? No sign in evidence of a how to, Prynne just seems unutterably tuned in and we are a little mystified by how he got there or manages it. At least we have the implication of wishing to follow, or inspiration, and to come and go with verse form, no one of these necessarily any better than the other. Perhaps the injunction might be to steep oneself in language and the expression of it, but of course in these visual oriented and social media days the climate is changing forcefully and rapidly. However, there is every evidence that Prynne is foremost among the poets of his generation, give or take a Geoffrey Hill or a Peter Riley.

Clark Allison 12th May 2021

Chords by Raymond Crump (SSEA Press / Face Press)

Chords by Raymond Crump (SSEA Press / Face Press)

In a letter dated 14th March 1968 written to Ray Crump and published in Series 3 of The English Intelligencer the Cambridge poet J.H. Prynne asserted something which threads its way through Crump’s poetry:

“Rhyme is the public truth of language, sound paced out in the shared places, the echoes are no-one’s private property or achievement; thus any grace (truly achieved) of sound is political, part of the world of motion and place in which language is like weather, the air we breathe.”

The rhythmic movement revealed in ‘Melancholy’ reminds one a little of the weighing of echoes and tones in Louis Zukofsky’s first poem in ‘Songs of Degrees’. Crump’s poem from the late 1960s first appeared in Series 3 of Intelligencer:

“As pale still
you little
say but look
and careless play your
careful tune
to life that dies or is grown
slow as
waving pines. There we
sat, eating summer
in a melon
on the mossy lip
of a great hole”

The movement forward from “say”, echoing “pale”, and “little”, echoing “still”, takes the reader to a moment of Blakean ease as “careless” and “careful” possess a wistful tone of meditation. However, that slight shift of the second syllable in each of those last two words promotes a heaviness and the less becomes the full, a thickening out of perception which slows down the movement to the rhyme of “grown” and “slow”. The punning sound of the former (groan) prepares us for a gesture of farewell in “waving pines”. It is as though the focus has meticulously been brought to bear upon the actual and we are “There” in a world of the domestic which teeters on the edge of the Fall. As we read this progression of forty-one words over twelve lines we might be witnessing what Prynne referred to as a “pivot of great beauty” which “is brought lightly off”.
In Zukofsky’s ‘A 6’ he had written of “The melody! the rest is accessory” and when Charles Tomlinson received a copy of the Jonathan Williams edition of Some Time he noted the visual precision as well as the aural meticulousness of the American poet:

“Hear, her
Clear
Mirror,
Care
His error.
In her
Care
Is clear”

In his ‘Commentary and Memoir’ on Ray Crump, appearing ten years ago in Cambridge Literary Review, his fellow student at the University of Kent, Chris Hardy, referred to the poems as appearing to be made effortlessly. He also referred to the way in which they resembled music:

“Though they can be dissected into units of language and image, so that their effects can in part be explained, the poems, when read straight through, create a response in the reader that includes a sort of non-verbal understanding.”

Both Crump and Hardy were taught by Michael Grant, another contributor to The English Intelligencer, and in some recollections of those days of the late 60s Crump recalled how Grant “would take the blue pencil to my ingenuous efforts at versifying, cutting the poem at point to its essence”. He thanked Michael Grant for this “because although love of poetry has sometimes slept in the years since, it was dreaming in the shades of Orpheus and reawakens to feel that melancholic yearning for an Ode which I still desire to fulfil.” It is testimony to this debt that Crump should have written to Grant in February 1974 enclosing “a few worthless poems” including ‘Night into Day’ which has never been published before:

“it is dark
in the room
but the patterns
of the rug find
light to dance
time sleeps
her treasure
displayed
at ashen dawn”

Chords is divided into two sections and as Boris Jardine points out in his bibliographical note at the end of the volume all the poems in Part 1 were written prior to 1970. That which had been dreaming in the shades of Orpheus for some years now stretches into the light of Part 2 where the nineteen poems have all been written since 2010. The last one, ‘Late Friends’, and echoing Thomas Hardy’s ‘Exeunt Omnes’, plays upon an Orphic lyre:

“How they leave us here
like islands in their lost future
and we cast a downward glance
into still water, less like Narcissus
than melancholy piping Pan.”

I shall be writing an article about the mysterious figure of Raymond Crump for the forthcoming issue of Tears in the Fence 72.

(http://face-press.org/crump.html / https://ssea.press/chords-new-and-selected-poems-by-raymond-crump/ )

Ian Brinton, 1st June 2020

Fair by Martin Thom (Infernal Methods)

Fair by Martin Thom (Infernal Methods)

The poem that Shelley wrote on the occasion of the 1819 massacre in Manchester was titled ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ and that very word conjures up a world of deceit as though politicians, like Prufrock, prepare a face to meet the faces that they meet. In Shelley’s poem the poet meets “Murder on the way –” and he had a “mask like Castlereagh”:

“Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds flowed him”

Sidmouth, Home Secretary at the time of the Peterloo Massacre, appears

“Clothed with the Bible, as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth, next, Hypocrisy
On a crocodile rode by.”

In this recently published chapbook poem we meet Sir Michael Fallon, Liam Fox and Amber Rudd.
Martin Thom’s long-term interest in Shelley is evident when we look at the front page of the fourth issue of the magazine he edited, Turpin:

“We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest. The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of men over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world… (‘A Defence of Poetry’)

And that evidence is there now in this recent publication from the Press whose name is taken from the poetry of William Blake. In this whirling explosion of outrage where the “Strict licensing of ordinance” is swiftly followed by the “margin of collateral” and “Harm to school or hospital” is delivered “In a hell-sent British shell” Thom’s eloquence of anger is revitalising.

“Eldon, Sidmouth, Castlereagh
Are in the stocks that Shelley made
And in the cuts that Cruikshank drew
Rotten fruit that outrage threw
Turn to emblems on the page.”

In the political world of Martin Thom’s poem the “devil dust” of modern warfare brings “mayhem to the mortal screen” and “infant hope, pale despair / In a second are not there”. The poem itself was drafted in the late summer of 2017 as preparations for the DSEI Arms Fair were under way at ExCel London, in London Docklands. Perhaps the nearest we have had recently to this bitter outburst of indignation about war was Tony Harrison’s A Cold Coming, Gulf War Poems published by Bloodaxe in 1991 and then, of course J.H. Prynne’s 2004 Refuse Collection where in the “curving / mirror of enlarged depravity daily and abhorrent a / comfort of disgust adjusted to market slippage”.

Ian Brinton, 6th August 2018

Infernal Methods: 1a Lupton Street, London NW5 2JA

Cold Calling (Equipage), World Frequency (Magpie Moon) by Nick Totton

Cold Calling (Equipage), World Frequency (Magpie Moon) by Nick Totton

New collections by Nick Totton are a delight and when he sent me these two a couple of months ago they were accompanied by a note that said “I thought you would like to see these fruits of my poetic renaissance. You wait for years and two come along at once…”
This image of movement and recurrence is central to Totton’s poetry and in a review of the 1976 Many Press collection, A Talisman, Bill Bennett had written in Perfect Bound 2:

“The function of the stars in ‘A Talisman’: so many of the poems ending on an edge, break or shift into another element. The stars bound the digestive tract of the poem’s working, a greasy infinity that adapts its own definitions, ‘the dream swallows me / and I am fed by it, star-milk, star- / breath’. Whether or not that space they offer is release, having freed the tongue to abdicate from it, a slackness of the jaw.”

Bennett continued to suggest that the very reticence of our utterance is the catch, and slowly, in these poems, “we can see a direct statement shaping itself, the alibis accounted for, and leaving a knowledge of possible direction coiled back on itself, a whip at rest”. Totton had worked with Ian Patterson and Martin Thom in a 1977 Cambridge publication, More Follows and then again in 1979 for a Curiously Strong publication Love Laughs at Locksmiths. It is now no surprise to read his recent opening poem to cold calling, ‘A Real Eye Opener’ being for Ian Patterson:

“Returned to the present by hand, solitude comes to play
in the immense game of air
where no pale architecture
makes a desiring rupture, where no
one’s waiting limousines
leave a silver hint at the transfer threshold.”

The Lacanian act of projection forward being at once an act of drawing back reminds us of the Moebius strip, to the topology of which Lacan devoted a good deal of thought:

“I am what I will have been for what I am in the process of becoming.”

In the words of the poet Michael Grant, retired lecturer in English at Kent University, the importance of whose work is being celebrated in a forthcoming festschrift Saluting Steadiness, “In Lacan’s view, it is this temporality of the future anterior that engenders, and is engendered by, the retroactive temporality of the speech act itself, of language in its taking place.” In the words of Nick Totton, poet whose work found a natural resting-place in the Carcanet anthology A Various Art

“What pierced name hangs reversed in startled air?
The bell is out of order but the drill
went smoothly through to the meat of it;
like slipping on the soap we are flung
into the future, where everything
happens twice.”

These are fascinating poems and their debts are fully acknowledged. ‘Drone Congregation’ is written for JH Prynne and it opens with a quotation from Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary: “DREAM…From the same root as drone and drum”. The opening lines of the poem themselves echo the cadences of Prynne’s work:

“Mating occurs in flight: to compress the kill chain
with great speed and force into her opened sting chamber,
a sweet target defined by environmental cues
clustering at predetermined frequencies” [.]

On the closing page of World Frequency (and note that reference to the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit of time) we are told that the title was originally a mistyping of Word Frequency Niand that most of the poems are “a mosaic of elements from different sources, conscious and unconscious; but a few are derived each from a single source, certain words and phrases being selected and used unchanged, always in the original order and with nothing added”. Poems are “sawn up history / being able to not maintain a stable plateau / ramping up cracked / fractions, acting almost normal against / a backdrop of shiny ice”.

Some of these poems from both collections have appeared in Tears in the Fence and in SNOW. Now they are collected together we are able to note what has become clear:

“a continuous undertow of matterings”

Ian Brinton, 5th July 2018

Rough Breathing by Harry Gilonis (Carcanet)

Rough Breathing by Harry Gilonis (Carcanet)

I first came across the work of Harry Gilonis in a 1991 issue of EONTA, an Arts Quarterly of which he was Associate Editor. This particular issue was subtitled ‘Dante issue’ and was dedicated in memoriam Frank Samperi who had died in Tucson, Arizona, in June that year. The contribution Gilonis wrote for that issue was titled ‘Rocked on a Lake’ in which he concluded that Dante was bewitched by detail, the matter of memory:

“Purgatorio XXVI has him, following Vergil, seeing ants talking to one another. How long did we wait for someone else to notice? There are moments out of time, when infected perception of a sudden clears. Proust trips on an uneven cobble in the Guermantes courtyard, is instantly in the baptistery of St. Mark’s.”

That clarity of perception noted above is one of the central features of this remarkable selection of poems by Harry Gilonis, the poet whose interest in poetry began as a reader when, according to Philip Terry’s introduction, “he went to school (like others before him including Basil Bunting) with Ezra Pound”. Terry goes on to point out that Gilonis “spent a year reading the Cantos on the dole – an apprenticeship no longer available – using a university library ticket to access source books, from Provençal and Chinese dictionaries to books on art and architecture”. Given this careful engagement with reading it can come as no surprise that I was both honoured and delighted by Gilonis’s contribution to the festschrift for J.H. Prynne, For the Future, which Shearsman published in 2016. The focus of his contribution was on Prynne’s ‘Stone Lake’ poem, the poem written in Chinese as No. 22 of Peter Riley’s Poetical Histories, and in an email to me early in 2015 Harry Gilonis had outlined the sort of scrutiny he wished to bring to bear upon that poem:

“I propose a character-by-character gloss of the poem and its title; notes on some character-combinations which act to ‘steer’ a reader towards certain reading-conclusions; some glosses on the poem’s geographical setting (a lake in Suzhou); some remarks on the poem’s style, in traditional Chinese terms”.

Rough Breathing contains about two-hundred pages of closely-wrought poems and amongst the rich variety offered to us there is a selection of 30 short poems from a much larger group of “faithless translations from old Chinese originals” titled ‘North Hills’. One can see how much care has been put into understanding the original texts so that approximations can be presented which themselves possess the vitality of refracted light. Each of the fifteen poems chosen for this selection presents the reader with two versions and I refer below to just one of the pair titled ‘old friend’:

autumn pours us full
night levels towns cities
chanced meeting beyond geography
flitting about time time
wind moves magpie / words
Spider-web flutters clear night
travellers with wine constant
kept mutual in looped days

One of the compellingly attractive aspects of this poem for me is the juxtaposition of qualities of movement in lines 5 and 6. Words appear on a page and when they do they possess a sense of the static, being placed there either by brush or print; the movement of that magpie thief and hoarder can shift a word from one context to another like an object. The delicacy of the fluttering of a spider’s web is, however, different in that the softness of movement does not remove the web from one place to another: it returns to its original position. These two different qualities of movement are given further definition in their accidental record of “chanced meeting” and the very noun used there is opened up to offer suggestiveness concerning its meaning. A meeting which is “beyond geography” may lack a physical presence but can be a meeting none the less. This is poetry of a very high quality and I am inevitably reminded of the world of Pound’s World War I poetry publication, Cathay.
In contrast to this reflective lyric grace we can turn to the bitterly assured tone of the political poems which present us with a language that might well be used by the self-promoting innocence of the world’s arms-dealers:

“fully field programmable
with in-flight re-targeting
to cover the whole kill chain

with sensor-to-shooter capability
for effects-based engagement
and an integral good-faith report

and a situational awareness
of integrity and trust
to achieve the desired lethal effects”

It was appropriate that the Dante issue of EONTA from 1991had contained an obituary of Frank Samperi (written by David Miller) and when John Martone edited Spiritual Necessity (Barrytown/Station Hill), a useful selection of the Brooklyn poet, he pointed out that Samperi had discovered Dante in a Brooklyn institution and had taught himself Aquinas in Latin as well as studying the Indian philosopher Sankara, non-Euclidean geometry, and astrology. Samperi’s attention to moments reflected an active engagement which echoed perhaps the world referred to in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Notebook entry for March 1871:

“What you look hard at seems to look hard at you, hence the true and false instress of nature. One day early in March when long streamers were rising from over Kemble End one large flake loop-shaped, not a streamer but belonging to the string, moving too slowly to be seen, seemed to cap and fill the zenith with a white shire of cloud. I looked long up at it till the tall height and the beauty of the scaping—regularly curled knots springing if I remember from fine stems, like foliation in wood or stone—had strongly grown on me. It changed beautiful changes, growing more into ribs and one stretch of running into branching like coral. Unless you refresh the mind from time to time you cannot always remember or believe how deep the inscape in things is.”

In the introduction to this new Carcanet publication Philip Terry places Gilonis “at the head of a long line of innovative contemporary poets, from Tim Atkins to Peter Hughes and Caroline Bergvall, who have been engaged in renewing poetry with experimental, prismatic, forms of translation”. I think I would add to that list as I recognise that there is indeed a sense of the renewal of language throughout Rough Breathing as I turn from page to page, or maybe it might be more appropriate to say from leaf to leaf: Harry Gilonis’s poetry consists of words made new.

Ian Brinton, 24th April 2018

The Oval Window by J.H. Prynne (Bloodaxe Books)

The Oval Window by J.H. Prynne (Bloodaxe Books)

A new edition of Jeremy Prynne’s long poem which had been originally published privately in an edition of 600 copies in December 1983 is due to be published on 29th March this year. It is the third separate publication of this major poem since the second one appeared in Brisbane in 2002 edited by the Australian artist Ian Friend. On the cover of the first edition there was a photograph showing a window-like opening in the wall of a ruined ‘shield’, or shieling, a rough stone hut built by medieval farmers to house themselves and their families during the summer transhumance. The photograph is one of many taken by Prynne himself at Tinkler Crags, on Askerton North Moor, a desolate area near the village of Gilsland in Cumbria and twenty more pages of these photographs are now included in this new edition.

This finely produced new edition is edited by Neil Reeve and Richard Kerridge whose work on The Oval Window goes back to an article ‘Deaf to Meaning: on J.H. Prynne’s The Oval Window‘ published in issue 3 of Parataxis in 1993. They also wrote a chapter of fifty pages on the poem for their major publication on Prynne, Nearly Too Much (Liverpool University Press, 1995). The new Bloodaxe edition contains two new substantial essays on the poem and some fifty pages of notes. It is a must! This is merely a quick advert for the book to alert our readers in advance and I shall be writing a full review of the new edition in Tears in the Fence 68 later this year.

Ian Brinton 9th February 2018

Composition in White by S.J. Litherland (Smokestack Books)

Composition in White by S.J. Litherland (Smokestack Books)

According to some recent Facebook comments a review written by Martin Stannard is shortly to appear on Alan Baker’s excellent Litter site (leafepress.com/litter). The review contains the following paragraph:

“I have what can best be described as an ambivalent relationship with innovative poetry and poetics (I’m getting fed up of that phrase) which boils down pretty much to my approach to reading any kind of poetry: is it an enjoyable and maybe even an unforgettable experience, or the opposite of that, whatever it might be. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not put off by not getting it, or not understanding it – but I am put off by reading experiences that fall short of the pleasurable – bearing in mind that pleasure can come in any number of guises. I’m definitely put off when I don’t feel welcome.”

When reading this paragraph I was put in mind of the comment made by J.H. Prynne in his Keynote Speech given ten years ago at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in China at Shijiazhuang when he focused upon the difference between obscurity and difficulty in poetry:

“When poetry is obscure this is chiefly because information necessary for comprehension is not part of reader’s knowledge. The missing information may be specific (a personal name, say, or some tacit allusion), or general (an aspect of religious belief, say); and finding out this information may dispel much of the obscurity. When poetry is difficult this is more likely because the language and structure of its presentation are unusually cross-linked or fragmented, or dense with ideas and response-patterns that challenge the reader’s powers of recognition. In such cases, extra information may not give much help.”

Prynne suggests that Pope’s The Dunciad is now obscure but not especially difficult whereas Stevens’s ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ is difficult “but mostly not obscure”. I would add William Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’ to the list of difficult poems which are not obscure.
Jackie Litherland’s ‘Springtime of the Nations’ was commended in the 2011 National Poetry Competition and as I read this opening poem in last year’s publication of her seventh collection I was struck by the way its power in no way relied upon any awareness of the 1848 revolutionary world or of Hungary: its power is in the way it brings sound and place to experience that is not historically dependent.

“The lilacs were in flower, heavy, drowsy,
boulevards suddenly pleasant. And
I suspect the sun was out. You must
understand there was nothing we could
do. In the square hung the conspirators,
dangling effigies – the partying over –
how they caroused our masters,
the hubbub was like the explosions
of military battle to deafened soldiers,
we the defeated drank deeply while
the victors were clinking glasses.”

A reader of poetry may well find that the reference T.S. Eliot makes to “lilacs” in ‘Portrait of a Lady’ crosses the mind unbidden and, indeed, may well recall Walt Whitman’s elegy to Abraham Lincoln in which “lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d” as he mourns an individual murder “and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring”. But this cross-referencing is not necessary for us to share the sense of peace haunting Litherland’s square in which the hanging bodies are “dangling effigies”. That peace is held with the words “heavy” and “drowsy” and a social sense of life’s continuance is caught with the geographical fixture of “boulevards” and the word “pleasant”. A feeling of helplessness in the face of horror is evoked with the matter-of-fact assertion that we must understand that “there was nothing we could / do”. The celebration associated with carousing, cheers that explode making the square into a battle-field, is present to us with the sharp “clinking” of glasses and “All

we could hear was the chink, chink,
like raindrops in gutters, of their toasts”

The poet (in the epigraph “A sympathiser advises a friend”) remains with a heavy and ominous silence recognising that for them the haunting memory will ensure that “glasses / will never chime” and that “All through the night

they were pushing the boat out, the oars
of a thousand hurrahs dipped into water,
chink, chink, chink, chink, chink,
came the replies of the tiny waves.”

There is a determined tone of resolution in the final lines which are Brechtian in their simplicity:

“…The twelve hung in the sun.
You must understand there was nothing
we could do but shun the moment,
to turn our backs on all that merriment.”

This is a poem which resonates off the page addressing the reader with clarity and leaving echoes of historical reconstruction which can be felt in our NOW.
As Jo Colley states on the back cover of this fine collection of poems Litherland’s poet’s eye is “as diamond sharp and unsentimental as ever”.

Ian Brinton 10th January 2018.

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