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Tag Archives: John Ashbery

At Raucous Purposeful by J.H. Prynne (Broken Sleep Books)

At Raucous Purposeful by J.H. Prynne (Broken Sleep Books)

Well into his eighties now, JH Prynne is enjoying the most prolific period of his career and indeed one that exceeds the output of every other poet I can think of. Since 2020, he has published some 25 new works, mostly chapbooks with small independent publishers. This puts into shade other notable late flowerings like those of Geoffrey Hill, Jorie Graham and John Ashbery although presumably it could be argued that because Prynne’s publications are all short-form sequences (At Raucous Purposeful, for example, amounts to only 15 pages of text) in terms of actual word-count they might tally with the prolix ruminations of, say, The Daybooks and The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin. (I’ve always thought that late Prynne and late Hill have a good deal in common, sharing the hermetic, fulminating tone of a slightly unhinged don, over-erudite and over-immersed in the historical etymologies of their beloved OED, bent on an increasingly private vision that seems to distantly footnote their earlier momentous breakthroughs.)

    Who on earth could keep up with Prynne at this rate of production? Perhaps that’s the point; as time runs out, is he trying to outrun any attempt to coddle him into sedate poetic dotage, like an Augustus Carmichael sent to doze over his notebook on the lawn? On the one hand this scattershot approach feels like the great confounder sticking to his guns, keeping faith with the small presses and sequences of cryptic linguistic détournement which have formed the bedrock of his practice since the 1960s – not for him the facile conveniences of airing new work on the internet or quietly waiting to update his seminal and increasingly unwieldy Bloodaxe Poems every few years (“the big yellow (para)taxis” as a friend once called it). On the other hand, with a style as distinctive as Prynne’s – a poetic approach established over 50 years ago which, in spite of manifold formal permutations, has not really “developed” or reinvented itself ever since – eventually we are forced to read the work as self-parodic, caught in a loop of its own making, consuming its own hyper-extensive tail or choking on it.

   If poetry can become “an engrained habit” (as John Heath-Stubbs said to the Queen on receiving her Gold Medal for Poetry), there is a sense in which enduring poetic identity might be linked with continuing prolificity in the face of dwindling powers. One thinks of Swinburne, kept on a tight leash in early retirement in Putney, churning out volume after volume of hollowly sonorous lyrics which are almost non-referential in their formulaic melopeia. As TS Eliot wrote of one Swinburne poem, “that so little material…could release such an amazing number of words requires what there is no reason to call anything but genius.”

    Turning to the ten poem sequence At Raucous Purposeful, I was caught between open-mindedly approaching it (as Robert Potts advises) “like a painting or a piece of music”, teasing out connections and possible chains of association (Potts again: “sonically, prosodically, thematically and metonymically”) and at other moments wondering if these were just random word-lists generated by a computer, an algorithm whose parameters are set to explicitly avoid any conventional poetic techniques, figurations or meanings, to confront the reader with slabs of sheer aleatory verbiage in the same way that many bands, musicians and composers have brought out albums of pure dissonance and noise. Why? To challenge our complacent assumptions about what constitutes music, to clean out our banality-clogged ears? Or even to make us want to turn the racket off and listen more attentively to the birds in the garden or the human voices that surround us? 

    No doubt it would be unreasonable or irrelevant to expect an 86 year old poet to change course or develop his practice at this late stage but reading At Raucous Purposeful I also thought of Prynne’s own words about a poetry reading he’d just been to, from the fascinating Paris Review interview he did in 2016:

I want a poet to break out of his or her poetic identity, to ­establish a whole new set of possibilities for the reader and for him- or herself. To hear poems that must have been written by a poet is to find them trapped in the poetic habits from which they originate. There wasn’t a poem anywhere in that sequence that I heard that I would have been glad to read for a second time…I can’t imagine why he did them. What was the motive? What was the serious development of his practice that poems like that would help him to find his way to? ”

Oliver Dixon 19th July 2022

Sex on Toast by Topher Mills (Parthian Books)

Sex on Toast by Topher Mills (Parthian Books)

Once again I find myself discovering poetry by a poet I’ve heard about but never got around to reading. Until now that is. This book, – a ‘Collected Poems’ more or less, – is a real treat. Written in chronological order these poems represent a lifetime’s work from the pen of a writer who, unusually, writes about manual labour, as well as swimming, politics, literature, unemployment, class, sexual matters and an array of other subjects. These poems are deceptively sophisticated, often rhythmically intriguing, surprisingly moving and complex in the range of emotion and of thinking they deploy. There are performance pieces and some wonderful pastiches including the following which takes a commonly reworked classic and gives it a somewhat new spin:

          DIS IS JEST TUH SAY LIEKE

          dat I scoffed

          duh sarnee

          yoo id in

          duh freezuh Kumpartmunt

          an wat

          yooz wuz praps

          kraabin

          fuh laytuh like

          soree yuhno

          it wuz jaamtastick

          reeuhlee baanaaanaaree

          aan reeuhlee baaraaas

          (Translated from the American

          Of William Carlos Williams)

His Cardiff-based dialect poetry is a key aspect in performance though I have to say the above looks and sound like Geordie to me (what do I know?) and hilariously funny. The fact that he can hint towards John Ashbery and Wallace Stevens, while also writing direct and convincing poems about the dangers and realities of working as a roofer, for example, suggest a breadth of experience which still seems rare in the ‘exalted’ field of poetry. 

     In ‘Walkabout’ from the late section entitled ‘Winter Cycling’ he writes about dementia in a manner which takes your breath away:

          Mid-winter, middle of the night, breath

          billowing icy white, his mother’s in a hurry

          to see her parents who died thirty years ago

          happily wearing just slippers and night gown.

                                   (from ‘Walkabout’)

Like his fellow countryman Peter Finch, Mills is able to write effective traditional poems while also working in a more experimental fashion. The link between page and performance is an important aspect of these varied approaches.

From ‘When Scaffolders Howl’ we get the following:

          Every scaffolding gang I have ever worked with

          will, at some point, tip their heads back and let rip 

          howling like a wild pack of wolves at a full moon.

          Yet at day’s end they’ll squash into lorries and vans

          to travel home weary, thirsty, laughter quieter

          till the next morning gathers them together again. 

It’s so easy to relate to the above and it’s done without any suggestion of sentimentality or affectation. As an ex-swimmer of a certain age I found ‘The Resolutionists’ to be a mix of wicked humour and cautionary tale:

          Back at the shallow end’s comparative safety

          we guestimate that by February this will be over

          when the resolutionists, who do it to get healthy,

          in the hope of living longer, have all inflicted

          injuries or done permanent damage or just died.

          Few survive as swimmers. One may become a regular,

          although this is extremely rare, but until then

          The ambulances are lined up outside like fire engines.

Elsewhere the swimming imagery is more upbeat (‘The Last Swim in Empire’) where we get ‘Carousing with dolphins, / splashing curious seagulls / and shadow boxing nervous sharks.’

     I’ve only read through this collection once and I’m sure it’s one I shall dip into again and again. There are sound poems and romantic pieces, humour in abundance, often juxtaposed with much darker material which takes you aback and makes you think as well as feel. In short, it’s a huge cornucopia and one that I feel I’ve just scraped the surface of. Dip in and enjoy.

Steve Spence 24th January 2022

Path Through Wood by Sam Buchan-Watts (Prototype)

Path Through Wood by Sam Buchan-Watts (Prototype)

In the opening poem of Sam Buchan-Watts’ debut collection, ‘Lines following’, we accompany the narrator into a wood where: 

The way into the woods is in a way

to go around the woods: the woods are always in the way

if you’re in them (if they’re woods). 

The poem recreates the experience of a place rich in memories but which also eludes us, a space we feel we ‘never really entered’. ‘Lines following’ could be a metaphor for the volume as a whole, individual pieces managing ingeniously to ‘go around’ their subject even as we are ‘in’ them. 

The second and third poems in the book stay with the image of woods, ‘ballad’ evoking childhood memories, and ‘The Days Go Just Like That’ (the title in quotation marks) recalling adolescence.  Later in the collection there is another poem entitled ’The Days Go Just Like That’ (this time without quotation marks) which expands on the earlier one. The events described in these two pieces involve drug taking (‘hash resin/and Benzedrine’) and hallucinations of a medieval joust. On the woodland path kids have let off a fire extinguisher. The scene recalls the litter-strewn, peri-urban woodlands in the paintings of George Shaw. 

Adolescent experience is also powerfully evoked in ‘You just know’. On a coach returning from Ypres one student has ‘managed to get stoned’ while another tells his classmates about his need to masturbate, to ‘tame the snake’. ‘Dew Point’ also describes a school bus ‘randy with adolescence’, where a boy draws images of dicks in the condensation on the window. The poem likens these to: ‘Early actions as stone inscriptions when mark-making and thinking are the same’. The text involves a play on condensation, verdichten (meaning ‘condense’, a term used by Freud in relation to dream work), and reduction. There’s also a play on Verdichten and ‘dick’.

Other poems deal with refugees and asylum seekers – drawing on Buchan-Watts’ working experience. In ‘Listening in’ (p.24 – there are several poems with this title) the narrator is teaching a group of refugees how to use a public phone box, ‘the phone call a useful metaphor/for poetry’s one-sided intimacy’ as the boys leave a message on an answerphone. The poem emphasises the cultural distance between the narrator and the boys, who have been refugees ‘for most of their lives’. It ends ‘even here I skirt the question/of speaking ‘for’ in staking common ground.’ 

‘Sounds Inside’ is another take on the impossibility of knowing another person’s experience of life. It describes the precarious sense of kinship the narrator has with his landlord, also a friend, who works as a medic in a prison. He reflects on the hardening of the friend’s world as a result of the harsh prison environment. At the end of the poem the narrator acknowledges that he cannot ‘get near’ the prisoners’ experiences, or even those of his friend. But he ‘can go in and see’ him, in the next room where he’s is listening to the radio, and ‘hold him/to me, awkwardly’, a gesture he doesn’t in fact make. The slow build up to this moment through two pages of involved argument, structured as a single sentence, is superbly controlled and very moving. 

The poet acknowledges a debt to Denise Riley and the long lines of ‘Sounds Inside’ make her influence evident. ‘The art of trying’, a prose poem, also has echoes of Riley, both formally and thematically. This poem reflects on the instability of the lyric subject and the limitations of language: ‘The ‘I’ speaks out and disperses…nothing was straightforward when put together, or even implicitly so’. 

An extended prose piece, ‘Colouring in’, suggests an aesthetics grounded in play. This piece brings together reflections on Henry Darger, John Ashbery, Joseph Cornell, and Vladimir Nabakov, linking them to the possible connections between artistic practice and a child drawing. Imaginative play, the text suggests, is a way to ‘overturn the world’: ‘To stand in a kitchen observing a child draw with such focus as to be alone in the world is to watch him draw himself out of the world.’ The ‘child’, Buchan-Watts says ‘peeks out in parapraxes, slips of the tongue’. 

Path through Wood is a difficult collection to summarise. The use of different forms, the complex wordplay between individual poems, the thoughtfulness and the expression of the ungraspable quality of simply being alive in the world give this slim volume a richness that repays reading and rereading.

Simon Collings 8th January 2022

Infrathin by Marjorie Perloff (University of Chicago Press)

Infrathin by Marjorie Perloff (University of Chicago Press)

Marjorie Perloff continues to write theoretical and critical books that are both perceptive and highly readable. Infrathin, her most recent, takes its title from Duchamp’s idea that things (and words) that are seemingly the same are always different, even if that difference is ‘ultrathin’. Perloff takes this as the basis and working method for her seven chapters, although there is also a lot of close reading.

Perloff, it has to be said, had me worried at first, as she talked about discussing the context of poetry rather than focussing on the texts themselves, but this ‘context’ is what I would think of as intertextuality, that is how work relates to other work: of the time, previously as influence, and how it has affected poetry since. Some of this ‘context’ (if we stick with Perloff’s term) produces some surprising groupings and discussion.

She starts with a chapter considering ultrathin in relation to Gertrude Stein’s playful experiments, as well as her writerly relationship to Duchamp. Chapter 2 is where the surprises start to happen, where Perloff undertakes a superb analysis of the textual musicality, structure and effect of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’, and then makes an unexpected but coherent case for Eliot as a forerunner to concrete poetry, such as that produced by Ian Hamilton Finlay.

Perloff then pans out to consider how Ezra Pound uses the page, or invents a specific kind of page, for his Cantos. Her close reading here includes the visual element as well as the text, noting the differences, as Pound did not read aloud the ideograms and other visual components of his sequences. Charles Olson and Zukofsky get short shrift in relation to the complexities and structure of the Cantos, Perloff preferring to consider Brazilian concrete poets such as Augusto de Campos.

Next up is a fascinating discussion of Susan Howe’s Quarry in relation to Wallace Steven’s Rock, titled ‘Word Frequencies and Zero Zones’. This consideration of repetition, slippage and what is left unsaid is astonishingly original, unlike the next chapter which considers the work of John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein and Rae Armantrout. It feels slightly expected and a revisiting of some of Perloff’s previous work.

The book ends with a detailed chapter about ‘Poeticity’ in Samuel Beckett’s work, followed by another featuring Beckett, but this time considering how he came to engage with and be influenced by the poetry of Yeats, with an overarching theme of ‘The Paragrammatic Potential of “Traditional” Verse’.

If at times this book feels like the seven conference papers or essays they previously were, reworked into chapters, and if at times Perloff makes some rather personal, associative and conjectural leaps when undertaking her poetic deconstructions, it can be forgiven in the light of surprise, intelligence and originality. I haven’t enjoyed a serious and challenging critical book like this for a long time.

Rupert Loydell 11th December 2021

Parallel Movement of the Hands by John Ashbery (Carcanet Press)

Parallel Movement of the Hands by John Ashbery (Carcanet Press)

This, first off, is a work of posthumous reconstruction of five coherent but unfinished pieces at various levels of progression that Ashbery’s assistant of some years Emily Skillings managed to put together. So we are lacking the author’s intended ideas for book length presentation of these works.

I think however we do get quite a strong sense of the poet’s voice here, albeit that any narrative elements might be in a stage of incompletion. Ashbery of course is renowned as a key member of the core New York school along with Frank O’Hara, whose career was cut short, James Schuyler, with whom Ashbery wrote A Nest of Ninnies, and Kenneth Koch. He completed a large number of French translations, and was many years involved in art criticism. 

The design of the book has a certain logic to it, wherein probably the most substantive pieces start and conclude it, so that we begin with the long six part poem ‘The History of Photography’, which, Ashbery being Ashbery, isn’t entirely about photography.

It is worth citing briefly Skilling’s epigraph, which includes the expression by Ashbery that ‘we can dream safely in our environment because art has set soft, invisible limits to it.’ (pxv, p169). This doubtless helped Ashbery’s will to experimentation and unorthodoxy, but I think this kind of ‘invisible safety’ is a mite questionable.

When Ashbery is in full flow he seems to come up with long fluent lines, unlike the briskly lean variety of O’Hara. He could not be described as a formalist; and there are occasional noticings of disjunction as well as surrealist touches.

‘Photography’ in its 6 parts takes a little while to warm up, but by the third section I’d say we’re arriving at something approaching Ashbery’s typical voice. Here we find

                                                                        ‘What I buy

                        I pass around; all are unbidden to this feast

                        of the every-day, so I can hear its

                        partial music just as a bird sings

                        out of reach, within the edge of a forest.’ (p16) 

This sounds almost Whitmanesque. But Ashbery’s poetry is of a more terse, frisky variety, no doubt also more cerebral, rather less Falstaffian. 

Emily Skillings’ very insightful introduction offers a very useful commentary on these pieces. So that if Ashbery takes something from Whitman, there are also smatterings of perhaps Auden too. The departure from Whitman may be owing to what Skillings identifies as his interest and leaning toward not so much hesitation as tentativeness, a certain thinking on one’s feet. This she cites from some of Ashbery’s art criticism. So we have Ashbery saying,-

‘The artists of the world can be divided into two groups: those who organize and premeditate, and those who accept the tentative, the whatever-happens-along. And though neither method is inherently superior…I probably prefer more works of art that fall in the latter category.’ (cited pxlii)

This is possibly part too of what makes Ashbery’s work so American and New York school.

For all his flowing lines nonetheless I sense Ashbery as a writer much in control of his material. There are for instance line endings that are curt and contained rather than flowing on, a fairly sure footed quality with that sense that he knows what he is about. Nonetheless the first person singular is much absent, and there is never anything resembling Lowell or confessionalism. Ashbery has indeed sometimes been proposed as a precursor of the rather objectified Language school. And that is much part of his extraordinary originality, in the sense that this strange mix of styles we get from him is peculiarly much his own. 

But there are limits to this. Ashbery does, agreed, seem to be language driven, and in that sense the experiential roots of his poetry are rather muted. At the same time he’s always been very conscious of pictorial models.

Another writer Ashbery resembles to an extent is Wallace Stevens, and in his more relaxed modes there do seem points of comparison there. Because Ashbery can convince himself of ‘invisible safety’ he is content to lay down his guard here and there, which no doubt is how we get books of poetry with such titles as Houseboat Days or The Tennis Court Oath. Ashbery’s undeniable seriousness is not at all heavy handed and he plainly enjoys following the play of the language.

This playfulness or even ‘softness’ of an amount of Ashbery’s writing may either engage or not; were he a South American he leans much closer to a Neruda than a Vallejo, though with a much more restrained quality of intimacy. Skillings appropriately dedicates this volume to Ashbery’s long term partner David Kermani. As Ashbery concludes ‘The Art of Finger Dexterity’, ‘Thereafter/ foils drooped./ That’s what I thought he said,/ trespassing.// It won’t be entirely winter.’ (p80) which reminds me among other things of the title of that Stevens’ collection Transport to Summer. Not quite a case of ‘poetry doesn’t change anything’ as with Auden, but there perhaps is not a developed sense of political or social consciousness here, though perhaps we do not expect that of poetry. If unlike Lowell, certainly unlike a Ginsberg besides. But that said this poetry is highly original and does plough its own furrow quite to effect.

Clark Allison 7th July 2021

Bitter Grass by Gëzim Hajdari Translated by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

Bitter Grass by Gëzim Hajdari Translated by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

When in 1970 Isaiah Berlin delivered his Romanes Lecture on the subject of the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev he emphasised the writer’s refusal to be drawn into the world of politics:

‘Nature, personal relationships, quality of feeling – these are what he understood best, these, and their expression in art…The conscious use of art for ends extraneous to itself, ideological, didactic, or utilitarian, and especially as a deliberate weapon in the class war, as demanded by the radicals of the sixties, was detestable to him.’

Six years after Berlin had delivered his talk the young Albanian poet Gëzim Hajdari was in his last year at high school and completing his volume of poems Bitter Grass. It was not permitted to be published by the government publication house in Tirana on account of it being a text that failed to deal with the theme of the socialist village and the censor wrote that

‘…the hero of the poems is a solitary person who flees from his contemporaries, from the Youth Association, from reality; moreover, the transformations that socialism has brought to the countryside under the guidance of the Party are entirely absent…’

One might be tempted to here to catch an undertone, an echo, of Bakunin or of Bazarov, the fiercely dogmatic anarchist of Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons. The language is very different from what Ian Seed recognises as a main characteristic of these early poems in which he discovers ‘a compressed lyricism, a blurring of the boundaries between a geographical landscape and a visionary dreamscape, the merging of the physical with the spiritual’. Recalling what John Ashbery wrote about Ian Seed’s own poetry it seems entirely appropriate that the Albanian refugee who fled to Italy in 1992 should have found a translator of such distinction. Ashbery had recognised Seed’s ability to re-create the ‘mystery and sadness of empty rooms, chance encounters in the street’ and ‘trains travelling through a landscape of snow’ which become ‘magical’. The metamorphic lyrical power to be found in Seed’s translation of one of Hajdari’s poems concerning the fleeting nature of reality is a case in point:

‘Perhaps tomorrow I won’t be
in these whitened fields.
Like an early morning cloud
my face will disappear.

My voice will be lost
with everyday memories,
hopes and dreams
orphaned in the woods.

Still hanging by the river
names and shadows will remain,
the one who obsessed me
dust and ash.

A hawthorn will grow
above the corpse,
my secret kept
under tender grass.

The days of May will come
with gorse and sunshine.
The nightingale and cuckoo
will be the first to sing.’

The movement of time is caught hauntingly here as the word ‘whitened’, associated perhaps with the newness of a morning, is placed against the constant shift of clouds which becomes associated in the poet’s mind with his own transience. The sense of the lost child, whose ‘hopes and dreams’ dissolve in the rejection he feels as an orphan in the woods, links the poem to what Ian Seed recognises as reminiscent of the opening canto of Dante’s Inferno where the poet finds himself lost in ‘una selva oscura’. In Hajdari’s world beyond the ‘dust and ash’ of death there are echoes which still hang in the air, a musical quality that lingers, and the lyric itself seems to take on its concrete form in the print on the page in a manner not dissimilar to the growth of the hawthorn. The physical presence of the poem suggests a shadow of awareness of a future reader and in another spring there will be a return of both the harbingers of distance and of love, the cuckoo and the nightingale.
In Ian Seed’s own ‘Composition 2’ from Shifting Registers (Shearsman Books, 2011) ‘Your face dissolves when you drop / a coin into the fountain’ and ‘The scene / may sparkle but you feel // the pull of its undertow’. In these translations from the Italian of the Balkan poet Gëzim Hajdari Ian Seed offers us a convincing sense of that pull of poetry’s undertow: a convincing refutation of Turgenev’s anarchist Bazarov who in 1862 had rejected everything that could not be established by the rational methods of natural science. One can only wonder what Turgenev would have made of the censor from Tirana!

Ian Brinton 29th June 2020

New York Hotel by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

New York Hotel by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

Some difficulties with visual particularism haunt the phantasmagoric world of Lewis Carroll and a moment from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There anticipates the nightmare world of Kafka whilst also casting a glance back over the shoulder at the world of Todgers’s Guest House in Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit:

“The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things – but the oddest part of all was, that whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty: though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold. “Things flow about so here!” she said at last in a plaintive tone, after she had spent a minute or so in vainly pursuing a large bright thing, that looked sometimes like a doll and sometimes like a work-box, and was always in the shelf next above the one she was looking at.” [1872, Chap. V]

“You couldn’t walk about in Todgers’s neighbourhood, as you could in any other neighbourhood. You groped your way for an hour through lanes and bye-ways, and court-yards and passages; and never once emerged upon anything that might be reasonably called a street. A kind of resigned distraction came over the stranger as he trod those devious mazes, and, giving himself up for lost, went in and out and round about, and quietly turned back again when he came to a dead wall…” [1844, Chap. IX]

It was in a comment on the back cover of Ian Seed’s 2011 collection Shifting Registers (Shearsman Books) that we are referred to the fragmented yet rich lyricism of the writing which “crosses borders between lost and rediscovered identity”: the poet’s “navigation of different realities” is expressed through his willingness to contemplate “new spaces through language.” This powerful focus upon shifting realities keeps the reader’s eye firmly on the pages of New York Hotel as we are confronted with what “felt familiar and yet like another world” (‘Baptism’). These short prose poems are haunting; they are compelling to read and John Ashbery’s comment upon Seed’s work is absolutely on the nail:

“The mystery and sadness of empty rooms, chance encounters in the street, trains travelling through a landscape of snow become magical in Ian Seed’s poems.”

I reviewed Ian Seed’s translation of Pierre Reverdy’s Le Voleur de Talan (The Thief of Talant) about one year ago and was struck then by the ability of both poets to render Orphic vision palpable. Both poets are struck by the sense that as they turn their heads to stare at the past “something flees much faster than us.” In that world of shifting realities (“Things flow about so here”) Reverdy sees how “Further off a forest merged with the city” and it was Philippe Jaccottet who recognised how Reverdy’s words focus upon “la fuite nes nuées, les lueurs des vitres” (the evaporation of dark clouds, glimmers of light through the shutters). Jaccottet’s words are absolutely right also for Ian Seed’s powerful understanding of how we live isolated lives haunted by the flickering images of a past that informs a present.
Perhaps it is because I spent so many years school-teaching that when I read something that holds my attention as firmly as does New York Hotel I am aware of looking around for what I want to read next, return to, advise my pupils to look at. One of the voices that came to mind as I read ‘Orphanage’ was that of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy:

“It was my responsibility to accompany the boy in a taxi to an orphanage on the other side of the city. When we arrived, I was surprised to see what a rundown area it was in. I wondered if we had come to the right place. Although I was worried about the expense, I told the driver to wait while I took the boy and went to find out.”

As readers we are held immediately by that opening word “responsibility” and its association with what we need to take charge of in relation to vulnerability. Rather like the Ancient Mariner Ian Seed has caught us with his version of “There was a ship…” and we cannot choose but hear what happens next. A rundown area, doubts about it being the correct destination, anxiety over cost, reliance upon the escape route. I shan’t tell you any more! Buy a copy of New York Hotel and read it for yourselves. In Auster’s City of Glass the shifting figure of Stillman, a man who imprisoned his son in an apartment with covered up windows for nine years, traces out the letters of TOWER OF BABEL on the “labyrinth of endless steps” that constitute New York watched by a private detective called Paul Auster who also uses the name of Quinn. In Ian Seed’s world of the phantasmagoric we are presented with a ‘Generation Gap’:

“My maternal grandfather turned up at my council flat with his father, who was a tiny bearded man in an ancient wheelchair. I hadn’t seen them for a long time. without saying hello, my great grandfather raised a fist in the air and began to berate me for being nearly sixty and still without a proper home or job. Even when my grandfather lifted him out of the chair, carried him to the toilet and put him down on the seat, he continued to scold me. The whole flat soon started to stink, but I said nothing through fear of offending them.”

When I return to the classroom for a term in September this year I shall present some of these wonderful fictions to my Year 10. After all it is now some fifty-five years since I first came to recognise the palpability of loss: before that there was the magic of the now.

Ian Brinton February 5th 2018.

Lee Harwood III: the palpability of loss

Lee Harwood III: the palpability of loss

In early March 2012 Lee and I were invited by Kim Wyatt, the Head of English at Warwick School, to give a talk and a reading. I wanted to look at some Olson and some Hardy in relation to what I saw as Lee’s astonishingly powerful awareness of how tangible loss can feel. Some notes:

‘It is by their syllables that words juxtapose in beauty, by these particles of sound as clearly as by the sense of the words which they compose. In any given instance, because there is a choice of words, the choice, if a man is in there, will be, spontaneously, the obedience of his ear to the syllables. The fineness, and the practice, lie here, at the minimum and source of speech’. Charles Olson, ‘Projective Verse’.

Olson goes on to refer to the anonymous late medieval lament

‘O western wynd, when wilt thou blow
And the small rain down shall rain
O Christ that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.’

This short poem was one of George Oppen’s favourite lyrics and it is worth comparing it with his poem ‘O Western Wind’ from the 1962 collection The Materials:

‘A world around her like a shadow
She moves a chair
Something is being made—
Prepared
Clear in front of her as open air

The space a woman makes and fills
After these years
I write again
Naturally, about your face

Beautiful and wide
Blue eyes
Across all my vision but the glint of flesh
Blue eyes
In the subway routes, in the small rains
The profiles.’

Douglas Brown called Hardy’s language one of ‘thorough integrity, of actual and human relations; his matter is mutability and the place of loss in the texture of life’ (Thomas Hardy, Longmans 1954). One attempt to retrieve moments gone might be a reconstruction of the absentee’s presence by imitation, giving empty space a palpability, a sense of almost being still there. With the image of an ‘air-blue gown’ in Hardy’s ‘The Voice’ colour and emptiness are located in something as substantially matter-of-fact as a dress. Compare this with Lee’s early poem ‘As your eyes are blue’ especially with reference to the image of the shirt on the top of a chest-of-drawers. And then Hardy’s poem ‘The Walk’ from January 1913:

‘You did not walk with me
Of late to the hill-top tree
By the gated ways,
As in earlier days;
You were weak and lame,
So you never came,
And I went alone, and I did not mind,
Not thinking of you as left behind.

I walked up there today
Just in the former way;
Surveyed around
The familiar ground
By myself again:
What difference, then?
Only that underlying sense
Of the look of room on returning thence.’

It’s worth comparing Hardy’s register of loss in this poem with Lee’s ‘Y garn, Glyderau’ written in memory of Paul Evans and published in In The Mists (Slow Dancer Press 1993): memory is linked to a particular venue and, as with Hardy, opens up a different vista: ‘tugging winds and squalls’ give way to ‘clear days’:

On a cloud bound summit
you don’t stride out of the mists
across the rocks and dirt,
as I felt you might,
maybe cursing,
as I just stood there.

Instead
I plod on,
reach the familiar cairn.
No one there except the silence
and a heaviness.
The tugging winds and squalls
died down into this grey calm.

In the fifth of the interviews with Kelvin Corcoran, February 2008, Lee referred to the poem ‘September Dusk’:

‘The poem ‘September Dusk’ touches on that indescribable feeling that one has at moments, am amazement at the surrounding world, its colours, its appeal, the taste, the smell of it, the touch of the wind on your skin. Most of all it’s the feeling of being totally present.’
This puts me in mind of the quotation from Maritain which Oppen used as the epigraph to The Materials: ‘We awake in the same moment to ourselves and to things.’ The first poem in the collection is ‘Eclogue’:

‘The men talking
Near the room’s center. They have said
More than they had intended.

Pinpointing in the uproar
Of the living room

An assault
On the quiet continent.

Beyond the window
Flesh and rock and hunger

Loose in the night sky
Hardened into soil

Tilting of itself to the sun once more, small
Vegetative leaves
And stems taking place

Outside—O small ones,
To be born!

Lee in conversation with Aodhán McCardle, September 2003:
‘There’s a thing Oppen says which knocked me out the other day…He says ‘I want to be free from the career of poetry, I want to know what I will be able to say to myself in my life, and I mean…to myself. And that, that there shall be an area of silence where the poem lives, if it lives.’ It’s very personal in the sense that it’s not trying to convert anybody…’

The reply highlights a central element in Lee’s poetry:

‘I find it everywhere in your poetry, relationships between time and space, as in time between when the writing seemed to be happening and time that jumps from one line of the poem locating you somewhere, anywhere, doesn’t have to be specifics, and by the next line there’s a different location, not just spatial but in time, so therefore there are things happening simultaneously.’

And this in turn prompts a connection with John Ashbery when Lee said:

‘I think it’s probably what Ashbery, unconsciously or indirectly taught me is the foolishness of the egotistical voice. You’ve got to have that ‘meanwhile back at the ranch’ stuff. It may be a description of, say, a love poem, the two individuals, but meanwhile out in the street people are going about their business to whom the scene in the room is irrelevant or they don’t even know it, and, ah, by bringing in what’s going on outside the room, what’s going on in other parts of the world, makes the thing in the room much more…real, it puts it in perspective, makes it part of a bigger thing rather than being some giant romantic monument.’

And in conversation with Robert Sheppard, April 2005, Lee emphasized again that Ashbery concern for juxtaposition:

‘If you are describing a very intense emotional experience, and if you also then mention the noises outside in the street, or even in the next room, it makes it much more real than having just a vision of this one isolated experience. One reason is that the readers can be involved as well. They’re aware of all those things surrounding them too.’

After the talk Lee sent me the John Wayne picture. ‘I thought this old favourite might amuse you. There’s something so ham, almost camp, about John Wayne—and yet we (almost) believe in him. Or I do, anyway!’

Ian Brinton 1st August 2015

Glitter Bomb by Aaron Belz

Glitter Bomb by Aaron Belz

Persea Books http://www.perseabooks.com

 

I admire Aaron Belz’s quirky independence of thought and humour, which ranges from the self-deprecating, absurd slapstick to smart wordplay and irreverent. He is a poet and essayist, regular contributor to Tears in the Fence, who came to prominence with The Bird Hoverer (BlazeVox, 2007) and Lovely Raspberry (Persea, 2010), which was praised by John Ashbery as being like ‘dreaming of a summer vacation and taking it’. There are echoes of the lighter side of the New York School and the deadpan stand-up poetry of Los Angeles in the literariness, language play and conversational nature of his work. He is from St. Louis, Missouri, now living in North Carolina.

 

Thematically his work uses humour to probe, and ridicule, being and identity, obsessional behavior, social mores, and worries about success and failure. He is, at pains, to pinprick selfishness.

 

Thus:

 

Team

 

There’s no I in team

but there’s one in bitterness

and one in failure.

 

And

 

Your objective

 

In a given situation

Your objective should be

To act as much like yourself

As possible. Just imagine

 

The poetry connects through a diversity of linguistic strategies, which are characterized by a deadpan brevity and artful playfulness.

 

Hopkins Palindrome

 

I caught this

morning morning’s

minion, then gushed

Glossolalia thus:

“Suh tail a loss

olg deh sug neht!

Noinims gninrom

gninrom sihtth

Gu aci!!”

 

Two Utah Palindromes

 

Utah, I hatu!

 

We HATU, Utah. Ew.

 

His most memorable poems have a sharp directness.

 

Indianans

 

When I arrived here I thought it was Indiana.

I discovered people and called them “Indianans.”

I tried to convince them to become Christians.

I’ve since learned that this is not Indiana.

 

Belz collapses popular culture into high art in one tongue in cheek sweep, as in poems, such as ‘Thomas Hardy The Tank Engine’ and ‘Michael Jashbery’:

 

I’m starting with the man

in the convex mirror.

 

There’s more to Belz than being smart though. His style is an amalgamation of different approaches that produce a distinct and pleasurable peculiarity.

 

Avatar

 

Blue computer graphics woman

with smooth cat nose, you are

purer, more in touch with nature,

and actually quite a bit taller than I –

and although you’ve discovered

that your soul mate is really just a

small, physically challenged white guy

gasping for air in a mobile home,

you’ve decided to stick with him.

I’d taken you for one of those shallow

pantheistic utopian cartoon giantesses,

but now I see that I was way off.

 

Belz’s poetry hints at artifices, the metaphysical, and has many echoes, Ashbery for example. It stands tall on its own though.

 

David Caddy 19th June 2014

New from Oystercatcher’s beak

New from Oystercatcher’s beak

Rouge States

                      by Alex Houen

Later Britain

                      by Ben Hickman

When I first glanced at Alex Houen’s ‘Eucalypso Redux’ sequence of six sonnets I was given a glimpse of an energetic vista of the dispersal of meaning and reconfiguration which resisted any notion of a charting singular centre: I was on the river ‘punting down a sequence of dolly- / shots and flashbacks called the Cam’; I was listening to the margins of language where ‘Blades / chop the building rush of dark internal river’; I was immersed in a world which seemed to owe debts to both Robert Browning and to J. H. Prynne. These poems are journeys of which Browning’s Pentapolin (‘Named o’ the Naked Arm’) could create a Sordello for us by taking a stand on the boat ‘pointing-pole in hand’; they are movements which present the reader with ‘gaps of explanation rolling like wheels contrary within themselves’ on one of Prynne’s Kazoo Dreamboats: ‘alien motions on fire with coriolis demeanour’. As Peter Riley puts it on the back cover of this delightful collection, this volume contains poetry

 

where any word, almost, can suddenly flip itself elsewhere without asking permission

 

When the words behave in this manner they return to the page like a Mobius Band: we have been transported elsewhere and recognise our departure point as both the same and radically different.

 

Turning to Ben Hickman’s chapbook I discovered myself more in the world of John Ashbery’s ‘System’ where the American poet wrote with a sense of energy and delight about ‘How we move around in our little ventilated situation’ whilst discovering ‘how roomy it seems’ and how ‘there is so much to do after all, so many people to be with…’

There is a generosity of humour in Ben Hickman’s poems and a manner of utilising common phrases without any sense of the cliché. These are poems written with mordant magnanimity: yes, he is generous but don’t fall foul of him!

 

I tell myself I’m in love, that I would cry out

into the tear-charged sky, my feet tingling

like spring grass, the underground river

rising through me. Oh Dave it’s you

as I dig down, distinguished for my skill

among Greeks everywhere.

 

As well as Ashbery’s voice I detect here a trace of the Charles Olson who concluded ‘The Kingfishers’ hunting among stones.

 

Ian Brinton 15th June 2014

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