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Not Here – There by Andrew Taylor (Shearsman Books)

Not Here – There by Andrew Taylor (Shearsman Books)

The poems in Not There – Here are somewhat more relaxed and conversational in tone than Taylor’s earlier books, but are still in the vein of minimalist, compressed writing typical of his work, in which close observation of the external world is mixed with a collage of texts and discourses. For this short review I want to focus on a single poem which I think is representative of many of the poems in the book. Here’s the poem in full:

Larch

The larch has been felled

                                         Phytophthera ramorum

let’s drive the different route 17 miles

cattle grids

                    empty feedbags

                    strung like scarecrows

Railway at times runs parallel

ballast plumb line straight

Our single track

                                      Passing place

Signal stagnant

            inactivity

signpost navigation GPS

                    unnamed road

follow the quietness

valley empty      it looks like a bomb’s gone off

toward the estate there is cover

thirty five years ago

we took this drive       tracks remain

for supplies

milk bread

tea

the forest is weak it is halved

      the lochs become visible

their tracks evident

above the grey house

commands

The poem opens with a blunt statement which recalls other poets mourning felled trees; Hopkins ‘airy aspens’ or John Clare’s ‘Fallen Elm in a metonymic manner typical of this collection. The Latin name which follows (in a characteristically abrupt switch) brings us back to language and reminds us of how it affects our perception: the Latin name conjures up a very different image to the Anglo-Saxon ‘Larch’. We are then given a description of a drive (is it on Route 17, or a route of 17 miles?) in what seems to be a rural area of single-track roads. The phrase “follow the quietness / valley empty” is followed by the jarring phrase “it looks like a bomb’s gone off” which recalls bomb sites in post-war British cities and is immediately followed by “toward the estate there is cover”. Is this a country estate of a big landowner, or a housing estate associated with deprived communities? It appears to be the former, but a suggestion of the latter is there, and it’s this ambiguity, this leaving lines open to interpretation, which gives the poem a feeling of large scope and of horizons beyond the specific details that it focusses on. After this moment of uncertainty, we are back on the rural drive, slightly altered after its collision with the urban, in which “the forest is weak it is halved” and where the word “loch” situates us for the first time in a precise landscape, that of highland Scotland. The final lines are:

above the grey house

commands

The verb ‘commands’ is left without an object; does it command a view? Or is the house that of a landowner who commands the surrounding land and its people, invoking the British class system and thus linking the rural Scottish landscape to the deprived communities hinted at earlier? Either way, the ending of the poem is open, leaving interpretation to the reader rather than to a commanding poet-persona; this openness and lightness of touch being a feature of the poems throughout this collection.

The poems in this book, like the one above, have individual moments of stillness which shift rapidly to a different perspective, sometimes (but not always) because the text is a collage. This makes reading even a short, apparently imagistic poem, into a disorienting experience. In a sense these poems are cubist, presenting multiple perspectives of a scene or an event without privileging any single one. The poems deny a single, omniscient self. It’s a natural human tendency to impose a narrative on experience, and these poems seem to be trying to strip that away and present experience as it is. This would be in line with Taylor’s influences in the music of John Cage or the notebook poems of Jack Kerouac, both of whom, espousing Zen thought with its denial of single controlling Self, preferred to be open to an unbounded connection with the world.

Alan Baker 28th October 2021

The Country Gambler by Erica McAlpine (Shearsman Books)

The Country Gambler by Erica McAlpine (Shearsman Books)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ian Brinton 22nd April 2016

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