RSS Feed

Tag Archives: John Crowe Ransom

Michael Grant’s Cinderella’s Ashtray, Simon Smith’s Church Avenue (vErIsImILLtUdE, occasional bulletins)

Michael Grant’s Cinderella’s Ashtray, Simon Smith’s Church Avenue (vErIsImILLtUdE, occasional bulletins)

Some new productions have appeared from Simon Smith’s publishing house and I have been fortunate enough to have a glance at two of them. Reading Michael Grant’s work always gives me a sense of footfalls echoing down a corridor and that is no surprise of course since Grant is a major critic of T.S. Eliot. Back in 1982 he edited the two volume edition of The Critical Heritage for Routledge and I am fortunate to have acquired a copy of these books which used to belong to Donald Davie, himself one of Grant’s teachers at Cambridge. Davie was a great marker of his own books, often using a biro to draw clear lines of approval (or its opposite) down the page. One of the moments in the introduction to the first volume which Davie highlights with enthusiasm reads as follows:

‘The problem of unity and disunity was raised again by John Crowe Ransom in July 1923. Ransom considered that Eliot was engaged in the destruction of the philosophical and cosmical principles by which we form our usual picture of reality, and that Eliot wished to name cosmos Chaos’

Comparing this attitude with that of Allen Tate, Grant goes on to write ‘However, for Tate, it was precisely in the incongruities, labelled as ‘parody’ by Ransom, that the ‘form’ of ‘The Waste Land’ resided, in the ironic attitude of the free consciousness that refused a closed system.’

Irony and refusal both form part of this new collection of Grant’s poetry and the influence of Eliot can still be felt in the sound of ‘a footstep echo / on the flagstone’ as the ‘shadow defends me from the shadow’ (‘For the Present’). Michael Grant is a craftsman and in this way he also pursues the path taken by his master: his writing goes through many drafts before the spare realisation on the page presents the reader with those mysterious echoes which haunt a world that seems to lie beyond language. ‘Disappointment: After Benjamin Péret’ had started many months before as

‘the wings of insects brush against the cheek
the fragment renders visible
the pure contours of the absent work
error is not in violation

of the language
the word as such has fled before the sensual god
of late hours’

This has now been strained down, compressed, condensed, given mysterious vitality as we read

‘insect wings
scarcely thicker than the rain
and as delicate
beat against the cheek

in the casual flight of day the blood has trapped

a sensual god
so pale it is unknown

even to the black outlines of the foliage’

The echoes of course are not merely of T.S. Eliot but also of the great mystics of the seventeenth-century about whom Eliot wrote with much intensity.

Simon Smith’s little collection of twenty-three poems, each containing five lines and each presented as a block of language sitting decisively on the full white page which frames it, also contains echoes. Here I become aware not only of Frank O’Hara, whose steps along the street have been threading their way through Simon Smith’s lines for many years, but also of Paul Blackburn as he ‘hollers / from a window above decades ago’. The world of Scorsese’s Travis Bickle moves along ‘as glimpses / of Manhattan Brooklyn dirty old air / sirens and yellow cabs running along / Ocean Parkway cats held in bad odor’. I recall writing about Smith’s poetry as always being on the move and remember Fifteen Exits (Waterloo Press 2001). Although published at the opening of the new century the individual ‘exits’ were all dated precisely in the closing years of the previous one. The place of first publication and the names of the travelling companions were included. That volume’s opening poem, ‘The Nature of Things’ was dedicated to J.D. Taylor and carried an epigraph from Stephen Rodefer. It began in a slightly old-fashioned epistolary fashion suggestive of being on the cusp of change:

‘Dear John, my friend
can I call you that?
No news, but poetry.’

In Church Avenue the travelling companions include his wife, Flick, and both Barry Schwabsky & John Yau.

Ian Brinton March 1st 2015

A Somersault of Doves by Valerie Bridge

A Somersault of Doves by Valerie Bridge

George Mann Publications 2013

There is something fundamentally serious about these poems and I could feel immediately what prompted Mandy Pannett to write, for the back cover, that she was ‘stunned by this collection, overwhelmed by the translucent frost of it and the interconnection of dark and light, death and birth, of brutal facts and an evocative, mystical vision.’

On the lighter side of childhood’s reconstruction we can read ‘Vertigo: or the Art of Flying’ with its evocative echoes of John Crowe Ransom’s ‘Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter’. The American poet’s famously anthologised piece opens with the lines ‘There was such speed in her little body, / And such lightness in her footfall, / It is no wonder her brown study / Astonishes us all.’ Valerie Bridge’s flying childhood presents us with warnings, caution and exhilaration:

‘I’d grown out of my liberty bodice. Mother said,
‘over my dead body,’ when I threatened to give up vests.
‘Don’t climb trees’ she’d already shouted. Then,
‘Don’t go near the edge. Don’t cry.’ I hesitated,

climbed the gap-toothed staircase fast as fast,
with boys from the square, got down with my eyes shut,
ran to the Peter Pan tree, swung over the top at the swings,
landed smack on my head, fainted. Lied.’

The accumulation of whole sentences and individual clauses in the first stanza here opens out into the fluidity of stanza two where the accumulation of childhood associations breaks loose from restriction: ‘fast as fast’, ‘boys from the square’, ‘ran’, Peter Pan’, ‘swung’ to ‘swings’ and ‘smack’ to ‘Lied’.

In contrast, ‘Deben Beach: His Blonde Child 1943’ has a solemnity and poignant yearning that reminds me of both Radnóti and Mandelstam:

‘The escape is a hillside of poppies
drifting onto the beach at Deben
where through the barb of wire,
skull and cross bones,
he sees this fat lorry tyre,
the tread as good and deep
as furrows in fresh-tilled earth.
The sun casts rich shadows
and as his friend lights his pipe,
the dare is exchanged.’

There is an individual voice here, a personal relighting of memory and narrative, stories told to children who listen with thumb to mouth as their own pasts rise before them.

In the introduction to Six Latvian Poets (published by Arc in 2011) the editor, Ieva Lešinska, wrote

‘An overt engagement with history or social issues is almost totally absent from their work—perhaps because of an instinctive fear that the weight of history may turn out to be too much to bear and may squash their own creativity, perhaps because of a desire to place themselves in the broader context of world literature or simply because of a youthful opposition to their predecessors.’

This sense of a personal voice which is earned through experience shines through Valerie Bridge’s collection. It is moving and it is a delight. Read it!

Ian Brinton 4th November 2014

%d bloggers like this: