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The No Breath by John Goodby, Distances by Ian Seed (The Red Ceilings Press)

The No Breath by John Goodby, Distances by Ian Seed (The Red Ceilings Press)

On the back cover of John Goodby’s little volume of poems Lyndon Davies tells us why these little poems are favourites of his:

“It’s like being in a calm dark room with little slots and windowlets opening just briefly onto brilliantly lit spaces out there and all over and then closing again before you can get a really good look.”

There is of course something of Alice’s glimpses of the garden through the little door at the bottom of the rabbit-hole in this analogy but it also reminds me of the wonderful 1970 prose book by Philippe Jaccottet, Paysages avec figures absentes. Early in that short book the poet of Grignan refers to “ouvertures”, openings, like rents in the world through which one can gaze for a moment:

“And so, without desiring or seeking it, what I discovered at times was a homeland, and perhaps the most rightful one: a place which opened up to me the magical depths of Time.”

In his own words, “ces ouvertures proposées au regard intérieur apparaissaient ainsi convergentes, tels les rayons d’une sphère; ells désignaient par intermittences, mais avec obstination, un noyau comme immobile.” That glimpse of a still centre, the far perceived from the near, can be felt in Goodby’s ‘Teller’:

“Plump fingers on the keys, clumsy prey,
From all corners of the house
Opened to hear better
The same dress, with blue roses.

Just a few could have been stairwells,
Thinking of himself as he was
Matted with night and the casement,
The pointed roofs, the largeness of snow.

What opens with a title suggestive of either counting money or votes moves, with the opening words of “plump fingers” on keys, to hint at the telling of beads as well as the playing of a piano: that patient counting of meditation complements the focus upon musical notes to suggest a concentration upon the moment. The third line announces an opening which allows the pianist’s playing to be heard more widely and a touch of vision, a dress with blue roses (Hardy’s “air-blue gown?”), appears before the eye’s glimpse. The moving radii of Jaccottet’s thought lead to possible stairwells, awareness of what lies beneath the surface, and the poet rests for a moment “Matted with night”. What lies woven beneath one’s feet finds its counterpart in “pointed roofs” and an endless whiteness. It is a moment caught! A slot, a windowlet, a suggestive sense of something lying beyond the immediate.

Ian Seed’s prose vignettes reflect upon the individual in relation to others: twenty-nine little prose poems introduce us to a world of Europe and a world of domestic reminiscence. The intensity of the moment is caught rather like the way the writer finds himself standing in front of a huge bookshop that he had never seen before. As he says “The city looked different this morning”.

“The streets and squares were bathed in a beautiful, yet somehow ominous golden glow, which had so distracted me that I was now lost.”

The pressures of time mount as he realises that not only is he going to be late at the school in Turin “where I taught English as a foreign language” but that as the shop’s door is being opened by a “hunched old man with rimless spectacles” he should already, as a teacher, “been with my pupils”. The shopkeeper seems to offer an invitation to the teacher to enter this new world where books in different languages “lay on shelves that seemed to stretch into the distance”. Caught within the dreamlike moment, a world which seems to diminish the mundanity of what lies outside the shop, the writer discovers a book titled The Unseen Everyday and is compelled to recognise that here is a text “which would finally illuminate my understanding of the life beyond life”. The general vagueness of such a thought is then immediately qualified by the realisation that such an illumination belongs “within the life itself that I led, although it would never enable me to find my way around the city arrive on time.

These two little books from The Red Ceilings Press are published in limited editions of 60 and 70 copies and I suggest that you get hold of them fast before the window shuts and that glimpse of a tantalising and refreshing world disappears.

Ian Brinton, 17th June 2018

http://www.theredceilingspress.co.uk

Discovering Dylan Thomas, A Companion to the Collected Poems and Notebook Poems John Goodby University of Wales Press

Discovering Dylan Thomas, A Companion to the Collected Poems and Notebook Poems  John Goodby  University of Wales Press

In PN Review 222, March/April 2015, I reviewed John Goodby’s superb edition of Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems and made a point of highlighting the very fine quality of the notes included in what will surely be the standard edition of Thomas’s poetry for many years to come. The notes occupy the last 180 pages of the volume and they act as genuine literary criticism. I suggested that these clear and unobtrusive notes ensure that the reader gets an immense amount out of recognising the contexts within which the poems were written. When I contacted John Goodby to bemoan the fact that there didn’t appear to be any quick way of locating the notes from the poems, something which occurs also in the George Butterick Collected Poems of Charles Olson, he replied that the lack of locational referencing was part of the huge cuts (55,000 words) that the publishers insisted on. He also suggested that there were battles “every step of the way” to preserve as much of the integrity of the edition as he could; notebook poems and juvenilia had to be dropped as well as drafts of poems which he had intended to include in the notes. John’s communication concluded on a highly optimistic note:

“I have persuaded another publisher to publish the material I was forced to cut from the notes as a Guide to the Collected Poems.”

Well, it is here! And it is terrific! Everyone who now possesses a copy of the Collected Poems (it is available in paperback now with added page references in the notes) will want to purchase this substantial new book: a real Companion to both the Collected Poems and to the Notebook Poems. The rationale behind Goodby’s new book is clear:

“That rationale is primarily a critical and scholarly one, unshaped by commercial criteria, even though I hope this book will appeal to some non-academic lovers of Thomas’s poetry too. A coherent work in its own right, it offers, for example, critical histories for most of the poems, at a level of detail which would never have been tolerated in the edition, as well as material which has come to light in the two years since the edition was published.”

One of the exciting things about this new book is that as readers we are aware of being part of a work in progress: Goodby’s magisterial understanding of the importance of Thomas’s work ensures that any academic dust has been blown off the pages before we start to become immersed in an adventure of continuing discovery.
This new book is divided into sections including ‘Supplementary Poems’, ‘Textual annotations and critical histories’ and ‘drafts’and time and again we are reminded of the omnivorous reading which the poet undertook in different disciplines. In his introduction John Goodby raises the interesting question as to “just why Thomas alludes to and echoes other writers so obliquely”. By way of answer he points out a path for the reader which avoids simple references to other literary works incorporated within that reading:

“Dylan Thomas was a trickster-poet, one who resisted the display of metropolitan insider knowledge which allusion, quotation and echo of ten signify. Defining himself against Eliot and Auden, with their well-bred canonical assurances, he opted instead for a subversive, cryptic mode of allusion.”

Goodby recognises that Thomas’s volume 18 Poems “is very different to The Waste Land or The Cantos in smothering its allusions deep within its traditional forms, rather than flaunting them on a broken, variable verse surface”. He also recognises that there is a need for an overhaul “of standard accounts of 1930s and 1940s poetry and its relationship to the present-day scene”:

“Critics such as Andrew Duncan and James Keery have for some time been preparing the way by teasing out the 1940s inheritance shared by such unlikely bedfellows as Hughes, Plath, Roy Fisher, Geoffrey Hill, Philip Larkin and J.H. Prynne, as well as tracing the influence of W.S. Graham on poets, such as Denise Riley, associated with the ‘Cambridge School’”.

One might add to that list by including the name of Andrew Crozier whose ‘Styles of the Self: The New Apocalypse and 1940s Poetry’ was included in my edition of his selected prose, Thrills and Frills (Shearsman Books, 2013). One might further add an example of precisely the sort of “subversive, cryptic mode of allusion” by referring to a couple of examples contained within the poetry of J.H. Prynne. As was pointed out to me some time ago by Anthony Mellors, in ‘Of Movement Towards a Natural Place’ (Wound Response, 1974) there is a quotation from Dickens’s Great Expectations embedded within the text:

“upon his lips curious white flakes, like thin snow”

In ‘As Mouth Blindness’ (Sub Songs, 2010) King Lear’s words as he bears his dead Cordelia onto the stage are echoed, buried within the text:

“What is’t thou sayst? Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle and low….” (King Lear, V iii 270-271)

“…Her voice was ever low…” (Poems, p. 609)

Discovering Dylan Thomas is an indispensable book. Buy a copy and you will discover much more than appears on the title page.

Ian Brinton, 14th May 2017

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