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The Small Henderson Room by John James (Ferry Press, 1969)

The Small Henderson Room by John James (Ferry Press, 1969)

A Paper given at the John James Conference, 11th March 2017

In his introduction to the Salt Reader for John James Simon Perril, referred to a ‘politics of poise’ in the poetry and to my mind this related closely to James’s wry sense of transience, his concern for the particular time and for a creative atmosphere. It is as if, in the words of the artist Peter Cartwright, “Two effects strike me as running through his poetry, in the form of an interaction of a consciousness of the visual with an acute flow of perceptions”. James came across the work of Peter Cartwright at the Survey ’67 exhibition of Abstract Painters at Camden Arts Centre which he and Andrew Crozier visited. It was there that he also came across the catalogue which included Cartwright’s comments upon his art:

“I am concerned with growth, movement and tension. Certain work is influenced not directly by, but by reaction to, natural forms and structures…I am aiming to establish a reality which will exist independently from myself. My intention is to make a vital tension between forms, to induce speculation, to create a relationship which is a synthesis between the formal and the unpredictable. Any references in my work are oblique and are references to mood.”

That statement found its way into the poem ‘Waiting’ which appeared in The Small Henderson Room published by Crozier’s Ferry Press in 1969 where the fifth section of that poem opens

“In a new blue room I rearrange
the mantelpiece, opening on it
the catalogue of the Survey ’67 Exhibition at Peter Cartwright’s
Three. Those anonymous forms wait, shakily
menacing to change shape, making
a new & unpredictable arrangement
of themselves.”

It was after seeing Cartwright’s work in the Camden gallery that James asked him to produce a cover for the Ferry Press publication and Cartwright later wrote about his surprise at seeing his own catalogue statement appearing in James’s poem prompting him to say a few words about ‘Waiting’:

“The poem moves through events and situations, producing the sensation of a shifting range of experience. It reveals in John’s work an integration of allusions to art, to living encounters and to language and the centrality of a range of phenomena in which the aesthetic experience is a potent and even a fundamentally social element…Two effects strike me as running through his poetry, in the form of an interaction of a consciousness of the visual with an acute flow of perceptions. I am aware in John’s poetry of a constant perceptive response to the tactile, to the nature of light, of physical presence and one’s own physical transience.”

He also made some comments upon the particular nature of that cover:

The Small Henderson Room was the last of the covers I made, and was designed with more concern for the curious and oblique relationship the cover would have to the work within. Did I receive a copy of the poems before designing the cover? At this distance I’m not sure but I think not. The cover was designed as an entity but with some intuitive response to the words The Small Henderson Room. The cover-work, a formal abstract image, was a response to the unknown nature of that ‘room’. My intention was to create a spatial ambiguity, tension and even a sense of unease.”

The illustration may well have been the last of the covers that Cartwright made but only by a month or two since he had also produced the cover for the last issue of the magazine The Resuscitator that John James and Nick Wayte had begun in Bristol in 1963. The last issue of that magazine appeared in February 1969 and Cartwright commented upon the way he had designed the cover pointing to the image of “a stark black formality on a white ground’ with the ‘embossed whiteness of the title” which “meant that no text was immediately visible. THE LAST RESUSCITATOR – the title’s ambiguity chimed with the need to physically tilt the book to decipher it”. The same is true of the Ferry Press book and both suggest to my mind something about the act of reading: the words are not simply visible, they need to be tilted to reveal the seemingly invisible.
The opening poem in The Small Henderson Room presents us with a world in which “we are aware of ourselves as persons with a / particular history”. It originally appeared the year before the Ferry Press publication in 2R2, Resuscitator Second Series and it opens ‘on the move’

“& so I open myself again as we wheel
down over Crickley, chivalrously high on our seats
you see across the gleaming generous screen
right to the Severn valley, tawny with the broad
spread of distant grain, & beyond
is where I’m going, where the mountains
put up their profiles & in the moister
air of that high altitude, the woods and valleys
will be deeply soft & made greenly
vivacious again”

When the poem appeared in the following year’s Ferry Press collection the opening lines had changed a little, perhaps to emphasise that sense of movement and the second published draft is what appeared in the Salt Collected Poems of 2002. The first line starts now much further towards the right margin and is heralded by three dots as if to suggest the continuance of a line of thought. Both the second and the fourth lines are closer to the left-hand margin giving the impression that the main body of the poem is indented. These small details are perhaps part of what Cartwright was referring to when he suggested that James’s poetry presented an interaction between a consciousness of the visual with an acute flow of perceptions. Or as Romana Huk put it when writing about the early poems there is a quality of repetitive artifice and voluptuous spontaneity. This is of course recognisable in ‘The Postcard Sonata’ which contains “40”, the collaborative sonnet written with Andrew Crozier which was to reappear in the 1970 Ferry Press publication IN ONE SIDE & OUT THE OTHER where it also joined forces with Tom Phillips: a writing over what has already been said. The second sonnet in ‘The Postcard Sonata’ is “for Andrew Crozier” and it contains a brief critical comment on Cartwright’s work:

admiring Peter Cartwright’s One Two Three
Four & Five all menacingly fluid but
precise, a relationship between the formal

& the unpredictable.

This quality that James noted about Cartwright’s work haunts his own poetry and Simon Perril noted that he shares with the New York School poets “a willingness to view everyday objects not simply as degraded commodities, but as potential talismans that might be invested with hopes and desires”. Noting the influence of Wordsworth on John James’s poetry Perril pointed out that “characteristically, this aesthetic moment of contemplation contains an element of rhapsody that compels the listener to ‘look up’ and take further notice of his environment.” In terms of the Conversation Poems of Wordsworth/Coleridge, shared walks, interests, focal moments there is a “communitarian sense of the lyric voice forged not in isolation but in the friction of relationships, friendships and reciprocal hopes and fears” It is as if the “we” is that path via which “I” am. That untitled opening poem from The Small Henderson Room proposes that: “In a mutual presence / catastrophe may be averted” and this thought is taken up in A Theory of Poetry published by Street Editions in 1977 where there is a reference to

“particular people at a particular time
& in a particular place
these people are the others
without whom you would not exist”

It is within that context that I wish to point out what will appear obvious to sensitive readers of the poetry of John James. His early work is in no sense a hearkening back to the pastoral nostalgia of the Georgian poets. In the first collection that Crozier published for Ferry Press, MMM… AH YES, 1967, there appears a poem ‘An Open Letter to Jim Workman, Landlord, at the Rose & Crown, Withy Mills, North Somerset’. The title itself gives a nod to Wordsworth and it celebrates the natural ability of a pub landlord to find ‘sustenance’ in his rootedness in “the earth your / feet press on”. Now what I mean by saying how different John James is to the Georgian ‘Nature’ poets who focused on geographical rural particularities can be seen when you look at a little piece written in 1910 by W.H. Davies, friend of Edward Thomas and known mostly for being the author of The Autobiography of a Supertramp and for possessing a wooden leg. The poem celebrates a particular pub in the Sevenoaks Weald named The Harvest Home. It is little more than a jolly record of a moment and, as of course might be expected, the pub no longer exists. Neither does the Rose and Crown at Withy Mills near Paulton in Somerset. And that’s where the similarity ends. Whereas Davies’s poem is locked into a particular moment of stasis, a diary note that could be added to a social history of the local area, James’s poem is ‘on the move’. It recreates the character and personality of Jim Workman through the landlord’s actions and advice. There is the local humour of characterisation contained in the recollections:

“& if I brought you a poem
what would you do with it?
what would your hawk’s nose,
your dry sniff, pulled down
corners of mouth,
mockery of Old Winsley,
scrounging his way, the way
you made him an iced birthday cake
of wood, set light to his hat

And there is the admiration of folk-lore knowledge that doffs its hat to Edward Thomas’s figure of Lob:

“the way you know the way
foxes kill young cuckoos
in long grass…

You showed me the
way to bud the
briars in June,
splicing with
raffia. Told me
dung burns the roots off
beans, to repair
the rung of a ladder with
pitchpine

But there is also that Wordsworthian title, the inclusion of words from Pound’s ‘L’Envoi’ from 1919, that recognition of the influence of Charles Tomlinson in “the fields / multiplying through / division by hedges”. The landlord, Jim Workman, finds “sustenance” in his natural rootedness “from the earth your / feet press on” and James’s poem echoes the short review he published in Resuscitator 4, May 1965, of Anselm Hollo’s here we go:

“In this and in other poems in this little book, Mr. Hollo presents the humdrum details of family life in such a way, with such choice and ironic juxtaposition, that escape is not only unrealistic but unnecessary. Such apparently trivial details – queuing for public transport, children asleep in their cots, undressing for bed – matter for Mr. Hollo and for all of us because without them we would not exist. Once they are accepted they become meaningful, a source of happiness and enlightenment. Such acceptance of the common place in literature is not new of course. One thinks of how central it was to the poetry of Wordsworth and to Ulysses; and it survives as an attitude in the poetry of Charles Tomlinson…”

The reference to Charles Tomlinson is important and his poem, ‘A Given Grace’, later published in American Scenes, is the opening moment of Resuscitator 1, Autumn 1963. It presents challenge and replenishment. A few months later Resuscitator 2 appeared and Tomlinson took his place alongside Zukofsky, Corman and Olson. In January 1968 the second series of Resuscitator was started from John James’s home in Trumpington High Street and the contributors included J.H. Prynne, Gill Vickers, Jeremy Mulford, Elaine Feinstein, Andrew Crozier, Nick Wayte, Wendy Mulford, John Hall and James himself. It is worth noting the dedication to that new magazine:

“This series of Resuscitator is dedicated to Charles Tomlinson with thanks for his generous help over the first series”.

IN ONE SIDE & OUT THE OTHER presents the reader with a writing over what has already been said and words push off the page through new designs. It is almost as if you need to tilt the book to see what lies beneath and I return to the influence of Charles Olson whose poem from January 1950, ‘These Days’ opens with the injunction to “leave the roots on” whatever it is that you have to say, “let them / dangle / And the dirt // Just to make clear where they come from”.
For John James ‘sustenance’, the ground on which your feet press, can be located in ‘The Conversation’, a poem he contributed to the last issue of Grosseteste Review in 1984 with its illustration on the front cover by Franco Beltrametti:

“to say nothing of you Jeremy when you leaf
your pages to that summer & and have before you
all we make of what we are when every day
gave some new sense of strengthening regard for common things
& all the land gave up a breath of gentler touch
but for the undertow of darkness
in the phones

And it is there in Songs In Midwinter For Franco published less than three years ago by Equipage here in Cambridge:

in tranquillity
is difficult simplicity

as ever the table set
not to forget

Ian Brinton 20th May 2018

Sarments by John James (Shearsman Books)

Sarments by John James (Shearsman Books)

‘Recollection Ode: Les Sarments’ was originally published in Cloud Breaking Sun (Oystercatcher Press 2012) and it came as no surprise that John James should have read this poem at the launch of his new Shearsman collection in Swedenborg Hall on 10th April. It opens with time moving:

“as August counts itself out
like a Rosary worn with kisses
autumn arrives when you least expect it”

The tolled beads of moment “mark the narrative in earth” and that line itself takes the reader back to ‘Poem Beginning with a Line of Andrew Crozier’ which also appeared in the Oystercatcher of 2012.
This is a carefully put together volume of John James’s poetry and as one reads through it there is a compelling sense of how his world is constituted of interlinking ideas: we sense the man behind the poet. This new publication is a living testament to what he had written back in 1977 in the Street Editions sequence ‘A Theory of Poetry’:

“there you will discover
particular people at a particular time
& in a particular place
these people are the others
without whom you would not exist”

The poetry of John James is peopled with presences and it seems appropriate in the ‘Recollection Ode’ (note the title) that he should write “those who love must also hope”: an attention to the particular which constitutes love is closely bound up with a sense of the future as well as the past. The ode concludes

“I wish you the fruits of the four seasons
& every day as the sun beckons
may you be delivered to that daily glow.”

Given this focal stance which casts its eye both backward and forward it is also appropriate that the poem preceding the ode should be ‘October’ recalling the Cambridge days when the poet met up with both Tim Longville and Jeremy Prynne:

“I’m meeting Tim at Millers at 6.00 p.m.
the hearth will glow the ale will flow
the banter will be light & fancy
later we’ll go on to Jeremy’s rooms
& take a generous glass of Glenmorangie”

That poem also dwells with the particular nature of the Now in terms of the Future as the smell of “wet dust after rain” concludes with “I think it was called hope”.
This new volume also includes some of the poems from the fine Equipage publication from 2011, In Romsey Town. Here a ‘Nocturne with Baudelaire’ opens with “a singular glance” before going on later to appease the “thirsty heart” by invocation:

“pour again hope
la primeur”

The energetic move forward in the plea takes some of its power by casting a sly glance at one of Baudelaire’s ‘Spleen’ poems in which the sky “verse” (pours) a hopeless day upon our heads and hope is seen as a bat trapped by walls and rotted ceilings. James’s poem concludes very differently as “pride / the virtue of the work” restores “to us an inkling / of the sacred.” And it is that word “inkling” that took me back to a letter written in 2010 by Roger Langley in which he referred to his early poem ‘Matthew Glover’:

“The pleasure lay in writing about the little willow tree I knew and how it blew in the wind, the willow warblers I had watched in the bushes at dusk on the border of the parish. Nothing so personally particular in Olson. I would guess my deepest feelings have always been for Coleridge’s Conversation Poems, the Lime Tree Bower, the shock which begins where the particular strikes, beyond any general concepts, geographical, historical or whatever. The movement of the leaves as they are shaken in that particular little cutting by the water of the stream stirring the air around them, not even worrying too much about ideas of the One Life, for instance. Perhaps Peter Larkin’s Being Seen for Seeing: a tribute to RF Langley’s Journals gets it somewhere as I feel it, though I only saw this piece recently and it is mainly about the Journals, as it says. Something that happens just beyond the most exact observation, something that remains this side of the transcendental, and thus basically rather hopeless in a way, but yet, but yet…the particular spills further still, beyond what I am managing.”

Among the new and uncollected poems published in Sarments there is ‘On reading J.H. Prynne’s Sub Songs’, nine poems addressing the titles of the poems in Prynne’s 2010 Barque Press volume. The opening of the first poem titled after the original, ‘As Mouth Blindness’, presents us with a re-cadencing of the quotation from King Lear in which the reduced King bears the dead body of Cordelia. Prynne’s original had “Her voice was ever low” and the James poem opens “her low voice beguiles me / amid the tumultuous foul // eases my head / in sleep at night”. It is perhaps that beguiling that might lead one on to recollect
what John Hall once described as John James’s “quiet and tender acts in the departing shadow of the inevitably fugitive.”
This poetry places the smallest of individual moments, accurately recorded, against the backdrop of human frailty and being. Life is made up of the small moments intruding into which “a sudden enormity / changes everything”. That poem John James wrote soon after the funeral of Andrew Crozier in 2008 beginning with a line from ‘Free-Running Bitch’ perhaps affirms one of the most central aspects of this very fine poet’s oeuvre:

“I reach toward the poetry of kindred
Where we speak in our work as we seldom do otherwise”

Ian Brinton, May 8th 2018

A Lawnmower In The Loft by Bruce McLean (21 Publishing)

A Lawnmower In The Loft by Bruce McLean (21 Publishing)

This collection of anecdotal vignettes by celebrated Scottish action sculptor and painter, Bruce McLean, offers a compelling lop-sided account of his artistic life. It is full of a louche bon vivant’s interest in food and drink stretching from the food parcel that his parents posted from Glasgow in 1963 when he was studying sculpture at Saint Martin’s School of Art to the day he ate five steak and kidney pies during his tenure as head of painting at the Slade School of Fine Art.

Here we have the usual elements of autobiographical memoir arranged alphabetically to create a deeper impression and unorthodox tone. A bit like Daniel Farson’s memoir, Never A Normal Man, only funnier and more reliable. It was Bruce’s eccentric father that kept a lawnmower in his loft, which gives the book its title. McLean also employs some beguiling list poems of menus, the informal and formal names of his mother’s neighbours, orders at the Bull’s Head, Barnes, and other quirky lists.

The focus on sustenance and bodily functions offer opportunities throughout to debunk conceptions of the artistic life as impractical and outside of social relations. Thus, the reader learns that horse urine was once used to etch plates and that Bruce spent a day at Covent Garden Market waiting to collect horse urine in order to make some not very good etchings of a horse peeing in a bucket.

Much of the material has a wit that partially serves to camouflage the wider purposes of the stories. Humour always serves a social purpose and here the reader is immediately drawn in to savour the fun and joy of a man intoxicated by food, drink and storytelling. The back cover features one of his plinth pictures from Pose Work For Plinths (1971), originally created as an ironic joke in performance in 1970 around the use of plinths in sculpture with the artist bending his body to fit on and around three plinths.

Inevitably, reader’s will seek out celebrated artists that appear in the stories. I must admit to noting references to Kathy Acker, Joseph Beuys and John James, who wrote ‘Poem For Bruce McLean’, which appeared in Bruce McLean: Berlin/London (1983) rewriting McLean’s colourful linear paintings as a series of images. James’s poetry engages with the visual, phenomenology and visual art, in many ways and he has written on artists, Barry Flanagan and Richard Long, who also feature in stories. His latest collaboration with McLean is On Reading J.H. Prynne’s Sub Songs (QoD Press, 2016) where McLean provided original lino cuts to poems written in response to J.H. Prynne’s poems, in a book designed and hand printed by Bridget Heal using a Hopkins letterpress in a limited edition. McLean recounts the occasion when John James was invited to read a new work before for the opening of The Masterwork: The Award Winning Fish Knife at the Riverside Studios in 1979. After some pre-show drinking the performers were miked up ready to start. James goes for a nervous pee. The lights go down, audience silent in expectation, suddenly there is the sound of someone’s zip being undone, followed by an enormous fart, and what ‘sounded like a fire hose wazzing and skooshing on the porcelain’ and finally James appearing to tumultuous applause and cheering. Never, writes McLean, had a poet had such a welcome, and a great fart to this mediocre work.

McLean is eminently recognisable in these stories with their self-deprecating non-conformism and debunking of assumptions around what sculpture is and should be. There is a strong sense that he has ploughed his own furrow making his way by single-mindedness and continual probing. Moreover, he allows other figures to emerge in their full glory. Leonard Swartz, for example, who despite disliking McLean’s lecture at Maidstone School of Art nevertheless gave him a day’s teaching job. The stories are distinctly noteworthy and great fun rather like his self-interviews and refusal to be constrained by pre-set conceptions. This is a memoir that I shall re-visit with pleasure.

David Caddy 19th October 2017

For The Future (Shearsman Books)

For The Future (Shearsman Books)

In June 2016 David Caddy wrote a fine review of this little book. In October Tom Phillips also wrote a review and this was sent to all the contributors whose work had made the book important. As a consequence of some computer difficulties suffered by Tony Lewis-Jones’s Various Arts website, based in Bristol, this review never saw the light of day and so it is with great pleasure that I include it here under his name as a guest-blogger. It is important that Tom’s work is seen at large not least because it can now be included in Michael Tencer’s Full Bibliography of the work of J.H. Prynne.

Ian Brinton 8th July 2017

Review: For The Future: Poems & Essays In Honour Of J.H. Prynne On The Occasion Of His 80th Birthday, Ian Brinton (ed.), Shearsman Books, 2016

Of course, the usual starting point for discussing Jeremy Prynne’s poetry is to say something about how difficult or daunting it is. Saying this, however, is tantamount to not saying much at all. As several contributors to A Manner Of Utterance – the 2009 collection of essays about Prynne also edited by Ian Brinton and published by Shearsman – pointed out, if you start from the assumption that Prynne’s poetry is ‘difficult’ and therefore like a puzzle which needs solving, you’re probably coming at it from the wrong angle. Indeed, as Prynne himself has demonstrated with his extraordinarily expansive critical investigations of poems like Wordsworth’s ‘The Solitary Reaper’, even relatively simple-seeming work has multiple complexities and, yes, ‘difficulties’ if you look at it hard enough.
As in A Manner Of Utterance, then, the poems and essays in this insightful and wide-ranging new collection edited by Brinton counter the notion that Prynne’s work is the literary equivalent of the north face of the Eiger and that all it does is make exhausting intellectual demands of its readers. To be sure, the absence of a recognisable and autobiographical lyric ‘I’, the polyphonic assemblage of idiolects and specialist vocabularies and the unexpected shifts in grammar are disorienting, unfamiliar and have been at odds with the predominant modes of poetic expression for the fifty years that Prynne’s been publishing his work, but as the poet Peter Hughes puts it in his contribution to For The Future, that work has a “peculiar mass” nevertheless – and with mass comes gravity and you are drawn in.

Hughes also likens reading a Prynne poem to arriving in a foreign country – “Everything is going on around you and you do your best to go with the flow and pick up what you can” (which seems like very sensible advice) – while for Peter Gizzi the poems in the 1969 volume The White Stones have a “necessary and productive restlessness”. For Anthony Barnett – the first publisher of Prynne’s Poems (the steadily evolving ‘collected’ whose latest manifestation appeared from Bloodaxe in 2015) – it is a question of refusing “to be intimidated by the so-called difficulty or those critiques on difficulty, positive or negative, that have infected our academic and popular literary cultures both.”

Despite its sometimes abrasive surface textures, then, there is an energy coursing through Prynne’s work which keeps you reading it even if “the figure in the carpet” isn’t always readily apparent. Some of the essays here, of course, do posit hypotheses about what the ‘figure’ might be in specific poems or collections. Matthew Hall, for example, makes a persuasive case for understanding 2002’s Acrylic Tips in the context of “the physical landscapes and colonial history of the Australian continent” while Masahiko Abe finds a way into 1989’s Word Order through Rosalind Krauss’ concept of the ‘grid’ (as she applied it to modernist/minimalist art). Michael Tencer, meanwhile, unpacks the allusive density of Prynne’s ‘Es Lebe der König’ and identifies the multiple sources which feed into one of the very few poems dedicated to a specified individual – in this case the Romanian-German poet Paul Celan. Harry Gilonis’ discussion of Prynne’s Chinese poem ‘Stone Lake’ also illuminates how the indeterminacy and myriad ambiguities of Chinese poetry in general might offer a way of understanding how Prynne’s English poems operate and how we might approach them as readers. With Chinese poetry, after all, the general assumption is that it takes a lifetime to understand a poem as fully as it’s possible for any individual reader to do so.

For The Future, though, is not a book of critical essays per se and while the insights into specific corners of the writerly labyrinth sent me back to Poems with the thought “Ah, so this might be a potential starting point …”, the memoirs about Prynne and the poems dedicated to him also shed light on the man, the poet and the teacher. Brinton himself, for example, details the protracted negotiations between poet, publisher and printer over the publication of 1971’s Brass – thereby illustrating the care with which Prynne approaches the physical appearance of his texts – while John James’ poem ‘Affection’ steers a course through the ethical and political concerns which animate the work of a poet whose avant gardism is not an affectation but the inevitable product of a heterodox set of ethical and political concerns about transaction, encounter, power and language. Above all, perhaps, what the many and varied contributors to For The Future do is provide a reminder that Prynne is also a generous and profound teacher (more than a few of the essays here are by former students who encountered him at Cambridge) and that, whatever response you have to his poetry, he’s the kind of writer whose work needs to be read – much like that of the Black Mountain poets he did so much to champion – if you’re going to have any kind of understanding of what poetry has done in the past and what it might do in the future. As Nigel Wheale writes in his essay here: “What comes across so vividly is the range of concerns vigorously worked through, worked over, in these books, an intellectual project uniquely ambitious.”
With both A Manner Of Utterance and now For The Future, Ian Brinton has served that uniquely ambitious project well. In so doing, he is also helping to restore the contours of contemporary English-language poetry to the shape they might have assumed had the silly/shameful ‘poetry wars’ of the 1970s not disfigured them or turned them into the boundary markers of the literary cliques which are, as Michael Haslam observes in For The Future, “the scandal of poetry in England”.

Tom Phillips, October 2016

The Poetry of John James Conference

The Poetry of John James Conference

Last Saturday saw Magdalene College, Cambridge, host this conference to celebrate the poetry of John James. It was organised by the current Judith E. Wilson Fellow, Peter Hughes, whose Oystercatcher Press has published both Cloud Breaking Sun (2012) and Sabots (2015). I recall reviewing Sabots for the Tears blog in August 2015 and concluding that it is “an uplifting sequence of three poems which restores a sense of vitality and endurance within a world threatened by commercial bureaucracy and targets”.

The conference was itself uplifting and by the end of the day I realised that the speakers had taken us on a journey which involved close textual criticism, overviews of the place of John James’s work in contemporary poetry and personal reminiscence. Emphasis was placed on the role of music within the poetry and the importance of the visual arts to a man whose sense of the flâneur is still to be recognised in the laughter and wry awareness exhibited by the poet in the audience who turned to me at one point to say “Who is this poet? I must get hold of some of his work”.

The speakers included Rod Mengham whose Equipage Press has published both In Romsey Town (2011) and Songs In Midwinter For Franco; Andrew Taylor whose debt to James weaves its way through his own Oystercatcher volume Air Vault; Simon Smith, Ian Heames, Peter Riley, Drew Milne and Geoff Ward spoke and read and by the end of the day there was a feeling that the success of this event was partly to do with the range of focus: different takes on a common theme of respect for this poet whose first published volume had appeared half-a-century ago from Andrew Crozier’s Ferry Press.

The poem ‘Pimlico’ was read (first published in Tears) as was ‘A Theory of Poetry, twice, and there was a beautifully produced gift from Ian Heames of his own finely published copy of the original Street Editions in comfrey blue. There was a sense in the auditorium of what John James referred to in his ‘Poem beginning with a line of Andrew Crozier’:

“I reach toward the poetry of kindred
where we speak in our work as we seldom do otherwise”

My review of Sabots had ended with a simple statement about the book:

“It is a tribute to the quietly unchanging in a fast-changing world. It’s terrific!” The same could be said of the 2017 Cambridge Conference on the Poetry of John James.

Ian Brinton, 13th March 2017

Air Vault by Andrew Taylor (Oystercatcher Press)

Air Vault by Andrew Taylor (Oystercatcher Press)

In 1923 a doctor from Rutherford was convinced that something important depended upon a ‘red wheel / barrow’ and the picture that his sixteen words conjured into being was a firm belief that American culture was based in a realization of the qualities of a place in relation to the life which occupies it. Andrew Taylor’s Air Vault, where the mind is prompted to jump into echoing spaces, realises that

‘there is a poem in that
no, there is a poem in that’

John James’s poem of recollection from a 2012 Oystercatcher volume, Cloud Breaking Sun, was subtitled ‘Les Sarments’ with its reference to the twining growth of vine-shoots. Taylor’s ‘Poem beginning with a line of John James’ opens with an echo of that earlier ode:

As August counts itself out

As if to herald a clear sense of tradition Andrew Taylor not only opens his poem with the James quotation but has a clear sense of how the older poet had himself published a ‘Poem beginning with a line of Andrew Crozier’ in that 2012 collection. And it is in that earlier poem that we read the statement ‘I reach toward the poetry of kindred’.

The precision of Andrew Taylor’s writing is an infectious delight:

‘The respite of a rest area
temperature drops at midnight

Carried sandwiches foil & plastic
wrapped evening before

some kind of souvenir bread
like bread bought from a post office

Treated like a treat some things taste
better away from home

Mattresses floored a camp
shutters shut this is France after all’

John James’s ode counted August out ‘like a Rosary worn with kisses’ and autumn ‘arrives when you least expect it’. The patience of devotion is a reminder of Keats’s ‘last oozings hours by hours’ and is followed by the unexpected shift of time. Taylor’s jazzing rhythms give us ‘Fig’

‘drop with days between
a rustle’

and ‘Kenny was right’

‘Autumn falls early’

Jeremy Hilton referred to Andrew Taylor’s poetry in Tears 60 when he reviewed the Shearsman collection Radio Mast Horizon and noted the ‘expression of everyday life in all its vivid details’:

‘Colour, sound, speed and technology weave through the poems…This is a poetry of the present-time’ which carries with it a ‘full awareness not just of history but of the impact of historical changes on the lives of people’.

As I race along the tracks of this new volume I am confronted with that colour, sound and speed’: ‘Pitted repaired // there is a preference / for the plaque Michelin’

‘send a postcard
to arrive after return’ [.]

This is a world of evocative moments as the ‘square folds into quietness // after lunch’ and a ‘woodpecker feather // falls onto gravel’. The feather ‘finds a place in the notebook’.
The front cover of Air Vault invites us to peer into a room framed in blue and we have a snapshot of that poetry which reaches toward kindred: the domesticity of the scene has a privacy and austerity which is emphasised by the table-lamp on a chair and its reflection in the cabinet. Looking back at my copy of John James’s Cloud Breaking Sun I sit in front of the bold type of the introductory lines:

to the side of the terrace

the painted blue brick in the wall

warmed by the sun

spoke to me in the afternoon

it said

only you can do this

Wallace Stevens referred to Carlos Williams’s red wheel / barrow as a ‘mobile-like arrangement’ and Hugh Kenner suggested that the words ‘dangle in equidependency, attracting the attention, isolating it, so that the sentence in which they are arrayed comes to seem like a suspension system.’ I find this balancing of word in relation to word attractively present in the light swift movement of Andrew Taylor’s new poetry

‘Sunflowers bow
row after row

season seems
hardly done

time for Autumn
reflections

so soon?’

Ian Brinton 21st August 2016

Salon Noir by Simon Smith (Equipage)

Salon Noir by Simon Smith (Equipage)

The epigraph at the front of this stunningly presented new book of poems from Rod Mengham’s Equipage is significant in that it points the way forward:

‘Place and the spirit of place is the inspiration of more poetry than we nowadays like to admit; and to do poetry justice, the critic needs to turn himself into a tourist’.

These words conclude Donald Davie’s essay on ‘The Cantos: Towards a Pedestrian Reading’ (spring-summer 1972) and they possess the faint timbre of a Michelin Guide to the Cathar regions of Foix, Palmiers, Montaillou and Montségur. And in similar mode one of the best tourist guides of poetry during the Pound era, Hugh Kenner, allowed his engaging narrative to act as our signpost in 1972 as we were transported back to 1919, ‘a good summer for the impecunious to travel’. Ezra and Dorothy Pound met Tom Eliot ‘near Giraut de Bornelh’s birthplace, Excideuil’:

‘The three headed south, the Pounds finally to Montségur but Eliot on a divagation of his own to inspect nearby cave drawings. That may have been at the Grotte de Niaux. We are to imagine him, rucksacked, deep inside a mountain, individual talent confronted by the Mind of Europe, satisfying himself that art never improves (“but the material of art”—here, bison “d’un pureté de trait étonnante” drawn with magnesium oxide in bison grease—“is never quite the same”), while 20 kilometers eastward by crows’ flight the Pounds, fortified with chocolate, were climbing the southwest face of Montségur to the white walls that ride its summit like a stone ship.’

Naturally enough Thomas Stearns Eliot, gentlemanly figure from London, was a different type of tourist from the Pounds, as is evident from his short letter to Lytton Strachey written in late August that year:

‘I have been walking the whole time since I arrived and so have had no address at all. Through Dordogne and the Corrèze, sunburnt—melons, ceps, truffles, eggs, good wine and good cheese and cheerful people. It’s a complete relief from London.’

Simon Smith’s poetic journey into that part of France north of the Pyrenees merges past and present as his Airbus A320 ‘prepares for final descent & the slip towards Tolosa / Piere Vidal’s town’. This is the first reference to Paul Blackburn, a haunting presence throughout the sequence of poems, and to his Peire Vidal translations published by Mulch Press also in 1972, a year after the American poet’s death. A second follows immediately:

‘the lines you carry with you
lines in lieu of memory
the ghost of Paul Blackburn takes up the work from E.P.
poets metamorphosise
into tourists & time shuffles forward one hour’

This awareness of time is central to the whole sequence and in the fifth poem we are presented with the Salon Noir itself deep within the Grotte de Niaux:

‘Gallery of the Scree the Deep Gallery
damp limestone metamorphosing
stalactites drip

reform as stalagmites
climb the ossified sand dune
thirty-odd feet high

& to the Salon Noir a kilometre deep
bison some ice-age horses ibex deer
off limits the Réseau Clastres & the only weasel

Panel II bison facing away
right 13,850 BP counterpoint
to Panel VI 12,890 BP bison facing left

a dead female & a thousand years between

outlined in charcoal or a mixture
manganese dioxide
for black haematite for red

clear as today lit by torch battery
our eyes are their eyes
no history between’

In his introduction to Blackburn’s Peire Vidal, the editor commented upon the excellence of the American poet’s choice in translating the poetry of the Provençal troubadours because it was a choice made out of a special affinity for them: ‘Because he had the gifts and desire, he became one and all of them, as with genius and learning he gave their poems his own voice and new life in a new language.’ There is an integritas in the late-twelfth century poet which also sits closely alongside Simon Smith’s re-creation of the Cathar world of Montségur, the temple to the sun which Pound had brought back into focus in Canto 76:

‘….and the rain fell all the night long at Ussel
cette mauvaiseh venggg blew over Tolosa
and in Mt Segur there is wind space and rain space’

Simon Smith’s ‘Montségur’ opens with space and movement, white on the page, background to the movement of ‘swallows tipping in / & out of thermals’. The expansion of light as recorded by Robert Grosseteste in his De Luce: a little tract from around the same time as Vidal’s song which tells us that ‘light of its very nature diffuses itself in every direction in such a way that a point of light will produce instantaneously a sphere of light of any size whatsoever, unless some opaque object stands in the way.’ In Smith’s poem the ‘luminous’ is ‘a punishing light & infinite thirst’ as we are presented with the sketch of

‘the last two hundred die-hard Cathars
below the prat dels cremats
eight months of dissent’

The movement of history and geography, the tourist’s awareness of how time does not alter everything and, as Eliot was to assert about the unchanging nature of art, the then and the now overlap like ‘the infinite / tripping over of water / from the fountains into the babble of voices’.

Paul Blackburn’s ‘Ab l’alen tir vas me l’aire’ opens with the immediacy of

‘I suck deep in air come from Provence to here.
All things from there so please me
when I hear
in dockside taverns
travelers’ gossip told
I listen smiling,
and for each word ask a hundred smiling words,
all news is good’

Simon Smith’s journey to the Salon Noir brings back this sense of air and noise, a history of both then and now. As with every good tourist trip a reader will want to return and return in order to savour again those moments glimpsed; such as

‘John James alone on the wide terrace of the Café de la Paix
a half empty glass of vin blanc on the table
happy for another as we are of the first

and talk
of a new book—Songs in Midwinter for Franco
Franco Beltrametti.

Ian Brinton 16th March 2016

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