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The Dances of Albion by John Milbank (Shearsman Books)

The Dances of Albion by John Milbank (Shearsman Books)

In his contribution to The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British & Irish Poetry Michael Symmons Roberts writes about ‘Contemporary Poetry and Belief’. He quotes from David Jones’s Preface to The Anathémata where the Anglo-Welsh poet asserts that ‘The arts abhor any loppings off of meanings or emptyings out, any lessening of the totality of connotation, and loss of recession and thickness through.’ This acts as a prescient introduction to the work of John Milbank and Roberts goes on to quote from Milbank’s Introduction to The Mercurial Wood:

‘Poetry is not fiction, but the most intense of real interventions…Of its essence, poetry makes, but it makes only to see further, and to establish something real in the world: real, because it further manifests the ideal and abiding. In this context it can be seen that its unavoidable detour via fiction is paradoxically a sign of its necessary humility: it must, in part, conjecture, since it cannot fully see and create in one simple intuition, like God himself.’

This idea of seeing further reminds me of Hopkins and his ideas of ‘inscape’, an expression of individuality that can be perceived by the fully engaged onlooker. It reminds me of Roger Langley in his interview with R. F. Walker in which he referred to standing for an hour and a half by a track with the feeling ‘that you might get through to what was really there if you stripped off enough’. It reminds me of those lines from a late John Riley poem ‘the absolute is a room / without doors or windows’. Or as John Milbank puts it in ‘Dorset Song’

‘These yearnings outlast
all understandings’

Milbank’s Albion is a living world held poised between the lyric / and the hymnic’, a psychogeography of a land from Pembrokeshire to North Kent, from Dorset to East Anglia. It is a world that reminds me also of the almost amphibious reality to be found in the novels of John Cowper Powys:

‘It is only a very few human beings, however, in each community, who are able to slip out of their skins and share this super-mundane observation of themselves. For the most part the inhabitants of a given locality—or aquarium—just go blindly on, unconsciously swimming about, following their affairs, obeying their necessities, pursuing the smaller fry, making their weed-nests or their mud-nurseries.’ (A Glastonbury Romance)

Milbank’s world is alive in such a manner that his reassurance leaves the sceptical emptiness of a failure of belief to be recognised as it is: dust.
Instead of a late-secular aridity we are presented with the ‘infinitely many crystal-droplets’ which ‘merge as one lucidity, older than the sun, / more like the moon’s echo of but one star.’ The poet’s re-creation of myth and belief, humility and intense observation makes

‘solidity sing, flow stay and burning warm.’

The lyric quality of these poems is infectious and it merges a Romantic response to landscape with a Post-Modern awareness of how it is our business

‘to dig and merely wonder
at the limit, at the outside,
in the outlasting.’

Ian Brinton 24th September 2015

Sabots by John James (Oystercatcher Press)

Sabots by John James (Oystercatcher Press)

When Peter Hughes wrote to me last month to say that there was a new John James chapbook on the cards he intimated that it was ‘very unusual’ and was to be titled Clogs, ‘Pastoral dialogues from the deep south (of France)’. My reaction was one of keen anticipation on account of considering the Equipage volume from last year, Songs in Midwinter For Franco, one of the most important and moving sequences of poems I had read in a long, long time. I recall reviewing that volume for Shearsman on-line magazine and saying that what moved me was contained in the absence of the self-regarding nature that can act as an intrusive shadow looming over poems of loss. In those ‘Songs’ (for Franco Beltrametti who had been published alongside John James by the Tim Longville, John Riley & Gordon Jackson enterprise Grosseteste Books) there were references to a culture of reading and recalling as well as comments on the necessary sharp eye of the wine grower who looks out for a ‘bud break yet to come’. When I read Sabots for the first time this morning I was not in any way disappointed in my great expectations.
The opening dialogue between Peadar and Alphonse, both resident wine growers on the land of South West France, confirms that steady voice that John James has acquired over years of poem-making:

‘ah bon I don’t begrudge you in fact I marvel
at your calm in the face of our abjection it
besets us all this fear of fear & discontent
& there was I gathering in my grapes each year
till the Mairie dropped me with their flood defence
oh I sometimes think I should have seen it coming
but was too entranced perhaps by the reverie
induced by days of pleasure working in that field’

Reading these lines I was prompted to look up a book which I have admired since its first appearance in 1979 from the Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, John Berger’s Pig Earth, the first of three books with the overall title INTO THEIR LABOURS. In the final chapter Berger points to the survival of peasant communities:

‘Peasant life is a life committed completely to survival. Perhaps this is the only characteristic fully shared by peasants everywhere. Their implements, their crops, their earth, their masters may be different, but whether they labour within a capitalist society, a feudal one, or others which cannot be so easily defined, whether they grow rice in Java, wheat in Scandinavia, or maize in South America, whatever the differences of climate, religion and social history, the peasantry everywhere can be defined as a class of survivors.’

Within James’s dialogue Alphonse says

‘I thought in my youthful ignorance everyone
was like my parents bitches bore their tiny pups
kids grew up to be such dams but now a monster
grows to enormous size & threatens all of us.’

The pun on ‘dams’ is hallmark John James. As also is the convincing sense of the here-and-now, the immediate moment caught as it passes, as Alphonse confirms not only that ‘sooner will the hind graze on the air or barbel / lie on the bare stones of the beaches of the Orb / than I’d allow my steadfast gaze give up this place’. Looking back on that earlier review I had written I notice that I referred to a poem from James’s Dreaming Flesh (Street Editions 1991), ‘The Conversation’:

‘Threading its careful path through these poems is a meticulous concern for a palpable ‘now’, an attention to detail that echoes an earlier poem, ‘The Conversation’, in which the importance of Jeremy Prynne’s leafing through pages of a book ‘gave some new sense of strengthening regard for common things.’’

Section two of this sequence, allows historical and geographical presences of this land to speak and ‘Les Randonneurs’ trace a path through what changes in the unchanging. The wines of ‘Les Grillères’ for instance mutter

‘who lives here now as that spy George Borrow might say
the house & barns & spread of land all up for sale
the crumbling old stone wall is broken by sweet bay
some leaves for a civet to perfume the cheval’

Or, of course, ‘good apothecary’ to ‘sweeten my imagination’!

The third and final section is spoken by John Le Poireau as he, Alphonse and Peadar take up the final lines of Alphonse’s comment in Section One:

‘& we still have our strength & the power to walk
tomorrow let’s call on John Le Poireau & hike
three together on the trail to Pech Saint Vincent’

As if echoing the enduring world of Edward Thomas’s agricultural world when faced with the distant wars of northern France in 1916 the ‘leek-man’ says

‘La Tramontane will crumble the broken clods as we stumble
on the rising ground Le Marin will ruin the bread & weaken the vines
but this year we’ll beat the weedy grasses & the tares
not let them hamper our shins in passage through the ranks
let the moist soil cleave to our boot soles’

Sabots is an uplifting sequence of three poems which restores a sense of vitality and endurance within a world threatened by commercial bureaucracy and ‘targets’. It is a tribute to the quietly unchanging in a fast-changing world. It’s terrific!

Ian Brinton 17th August 2015.

Long Poem Magazine 13 edited by Lucy Hamilton and Linda Black

Long Poem Magazine 13 edited by Lucy Hamilton and Linda Black

Issue 13 assembles a wide range of contributors and offers a wide focused angle on contemporary English poetry. There are some seriously considered poems in this particular issue, which repays rereading.

Ric Hool’s homage to Northumberland ‘Revista Rudiments’ captures its unruly history, from when it was a northern outpost of the Roman Empire to the Meadow Well Riots of September 1991 and through the figure of Ranter poet, Barry MacSweeney. The narrator walks the ground, hearing the sound of the land, noting the birdsong and long stories with ‘a confluence of telling / Unthank opportunists / set up camp // plough-breaker Swarland /& / Wind-cutter Snitter. The poem reaches beyond evocation to deeper historical and geographical viewpoints, and the area’s distinctiveness. It is a powerful sequence open to a number of registers and echoes.

Ian Seed’s ‘Absences’ consists of thirteen sections of four three line stanzas derived from reworked cut-up fragments to produce a dreamlike narrative similar to but distinct from his prose poetry. The fragmented narrative has a cinematic quality and revolves around a series of journeys and encounters probing the nature of a series of opposites. The poem has great power through its refusal to predicate. It hovers in pared down focus on suggested or implied infractions, which work in a cumulative manner towards possible articulation. By holding back as much as stating the poem produces surprising effects and forces the reader to reread.

Alison Winch’s ‘Alisoun’s’ uses material from the medieval pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome and the figure of Alisoun from Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale in her exploration of female sexuality and reproductive power. This spirited ribaldry is counterpointed by material quoted from key medieval texts, by Marbod of Rennes, St. Thomas Acqinas, Galen and others, attacking or denying female disobedience positioned on the right side margin. The impact is one of contextualised commentary and playfulness. The poem has a wonderful sensuality and period feel. It begins:

Arse – myne! – that’s how you know me
that & my wenching – but dear Lord what an arse!
like the dimple blush of a just-plucked pear
plump on its honey bee haunches
when the kitchen is a light box of morning sonne.

Penelope Shuttle’s ‘Effarn: Nans Ladron’ (The Valley of Thieves), a version of some lines from Dante’s Inferno, is similarly playful and intertextual mixing English and Cornish vocabulary. The English is predominantly colloquial whereas the Cornish is more earthy and physical. This tactile quality gives the whole a more robust finish and serves to provide a local flavor and accent.

Albert Einstein and Emily Dickinson provide the epigraphs to Aidan Semmens’ beguiling poem, Unified Field Theory’, which is a companion piece to his ‘Clergyman’s Guide to String Theory’ published in Long Poem Magazine 11. The poem offers a slant angle on the nature of forces and relations of change around a city under military occupation or threat where the ‘wall’ is ‘to guard things that are useless / while things that are valuable are left unattended’. It concerns change where ‘beauty lies in the refusal of meaning’ and ‘nature becomes a synonym / for suffering and death’. The title tends to make the reader consider the way different interactions impose themselves or not on a conflict situation, where ‘nothing is affected by being known’. It would be interesting to compare and contrast ‘Unified Field Theory’ with ‘Absences’. The former may appear to offer clearer predication yet tends to typically offset each fragmentary meaning with contradictory material from another field, which serves to complicate as much as open out.
Ian Brinton’s essay on ‘John Riley: From Lincoln To Byzantium’ references the poet’s journey from the thirteenth century Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste’s thinking on light and matter, to his conversion to Russian Orthodoxy. Brinton articulates Riley’s quest for spiritual awareness in his major poem, ‘Czargrad’, through a reading of the poem’s literary and philosophical sources. These include Dante’s Paradiso, George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous, Pound’s essay on Cavalcanti, Charles Olson’s ‘Projective Verse’ essay, T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, and Bishop Grosseteste on ‘On Light / De Luce’. The most important of these sources to me is perhaps Oppen’s poem, in the way that it offers ways of connecting the parts of a disconnected world, as represented by New York, through a series of precise thoughts and images. The work has a similar clarity of vision and surely would have led Riley to thinking about the phenomenology of perception. The sources are supported through a reading of Riley’s correspondence and Brinton usefully quotes from J.H. Prynne’s response to the first two sections of ‘Czargrad’ published in Grosseteste Review 6. Like all good criticism, this essay makes the reader wish to return to the poem.

Alasdair Paterson, Geraldine Monk, Claire Trévien, S.J. Fowler, Mark Goodwin, Jay Ramsay, Greta Stoddart, and many others grace this splendid and varied issue.

David Caddy 7th June 2015

Half a dozen, just like you by Simon Smith (Oystercatcher Press, 2015)

Half a dozen, just like you by Simon Smith (Oystercatcher Press, 2015)

When you have bought this new Oystercatcher Press collection, and I urge you to do precisely that, turn to the poem titled ‘SUNSPOT’, the opening lines of which set a tone which reverberates with the tones of what the poet has already read:

SUNSPOT

a colourless yard
bar a couple of daffodils left to yellow
& burn in the sun—left to sunlight

bleak grey sun cloudless
behind glass
the wreckage of a Victorian fuchsia

the back gate in all its glory
blue—faded to turquoise—paint peels

in a town so small you can walk across it in minutes
not hours or days or weeks—a city—

One of the echoes of this evocation of Paris draws us back, as readers, to John James’s ‘To a Young Art Student in London’ from his 1967 Ferry Press publication MMM…AH YES:

Nothing moving on the suburban streets of every European city—

you can only be sure of your own pattern of the force, revealed
in meteorite storms of colour

figuring the space round
your own iris,
next year’s buds
hidden in
this year’s plant, the tree’s
roots growing
where no eye can see

It is no accident that the figure of John James, poet of Bristol, Cambridge and France, should figure so clearly in this little volume of poems. ‘The Night Station’ is for John James, the Equipage publication In Romsey Town is mentioned as is that early Ferry Press publication already mentioned. Two years after the publication of MMM… AH YES, Andrew Crozier published his own poem to James in Walking on Grass:

Every time you see him John’s fringe has grown shorter
so he waves it at you, and with the steel-framed
sartorial spectacle of an illustrious trans
tight vested poet, and a pleated vent,
he’s on home ground.

And these poems by Simon Smith are on ‘home ground’. It isn’t just the opening poem dedicated to Flick Allen (the FELICITÉ of the cover); it’s the localising of emotion ‘Round the Corner’ in Ramsgate, the memory of another Ferry Press publication, David Chaloner’s Chocolate Sauce, the swift movement from a Paris courtyard to Charing Cross Road; the continued accumulation of experience held in a ‘carrier bag life’ which concludes for a brief moment, a gesture, at Canterbury’s Mrs Jones’ Kitchen on 2nd of May last year.
The other John that comes to my mind at this moment is Riley whose Correspondences were published by The Human Constitution in 1970:

‘I am always on the dark side of the window, looking at them all living in the lights. I’m in good company, but with ghosts, and on the other side human beings are so solid and bright.’
Susan to John, Whitby 3rd August 1961.

Or again, describing her journey through Crete Susan writes about Knossos and the underground storerooms where the pots ‘move in their stillness’. Referring to a refusal to search for aesthetic experiences she writes ‘you just walked into the experience and everything that happened was part of it and peaceful and O.K…I’ve stopped wanting to work myself up over things; if something’s going to interest me it can come and hit me in the eye.’

This little chapbook by Simon Smith lands a punch!

Ian Brinton 20th April 2015

A talk given at the Cambridge University Library to highlight the new venture of a Modern Poetry Archive dealing with ‘Cambridge poets and their papers’.

A talk given at the Cambridge University Library to highlight the new venture of a Modern Poetry Archive dealing with ‘Cambridge poets and their papers’.

I

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. My talk here today revolves around the very particular case of the acquisition of Archive material of the poet, translator and publisher John Riley and I hope to share with you a sense of the intricate pathways down which one might expect to proceed in pursuit of the past. I say in pursuit of the past quite deliberately because when one reads the correspondence of a group of friends who were up at Cambridge at roughly the same time in the early 1960s there is an intimacy of communication which seems to place flesh upon the dry bones of biographical history which is a little akin to the world of the French Historical school, Annales. When one reads such immediate accounts of thoughts and events put down on paper, in a pre-electronic age, to be sent between friends who had gone different professional ways after leaving university and who now lived in different parts of the country,  it is as though the vividness of that past possesses a moment of risplende: it shines. In order to get the context in place it is necessary to say a few words of biographical detail concerning not only John Riley but also two of his particular friends, Tim Longville and Michael Grant.

John Riley was born in Leeds in 1937 and after doing A levels was called up for National Service, joining the Royal Air Force in 1956. It was during this period, some of which he spent in Germany, that he learned Russian. In 1958 he went to Pembroke College to read English, graduating in 1961. It was at Pembroke that he met Tim Longville who was also reading English and with whom he was to found the Grosseteste Press in 1966 and Grosseteste Review, the first issue of which appeared early in 1968. After leaving Cambridge John taught in primary schools in and around the Cambridge area before moving to Bicester, near Oxford. His first book of poems, Ancient and Modern, was published by Grosseteste in 1967. Some of these poems had already appeared in The English Intelligencer, the privately circulated poetry worksheet which ran over three series comprising nearly forty individual issues from January 1966 to April 1968 and which had been started by Andrew Crozier and J.H. Prynne. Crozier, a graduate from Christ’s College, had recently returned from SUNY where he had been studying under Charles Olson and was about to join the newly-founded English department at the University of Essex, at the invitation of Donald Davie. Prynne was, of course, a Fellow of Caius.

The rest of this talk can be found on Ian Brinton’s Academia.edu account and in the Notes section of this Tears website.

 

Ian Brinton, February 2014.

 

New from Equipage

New from Equipage

Last Tuesday there was a book-launch in Heffer’s main shop in Cambridge in which Rod Mengham’s Equipage Press presented two excellent new items.

Keith Sands has translated 17 Voronezh Poems from the Russian of Osip Mandelstam. As he pointed out these poems were written between 1935 and 1937 and do not constitute a sequence. Sixteen of the poems are from the Voronezh Notebooks written during exile first in Cherdyn and then in Voronezh. The last of the translations was written in June 1937 just before Mandelstam’s second arrest.

It seems opportune here to note that John Riley, one of the co-founders of Grosseteste Press, published two translations of the Russian poet. Mandelshtam’s Octets appeared from Grosseteste in 1976 and the Stalin Ode Sequence, From the Second Voronezh Notebook was published by Rigmarole of the Hours in Australia in 1979 the year following Riley’s murder in Leeds.

The second new publication from Equipage is Mother Blake by Carol Watts. A sequence of fifteen poems this book makes a fascinating and welcome continuation of work that had been so striking in When blue light falls 3 (Oystercatcher Press) which I reviewed in Tears 55.

These books are available from Equipage, c/o Rod Mengham, Jesus College, Cambridge CB5 8BL.

A Various Art

A Various Art

Twenty-five years ago Carcanet published an anthology of poems edited by Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville. Crozier had been, of course, the founder of Ferry Press and Longville, in close collaboration with both John Riley and Gordon Jackson, had been the founder of Grosseteste Press. The introduction to A Various Art opens assertively:

 

This anthology represents our joint view of what is most interesting, valuable, and distinguished in the work of a generation of English poets now entering its maturity, but it is not an anthology of English, let alone British poetry. We did not begin with this distinction in mind; indeed, had we done so it might have appeared that there were no operative criteria by which to proceed. We knew this was not the case. Why, then, make such a distinction, as though the work of English or British poets did not belong to the general category of their national poetry?

 

The poets included in this seminal anthology are central to the developing quality of poetry in this country and many of them are still writing and publishing. In the words of Iain Sinclair, from his introduction to another central anthology Conductors of Chaos, ‘If these things are difficult, they have earned that right. Why should they be easy? Why should they not reflect some measure of the complexity of the climate in which they exist? Why should we not be prepared to make an effort, to break sweat, in hope of high return? There’s no key, no Masonic password; take the sequences gently, a line at a time. Treat the page as a block, sound it for submerged sonar effects. Suspend conditioned reflexes.’

Sinclair’s point is that ‘if it comes too sweetly, somebody is trying to sell you something.’

The names in A Various Art: Anthony Barnett, David Chaloner, Andrew Crozier, Roy Fisher, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, John Hall, Ralph Hawkins, John James, Tim Longville, Douglas Oliver, Peter Philpott, J.H. Prynne, John Riley, Peter Riley, John Seed, Iain Sinclair, Nick Totton.

In the current issue of PN Review there is an account of David Caddy’s So Here We Are (Shearsman Press) and its concluding sentence makes a point that associates Caddy’s work with precisely the assertive statements informing the introduction to A Various Art:

 

‘Beneath the attractive guise of belles-lettres we are alerted to the timbre of dissident voices whose music will continue to be heard through the jamming signals put out by the official keepers of the canon.’

 

Happy New Year to our readers.

 

 

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