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Melancholy Occurrence by John Seed (Shearsman Books)

Melancholy Occurrence by John Seed (Shearsman Books)

“body partly on the
pavement partly on the road blood
streaming from the back of his head

Cornelius Grinnell of New York
owner of the steam yacht Hawk
lodging at the Royal Victoria Yacht Club

on Pier Street in Ryde
returning to his rooms after midnight
drew up the Venetian blinds

opened the window and stepped out
onto a balcony that wasn’t there
and disappeared”

John Seed opens his new book of poetic vignettes, his windows into another world, with the clear assertion that they are appropriated from mostly nineteenth-century English newspapers or inquest reports and rewritten. As Julian Barnes reminded us some years ago History isn’t what happened it’s what historians tell us happened and when contemplating the enormous canvas of Gericault’s ‘Le Radeau de la Méduse’ in the Louvre he enquired “How do you turn catastrophe into art?” John Seed’s “rewritten” transforms these pieces of news into what could be the frame for the nouveau roman or, more closely perhaps, le nouveau conte. The margin between historical reconstruction and the world of fiction was tested in 1979 by Milan Kundera in the opening four paragraphs of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

“In February 1948, Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to address the hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens packed into Old Town Square. It was a crucial moment in Czech history—a fateful moment of the kind that occurs once or twice in a millennium.
Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing next to him. There were snow flurries, it was cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. The solicitious Clementis took off his own fur cap and set it on Gottwald’s head.
The Party propaganda section put out hundreds of thousands of copies of a photograph of that balcony with Gottwald, a fur cap on his head and comrades at his side, speaking to the nation. On that balcony the history of Communist Czechoslovakia was born. Every child knew the photograph from posters, schoolbooks, and museums.
Four years later Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of history and, obviously, out of all the photographs as well. Ever since, Gottwald has stood on that balcony alone. Where Clementis once stood, there is only bare palace wall. All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald’s head.”

The famous photograph was taken on February 21st 1948 and when Vladimir Clementis was executed in 1952 he was indeed erased from the photograph. But it acts as the opening scene for a novel which Salman Rushdie referred to as being full of angels, terror, ostriches and love!
John Seed’s glimpses and glimmerings taken from those nineteenth-century newspapers raise the curtain upon a moment of dramatic intensity. In the poem I quoted at the beginning we are confronted with a conclusion: a body, partly on the road and partly on the pavement. The opening word offers us no description but its bald assertion makes it clear that this is a dead person and the most immediate cause of death may well be the blood that is “streaming” from the head. We are then taken back in time to discover the name of the dead person, his place of origin, his possession of a steam yacht and the place at which he was residing. The deft artistic quality of this little picture is then caught in the last stanza as we are invited into the room from which he fell. We are caught between the historical fact of him stepping out of the window and the immediate awareness of the moment of realisation that is followed by the fall to his death: historical information has taken on a moment of individual and personal vividness. This is very powerful writing indeed.
On the back cover of this remarkable collection of poems there is a quotation from Empire of Signs by Roland Barthes:

“The haiku’s task is to achieve exemption from meaning within a perfectly readerly discourse (a contradiction denied to Western art, which can contest meaning only by rendering its discourse incomprehensible”.

Haiku resists interpretation: it is intelligible and means nothing. Robert Duncan was haunted by this sense of what lurks behind meaning, what he referred to as a “ground of man’s imaginations”, and recalled sitting with his sister, “my mother between us”, looking at pictures as he was read to. The picture that stayed with him was of three young men sleeping on a mat one of whom was Bashō, the seventeenth-century Japanese writer of Haiku who had just woken up: the seventeen syllables of a frog jumping into an ancient pond reverberates down the years. It doesn’t mean anything but it is! And so, on Sunday 26th December 1820 in “French-alley Goswell-street” a watchman going his rounds and calling out the hour of one

“discovered a new-born infant
lying in a corner entirely naked
a few old rags around his head”

Ian Brinton 24th June 2018

Brandon Pithouse: Recollections of a Durham Coalfield by John Seed (Smokestack Books)

Brandon Pithouse: Recollections of a Durham Coalfield by John Seed (Smokestack Books)

Brandon Pithouse is a quest to discern the accomplished fact of colliery life in County Durham from 1700 to 1990 now that there are more traces left by the Roman than the colliers. There is then a personal element to these largely documentary poems and prose pieces that draw upon a wide range of historical resources, documents written, printed and transcribed oral sources from recorded interviews on radio and television. These are offered against ‘organised amnesia’ and erasure. The sources have been cut, rewritten and spliced together in various forms of prose, poetry, with and without punctuation and arranged on the page in visual forms to slow the reader down to hear the testimony of multiple voices from a long history. The singular fragments, juxtaposed and in disjunction, accumulate to produce a deeply moving montage of statistics and documentary experience. The rhythms and cadence of the vernacular emerge in both pain and humour:

Anyway, we’re aall in the cage. It was about ’62, ’63, when they
were starting to close the pits, and we were aall in the cage this
day, and we’re crackin’ on about that. They’d just shut that one
where the lad was supposed to have hit Robens, was it Lambton D?
It was just after that and we’re coming up in the cage talkin’ about
it, which was next on the line.

We were in the top deck. Well the top deck has a bar runs across it,
and you can sort of lean on it, well S. was leaning on it. And our Len
says: ‘Aye, aa knaa two bliddy mair they should shut.’
S. says: ‘Aye what’s that?’
‘Thy bliddy ARM pits.’

The ordering of the montage serves to quickly establish the historical-geographical position and reach of the work within a locality. After an extensive list of what constitutes the work of a miner, we read

You walk into any pit house ten o’ clock at night
find the same thing
red hot fire
a tired-looking woman
heavy damp clothes hanging up
all over the place

And later we read of the worst of the work such as ‘putting’, the dragging of coal tubs using a harness called the ‘soames’ with a chain between the legs hooked to an iron ring attached to a leather belt.

When I was putting I used to have an Elastoplast the length of my
back on here the scab would be catching the strut it was that low
the seam was only 13 inches high in places just about high enough
to get a tub in and you had to push it in bent like that
catching your back scabs on your back

This is followed with some gallows humour:

Hangman to a murderer on the scaffold at Durham Gaol:
‘You can have a repieve if you start work, putting at the drift.’

Condemned man: Pull that lever.’

There are also quotations from James Agee, Book of Job, Sid Chaplin, Bill Griffiths, W. Stanley Jevons, J.B. Priestley as well as named colliers. Agee’s phrase ‘the cruel radiance of what is’ sums up a way of viewing the testimonies presented here.

Seed sees the volume not as a collection of poems but rather as ‘an investigation of what can be done with source materials. It asks questions of the reader.’ It is not trying to ‘aestheticise’ painful realities but rather to reconnect the reader to a world that ceased to exist in the 1990s. Brandon Pithouse, dedicated to the memory of poets, Ric Caddell and Bill Griffiths, is a work of recovery retrieving the core of colliery life pitched between historical record and literary investigation.

David Caddy 21st July 2016

Smoke Rising, London 1940-41 by John Seed (Shearsman Books)

Smoke Rising, London 1940-41 by John Seed (Shearsman Books)

The blurb on the reverse side of this important new arrival from Shearsman raises interesting and central issues for the reader of History as well as the reader of Poetry:

Smoke Rising is a documentary poem. Very much in the tradition of Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony, it utilises oral sources to capture the speech—and perhaps the experience—of those who suffered the London Blitz. However, its elective affinities are also to Walter Benjamin’s great unfinished Arcades Project: “to carry the principle of montage into history…to assemble large-scale constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut components…to discover in the analysis of the small individual moment the crystal of the total event.”’

John Seed’s awareness of the relation between Poetry and History has been evident throughout his career and one has only to turn back to his contributions to the Crozier-Longville anthology, A Various Art, to recognise this. The poem which takes its title from Antonio Gramsci, “History Teaches, but it has no Pupils” , gave the reader ‘unimagined contradictions’ in terms of ‘Imagining the real’:

‘…to make poetry of these streets
Hours and days
contemplating a page a line a word’

And in ‘During War, the Timeless Air’ the image of Bede’s sparrow ‘swooping through the bright hall’ offered us the searchlight intensity of the fleeting moment. An emphatic sense of place can grow out of the singular and I am reminded that Charles Olson appended an epigraph to the first publication of The Maximus Poems, Jargon 24, in 1960: ‘All my life I’ve heard / one makes many’. The words were used by Cornelia Williams, cook at Black Mountain College, and incorporated into a letter sent by Olson to Creeley on 1st June 1953.
Other figures of course provide the backdrop to John Seed’s moving re-creation of ‘London 1940-41’. There are the figures of the Annales School of History and Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou; there is Charles Reznikoff whose first volume of Testimony reflected in verse the social, economic, cultural and legal history of America and its people from 1885 to 1890. When that appeared from New Directions in 1965 it had a comment from Robert Creeley on the back: Reznikoff ‘has used all his skill as a poet to locate the given instances sans distortion, in the intense particularity of time and place.’

John Seed’s poem is a very moving document and in a world of ‘violent and indiscriminate bombing’ (a statement from the Ministry of Transport, 11 September 1940) the poet moves outwards from the particular to the general. It doesn’t have to be the irony of that 9/11 coincidence to bring domestic chaos into focus; we recognise the shocking dismemberment of domestic life in the steady stream of refugees escaping from war-torn countries in the Middle East. Poetry makes things happen! The artist, more than the historian, recognises the interweaving images that constitute a fugue and this new Shearsman publication is haunting in its clarity:

‘Blasted windows clocks without hands glass

on stairs mounds of yellow

rubble poisonous tang of damp plaster

and coal gas the house still

smouldering scraps of cloth hanging bare

walls at the side still standing

burnt piece of wood like a

gibbet jutted out into the sky

weary blistered firemen grimy half-clad

homeless mirror swinging steeples scorched and

discoloured by fire the sound of

swept off the streets a few

seconds above the trees lines of

figures asleep scrawled over

obscene inscriptions

The picture is vivid and that last word, ‘inscriptions’, offers a historical perspective suggestive of life’s unchanging desolation. The gibbet which ‘jutted out into the sky’ recalls both Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ and Dickens’s opening image of marshland in the first chapter of Great Expectations.
John Seed is a very important poet and I urge readers to get hold of a copy of this book. Whilst you are at it you might also search out SNOW 3 with his ‘Recollections of the Durham Coalfield’; this is poetry for our time!

Ian Brinton, 18th September 2015.

Some Poems 2006-2013 by John Seed (Shearsman), The Ascent of Kinder Scout by Peter Riley (Longbarrow Press)

Some Poems 2006-2013 by John Seed (Shearsman), The Ascent of Kinder Scout by Peter Riley (Longbarrow Press)

When Allen Fisher wrote a review of the Crozier/Longville anthology A Various Art (Carcanet 1987) he opened it with a serious reference to narrative and history:

Where a history accounts for a group of people’s activities as depending more on culture than on force as a means of social control, it can be said that their appearances are a matter of inescapable political significance.

With the publication of these two chapbooks from Peter Riley and John Seed, both contributors to that seminal anthology of poets defying the mainstream ownership of poetry-reading, I am reminded of that political significance.
Although Clio as the Muse of History, the derivation of whose name suggests recounting or making famous, dominates the second half of John Seed’s selection of poems the opening echo is of the American Gary Snyder. Not only is there the placing of words within a very particular context but also that focus of Snyder’s which merges the here-and-now and the historical and geographical ‘there’ of the East. The opening poem is titled ‘From Genthe’s Photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown 1895-1906’ and the lines giving us a picture of ‘near-to-far’ would be at home on Sourdough:

Drift of dead leaves

piled against a closed gate

no footprints in grass grown wild

suddenly an old man…

is this hard wind blowing all the way to T’ai-shan

white clouds drift there without end

The other voice to be heard here is, of course, more distinctly English and that sudden appearance of an old man calls to mind a leech-gatherer in ‘Resolution and Independence’. This awareness of social outcasts takes these poems forward to the ‘trampers’ who ‘arrive in twilight…’selling brooms lines door-mats’. The force behind Allen Fisher’s comments in that 1988 review from the last issue of Reality Studios can be felt when we read

calculate disturbing forces
obstruction’s rough palms
surplus population in any parish
chargeable becomes removable
audits the last place wanted

Peter Riley’s ‘Note’ at the end of his volume gives the reader a very precise historical context for the work:

The Kinder Trespass of April 1932 was a protest by
about 400 people against the permanent closure of
large areas of the wild uplands of Derbyshire for the
exclusive use of grouse-shooting parties which took
place on about twelve days per year.

This has an echo for me of that fine E.P. Thompson book about the Black Acts of the Eighteenth Century, Whigs and Hunters. Riley’s account in prose and poetry is of an ascent from Hayfield

A stone path up the ridge end, ghosts fleeing in the wind, calling, most of them scout leaders and members of Class 2B 1952, most of them long dead, half-remembered and gone.

This is a beautifully haunting book which places our very personal sense of the ‘now’ in which we live against a ‘then’ in which historical moments took place. Twenty years have passed between the Kinder Trespass and Riley’s climb ‘to find out what there was, at the end of a climb asking to be walked, at the end of a history under erasure.’ All history is a record of loss and all historians tread the underworld in the hope of bringing a Eurydice back: task doomed to failure by the very glance backwards which is the historian’s concern. Peter Riley’s conclusion is more uplifting, however, and he closes this lovely little volume with three simple words, ‘Persistence, optimism, grace.’ This doesn’t make ghosts disappear but keeps them firmly in their place!

Longbarrow Press, 76 Holme Lane, Sheffield S6 4JW (www.longbarrowpress.com)
Shearsman Books Ltd, 50 Westons Hill Drive, Emersons Green, Bristol BS16 7DF

Ian Brinton, 22nd August 2014

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