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Bloodlines by Andy Brown (Worple Press)

Bloodlines by Andy Brown (Worple Press)

The title of these poems suggests two different things to my mind. The bloodlines that flow through our bodies are those veins and arteries that pump our sense of immediacy: they keep the ‘here’ and ‘now’ moving. The bloodlines that connect us to our past remind us of the more established patterns that might be traceable over centuries. One of the more extreme versions of the possible connections between past and present is a belief in cryonic preservation and Andy Brown’s quietly humane poem ‘Committal’ opens by contemplating this:

“Today a teenage girl secured her right
to have herself cryonically preserved

so maybe in five hundred years, or more,
once mutation’s mystery has been solved,

her body may be warmed to stir again
and she can live the life she’s barely led.”

There is a moving tone to this picture as we are confronted with youth’s clutch at a straw and it is given a greater emotional emphasis by being juxtaposed with a mature awareness of what one might be able to pass on to future generations if one did not have life taken away so young. The poet’s own wish for commitment to the ground involves being interred “deep in loamy woodland soil” and having a sapling oak planted above his head:

“so hair and skin and bone may be reborn

in twig and leaf, in xylem, riddled bark;
so the seep of muscle and marrow may

replenish soil, feed worm and ant and moth…”

There is perhaps enormous comfort in thinking that what we do feeds the life that goes on after our death although, as Hamlet recognized, the idea is threaded with ironies because after all “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm”. When Claudius asks the meaning of this he is told that it reveals “how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar”. In ‘Committal’ the word “feed” occurs three times and the important emphasis is on how the present feeds the future and, of course, how the past feeds the present. The last couplet of the poem has a fine echo to it and we are made aware of the tentative connections between ‘now’ and ‘then’:

“just let the faintest hints of musk remain:
that trace and pulse of what we must become.”

The trace and pulse, both aspects of a bloodline, present us with the hints of a past that bodies forth into a present as with Hardy’s ‘The Voice’ where he can almost see again his young girlfriend standing outside the town where they used to meet some forty years ago “where you would wait for me”. The memory is held in the air, like a scent, and he is almost seeing the way she was dressed “even to the original air-blue gown”. This is a history that offers those “faintest hints”, or what Hardy recalled about returning from a walk after Emma’s death, “that underlying sense / Of the look of a room on returning thence”. In Julian Barnes’s novel, Flaubert’s Parrot, the narrator wonders about how we can seize the past and recalls an anecdote from his college-days in which a piglet smeared with grease was let loose at the end of term dance:

“It squirmed between legs, evaded capture, squealed a lot. People fell over trying to grasp it, and were made to look ridiculous in the process. The past often seems to behave like that piglet.”

There is of course that less immediately personal bloodline that connects us with a common past: our inheritance of central feelings such as greed and violence. Reading Brown’s two-part poem ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ one is drawn into that world of Chaucer’s bleak humour as the three thieves murder each other and the Pardoner watches the bodies disappear “like runoff down the drain”. However, a more pensive tone informs ‘Homo naledi’, the epigraph of which refers to a new species of hominid that was unearthed in South Africa in 2013 after having been given a ritual burial some two million years before:

“In Gauteng’s caves the dons are asking how
the branches of our past converge; if much
connects these buried bones with the longer
lines that lead out from the trees. They will
in time shed light.”

These are thoughtful, quiet poems and, as befits elegies, they linger in the mind.

Ian Brinton 26th August 2018

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

Baby Patricia Debney Liquorice Fish Books (Cinnamon Press; www.inpressbooks.co.uk)

Baby  Patricia Debney  Liquorice Fish Books (Cinnamon Press; www.inpressbooks.co.uk)

In Julian Barnes’s novel Flaubert’s Parrot the narrator, Geoffrey Braithwaite, refutes the role of historiographer and explodes what could have been a singular history into infinite fragments, interminable possibilities. Even where there are well-documented sources such as the Greek journeys of Flaubert and Maxime Du Camp the story-teller presents the reader with contradictions as accounts differ, journals disagree and, in conclusion, Braithwaite tells us “What happened to the truth is not recorded”.
Patricia Debney’s new collection of poems and prose focuses upon the edge of vision, that which can be detected out of the side of the eye, and the often quite imperative tone confronts us with a sense of responsibility for what seems to be hiding there:

Things Which Had I Stopped to Consider –
Really Consider – Or If I’d Been Older –
Might Have Been Clues

‘That time we took Violet the cat – who had six toes on each front
paw – up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. You said she would like to
get out of the city. We opened the car door and she ran away, right
into the rhododendron up the side of the mountain. We called and
called – Violet! Violet! – but she never came back.

The time you locked yourself in the bedroom. I screamed – don’t
do it, don’t do it
– but you still didn’t come out.’

On the back cover of this remarkably disturbing volume of memory’s fragments Simon Smith mentions the ‘desolation of Hopper’ and there is an eerie exactness about this reference. In the 1939 painting ‘Cape Cod Evening’ (National Gallery of Art, Washington) a man sits on the doorstep in front of a house and a woman stands with folded arms looking downwards at his hand which is offered out with something in it held there to attract a dog. There is a kind of serenity in the scene except that the dog is peering alertly away from the man and, with ears pointed and tail sticking out horizontally, is staring at something (some thing) off stage. It is a very unsettling painting as one becomes aware of the importance of whatever is there, just out of sight!
Carrie Etter’s comment raises to my mind another source for this collection of ‘fragments, prose poetry, and white space’ (Jane Monson):

‘In her compelling new collection, Patricia Debney deftly fractures narratives, lines, and syntax to evoke a daughter’s struggle with an unstable mother. Baby intelligently renders their fraught relationship in all its emotional complexity.’

I am drawn back here to Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved which opens with the uncompromising statement ‘124 WAS SPITEFUL. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.’ The epigraph Toni Morrison chose for her novel was from the letter Paul the Apostle wrote to the Romans and the nine sections of Debney’s poem ‘Armour of Light’ take their title from a reference to Romans 13:12. Whereas Morrison’s reference presents us with a contradiction concerning who is beloved Debney’s has a positive assertion of the day being at hand as the night is far spent. In these fragmentary shards of writing the poet sifts through ashes, picks ‘through remnants / of fires / in which not everything / burned’:

‘fragments
of bone
mostly yours
evidence
of kindling
not caught

and horded
secret hopes’

Just as History isn’t what happened but is instead what Historians tell us happened, the story of our selves is an accumulation of fragments upon which we place narrative sequence. Patricia Debney’s eerie and moving collection presents us with characters whose story is made up of what happens between the lines and just off the stage.

Ian Brinton 6th October 2016

Country Life by Ken Edwards (Unthank Books)

Country Life by Ken Edwards (Unthank Books)

This is a strange journey into a twilight world of sea and land and ‘We may observe two figures moving in this landscape of cold, dark matter’. The friendship between two young men, based upon mutual dependence and then betrayal, placed against a socio-political background of unrest, dominates Flaubert’s great novel L’Éducation Sentimental. Having found its first contemporary counterpart in Julian Barnes’s Metroland it now finds its second in Ken Edwards’ humorous and moving account of youthful idealism in Country Life. The geographical landscape shifts between a coastal country which has echoes of Dungeness and city life, as Flaubert’s contrasted the world of the upper Seine and the Paris of the 1848 revolution.
In Ken Edwards’ narrative one dominant image is that of the nuclear power station:

‘South of the glory that is the illuminated nuclear power station, lies the Peninsula, a tiny settlement beginning to glow in the shadow of a Sunday evening, under the cold, dark mass of the sea.’

That little word ‘glow’ is mischievously uncomfortable as the world of nuclear power is juxtaposed with the homing sense of lighted rooms with their illusive hint of safety. As the two figures, Dennis and Tarquin, move towards the aptly-named pub ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ they discuss relative positions:

‘The question is, says the big lad with the spiky hair and glittering glasses, where are you in the human food chain? It’s that savage.
He has been talking non-stop since they came out to walk on the strand, here at the end of the world. The talk has been of human handwidth, negative space, power structures.’

Tarquin, the non-stop talker, gives the younger Dennis (a budding musician who is working on World Music Parts 1-25, ‘based on rhythmic patterns’ given off by the surroundings) a lesson in political hierarchies. After all, Tarquin has just finished a 550-page book on Neo-Marxist Aesthetics and the Marketing of the Moment:

‘Like, in the human food chain you might say, the fucking bosses, captains of industry as they used to call them—these days, CEOs of mega-corporations, or chairmen or persons or big-shot shareholders or hedge fund investors, you know what I mean, the Great White Sharks…’.

At the bottom of the food chain, according to the political wisdom of Tarquin, are the tiny ones which are eaten by everything else: krill.

‘Yeah, that’s right, krill. Food for everything else. you understand what I’m saying? that’s the kind of capitalist society we have. At the bottom of the food chain.
Right, says Dennis.
At the bottom. Then you’re fucking krill, man!’

This is an eerie world where the style of Paul Auster meets that of Douglas Woolf: the landscape, brutality and barely submerged violence conjures up the world of Auster’s The Country of Last Things while the quiet but determined humour of domestic engagement brings to mind Doug Woolf’s Ya! in which a father finds his daughter and they both roll out into the darkness. As his daughter, Joan, says “This is wild”, Al replies with a clear sense of what is important, “Yes, it is”. In Country Life an elderly woman clutching a plastic supermarket bag carrying the hopeful logo SAVERS PARADISE weeps quietly because she doesn’t know where she is. When asked by Tarquin and Dennis if she is from round here she nods “Yes, I…don’t know where. I am.” That full-stop after ‘where’ is something to hang on to. She thinks that she lives on the mainland, on an estate, and she thinks that she went to a hospital last week to see her dying husband who has ‘been resting in his grave all these years, the poor dear’. With that glimmer of recognition known only perhaps to the lost she says of her ‘home’ “I’ll know it when I see it…I came out too far.”
This is a world turned upside down with an amphibious life drifting along, a world in which the nuclear reactor ‘will produce enough controlled energy to satisfy the electricity needs of the entire region’:

‘Large magnetised rotors turn inside thick copper coils to generate the electricity that is fed to the grid. Turning each rotor is a large turbine. High pressure steam drives its blades and the rotor revolves inside the copper coils to produce the electricity. Each morning, central heating system boilers will be triggered by time-switches, kettles will be plugged in, radios and TVs will be switched on. The people will wake from their individual dreams, and re-enter a collective dream.’

Country Life has echoes of J.H. Prynne’s Kitchen Poems in which ‘we all share the same head, our shoulders / are denied by the nuptial joys of television, so that what I am is a special case of / what we want, the twist point missed exactly / at the nation’s scrawny neck’. And it draws to a close with a poetry reading given by Tom Raworth in a venue that one could be forgiven for thinking resembles the Lamb in Lamb’s Conduit.

This novel is wonderfully funny in places and it allows the reader to produce his or her own key to characters that play out their roles on a stage of such poignant shifting moments.

Ian Brinton 16th February 2016

CLASP: late modernist poetry in London in the 1970s Edited by Robert Hampson & Ken Edwards, Shearsman Books 2016

CLASP: late modernist poetry in London in the 1970s  Edited by Robert Hampson & Ken Edwards, Shearsman Books 2016

In Tears in the Fence 57 (summer 2013) the Australian poet Laurie Duggan reviewed Cusp, Geraldine Monk’s terrific piece of history and recollections which looked back at ‘British poetry in that age located generally between the bomb and the world-wide web’. The review concluded with the statement that ‘This history is of its nature a ragged one though the work produced has by now equalled, perhaps exceeded, the hopes of its authors’. Geraldine Monk’s book was published by Shearsman in 2012 and now, four years on, this new history of late modernist poetry in London in the 1970s seems like a sequel. It has an intriguing name which almost suggests that one can hold the past close to one. That said, I am reminded of an early paragraph in Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot:

How do we seize the past? Can we ever do so? When I was a medical student some pranksters at an end-of-term dance released into the hall a piglet which had been smeared with grease. It squirmed between legs, evaded capture, squealed a lot. People fell over trying to grasp it, and were made to look ridiculous in the process. The past often seems to behave like that piglet.

As Robert Hampson puts it in his introduction to this eminently readable burst of flame which sheds light onto an otherwise darkened area (darkened that is by the Poetry Police who seem to tell us that nothing has really changed since the world of New Lines more than half a century ago!):

CLASP is an exercise in collective remembering—with, as Lawrence Upton’s essay suggests, a consciousness of memory work as also a process of selecting, forgetting and inventing.

Hampson refers to a counter-culture in the 1960s which revolved around institutions such as the Institute for Contemporary Arts in Dover Street, the Arts Lab in Drury Lane, and the independent bookshops such as Indica Books on Kingsway, Better Books in Charing Cross Road, Bernard Stone’s Turret Books in Kensington and Compendium in Camden Town. These venues ‘not only provided access to books and magazines, but also acted as centres for information-exchange and making contacts.’ This was after all the world and time of Andrew Crozier’s The English Intelligencer so intelligently written about in Alex Latter’s recent account from Bloomsbury, Late Modernism and The English Intelligencer.
One comes away from reading this new collection of reminiscences reeling with the excitement and energy of a world brought back into focus; this is all heady stuff! It reminds me of a series of History books put out by Blackwells in the 1970s, They Saw It Happen. A flavour might be given here by mentioning Iain Sinclair’s account of his journey from London to Wales to search of the émigré member of the Carshalton Chapter, Chris Torrance. After reading J.H. Prynne’s short review of Green Orange Purple Red, published by Crozier’s Ferry Press (taking its name from the Woolwich mode of river-crossing), Sinclair ‘was out of the door, on the road, back home to Wales’:

‘I walked over the hills, through decommissioned mines, conifer plantations, midge clouds, sunburn, blisters, rusty streams, bubbling tarmac, to Torrance’s Neath Valley farmhouse. It was an excitement to make contact with what was already a very active network, the magazines and contributors with whom Chris had been involved, his transmigrations from Carshalton to Bristol to Wales.’

A brief list of some of the short accounts given in CLASP will tease you into getting a copy without delay: Robert Sheppard ‘Took chances in London traffic’, Elaine Randell was ‘Tangled up in politics’, Paula Claire was ‘Working with Bob Cobbing through the 1970s’ while Tony Lopez was moving from Brixton to Wivenhoe to Gonville & Caius. John Muckle’s ‘Inklings’ contrast with Peter Barry ‘Climbing the twisty staircase’ and David Miller reckoned it was ‘A good decade for getting lost’.

Ian Brinton 10th February 2016

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