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Facing West by Kelvin Corcoran (Shearsman Books)

Facing West by Kelvin Corcoran (Shearsman Books)

“the mineral density of loss”

Myth in forms our lives not just our life; it threads its way in strands which are held together by the light and distant clash of cooking implements both now and then. The screech of Ariadne’s cries reach us now through the lyric muscularity of Kelvin Corcoran’s lines as the sea blinds her, “the sail-away sea gone sour”.
Facing West contains not only the sequence of poems published by Maquette Press three years ago but also some important new pieces which confirm my view that Corcoran’s poetry is amongst the most important being published in this country. I wrote about Radio Archilochos in my review for this blog in November 2014 and therefore wish to just focus for a moment now on two pieces from this new volume, both of which deal with loss: ‘Orpheus / If I could’ and ‘Lee Harwood 1939-2015’.
As if in response to a reading of Rilke’s poem concerning the journey undertaken by Orpheus, published in New Poems 1907/08, Corcoran’s contemplation of loss aches with “mineral density”. In Rilke we read of

“Bridges over voidness
and that immense, grey, unreflecting pool
that hung above its so far distant bed
like a grey rainy sky above a landscape.
And between meadows, soft and full of patience,
appeared the pale strip of the single pathway
like a long line of linen laid to bleach.”

In Kelvin Corcoran’s web of landscape

“Orpheus walked the dark path
through black trees arching,
their bloody roots like shadows
seeping deep entangled underground
where the light collapsed in stripes.”

In these poems loss has a palpability as the “earth gives way at every step / foot sinks, birds stop singing” and the geological foundations of misery are presented to us with a vivid portrait of what irrevocability might look like:

“face broken, head empty, staggering,
propelled into a wall of obsidian”.

This is world known to Thomas Hardy who “Saw morning harden upon the wall” before leaving his house in pursuit of a glimpse of his dead wife “Where so often at dusk you used to be” only to be confronted by “The yawning blankness”.
In the tribute to Lee Harwood, dying in a “high room, Ward 9A East”, Corcoran journeys across the country:

“I drove long tunnels of swaying trees
through Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire,
and walked the hospital maze to find him
through green underwater light made blind.”

The maze through which one can trace one’s way down those lanes of memory, helped by Ariadne, that Goddess of Mazes, leads us to a bedside, words (“Oh Kelvin you made it”). And from there, almost like a poem from Malcolm Mooney’s Land, the tracks lead on further and further back

“So I can only imagine him at the kitchen window
up early, asking – “What do you think that bird is there?”

This collection is of course facing West as the poet’s eye is firmly focused upon a declining light. It also doffs its hat to the Westward glances of both Olson and Dorn!

Ian Brinton, 6th June 2017

History or Sleep by Robert Sheppard (Shearsman Books)

History or Sleep by Robert Sheppard (Shearsman Books)

In November 1981 Robert Sheppard wrote about the poetry of Kelvin Corcoran:
‘This is the first substantial selection of his work to have appeared and there is in it a celebration of a “human / world as obvious as phenomenology”.’ After referring to both A.N. Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty Sheppard makes the point that these poems do not use philosophy as a dead-weight ‘to be lumbered from poem to poem’:

‘Each moves with a speed that allows the poem to “accurately accompany”—not describe or philosophize about—the process of things in the world, which is “obvious”, maybe, but never simple. These poems do not catalogue a world of “inert fact”, but a series of “unseparated events” that nevertheless demands human consciousness to participate in perceiving its unity…As Olson before him learnt from Whitehead, “There is nothing in the real world which is merely an inert fact. Everything is there for feeling.”’
(Rock Drill, Number 3)

Robert Sheppard’s selected poems from Shearsman Books, History or Sleep, is threaded with a sense of the other. Not ‘The Other’ with its sense of a doppleganger but the other which exists in a type of absence, an ‘autrebiography’ or ‘unwritings’. The book is haunted by ghosts: Stan Tracey, Thelonious Monk, William Carlos Williams, Lee Harwood, Bob Cobbing, Charles Madge, Félix Guattari, Mina Loy, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, J.F. Hendry, Bill Griffiths. The opening poem, ‘Round Midnight’, plays from the outset with the phrase ‘The varnished Bechstein’ which tricks the eye immediately into seeing the word ‘vanished’ before giving the reader ‘the ghost’s hands / are also at their keyboard’:

‘The jumping hands below his bowed head
flesh an illusion, filling
the punched hollows as he watches.’

In ‘Returns’ the palpability of what is gone (‘When I’m / writing I’m thinking of you / as palpable as memory, somewhere / the other side of sense’) gives us ‘The touch / of your hand’ which ‘becomes almost a memory as you enter / a blank scenario’. And ‘Internal Exile’ is prefaced by a quotation from Julia Kristeva:

‘Writing is impossible without some kind of exile’.

This is not quite the same as Geoffrey Ward’s little essay on ‘The Brows with Ivy and with Laurel Bound’ in which ‘Language is doomed to unpunctuality, words chasing, describing, shadowing a reality they can do anything but actually be.’ It is perhaps more like Andrew Crozier’s Utamaro Variations in which the sun ‘breaks through the leaves / in a spectral flare’. Or, appropriately given the title of Sheppard’s magazine Rock Drill, like Pound’s Canto 93 in which we read ‘Risplende / From the sea-caves / degli occhi / Manifest and not abstract’.

The poems are ‘Murmuring memorials over / The haunted shifting sub-soil’ of Sachsenhausen and the sections from Words Out of Time merge a past long gone, memories of that past and the inevitable re-writing of a history as the poet gazes at what he carefully unpicks as truths:

‘I don’t remember going to the Grenada in Portland Road, Hove, don’t recall the film on show, and don’t remember, on the same day, seeing a play, or its plot, or its title. A frame set up, years later, by others. Outside of it there are voices, whispering. Empty landing, tall doors never shut, banging in any wind. The attic, its sloped tar-hair padding, muting all street sounds. On one page, attempts at painting, soaked blots, dried solid.’

Sheppard’s poetry-frame sets up that haunting I referred to at the beginning of this little piece of review and what was becomes seamlessly what is and the ‘punched hollows’ of the gone are filled with a lyric intensity that twists ‘into a thin-throated flower’ that ‘wavers in the vibrant gulf’.

Some four years ago Shearsman published one of the best introductions to the world of contemporary poetry, When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry (—episodes in the history of the poetics of innovation—). In his introduction Robert Sheppard made his position clear:

‘I have long held the view that the power of poetry is precisely that it both reveals itself—its poetic artifice is its undeniable facticity laid bare—and conceals itself, leaving the reader feeling that he or she has not finished, could indeed never finish, the work of reading. The text is inexhaustible in terms of both form and content and in terms of the unstable relationship between them. The writer is also strangely both present—as artificer—and simultaneously absent, from the poem; once the poem is read the only agent in or around the text is the reader.’

Towards the end of this excellent selection of his poems the poet gives us ‘The Word’ in which ‘A fish winching / itself across a screen of smudged clarities’ takes its own place in the ‘spaces of the poem’. This is a selection of poems to return to time and time again. Reading is an energetic engagement and I urge you to engage with these poems NOW.

Ian Brinton, 23rd November 2015.

The ‘EUOIA’ collaboration

The ‘EUOIA’ collaboration

The ‘EUOIA’ is a collaborative venture that extends the premise of the fictional poetry of my volume, A Translated Man, published by Shearsman in 2013, which is given over to my own invention, the fictional Belgian poet René Van Valckenborch. (He has a whole page on my website: http://robertsheppard.weebly.com/rene-van-valckenborch.html.) Apparently writing in both Flemish and Walloon, and translated and edited by entities as shadowy (and dodgy) as himself, Van Valckenborch’s split oeuvre derives from the linguistic and cultural divide within contemporary Belgium. They are ‘fictional poems’, not hoaxes, and that distinction is important for me.

The last project of his Flemish writings was to invent the ‘EUOIA: The European Union Of Imaginary Authors’. Van Valckenborch invents his own fictional authors and, being in Brussels (capital of the EU), hits upon the idea of one for each member country. In the book we read a sample of five women writers, one poem each. I’ve put together a website for it (www.euoia.weebly.com), which now describes the latest project with regular updates (as does my blog http://www.robertsheppard.blogspot.com).

You can also watch the Liverpool Camarade (February 2015) showing me reading with several collaborators here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSLlfz5mfOY, though it’s also added to the website now, as is the video of Zoe Skoulding reading our Cypriot poet Gurkan Arnavut. (It’s also here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-UHv9lFaxU). So far, the collaborations, either finished or currently underway, have been with colleagues, old friends, new friends, young poets, and (a deliberate decision) female poets. The methods of collaboration range from one word at a time (with Philip Terry) to whole poems (Kelvin Corcoran). Some (with Jèssica Pujol i Duran and Alys Conran) leave me not quite sure who wrote what. The result is a developing anthology, which I hope will be published (before the EU referendum: Van Valckenborch had NO idea how timely his project would be).

Croatia Martina Marković (1982-) with James Byrne (and Damir Šodan).
Austria Sophie Poppmeier (1981-) with Jason Argleton (See more on Sophie Poppmeier on Pages at: http://www.robertsheppard.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/robert-sheppard-euoia-sophie-poppmeier.html)
Belgium Paul Coppens (1980-) with Philip Terry
Bulgaria Ivaylo Dimitrov (1979-) with Patricia Farrell
Cyprus Gurkan Arnavut (1978-) with Zoë Skoulding
Finland Minna Kärkkäinen (1974-) with Allen Fisher
Greece Eua Ionnou (1971-) with Kelvin Corcoran
Ireland Sean Eogan (1969-) with Steve MacCaffery
Luxembourg Georg Bleinstein (1965-2046) with Tom Jenks
Malta Hubert Zuba (1964-) with Scott Thurston
Netherlands Maarten De Zoete (1963-) with God’s Rude Wireless (a cut up machine)
Portugal Ana Cristina Pessao (1961-) with Jèssica Pujol i Duran
Spain Cristòfol Subira (1957-) with Alys Conran (Our reading as part of Gelynion Poetry (Bangor), on May 26th 2015, may be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kVOfQEMoss4.)
Sweden Kajsa Bergström (1956-) with Steven Fowler
United Kingdom Robert Sheppard (1955-)

There is a bonus track (outside the EU and beyond reality): Frisland: Hróbjartur Ríkeyjarson af Dvala (1948- ), written with Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl, and, of course: Poland: Jaroslav Biały (1962-) with Anamaría Crowe Serrano, which is featured in the current issue of Tears in the Fence.

In some ways this has been the most extraordinary collaboration, and partly because, unlike most of the other collaborators (except Jason Argleton, who is a fiction, and God’s Rude Wireless, ‘who’ is a machine) I have never met Anamaría. But Jaroslav Biały has a special place in the sequence because I felt so completely taken out of myself and made into (half) of someone else. It’s a difficult thing to describe, the process of being othered and familiarised at the same time. When it’s over, there is a period of mourning because you realise you’ll never re-create him, as it were. There’s nothing else to come. (This is a common feeling of reading foreign poetry; at the moment I’m reading a Hugo Claus selection, and I’m reading incomplete sequences and extracts that leave me dissatisfied, among the other causes of intense satisfaction: that I’d managed to get the particularly rural gloom of Belgium right, in some early Van Valckenborch poems, for example! They are just great poems anyway.)

Nevertheless, there is more of Jaroslav at The Bogman’s Cannon: http://bogmanscannon.com/2015/05/06/poetic-fictions/. But no more. Thank you Anamaría; thank you Jaroslav.

Robert Sheppard 30th October 2015

Lee Harwood III: the palpability of loss

Lee Harwood III: the palpability of loss

In early March 2012 Lee and I were invited by Kim Wyatt, the Head of English at Warwick School, to give a talk and a reading. I wanted to look at some Olson and some Hardy in relation to what I saw as Lee’s astonishingly powerful awareness of how tangible loss can feel. Some notes:

‘It is by their syllables that words juxtapose in beauty, by these particles of sound as clearly as by the sense of the words which they compose. In any given instance, because there is a choice of words, the choice, if a man is in there, will be, spontaneously, the obedience of his ear to the syllables. The fineness, and the practice, lie here, at the minimum and source of speech’. Charles Olson, ‘Projective Verse’.

Olson goes on to refer to the anonymous late medieval lament

‘O western wynd, when wilt thou blow
And the small rain down shall rain
O Christ that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.’

This short poem was one of George Oppen’s favourite lyrics and it is worth comparing it with his poem ‘O Western Wind’ from the 1962 collection The Materials:

‘A world around her like a shadow
She moves a chair
Something is being made—
Prepared
Clear in front of her as open air

The space a woman makes and fills
After these years
I write again
Naturally, about your face

Beautiful and wide
Blue eyes
Across all my vision but the glint of flesh
Blue eyes
In the subway routes, in the small rains
The profiles.’

Douglas Brown called Hardy’s language one of ‘thorough integrity, of actual and human relations; his matter is mutability and the place of loss in the texture of life’ (Thomas Hardy, Longmans 1954). One attempt to retrieve moments gone might be a reconstruction of the absentee’s presence by imitation, giving empty space a palpability, a sense of almost being still there. With the image of an ‘air-blue gown’ in Hardy’s ‘The Voice’ colour and emptiness are located in something as substantially matter-of-fact as a dress. Compare this with Lee’s early poem ‘As your eyes are blue’ especially with reference to the image of the shirt on the top of a chest-of-drawers. And then Hardy’s poem ‘The Walk’ from January 1913:

‘You did not walk with me
Of late to the hill-top tree
By the gated ways,
As in earlier days;
You were weak and lame,
So you never came,
And I went alone, and I did not mind,
Not thinking of you as left behind.

I walked up there today
Just in the former way;
Surveyed around
The familiar ground
By myself again:
What difference, then?
Only that underlying sense
Of the look of room on returning thence.’

It’s worth comparing Hardy’s register of loss in this poem with Lee’s ‘Y garn, Glyderau’ written in memory of Paul Evans and published in In The Mists (Slow Dancer Press 1993): memory is linked to a particular venue and, as with Hardy, opens up a different vista: ‘tugging winds and squalls’ give way to ‘clear days’:

On a cloud bound summit
you don’t stride out of the mists
across the rocks and dirt,
as I felt you might,
maybe cursing,
as I just stood there.

Instead
I plod on,
reach the familiar cairn.
No one there except the silence
and a heaviness.
The tugging winds and squalls
died down into this grey calm.

In the fifth of the interviews with Kelvin Corcoran, February 2008, Lee referred to the poem ‘September Dusk’:

‘The poem ‘September Dusk’ touches on that indescribable feeling that one has at moments, am amazement at the surrounding world, its colours, its appeal, the taste, the smell of it, the touch of the wind on your skin. Most of all it’s the feeling of being totally present.’
This puts me in mind of the quotation from Maritain which Oppen used as the epigraph to The Materials: ‘We awake in the same moment to ourselves and to things.’ The first poem in the collection is ‘Eclogue’:

‘The men talking
Near the room’s center. They have said
More than they had intended.

Pinpointing in the uproar
Of the living room

An assault
On the quiet continent.

Beyond the window
Flesh and rock and hunger

Loose in the night sky
Hardened into soil

Tilting of itself to the sun once more, small
Vegetative leaves
And stems taking place

Outside—O small ones,
To be born!

Lee in conversation with Aodhán McCardle, September 2003:
‘There’s a thing Oppen says which knocked me out the other day…He says ‘I want to be free from the career of poetry, I want to know what I will be able to say to myself in my life, and I mean…to myself. And that, that there shall be an area of silence where the poem lives, if it lives.’ It’s very personal in the sense that it’s not trying to convert anybody…’

The reply highlights a central element in Lee’s poetry:

‘I find it everywhere in your poetry, relationships between time and space, as in time between when the writing seemed to be happening and time that jumps from one line of the poem locating you somewhere, anywhere, doesn’t have to be specifics, and by the next line there’s a different location, not just spatial but in time, so therefore there are things happening simultaneously.’

And this in turn prompts a connection with John Ashbery when Lee said:

‘I think it’s probably what Ashbery, unconsciously or indirectly taught me is the foolishness of the egotistical voice. You’ve got to have that ‘meanwhile back at the ranch’ stuff. It may be a description of, say, a love poem, the two individuals, but meanwhile out in the street people are going about their business to whom the scene in the room is irrelevant or they don’t even know it, and, ah, by bringing in what’s going on outside the room, what’s going on in other parts of the world, makes the thing in the room much more…real, it puts it in perspective, makes it part of a bigger thing rather than being some giant romantic monument.’

And in conversation with Robert Sheppard, April 2005, Lee emphasized again that Ashbery concern for juxtaposition:

‘If you are describing a very intense emotional experience, and if you also then mention the noises outside in the street, or even in the next room, it makes it much more real than having just a vision of this one isolated experience. One reason is that the readers can be involved as well. They’re aware of all those things surrounding them too.’

After the talk Lee sent me the John Wayne picture. ‘I thought this old favourite might amuse you. There’s something so ham, almost camp, about John Wayne—and yet we (almost) believe in him. Or I do, anyway!’

Ian Brinton 1st August 2015

Lee Harwood II The Miracle of Existence

Lee Harwood II  The Miracle of Existence

In January 2010 I gave a talk at Eltham College Literary Society alongside Lee reading his poems and these bullet-points are extracted from some notes I used as a handout for the boys.

• The epigraph to HMS Little Fox (Oasis Books 1975) is taken from Pound’s ‘Canto 77’: ‘things have ends (or scopes) and beginnings. To know what precedes and what follows/will assist yr/comprehension of process’
Pound’s lines are accompanied by the two ideograms placed at the head of this blog.

• ‘The Long Black Veil: a notebook 1970-72’ is the opening poem in the collection and Lee’s own notes on the cover account for the ordering of the poems in the volume:

‘This collection was written between 1967 and 1972. The work really has its seeds in my book The White Room (1968), and also is where The Sinking Colony (1970) left off, even though some of the work here was written at the same time as the work in that book, and a few poems even before that time. (I want to state here my sense of this continuity.) It is a development from there—towards a greater complexity and range. Not only containing varied information, but having an energy and necessity as well. The two qualities—presentation of informations and the art as mover, catalyst—to somehow work together, be one. The collection is set out to be seen the way you see a plant. It begins with the sequence ‘The Long Black Veil’, the end-product, the ‘flower’ of my work to date, and then moves on down to the origins, the roots of that work, the earlier poems and the poems written at the same time as I was writing ‘The Long Black Veil’. The whole book is one crystal in which things ricochet back and forth, echo and re-echo. In which light enters and bounces out again changed in form and direction. And the crystal itself alive and growing.’

‘There are very many references to enclosed spaces/gardens/cloisters in your work, right from the early days up until now. What are these metaphors?’

This question was asked in an interview with Andy Brown in The Argotist Online, August 2008 and in reply Lee related this sense of an enclosed space to a comment made to him by Douglas Oliver: ‘Inside the harm is a clearing’ and it is one of Lee’s finest qualities as a poet to make this ‘clearing’ more than something metaphorically abstract. In the same interview he referred to a ‘Reznikoff quality to these images too, in that they’re real, solid—the courtyard with the fountain is an actual place.’

• Charles Reznikoff, a Jewish New York poet 1894-1976 wrote the lines

‘Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies
A girder, still itself among the rubbish.’ (Jerusalem the Golden, 1934)

• The Objectivist poet George Oppen was deeply moved by these lines and wrote to his half-sister June Oppen Degnan in February 1959: ‘Likely Rezi could mull along and tell you what he had in mind. But how other than with this image could he put into your mind so clearly the miracle of existence—the existence of things. It is only because the image hits so clear and sudden that the poem means what it means. I don’t know that he could make it any clearer by talking about it.’
Late in the Second World War while he was driving a truck in a convoy, Oppen came under enemy fire and was forced to dive into a foxhole. Two other men also leapt in the foxhole, and both were killed, while Oppen was seriously wounded from exploding shrapnel:
‘…found myself trapped in a fox-hole, slightly injured, and with no apparent means of escape, certainly no possibility until night-fall. I waited, I think, some ten hours, and during those hours Wyatt’s little poem—‘they flee from me’—and poem after poem of Rezi’s ran thru my mind over and over, these poems seemed to fill all the space around me and I wept and wept. This may not be literary criticism, or perhaps, on the other hand, it is.’
(Letter to Milton Hindus, late Spring 1977)

• In the first interview with Kelvin Corcoran, published in Not the Full Story (Shearsman 2008), Lee referred to ‘little intense scenes shifting round…You do get these moments of goodness, whether it be in some of the pastoral scenes or a landscape of suburban railway tracks and oil refineries.’ When talking about his education at Queen Mary College, University of London, he placed the reading of literature firmly in the world of objectivity:
‘I did a degree in English literature and language. I had this terrific thing of walking from Mile End tube or Stepney Green—I was living in Stepney anyway—to lectures and then coming out of the lecture and walking back along Mile End Road. So all that business of maybe going to a place like Cambridge where you would float out of your lectures in your gown and walk to the quad, and you could keep on living in that world was avoided. It was knocked out of you because you immediately had reality in your face and you didn’t go to high table. You had bubble and squeak at the local transport café. I think that gave me a lovely sense of the importance of literature but also in the world, not in some isolated, privileged world. So you’d always have the measure of what you’d read, of the poetry existing in a working society.’
In the same interview he referred to a poem as ‘a bundle of stories’; ‘this building with fragments and suggestions’; ‘building up, like a chemical build up’; ‘a bundle of voices’; ‘getting to know the building bricks’; ‘an interest in displaced locations’ and ‘incomplete narratives’; ‘the heaping up of fragments’.
With reference to this last comment I suggested that the pupils might want to look at the accumulation of fragments in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land; the ones he shored against his ruin. I also recommended them to look at Eliot’s 1919 essay on Hamlet: ‘The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.’

Part III of my Lee Harwood memorial will continue tomorrow.

Ian Brinton 31st July 2015

Kelvin Corcoran’s Radio Archilochos (Marquette Press 2014)

Kelvin Corcoran’s Radio Archilochos (Marquette Press 2014)

The shadowy background to this carefully judged sequence of poems by Kelvin Corcoran is provided by both the Greek lyric poet Archilochus, from the seventh century B.C., and the Aegean island of Paros on which he possibly lived and died in battle with the men from Naxos:

‘Archilochos, his voice broken, sits collapsed,
legs splayed on the soft bed of summer dust;
a spear sticks out of his chest, its black length
rises and dips with his last breath and the next.’

In the Loeb Classical Library’s volume of Greek Elegy and Iambus the translations of J.M. Edmonds from the existing fragments of the work of Archilochus present the reader with a figure of humour and pathos, realism and a lyricism which echoes down the centuries:

‘I love not a tall general nor a straddling, nor one proud of his hair nor one part-shaven; for me a man should be short and bowlegged to behold, set firm on his feet, full of heart.’

The fragments of the Greek give us a man from over two thousand years ago ‘stood on the edge between sea and wind’. Kelvin Corcoran gives us a present-day world where ‘The whole place is out of season, buried, / the crested grey wave curls under a grey sky.’

There are of course other shadows in the background, poetic ones. I detect a voice of Robert Browning behind the spat words

‘Above all else I swear bad poetry will do for me,
the lickspittle decrepitude of our lolling tongue;
after invasion and the markets going yoyo mental
etymology alone counts, crooks make snots of words.’

There is the haunting voice of the folk ballad ‘Barbara Allen’ transferred from Scarlet Town to Candid Town and there is the uncompromising ‘I’ of Barry MacSweeney’s Ranter ‘calling / on VHF’:

‘Then I am a man.
One third, warming
the fipple.
His flute song.’

(Ranter, Slow Dancer Press, 1985, p. 11)

‘I am The Man I am I claim
to please the boys in the clinch;
think all the dirty work we did
tropes cast in blank memory?’

Most of all of course there is the voice of Kelvin Corcoran whose poems are ‘dense, intense, filled with sharp fast thought’ (Lee Harwood) and for whom myth is a living presence:

‘The ancient landscape overlays the modern and I see the mythology as local and useful and not detached from the everyday.’

(from an interview with Andrew Duncan published in Don’t Start Me Talking, Salt, 2006 and quoted in Andy Brown’s introduction to his indispensable Corcoran reader, The Writing Occurs as Song, Shearsman 2014)

The chapbook Radio Archilochos confirms one’s opinion that Corcoran is at the front of contemporary poetry: the lyric grace of his language is threaded with an historical perspective that raises the poetry far beyond the world of a localised present.

Radio Archilochos is published by Andy Brown’s Maquette Press and is the first in a new series of chapbooks which will soon include The Hospital Punch by Sally Flint and A Plume of Smoke by Jos Smith. Copies can be obtained from the Press at 7 Grove Terrace, Teignmouth, Devon TQ14 9HT.

Ian Brinton 21st November 2014

Lee Harwood’s The Orchid Boat

Lee Harwood’s The Orchid Boat

Enitharmon Press (www.enitharmon.co.uk)

I recall a moment, a few years ago, when I was at a dinner given for a colleague of mine who was moving to another school. Some of us were talking about how much we were going to miss this particular colleague and one person said ‘You cannot register absence in presence’. It was a clear statement which focussed upon the meaning of the word ‘loss’ and it brought to mind a wonderful early poem by Lee Harwood which I had used in the classroom, ‘As Your Eyes Are Blue…’. It is a poem of parting and the vividness of the experience is heightened by the inclusion of direct speech, echoes in a room after the parting has taken place. In an interview with Kelvin Corcoran, published in Not the Full Story (Shearsman 2008) Harwood referred to ‘little intense scenes shifting round…You do get these moments of goodness, whether it be in some of the pastoral scenes or a landscape of suburban railway tracks and oil refineries.’ When talking about his education at Queen Mary College, University of London, Harwood placed the reading of literature firmly in the world of the objective:

‘I did a degree in English literature and language. I had this terrific thing of walking from Mile End tube or Stepney Green—I was living in Stepney anyway—to lectures and then coming out of the lecture and walking back along Mile End Road. So all that business of maybe going to a place like Cambridge where you would float out of your lectures in your gown and walk to the quad, and you could keep on living in that world was avoided. It was knocked out of you because you immediately had reality in your face and you didn’t go to high table. You had bubble and squeak at the local transport café. I think that gave me a lovely sense of the importance of literature but also in the world, not in some isolated, privileged world. So you’d always have the measure of what you’d read, of the poetry existing in a working society.’

In the same interview he referred to a poem as ‘a bundle of stories’, ‘this building with fragments and suggestions’, ‘building up, like a chemical build up’, ‘a bundle of voices’, ‘getting to know the building bricks’, the ‘heaping up of fragments’.

This new volume from Enitharmon Press opens with precision:

‘A hot summer night,
the sound of rain in the courtyard.
A satin breeze sways the curtains’

We are given direct speech, itself quotation from a translation of an eleventh century Chinese poet; and we are given a picture ‘that maps / the wear of years’; a letter referred to ‘will reach the other side of the mountains’ and the present is placed as the poet plods ‘along the mountain path’

‘drifts of rain, streams sweeping across the path,
clouds so low you can barely see the path
as you stumble on loose rock.’

There are echoes here of Hardy’s ‘Poems of 1912-13’ and of Pound’s Cathay in which an ‘Exile’s Letter’ is sealed and sent ‘a thousand miles, thinking’.
In a landscape which merges Europe, China, Mexico, a history of the library in Alexandria destroyed by Christian fanatics, ‘A dense history of such deeds’, the poet recalls his father in 1940 having to shoot one of his own men who was begging to be put out of his agony, ‘his stomach ripped open beyond saving’. The moment of direct speech questions the narrative that we make of our own lives (‘We deceive ourselves with our stories’) and a clear statement follows…. ‘Not this one’.

Mark Ford wrote in The Guardian: ‘Harwood’s poetry is not only not “difficult”—it is open, moving and exquisitely delicate in its attention to landscape, mood, and the pressures of time and history’. It also looks forward as well as back:

‘I don’t intend to sit here waiting in my coffin,
gathering dust until the final slammer,
adjusting my tiara.

I’ll stamp my foot
and, checking the rear-view mirror,
head for the frontier.’

The Orchid Boat is a terrific new volume! As readers we are invited to look at the ‘Objects on a Polish Table’

1.

Four books, two newspapers,
an ashtray, a pack of cigarettes, matches.

2.

when visitors are coming
some poppy seed cake or doughnuts
or fresh baked makaroniki
placed on a plate on the table

a lace table cloth beneath the coffee cups

3.

a ceramic salt bowl with a lid

4.

an empty vase in the centre of
the oil cloth

Come and sit down

Ian Brinton 6th October 2014

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