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Rhapsodies by Graham Hartill (Aquifer Press)

Rhapsodies by Graham Hartill (Aquifer Press)

Hartill’s poetry combines an interest in Buddhism with a political approach which manages to fuse an often sparse lyrical style with something more analytical so we have beauty and melancholy alongside anger and critique. We have ‘being in the moment’ and a celebration of the physical world together with a commentary on the negative consequences of capitalism and of the empire building realities of organised religion. I’m probably being a bit reductionist here but these seem to be the underlying themes of what is a wonderful book of contemporary poetry.

There’s a definition of the term Rhapsody from Cuddon’s Dictionary of Literary Terms at the end of the book which it’s worth bearing in mind:

          Rhapsody  means ‘stitch song’, a rhapsodist  one who recited, 

          stitched together and improvised on various elements of epic 

          poetry.  In   a  more  general   sense  a   rhapsody   may  be an

          emotional, perhaps even ecstatic, utterance.

      From ‘Proverbs of Sugarloaf’ we get the following encapsulations:

          If there’s no room in your boots,

              put your feet in your hat                     (Spring)

          “Peace is the milk of birds”                    (from a Khartoum newspaper – Summer)

          “We’ve all pissed in the bath son…”                      (on the Usk bridge, Autumn)

          The sky dragged across like a heavy sack              (Winter)

     The section entitled ‘Easter’ is an appreciation of the innovative and influential American Jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler where we get this:

          Love reaches and unfolds,

          a completed life

          can show this:

                                    Ayler,

          dead in the water at age 34 –

          his universe swims in the cup of his tune

          forever: folk-songs are flowers, flowers

          explosions of language – there is and there is no

          silence in inner space, the thud of the blood,

          the pulling of nerves,

          the picking up, between finger and finger,

          of intimate stars.

                         The tree in the ear,

                         The Easter in the throat.

     ‘Pay Dirt’ from ‘Letters from America’ is prefaced with the quotation (Not just to make poverty history / but also excessive wealth!) and is clearly a critique of American political machinations and the ideology of The American Dream which has surely crashed to ground if it was ever an admirable or attainable aim in the first place. Those of us in the west who grew up in the aftermath of WW2 and who were hugely influenced by tv and advertising allied to the culture of consumption may feel an inevitable ambivalence about ‘the reality’ but in the face of climate change, war and pandemic it’s hard to come to any sane conclusion that doesn’t point towards a serious change in direction. 

     There’s a lot of compassion in Hartill’s poetry and the section entitled ‘Crowd Scenes’ includes material related to mental illness and to a celebration of the human spirit in the face of severe adversity. He’s inclusive rather than exclusive but focusses on the dispossessed and how chance can play such an important part in anyone’s life:

           There are different kinds of drop out –

           those with proper jobs, who like to dress up and express themselves,

           and those who face or suffer St Anthony’s mental fire

           every day:                (from ‘St Anthony’s Well’)

     In an earlier sequence from ‘Only Human’ we have a description of prison life and I imagine this experience may have come from work as a prison tutor (I’m guessing) similar to that expressed by Ken Smith in his book Inside Time. “He’s lost it now, his tele, and his parole, Gray, / anywhere else they’ll have done him over, / fucked him up. / He can forget September now.’ The final short poem in this sequence is puzzling but resonant and filled with both a sense of disturbance and of compassion:

          Entire

          that the stone could be

               pulled from his chest

          and become his father again

          -that he could write an entire page

          and his father be in it

     From the chapter ‘Palaces’ we get ‘Pebbles’ a seven part reverie which ponders the nature of war and human culture, moving from the rhapsodic and a contemplation of beauty to something much darker and how the two are hopelessly entwined:

                                                         but Death,

           like cathedral stone, isn’t violent, just Culture:

           the beautiful carving of bear or leaf

           on the fortified tower, and yes, of course,

           a poem –

                                           in a Christian cross,

           the violence done

           to Love

           can coalesce, this is maybe how

           cultures solidify –

Similarly with ‘From A Chained Library’ where we have the following from ‘in violence we act as if we were alone.’   

               Like children, we are keepers of the sacred texts,

                       we want the same story, over and over again –

                  a theocracy’s job, or a capitalist’s,

                                                         is to chain the text –

                      but life is a language, a touch, and a timing:

                          faces flow past,

                               the altars are way markers –

                      and every lost book a lake

                                 in which we are free to imagine.                    (from 3 ‘From A Chained Library’)

This may sound overly didactic on a first reading but in fact it’s the opposite of that, an invitation to engage and to think outside of the box.                 

There’s a lyric tenderness in ‘Life Stories’ which is prefaced by what I take to be a tinted photograph of the author’s parents so there’s an autobiographical feel to this short penultimate section. In the final section ‘Lyrics’ we have fragmented open-field minimalism while in ‘Spring’ we have a commentary on the nature of being – …’that being human, the fight is always between the real and the / how we would like it to be,’ – which is interrupted by an evocation of the here and now:

          the wind is suddenly loud in the bushes,

          wrapped inside the hill

          the cuckoo’s

          song

     There’s a delicious sensuousness to some of these latter pieces which is enhanced by the cover art, a minimalist creation of line and texture. This is a nicely produced book which I thoroughly enjoyed reading and thinking about.

Steve Spence 25th April 2022

Astéronymes by Claire Trévien (Penned in the Margins)

Astéronymes by Claire Trévien (Penned in the Margins)

In July 1979 Charles Tomlinson composed ‘The Flood’ recording the night which first took away ‘My trust in stone’. The waters which invaded the Tomlinson’s home at Ozleworth filled in the spaces as opposed to delineating them and the poet vainly erected structures to channel the water back to its origins:

‘……………………..I dragged
Sacks, full of a mush of soil
Dug in the rain, and bagged each threshold.’

However, for some types of flood these measures are ineffectual and the poet who had tried on D.H. Lawrence’s hat when he was staying at Kiowa Ranch in New Mexico might have recalled a moment from one of that earlier writer’s essays:

‘The individual is like a deep pool, or tarn, in the mountains, fed from beneath by unseen springs, and having no obvious inlet or outlet.’
(‘Love was once a little boy’)

What Tomlinson discovered as his trust in stone was questioned was that there appeared to him a ‘vertigo of sunbeams’ reflected off the water onto the ceiling next morning. No surface was safe from swaying and that seeming permanence of the immovable appeared as ‘malleable as clay’.
The intriguing and magical world of Claire Trévien’s poems has a playfulness about it as the stone circles of Britain, Ireland, and Brittany appear in company with the language of the internet. It leaves one with a sense of ‘shaking hands with a ghost’: ‘They say that each time you blink / a stone will hide behind another’. In this shifting reality ‘men cut / and paste, becoming slighter’ and the result is that ‘Their arms are full of peepholes’.
Another figure of twentieth-century poetry whose awareness of the transient nature of a stone’s stability was Ken Smith whose ‘The Stone Poems’ sequence brings before us ‘stone on the move’:

‘Some arrive strangely by night
or happen as comets do. In New England
frost forces them out….

And some lie continually
in the field’s road
finding their ways back
into bleak malevolent creatures
wanting to sit in open fields.’

In Trévien’s world ‘Some places rehearse the same / landscape over and over’ and ‘Stromatolites / timehop to the Precambrian’. These stone beds suggest permanence but the poet scrolls ‘through the same living skin’ to ‘find your comments ossified’. I am left wondering about the tone of this last word: is there a questioning offered to Richard Fortey, author of Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants that Life has Left Behind, which might suggest that the book itself is by no means as permanent as its detailed title might lead one to imagine? As Trévien suggests ‘Tracks are left for the next / caretaker’: those marks may be fossil tracks but ‘We used to think / the earth was as old as a cooling-off period’ and now ‘I’ve changed my mind’. The delicate humour behind these shifting perspectives is playfully endorsed by a technique which the poet refers to in her ‘Notes’ at the end of the volume:

‘Several of the poems have been created using a technique I’ve not found a name for, which involves taking a word, slicing it in two and placing it on either end of the line.’

In ‘Expiry Date’, the poem dedicated to Richard Fortey, the first line reveals itself as opening with ‘Some’ and closing with ‘same’; the seeming permanence of selection and repetition is emphasised for us with the opening two letters and the two which close the line. The eighth line is more mischievous as the opening two letters give us ‘ha’ (‘have….’) and the closing two are ‘ts’ (‘…lists’).
The six poems which make up the ‘Arran Sequence’ weave a witty dance with these ideas of form:

‘Start on the first page, the scone-
coloured path to the croft’s collapsed slates.’

The reminder of ‘St…one’ is softly juxtaposed with the steady workings of time and those collapsed slates prefigure an image of ‘fern tentacles’ which

‘steer through bricks, a chimney of nettles gone
dry…’

As the boundaries of Time move around…the ‘Track Changes’ and cars which park ‘on the hardboiled / tarmac’ do not know ‘how quickly it’ll give out’ to leave us ‘footnoted history and an unwritten dance’.
Basil Bunting’s elegiac firmness of statement from the first section of ‘Briggflatts’ is seen as soluble. When he wrote that ‘Pens are too light. / Take a chisel to write’ he was asserting a permanence which is cast now into a different perspective. Tomlinson found stone too unyielding for a poet taking stock of himself and within his Gloucestershire Noah’s Ark in 1979 he found a new way of seeing, quiet in tone, waiting patiently ‘upon the weather’s mercies’. I think that he would have admired and valued these new poems by Claire Trévien.

Ian Brinton 8th August 2016

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