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Whether by Alan Baker (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

Whether by Alan Baker (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

The critic G. Wilson Knight is perhaps best known for his work on Shakespeare: The Wheel of Fire, The Imperial Theme, The Crown of Life. However, he was also a great admirer of the novelist John Cowper Powys and wrote a short account of that underestimated Dorset giant, The Saturnian Quest. In Wilson Knight’s last book, Neglected Powers, he wrote about Powys as well as presenting us with a ninety page essay on ‘Poetry and magic’. In this essay he directed us towards chapter 14 of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria suggesting that ‘there is a reality being apprehended as surely as in ordinary sense-perception’. In that chapter Coleridge quotes from Sir John Davies’s 1599 poem ‘Of the Soule of Man’:

Doubtless this could not be, but that she turns
Bodies to spirit by sublimation strange,
As fire converts to fire the things it burns,
As we our food into our nature change.

From their gross matter she abstracts their forms,
And draws a kind of quintessence from things;
Which to her proper nature she transforms
To bear them light, on her celestial wings.

Thus does she, when from individual states
She doth abstract the universal kinds;
Which then re-clothed in divers names and fates
Steal access through our senses to our minds.

Wilson Knight commented on this: ‘Sublimation is a term from alchemy. Piercing through matter to essential forms, imagination grips what is universal, which is then re-clothed. The result is addressed to a new sense-perception, resembling yet transcending ordinary sense-perception.’
And then I turned to Alan Baker’s sequence of ‘Thirteen Spells Against Global Warming’, the second half of this fine little volume from last year with its intricate title that shifts from the conditional to the state of play, from ‘Whether’ to ‘weather’. I find these poems wonderfully eerie; they create a living world where the magical pierces through the mundane to tap on our windows.

‘Walk through rain
and dark
spitting leaves, cold
and here’s sleet.
Breath on the window
freezing frames
(what rhymes with breath?)
wind wails or is it squeals
and in silent rooms
curtains move by themselves.’

The sense of a living presence of the outside world, the non-human, is terrific here and it seems entirely appropriate that the poet should then take us to the world of Old English Charms and Gnomic Verses:

‘Shrink like water in a bucket.
Shrivel like coal on the hearth.’

The echo is of the Anglo-Saxon ‘Charm Against a Wen’:

‘Wen, wen wenlet little,
build not here nor find a home
but pass to the north to the next hill
and there discover your brother in pain.
He shall place a leaf on your face.
Under the wolf’s foot under the eagle’s wing
under the eagle’s claw grow into nothingness.
Collapse like a coal burnt in a hearth;
shrink like plaster in a ruined wall…’

In 1923 William Carlos Williams was convinced that ‘so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow’ and perhaps his conviction was based upon a feeling that American culture was based in a realization of the qualities of a place in relation to the life which occupies it. His little poem was written only a year after the publication of Eliot’s The Waste Land where the American hope for cultural distinction seemed to be based upon an inheritance of a European and classical tradition of placing oneself in a very different context from the one asserted by Williams. The doctor from Rutherford wanted to start with local materials, ‘lifting these things into an ordered and utilized whole’ (The American Background, 1934). However, if so much is to depend upon this localization of background then it must be because firm observation of the local will lead to greater insights into thoughts and emotions which transcend what could otherwise become simply parochial.
Reading Alan Baker’s poems this morning I found myself tempted into a slight frisson, a sense of an otherness which I shall want to return to many times again. He certainly takes the reader far beyond the parochial!

1
‘I wish she’d tap
at my window
and smile
when I’m far from home.’

2
‘Path, leading me
to the riverbank
to meet our ghosts
at daybreak:
so pale and wan
and fond, like lovers
expecting rain.’

Ian Brinton 9th July 2015

Unfinished Study of a French Girl by Todd Swift

Unfinished Study of a French Girl by Todd Swift

www.knivesforksandspoonspress.co.uk

 

Alec Newman’s splendid Knives Forks and Spoons Press has just released some imaginative and inspiring new volumes and I am delighted that this treads closely upon the heels of Juha Virtanen’s review article on the Press in the current issue of Tears.

Unfinished Study of a French Girl is Todd Swift’s first pamphlet of poetry in years and, having written about Mainstream love hotel (Tall-Lighthouse 2009) some years back, it gives me pleasure to pore over this new little chapbook. I recall referring in my earlier review to Swift’s grounding of language and ideas in the personal and being struck by the feeling that there is a convincing quality to domestic reference that avoids the prurient by appealing to the universal. As the blurb on the final page of this new book tells us ‘Exploring how absence “ghosts” all our desires and hopes, our fears and fun, this collection artfully and playfully takes poems to rarely seen places, aesthetic, elegant and witty as always.’ Given that statement and my earlier reading of Todd Swift’s work it should come as no surprise that I turned to the poem ‘Kora in Hell’ which stands spread over the central pages of this new chapbook.

 

never bite

the red seeds bitterly bursting their small loan

onto the banks of your tongue

in the wan gardens underground

 

where no noon is.

 

This is a poem about transience and hope, about being ‘near the sun and on the ground’ which ‘is to be alive’. With an awareness of how time both takes and gives we are presented with that buried world in which ‘love lights darker candles’ and in which ‘a starker irresistance thrives’. I am reminded here of Donne’s ‘A Hymne to Christ, at the Authors last going into Germany’:

 

As the trees sap doth seeke the root below

In winter, in my winter now I goe,

Where none but thee, th’Eternall root of true love I may know.

 

Just as ‘Churches are best for Prayer, that have least light’ Swift’s underworld seeks to possess ‘The darker longing / is to keep the slim sweet guest who never stays.’ One of the beauties of the myth of Kora lies in its confirmation that all possession is itself short-lived and the ‘slim sweet guest’ will return to land and sun. There is no binding to oneself a joy! In William Carlos Williams’s 1920 publication, Kora in Hell, he referred to a discrimination between true and false values and concluded that the true value ‘is that peculiarity which gives an object character by itself’:

 

The imagination goes from one thing to another. given many things of nearly totally divergent natures but possessing one-thousandth part of a quality in common, provided that be new, distinguished, these things belong in an imaginative category and not in a gross natural array.

 

These are accomplished and delicate poems which play with ideas of presence and absence and which sometimes have that awareness of ‘only air where art / could have been’ in terms of the title poem of the collection.

 

Next year Todd Swift’s publishing company, Eyewear, intends to produce a book to help push current serious poetry criticism of contemporary British and Irish poetry into new and informative directions. The book will be aimed at the general intelligent reader and well as undergraduate and M.Litt university students, and of course, poets themselves.

Swift’s own account of this new venture is ‘I am thinking this will be a sort of brief critical encyclopaedia’.

 

Ian Brinton 26th May 2014

 

 

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