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Meridian by Nancy Gaffield (Oystercatcher Press)

Meridian by Nancy Gaffield (Oystercatcher Press)

Peter Riley’s comment on the back of this new Oystercatcher delight from Nancy Gaffield points us in the right direction:

‘Each book by Nancy Gaffield seems a new venture—not a new poet, for there is considerable continuity of her way with words, but rather a new way of projecting the text, a new ancestry, and a new form of engagement with the reader’.

1. ‘A new venture’

An aphetic version from late Middle-English of ‘adventure’: a risky undertaking, a journey the conclusion to which is unknown. Nancy Gaffield’s ‘new venture’ starts with both literature and geography, the self and the place. The opening section offers a quotation from Lorine Niedecker’s ‘North Central’. This short piece of aphoristic poetry looks outward as the opening of both writing and a journey: ‘For best work / you ought to put forth / some effort / to stand / in north woods / among birch’. First published in Cid Corman’s Third Series of Origin (July 1966) the American tone is immediately set for this discovery of a British meridian: the Niedecker quotation is closely followed by a reference to Ordnance Survey Map 122 and a title ‘Peacehaven to Lewes’.

‘Everywhere there are signs / of the North / sudden turns / in weather / a fierceness / of light / trace landscapes / vacant lots / a pivotal place’

The poetry is placed on the page in the three-ply line so loved of Carlos Williams and I only don’t produce it like that on account of the fear that it will not appear correctly when placed on-line. Niedecker, Williams; and I recall writing about Gaffield’s Zyxt (Oystercatcher) last year and referring to Robert Duncan and Charles Olson.

2. ‘considerable continuity’

The continuity referred to by Peter Riley can be traced back to that previous Oystercatcher publication in which Gaffield said that ‘each poem is an exploration / of language in place’ following it with a reference to Gaston Bachelard’s assertion that ‘Inhabited space transcends geometrical space’. This new journey along a meridian takes the reader through those inhabited spaces: ‘vacant lots’, pivotal places, churchyards, epitaphs and fields which ‘lie fallow / waiting for the sun / waiting for the yoke.’ There is perhaps a new voice here as well, that of R.F. Langley whose early poem ‘Matthew Glover’ explored the ideas inherited from both Black Mountain College on the one hand and Carl Sauer on the other. Getting the outside world in has echoes of the advice offered by Olson to his Black Mountain student, Edward Dorn, to follow the model of history set down by Herodotus: ‘istorin, to find out for oneself; to absorb himself intensely and entirely in his subject, “to dig one thing” in a “saturation job” that might require a “lifetime of assiduity”. Carl Sauer was an example here: “to dig one thing or place or man” until the subject was exhausted, as Sauer had done with his early studies of the land and culture of the prairie, was to be “in forever”’. In Nancy Gaffield’s digging

‘Reliable markers include: long barrows, cairns, dolmens, ponds, springs,
wells, castles, churches, hill-forts, quarries, notches in hills, cross-roads. This
is a spatial practice.’

In Mircea Eliade’s 1959 book, The Sacred and the Profane the author suggests that a sacred place has a unique existential value for religious man, whereas for non-religious man space is neutral:
‘A universe comes to birth from its centre; it spreads from a central point that is, as it were, its navel…just as the universe unfolds from a centre and stretches out towards the four cardinal points, the village comes into existence around an intersection. In Bali…when a new village is to be built, the people look for a natural intersection, where two roads cross at right angles. A square constructed from a central point in an imago mundi. The division of the village into four sections…corresponds to the division of the universe into four horizons. A space is often left empty in the middle of the village; there the ceremonial house will later be built, with its roof symbolically representing heaven. At the other end of the same perpendicular axis lies the world of the dead.’

Along Nancy Gaffield’s meridian that human sense of place is sharply caught: it is there. Knowledge accumulates and ‘Landscape remembers’:

‘Danehill Anglo Saxon for swine pasture on the hill
is surrounded by woods
Cowstock Wood
Down Wood
Enholm’s Wood
High Wood
Withy Wood Sedge Wood
“thick and inaccessible” (the Venerable Bede)
Itineration a form of salvage’

3. ‘a new ancestry’

Nancy Gaffield is a reader of poetry as well as a walker of the landscape and one’s reading becomes a part of who one is. In this new volume we meet Helen Adam and John Clare, Walt Whitman and, perhaps, Philip Larkin’s sharp eye for the wreckage of the suburban:

‘The edges of arable land give way
to housing estates wasteland
this part of town
isn’t meant to be gawked at
newly-built business parks
abut abandoned warehouses
brownfield sites
ripe for development
in the distance the yelp of a dog’

It seems so entirely appropriate that the blurb for this excellent new Oystercatcher should have been written by Peter Riley whose own poem ‘From Romney Marsh’ recollected ‘my track across the land’.

Ian Brinton, 29th February 2016

The Book of Hours of Kitty Power by Moyra Torlamain

The Book of Hours of Kitty Power by Moyra Torlamain

vErIsImIlItUdE, Occasional Bulletin no.3

In the afterword to Parataxis Number 7, Spring 1995, the guest editor, J.H. Prynne, refers to the great aquarium of language:

Within the great aquarium of language the light refracts variously and can bounce by inclinations not previously observed. Some of the codes will unfold with merely adept connivance, others will swim vigorously into and by circulation inside their own medium. If you can imagine staff notation etched on the glass you can read off the scales, da carpo and mirror-folded.

The bouncing-bomb of language, like the storehouse of vectors I referred to last week, makes for disturbing reading and one is almost tempted to peer into the aquarium with the astonishment of Alice in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1872):

The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things—but the oddest part of it all was, that whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty: though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold. ‘Things flow about so here!’ she said at last in a plaintive tone, after she had spent a minute or so in vainly pursuing a large-bright thing, that looked sometimes like a doll and sometimes like a work-box, and was always in the shelf next above the one she was looking at.

I get a slightly similar feeling when reading this delightful and thought-provoking little chapbook of poems, or sequence of poem, by Moyra Tourlamain, published recently by Simon Smith’s home-grown press:

…I am feeling my way around the inside of a globe. All
the mountains and rift valleys and shorelines which might
offer a hand-hold are ridging up the outside, so I must splay
my hands and feet against the inner skin, or end up
crouching on the bottom.

Well, the buoyancy of language keeps us both afloat and trapped; its echoes of usage allow us to see the aquarium from the outside as

You place your left hand
hard against the glass.
From my side, I can see the palm,
crossed with its variable life-lines,
& your non-transferable
finger prints.

Of course we all experience things differently but language also is capable of convincing us of a commonality and a ‘snapshot’, ‘view from the kitchen window’, has hints of both Lorine Niedecker and W.C. Williams:

there’s nothing but a sheet of glass
between the warmth of the house
and distance written loud
absence driven home in fragments

That phrase ‘driven home’ is full of reverberations and not all of them are pertinent to the skilled workplace as opposed to domestic resolution. A lovely book, which is available from 58 Crescent Road, Ramsgate, CT11 9QY.

Ian Brinton, 22nd June 2015.

Rampant Inertia by Alan Halsey (Shearsman Books)

Rampant Inertia by Alan Halsey (Shearsman Books)

As one might well expect from the highest class of second-hand book seller Alan Halsey has an ear and memory for names. This is true of a childhood recalled near Crystal Palace in ‘Idle Time-Scans’, where the pub Beulah Spa still stands as do those uplifts of memory with names such as Robin Hood or Dick Turpin engraved on their craggy surface, and it is of a literary knowledge acquired over some sixty years. The poems in this new Shearsman collection will present the reader with glimpses and echoes ranging from Homer and Virgil to Lorine Niedecker, from Dickens and Mayhew to J.H. Prynne.

 

And yet those names, books, associations have an awkward life of their own as they insist upon thrusting themselves up through consciousness and memory. Alan Halsey recalls that as a child he found it difficult to sleep since ‘I couldn’t put an end to the saying of things’ and he is compelled to tell Timothy Donnelly in a letter ‘dated 2 a.m. 26 Dec 2011’ that it only gets worse as he gets older. The experience of the avid reader takes the poet back to his memory of a piece of description from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and London Poor in which a snake-swallower gives an account of his secret:

 

The head of the snake

 

with the ‘stingers cut out’ goes ‘about an inch

and a half down the throat and the rest of it

 

continues in the mouth, curled round.’

 

As the magician puts it: ‘As for the snakes / ‘they’re smooth one way’—he meant when they’re / going down—but the scales like things said / ‘rough you a bit when you draw them up.’. Nothing easy about either memory or poetry!

 

In 1924 Francis Ponge wrote a little piece titled ‘L’insignifiant’ the conclusion to which tells us of the poet’s belief in utterance as opposed to silence: ‘more important than the white page is the script even if it appears insignificant.’ Against the azure sky watch the quiet outline of a cloud! Look out for Alan Halsey’s convincing evidence of the worth of putting pen to paper. And also look out for Laurie Duggan’s full-length review of this delightful volume; it will appear in Tears in the Fence 60 or 61.

Ian Brinton 26th April 2014

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