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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

Tom Chivers: Dark Islands

Tom Chivers: Dark Islands

II

Terrors of the Dark Island

When Tom Chivers was interviewed by Will Barrett of the Poetry School in 2015 he was asked about his collection Dark Islands (Test Centre) and suggested in reply that it contained work completed since the end of the first decade of the century:

Dark Islands contains poems written over the past six years (since my debut collection How to Build a City came out). As such it’s not governed by any one defining theme; however, I hope that readers will discern a network of interconnecting ideas and motifs: bank collapse, urban geology, magic, ritual, the island as a stand-in for the body. The book also tests out—in various askew ways—the idea of faith; or, rather, what I call a ‘dodgy faith in the truth’. Can we find a centre, a still point, in this whirlpool of voices?

Dark Islands is an intriguing and often disturbing sequence of poems which is clearly revealed as the work of a London poet haunted by landscapes, hidden histories and constant movement. If Graham Swift’s Waterland is one of the influences upon Chivers’s early work the shifting phantasmagorias of Paul Auster seem to lean through this new volume of ‘night-work’. Auster’s 1987 novel In the Country of Last Things opens with a dystopian vision of the future of the city:

These are the last things, she wrote. One by one they disappear and never come back. I can tell you of the ones I have seen, of the ones that are no more, but I doubt there will be time. It is all happening too fast now, and I cannot keep up.
I don’t expect you to understand. You have seen none of this, and even if you tried, you could not imagine it. These are the last things. A house is there one day, and the next day it is gone. A street you walked down yesterday is no longer there today. Even the weather is in constant flux. A day of sun followed by a day of rain, a day of snow followed by a day of fog, warm then cool, wind then stillness, a stretch of bitter cold, and then today, in the middle of winter, an afternoon of fragrant light, warm to the point of merely sweaters. When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you mustn’t waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it.

Another significant influence lurking behind this work is, of course, Charles Dickens and this becomes immediately evident in poem xix of Dark Islands:

Jacob’s Island

blue linen shirt peppered
with unanticipated rainfall
on Tanner Street and river
so near first one then
two pedestrians with broken limbs
whilst architects and secretaries
close little windows on the dock
or Neckinger perhaps a shanty Venice

Holy Trinity is shut adrift
in its own isle and so
I’m thinking of my body
in the rookery a garden
across another fire station
apathetic bulldog in a dip
wild flowering from boundary wall
a purple especially

who is that crouching
in the highway and slipping
by the fenceline between
the dark water and the wall
I do not call it bank
no sewer here please
as armed police are shuttled
downstream by speedboat
only one looks south their
helmets are so very black

who is that frying onion
throwing balls into the Thames
closing windows racing
scooters thru the island
like it’s never even there

Jacob’s island becomes the last hiding place for Bill Sykes and it was described by Henry Mayhew in the Morning Chronicle of 1849 as the ‘very capital of cholera’ and the ‘Venice of drains’. The description given by Dickens in Chapter L of Oliver Twist suggests the more eerie and nightmarish qualities of the place:

Near to that part of the Thames on which the church at Rotherhithe abuts, where the buildings on the banks are dirtiest and the vessels on the river blackest with the dust of colliers and the smoke of close-built low-roofed houses, there exists, at the present day, the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants.

Dickens stresses that in order to even find this place the ‘visitor has to penetrate through a maze of close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the roughest and poorest of water-side people’. Once at Jacob’s Island the visitor will discover that the ‘warehouses are roofless and empty; the walls are crumbling down; the windows are no more; the doors are falling into the streets’. The world of phantasmagoria weaves its way through Chivers’s poem as the pedestrians ‘with broken limbs’ appear with Baudelairean menace and the subterranean river Neckinger winds on, ‘a shanty Venice’. The air of menace in the poem comes into focus again with the figure (s) ‘crouching’ and ‘slipping’ as well as the police, ‘armed’, being ‘shuttled downstream’. The evocation of this world concludes with senses: the smell of frying onions, the sound of scooters’, but they cannot be located in this shifting world because, after all, it is ‘like it’s never even there’.
The bleak humour which acts as a backdrop to Tom Chivers’s visceral sense of language can be noted from an early email in the Nine Arches Press volume, The Terrors:

Will, take out your field notebook. Make a tryst in blood. Employ your canines. Watch a shank of lamb slip off the bone as a woman stepping from her dress. This steaming viand, in its scrambled mess of lentils (puy), requires your total 100% concentration. I give you ‘The Huntsman’s Supper’, or some other peasant chic moniker.

Ian Brinton 15th June 2015.

Rod Mengham’s descent into language: The Understory

Rod Mengham’s descent into language: The Understory

(corrupt press limited January 2014)

www.corruptpress.net

 

In the opening pages of his book Language (published by Fontana Press in 1995) Rod Mengham examined the world of Babel; ‘for there was confounded the lippe of all the erthe’ according to John Wyclif’s translation of Genesis 11:9 which hit the light of day some six hundred years earlier.

 

‘The descent from the Tower, then, is like another Fall: a decline into anarchy and linguistic isolation. And yet the instant of chaos in the biblical myth stands for nothing less than the whole of human history, for the process of gradual divergence, and occasional re-convergence, of multifarious linguistic traditions.’

 

It is quite echoing then to read in the first of these six short fictions which have recently appeared in a delightful chapbook from corrupt press about Icarus:

 

He is a diver to the inky cold of the ocean floor, among blind crabs. Volcanic tapers flare briefly. Cormorant fledgling breaks away from the gelid wax. Oiled skin breathes the Kleinian blue. But pressure rattles the lens, changes the convexity of the eye. Currents of lymph sweep away the pin-head sharks and invisible squid. Retinal flurry translates into rushing shoals leading him down to muffled chasms, cathedral rocks. Breathing equipment shuts off, oxygen tubes flatten, general failure of instruments measuring depth, pressure, and the malignity of the earth’s crust.

 

We are transported into a world that merges ‘Landscape and the Fall of Icarus’ (once attributed to Brueghel and made famous with Auden’s poem) with the art of reading: we are looking for what lies beneath the surface of these compelling fictions, the understory, the subtext.

There are other echoes inhabiting these stories and I found myself recalling Paul Auster’s terrifying futuristic novel In the Country of Last Things as I read Mengham’s ‘Diary of an Imperial Surgeon’ and the historical mischievousness of Milan Kundera as I read the opening paragraph of ‘Will O’The Wisp’. In that earlier book, Language, Rod Mengham had suggested that in its evolutionary descent ‘language has become inextricably meshed with the codes of information processing to a degree that makes less and less distinction between technological and vital structures and processes. On the one hand, there is a register in which the difference between hardware (mechanical equipment) and software (programmes) is neither more nor less apparent than either’s difference from liveware (human beings)’.

 

Rod Mengham runs Equipage Press in Cambridge and an excellent introduction to the history of that small press which has had so much to do with the world of contemporary poetry can be located in PN Review 215 where Luke Roberts wrote a brief history as well as giving a list of publications in print.

 

I found The Understory fascinating and it is a little pamphlet to which I shall return again and again not least on account of the clarity and clean edge of the prose.

 

Ian Brinton 5th June 2014

Benjamin Hollander’s Memoir American

Benjamin Hollander’s Memoir American

(dead letter office, BABEL Working Group, an imprint of punctum books, Brooklyn, New York)

 

As the blurb puts it ‘You will find in this Memoir what it means for an alien to search for his family in a book outside the time of its writing. You will find him discovering that translation is a personal story and that poetry might not have a home without it.’

 

I have increasingly become one of those people whose reading, unless I am focussed upon a particular piece of writing that I am committed to, seems to take on a life of journeying of its own. I read something and then find I need to travel down a path which arises from some memory of having read something else which in itself triggers another pathway and…I am going to have to read everything I have ever read as well as read all those things I have only heard of which have been recommended. I need to speak all languages. I am tumbling off the walls of Babel:

 

Therfor was called the name of it Babel, for there was confounded the lippe of all the erthe. [Genesis 11:9, translated by John Wyclif, 1382]

 

Having read Ben Hollander’s Memoir American which arrived in the post yesterday I feel energised and bewildered: I want to set off on those pathways. This is one of the most exciting short books I have come across for a long time and I can only suggest to you all: READ IT!

 

The central study of a section from Charles Reznikoff’s By The Well of Living and Seeing is a delight as Hollander contemplates what it means to hear/see ‘an American poet’s voice transformed when it is written under the influence of other languages which do not need to manifestly show themselves to be felt present in the poem, and which we know are evidenced in the poet’s life.’

 

And now I am being drawn in a way to re-read Paul Auster’s City of Glass (Faber 1987) with its disturbing opening sentence ‘It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.’ And then I am dragged off to look again at Rod Mengham’s, Language (Bloomsbury 1993) with its study of the ‘crazy attempt to erect a structure that might bridge the gap between earth and heaven’ showing the depth and intensity of a human need to be furnished with a language that not only matches the world of physical phenomena ‘but which in some sense brings that world into existence.’ And, yet again, I am now impelled to search the shelves for George Gissing’s autobiographical sketch, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft in which he says

 

How the mood for a book sometimes rushes upon one, either one knows not why, or in consequence, perhaps, of some most trifling suggestion. Yesterday I was walking at dusk. I came to an old farmhouse; at the garden gate a vehicle stood waiting, and I saw it was our doctor’s gig. Having passed, I turned to look back. There was a faint afterglow in the sky beyond the chimneys; a light twinkled at one of the upper windows. I said to myself, “Tristram Shandy”, and hurried home to plunge into a book which I have not opened for I dare say twenty years.

 

Read Ben Hollander’s Memoir American at your peril; you don’t know where you might end up!

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