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Day In, Day Out by Simon Smith Parlor Press (USA)

Day In, Day Out by Simon Smith Parlor Press (USA)

In April last year I reviewed Simon Smith’s Shearsman publication More Flowers Than You Could Possibly Carry, Selected Poems 1989-2012. In April 2015 I reviewed his Oystercatcher chapbook Half a dozen, just like you. April 2018 is not a season entirely bereft of spiritual consolation despite the ghastly warnings across the ether: there is a new book from Simon Smith and once again I am drawn into a world in which words are offered for their daylight meaning. As an early poem by Charles Reznikoff had put it

“the plain sunlight of the cases,
the sharp prose,
the forthright speech of the judges;
it was good, too, to stick my mind against the sentences
of a judge,
and drag the meaning out of the shell of words.”

As I have said before, Smith’s poetry is on the move and it is no mere accident that the title of his Selected contained a pun on the word ‘Flowers’. As Joyce put it in Ulysses, “Hold to the now, the here, through which all the future plunges to the past”. This new book of journal entries is haunted by ghosts: Paul Blackburn, Christopher Smith the poet’s father, 26 Poems: Californialand in Winter (vErIsImILItUde, 2014). The American influences are identifiable in many ways but, as with all ghosts, they are felt along the bloodlines and are Shades which melt when looked at directly. A poem which bears the title ‘Letter, Yesterday’s: with a Poem / Attached by Paul Blackburn, & my / Entry for the Day Before Yesterday’ has James Wright’s famous ‘Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota’ in the background and the tone of voice in Wright’s accumulation of images is echoed by “today’s entry is reflection”. Then we hear the voice of O’Hara in the “daily account”, a noun which both narrates and sums up an experience:

“yes, Evan clicked at keys and stops in step to the mouthings
Matt sampled then re-processed
as David and I
spoke line into line
each layer broadcast above
the other”

The broadcast layers, an accumulation of one’s reading and thinking, recall Joshua Tree, Split Rock, Paul Blackburn, Barry Goldwater Jr. and Charles Olson as “lines and stanzas / hang mobile / hang-gliders in air on electronic / ether SPACES”. However, these SPACES are not just the Olsonian central fact to man born in America at the opening of Call Me Ishmael, they are unbridgeable gaps between the present and the past. A journal, day by day, records reflections of loss and yet the teasingly almost-tangible ghosts of yesterday find an opening into the NOW with the very act of writing: this poem of Smith’s is the ‘Entry for the Day Before Yesterday’ and it concludes with an awareness of the spaces “between / us”. It is “a very personal poem” which lies clear on the white page “to drop / kisses into / / browsing data and love”. The poetry of Frank O’Hara is clearly close to Simon Smith’s heart and like the New York poet’s ability to drag that meaning “out of the shell of words” his new series of poetry journals “is a plate of spinning, stunning experience” (Elaine Randell). When O’Hara wrote his famous lunch-time jaunt, ‘A Step Away from Them’ the word “Step” has not only a physical connotation of movement but also a deep-seated awareness of how we all are only a step away from the dead.

Many of Simon Smith’s poems are anchored firmly in the concrete but it is the spaces between the pictures, the cadences, the quiet and unjudging adjacency of people and objects that make their reality moving.

Ian Brinton, 9th April 2018

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Salon Noir by Simon Smith (Equipage)

Salon Noir by Simon Smith (Equipage)

The epigraph at the front of this stunningly presented new book of poems from Rod Mengham’s Equipage is significant in that it points the way forward:

‘Place and the spirit of place is the inspiration of more poetry than we nowadays like to admit; and to do poetry justice, the critic needs to turn himself into a tourist’.

These words conclude Donald Davie’s essay on ‘The Cantos: Towards a Pedestrian Reading’ (spring-summer 1972) and they possess the faint timbre of a Michelin Guide to the Cathar regions of Foix, Palmiers, Montaillou and Montségur. And in similar mode one of the best tourist guides of poetry during the Pound era, Hugh Kenner, allowed his engaging narrative to act as our signpost in 1972 as we were transported back to 1919, ‘a good summer for the impecunious to travel’. Ezra and Dorothy Pound met Tom Eliot ‘near Giraut de Bornelh’s birthplace, Excideuil’:

‘The three headed south, the Pounds finally to Montségur but Eliot on a divagation of his own to inspect nearby cave drawings. That may have been at the Grotte de Niaux. We are to imagine him, rucksacked, deep inside a mountain, individual talent confronted by the Mind of Europe, satisfying himself that art never improves (“but the material of art”—here, bison “d’un pureté de trait étonnante” drawn with magnesium oxide in bison grease—“is never quite the same”), while 20 kilometers eastward by crows’ flight the Pounds, fortified with chocolate, were climbing the southwest face of Montségur to the white walls that ride its summit like a stone ship.’

Naturally enough Thomas Stearns Eliot, gentlemanly figure from London, was a different type of tourist from the Pounds, as is evident from his short letter to Lytton Strachey written in late August that year:

‘I have been walking the whole time since I arrived and so have had no address at all. Through Dordogne and the Corrèze, sunburnt—melons, ceps, truffles, eggs, good wine and good cheese and cheerful people. It’s a complete relief from London.’

Simon Smith’s poetic journey into that part of France north of the Pyrenees merges past and present as his Airbus A320 ‘prepares for final descent & the slip towards Tolosa / Piere Vidal’s town’. This is the first reference to Paul Blackburn, a haunting presence throughout the sequence of poems, and to his Peire Vidal translations published by Mulch Press also in 1972, a year after the American poet’s death. A second follows immediately:

‘the lines you carry with you
lines in lieu of memory
the ghost of Paul Blackburn takes up the work from E.P.
poets metamorphosise
into tourists & time shuffles forward one hour’

This awareness of time is central to the whole sequence and in the fifth poem we are presented with the Salon Noir itself deep within the Grotte de Niaux:

‘Gallery of the Scree the Deep Gallery
damp limestone metamorphosing
stalactites drip

reform as stalagmites
climb the ossified sand dune
thirty-odd feet high

& to the Salon Noir a kilometre deep
bison some ice-age horses ibex deer
off limits the Réseau Clastres & the only weasel

Panel II bison facing away
right 13,850 BP counterpoint
to Panel VI 12,890 BP bison facing left

a dead female & a thousand years between

outlined in charcoal or a mixture
manganese dioxide
for black haematite for red

clear as today lit by torch battery
our eyes are their eyes
no history between’

In his introduction to Blackburn’s Peire Vidal, the editor commented upon the excellence of the American poet’s choice in translating the poetry of the Provençal troubadours because it was a choice made out of a special affinity for them: ‘Because he had the gifts and desire, he became one and all of them, as with genius and learning he gave their poems his own voice and new life in a new language.’ There is an integritas in the late-twelfth century poet which also sits closely alongside Simon Smith’s re-creation of the Cathar world of Montségur, the temple to the sun which Pound had brought back into focus in Canto 76:

‘….and the rain fell all the night long at Ussel
cette mauvaiseh venggg blew over Tolosa
and in Mt Segur there is wind space and rain space’

Simon Smith’s ‘Montségur’ opens with space and movement, white on the page, background to the movement of ‘swallows tipping in / & out of thermals’. The expansion of light as recorded by Robert Grosseteste in his De Luce: a little tract from around the same time as Vidal’s song which tells us that ‘light of its very nature diffuses itself in every direction in such a way that a point of light will produce instantaneously a sphere of light of any size whatsoever, unless some opaque object stands in the way.’ In Smith’s poem the ‘luminous’ is ‘a punishing light & infinite thirst’ as we are presented with the sketch of

‘the last two hundred die-hard Cathars
below the prat dels cremats
eight months of dissent’

The movement of history and geography, the tourist’s awareness of how time does not alter everything and, as Eliot was to assert about the unchanging nature of art, the then and the now overlap like ‘the infinite / tripping over of water / from the fountains into the babble of voices’.

Paul Blackburn’s ‘Ab l’alen tir vas me l’aire’ opens with the immediacy of

‘I suck deep in air come from Provence to here.
All things from there so please me
when I hear
in dockside taverns
travelers’ gossip told
I listen smiling,
and for each word ask a hundred smiling words,
all news is good’

Simon Smith’s journey to the Salon Noir brings back this sense of air and noise, a history of both then and now. As with every good tourist trip a reader will want to return and return in order to savour again those moments glimpsed; such as

‘John James alone on the wide terrace of the Café de la Paix
a half empty glass of vin blanc on the table
happy for another as we are of the first

and talk
of a new book—Songs in Midwinter for Franco
Franco Beltrametti.

Ian Brinton 16th March 2016

Michael Grant’s Cinderella’s Ashtray, Simon Smith’s Church Avenue (vErIsImILLtUdE, occasional bulletins)

Michael Grant’s Cinderella’s Ashtray, Simon Smith’s Church Avenue (vErIsImILLtUdE, occasional bulletins)

Some new productions have appeared from Simon Smith’s publishing house and I have been fortunate enough to have a glance at two of them. Reading Michael Grant’s work always gives me a sense of footfalls echoing down a corridor and that is no surprise of course since Grant is a major critic of T.S. Eliot. Back in 1982 he edited the two volume edition of The Critical Heritage for Routledge and I am fortunate to have acquired a copy of these books which used to belong to Donald Davie, himself one of Grant’s teachers at Cambridge. Davie was a great marker of his own books, often using a biro to draw clear lines of approval (or its opposite) down the page. One of the moments in the introduction to the first volume which Davie highlights with enthusiasm reads as follows:

‘The problem of unity and disunity was raised again by John Crowe Ransom in July 1923. Ransom considered that Eliot was engaged in the destruction of the philosophical and cosmical principles by which we form our usual picture of reality, and that Eliot wished to name cosmos Chaos’

Comparing this attitude with that of Allen Tate, Grant goes on to write ‘However, for Tate, it was precisely in the incongruities, labelled as ‘parody’ by Ransom, that the ‘form’ of ‘The Waste Land’ resided, in the ironic attitude of the free consciousness that refused a closed system.’

Irony and refusal both form part of this new collection of Grant’s poetry and the influence of Eliot can still be felt in the sound of ‘a footstep echo / on the flagstone’ as the ‘shadow defends me from the shadow’ (‘For the Present’). Michael Grant is a craftsman and in this way he also pursues the path taken by his master: his writing goes through many drafts before the spare realisation on the page presents the reader with those mysterious echoes which haunt a world that seems to lie beyond language. ‘Disappointment: After Benjamin Péret’ had started many months before as

‘the wings of insects brush against the cheek
the fragment renders visible
the pure contours of the absent work
error is not in violation

of the language
the word as such has fled before the sensual god
of late hours’

This has now been strained down, compressed, condensed, given mysterious vitality as we read

‘insect wings
scarcely thicker than the rain
and as delicate
beat against the cheek

in the casual flight of day the blood has trapped

a sensual god
so pale it is unknown

even to the black outlines of the foliage’

The echoes of course are not merely of T.S. Eliot but also of the great mystics of the seventeenth-century about whom Eliot wrote with much intensity.

Simon Smith’s little collection of twenty-three poems, each containing five lines and each presented as a block of language sitting decisively on the full white page which frames it, also contains echoes. Here I become aware not only of Frank O’Hara, whose steps along the street have been threading their way through Simon Smith’s lines for many years, but also of Paul Blackburn as he ‘hollers / from a window above decades ago’. The world of Scorsese’s Travis Bickle moves along ‘as glimpses / of Manhattan Brooklyn dirty old air / sirens and yellow cabs running along / Ocean Parkway cats held in bad odor’. I recall writing about Smith’s poetry as always being on the move and remember Fifteen Exits (Waterloo Press 2001). Although published at the opening of the new century the individual ‘exits’ were all dated precisely in the closing years of the previous one. The place of first publication and the names of the travelling companions were included. That volume’s opening poem, ‘The Nature of Things’ was dedicated to J.D. Taylor and carried an epigraph from Stephen Rodefer. It began in a slightly old-fashioned epistolary fashion suggestive of being on the cusp of change:

‘Dear John, my friend
can I call you that?
No news, but poetry.’

In Church Avenue the travelling companions include his wife, Flick, and both Barry Schwabsky & John Yau.

Ian Brinton March 1st 2015

Basil King’s The Spoken Word / the Painted Hand from Learning to Draw / A History

Basil King’s The Spoken Word / the Painted Hand from Learning to Draw / A History

(Marsh Hawk Press, 2014) http://www.marshhawkpress.org/BKing3.html

Basil King emigrated from South Chingford in 1947, attended Black Mountain College from 1951-56, and subsequently became an abstract expressionist painter and poet / writer. He continuously moves between painting and writing, and is highly regarded both sides of the Atlantic. His artwork has been included in poetry books by Amiri Baraka, Paul Blackburn, and Allen Ginsberg.

This warm-hearted collection of wide-ranging essays, one of which was published in Tears in the Fence 60, moves effortlessly between prose and poetry in a freewheeling style. The essays are highly informative drawing upon King’s extensive knowledge of art, artists and their experiences, as well as history, film and autobiographical detail. There is great charm, self-deprecating humour, running throughout the book which has the repeated refrains of ‘Leave home. Meet strangers. And learn to draw’ and ‘Be Rich. Get Rich. Be Rich. Get Rich’. The refrains gain piquancy as one reads on. A typical sequence from an essay on ‘The White Tablecloth’ follows:

‘The origin of the table knife is attributed to Cardinal Richelieu. He wanted to cure dinner guests of picking their teeth with the point of a knife. Later, in 1669, King Louis XIV of France banned pointed knives in the street and at his table, insisting on blunt tips, in order to reduce violence.

A man and a woman sit at a table
Without a tablecloth
Another couple sits at a table
With a white tablecloth
Both couples use knives and forks’

PAUSE

According to Sir Isaac Newton white light is the effect of combining the visible colors of light in equal proportions. White is all colors combined to make white. Black is the absorption of all color. So black and white are opposites.’

It is an absorbing collage of anecdotal memory, knowledge and gentle argument full of insight. In his essay on why the miniature is as important as the mural King insists that light abstracts the smallest thing. As part of his argument he moves from his work at Kulicke Frames in New York in 1963, to Jack Odell, the self-trained engineer whose inventions led to Matchbox toys, Giacomettti in Switzerland, traditional Japanese garments and miniature sculptures, to his own collection of miniature vehicles, and onwards to the intricacies of the Book of Kells, Olemic murals, Walt Disney’s obsession with miniatures, the German miniaturist painter, Adam Elsheimer’s Flight into Egypt (1609), the first moonlit night scene in European painting, a quotation from Philip Ruben’s lament at Elsheimer’s death, and Velazquez’s painting of dwarfs and half-wits as people with personalities. The impact is cumulative and thoughtful, allowing a larger picture and frame of reference to emerge and yet still allowing for the smallest of details to have impact. It is clever and thoughtful writing.

I note that King’s Black Mountain tutor for History and Literature was that polymath with an enquiring mind, Charles Olson. Like Edward Dorn, another of Olson’s students, one has a sense of the practical and lived going hand in hand with the perceptive intellectual. The whole book is a joyful engagement.

David Caddy 23rd January 2015

Long Poem Magazine Issue 11 Spring 2014

Long Poem Magazine Issue 11 Spring 2014

http://www.longmagazine.org.uk

 

Edited by Lucy Hamilton, Linda Black and Ann Vaughan-Williams

 

Linda Black’s editorial states the magazine’s intention ‘to represent the broad range of contemporary poetics’ and they achieve this with aplomb. Each issue has an impressive range of long poems, introduced by each poet, and one substantial essay.

 

Issue 11 is no exception to the usual high standard. Robert Vas Dias’ essay on Paul Blackburn’s The Journals (1975) is a wonderfully written personal and critical introduction to the subject. It is highly informative, providing a contextualised reading of a neglected, major American poet. By the way, Simon Smith is editing a Paul Blackburn Reader for publication by Shearsman in 2015, which will include hitherto unpublished material from the Blackburn archive at San Diego.

 

This issue has a strong international flavour. There are translations from the Spanish of Mercedes Cebriàn’s 2005 ‘Common Market’ poem by Terence Dooley, and from the Russian of Vladislav Khodasevich’s 1926 ‘John Bottom’ poem by Peter Daniels.

Frances Presley’s ‘OBX’ poem is a tribute to and a dialogue with Muriel Rukeyser’s Outer Banks (1967) and was written in and around the Outer Banks on the Atlantic coast of North Carolina.

 

Mark Sorrell offers a translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem, ‘The Battles of Maldon’, and Kevin Crossley-Holland’s ‘Harald In Byzantium’ captures the eleventh century Norwegian giant between two worlds thinking about home and identity. Edwin Stockdale’s ‘Snowdrops’ stems from an immersion in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1853 novel, Ruth, and Aviva Dautch responds to Pablo Picasso’s 1946 Bull lithographs in the context of Theodore Adorno’s challenge about the possibility of art after the Holcaust. ‘Eleven Developments Of A Lithograph’ employs a first person narrative to follow Picasso’s progression from the figurative to abstraction and response to barbarism. Anna Stearman’s ‘Letters to Dr. Freud’ stems from reading H.D.’s Tribute to Freud (1956) and is mediated through Rilke, Anna Freud, and others.

 

I was pleased to see D.M. Black featured. He seemed to have dropped from view in recent years due one suspects to writing unfashionable poems. His ‘The Uses of Mythology’ reads Ezra Pound’s ambition and trajectory through the myth of Marsyas, flayed alive for daring to compete with Apollo. Similarly unfashionable is Aidan Semmens’ wonderfully titled, ‘A Clergyman’s Guide To String Theory’, derived from a chance method of finding non-poetic lines on page 53 of a selection of books in his home and using playing cards to shuffle the lines and generate a random sequence. The poem begins:

 

I dropped into line with women

rich clusters of columbine heavy and dark

there is serene repose in the body

both sacred and sordid

surrounded by scaffolding

a face cut into stone the steps strewn with lavender

selection of articles collectible figurines and large scenes

a few pieces in relief entirely made by hand

ancient hunters and gatherers painted figures

of animals and humans in shades

of red and yellow ochre

on the cliffs that line the innumerable waterways

 

There is also captivating work by Mimi Khalvati, Anna Reckin, R.D. Parker, Lisa Kelly, James Byrne and Maitreyabandhu, and an editorial by Linda Black.

 

Each issue is £6. Annual subscriptions are £14.50.

 

David Caddy 24th June 2014

Launching Simon Smith

Launching Simon Smith

The first of the 2014 Shearsman events at Swedenborg Hall in London included Simon Smith reading from his recently published collection 11781 W. Sunset Boulevard. This is a fast-moving world which ranges from L.A. to Dartford in Kent, from Paradise Cove to Gravesend. One of the epigraphs to the first section, the American poems in which Simon Smith goes in search of Paul Blackburn and the ‘pure products / of the dream factory’, simply gives us ‘A crazy little place called ‘Be There Now’’ and as one is zoomed across a continent this seems very apt. One of the things I liked about these poems was, however, that impression I got of the sense of ‘Now’ being placed within a context of both ‘Then’ and a future which can loom with ominous dislocation. The click and shift of sounds and humour are underwritten with an urgency which has moments of leisure to savour ‘the taste of almonds as Time drops below the sun’.

The second half of this collection is titled Gravesend and it takes us on the North Kent railway line from Charing Cross to Chatham and beyond…and beyond. In a world of captions and key-words which present themselves as a mirror of everyday narrowness Smith gives us ‘Deposits’:

 

Refrigeration and containment

Not that far to the jail at Sheppey

Nationalise the debt for helicopter money

No time to think—extruded plexi-glass,

Or a few details from my own personal experience

Is History in real time not sampled

The exchange of containers from ro-ros to lorries,

The male located in the female.

 

The reference here to acrylic glass is both precise and illuminating since laser cut panels have been used over the last ten years to redirect sunlight into a light pipe or tubular skylight in order to spread it into a room. In this sequence of poems details of personal human experience shed light upon the poet’s perception of History and, as if in memory of the time when he threw a large clock through the window of Barnwood House in order to do a runner from the lunatic asylum in Gloucester, the poet and composer Ivor Gurney now ‘plots his great escape from Dartford Asylum’.

On the back of this volume Jeremy Noel-Tod has written ‘All the digital landfill of one London poet’s life is here, not to mention a book-stopping tribute to Cy Twombly. Line by line, Smith is one of the most exciting poets writing in England: if it weren’t for the sweet Thames and the Little Chefs, he might pass for an American.’

 

Ian Brinton 22nd January 2014

 

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