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For The Future (Shearsman Books)

For The Future (Shearsman Books)

In June 2016 David Caddy wrote a fine review of this little book. In October Tom Phillips also wrote a review and this was sent to all the contributors whose work had made the book important. As a consequence of some computer difficulties suffered by Tony Lewis-Jones’s Various Arts website, based in Bristol, this review never saw the light of day and so it is with great pleasure that I include it here under his name as a guest-blogger. It is important that Tom’s work is seen at large not least because it can now be included in Michael Tencer’s Full Bibliography of the work of J.H. Prynne.

Ian Brinton 8th July 2017

Review: For The Future: Poems & Essays In Honour Of J.H. Prynne On The Occasion Of His 80th Birthday, Ian Brinton (ed.), Shearsman Books, 2016

Of course, the usual starting point for discussing Jeremy Prynne’s poetry is to say something about how difficult or daunting it is. Saying this, however, is tantamount to not saying much at all. As several contributors to A Manner Of Utterance – the 2009 collection of essays about Prynne also edited by Ian Brinton and published by Shearsman – pointed out, if you start from the assumption that Prynne’s poetry is ‘difficult’ and therefore like a puzzle which needs solving, you’re probably coming at it from the wrong angle. Indeed, as Prynne himself has demonstrated with his extraordinarily expansive critical investigations of poems like Wordsworth’s ‘The Solitary Reaper’, even relatively simple-seeming work has multiple complexities and, yes, ‘difficulties’ if you look at it hard enough.
As in A Manner Of Utterance, then, the poems and essays in this insightful and wide-ranging new collection edited by Brinton counter the notion that Prynne’s work is the literary equivalent of the north face of the Eiger and that all it does is make exhausting intellectual demands of its readers. To be sure, the absence of a recognisable and autobiographical lyric ‘I’, the polyphonic assemblage of idiolects and specialist vocabularies and the unexpected shifts in grammar are disorienting, unfamiliar and have been at odds with the predominant modes of poetic expression for the fifty years that Prynne’s been publishing his work, but as the poet Peter Hughes puts it in his contribution to For The Future, that work has a “peculiar mass” nevertheless – and with mass comes gravity and you are drawn in.

Hughes also likens reading a Prynne poem to arriving in a foreign country – “Everything is going on around you and you do your best to go with the flow and pick up what you can” (which seems like very sensible advice) – while for Peter Gizzi the poems in the 1969 volume The White Stones have a “necessary and productive restlessness”. For Anthony Barnett – the first publisher of Prynne’s Poems (the steadily evolving ‘collected’ whose latest manifestation appeared from Bloodaxe in 2015) – it is a question of refusing “to be intimidated by the so-called difficulty or those critiques on difficulty, positive or negative, that have infected our academic and popular literary cultures both.”

Despite its sometimes abrasive surface textures, then, there is an energy coursing through Prynne’s work which keeps you reading it even if “the figure in the carpet” isn’t always readily apparent. Some of the essays here, of course, do posit hypotheses about what the ‘figure’ might be in specific poems or collections. Matthew Hall, for example, makes a persuasive case for understanding 2002’s Acrylic Tips in the context of “the physical landscapes and colonial history of the Australian continent” while Masahiko Abe finds a way into 1989’s Word Order through Rosalind Krauss’ concept of the ‘grid’ (as she applied it to modernist/minimalist art). Michael Tencer, meanwhile, unpacks the allusive density of Prynne’s ‘Es Lebe der König’ and identifies the multiple sources which feed into one of the very few poems dedicated to a specified individual – in this case the Romanian-German poet Paul Celan. Harry Gilonis’ discussion of Prynne’s Chinese poem ‘Stone Lake’ also illuminates how the indeterminacy and myriad ambiguities of Chinese poetry in general might offer a way of understanding how Prynne’s English poems operate and how we might approach them as readers. With Chinese poetry, after all, the general assumption is that it takes a lifetime to understand a poem as fully as it’s possible for any individual reader to do so.

For The Future, though, is not a book of critical essays per se and while the insights into specific corners of the writerly labyrinth sent me back to Poems with the thought “Ah, so this might be a potential starting point …”, the memoirs about Prynne and the poems dedicated to him also shed light on the man, the poet and the teacher. Brinton himself, for example, details the protracted negotiations between poet, publisher and printer over the publication of 1971’s Brass – thereby illustrating the care with which Prynne approaches the physical appearance of his texts – while John James’ poem ‘Affection’ steers a course through the ethical and political concerns which animate the work of a poet whose avant gardism is not an affectation but the inevitable product of a heterodox set of ethical and political concerns about transaction, encounter, power and language. Above all, perhaps, what the many and varied contributors to For The Future do is provide a reminder that Prynne is also a generous and profound teacher (more than a few of the essays here are by former students who encountered him at Cambridge) and that, whatever response you have to his poetry, he’s the kind of writer whose work needs to be read – much like that of the Black Mountain poets he did so much to champion – if you’re going to have any kind of understanding of what poetry has done in the past and what it might do in the future. As Nigel Wheale writes in his essay here: “What comes across so vividly is the range of concerns vigorously worked through, worked over, in these books, an intellectual project uniquely ambitious.”
With both A Manner Of Utterance and now For The Future, Ian Brinton has served that uniquely ambitious project well. In so doing, he is also helping to restore the contours of contemporary English-language poetry to the shape they might have assumed had the silly/shameful ‘poetry wars’ of the 1970s not disfigured them or turned them into the boundary markers of the literary cliques which are, as Michael Haslam observes in For The Future, “the scandal of poetry in England”.

Tom Phillips, October 2016

Wound Scar Memories by Peter Philpott (Great Works Editions)

Wound Scar Memories by Peter Philpott (Great Works Editions)

Peter Philpott’s editorial introduction to Issue Number Three of Great Works, July 1974, breathes; there is a sense of a door and a window being thrown open:

“This is a magazine of contemporary writing. It contains work which is attempting to create new modes of experiencing the world and of representing that experience which is at this time of ours or the writer’s. Such research is necessarily largely poetic, as that is the use of language at the maxima of energy and novelty needed to transcend the lies and ignorance of our now natural way of life. This art may therefore appear arbitrary or inexplicable in its composition. Don’t be put off. What is smoothly presented to us as contemporary literature by the commercial, academic and leisure interests is the dried husk of art, an empty form that cannot generate life. It binds us in further with accepted answers and unprofitable easy technique.”

The concluding prose section to Wound Scar Memories continues this important conversation and offers the reader “some fragments out of the past which glittered and glistened in the same way as some things do now”. This is a world of linguistic interplay, “a funny sort of thing / – writing / down your words so they’re not yours / but belong more to whoever can read them”. It is also a world of compassionate humility which recognises “our capacity for delusion always infinite” and offers us room which is both geographical and literary:

“you’re hiding still on the edge of this town
little shitheap with lots of water I’d call the place
what you engage with is really just language
I know, you know, as does the world it says”

In an early account of his new collection from the Great Works Press, Philpott gave us some background to the four sections (three sequences of seventeen sonnets and a substantial 23 page piece of prose):

“The book starts from bringing the wonderful Tim Atkins and Peter Hughes versions of Petrarch (+ a sense of Petrarch himself, which came from being intrigued by their work) to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse in the summer of 2015, the village where he may well have written much of the so-called Sonnets. Playing with their words allowed other voices to come in, and I wrote 17 sonnetty things. Too pleasurable not to be suspect, so I wrote another, slightly tighter sequence, stripping back what goes on to an affair of pronouns (isn’t that what it’s all about?). I recoiled from the sparseness of this to more jokey material, by creating voices for a variety of Dark Age characters, starting with the usual suspects, ending up by burrowing down into the dirt even of Bishops Stortford. These last 17 sonnetty things depended too much on allusion to public but obscure material (who’s up on the anomalous elements in the names of the earliest “Kings of Wessex”?). So I then wrote some prose to discuss all this and what lies behind.”

What lies behind, or indeed below, is given a sense of perspective through a quotation from Robin Fleming’s book Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise 400 to 1070:

“People living and dying in eastern England in the generations after 420 were cobbling together distinctive little cultures all their own out of this cacophony of peoples and circumstances, and these cultures were heterogeneous, highly localized and very fluid.”

Wound Scar Memories is an astonishingly powerful collection: we are reminded not only of our debts to a past but of our fluid living alertness to a present that only fools will try to tie down to certainties:

“locality & the past & all our origins
calcify themselves with fear
yet old wood bursts fresh buds & blossoms

infinite variety includes what’s gone
all our parents – so many aren’t they?”

When, in September 2015, I reviewed the volume Peter Philpott’s published with Shearsman Books, Ianthe Poems, I referred to his lines as the “binding of a moment”, and that sense of immediacy, respect for the quiet reality of this day, is what threads its way through this new sequence. The lines of many of these sonnets have “tested again the self’s rickety old fences / as usual it mysteriously survives”:

“abysmal loss faces us, & portentous forces squat
flocking in uncontrollably or worse
not, negation & the loss of words
but only ones that have no purpose

ones that aren’t anything like us
we find ourselves now in the night
following only our own constraints
to open up a newer moment
against the stupid glitter of the rich
– now open it all up at once”

This use of the word “glitter” is not to be confused with that reference about fragments that I started with; the glittering and glistening of those fragments out of the past become what constitutes who we are. As I read through this book more and more I take on board the statement from sonnet 7 in the first section:

“unreciprocated desire is our human condition
coupled with chosen arbitrary restrictions”

The shining newness of moments is perhaps what Frances Presley was referring to in her comment on the back of that earlier Shearsman volume:

“Peter Philpott recuperates both our excitement with the world around us and with new poetic form.”

There will be a launch for this new publication at the forthcoming Contraband Poetry Night on Tuesday 4th July: The Crown Tavern, 43 Clerkenwell Green, EC1R 0EG, 7 o’clock.

Ian Brinton 2nd July 2017

The Poetry of John James Conference

The Poetry of John James Conference

Last Saturday saw Magdalene College, Cambridge, host this conference to celebrate the poetry of John James. It was organised by the current Judith E. Wilson Fellow, Peter Hughes, whose Oystercatcher Press has published both Cloud Breaking Sun (2012) and Sabots (2015). I recall reviewing Sabots for the Tears blog in August 2015 and concluding that it is “an uplifting sequence of three poems which restores a sense of vitality and endurance within a world threatened by commercial bureaucracy and targets”.

The conference was itself uplifting and by the end of the day I realised that the speakers had taken us on a journey which involved close textual criticism, overviews of the place of John James’s work in contemporary poetry and personal reminiscence. Emphasis was placed on the role of music within the poetry and the importance of the visual arts to a man whose sense of the flâneur is still to be recognised in the laughter and wry awareness exhibited by the poet in the audience who turned to me at one point to say “Who is this poet? I must get hold of some of his work”.

The speakers included Rod Mengham whose Equipage Press has published both In Romsey Town (2011) and Songs In Midwinter For Franco; Andrew Taylor whose debt to James weaves its way through his own Oystercatcher volume Air Vault; Simon Smith, Ian Heames, Peter Riley, Drew Milne and Geoff Ward spoke and read and by the end of the day there was a feeling that the success of this event was partly to do with the range of focus: different takes on a common theme of respect for this poet whose first published volume had appeared half-a-century ago from Andrew Crozier’s Ferry Press.

The poem ‘Pimlico’ was read (first published in Tears) as was ‘A Theory of Poetry, twice, and there was a beautifully produced gift from Ian Heames of his own finely published copy of the original Street Editions in comfrey blue. There was a sense in the auditorium of what John James referred to in his ‘Poem beginning with a line of Andrew Crozier’:

“I reach toward the poetry of kindred
where we speak in our work as we seldom do otherwise”

My review of Sabots had ended with a simple statement about the book:

“It is a tribute to the quietly unchanging in a fast-changing world. It’s terrific!” The same could be said of the 2017 Cambridge Conference on the Poetry of John James.

Ian Brinton, 13th March 2017

Fifty Six: a poem sequence Carol Watts & George Szirtes (Arc Publications)

Fifty Six: a poem sequence Carol Watts & George Szirtes (Arc Publications)

The author’s note at the beginning of this wonderful adventure into a world of language and imagination weaves its charm:

‘Collaboration at its best is a magical form of encounter, a curious listening and discovery.’

This statement immediately recalled to my mind one made by Octavio Paz at the opening of his collaborative work with Charles Tomlinson published in 1981 as Airborn / Hijos Del Aire:

‘Since its origin poetry has been the art of joining together the echoes of words: chains of air, impalpable but unbreakable’.

Tomlinson’s account of the collaboration gave a precise point of origin:

‘These collaborative poems were the result of a meeting, early one summer in Gloucestershire, when, out of the many words we had thought and spoken, we chose “house” and “day” as the words for a future postal meditation in sonnet form. “House” arose because the stone cottage in which Octavio Paz and his wife were our guests was a place we all felt affection for, and also because at that time the Pazes had no settled house of their own. “Day” was our last day together, when the sky took on a Constable-like activity, the breeze moving clouds swiftly through the blue and involving the landscape in a rapid succession of changes. I think time was at the back of all our minds, and that “day” (time passing) thus came into a natural relationship with “house” (time measured by place).’

The echoing music of language in these recently published 56 poems by George Szirtes and Carol Watts is there from the outset: ‘words are outflung birds’ soon calls up a response of ‘wings, winds, blinds, pinks, mornings…’. As the growth of the sequence focuses on ‘coming in to speech’ and a ‘complicity with / what is out of reach & nonetheless a naming’ so it prompts an echoing call of ‘All else is translation’. The ‘Dead skin’ of language moves and stays still:

‘…out of the core
into its own marginalia, its reimagining
into the perpetual hover between desire
and its objects, into its own remaining’.

The poets tell us of an exchange which became much more than ‘a collaborative game for both of us’. In the process of a chant from one to the other, ‘speaking-singing’, other voices rise: ‘Chaucer surfaced, a whaling song, fragments of overheard conversation, the thickness of paint’. As the sequence glides forward

‘We became involved less in the mechanism, more in the rich ground that kept opening. The exchange is littered with fractures and hints, with associations that leap off in both linguistic and narrative directions.’

This litter, (‘Loved Litter of Time Spent’ as Andrew Crozier would have put it), contains tiny echoes of the song of the Rhine-daughters (‘la la’), of Pound’s Pisan Cantos with its rain-space and those small cries ‘you hear in the far distance / settling in the gaps’. The first poem consists of 28 lines and its responding poem has 27; the movement forward is decisive as a tide. Poem 28 has one line only ‘You took the words out of my mouth’ and the following poem endorses this point of change by simply saying ‘But the struggle to begin, neap tongue’. And with that the movement flows forward again page by page as ‘The tide that sweeps in draws back’. As we arrive at 27 lines (poem 55)

‘…Skin takes over the task
of telling, its folds & scrimping.’

The 28 lines of the 56th poem gives us a final literary echo of Auden’s ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ and the sequence concludes with

‘…It’s late
and the wind is caught in the mouth of the clock.
Bare branches. Clarities. The clear cold night.’

Having opened this short review with an eye cast back to the 1980s I will close it by referring to another collaboration between poets of distinction. In 2011 Shearsman Books published The Pistol Tree Poems of Peter Hughes and Simon Marsh. At the time Nathan Thompson wrote that this collaboration was ‘wide-ranging’ and ‘deceptively deep-thinking’ and that the poetry was ‘disguised as imaginative twitches at the mind’s eye-corners’. These glimpses of presence and loss prompted Marsh to write from Varzi in April 2010, a few days after the death of his partner Emanuela:

‘tiles of
primary brightness
cast in
muntin shadow
a tattered map
fallen
at my feet
whenever
we were lost
we held
each other’s breath’

His contribution closes with a single line taken from Emanuela’s prints, ‘& swap love for light’.
In Fifty-Six the concluding poem by Carol Watts leaves us ‘In light, / the action of. Continual beginning.’ This collaboration which is in front of us now is poetry of a very serious order; once read you will return to it time and time again.

Ian Brinton 11th August 2016

Cavalcanty by Peter Hughes (Equipage)

Cavalcanty by Peter Hughes (Equipage)

In a letter from late 1831to Julius Charles Hare of the Philological Museum William Wordsworth made a comment concerning his experiments in translation:

‘Having been displeased, in modern translations, with the additions of incongruous matter, I began to translate with a resolve to keep clear of that fault, by adding nothing; but I became convinced that a spirited translation can scarcely be accomplished in the English language without admitting a principle of compensation.’

The translation work that Wordsworth was engaged upon was from Virgil’s Aeneid and one poet laureate commented upon another as C. Day Lewis referred to this passage in 1969 in his Jackson Knight Memorial Lecture on ‘Translating Poetry’:

‘By this principle we presumably mean putting things in which are not there, to compensate for leaving things out which cannot be adequately rendered.’

Day Lewis went on to suggest that ‘much greater liberties can justifiably be taken with lyric verse than with narrative or didactic’ and that very word ‘liberties’ suggests a hint of danger, revolution, turning a world upside down. When Pound wrote about Cavalcanti he suggested that the canzone, Donna mi Prega, ‘may have appeared about as soothing to the Florentine of A.D. 1290 as conversation about Tom Paine, Marx, Lenin and Bucharin would to-day in a Methodist bankers’ board meeting in Memphis, Tenn.’ Pound then goes on to suggest that Cavalcanti may well have read Grosseteste on Light, De Luce, and a reading of the opening lines of the canzone supports this idea. Grosseteste considered light to be ‘a very subtle corporeal substance, whose exceeding thinness and rarity approaches the incorporeal, and which of its own nature perpetually generates itself and is at once spherically diffused around a given point.’ As another reader of Grosseteste, the poet John Riley, recognized Light is the active principle of all things and the Bishop of Lincoln’s opening statement in Riedl’s translation reads ‘For 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.’ I can imagine that Pound might have regarded that Methodist bankers’ board meeting in Memphis as an opaque object.
Pound’s translation of Donna me prega opens:

‘Because a lady asks me, I would tell
Of an affect that comes often and is fell
And is so overweening: Love by name.

E’en its deniers can now hear the truth,
I for the nonce to them that know it call,
Having no hope at all
that man who is base in heart
Can bear his part of wit
into the light of it,

And save they know’t aright from nature’s source
I have no will to prove Love’s course
or say
Where he takes rest; who maketh him to be;
Or what his active virtu is, or what his force;

Nay, nor his very essence or his mode;
What his placation; why he is in verb,
Or if a man have might
To show him visible to men’s sight.

In the Preface to his own collected poems, published in 1936, Ford Madox Ford, to whom Pound had shown his canzone many years before, wrote that aureate diction was a civic menace because ‘the business of poetry is not sentimentalism so much as the putting of certain realities in certain aspects,’ and ‘poetry, like everything else, to be valid and valuable, must reflect the circumstances and psychology of its own day. Otherwise it can be nothing but a pastiche.’
Turning to Peter Hughes’s version of ‘Donna me prega – per ch’eo voglio dire’ in this new Equipage delight we can see what might halt that Memphis bankers’ board meeting in Memphis in its tracks:

‘now the lady makes me think about love’s
pit-bull attacks on the soul’s soft tissues
& those fatal core-reactor meltdowns
& deep immunity to metaphor
it’s tricky thinking through these things in ink
as love demands we loosen up our grip
on pre-existing modes of consciousness
affiliation & self-confidence
otherwise we stand no chance of melting
flowing into fresh configurations
in response to love’s accommodations
of feral power rerouted through refined
reformulations of specific lips
in actual laps tomorrow evening

The energy of these lines gives off a heat which confronts us with a social and political sense of ‘in yer face’ and that ‘deep immunity to metaphor’ ensures that any prevailing post-Movement, post-Martian, post-Mush world is left completely behind in the dusty cupboard of dead poetry anthologies. This is a world of Love which is made ‘of nothing yet feels like marble knuckles / kneading your most vulnerable hollows / articles & raw protuberances’. The energy of childhood’s games of marbles (no feeling of butterflies here!) merges with the pun on knead/need and the empty cries from empty places within. It’s superb!
This short flagging-up of Peter Hughes’s tremendously powerful evocations of Love in Cavalcanti is merely to whet your appetite and, with that in mind, take a warning about how ‘beauty’

‘finds its finest incarnation in her
being out of touch around the corner

we’ve never been quite bright enough to take
the subtle hints & reassurances
the goddess always hovers round the bend’

Ian Brinton 4th January 2016

Stanze by Simon Marsh STILL LIFE by Ian Patterson (Oystercatcher Press)

Stanze by Simon Marsh  STILL LIFE by Ian Patterson (Oystercatcher Press)

Elegies have various narratives buried within them. Some, like Thomas Gray’s famous reflections in an eighteenth-century country churchyard, have incomplete ones: what might have been rather than what was. There are ironies underlying Gray’s use of the word ‘waste’ in the couplet

‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.’

Blushing suggests a social awareness, a young girl perhaps entertaining her earliest encounters with the opposite sex, and ‘waste’ records with a touch of wistful sorrow how those imagined ambitions of youth are lost to the inexorable marches of Time.
Simon Marsh’s sixteen short elegiac poems present the reader with narratives which accrue to become a ‘life’. The opening poem, ‘Notte’, registers the continuance of one narrative (‘nature’s circuitry’) acting its part as background to another narrative which has now reached conclusion. The inevitable new growth of seed ‘is soldered to / a board of silence’. The grief of personal loss cannot be contained within a narrative framework of magic and belief. When Leontes lost his wife in A Winter’s Tale he became the man who dwelt by a churchyard until the new statue of Hermione stirred from its pedestal and stepped down to greet him sixteen years after her death. Marsh’s sequence closes with another poem titled ‘Notte’ and here the ‘masonry bit / lodged in / our hearts’ causes memories to crumble as day breaks up night:

‘if you’re looking
for rubble
you’ve come
to the right place
night crumples
& is gone’

These sonnets are filled with moments of narrative: ‘caffeine stunned we breakfasted on cakes the size of runes’; ‘there was something wayward / in the way you searched / for last night’s embers / in the hearth’; ‘you kept me waiting often enough / but never quite like this’; scooping ‘vacant autumn oysters / from low tide silt’ near Margate.
When I edited a collection of essays about the work of Peter Hughes for Shearsman two years ago (An intuition of the particular), Simon Marsh opened his piece with such clarity of narrative that it comes as no surprise now to read his recollections ‘for Manuela Selvatico 1960-2010’ and have a past become a present:

‘In the middle of the night, after dinner in a trattoria on the Tuscolana outskirts of Rome, Hughes suggested we drive to Gran Sasso to watch the sunrise. We took a sizeable piece of pecorino cheese, a bottle of Jameson’s, the dog Peg, and set off.’

These stanzas, little rooms, that make up this fine Oystercatcher publication are reconstructed journeys that give a nod of recognition perhaps to Thomas Hardy’s ‘Poems of 1912-13’. Where Hardy opened ‘After a Journey’ with the assertive comment ‘Hereto I come to interview a ghost’ Simon Marsh opens ‘Ritorno’ with a sense of the risk involved in all Orphic ventures:

‘I return to the sea at my risk & in the end
decide to leave the beach alone
after all you filled the house with stones
I’ve numbered them for smoothness & taped
small flecks of rock wave here and thither
perhaps for later use…’

The risk involved in all backward glances is there immediately in the second of the two volumes dropped from the oystercatcher’s beak yesterday, STILL LIFE. Dedicated ‘to whom it may concern’, with an increasing feeling as we leaf through these carefully inscribed pages that it in fact concerns us all since absence and presence dominate our lives, the collection of poems opens with thorny difficulty: ‘NO WAY’:

‘No way to compare the very place
this sense felt before with pure breast
or self by adhesion among cranesbills

but at risk to restate or stage the world
of difference between the most difficult thing
and a life to imagine taking place between

one black bird and an other whole way’

Of course all life is individual and all sense of loss is personal. The limitation of language is that it cannot be the very thing it evokes and there is ‘no way to compare’ the particularity of ‘very place’. Every venture at contemplation of absence is a risk because nothing can be restated or staged again; language, symbolic gestures that arrive after the event, is imagination and the poet juxtaposes this limitation with the separated division of singularity in ‘one black bird’ (not even blackbird) and ‘an other’ (not even another).
When I wrote earlier this month about Peter Makin’s profoundly moving collection of poems from Isobar Press, Neck of the Woods, I referred to Fulke Greville’s poem ‘Absence and Presence’. Having spent some time weighing up the advantages of absence the Elizabethan poet concludes

‘But thoughts be not so brave,
With absent joy;
For you with that you have
Yourself destroy:
The absence which you glory,
Is that which makes you sorry,
And burn in vain:
For thought is not the weapon,
Wherewith thought’s ease men cheapen,
Absence is pain.’

This sequence of poems by Ian Patterson has a tone of quiet solemnity. There is a contemplative awareness of the fragility of humanity as ‘Unconnected with each other we meet / quiet and thoughtful and rock a little // regretfully round a building’. The titles of the poems offer us warnings: ‘NO WAY’; ‘WARNING IGNORED’; ‘THE MODE THAT WILL NOT BE WRITTEN’; ‘A SEEDY BOX’; ‘NIGHT VIEW’; ‘ONE’; ‘IMAGE DAMAGE’; ‘BROWN PAPER’; ‘FOOTSTEPS’; ‘EMPTY SPACE’; ‘COLD AGAIN’; ‘REBUKE’. They also offer us a serious reflective stance as the poet concludes his ‘REBUKE’ with the assertion that ‘It can be uncertain as whatever it was / received by the eye to disturb a power in my brain events / will be voyaging to trap the work of words shaped as if it still remains.’ Language may have its limitations but gaze carefully on what is after all STILL LIFE.
Tomorrow I shall be sending off my cheque for £25 to Oystercatcher Press renewing my subscription to a powerful and distinctive voice in contemporary British poetry. (www.oystercatcherpress.com)

Ian Brinton 25th October 2015.

Sabots by John James (Oystercatcher Press)

Sabots by John James (Oystercatcher Press)

When Peter Hughes wrote to me last month to say that there was a new John James chapbook on the cards he intimated that it was ‘very unusual’ and was to be titled Clogs, ‘Pastoral dialogues from the deep south (of France)’. My reaction was one of keen anticipation on account of considering the Equipage volume from last year, Songs in Midwinter For Franco, one of the most important and moving sequences of poems I had read in a long, long time. I recall reviewing that volume for Shearsman on-line magazine and saying that what moved me was contained in the absence of the self-regarding nature that can act as an intrusive shadow looming over poems of loss. In those ‘Songs’ (for Franco Beltrametti who had been published alongside John James by the Tim Longville, John Riley & Gordon Jackson enterprise Grosseteste Books) there were references to a culture of reading and recalling as well as comments on the necessary sharp eye of the wine grower who looks out for a ‘bud break yet to come’. When I read Sabots for the first time this morning I was not in any way disappointed in my great expectations.
The opening dialogue between Peadar and Alphonse, both resident wine growers on the land of South West France, confirms that steady voice that John James has acquired over years of poem-making:

‘ah bon I don’t begrudge you in fact I marvel
at your calm in the face of our abjection it
besets us all this fear of fear & discontent
& there was I gathering in my grapes each year
till the Mairie dropped me with their flood defence
oh I sometimes think I should have seen it coming
but was too entranced perhaps by the reverie
induced by days of pleasure working in that field’

Reading these lines I was prompted to look up a book which I have admired since its first appearance in 1979 from the Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, John Berger’s Pig Earth, the first of three books with the overall title INTO THEIR LABOURS. In the final chapter Berger points to the survival of peasant communities:

‘Peasant life is a life committed completely to survival. Perhaps this is the only characteristic fully shared by peasants everywhere. Their implements, their crops, their earth, their masters may be different, but whether they labour within a capitalist society, a feudal one, or others which cannot be so easily defined, whether they grow rice in Java, wheat in Scandinavia, or maize in South America, whatever the differences of climate, religion and social history, the peasantry everywhere can be defined as a class of survivors.’

Within James’s dialogue Alphonse says

‘I thought in my youthful ignorance everyone
was like my parents bitches bore their tiny pups
kids grew up to be such dams but now a monster
grows to enormous size & threatens all of us.’

The pun on ‘dams’ is hallmark John James. As also is the convincing sense of the here-and-now, the immediate moment caught as it passes, as Alphonse confirms not only that ‘sooner will the hind graze on the air or barbel / lie on the bare stones of the beaches of the Orb / than I’d allow my steadfast gaze give up this place’. Looking back on that earlier review I had written I notice that I referred to a poem from James’s Dreaming Flesh (Street Editions 1991), ‘The Conversation’:

‘Threading its careful path through these poems is a meticulous concern for a palpable ‘now’, an attention to detail that echoes an earlier poem, ‘The Conversation’, in which the importance of Jeremy Prynne’s leafing through pages of a book ‘gave some new sense of strengthening regard for common things.’’

Section two of this sequence, allows historical and geographical presences of this land to speak and ‘Les Randonneurs’ trace a path through what changes in the unchanging. The wines of ‘Les Grillères’ for instance mutter

‘who lives here now as that spy George Borrow might say
the house & barns & spread of land all up for sale
the crumbling old stone wall is broken by sweet bay
some leaves for a civet to perfume the cheval’

Or, of course, ‘good apothecary’ to ‘sweeten my imagination’!

The third and final section is spoken by John Le Poireau as he, Alphonse and Peadar take up the final lines of Alphonse’s comment in Section One:

‘& we still have our strength & the power to walk
tomorrow let’s call on John Le Poireau & hike
three together on the trail to Pech Saint Vincent’

As if echoing the enduring world of Edward Thomas’s agricultural world when faced with the distant wars of northern France in 1916 the ‘leek-man’ says

‘La Tramontane will crumble the broken clods as we stumble
on the rising ground Le Marin will ruin the bread & weaken the vines
but this year we’ll beat the weedy grasses & the tares
not let them hamper our shins in passage through the ranks
let the moist soil cleave to our boot soles’

Sabots is an uplifting sequence of three poems which restores a sense of vitality and endurance within a world threatened by commercial bureaucracy and ‘targets’. It is a tribute to the quietly unchanging in a fast-changing world. It’s terrific!

Ian Brinton 17th August 2015.

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