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leaf o little leaf by Ralph Hawkins (Oystercatcher Press)

leaf o little leaf by Ralph Hawkins (Oystercatcher Press)

I’ve not read much of Ralph Hawkins’ poetry before despite first coming across his work in A Various Art some years back but this is something I need to remedy. This little chapbook is wonderful. In his poem ‘Max Jacob – Some of the butchers had binoculars’ we get the following line, a reference to both Max Jacob and Ted Berrigan – ‘Both poets being playful, humorous and serious and full of fraught connectives.’ It’s that ‘fraught connectives’ that does it, a phrase that could well be applied to Hawkins’ own poetry as beautifully exemplified in the following:

          Corn from Delf is good for Elves

                                       Bernadette Meyer

          you can get a coach

          transport yourself

          Scarlett Johannson

          an alien in Glasgow

          the girl at the psalter

          palmistry soap

          all those overburdened

          with the clothes they wore

          the abandoned, the outcast, what future

          they ‘fished’ them out of the sea

I’m unsure if the title embodies a quote from Meyer but its mix of digression and stream-of-consciousness is entirely appropriate. The manner in which this short poem shifts ground so swiftly is witty and yet suggests the way the mind connects when we are ‘thinking to ourselves.’ The jump from ‘coach’ to ‘self-transportation’ and then to the film reference which implies a more cosmic form of technology is wonderfully done and then we are in darker territory via ‘psalter’ and ‘palmistry’ which lead to the final four lines, chilling in their contemporary resonance but also hinting at an historical narrative. 

     Hawkins works with found texts and references to paintings quite regularly as well as obviously working by association and ‘stream of consciousness’ though most of the poems are reasonably short and as well as relatively smooth transitions there are abrupt jumps or ‘crash edits,’ to borrow the film jargon, which can be a cause for humour or in some cases bafflement. It’s good to be baffled at times! His poem on Max Jacob, referred to above, mixes humour, wordplay and celebration with a melancholy feel and another stunning ending – ‘And later having to wear a yellow star / when the Germans came.’ He has the ability to combine a sort of surreal lyricism with a darker tendency and then switch to genuine pathos or emotional directness as in this final stanza from ‘Jean-Francois-Millet’ – ‘however there is a softness in the children / and a care which / suffuses all exhaustive acts.’

     The opening piece – ‘Poem: Found and Manipulated Text’ has an ‘instructional tone’ which takes off at all sorts of tangents and teases the reader into trying out an interpretation or two while being aware the absurdity of the scenarios are not entirely approachable by linear logic!  For example, we have the following: ‘12 lions may be presented in all / read by a Fakir in spectacles / (note the adjustable settings / Arcadian, Gothic, Absurd).’ You could choose to read ‘lines’ for lions and then ponder a reading by ‘A Fakir in spectacles’ but are the adjustable settings related to the spectacles or what might or might not be type-faces – Arcadian, Gothic, Absurd – and how in any case does this influence the ‘meaning?’ As Hawkins himself says in the closing couplet – ‘we don’t usually see the world / with entirely different eyes, do we.’  

     It’s the estrangement from received notions of ‘reality’ that I most like about these poems as they make you ponder while providing a good laugh at the same time. As he also says elsewhere, in Doig 1,’ – ‘what paths we must take / when nothing seems strange.’ These poems are certainly a good antidote to boredom as well as having a ‘more serious’ side and I very much enjoyed reading them. The cover artwork is equally puzzling, it may or may not be the suggested ‘leaf’ but has the feel of a print with organic textures and could be an image by David Lynch but probably isn’t. I like it though and it’s certainly in tune with this chapbook’s contents.

Steve Spence 27th August 2021

It Looks Like An Island But Sails Away by Ralph Hawkins (Shearsman Books)

It Looks Like An Island But Sails Away by Ralph Hawkins (Shearsman Books)

On the back of this deliciously fast-moving collection of poems by Ralph Hawkins there is a quotation from Peter Riley’s 2005 review of a previous Shearsman Books collection of his work, The Moon, The Chief hairdresser (Highlights):

Hawkins is a very literary poet, very aware of the written artefact as something with a long history and a mass of material accrued to it, and determined to re-invent the whole thing.

That review also contains the phrase about Hawkins’s ‘dazzingly virtuosic performance’, a quality that is also fully evident in this new book.
Two literary echoes came to my ears when I read this book: Ben Jonson and Sir Thomas Wyatt. Jonson’s Epigramme CXVIII is titled ‘On Gut’

Gut eates all day, and lechers all the night,
So all his meate he tasteth over, twise:
And, striving so to double his delight,
He makes himselfe a thorough-fare of vice.
Thus, in his belly, can he change a sin,
Lust it comes out, that gluttony went in.

Ralph Hawkins opens this new Shearsman with ‘Gut’:

Down in the tubes like corridors of blood he lived. His name was Gut and
his body had many rooms.

To the right was the Giant’s room and his name was Git. Is Git a short giant? If Git and Gut have children it will be a miracle as they don’t eat together. This would be a gustatorium. A windy palace of gables and false starts. Huge butterflies hung from Eve.

The dry and mischievous humour here is witty. As readers we move from the London Underground to the well-known joke about the difference between a penis that is flaccid and then erect. The word ‘gustatorium’ blows us towards those Tennysonian plains of Troy and ‘false starts’ take us back to the mordant humour of Jonson who could see himself as the lover who has gone beyond his sell-by date in ‘A Celebration of CHARIS in ten Lyrick Peeces’ or whose ‘Picture’ left in Scotland reveals ‘My mountaine belly, and my rockie face.’

John Muckle referred to Hawkins’s poems as a ‘version of New York school poetics’ and highlighted his ‘light-fingered touch’ where the very phrase suggests the snapper up of unconsidered trifles. ‘Since in a net I seek to hold the wind’ is a collage to live with:

a siskin and then a bunting
two killers in a red circle
the cop (un flic) knows everyone, is bad

I am not a catholic but it rains
Jean-Pierre holds his Stetson in a January wind

they rip buds and pick nuts

the (stolen) diamonds are stuffed into a holdall

you are my angel in the wind
noli me tangere
you restoreth my soul

four pills and a tube of ointment
is all it takes

Wyatt…taken from Petrarch…all diamonds are stolen and a poem is a fine ‘holdall’.

Ian Brinton 10th June 2015

The Status of the Cat by Sean Elliott

The Status of the Cat by Sean Elliott

The Status of the Cat by Sean Elliott

(Playdead Press 2013  www.playdeadpress.com)

 

Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry by Ian Davidson, (Palgrave Macmillan 2007)

 

 

In his fascinating study of notions of space in the world of contemporary poetry Ian Davidson refers at one point to Gaston Bachelard’s ideas of a house being a place of accumulated memory, the accumulation being produced by the repetition of apparently insignificant actions. Davidson writes about poets from Olson and Dorn to Ralph Hawkins and Fanny Howe. Spaces dominate Sean Elliott’s poems from the open beach at Dawlish to the ‘tiny pubs’ of Kent’s East Coast or the ‘white houses by the sea’ at Margate. The tone is unmistakably Larkinesque. ‘Margate’ opens up with a stanza which bears comparison with ‘Afternoons’:

 

Old world, perhaps: white houses by the sea,

the shops which may reopen in the spring,

even the clubs embrace stability:

the smoking boys, the laughing girls who sing

the latest hits against the winter gale,

an interlude of joy then home to tea.

Their young replace them without fail.

 

The tone of Larkin is caught between the compact accuracy of ‘white houses by the sea’ and the slightly wry sense of a present in relation to a possible future. The shops may reopen in the spring confirming our present situation placed in the closed season of ‘the winter gale’. The stability of progression which is repetition is firmly there in the last line with its echo of the final stanza of Larkin’s poem in which the courting places ‘are still courting places /(But the lovers are all in school)’. Larkin’s tone of quietly resigned optimism informs the final stanza of Sean Elliott’s poem:

 

Old women talk of when a summer’s crowd

would clog the coast, some comic’s punning speech

bewitched the closed theatres; we were proud.

Defeat like perfume soughs across the beach,

the wind performs a Pierrot’s drab routine;

lovers no longer pay to laugh aloud.

I cross my town’s historic green.

 

As with Larkin this picture gives us generalities, ‘Old women’, (not to be confused with T.S. Eliot’s ‘ancient women’ who carry a weight of classical allusion) and then a movement to make the general specific with ‘some comic’s punning speech’. The blurring of time and the past’s reconstruction through anecdote or gossip is nicely caught with the adjective ‘some’ and the movement which has led to the closing down of that old world is held in reminiscence as ‘Defeat’ is scent caught on the noise of a dry beach.

 

Sean Elliott will be reading from this collection on Wednesday 19th February at 7.00 p.m. in the Poetry Café on Betterton Street in Covent Garden.

 

Ian Brinton 13th February 2014

 

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