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Kotan Chronicles: Selected Poems 1928-1943 by Genzō Sarashina Trans. Nadine Willems (Isobar Press)

Kotan Chronicles: Selected Poems 1928-1943 by Genzō Sarashina Trans. Nadine Willems (Isobar Press)

On the back cover of this new Isobar publication Eric Selland registers the delight and importance of this translation of poems by the Japanese poet Sarashina:

“Such a rare treat – one of the few examples of Japanese proletarian poetry to appear in English. Sarashina’s work, like that of the American Objectivist Charles Reznikoff, is a poetry of testimony, one in which he documents the lives of those living in pre-war Hokkaido, often in their own words.”

The comparison with Reznikoff brings to mind of course the four parts of TESTIMONY: THE UNITED STATES, that extraordinary poetic narrative which recorded the social, economic, cultural and legal history of the United States. Robert Creeley commented on the first volume TESTIMONY describing the collection as “an extraordinary document of human event – terrifying, comic, and deeply, deeply moving.” Creeley went on to suggest his admiration for Reznikoff’s ability to locate given instances “sans distortion” and to place his narratives “in the intense particularity of time and place.” In 1977 Milton Hindus published his monograph on Reznikoff emphasising the important role of history in the American poet’s recitative:

“We all belong to history, but we do not all know it…Coming into contact with what one recognizes to be history in the high sense of the term can be an unnerving experience, which inspires to expression those who might otherwise be counted among the voiceless tribes”.

That word “expression” appears in the superb introduction which the translator has added to this selection of Sarashina’s poems. Connecting the Japanese poet with his proletarian peers, Nadine Willems writes

“As Sarashina’s work demonstrates so well, they remained sharp and sympathetic observers of the everyday life of the lower strata of the population in all its mundanity and desperation. The focus was less on engineering an ideal future society than on the expression of real life struggles in a changing and unfair world.”

Between 1930 and 1931 Sarashina acted as a substitute teacher in a primary school near Kussharo Lake and he identified closely with the seventeen pupils, most of whom were Ainu (an increasingly displaced people). It was from these children and the other residents of the kotan (village-community) that he learned the stories which he then re-formed into poetry. In one of the ‘Kotan School Poems’ he acknowledges this debt:

“Fourth-grader Sekko knows what’s not in any textbook
The deep-down layers of life”

The substitute teacher records his own humility and merges it with a sense of LIFE as his pupils ask him those questions to which there are answers before moving their thoughts outwards to ask questions to which there are none:

—What would you like to do?
—Go outside and play!
—OK. Let’s go
—Wow. Really?

—Sensei, what’s this?
—A spring gentian whose flowers are the colour of the sky
—Sensei, and this?
—That’s a dandelion bud
—Sensei, why does the sun shine?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Then why does it rain?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Sensei, why are you alive?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Then why do you get angry?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Sensei, why is the world here?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Why are we alive, sensei?
—So that you can all get along
—Sensei, who did you learn this from?
—From all you lot

—Sensei, Tā-chan thumped me

Nadine Willems’s introduction is a delight to read on account of its direct simplicity as she tells us of the political background to these poems. She points us to central issues concerning the Ainu people and highlights the close connection “between people and nature” which “mirrors the connection that exists between the physical and intangible worlds.” These poems take me back not so much to Reznikoff as to Tolstoy whose 1861 essay on ‘Schoolboys and Art’ makes such a fine comparison with Sarashina’s experience as a primary-school teacher. Tolstoy has taken a group of boys out after school and as they walk through a white darkness which seemed to sway before their eyes one little boy, Fédka, asks the teacher to tell them, again, about the murder of Tolstoy’s aunt:

“I again told them that terrible story of the murder of Countess Tolstoy, and they stood silently about me watching my face.
‘The fellow got caught!’ said Sëmka.
‘He was afraid to go away in the night while she was lying with her throat cut! Said Fédka; ‘I should have run away!’ and he gathered my two fingers yet more closely in his hand.
We stopped in the thicket beyond the threshing-floor at the very end of the village. Sëmka picked up a dry stick from the snow and began striking it against the frosty trunk of a lime tree. Hoar frost fell from the branches onto our caps, and the noise of the blows resounded in the stillness of the wood.
‘Lev Nikolaevich,’ said Fédka to me (I thought he was again going to speak about the Countess), ‘why does one learn singing? I often think, why, really, does one?’
What made him jump from the terror of the murder to this question, heaven only knows; yet by the tone of his voice, the seriousness with which he demanded an answer, and the attentive silence of the other two, one felt that there was some vital and legitimate connection between this question and our preceding talk.”

Kotan Chronicles is another wonderful production from Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press and I urge you all to put the date September 20th in your diaries for the launch:
Isobar Press will be launching Kotan Chronicles: Selected by Poems 1928-1943 by the Japanese pre-war proletarian poet, anarchist, and ethnographer Genzo Sarashina at the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation on 20 September with a talk and reading by Nadine Willems (translator) and Paul Rossiter.

Date: Wednesday 20 September, 6-8 pm.

Place: Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, 13/14 Cornwall Terrace, Outer Circle (entrance facing Regent’s Park), London NW1 4QP. The event is free, but a reservation is required.

Ian Brinton 4th September 2017.

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Smoke Rising, London 1940-41 by John Seed (Shearsman Books)

Smoke Rising, London 1940-41 by John Seed (Shearsman Books)

The blurb on the reverse side of this important new arrival from Shearsman raises interesting and central issues for the reader of History as well as the reader of Poetry:

Smoke Rising is a documentary poem. Very much in the tradition of Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony, it utilises oral sources to capture the speech—and perhaps the experience—of those who suffered the London Blitz. However, its elective affinities are also to Walter Benjamin’s great unfinished Arcades Project: “to carry the principle of montage into history…to assemble large-scale constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut components…to discover in the analysis of the small individual moment the crystal of the total event.”’

John Seed’s awareness of the relation between Poetry and History has been evident throughout his career and one has only to turn back to his contributions to the Crozier-Longville anthology, A Various Art, to recognise this. The poem which takes its title from Antonio Gramsci, “History Teaches, but it has no Pupils” , gave the reader ‘unimagined contradictions’ in terms of ‘Imagining the real’:

‘…to make poetry of these streets
Hours and days
contemplating a page a line a word’

And in ‘During War, the Timeless Air’ the image of Bede’s sparrow ‘swooping through the bright hall’ offered us the searchlight intensity of the fleeting moment. An emphatic sense of place can grow out of the singular and I am reminded that Charles Olson appended an epigraph to the first publication of The Maximus Poems, Jargon 24, in 1960: ‘All my life I’ve heard / one makes many’. The words were used by Cornelia Williams, cook at Black Mountain College, and incorporated into a letter sent by Olson to Creeley on 1st June 1953.
Other figures of course provide the backdrop to John Seed’s moving re-creation of ‘London 1940-41’. There are the figures of the Annales School of History and Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou; there is Charles Reznikoff whose first volume of Testimony reflected in verse the social, economic, cultural and legal history of America and its people from 1885 to 1890. When that appeared from New Directions in 1965 it had a comment from Robert Creeley on the back: Reznikoff ‘has used all his skill as a poet to locate the given instances sans distortion, in the intense particularity of time and place.’

John Seed’s poem is a very moving document and in a world of ‘violent and indiscriminate bombing’ (a statement from the Ministry of Transport, 11 September 1940) the poet moves outwards from the particular to the general. It doesn’t have to be the irony of that 9/11 coincidence to bring domestic chaos into focus; we recognise the shocking dismemberment of domestic life in the steady stream of refugees escaping from war-torn countries in the Middle East. Poetry makes things happen! The artist, more than the historian, recognises the interweaving images that constitute a fugue and this new Shearsman publication is haunting in its clarity:

‘Blasted windows clocks without hands glass

on stairs mounds of yellow

rubble poisonous tang of damp plaster

and coal gas the house still

smouldering scraps of cloth hanging bare

walls at the side still standing

burnt piece of wood like a

gibbet jutted out into the sky

weary blistered firemen grimy half-clad

homeless mirror swinging steeples scorched and

discoloured by fire the sound of

swept off the streets a few

seconds above the trees lines of

figures asleep scrawled over

obscene inscriptions

The picture is vivid and that last word, ‘inscriptions’, offers a historical perspective suggestive of life’s unchanging desolation. The gibbet which ‘jutted out into the sky’ recalls both Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ and Dickens’s opening image of marshland in the first chapter of Great Expectations.
John Seed is a very important poet and I urge readers to get hold of a copy of this book. Whilst you are at it you might also search out SNOW 3 with his ‘Recollections of the Durham Coalfield’; this is poetry for our time!

Ian Brinton, 18th September 2015.

Derelict Air: from Collected Out by Edward Dorn Enitharmon Press

Derelict Air: from Collected Out by Edward Dorn Enitharmon Press

In February 1955 Charles Olson wrote to his former Black Mountain student Mike Rumaker:

‘This is not an answer to your two, and mss. You will excuse me, but I
am selling cattle, plows, property etc., and it will soon be in hand, and I can get back to you, and proper work. But this is to tell you officially that the turn has come, and that it is forward, again: that we will operate spring and summer quarters, and I wanted you to know, simply, that you, Tom [Field], Jerry [Van de Weile] and Ed [Dorn] are our solids—solid core, and all that—around which we are building, taking only students who are sharp and directed themselves, and expecting a strong summer group, if the spring thing shows no surprising additions yet.’

Rumaker also recalled Dorn ‘presenting the illusion of a foxy preacher from the Old West’ and one can sense a slight whiff of this in Robert Creeley’s ‘Preface’ to the 1978 Grey Fox Press Selected Dorn:

‘No poet has been more painfully, movingly, political; the range and explicit register of Edward Dorn’s ability to feel how it actually is to be human, in a given place and time, is phenomenal’.

One highly engaging aspect of this terrific new volume of Dorn’s previously unpublished work is precisely to do with that ‘given place and time.’ People and places weave a haunting path through the 600 pages of this book with the convincing quality of diary entries. ‘An Account of a Trip with Jeremy Prynne in January 1992 through the Clare Country’:

‘Nobody knows what it’s like
to be in love in the country
nobody knows what the labor’s like
nobody feels the distant thermal
tedium in the fields, where the birds
mock such indenture with No Regard.’

The tone of voice here reminds me of the early poem from Hands Up!, ‘On the Debt My Mother Owed to Sears Roebuck’, whilst further on in this passionately serious new poem one can detect the voice and interest of Prynne:

‘the farm gone beyond its wretched and wracked
draft of human labor conditioned by
the fake gestures of Spring and Summer—free heat
no credit to the sun, whose ownership was,
and still is assumed, paid for with evermore
toil and exertion with a ration calculated down to
and including the last straw.’

It’s that wonderful merging of the colloquial with the analytic in the last lines, the anger and directness of statement, which becomes a hallmark of the work of both poets.

Last year shuffaloff / Eternal Network Joint # 6 published extracts from Dorn’s 1971 The Day & Night Book and my copy has a little insert that says simply ‘a slice from the year 1971, beginning with birth of our daughter Maya, to early summer.’ In this new Dorn collection the entire eighty pages of that diary-poetry appear and it is more than a ‘slice’. As if to emphasise again the close-working connections between Dorn and Prynne the 203rd Day includes ‘On first reading The Glacial Question, Unsolved, again. The tones of the two poets are again operationally interactive:

‘There are a legion of poets
and like
with any legion the work
is fixed and secondary
a ride in the desert
spent days, one
at a time
the serial is in some ways
perfect for a legion

and of the poets prancing
in the academy stock
talking into the face of the clock
only Prynne has the wit to compose
The Pleistocene Rock!’

Prynne’s poem, from The White Stones deals with the glacial movement south in the Pleistocene Era and within it scientific discourse becomes lyric expression which disrupts those discourses. Of course Dorn would have appreciated the compassionately aware sense of both history and humour in the English poet: ‘We know this, we are what it leaves’.

Ian Brinton 3rd July 2015

Peter Dent’s Private Utopias

Peter Dent’s Private Utopias

Peter Dent’s Private Utopias: or ‘Noises in the Head’ (Oystercatcher Press 2013) contains utterances that are to be relished as poetic artifacts that reverberate with flamboyant first person narratives and odd distillations of life falling between public and private familiarity. Here are pinpricks along a number of discourses that probe viewpoints and show the weave in and out of a number of binary oppositions. It is the suggested otherness, the private utopia, which works in balance with an implicit probing that lifts the poems off. Words and phrases from distinct discourses intermingle with colloquialisms and clichés. Significantly, they are not juxtaposed and thus the reader is often confronted with a sequence of linked lines where public and private coalesce. There may be slippages, as the back cover blurb suggests, but they are unitary slippages inherent to the narrative.

 

You may well ask ‘why’ but they couldn’t possibly say   so

 

heads it’s a tailspin tails it’s a guaranteed loss leader   who

read the outcome should have voiced their concern at the

time  for two pins I’d swap our current preoccupation with

 

fixing outcomes for a decent walk – any walk – in the hills

if that means being in two minds well so be it   I’m not a

 

It is wonderfully rich and open poetry, adopting Robert Creeley’s maxim to have more than one event per line. Dent regularly offers one and a half events per line that make the poems zip along in an unpredictable but lucid manner. It is possible to approach the poems with different reading strategies that offer ways toward an immensely satisfying journey. It is Dent’s great achievement that they are both settled and unsettling.

 

I could be a gift to an implant manufacturer  one creating

 

private utopias but it’s late in the day   curiosity about the

instruments of Java and Bali combines with the howling of a

pack of wolves to restore hope in a world more dangerous

 

 

David Caddy

 

 

 

 

 

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