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Melancholy Occurrence by John Seed (Shearsman Books)

Melancholy Occurrence by John Seed (Shearsman Books)

“body partly on the
pavement partly on the road blood
streaming from the back of his head

Cornelius Grinnell of New York
owner of the steam yacht Hawk
lodging at the Royal Victoria Yacht Club

on Pier Street in Ryde
returning to his rooms after midnight
drew up the Venetian blinds

opened the window and stepped out
onto a balcony that wasn’t there
and disappeared”

John Seed opens his new book of poetic vignettes, his windows into another world, with the clear assertion that they are appropriated from mostly nineteenth-century English newspapers or inquest reports and rewritten. As Julian Barnes reminded us some years ago History isn’t what happened it’s what historians tell us happened and when contemplating the enormous canvas of Gericault’s ‘Le Radeau de la Méduse’ in the Louvre he enquired “How do you turn catastrophe into art?” John Seed’s “rewritten” transforms these pieces of news into what could be the frame for the nouveau roman or, more closely perhaps, le nouveau conte. The margin between historical reconstruction and the world of fiction was tested in 1979 by Milan Kundera in the opening four paragraphs of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

“In February 1948, Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to address the hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens packed into Old Town Square. It was a crucial moment in Czech history—a fateful moment of the kind that occurs once or twice in a millennium.
Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing next to him. There were snow flurries, it was cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. The solicitious Clementis took off his own fur cap and set it on Gottwald’s head.
The Party propaganda section put out hundreds of thousands of copies of a photograph of that balcony with Gottwald, a fur cap on his head and comrades at his side, speaking to the nation. On that balcony the history of Communist Czechoslovakia was born. Every child knew the photograph from posters, schoolbooks, and museums.
Four years later Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of history and, obviously, out of all the photographs as well. Ever since, Gottwald has stood on that balcony alone. Where Clementis once stood, there is only bare palace wall. All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald’s head.”

The famous photograph was taken on February 21st 1948 and when Vladimir Clementis was executed in 1952 he was indeed erased from the photograph. But it acts as the opening scene for a novel which Salman Rushdie referred to as being full of angels, terror, ostriches and love!
John Seed’s glimpses and glimmerings taken from those nineteenth-century newspapers raise the curtain upon a moment of dramatic intensity. In the poem I quoted at the beginning we are confronted with a conclusion: a body, partly on the road and partly on the pavement. The opening word offers us no description but its bald assertion makes it clear that this is a dead person and the most immediate cause of death may well be the blood that is “streaming” from the head. We are then taken back in time to discover the name of the dead person, his place of origin, his possession of a steam yacht and the place at which he was residing. The deft artistic quality of this little picture is then caught in the last stanza as we are invited into the room from which he fell. We are caught between the historical fact of him stepping out of the window and the immediate awareness of the moment of realisation that is followed by the fall to his death: historical information has taken on a moment of individual and personal vividness. This is very powerful writing indeed.
On the back cover of this remarkable collection of poems there is a quotation from Empire of Signs by Roland Barthes:

“The haiku’s task is to achieve exemption from meaning within a perfectly readerly discourse (a contradiction denied to Western art, which can contest meaning only by rendering its discourse incomprehensible”.

Haiku resists interpretation: it is intelligible and means nothing. Robert Duncan was haunted by this sense of what lurks behind meaning, what he referred to as a “ground of man’s imaginations”, and recalled sitting with his sister, “my mother between us”, looking at pictures as he was read to. The picture that stayed with him was of three young men sleeping on a mat one of whom was Bashō, the seventeenth-century Japanese writer of Haiku who had just woken up: the seventeen syllables of a frog jumping into an ancient pond reverberates down the years. It doesn’t mean anything but it is! And so, on Sunday 26th December 1820 in “French-alley Goswell-street” a watchman going his rounds and calling out the hour of one

“discovered a new-born infant
lying in a corner entirely naked
a few old rags around his head”

Ian Brinton 24th June 2018

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no particular place to go by Laurie Duggan (Shearsman Books)

no particular place to go by Laurie Duggan (Shearsman Books)

In Robert Duncan’s interview with Ekbert Faas (Towards a New American Poetics, Black Sparrow Press 1978) the poet asserts “there are no trivial events for me. This is the question raised by Williams’ famous ‘so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow’. The real point of that question is: Are there any trivial events, are there any trivial people or trivial anythings, trivial beings or propositions? And for me everything happening in the poem is properly apprehended and therefore not trivial.” One consults a map because one has a particular place to reach but Laurie Duggan’s new volume of poems charts a sense of discovery which responds to experience rather than mapping it out first: read this book and you’re on the move!
When Williams highlighted the importance of his red wheel barrow he followed it with a prose statement concerning the “fixed categories into which life is divided”:

“These things are normal – essential to every activity. But they exist – but not as dead dissections”.

Laurie Duggan’s new collection is, in his own words, “an unholy gathering of discrete pieces written over the last fifteen years” but to my mind they hold together in such a way as to give a picture which is more than an accumulation of the discrete. ‘Hegemony’ is a poem which perhaps represents the sense of poetic unity:

“a world of transactions
at war with a world of immanence,
a geography without contours
against a range of singular spaces”

The immediacy of Duggan’s perceptions possess a life which is not held in by the contours of the field but which realises the geography of “range”. This fine collection is more than “singular spaces” and lives as a “world of transactions” between poet and reader. Our guide through the spaces is a perceptive wit which looks closely at the world and concludes with wry humour. Gustave Courbet’s 1854 painting titled ‘The Meeting’ is given a new breath of life by the poet’s close awareness of what the gestures in the painting point to:

“What made him present himself, greeted on the road
by another figure (engaged perhaps

in mere commerce) offer instead of an epithet
a commonplace?”

The poet has captured that “world of transactions” in which the figure on the right, a pedlar perhaps, cocks his head to one side as if appraising the figure in front of him: the painter with courteous gesture of held out left arm as if he might be wishing the man a fine day. It is typical of much of Laurie Duggan’s work that these small moments are given a life, a sparkle of immediacy. So many of the poems are addressed to individual readers and we are given sly insights into character and landscape within which character resides for a moment, a click of the lens. Tony Frazer, Peter Lanyon, Frank Auerbach, Alexander Calder, Basil King, Pam Brown, Angela Gardner, Lee Harwood, Rosemary Hunter and ‘The Ghost of WCW in a Faversham Pub’:

“ ‘I’d love to go back
to Acapulco

it was so different
and so easy’ ”

Those plums in the icebox were indeed delicious and as readers we easily forgive the seemingly inconsequential footsteps of words which step their way through these poems. Duggan’s volume may assert the “inherently occasional” but I am reminded of those Necessary Steps (Shearsman Books, edited by David Kennedy, 2007) in which John Hall reminds us of the derivation of the word “occasion”:

“The Oxford English Dictionary gives as the etymology for occasion: ‘ad. L. occasion-em falling (of things) towards (each other)’. It is not just the things that fall towards each other, though there is always, I would say, a sense of conjuncture or convergence that marks something as an ‘occasion’, even for those with their attention on the ‘everyday’. It is also that occasions are marked incidents that cause certain people to fall together.”

Given these words…there is always a “particular place to go” and I can think of few better guides that Laurie Duggan.

Ian Brinton, 6th February 2017

Lunarium by Josep Lluís Aguiló translated by Anna Crowe (Arc Publications)

Lunarium by Josep Lluís Aguiló translated by Anna Crowe (Arc Publications)

John Berger’s fictional account of a doctor in the Forest of Dean, Dr Sassall in A Fortunate Man, presents the reader with that reality pointed to by Charles Tomlinson in his poem ‘A Meditation on John Constable’:

“…The artist lies
For the improvement of truth.”

Berger’s country doctor “exaggerates when he tells stories about himself. In these stories he is nearly always in an absurd position: trying to take a film on deck when the waves break over him; getting lost in a city he doesn’t know; letting a pneumatic drill run away with him. He stresses the disenchantment and deliberately makes himself a comic little man. Disguised in this way and forearmed against disappointment, he can then re-approach reality once more with the entirely un-comic purposes of mastering it, of understanding further.” Anna Crowe’s Preface to her convincing translations of the contemporary Mallorcan poet Aguiló highlights some similar ideas concerning the imagination of this tale-weaving poet:

“Already there is a sense that the reader may expect the unexpected. Reading these poems, what is striking is the power of the imagination at work, and the multiplicity of voices that speak through the poems. The power of the imagination might be said to be the underlying argument or leitmotif of Aguiló’s poetry.”

Aguiló creates worlds which can be visited secretly and we can begin “to search for the truth / by finding where the ink is hidden that tattoos us / in the world”. This is a poetry of doors and as they open, one by one, they invite the reader into the next stanza:

“The first stanza is the one that welcomes
you and drags you inside,
grabbing you by the arm and frowning at you;
the one that speaks to you with warmth and trust
while it makes you sit down in the armchair of the second stanza.”

These are magical poems which create a magical world of Mallorca in which “green and yellow words”, written by a botanical god, can be deciphered “every day on the pages of / the thicket of writing”.
This is a Mallorca known to the Americans of the 1950s from which Robert Creeley published his Divers Press books and Black Mountain Review and from which Robert Duncan could write to Denise Levertov in June 1955 about “the desire to have imagination freed again”. This is a world which exists with a perception of exact detail and an understanding that ouvertures are created through which we see another world:

“You had to walk stealthily. Every footstep echoed,
disturbing emptiness and time. The smells of food
from the kitchen did not reach this high and I scrabbled
among lumber and old clothes, savouring the smells
of chicken bran and the dung and damp walls
of this corner of Santanyí and bad Mallorcan cement.”

The importance of Tomlinson’s assertion about imagination and truth informs this whole collection and the emphasis noted in Anna Crowe’s introduction stands sentinel to a landscape which invites further exploration:

“There is a sense of a poet pushing the boundaries of the possible further and further out, of exploring what it means to live on the edge of whatever world he has invented, as well as, at the same time, going further and further in, exploring what it means to be human.”

Ian Brinton 23rd January 2017

The Drop by Robert Sheppard (Oystercatcher Press)

The Drop by Robert Sheppard (Oystercatcher Press)

When J.H. Prynne gave his Keynote Speech at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in China on 18th April 2008 he referred to the art of translation in terms of poetic composition:

‘The activity of composing a poem in the first place shares some features with translation-work: pausing to consider exactly which words and expressions to use, building up the form and sound of a poem as if it already exists in your mind and as if you are translating this idea or process of thought into words on a page.’

‘Building up the form’ echoes the note Prynne made one year before that speech in China when he suggested that translation was ‘a noble art, making bridges for readers who want to cross the divide between their own culture and those cultures which are situated in other parts of the world’. Those bridges may be made stone by stone, brick by brick, word by word, or, perhaps when the bridge connects a world of the present with a world of the past, drop by drop. The drop may suggest Donne’s ‘A Valediction: of weeping’ where ‘each tear / Which thee doth wear’ creates ‘a globe, yea world’. The drops of sorrow at the loss of someone close to one’s whole life may, in Donne’s terms, become

‘Fruits of much grief they are, emblems of more,
When a tear falls, that thou falls which it bore,
So thou and I are nothing then, when on a diverse shore.’

That disyllabic adjective emphasizes the distance between the lovers, each on their separate shore.
Near the end of Robert Sheppard’s elegy to his father, the poet writes that the ‘Desire the task / Of the poet is elective translation’:

‘To transmute the nothing said
Into the nothing that could

That could talk itself
Into the world the

Shadow that casts wings between
The pillars the poem’s

Ear vibrates unthreads the
Love-whisper

By interruption
Quickens the sparkle-speech scattered

Among injured words love
Intervenes

Cannot resist too
Much in love with its own resisting

Earlier in this powerful elegy Sheppard had referred to the ‘longest story ladders / Up sides of tombs’ and the whole poem explores the ability of language to explore the inability of the past’s reconstruction. Words can never bring back the dead, never ‘talk’ themselves ‘Into the world’, but the ‘translation’ referred to is ‘elective’ and the stumbling forward of language in its climbing out of the past to reconstruct what can never bridge those distances is caught in the repetition of ‘that could’. That passage from near the poem’s end brims over with suggestion: the ‘Shadow that casts wings’ inevitably echoes the valley of the shadow of death in Psalm 23 and I found myself looking back at Robert Duncan’s ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’ where the poet links the present to the past through imagination. Duncan’s scene is ‘made-up by the mind’ but is definite enough in its concrete reality to be ‘a made place’. Although personal to the poet, it is a place to which he is permitted to return; it has mythological existence as the underworld to which Kora was taken. The architecture of the hall, the domain of the subconscious/past/underworld promotes the palpability of the present in which the poet lives: ‘Wherefrom fall all architectures I am’. Olson also wrote about the impossible distances and suggested that because love is so intense and alive in its feelings it ‘knows no distance, no place/is that far away’ (‘The Distances’).

Robert Sheppard’s elegy opens with two comments which are central to understanding the nature of this unbridgeable loss. The first page opens with the italicized phrase ‘Standing by’ and the fourth stanza concludes with a reference to ‘Elegy lost in action on the outskirts of an event’. The immeasurability of the gap between NOW and THEN, the living and the dead, means that all writers of elegies stand on the outskirts of an event. As Thomas Hardy recognized in the first of his poems about the death of his wife, ‘The Going’, her death was the closure of a term and the single word ‘gone’ on line five has a musical resonance of bell-like clarity. Hardy’s image of the swallow then emphasises the impossibility of bridging the distance between that past and this present. The past cannot ever be reached despite the ability of the migratory bird to fly swiftly over extraordinarily long distances.

Beckett’s short play Krapp’s Last Tape is one of the great elegies and as the recorder of events puts it, listening to himself on tape from a former year, ‘The grain, now I what I wonder do I mean by that, I mean…[hesitates]…I suppose I mean those things worth having when all the dust has—when all my dust has settled I close my eyes and try and imagine them.’ In Robert Sheppard’s world this has become

‘My mind mummified with emotion
I thought everything

Was compiled
On reels of tape piled into temple walls’

The walls of the temple, as Krapp is compelled to recognise, do not keep memory fresh and Robert Sheppard’s ‘drop mourns itself’ and it is not only morphine which will thicken the ‘glassy eye’. The Drop is an extraordinarily powerful poem which grows more lasting each time I read it.

Ian Brinton 8th January 2015

What the Sky Arranges Poems made from the TSUREZUREGUSA of KENKŌ by Andrew Fitzsimons, with drawings by Sergio Maria Calatroni, Isobar Press

What the Sky Arranges  Poems made from the TSUREZUREGUSA of KENKŌ  by Andrew Fitzsimons, with drawings by Sergio Maria Calatroni, Isobar Press

The forthcoming launch of Paul Rossiter’s 2015 programme of books from Isobar Press, details of which can be found at the foot of this blog, has prompted me to recall an Isobar production from last year: the meditative, witty and long-lasting short poems by Andrew Fitzsimons gathered from a reading of Kenkō.

‘Travel. Wherever you go
the world you bring with you
is washed by the world you see.’

There is a refreshing sense of whole attention in these poems and a quietness of reflection that glimmers long after the little book is closed. There is a merging of closely observed detail with a background that offers years of support:

‘What is bad taste?
too many knick-knacks about the place
too many brushes in the ink box
too many Buddhas
too many shrubs and plants in a garden
too many rooms in a house
too many words on meeting someone
a ledger all plus and no minus?

Myths, tales, stories tell us something about who we are and the American poet, Robert Duncan’s autobiographical essay, The Truth & Life of Myth (House of Books Ltd. New York, 1968), referred to a sense of ‘universal humanity’ which is open to being discovered in the ‘mixing-ground of man’s commonality in myth’:

The meaning and intent of what it is to be a man and, among men, to be a poet, I owe to the workings of myth in my spirit, both the increment of associations gathered in my continuing study of mythological lore and my own apprehension of what my life is at work there. The earliest stories heard, nursery rimes and animal tales from childhood, remain today alive in my apprehensions, for there is a ground of man’s imaginations of what he is in which my own nature as a man is planted and grows.

Duncan’s book was subtitled ‘An essay in Essential Autobiography’ and the poet recalled sitting with his sister, ‘my mother between us’, looking at pictures in a book ‘as my mother reads aloud’:

‘The picture I am looking at is of three young men sleeping on a mat. One of them, the poet Basho, has awakened. Their naked feet are uncovered where they have pulled the blankets up around their necks in the cold. There is a poem that goes with that picture on the page. But this is not the poem that comes to mind even as I see the picture. For as I remember that moment, there is another scene superimposed, a double exposure, in which the very plash of a frog jumping into an old pond appears as if from actual life itself, but this vivid impression belongs to one of the most famous of all Japanese hokkus

In the poem ‘WORLDS’ by Fitzsimons the old world is washed by the new as if the lenses of the eye were being cleansed by focussed attention upon the new moment. When J.H. Prynne, at that time Director of Studies at Gonville and Caius, put together some ‘Tips on Practical Criticism for Students of English, 2006’ he associated close and broad reading skills in a way not dissimilar to this image of one world washed by another:

‘In fact, and in practice, however, close and broad reading skills reciprocally energise and complement each other. Regular exercises in close reading both sharpen and deepen accurate response to local texture and also feed into enhanced perception of larger-scale structure, to make us all-round better readers. One hand washes the other. Principles and foundations of a distinctive personal judgement begin to appear, together with increased range of response and cogency of evaluative judgement, supported by explorative argument within awareness of differing views and opinions. Step by step, as a reader, you begin to tune in and wake up.’
Read What the Sky Arranges and dwell for a moment upon ‘DATES:

‘Don’t wait till dotage for your goodness to begin.
Look at the dates on those gravestones.’

Isobar books are published to a very high standard and it would be worth going to this launch just to buy a copy of Andrew Fitzsimons’ poems let alone the new publications which include Peter Robinson’s poems from his time in Japan.
The London launch of Isobar Books takes place this Friday, 3rd July upstairs in the Rugby Tavern, Gt. James St. WC1N 3ES at 7.00.
Ian Brinton 29th June 2015

From Fossils to Fibonacci: Nancy Gaffield’s Be-Hind-Sight Zyxt (Oystercatcher Press)

From Fossils to Fibonacci: Nancy Gaffield’s Be-Hind-Sight Zyxt (Oystercatcher Press)

As Nancy Gaffield’s new chapbook of poems tells us ‘each poem is an exploration / of language in place’. The phrase is followed by a reference to Gaston Bachelard’s influential 1958 volume The Poetics of Space in which he asserted that ‘Inhabited space transcends geometrical space.’ Early on in the book Bachelard quotes from Rilke:

‘House, patch of meadow, oh evening light
Suddenly you acquire an almost human face
You are very near us, embracing and embraced.’

And when I looked at this it was with a leap of recognition that I thought of Robert Duncan’s opening lines to ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’:

‘as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,

that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein…’

Combining the Fibonacci accumulation of numbers seen as space on the page, alongside a floor-plan of what appears as a horizontal cathedral, Nancy Gaffield offers the reader an Olsonian journey and provides us with a ‘presence of place to / share words and deeds’. As she says, ‘this is polis’.
Bachelard asserts that a house constitutes a body of images ‘that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability’ and goes on to suggest that, as a building, a house is imagined as ‘a vertical being’ which rises upwards differentiating itself in terms of its verticality. Nancy Gaffield’s poems are constructions which link our presence to our past:

‘Like
poems
ammonites
build their shells around
principles of geometry
the fossil in this stone lived seventy million years
ago by turning in on itself this is slow life in a fortress town
that passes
its days dreaming from within its walls until the last
catastrophe petrifies them
in their stone coffins
a far cry
from the
sea’

Like a mathematical accretion from the thirteenth century the poem builds up before reaching the turning point of ‘passes’ prompting the lines to withdraw to the stone coffin of the printed page and its resonant echo that sounds so far from its original source. These poems are not merely skilful; they possess a haunting beauty that allows history to breathe. The advantage Herodotus has over Thucydides, according to Olson, is that the father of History says the voice is greater than the eye:

‘If you shout—if you tell your story—he listens to you. He doesn’t give you that nod and finger which destroys you, wagging, and saying, look, you ain’t there. He says, you say so? OK, I believe you. Truth is what is said, not what is seen. Your own report is good enough for him. You say you lived here? OK. You did. These things happened to you? OK. Sign here’

These new poems may concentrate upon what can be seen, sight, but their echo is what lasts with me, an ‘undercroft’, a ghost that lives in language, a fluid movement into which I can dive in order to experience the vertigo of the matter-of-fact ‘colliding with memory’. They are built to last!

Ian Brinton February 21st 2015

Continental Drift by Nancy Gaffield (Shearsman Books)

Continental Drift by Nancy Gaffield (Shearsman Books)

When David Herd wrote that Nancy Gaffield’s poetry ‘speaks directly and beautifully to the contours of our contemporary moment’ he touched upon something very important indeed. Not only do these delightful pieces of writing resonate with a contemporary sound but also the contours of their language and focus take us into an imaginative world which breathes that salt-laden fragmentary lyricism to be found in Sappho.

 

The first of two epigraphs placed by the poet at the opening of this fine volume is a quotation from James Schuyler’s ‘Salute’ in which he asserts that the ‘Past / is past’

 

I salute that various field.

 

That salute to the field, that greeting to the long gone, brings to my mind the opening lines of Robert Duncan’s ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’

 

as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,

that is not mine, but is a made place,

 

that is mine, it is so near to the heart,

an eternal pasture folded in all thought

so that there is a hall therein

 

that is a made place, created by light

wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

 

I have written more about this Duncan poem some ten years ago in Tears in the Fence 44. That field to which Schuyler refers is ‘various’ as he thinks of the ‘clover / daisy, paintbrush that / grew in that field / the cabin stood in…’ and his poem is haunted by the inability to make a past stand still. As Nancy Gaffield recognises in this, her second collection of poems (Tokaido Road won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize three years ago) the world is in constant flux and the title, Continental Drift, bears a suggestion of both seismic trauma and reflective eyes cast back on a world now gone. I am reminded here of Walter Benjamin’s extraordinarily fine essay on ‘The Task of the Translator, published in Illuminations where he sees the translator not in the centre of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge. Translation, like bringing the past into a present, calls into that forest aiming at the single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one. The sounds of such movement can be heard in Continental Drift and as the short prose piece which closes this delightful volume makes clear

 

Something happens when you dislodge the outward aspect of the familiar. A border has been crossed. You become a world-builder. Place-making means multiple acts of remembering. Pas à pas imagination slides between the frames of reference. Not opposition, but apposition. We go by side roads.

 

In his monumental novel Les Misérables Victor Hugo tells us that the past is like a ghostly voyager who, like his main character Jean Valjean, convict and outcast, always travels with a false passport. But as Nancy Gaffield tells us ‘you cannot / wipe the slate clean / language gets used / over and over again / re-coupling / letting see / what has been hidden / beneath’

 

Ian Brinton 25th May 2014

 

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