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Tag Archives: Robert Frost

Black Book by Robert Vas Dias & Julia Farrer (Shearsman Books)

Black Book by Robert Vas Dias & Julia Farrer (Shearsman Books)

This profoundly serious book is an oeuvre noir, ‘an ethical response to a range of contemporary atrocities and acts of inhumanity’ (Robert Hampson). The ‘Black Book’ has an authoritarian and punitive sense to it: if you do not fit in with the rules then your name will be entered in the ‘black book’. The power of the book was legendary and even Christopher Tietjens’s father in Ford Madox Ford’s Some Do Not held an implicit belief in the ‘great book’ in which a mark might be placed against your name, damning you for social elevation! But there is also the oeuvre au noir which forms part of the alchemical magic suggesting that a new world might be created from this current one. For that we might go to Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel about Zeno. If this powerful new work by Robert Vas Dias is not despairing of humanity it is because, as the Rector of St. James’s Piccadilly puts it on the back cover:

‘…black dwells just before the light shines and hurts my eyes. Black invites me to rest from the uninvited and exhausting battery of illusions that fill my days. A book that is black narrates stories of night-time experiments in the telling of truth.’

The Forward that Vas Dias writes focuses on a register of ‘our outrage at the inhumanity of humanity’ and the book that he and Julia Farrer have composed ‘is analogous to the ways in which war poets, war artists and photographers, and journalists have always worked and exhibited’. The subtitle of the book is ‘An Assemblage of the Fragmentary’ and the poet and the artist played around with the idea of ‘an art of fragments, an art that recapitulates the way in which we receive information in fragmentary form in media reports that start as necessarily incomplete stories’. Julia Farrer’s images were drawn on a computer using a 3-D program, ‘fragmented and manipulated randomly’; Robert Vas Dias’s writing combines a ticker-tape of text which bears witness to the suffering of the body under regimes of torture with, above it, a series of statements:

‘let us consider the forming of walls, the mortar

of words I use to form my walls, to make my side

a better side, the other side is where the other side

resides, I’m on the right side and you are not, the

side you’re on is undesirable and my side is right

because I am right and you are wrong…’

Juxtaposed against these words are shorter lines in red and they include such phrases as ‘enhanced interrogation’ and ‘surgical precision’. The walls that are presented here have little to do with Robert Frost’s famous lines concerning ‘Mending Walls’ but have more in common with William Blake’s sharp proverb of Hell: ‘Prisons are built with stones of law, Brothels with bricks of religion.’ The epigraph to this book is a statement from Tagore: ‘where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls’ and the fragmentary episodes threading a narrative throughout reveal ‘black sites’ where ‘anything went’.
This book demands to be read and its responses taken to heart:

‘for refugees it’s not about seeking a better life
it’s about having any life at all

I have a dream a world without borders
today more than ever’

Ian Brinton 8th December 2016

The Country Gambler by Erica McAlpine (Shearsman Books)

The Country Gambler by Erica McAlpine (Shearsman Books)

The distrust that William Carlos Williams had of the poetry of T.S. Eliot is well known and for confirmation one could certainly turn up that letter Williams sent to James Laughlin in March 1939 in which he damned the American ex-pat with the faint praise of being ‘a cultured gentleman’ before going on to add ‘and cultured gentlemen are always likely to undersell the market’:

‘I’m glad you like his verse but I’m warning you, the only reason it doesn’t smell is that it’s synthetic…He can write. Granted. But—it’s like walking into a church to me. I can’t do it without a bad feeling at the pit of my stomach: nothing has been learned there since the simplicities were prevented from becoming multiform by arrest of growth…’

But we had been made aware of Williams’ distrust long before. In fact from Spring and All onwards! A couple of pages before ‘By the road to the contagious hospital’ there is the prose note ‘If I could say what is in my mind in Sanscrit or even Latin I would do so. But I cannot. I speak for the integrity of the soul and the greatness of life’s inanity…’. Maybe it’s that word ‘integrity’ that prompts me think of both Williams and Gerard Manley Hopkins when I read the introductory poem to this fine first collection put out by Shearsman: ‘Sempervivum’.

‘Long-living plant, that flowers on the ground and
spawns in circles round itself, whose low and quiet
center stores a gravity not surpassed by
stone, down to the pith,’

As the stones from a sonnet by Hopkins ‘ring’ and the ‘weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush’ in ‘Spring’ so do the houseleeks of Erica McAlpine ‘put forth into these leaves’ a sense of energy that feeds on ‘both drought and faith’. The resurgence of life that Williams captures in that roadside to the contagious hospital can be felt throughout this sensitive and uplifting volume of poems. Both poet and reader are immersed within this energy and we can recognise that ‘it’s in our power / to spend the whole afternoon drinking our fill / of sun (soaking now through the canvas over /us)’ confirming us in the feeling that ‘These are the Happiest Days’.
When George Oppen referred to the ‘isolation of the actual’ in Of Being Numerous he was thinking of rooms and ‘what they look out on’ and basements, ‘the rough walls bearing the marks of the forms, the old marks in the concrete, such solitude as we know’. McAlpine reminds us that ‘life is brief’ and therefore brings sharply into focus the immediacy of what is involved in being ‘The Country Gambler’:

‘You’ll find me in the clover patch from August
to October, detangling tangled stem from stem,
inspecting each one over, knowing three
seems four when two stems meet and send a leaf
from under, or if they cross along the neck then
six can be the number. And some are tall,
and bent with rain, and overtop the grass,
while others, tiny, clump their leaves in bunches
thick as moss.’

If there is a tone of Robert Frost’s ‘Mending Wall here there is also that of John Clare whose ‘Clock a Clay’ (ladybird) makes its home in a ‘pale green pillar topt wi’flowers’ which bends at the wild wind’s breath ‘Till I touch the grass beneath’. In the hunt for a four-leaved clover ‘shade can turn the leafage blond’ and wind ‘can push the petal-ends to ground’, making them ‘hard to sort’. With another sly glance at an English poet there is perhaps here a tone of Edward Thomas’s searching for the seemingly long-lost possibility of Eden and Erica McAlpine agrees with Thomas that ‘I wouldn’t cut the searching short’. After all, ‘Nothing’s better than the luck you find’.

I have merely scratched at the surface of these poems and I firmly recommend that you order a copy now; they represent a significant beginning of a serious poetic talent.

Ian Brinton 22nd April 2016

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