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Tag Archives: Samuel Beckett

In Folly’s Shade by John Welch (Shearsman Books)

In Folly’s Shade by John Welch (Shearsman Books)

Tony Frazer’s opening comment on the back cover of this new collection of poems by John Welch raises a central point that is immediately felt when one opens this new volume:

“…there is throughout the book a recurring preoccupation with the ambiguities involved in the business of being a poet and above all the sheer oddness of us as a species inveigled into language and unable to get out of it.”

The opening poem is titled ‘Carpenter Build Me a House’ and it confronts the reader immediately with the difficulties of writing:

“As if in translation eating the bread of existence
In here is a creaking voice, turning the handle
And it does so happen sometimes just before sleep
With that slight awkwardness of language
When it takes you to another voice
As if inhabiting a seizure.”

That difficulty felt by the poet who wishes to communicate a thought but who is also constrained by the language in which the thought can be communicated is there in the “creaking” of a wheel which needs to be moved into smooth action by use. As the handle is turned the intrusive nature of self-doubt is set in motion: the “slight awkwardness” of language raises the question of words that have been used before. The poet translates and perhaps seizes the voice of another to bring his thoughts to the surface and is left wondering “Is it all done in imitation?” Each step the poet takes, word by word, or rock by rock as Gary Snyder might have said sixty years ago in ‘Riprap’, requires there to be “some purchase” and the pun on the word combines not only that acquisition from the language of others but also the firmness that permits one to move tentatively forward. In the second poem of this collection, ‘A Provision’ we are privy to the poet’s isolation:

“Sitting in an upstairs room he is trying to arrive some-
where, making his own silence on behalf of something he
can almost remember. In those odd corners of being where
still he waits for himself, a fountain playing in the desert. He
watches the water fade, dissembling, into the ground.

‘The words’, he said ‘were to gain me a purchase on it,
their empty grip on the page like a bird’s claws’ – and how
neat the whole thing’s workings, like the insides of an old-
fashioned watch.”

Samuel Beckett confronted the difficulties of artistic expression when he was in conversation with Georges Duthuit:

“The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”

Duthuit relied that this was “a violently extreme and personal point of view” to which Beckett did not reply. The rest as it were is silence. Except of course that it isn’t and that Beckett knew well when he came to write Worstward Ho:

“All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

John Welch recognizes the profound truth of what Beckett was saying and the humanity, care and civilized concern for the need of the artist to express himself can be felt throughout these pages of In Folly’s Shade. He recognizes that “The paper was an invitation” even though the “book I take with me…is everywhere unread”. In the poem ‘Translated’ he is “a man with his words stranded hallway over a bridge” but as ‘A Provision’ provides

“Over to here is where it now comes, nearer by far, a
language, something that empties itself full. In the end
there are only the words to smooth the thing.”

This is a very important volume of poems and as the everyday devaluing of words seems to be confronting us we would do wisely to take heed of that cautious and careful voice of concern: I trust the voice in these poems.

Ian Brinton, 28th October 2018

Letters from the Underworld by Alan Baker (The Red Ceilings Press)

Letters from the Underworld by Alan Baker (The Red Ceilings Press)

One of the many striking points about the realism of Dante’s work made by Erich Auerbach in Mimesis concerns the way in which the Italian poet achieves such an intensity of dramatic presence. Auerbach refers to Dante’s journey as representing the only opportunity the souls of the dead have of expressing themselves: they have one moment in all eternity to speak to a hearer from among the living. Hegel suggested that into the changeless existence of eternal damnation Dante “plunges the living world of human action and endurance and more especially of individual deeds and destinies.” It is scarcely small wonder that Samuel Beckett admired Canto V of Inferno with such passion and took his admiration to the point of imitation in the 1962 drama Play.
The twenty prose-poem sections of Alan Baker’s Letters from the Underworld present us with a dystopian vision of the contemporary world and they are threaded with literary references which act as context for the eerie cries haunting this small but profound collection from The Red Ceilings Press. In the form of letters sent out from our “forests of the hinterland” we are presented with echoes of John Donne’s “year’s midnight” as we are informed of our “currency” being “worthless”:

“Th’hydroptic glass hath never sunk so low.”

However, as Donne’s ‘Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day’ reminds us that the moments shift from the year’s midnight and this hour’s vigil is held with a sacred sense of particularity so do Baker’s epistles move forward with fractional exactness:

“You know me by now, after all this correspondence. I cannot rest from travel.”

The voice is that of Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem from 1833 in which the voyager who has spent so long searching for home is confined to Ithaca where “I mete and dole / Unequal laws unto a savage race”. Tennyson’s dramatic recreation of the Greek hero is partly taken from Inferno Canto XXVI as the condemned soul tells us of his “inward hunger…To master earth’s experience” (Binyon). In Alan Baker’s conclusion to these remarkable epistles there is another voice from the mid-nineteenth century as we recognise that mournful cry of Matthew Arnold from the coast-line of Kent:

“This evening, all is calm, here, on this tideless coast. The deep moans round with many voices. The late sun slants into my open window and the lights begin to twinkle from the rocks.”

Arnold’s plea to his newly-wed wife in June 1851 is commanding in its seriousness:

“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

Alan Baker’s twentieth letter tells us “My government has withdrawn funding from the rescue service and other member states argue amongst themselves while the hungry sea doesn’t rest unburnished, but shines in use.” Victims of political indifference we can only wonder “exactly what the future holds”. That future certainly seems here to be bleak as we confront the desperation of migrating people:

“One, who has a particularly plaintive lilt, said he paid $3000 in cash, but the boat was just a cheap inflatable. They wanted safety but the ferryman told them they were already dead; he looked in their mouths for a coin to pay for passage.”

This is a world composed of those “fleeing persecution…wide with wanderers displaced and dispossessed, seeking refuge and finding razor wire and shipwreck.” However, having acknowledged that we are also aware of why one would write letters at all:

“I sometimes feel, when I read your letters, that I could reach out and touch you; the words have your voice, the phrasing the contours of your tongue, the handwriting the morphology of your mental landscape whose valleys I’d like to wander in, perhaps to find a river by whose banks I could fall asleep and dream of the world as an emerald of unreachable beauty, a crystallographer’s dream; such a thing is possible, although, as we know, the possible as a dwelling, be it a garden or a sunlit garret, is as mortal as you or I.”

Language and thought merge together in these prose-poems and the concluding question is an assertion of the importance of the writing itself:

“It’s not too late to seek a newer world, is it?”

http://www.theredceilingspress.co.uk

Ian Brinton, 25th October 2018.

Memorial to the Future: Volker von Törne translated by Jean Boase-Beier with Anthony Vivis (Arc)

Memorial to the Future: Volker von Törne translated by Jean Boase-Beier with Anthony Vivis (Arc)

The translator’s Preface to this new Arc edition of the poems of Volker von Törne strikes an immediate note that compels one to read on:

“What first struck me about von Törne’s poems, and made me want to translate them, was their intensity…”

This intensity comes perhaps from the “weight of guilt and anger” in the poems:

“He felt personally guilty that his father had been in the SS and that he had, as a small child in the late 1930s, repeated the phrases he heard about German Nationalism, about the need for racial purity and the desire to conquer others.”

In a 1965 essay on Bertolt Brecht, ‘Commitment’, Adorno asserted that “The abundance of real suffering tolerates no forgetting” and he went on to suggest that Pascal’s theological saying, On ne doit plus dormer, must be secularized. Adorno is often quoted as saying that it is impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz and as if plagued by the way his work seems to have become defined by that statement the essay on Brecht opens with the clear statement:

“I have no wish to soften the saying that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric; it expresses in negative form the impulse which inspires committed literature…When genocide becomes part of the cultural heritage in the themes of committed literature, it becomes easier to continue to play along with the culture which gave birth to murder.”

What makes von Törne’s work so different from any artistic reconstruction of the Holocaust is that alongside any guilt and anger there is a strong sense of longing and nostalgia – “longing for a world in which people would be able to face the evils of the past and offer atonement, and nostalgia for a time when he did not know what he knows now, at the time of writing.”
Many of these poems deal with disappearance, an irreversible emptiness, and rather than offering a nostalgic desire for return they record vanishings: smoke or dreams melted:

“Which way have the music-makers gone
And the tinkers? On what bank
Are their horses grazing now? Beneath what moon
Their violins singing?

No-one has seen them. Without a trace
Smoke in the clouds
They have gone
Away”

In a world of political reconstruction von Törne’s voice is important as not that of hands held up in guilt and shrinking horror; it is one of awareness that there is no turning back and “Not every ending is also a beginning / Colossal bridges carry streets that lead nowhere”.
In his perceptive introduction to these remarkable poems, David Wheatley raises the figure of Samuel Beckett. In a quotation from Endgame’s “anti-reconstructive response to the war” Hamm says “The end is in the beginning and yet you go on”. As Wheatley puts it “Beckett was well versed in the opening presented by the brick wall and it was Hamm who had said, earlier in Beckett’s play, “Nature has forgotten us”. The nostalgic echoes of a gone world reverberate in this empty air and ‘Summer in the Masurian Lakes’ concludes with an image that could have come from Beckett’s Play, itself an echo of Theodore Fontane’s Effi Briest, itself a distant echo of Dante’s Inferno:

“Our boat
Drifts to the bank. Stay, summer,
I shout, hand
That
Holds me.”

David Wheatley also points us towards Schubert’s hauntingly famous song cycle of journeying through the cold: “With their lowering crows and wayside farmers, von Törne’s poems pursue that Germanic variant on the via dolorosa, the Winterreise.” As readers we move forwards through landscapes that are stripped-down in the manner of the Objectivist poets, “The leaves / Flood / Over the paths” and we can wonder, in Eliot’s words, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”

It is these resonances that thread their path through von Törne’s ‘Thoughts in May’ as the poet recalls drinking the milk “Denied to the starving”, wearing the clothes “Stolen from my brother” and reading the books “Justifying the theft”:

“And mine was the guilt
For the loss of every life, breathing in innocence
Under the gallows-branches
Of the sweet-smelling limes”

This book was published just over a week ago and it is something to order immediately.

Ian Brinton 24th October 2017.

The Sunken Keep, A version of Ungaretti’s Il Porto Sepolto Andrew Fitzsimons (Isobar Press http://isobarpress.com)

The Sunken Keep,  A version of Ungaretti’s Il Porto Sepolto Andrew Fitzsimons (Isobar Press http://isobarpress.com)

On September 1st 1918 William Carlos Williams wrote the Prologue to his Kora in Hell: Improvisations which was later to be published by The Four Seas Company in 1920:

“The imagination goes from one thing to another. Given many things of nearly totally divergent natures but possessing one-thousandth part of a quality in common, provided that be new, distinguished, these things belong in an imaginative category and not in a gross natural array.”

Nearly a century on, David Shields published his ‘Manifesto’, Reality Hunger, in which he expressed interest in collage as “an evolution beyond narrative”. In terms of Art, and this includes poetry:

“Momentum derives not from narrative but from the subtle buildup of thematic resonances”

When Williams wrote his autobiographical account of I Wanted to Write a Poem he gave an account of that earlier time when the First World War was still raging throughout Europe:

“When I was halfway through the Prologue, ‘Prufrock’ appeared. I had a violent feeling that Eliot had betrayed what I believed in. He was looking backward; I was looking forward. He was a conformist, with wit, learning which I did not possess.”

In his introduction to this beautifully produced new volume from Isobar Press the translator, Andrew Fitzsimons, directs us to recognise the connection between what Williams was trying to do in 1918 and what Giuseppe Ungaretti was achieving in the trenches of the Carso plateau in Friuli in 1916:

“…these thirty poems are central to Ungaretti’s revitalizing of Italian poetic language; a renovation of rhythm, syntax, punctuation and diction…comparable also to the work of William Carlos Williams, given the resemblance between how both poets set about reconfiguring the parameters of the poetic line in their respective traditions, as well as their commitment to particulars.”

There is a haunting immediacy to these new versions of Ungaretti’s poems and they look at loss in terms of time passing rather than confining themselves to the nightmare presence of the trench warfare which he volunteered for in 1915 having only moved from Paris to Italy at the outbreak of war. The opening poem stands as a memorial stone dedicated to the friend of his youth, Mohammed Sceab:

“In memory
of
Mohammed Sceab
descendant
of nomad emirs
a suicide
for loss of
a homeland”

The words weep down the page as if engraved upon a tombstone and the fractured narrative of what follows in the second stanza accords with that buildup of thematic resonances:

“A lover of France
who became
Marcel
but not French
who no longer knew how
to dwell
in the tent of his kin
to listen to the chant
of the Koran
over coffee”

The ‘s’ sound in the seventh line allows an image of dwelling to move almost invisibly between the semi-desert world of the young man’s past to the power of belonging not only to family but also to an existence within his own skin. The short next piece offers a brief account of isolation and limitation:

“Who could not
give voice
to the song
of his own desolation”

And then in a manner that Samuel Beckett would have applauded there is a precision, a placing, which gives visibility to the actuality of the person. It reminds me of Beckett as I think of the respect he held for the clarity of Dante’s Inferno in which the spirits of the dead have only a few lines to give a portrait of themselves before they merge back into the anonymity of eternal damnation.

“I escorted him
with the landlady of the place
where we lodged
in Paris
from 5 Rue des Carmes
a rundown sloping alley”

The term “escorted” brings the world of Dante again to the fore and it is worth just comparing it with two other translations. Kevin Hart’s suggestion is quite literal in terms of the Italian (The Buried Harbour, The Leros Press, 1990):

“With the woman
who owned our hotel
at 5 Rue Carmes
that faded, sloping alley
I went with him”

Patrick Creagh’s version for the Penguin Modern European Poets (1971) becomes more detailed as if spelling things out for the reader:

“I followed his coffin
I and the manageress of the hotel
where we lived
in Paris
number 5 rue des Carmes
steep decrepit alleyway”

The word used by Fitzsimons, “escorted”, manages to retain a sense of friendship and familiarity as he accompanies the body to the burial ground and the word “lodged” has a temporality to it which emphasises the fragility of a life.

“He rests
in the cemetery at Ivry
a suburb locked
forever
in the day a fair
packs up and leaves

Maybe I alone
still know he
lived

And I will
until my turn
to die”

“Rests”, “locked / forever”, “fair / packs up and leaves”; it has the sound of Thomas Hardy’s verse, ‘Exeunt Omnes’ or ‘During Wind and Rain’.

This is a book to keep close to hand. Not only are the translations very powerful but the drawings by Sergio Maria Calatroni have a resonance which complement the poems. Congratulations to Paul Rossiter and Isobar Press!

Ian Brinton, 13th October 2017

Lithos by Anthony Barnett (Allardyce Book ABP)

Lithos by Anthony Barnett (Allardyce Book ABP)

From the subtitle to this carefully crafted new publication from the pen and press of Anthony Barnett we should immediately be alerted to a Joycean sense of humour:

“LITHOS: OR, GULLIBLE’S TROUBLES, OR, A DISACCUMULATION OF KNOWLEDGE BEING NOTHING MORE THAN DRAFTS & FRAGMENTS THAT, NOT WHICH, ARE NOT ENOUGH”

In the world of Anthony Barnett words spill and spin in different directions. A reference to the easily deceived character from the voyaging creation of an Irish clergyman from the early Eighteenth Century is merged with that of a glyphic sans-serif typeface designed by Carol Twombley in 1989 for Adobe Systems. A tale of Shaun or Shem from Finnegan’s Wake holds the reader within the webs of a poetry moving from “I” to “We” and “She” to “He”. Joyce’s language is dream-like:

“Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!”

As the prose merges sounds of night-time farewell (“Night! Night!” & “Night now!”), sounds in the mind merge words and Shem and Shaun become “stem or stone”. Language petrifies as characters move from the vegetal to the stone-like; moments of memory are caught, held, in lithos.
As if to confirm this Joycean humour Barnett has a short poem on page 15:

“Neverending but ending

Who has something to say
Who has nothing to say

I sigh at this speech this speechlessness”

The need to communicate, accompanied by a recognition that the tools of communication are inadequate possesses a sly reference perhaps to another Irish source, that of Samuel Beckett whose ‘Three Dialogues’ contain the cry:

“The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”

This is the painful world of the artist, poet or novelist, who recognises that whatever he/she says/writes it will never capture the ever-fleeing sense of what is thought. In an Anthony Barnett poem “speechlessness” is accompanied by a “sigh”: words become a noise of exhalation.
If there is a haunting theme weaving its way through these poems it is perhaps one of lost love, lost time, caught only in the sharp presence of language as in ‘What Bright Shoes’:

“Moss blown from the roof sweet mounds

Mistletoe blown from the red squirrel door knocker

Destined to repeat fallen for not spoken to

So very upset

What bright shoes you are wearing, thinking. You are a strange one. I think
it might be disruptive. Almost wandering, across the evening street, distracted disrupting sputtering”

In the words of ‘Sunday Post’, “She is present even when she is not” or ‘On a Starlit Night’

“On a starlit night, September 8th to 9th to be exact, I dream about you that
you are with me or I am with you or we are with each other”

Anthony Barnett is widely read and it is no surprise to find these pages containing references to writers and artists who have influenced him over the years. Zanzotto, Kästner, Nelly Sachs, Veronica (Forrest-Thomson?), Celan, Skvorecky, Walser… They become spectral presences throughout Lithos both in terms of styles and as shades both there and not there: present in their absence. Sometimes I am also reminded of the wonderful opening pages of Dostoevsky’s short novel White Nights in which the narrator finds himself alone in Petersburg during the summer vacation. Recalling his moral condition one day the Russian novelist writes:

“From early morning I had been oppressed by a strange despondency. It suddenly seemed to me that I was lonely, that everyone was forsaking me and going away from me. Of course, anyone is entitled to ask who ‘everyone’ was. For though I had been living almost eight years in Petersburg I had hardly an acquaintance. But what did I want with acquaintances? I was acquainted with all Petersburg as it was; that was why I felt as though they were all deserting me when all Petersburg packed up and went to its summer villa.”

The narrator in Lithos can feel ‘Much Better’ as he contemplates

“How lovely it is to sit in a café or a carriage and listen to languages one
doesn’t know very well or at all. Then one is shielded from all the latest or past its best nonsense.”

The closing lines of ‘Soliloquy’, the last full poem in Lithos before a short ‘Requiem’, refer us to flight

“I shall not try to worry too much about the perfect unless I am building / a spacecraft / Or a parachute.”

And this, as in Finnegan’s Wake where the ending takes the reader forward to the beginning, leads us back to the opening lines of the collection and “It is the way it is” with the “newborn bird dead on the ground” with the “rooks wanting it”. That first poem concludes with self-explanation:

“Everything can be explained with a dream. Once I did not believe that.

I want to say it doesn’t matter.

It will always be in the writing.”

Lithos…lithography, written in stone.

This book can be obtained from the author’s website: http://www.abar.net

Ian Brinton, 12th August 2017

Barney Rosset – Rosset: My Life In Publishing and How I Fought Censorship (OR Books)

Barney Rosset – Rosset: My Life In Publishing and How I Fought Censorship (OR Books)

Barney Rosset, born in Chicago in 1922 to a Russian Jewish father and Irish Catholic mother, bought Grove Press in 1951 and became America’s most significant avant-garde publisher in the second half of the twentieth century displaying a determined independent streak.

Grove Press, and its seminal literary magazine, Evergreen Review, helped shape modern culture through its catalogue and legal challenges to publish banned literary works. Rosset’s ethos that a publisher should be free to publish anything drew upon his rebellious Irish ancestry and a progressive education at Parker High School. My Life In Publishing shows that Rosset was interested in radical politics as much as sex and that he had an inquisitive mind. His War years were spent in India and Shanghai with the Field Photographic Unit, and he later made films, inspired by the French New Wave, with his Evergreen Theater. He commissioned scripts by Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter, Robbe-Grillet and Duras, making films with Beckett and Norman Mailer, and got into trouble with US Customs by importing and showing the Swedish film, I Am Curious (Yellow), eventually winning several court cases and grossing a foreign film profit second only to La Dolce Vita in 1969. Evergreen published translations from Cahiers du Cinéma and Grove published a cultural history of underground film by Parker Tyler.

Returning to Chicago in 1947 he fell in with abstract expressionist and former Parker student, Joan Mitchell. Together they went to New York and Paris, and became integral parts of the Cedar Tavern scene in Greenwich Village with Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Frank O’Hara, a future Grove author. Mitchell emerges as a fascinating figure in her own right enlarging the range of abstract expressionism. She was a life long friend and contributor providing cover art to many books before moving to Paris in 1959, where she became a close friend of Beckett.

Rosset’s approach was to obtain critical support for each of his books. This began with John Berryman supporting his first book, Matthew Lewis’ gothic novel, The Monk. Rosset fearlessly published three banned books, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer and The Autobiography of Malcolm X with extensive critical and legal support. The legal successes were major victories against censorship and very much part of the counterculture of the Sixties and Seventies. He was adept at finding fellow editors and allowing them to develop. A good example is Donald Allen who edited Evergreen Review 2, San Francisco Scene in 1957, featuring Ferlinghetti, Robert Duncan, McClure, Spicer, Snyder, Kerouac and Whalen, and the all-embracing New American Poetry anthology in 1960. Rosset published Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, seeing the Dr. Benway character as comic genius and reading the book as an abstract painting, after several others had declined. When Chicago Review banned an excerpt he mounted a legal challenge getting Norman Mailer and a host of critics to appear for the defence case. He was also prepared to enter dangerous situations, such as his attempt to locate Che Guevara’s diaries in Bolivia, which led to his offices being bombed by Cuban exiles in July 1968.

Rosset worked closely with international publishers, such as John Calder in London and Maurice Girodias in Paris. Sylvia Beach, owner of Shakespeare and Co., introduced him to Samuel Beckett. His unswerving dedication to publishing what he wanted combined with great critical awareness and a wide internationalism saw him publish Artaud, Behan, Genet, Ionesco, Lorca, Neruda, Paz, Pinter in the early years, and subsequently Brecht, Orton, Borges, Stoppard, Kenaburō Ōe, Havel, Mamet, and much more Beckett. He emerges as an impatient, unpredictable, passionate, spiky and intractable figure with a feverish desire to challenge accepted views and authorises. This is an inspiring account of a difficult figure, shows the importance of alternative publishing, and will surely be the basis for subsequent biographies and feature in critical studies of those he published.

More book details here:
http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/rosset/?utm_source=Tears%20in%20the%20Fence&utm_campaign=Rosset&utm_medium=Review

David Caddy 12th December 2016

ANTONYMS Anew Barbs & Loves Anthony Barnett (Allardyce Book)

ANTONYMS  Anew  Barbs & Loves  Anthony Barnett (Allardyce Book)

Let matters become clear: I have an immense respect for the poetry and prose of Anthony Barnett and this must be evident to anyone who wishes to look up the review I did nearly four years ago for Poetry Review (Vol. 102: 3, Autumn 2012). My opening statement pulled no punches:

‘As poet and publisher for the past forty-five years Anthony Barnett has ploughed a solitary furrow, unerringly straight and hauntingly evocative, across the field of English poetry’.

As I read the recently published book of Antonyms, many of which have never been published before, my respect for the careful footfalls of this fine writer was only increased. I use the word ‘footfalls’ quite deliberately since it was in Samuel Beckett’s 1974 play of that name that May, perhaps named after the dramatist’s mother, ‘…must hear the feet, however faint they fall’; an echo perhaps of Beckett’s mother who had difficulty sleeping through the nights at home in Cooldrinagh and who had removed the carpets in some areas of the house so that her steps should sound her reality.
In Antonym xxxii, on George Oppen and J.H. Prynne, Barnett writes about a review he did on a critical appraisal of the American poet:

‘Here are some moderated bits from that review. If they appear impressionistic, a trait I am quick to criticize in others, it is because I do not know quite where to tread. “Think how careful George has been” I wrote in “A Note About George Oppen”, later allusively retitled “Note Through a Lens”, in which I related the reading, and the writing, of a poem with walking and wandering in the mountains. Of course, care is not enough. Without risk there is no meaningful, useful, process and progress.’

The reference to an appearance of impressionism is interesting because the accumulation of references, of focal points, throughout the thirty-eight short pieces of prose might indeed give the reader a sense that one was moving across a wide field of literature and music without ever settling long on any individual moment. However, nothing could be further from the truth! Each sentence has a clarity to it as if chipped from stone and the whole book has a sculpted quality to it which allows it to rest, still, on the page.

‘THE GRASS HAS BEEN MOWN on the path that winds alongside the brook. It makes it easier to walk and avoid the nettles on either side but somehow I wish they’d left it overgrown.’

Opening with this washed-clean writing in Antonym xxix Barnett moves forward, step by step, to glance at the difference between ‘three’ and ‘four’:

‘Three pigeons are drawing near to my feet. I’m sitting on a semi-circular wide-depth backless wooden plank bench. They are pecking at grass seed it seems, not particularly paying attention to anything or anyone else. A fourth pigeon has arrived and now they are moving away in concert, still pecking.’

That glance leads the writer to contemplate death:

‘Ever since I learnt that the figure four is inauspicious because in Japanese the kanji for four sounds exactly the same as the kanji for death—it’s like that in Chinese—I have, I have to admit, been superstitious…’

My reading has been taken from a landscape, slightly humanised by the mowing down of nettles, to the near-at-hand of the pigeons. The observation of one more bird arriving has prompted a reflection on the opposite of arrival, departure. The very human response to this accumulation of thoughts is to admit to an illogical sensation of superstition but watch how exactly this is arrived at as the repetition of the words ‘I have’ give us a stutter, a stumble forwards into acknowledgement. This is careful writing of the most serious kind. This language-sculptor’s care has affinities with the clarity of Samuel Beckett’s writing and it is a delight to read Antonym xxiv, ‘Beckett and Jazzality’ with its reference to Harold Bloom’s vivid account of the director Herbert Blau’s ‘apprehension before a performance [of Waiting for Godot] at San Quentin in 1957—the first play performed at the penitentiary since Sarah Bernhardt appeared there in 1913.’
One of the best recognitions of the individual quality of Barnett’s style of writing can be found in PN Review 212, from the summer of 2013, where Tim Harris opened his review of Barnett’s collected poems by referring not to impressionism but to Paul Klee whose ‘fine but strong lines…set out from some arbitrary point and sharply change direction’. Harris refers to ‘enigmatic structures that are at once sturdy and yet not quite stable’ which ‘seem to possess an infectious surprise at their own emergence from the fertile nothingness of the white paper.’
In a quiet tone of acknowledgement Barnett focuses upon losses and in Antonym xx a colourful beach bucket from childhood is washed out to sea:

‘I watched it sinking with the water spilling over its rim’.

In a quiet tone of enquiry in Antonym xxxiii he then focuses upon the act of reading:

‘I do wonder why I have a tendency to open a book or leaf through a magazine in the Chinese or Japanese or Hebrew or Arabic direction. Right handed. Holding it in the right hand and leafing with the left. I wondered whether this was a common phenomenon so I conducted a little survey. Not uncommon. Not so common. A vestige of the past.’

I recommend this book very strongly indeed: it is a treasure-trove, a trouvaille.

Ian Brinton 7th April 2016

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