RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Samuel Beckett

I Don’t Want To Go To The Taj Mahal by Charlie Hill (Repeater Books)

I Don’t Want To Go To The Taj Mahal by Charlie Hill (Repeater Books)

I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal is comprised of a series of ninety-five vignettes, mostly single page length, the shortest being two lines long. An epigram by Samuel Beckett is appropriate for the content: ‘It’s all a muddle in my head, graves and nuptials and the different varieties of motion.’ The reader is treated to snapshots views of the author’s family, his schooldays, his days in the youth club or drinking in the bikers’ club. Music and records provide a backcloth to lost chances, lost loves, and there is a whole string of early jobs in a fish shop, the Co Op, a packaging firm, Samuel the jeweller and Harrison Drape, the factory for curtain accessories where he drove a forklift truck ‘because it was the best of a shit job’ but nearly lost life and limb when it toppled off a ramp as he reversed it. Most of these jobs ended with him being escorted off the premises because of too many days going awol or putting himself on flexitime. One vignette describes a romantic interlude with a first love when he phoned up pretending to be snowbound in Devon so that ‘we spent the morning warm under thin blankets, feeding each other fresh strawberries dipped in cream, mouth-to-mouth.’

Throughout, the writing is detailed but concise with pithy comments. Sunday evenings in boyhood were spent watching a BBC serial ‘with bonnets and sideburns and Mum would provide us with plates of pilchard sandwiches.’ There are layers of implication in this remark about the siblings: ‘My elder sister resented my presence, my younger brother had blue eyes and curly blond hair.’ The tone is consistently laconic such as this one: ‘One year we won a goldfish at the Mop … by the time we got it home the goldfish was dead.’ Or there is this analysis of a relationship: ‘I am with a woman. We lived together, she went away, we lived together, we can’t anymore, so how does this work now?’ A comment on another relationship, many years later with a film maker, is equally downbeat and anti-climactic when he remembers her with nostalgia and thinks how good it would be to reminisce together ‘so I look her up, send her an email and hear nothing back.’

One of the most enjoyable aspects of these vignettes is Charlie Hill’s skill is creating a sense of time and place. Scenes of life in Birmingham are evoked:

‘I live in inner-city Balsall Heath with outlaws, dole-ites and artists and get a job with a packaging firm. The packaging firm is in Tysely, a fraying patchwork of factory estates and boarded-up pubs. I smoke among the cardboard boxes in the warehouses … After managing an office consisting of me all day, I come home to a house full of New Age travellers chopping speed … and a tea of Special Brew and noodles.’ 

A passage I find especially evocative is set in India where the author has gone in search of his girl friend:

‘We sit on flat roofs and look at the cows and the billboards advertising toothpaste. From the Ganges we hear incantations, while in the narrow street below men play chess. There is a festival on and the sky is full of bright kites, darting like sprats, stitching the sky with messages of devotion. She says it would be a nice idea if we get married. I demur.’

Subtle humour and I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal is rich in it. But it’s humour with an undertone of the bitter-sweet, the nostalgic and poignant. This a book I loved reading. Unforgettable.

Mandy Pannett 11th August 2021

Why are we here?: Very brief fictions by Simon Collings (Fortnightly Review)

Why are we here?: Very brief fictions by Simon Collings (Fortnightly Review)

The short fictions in this collection engage with questions about the self, the nature of writing, the relation of the writer to the text, the ways in which we perceive reality, and how that reality is represented by works of art. These major themes encompass a number of other strands, some examined below, all of which is expressed in stories which are humorous, engaging and very readable.

In the piece ‘Retrospective’ there is a description of a machine constructed from various musical instruments as well as “old cans, even a plastic bucket”. The machine generates “…music that has no observable pattern. It is purely the product of chance.” This description of an automated artform presents another important theme of the collection, which is virtualisation, that is, digitally-generated experiences which, as these stories suggest, are encroaching more and more on the “real” world. In another story, a couple are entranced by birds singing in a tree in midwinter, only to find that the sounds are from wires and speakers installed by their new neighbours. On the same theme of the effect of the digital world on everyday life, the story “The Composer”, which describes how the narrator discovers a new composer only to find that they already have thousands of online listeners, expresses the anxiety caused by surplus of information in the internet age. The nature of art and the way in which people engage with artworks is examined in a number of pieces. In ‘Another Life (1)’ an art exhibition morphs into a visit to an African village, while in a companion piece, ‘Other Lives (2)’ the narrator returns to Nairobi from a drive up-country, to step from his apartment block into a “a large ballroom full of white people in expensive clothes”; both of these pieces point up the contradiction in how Westerners view art, particularly what might be termed “world art”.

There is plenty of comedy in these stories, and in fact, the comical elements are often the most disturbing. They come into play particularly when dealing with the absurdity of contemporary life and the infantilisation of culture. In ‘The Wedding’, the ceremony is held on a bouncy castle, and “One of the highlights was Julia’s mother falling over during the exchange of vows”. Another story gives us a childhood idyll, in which the narrator watched each year the spawning of fresh-water fish, turned into a “wildlife hotspot” complete with children’s fish-costumes.

The story ‘The Character’ is an important one in terms of this collection; it investigates notions of freewill and determinism in the voice of someone who could well be a character in another of the stories, aware of, and trying to comprehend, their own fictive nature:

“Though seeming to choose freely, I had apparently been hoodwinked by my own hidden impulses, though to what end I could not determine… I felt as though I were being worked by invisible strings, dancing like a puppet to another’s will, and yet I could not just give myself over to that superior power.”

The style of these stories is generally spare and understated. Where variations occur, it’s when the texts are parodying certain types of discourse. Some of the stories read as pastiche of certain styles, lightly shadowing the originals, including historical narrative and the essay form. The story ‘Theory’ is a pastiche of old-fashioned literary criticism, as is ‘Verne’s Nemesis’ in which a discussion of Verne’s work merges with the theme of identity running all through the book. The story ‘The Library’ seems like a key text in this collection, investigating the relationship between fiction and reality, and the blurred no-mans-land between them. The story ends “The library was there, unlike the past, always available to be rediscovered, reinventing itself continually in the light of fresh associations”; a description which could be applied to the stories in this book.

Although there are elements of dream-psychology in these stories, in general they are less dreamlike than literary; their characters are entangled in a text which reflects their confusion and instability, but which also frames their existence. One speaker says “I was no more than a diffuse presence without definite character”, describing how her “identity was seriously in doubt… Until then I had made little impression on the narrative”.

The book has an epigraph from Kafka, and as well as that major influence, the texts are reminiscent of Borges, Calvino and Beckett. The pieces use a combination of first-person and third person (often referred to only by a Kafkaesque initial) and are by turns funny, poignant and disorientating. Reading them late at night in a period of insomnia can, as I can attest, be a disturbing experience. Which as good a recommendation as any.

Alan Baker 27th July 2021

Hoarders by Kate Durbin (Wave Books)

Hoarders by Kate Durbin (Wave Books)

Kate Durbin’s work has been compared to Kafka’s and Beckett’s in its approach to the surreal, and her new book Hoarder’s certainly captures what is absurd in the culture of spectacle that is evident in the AE network’s television show, Hoarders. The reality show episodes focus on a single person or perhaps a couple who feel compelled to hoard objects. These objects come out of a culture based on the idea that consumerism solves problems and brings joy and gives us a voyeuristic look at the result of what is essentially someone’s mental illness. Durbin’s prose poems mix what the participants say about themselves as she describes what the camera is showing. The result is commentary on why they consume what they do and what we are consuming spiritually through our viewership. It is an exceptionally powerful collection that left me often sick to my stomach and moved powerfully by the humanity that the collection seems to suggest we return to. 

     For me, the most compelling poems are those where the people profiled clearly need help or they will suffer physically from their hoarding. For example, she writes about Alice, who takes in cats to care for but is not able to do so. Alice has stopped cleaning up after her cats who relieve themselves in her house. Here, Durbin uses italics when quoting and regular type to describe the camera work. She writes:

I feel awful, I’m a failure and that’s how my whole life has been one fresh shit among old shits.

My cats probably have worms, they probably have ear mites, there’s probably feline leukemia, feline AIDS running through black kitten whose hind legs won’t work lurching across the floor

I had a kitten and there was so much ammonia in the air that its eyeballs popped out grey cat with its eyes crusted shut.

I don’t even know how this started hiking boots under the bed, soles thick with shit (102-103).

Here and elsewhere, the characters profiled on the television show seem to be calling out for help, but their needs are ignored. Instead of providing help, we are asked to indulge in the spectacle of the moment. 

     Underlying the collection is a discussion of what this kind of culture is doing to the environment. After all, these are people reacting to trauma, whose society has told them that if they purchase more and more things they will heal themselves. In 2001, the president went so far as to say that consumerism was an act of patriotism that fought against terrorism. The sheer weight of the objects described is overwhelming. One couple has so many books that the floorboards are beginning to bend. Another woman keeps tapes from 40 years of compulsively recording television. Most people have objects that would seem random except for the commonality that they are meant to bring pleasure. There is very little here that has a function. Mostly they are objects like Barbie Dolls and other toys no one can play with now gathering around them.

     Kate Durbin’s Hoarders is incisive and brilliant. I could call it surreal, but it accurately captures what is on the screen, and the way we have been asked to view other people. 

John Brantingham 8th June 2021

things that happen by Maurice Scully (Shearsman Books)

things that happen by Maurice Scully (Shearsman Books)

Maurice Scully, in my garden 20 years ago, advised me on pruning a young laburnum tree. My dilemma was the removal of one of three main branches. He hardly hesitated, “Take out the middle one.” Was it the tree he was considering or was it symbolic of something else?

Writing ‘about’ something (how many poets continue to introduce their work, ‘This poem is about’?) renders it culpable of being a descriptive exercise, whereas writing ‘through’ something opens levels of greater interest and realization.

                  the middle of March I’m

                  in the tropics suddenly

                  inside the arctic circle not

                  dizzy but waiting to bloom….      ‘ABC’

Maurice Scully’s expansive consideration in ‘things that happen’ moves through such realisations and discoveries.

                  heavy chestnut blossom by a shed wall by a river.

                  Mud & buried bicycles & reflections in the channel.

                  Fifty-seven seagulls on a parti-coloured roof.

                  Your move. Maytime.

                  To swink in this railway station buying time

                  to think, static, in kenetic railway context by the rails.

                                                      ‘A Record of Emotions: Side A’

The word ‘swink’, meaning to work under difficult conditions for long hours is key to much of what unfolds in this collection of writing – it is a huge testament to application, curiosity and the poets unfurling poetic oeuvre since 1987 and places Maurice Scully in the forefront of the Irish Modernist canon.

The word ‘swink’, so playful, indulging as it does in the act of pushing ‘ink’ forming words from that act; those words, in recognition of each other, dropping a ‘wink’ – and without stretching the point too far, the unmistakable ‘swin(g)’ of language, Gaeilge, Italian, French, English and a smattering of Sesotho, at this poets disposal. (There are helpful notes at the end of the book.)

Small turns and light twists in fleeting moments belong to the realm of these poems as much as longer sweeps of time so the reader becomes sensitive to seconds as much as decades.

                  the pillar vine

                  hacks this pliant

                  this pliancy

                  this young

                  vineplant attached

                  to the rocky

                  edges 

                  of the pillar

                  & in a rain

                  of names

                  absorbency

                  storyline

                                    two-way

         three-way

                  in section

                                             vertical

cut across &

                  down

                  rest/pillar/

                  shock – curl –

                  happiness

                  peace/the pillar

                  the vine the

                  soft

                  white the pillar

                  the soft the

                  light

                  vine then just

                  don’t think

                  don’t

                  look don’t

                  brea-

                  the.              ‘The Pillar & The Vine’

Time is held in this meditation – the deliberation lonely, yet filled with succour for both its author and for any reader. So often Maurice Scully’s movement of thought and consideration is through biological fascination.

There is a tacit agreement from the outset that a reader must indulge him/herself in these poems as much as Maurice Scully has done in writing them although there still remains a considerable amount of work to be done by the reader. That said, enjoyment arrives quickly when immersing oneself because of the freedom arrived at in their writing – as if the articulation of the poet’s will is subordinate

or given over to the ‘experience in itself’ as Paul Perry says.

                  driving in a red dustcloud

                  for hours years wandering

                  wondering how to

                  connect

                  this stone to that hut with

                  precision tact     two hands one

                  gift     wait listen     right

                  left     shimmering elastic

                  wallhome

                  (not any other barrier

                  But a breeze over it)

                  welcoming.         conduit. ‘Steps’

Winks and nods arrive with great fun too, as in the Jacques Prévertesque,

‘To make a table / you need wood / to make the wood / you need a tree / to make the tree / you need a seed / to make the seed / you need a fruit / to make the fruit / you need a flower / to make a table / you need a flower.’ 

                                                            ‘A Record of Emotion, Side B’

Elsewhere the wonderfully surreal/absurdist,

                  One day a bankman came to the tree with his money

                  and sat under it balancing a book. But he soon fell

                  asleep and began to dream. And in his dream he saw

                  a bankman falling asleep under a tree with his money

                  and a book and beginning to dream of a man dreaming

                  he was making money out of a book (in which he

                  featured quite prominently) under a tree beside a

                  windowsill upon which were two young caterpillars,

                  laughing, white and green, Fat Caterpillar and Fatter

                  Caterpillar, that dreamed they lived on a windowsill

                  under a tree.  ‘Two Caterpillars’

Reading things that happen can be like flicking from station to station on a radio or channel to channel on TV. After a few minutes the senses become absorbed in the continuity of disruption itself.

There is humanity, adventure, enjoyment and skill in the 609 pages of this book.         

By the way, the laburnum tree is thriving and in flower as I write.

Ric Hool  3rd June 2021

Plan Audio B by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa (Isobar Press)

Plan Audio B by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa (Isobar Press)

With this long poem’s title being ‘Plan B Audio’ one might be prompted to wonder what was Plan A and I recall referring to the painterly sense to be discovered in the selections from the 2007 volume Aquiline when I reviewed Joritz-Nakagawa’s previous Isobar Press publication, New & Selected Poems. In his Foreword to that 2018 publication Eric Selland had pointed out that for Joritz-Nakagawa the poem never ends:

‘It is an infinitely open system, always searching for that which is unexplainable, and unattainable: the poem is constantly in search of itself.’

The blurb on the back cover of this new remarkable poem asserts that it was written during, and in response to, ‘a life-threatening encounter with illness, and in the aftermath of the radical surgery that saved the author’s life.’ In its ‘dissolving into / beams of frenzied impossible / yearning’ it brings to my mind the figure of Mahood, armless and legless in a jar situated opposite a restaurant with its menu fixed to it, in Samuel Beckett’s 1952 novel L’Innommable (translated as The Unnamable in the John Calder edition of 1959):

‘There I am in any case equipped with eyes, which I open and shut, two, perhaps blue, knowing it avails nothing, for I have a head now too, where all manner of things are known, can it be of me I’m speaking, is it possible, of course not, that’s another thing I know, I’ll speak of me when I speak no more.’

It was Beckett’s earlier fictional creation, Moran, who had suggested that all language was an excess of language but in Joritz-Nakagawa’s poem we are presented with a sinuous winding and weaving of words that seem both to keep the reader at a distance whilst at the same time drawing that same reader into a dystopia:

‘edge of a sinister forest
dissolving into darkness
missing on the clothesline
a delicate smile

near a wandering brook
children’s fantasies fall silent
a deserted door
opening onto a freeway

to collapse the dystopia
i ate the data
scars that itch
failure of languages’

This canvas of language goes beyond the ‘depths of my nest’ to a ‘mute soliloquy’ from the ‘dunghill of which’ the song wanders intricately across the page prompting us to wonder ‘about the sound of doors and walls’. And of course Plan B is sound but it is there as what, on the back cover, Nancy Gaffield calls ‘a contingency’:

‘…an event the occurrence of which could not have been foreseen, but also a conjunction of events occurring without design’.

These poems dissolve into ‘beams of frenzied impossible / yearning’ and they move through ‘wickets / of doldrum and bureaucratic / spoils’.
The last lines of Beckett’s novel which is unnameable leave us on an edge of movement concluding with the possibility that words

‘…have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’

As ‘Plan B Audio’ reaches a conclusion it is ‘sound’ that is missed from beyond the door and the stiffness of doctors in white uniforms are on one side whilst on the other the poet sobs in the bathroom:

‘by accident
my hand brushes my stoma
how stiff it is

sadly
i touch my waist
swollen with plastic

cherry blossoms
students laughing at their desks
how i miss that sound

grey sky
buildings too
what is this world’

This long poem is perhaps one answer to that last question and the reader remains haunted by the vivid individuality of self and other, of sight and its photographic records offered to us by Susan Laura Sullivan, and of coloured sound from which ‘my sorrow spills / in all directions.’

Ian Brinton 15th June 2020

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

%d bloggers like this: