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March by Andrew Taylor (Shearsman Books)

March by Andrew Taylor (Shearsman Books)

The title of Andrew Taylor’s recent new publication from Shearsman is already on the move as the reminder of a new spring is joined to an order for progress: a season’s transience is accompanied by a planned manoeuvre. With both travel and stillness in mind I want to consider in some detail one particular poem in this fine collection.
The witty conjunction of poetry and Time’s effacement is of course not new and it is worth just remembering Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 in which the lines of ageing on a face are held “in eternal lines” on a page. More recently, W.S. Graham’s ‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land’ ranged over a page’s snowscape:

“From wherever it is I urge these words
To find their subtle vents, the northern dazzle
Of silence cranes to watch. Footprint on foot
Print, word on word and each on a fool’s errand.”

Andrew Taylor’s ‘Honesty Box’ is the most recent example of this focus on how words can present a more lasting reflection of Time’s inexorable progress. It is an important poem and one that deserves some serious consideration as the latest example of a fine genre in which a human individual contemplates both movement and stasis. With that in mind, I quote it in full:

“This is not automatic
it has to be earned

Capturing moments of sounds
and noises before they escape
through the ceiling

In the hopes of preserving something

felt tip painted nails
I will build a shared archive

Greenness of meadow
redness of terminus lights

Early morning empty platforms
prospect of four into two
a day on the network

wait twenty years to search
for peeled paint

Foliage insulation
good for cold May

Shell collecting a rippled shore
wash the finds in pools

Follow tracks in soft sands
keep the notes
focus on the corner chair

Hold the seeds
to your face
walk The Pads

spot the scarecrows
spot the swallows

across to the city
see the cranes see the spires

there’s blood there’s soil
there are generations

Old School free range eggs
honesty box
pass the feather

let’s always share”

In a way that is alert to the NOW the poem tries to capture those moments of sound, those echoes of transience which escape immediately “through the ceiling”. The poem’s intention is to preserve something that, word by word, stone by stone, “will build a shared archive”. A little like Gary Snyder’s ‘Riprap’ the purpose behind the writing is to lay down words “Before your mind like rocks // placed solid, by hands / In choice of place”. The living presence of the moment is caught between the “Greenness of meadow” and the end of the line with its “redness of terminus lights”. This stark presentation of Death will be hinted at again in the closing lines of the poem where the command to “pass the feather” echoes King Lear’s haunting cries of loss as he deceives himself into thinking “This feather stirs”. Snyder’s “Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall” is mirrored in Taylor’s shell collecting where the finds are washed in pools to be kept for recollections in tranquillity. Tracks which are followed are in soft sands which will become all too soon submerged and the poet’s focus moves to the keeping of notes and the solidity of the “corner chair”. Scarecrows in this poetic landscape remain still, swallows move not only swiftly but also over long distances as Hardy recognised in his elegiac poem ‘The Going’. And is if with an eye pursuing the bird’s flight the poet’s attention shifts “across to the city” and notes the inevitable signs of urban growth, “cranes”, “spires”, “generations”.
Lear’s anguish had recognised that a feather’s movement was “a chance which does redeem all sorrows / That ever I have felt”. The concluding line of Andrew Taylor’s poem pleads “let’s always share” and if we are to remain faithful to an Honesty Box then our concentration must be trusted: we must contribute our full attention in the act of reading.

Andrew Taylor will be reading from this new collection at the Shearsman Reading next week, Tuesday 14th November in Swedenborg Hall. Not to be missed!

Ian Brinton 7th November 2017

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The Messier Objects by Michael Zand (Shearsman Books)

The Messier Objects by Michael Zand (Shearsman Books)

In a talk given at Barrack’s Studio, Newcastle-under-Lyme, 6th May 1995, Roger Langley referred to those moments which, rather akin to Wordsworth’s ‘spots of time’, seem to assert themselves like islands within the time schemes that dominate our everyday lives. George Simmel had referred in 1911 to adventures that interrupt the everyday as ‘islands’. Not like a state which is part of a continent, in that its boundaries are generated from within itself, against the opposition only of an altogether different medium, the sea, which is forced to comply with the directive from the land. After all, episodes in ordinary life have their beginnings and ends determined by boundaries which are, in a sense, mechanical, not organic like those of the island, since they are drawn by mutual pressure from both sides from similar things, as are the boundaries of a state on a continent amongst other states, where frontiers are set by equal pressures and compromises between them. Langley goes on to add ‘In this way, then, the adventure is a foreign body in our existence, yet it also speaks of the unity of all life in a way that normal events woven into the surface daily routine of our lives cannot. The adventure shows things which seem essential. As such it has affinities with three other types of event; the game played by a gambler, the dream, and the work of art, the poem.’
In his Foreword to this collection of poems, Michael Zand tells the reader a little about the background to the Messier Objects:

‘Messier was a comet hunter and was frustrated by seeing objects in the sky that he thought were comets, but turned out to be random and uninteresting clouds of dust. He drew up the list to avoid comet hunters wasting time on what he regarded as the “worthless detritus of the skies”. Ironically it was later discovered that these objects were in fact galaxies, nebulae and other deep sky phenomena…’

The moving sequence of these poems highlights the importance of what we can too easily be tempted to overlook. There is a sense that the importance of life is in the smallest things which can be dismissed as detritus. And this constitutes ‘loss’. ‘M1’ opens with a mythical feeling of beginning ‘vaguely in the shape of an apple tree’ and many of the later poems and prose-poems record a history of a Fall.

‘how much time do you have
these star clouds are all that’s left

anything you say
anything with a word in it
has been exhausted’

The draining of language that is used by ‘the methods/ of our society’ (‘Lyra’) is a matter of ‘cheap shots’ with an unavoidable violence contained in the layers of meaning tucked into that last word. Michael Zand plays with language and hints and shifts; he avoids the classification of words which can permit behaviour of narrow-mindedness, cruelty and ultimate blindness.

M 89

‘they seems impossible . these stars
but they are part of us . and remains so beautiful

even though it messes things up
who cares . let them

they are our horses they—

In his introduction to Roger Langley’s Complete Poems, the editor, Jeremy Noel-Tod, quoted from J. H. Prynne’s speech in Bramfield church on 12th February 2011:

‘[For Roger] the smallest things were absolutely everything—if you knew the difference between a martin and a swift you knew everything—not just something—you knew the whole universal truth of things if you knew one thing deeply and exactly and carefully.’

These words came as no surprise to us as we sat there in St Andrew’s and recalled Prynne’s own poem about inclusiveness, the importance of what can so easily be overlooked, ‘L’Extase de M. Poher’, in which ‘Rubbish is / pertinent; essential; the / most intricate presence in / our entire culture’. In Michael Zand’s world of messier objects, The Messier Objects, in which the ‘messier’ ob-jects,
We have pauses of lyric grace and watchfulness:

‘fig and parsley and drift wood
percussions revolve around the—’

And those dashes with which so many of these pieces conclude, as if there were so much more I could say about—

Ian Brinton 2nd September 2015

Tender Geometries by Mark Dickinson (Shearsman Books)

Tender Geometries by Mark Dickinson (Shearsman Books)

When I came across the following two lines in Tears 60, published at the end of last year, I realised that I was facing a writer of the most serious kind:

‘Sews the crews’ eyes drizzling fugue bells totes lozenges throats the swollen craw! Hope’s the carriage, to prescribe the sooth for this irritable tissue.’

The lines come from a twenty-page prose poem by Mark Dickinson titled ‘The Tangles’ and the whole of that piece now appears in this enormously impressive new book put out by Shearsman. These tender geometries, a gift as well as a register of sensitivity, contain five sections: ‘Sentinel-Stone’, ‘The Tangles’, ‘Nylonase’, ‘Sea Pens Pastoral Net’ and ‘microsleeplessbyclay’.

When I first looked at the above quotation I was struck of course with the Homeric reference to Odysseus who blocked the ears of his crew so that they should not be seduced by the song of the Sirens as they passed that isle. The shift from ears to eyes accentuates helplessness, dependency, and echoes perhaps the invocation Macbeth speaks to the ‘seeling night’ which can ‘scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day’ as a prelude to the pre-arranged murder of his supposed friend Banquo. In the Shearsman edition of Dickinson’s work the complete text of ‘The Tangles’is prefaced by a series of epigraphs, one of which is from J.H. Prynne’s poem ‘Lashed to the Mast’ first published in The Wivenhoe Park Review in early 1966 and then included in The White Stones. The importance of the poem was emphasised by Prynne when he wrote to Andrew Crozier about it in the autumn of 1965 suggesting that the poem should stand at the beginning of a series of poems which were due to appear in the Essex magazine. The Prynne quotation (slightly misquoted by having capital letters at the beginning of two of the lines) concludes with ‘hope is a stern purpose’ and here we have not only the serious propulsion towards a future but also the play with language that is enjoyed by both Mark Dickinson and the elder statesman.

Mark Dickinson’s awareness of how language and commercialism share properties is central to the section of this book dealing with fish-farming, ‘Sea Pens Pastoral Net’. Not only does the writing, the penning, reflect a record of transfer but also it possesses a lyric grace which weaves a pattern through ‘Brilliant pulses of light’ and we become aware of the ocean as ‘a function of language’. The sailor whose journey is world-wide, a cosmonaut, is juxtaposed with the feeding process as perceived by a citizen in the opening scene of Coriolanus, the ‘cormorant belly’. When Menenius tries to pacify the hungry citizens whose complaint is that the store-house of government does little in terms of real work he tells them that the ‘grave belly’ is the ‘shop / Of the whole body’ that sends the ‘natural competency / Whereby they live’ throughout the entire system.

‘Desolation shall be in the thresholds, a voice shall sing in the windows.
The cormorant clings determinate, its wings held out to dry like a totem
to the sun, the cosmonaut’s alien plunging and darting down through
origin where the mythic shears from the blink of corridors. Prey maritime
ocean crow.’

The association of underwater farms and the body politic is brought into focus from the very outset:

‘Under precipitous horizons of nephrology the formation of floating
farms. Terrestrial surfaces granulate periods of deposition skirting the edge between slight and magnitude. Drops of earth entrained in gravity, hover Aeolian graphemes, crest a loop where dunes in wavelets loess bind its loss to a carriage of transfer.’

The grinding exceeding small of these mills of commerce associate the financial terminology of deposits with the ‘language of transfer / to the human account’ (‘In the Long Run, to be Stranded’, J.H. Prynne). The fine blurring of sight with the loess, the ‘dust’, ‘all of this braiding the air’, clouds our recognition of human greed in a world ‘where the edge of collateral makes to cover credit risk as ‘options’ and ‘futures’ project the net gain or net loss being held as margin’.

There is a terrific thrust of lyrical indignation glinting and gleaming through the caged lines of this work and I know that I shall return to Mark Dickinson again and again.

Ian Brinton 14th July 2015

Due North by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books, 2015)

Due North by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books, 2015)

As the author’s blurb on the back tells us this is a poem in twelve chapters ‘concerned with human movement northwards or out in the quest for work, subsistence, settlement and gratification, and in danger of getting trapped in various enclosures, including thought-traps.’ It is serious; it is where we are; it places ordinary people in the history and geography of their upbringing.

The opening chapter brings to my mind the early sections of R.F. Langley’s Olsonian venture ‘Matthew Glover’. Riley has ‘human groups moving / over the great grasslands with the herds’ across ‘vast green and red lands without division’ and registers for us those ‘footsteps measured in millennia’. Langley’s poem opened with movement and settling: ‘To start with throve heavy forest / this district, on its marl / thick blue marl’. And this in its turn brings to mind the thoughts of Mircea Eliade’s suggestion that a sacred place has a unique existential value for religious man as ‘A universe comes to birth from its centre’. As Peter Riley’s opening chapter puts it, wisdom is learned ‘in a form of desire, a distance to be gained’ and this in turn is accompanied by ‘Orphic stasis’; no looking back unless it be at the fast disappearing shadows of what one thought one might have brought with one.

The movement is ‘Not “travel”’ since there ‘were needs, and displacements’ and an ‘outpacing’ of the desert ‘trekking in a great curve across the African savannah / towards the northern swamps and forests / the great diadem that divides the sky / into days and days into hours, captured / in a circular stone hut’.

Music, history and personal reminiscence merge as ‘A precise liquid touch on the keyboard / small cloven hoofs on the packed stones’ and the ‘everyday which is where we live’ is also the place ‘in which we are trapped.’

This is a terrific book which contains the previously published The Ascent of Kinder Scout (Longbarrow Press 2014) about which I wrote a blog on August 22nd last year. This is a book to carry ‘in a side pocket through morning thoroughfares’:

‘Silence folded against the flank as the sky is folded
tight behind the morning fogs and closed shops
and there is no refuge to be had across the great
housing estates, sleeping citizens of eternity.’

Ian Brinton 14th April 2015

Robert Vas Dias’ Arrivals & Departures (Shearsman Books, 2014)

Robert Vas Dias’ Arrivals & Departures (Shearsman Books, 2014)

From the same series as Patricia Debney’s Gestation and Anthony Rudolf’s Go into the Question, this chapbook of prose poems effectively uses the literary device of arrivals and departures for a pared down and celebratory poetry. It is at once joyful and thwart with potential danger, and sustains a wonderful balance between narrative voice and literary effects.

She arrived with the woodpigeons. That is to say, she arrived
and they left. Not that she had anything obviously to do with
it. Of course she did. She kept on arriving and then she left.
They appeared to be constantly fleeing the roost at her, at
his, at anyone’s approach, though clearly they had to have
returned in order to flee again. He never saw them return but
they always fled. She came to stay with him and then she
went. They – or more usually one of them – would explode out
of the treetops with a clatter of wings against foliage that
sounded like falling buckshot, and hurl themselves down to
the field below the house.

The sequence works on the binaries of things lost and found, presence and absence, meetings and disappearance. There is an abiding sense of mishap not far from joyfulness within relationships and social life. Vas Dias, though, elevates the binaries through the use of fresh language and unpredictable detours leavened with humour.

His darling sent him in the garden to deadhead the petunias
but he mistook the limp, budding flowerets for dying ones
and twisted them off. You’ve ruined my petunias, she
wailed. Don’t be upset, we’ve still got the weigela. It’s
not the same, she cried. We’ve still got the fuchsia. It’s
not the same, she sobbed. We still have the lobelia,
hibiscus, morning glory, wisteria, agapanthus,
trachelospermum jasminoides, honeysuckle, grape vine,
Japanese maple, pieris forest flame, hydrangea, camellia,
geranium, agave, anemone, hellebore. And you have me. Go
fuck yourself, she complained.

Vas Dias’ humour is essentially rooted in realism slowly unfolding into an absurdism, as in ‘The Cabinet of Husbands’:

You would have to say the cabinet was in need of restoration.
It was an antique – 175 years old – and was getting shabby,
but she was not one for restoring it. She was not one for
restoring anything, except perhaps husbands. He was her
fifth, older than her by fifteen years. All her husbands had
been older than her, they had a certain patina. She bought
antiques only when she was certain about their genuineness.
Her husbands had been genuine though they had not worn as
well as her antiques.

This is an uplifting sequence of prose poems probing the nature of symbiosis in various relationships here and what is required to be life giving there. It is necessary reading for anyone following contemporary developments in the prose poem.

David Caddy 12th November 2014

Reassembling Still: Collected Poems by David Miller (Shearsman Books)

Reassembling Still: Collected Poems by David Miller (Shearsman Books)

I felt highly honoured when asked to provide a few words for the back cover of this long-awaited collection and make no apology for repeating those words here:

 

The dreams of David Miller hang tantalizingly over the mind’s edges: their disappearance is ‘manifestation and absence’, like breath into the wind. Through those ‘irregular / small gaps’ an attentiveness to the world of the other permits him to focus upon the immediate.

 

In the short essay on the ‘Theme of Language in Relation to Heidegger’s Philosophy’ which appeared in Paper Air, Volume 3, number 1 in 1982, Miller referred to the German philosopher’s regard for language as the ‘place or dimension where beings are brought into the light of unconcealment’. He concluded with a statement that is so pertinent to his own poetry:

 

The thinker and the poet would presumably be “listening” to Saying rather than merely forcing language to do their bidding; so that beings could be “released” into their “whole” being: then beings would be encountered in such a way “that Being would shine out of them”.

 

In a similar vein Miller also wrote an important account of the poetry of Charles Madge for Great Works 7 (1980) in which he referred to Madge’s poetry working ‘at an uncovering, indeed a double disclosure’:

 

It seeks to uncover and demystify the myths of capitalist society; and also to disclose a fundamental richness and beauty in both the life we do live and, importantly, the life we could live but may be prevented from living.

 

An early section of Miller’s substantial sequence ‘The Story’:

 

that story was the story you told,

a curve

as notation for music.

 

to question the term “unit” is to

question the term “totality”

and I question it.

no one knows what is meant by

“perception”.

 

This long awaited collection offers the reader both units and totality: it is a terrific volume which Shearsman has produced.

 

Ian Brinton, 30 May 2014.

Rampant Inertia by Alan Halsey (Shearsman Books)

Rampant Inertia by Alan Halsey (Shearsman Books)

As one might well expect from the highest class of second-hand book seller Alan Halsey has an ear and memory for names. This is true of a childhood recalled near Crystal Palace in ‘Idle Time-Scans’, where the pub Beulah Spa still stands as do those uplifts of memory with names such as Robin Hood or Dick Turpin engraved on their craggy surface, and it is of a literary knowledge acquired over some sixty years. The poems in this new Shearsman collection will present the reader with glimpses and echoes ranging from Homer and Virgil to Lorine Niedecker, from Dickens and Mayhew to J.H. Prynne.

 

And yet those names, books, associations have an awkward life of their own as they insist upon thrusting themselves up through consciousness and memory. Alan Halsey recalls that as a child he found it difficult to sleep since ‘I couldn’t put an end to the saying of things’ and he is compelled to tell Timothy Donnelly in a letter ‘dated 2 a.m. 26 Dec 2011’ that it only gets worse as he gets older. The experience of the avid reader takes the poet back to his memory of a piece of description from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and London Poor in which a snake-swallower gives an account of his secret:

 

The head of the snake

 

with the ‘stingers cut out’ goes ‘about an inch

and a half down the throat and the rest of it

 

continues in the mouth, curled round.’

 

As the magician puts it: ‘As for the snakes / ‘they’re smooth one way’—he meant when they’re / going down—but the scales like things said / ‘rough you a bit when you draw them up.’. Nothing easy about either memory or poetry!

 

In 1924 Francis Ponge wrote a little piece titled ‘L’insignifiant’ the conclusion to which tells us of the poet’s belief in utterance as opposed to silence: ‘more important than the white page is the script even if it appears insignificant.’ Against the azure sky watch the quiet outline of a cloud! Look out for Alan Halsey’s convincing evidence of the worth of putting pen to paper. And also look out for Laurie Duggan’s full-length review of this delightful volume; it will appear in Tears in the Fence 60 or 61.

Ian Brinton 26th April 2014

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