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The Small Henderson Room by John James (Ferry Press, 1969)

The Small Henderson Room by John James (Ferry Press, 1969)

A Paper given at the John James Conference, 11th March 2017

In his introduction to the Salt Reader for John James Simon Perril, referred to a ‘politics of poise’ in the poetry and to my mind this related closely to James’s wry sense of transience, his concern for the particular time and for a creative atmosphere. It is as if, in the words of the artist Peter Cartwright, “Two effects strike me as running through his poetry, in the form of an interaction of a consciousness of the visual with an acute flow of perceptions”. James came across the work of Peter Cartwright at the Survey ’67 exhibition of Abstract Painters at Camden Arts Centre which he and Andrew Crozier visited. It was there that he also came across the catalogue which included Cartwright’s comments upon his art:

“I am concerned with growth, movement and tension. Certain work is influenced not directly by, but by reaction to, natural forms and structures…I am aiming to establish a reality which will exist independently from myself. My intention is to make a vital tension between forms, to induce speculation, to create a relationship which is a synthesis between the formal and the unpredictable. Any references in my work are oblique and are references to mood.”

That statement found its way into the poem ‘Waiting’ which appeared in The Small Henderson Room published by Crozier’s Ferry Press in 1969 where the fifth section of that poem opens

“In a new blue room I rearrange
the mantelpiece, opening on it
the catalogue of the Survey ’67 Exhibition at Peter Cartwright’s
Three. Those anonymous forms wait, shakily
menacing to change shape, making
a new & unpredictable arrangement
of themselves.”

It was after seeing Cartwright’s work in the Camden gallery that James asked him to produce a cover for the Ferry Press publication and Cartwright later wrote about his surprise at seeing his own catalogue statement appearing in James’s poem prompting him to say a few words about ‘Waiting’:

“The poem moves through events and situations, producing the sensation of a shifting range of experience. It reveals in John’s work an integration of allusions to art, to living encounters and to language and the centrality of a range of phenomena in which the aesthetic experience is a potent and even a fundamentally social element…Two effects strike me as running through his poetry, in the form of an interaction of a consciousness of the visual with an acute flow of perceptions. I am aware in John’s poetry of a constant perceptive response to the tactile, to the nature of light, of physical presence and one’s own physical transience.”

He also made some comments upon the particular nature of that cover:

The Small Henderson Room was the last of the covers I made, and was designed with more concern for the curious and oblique relationship the cover would have to the work within. Did I receive a copy of the poems before designing the cover? At this distance I’m not sure but I think not. The cover was designed as an entity but with some intuitive response to the words The Small Henderson Room. The cover-work, a formal abstract image, was a response to the unknown nature of that ‘room’. My intention was to create a spatial ambiguity, tension and even a sense of unease.”

The illustration may well have been the last of the covers that Cartwright made but only by a month or two since he had also produced the cover for the last issue of the magazine The Resuscitator that John James and Nick Wayte had begun in Bristol in 1963. The last issue of that magazine appeared in February 1969 and Cartwright commented upon the way he had designed the cover pointing to the image of “a stark black formality on a white ground’ with the ‘embossed whiteness of the title” which “meant that no text was immediately visible. THE LAST RESUSCITATOR – the title’s ambiguity chimed with the need to physically tilt the book to decipher it”. The same is true of the Ferry Press book and both suggest to my mind something about the act of reading: the words are not simply visible, they need to be tilted to reveal the seemingly invisible.
The opening poem in The Small Henderson Room presents us with a world in which “we are aware of ourselves as persons with a / particular history”. It originally appeared the year before the Ferry Press publication in 2R2, Resuscitator Second Series and it opens ‘on the move’

“& so I open myself again as we wheel
down over Crickley, chivalrously high on our seats
you see across the gleaming generous screen
right to the Severn valley, tawny with the broad
spread of distant grain, & beyond
is where I’m going, where the mountains
put up their profiles & in the moister
air of that high altitude, the woods and valleys
will be deeply soft & made greenly
vivacious again”

When the poem appeared in the following year’s Ferry Press collection the opening lines had changed a little, perhaps to emphasise that sense of movement and the second published draft is what appeared in the Salt Collected Poems of 2002. The first line starts now much further towards the right margin and is heralded by three dots as if to suggest the continuance of a line of thought. Both the second and the fourth lines are closer to the left-hand margin giving the impression that the main body of the poem is indented. These small details are perhaps part of what Cartwright was referring to when he suggested that James’s poetry presented an interaction between a consciousness of the visual with an acute flow of perceptions. Or as Romana Huk put it when writing about the early poems there is a quality of repetitive artifice and voluptuous spontaneity. This is of course recognisable in ‘The Postcard Sonata’ which contains “40”, the collaborative sonnet written with Andrew Crozier which was to reappear in the 1970 Ferry Press publication IN ONE SIDE & OUT THE OTHER where it also joined forces with Tom Phillips: a writing over what has already been said. The second sonnet in ‘The Postcard Sonata’ is “for Andrew Crozier” and it contains a brief critical comment on Cartwright’s work:

admiring Peter Cartwright’s One Two Three
Four & Five all menacingly fluid but
precise, a relationship between the formal

& the unpredictable.

This quality that James noted about Cartwright’s work haunts his own poetry and Simon Perril noted that he shares with the New York School poets “a willingness to view everyday objects not simply as degraded commodities, but as potential talismans that might be invested with hopes and desires”. Noting the influence of Wordsworth on John James’s poetry Perril pointed out that “characteristically, this aesthetic moment of contemplation contains an element of rhapsody that compels the listener to ‘look up’ and take further notice of his environment.” In terms of the Conversation Poems of Wordsworth/Coleridge, shared walks, interests, focal moments there is a “communitarian sense of the lyric voice forged not in isolation but in the friction of relationships, friendships and reciprocal hopes and fears” It is as if the “we” is that path via which “I” am. That untitled opening poem from The Small Henderson Room proposes that: “In a mutual presence / catastrophe may be averted” and this thought is taken up in A Theory of Poetry published by Street Editions in 1977 where there is a reference to

“particular people at a particular time
& in a particular place
these people are the others
without whom you would not exist”

It is within that context that I wish to point out what will appear obvious to sensitive readers of the poetry of John James. His early work is in no sense a hearkening back to the pastoral nostalgia of the Georgian poets. In the first collection that Crozier published for Ferry Press, MMM… AH YES, 1967, there appears a poem ‘An Open Letter to Jim Workman, Landlord, at the Rose & Crown, Withy Mills, North Somerset’. The title itself gives a nod to Wordsworth and it celebrates the natural ability of a pub landlord to find ‘sustenance’ in his rootedness in “the earth your / feet press on”. Now what I mean by saying how different John James is to the Georgian ‘Nature’ poets who focused on geographical rural particularities can be seen when you look at a little piece written in 1910 by W.H. Davies, friend of Edward Thomas and known mostly for being the author of The Autobiography of a Supertramp and for possessing a wooden leg. The poem celebrates a particular pub in the Sevenoaks Weald named The Harvest Home. It is little more than a jolly record of a moment and, as of course might be expected, the pub no longer exists. Neither does the Rose and Crown at Withy Mills near Paulton in Somerset. And that’s where the similarity ends. Whereas Davies’s poem is locked into a particular moment of stasis, a diary note that could be added to a social history of the local area, James’s poem is ‘on the move’. It recreates the character and personality of Jim Workman through the landlord’s actions and advice. There is the local humour of characterisation contained in the recollections:

“& if I brought you a poem
what would you do with it?
what would your hawk’s nose,
your dry sniff, pulled down
corners of mouth,
mockery of Old Winsley,
scrounging his way, the way
you made him an iced birthday cake
of wood, set light to his hat

And there is the admiration of folk-lore knowledge that doffs its hat to Edward Thomas’s figure of Lob:

“the way you know the way
foxes kill young cuckoos
in long grass…

You showed me the
way to bud the
briars in June,
splicing with
raffia. Told me
dung burns the roots off
beans, to repair
the rung of a ladder with
pitchpine

But there is also that Wordsworthian title, the inclusion of words from Pound’s ‘L’Envoi’ from 1919, that recognition of the influence of Charles Tomlinson in “the fields / multiplying through / division by hedges”. The landlord, Jim Workman, finds “sustenance” in his natural rootedness “from the earth your / feet press on” and James’s poem echoes the short review he published in Resuscitator 4, May 1965, of Anselm Hollo’s here we go:

“In this and in other poems in this little book, Mr. Hollo presents the humdrum details of family life in such a way, with such choice and ironic juxtaposition, that escape is not only unrealistic but unnecessary. Such apparently trivial details – queuing for public transport, children asleep in their cots, undressing for bed – matter for Mr. Hollo and for all of us because without them we would not exist. Once they are accepted they become meaningful, a source of happiness and enlightenment. Such acceptance of the common place in literature is not new of course. One thinks of how central it was to the poetry of Wordsworth and to Ulysses; and it survives as an attitude in the poetry of Charles Tomlinson…”

The reference to Charles Tomlinson is important and his poem, ‘A Given Grace’, later published in American Scenes, is the opening moment of Resuscitator 1, Autumn 1963. It presents challenge and replenishment. A few months later Resuscitator 2 appeared and Tomlinson took his place alongside Zukofsky, Corman and Olson. In January 1968 the second series of Resuscitator was started from John James’s home in Trumpington High Street and the contributors included J.H. Prynne, Gill Vickers, Jeremy Mulford, Elaine Feinstein, Andrew Crozier, Nick Wayte, Wendy Mulford, John Hall and James himself. It is worth noting the dedication to that new magazine:

“This series of Resuscitator is dedicated to Charles Tomlinson with thanks for his generous help over the first series”.

IN ONE SIDE & OUT THE OTHER presents the reader with a writing over what has already been said and words push off the page through new designs. It is almost as if you need to tilt the book to see what lies beneath and I return to the influence of Charles Olson whose poem from January 1950, ‘These Days’ opens with the injunction to “leave the roots on” whatever it is that you have to say, “let them / dangle / And the dirt // Just to make clear where they come from”.
For John James ‘sustenance’, the ground on which your feet press, can be located in ‘The Conversation’, a poem he contributed to the last issue of Grosseteste Review in 1984 with its illustration on the front cover by Franco Beltrametti:

“to say nothing of you Jeremy when you leaf
your pages to that summer & and have before you
all we make of what we are when every day
gave some new sense of strengthening regard for common things
& all the land gave up a breath of gentler touch
but for the undertow of darkness
in the phones

And it is there in Songs In Midwinter For Franco published less than three years ago by Equipage here in Cambridge:

in tranquillity
is difficult simplicity

as ever the table set
not to forget

Ian Brinton 20th May 2018

Beneath by Simon Perril (Shearsman Books)

Beneath  by Simon Perril (Shearsman Books)

In the notes at the end of his earlier volume of poems linked to the lyricism of Archilochus, Archilochus on the Moon (Shearsman 2013), Simon Perril referred to the Greek poet’s ‘nuanced voice, full of many tones and timbres’. The poet’s voice, he suggested, ‘tastes of brine, sweat and handled coins; it has the viscosity of semen’:

‘Viscosity is caused by friction; it is a measure of its resistance to gradual deformation. Archilochus crafted an intimate yell seven centuries before Christ, and a good many before Mayakovsky and Frank O’Hara.’

These words echo Peter Riley’s comments made when he was interviewed by Kelvin Corcoran in 1986 for Reality Studios 8; talking about ‘the condition of poetry’, Riley bemoaned ‘the neglect of someone like John James’ which struck him as particularly reprehensible since ‘his poetry is actually a popular poetry in some ways, it refers to people like Mayakovsky and O’Hara, the self in it is a popular self: a brash, open, aggressive, stylish, perky sort of self…it speaks of public places, and should be heard in them, literally.’ It is no mere accident that this quotation should appear in Simon Perril’s introduction to his Salt Companion to John James, which appeared in 2010, since Perril’s own poetry possesses some of those same qualities displayed in James’s ‘The Conversation’ in which the poet refers to Jeremy Prynne’s leafing through pages and giving ‘some new sense of strengthening regard for common things’. In the Companion we can also find Perril’s statement which points us towards his own poetry, ‘He shares with the New York School poets a willingness to view everyday objects not simply as degraded commodities, but as potential talismans that might be invested with hopes and desires.’

The background to Beneath is made clear on the back cover: ‘A nekyia is an underworld story preserving a rite from classical antiquity wherein the living call up the dead, and are questioned about the future.’ In 1935 Pound thought that the Nekuia episode of The Odyssey was the oldest part. In the words of Hugh Kenner, ‘foretime: a remembering of rites already ancient when the tale came to Homer’. And in the early 16th century the Nekuia was transposed by one Andreas Divus Justinopolitanus (‘Et postquam ad navem descendimus, et mare…’). And from thence to the opening of Canto I: ‘And then went down to the ship, / Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea…’ (incorporated into Canto III in Quia Pauper Amavi, 1919, just after the end of the first Great War, before being chosen to open the Draft of XVI Cantos in 1925).

In Simon Perril’s exploration of what lies beneath the surface, the voice of Neobulé, the bride-to-be of the first lyric poet, Archilochus, who committed suicide after her father had called off the wedding, gropes towards an understanding of her shadehood:

‘Hermes took me down
each step
decreased in sound’

As absence causes presence to fade into what will become the unrealisable ‘Lethe dyed my thoughts / white’

‘and I wore them
anew, so fresh

they barely contained
you’

The visceral sense of dissolution is traced from different angles throughout these eighty poems:

‘Dionysus
god in the tree

whose limbs of ivy
curled ’cross Thracian seas

will come for me
and plant a wet kiss

reclaim his daughter
as a body

of dancing water’

As the solidity of ‘tree’ and ‘limbs’ move through an abbreviated verb of transport the physicality of consonantal ‘daughter’ melts to its rhymed counterpart in the lightness of the last line.
Dissolution, a presence of process, is evident in poem after poem in this magical sequence and we become aware of how ‘constant leaving’ is a ‘leaking’. Persephone, the ‘dark abductee’ gathers the speaker

‘for I soften
lose shape

find kin
amongst the wet things

palpitate
like a fountain tip.’

Elly Clapinson’s cover photograph explores a glimpse of the journey.

Ian Brinton 27th December 2015

House At Out Mark Goodwin Shearsman Books

House At Out  Mark Goodwin Shearsman Books

I find that reading books is in no way a discrete business and the same, inevitably, holds true for writing reviews. Looking at the blurb on the reverse side of this new collection of Mark Goodwin’s poetry I see the words of Simon Perril:

In House At Out, Mark Goodwin steps beyond the physical landscapes of Back of a Vast, into a new topography: a world that is a “wild’s inf i
nite b its” approached through the gaps and hollows in the word. The holes are apertures as we zoom into language, crack open word hoards and find worlds of association, “hole keys” with which we open kinetic lands as nimble as “music thinking of water”’.

A few days ago, in my review of The Cambridge Companion to British Poetry 1945—2010, I didn’t have sufficient space to say what I wanted to about Perril’s excellent contribution about ‘High Late-Modernists or Postmodernists?’ but now I am prompted to return via this topographical reference to Goodwin’s work. Early on in Perril’s essay he refers to Geraldine Monk in terms of the emotional geography of place, most especially her native Lancashire:

‘Her habitats are haunted by a sense of inequalities and injustices that the landscape has preserved as its own memory, and that charge the language with both neologistic verve and a sense of regional historical witness.’

This combination of neologisms and ‘historical witness’ is central to Mark Goodwin’s work as in ‘Our Shoulle’:

‘a round voice in the bottom of an impossible tube is
nearly silent yet ticks away a shiny poem coils of a
whole other place pull me in it is thin in a last place
a shell makes so wide at first a thrush has smashed a snail

shell on a doorstep think of bricks think of your family
we always wonder why sky doesn’t flatten a shell with its
simple vast coiled solid song song of wafer stone stone
that is a song a crab may live in an on & on song a snail

carries around exchanges for size & no size we do not live
in shells because our feet are too big they would not fit into a
tight pink compartment where a shell goes no further into
the round of all a world slates so slight against her round

voice bright raging sky with a rain in a bottom of impossible’ [.]

There is a Hopkinsian quality of the music of ‘things’ here (‘choses’ as Ponge would have had it) as we are offered ‘a round voice’ in which stones might ring, as they do in the second stanza as ‘song song’ becomes ‘stone stone’. The voice may be ‘nearly silent’ and yet its insistent measuring of Time pulls both poet and reader into a new world. The comparison of shell to brick, of wafer to stone, takes us back a page to the title of this section of the book, ‘A Bachelard’s Château’ and Gaston Bachelard’s comment in the opening pages of The Poetics of Space

‘all really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home’.

In the world of Bachelard, imagination can build walls of impalpable shadows and, to refer again to Ponge, imagination can compare the human to the hermit crab:

‘The monuments built by man appear like offcuts from his own skeleton: but they don’t raise the spectre of a creature of comparative size. Compared to a shell, the portals of the greatest cathedrals open to release a crowd of ants and the most wealthy villas or chateaux, home to one man only, are more akin to a hive or an ants’-nest divided up into its separate rooms. When milord departs from his manor-house he certainly appears a lot less impressive than that gigantic claw of the hermit-crab swelling out of the mouth of that cornet shell which he calls home.’
(‘A Note addressed to SHELLS’, translated by Ian Brinton, Oystercatcher Press 2015)

There is, to my ear, a roundness, a completeness as ‘slates’ move to ‘slight’ and, round, to ‘bright’; an echo coiling round a spiral ‘in a bottom of impossible’. I recall Harriet Tarlo’s wonderful anthology published by Shearsman four years ago, The Ground Aslant, in the introduction to which she wrote ‘I have focused here on poets whose formal techniques are exploratory and experimental enough to be called radical, poets whose ideological pushing of the boundaries is to be found integrated into the forms their poems inhabit’. Mark Goodwin’s work was, naturally enough, featured in that volume as ‘the lock of the sun clinks its heat’. And when Robert Macfarlane reviewed the anthology for the Saturday Guardian (16/4/11) he referred to Mark Goodwin’s landscape details as providing no reliable resting place for the eye or the mind:

‘It simply refers the subject onwards in an effortful relay of attention from speck to speck. Keep going. Move along now.’

In this world of spatial vectors and Heraclitean flux I hear the opening lines of one of the poems in Prynne’s The Oval Window:

‘In darkness by day we must press on,
giddy at the tilt of a negative crystal.’

Keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen! And Mark Goodwin writes ‘thoughts escape leave us free and we are poem coils / of a whole i am’.

Ian Brinton 23rd December 2015

It’s Open House: Leafe Press

It’s Open House: Leafe Press

Three very attractive chapbooks from Leafe Press arrived in the post as an example of Alan Baker’s fine new pamphlet series:

 

sea witch by Sarah Crew, Newton’s Splinter by Simon Perril and Chapters of Age by Peter Riley

 

When I read Sarah Crewe’s poem ‘bridge’ in her Oystercatcher volume flick invicta last year I was immediately aware of an eerie and uncomfortable voice, which came from the depths. This is a poet who listens ‘on ocean floor’ and whose sensitive awareness ‘tells me / you are near’. Opening this new volume of electric seriousness I realise that she is even nearer as ‘a cruising white american / king sized drag submerged / from bathing / to thrashing / to screaming / to nothing’. There is a clear sense that these poems matter: they explore the personal world as it segments with ‘silent glide’ into a social scene.

 

When Michael Schmidt wrote the blurb for the back cover of Simon Perril’s Shearsman publication Archilochus on the Moon he suggested that Perril’s eighty poems were themselves ‘shells and fragments that constitute a haunted narrative’ and as I leaf through Newton’s Splinter I can see again what he means by this. The two sequences here come from a larger manuscript called A Soft Book and they possess a thrusting forward movement which seems to catch at the reader as the words fly past

 

says pawn to dawn

break on, brag

at baize we’re snookered upon

 

The urgency of ‘on’ contradicts the slowing pun on ‘break’ and yet complements the morning shift between past night and new day, a new dawn which is shadowed by history as the American Space Shuttle Programme flew its final mission in July 2011 and reminded us of the connections between ‘then’ and ‘now’.

 

And as if to explore this theme with the measured depth of understanding that Peter Riley’s work invariably offers us we have Chapters of Age with its subtitle placed inside the book, ‘Stone landscapes of Inishmore and Burren, May 2010’. The photography by Beryl Riley on the cover gives us crag and grass, age and growth, and the opening poem juxtaposes ‘Ruins of small monastic settlements’ with ‘Dull pain to right of middle back.’ This is a hauntingly beautiful book of poems in which the reader, walker, observer contemplates not only those relics and remnants of another world but also, inevitably, the questions which are ‘flying at us every day’:

 

What is the plant with dark green leaves and

Tiny white flowers? What is the answer to fear?

 

These are beautifully produced chapbooks and are well worth getting from www.leafepress.com

 

Ian Brinton December 20th 2013

 

 

 

 

John James

In the Keynes Library of Birkbeck College on Friday, 9 March there was a John James evening introduced by Carol Watts whose own recent volume When blue light falls 3 has just appeared from Oystercatcher. There were short talks given by Simon Perrill, Rod Mengham and John Hall all of whom had contributed to the Salt Companion to John James and these were followed by readings by both Simon and John himself. As John read from his two most recent publications, In Romsey Town (Equipage) and Cloud Breaking Sun (Oystercatcher) one became aware of that haunting quality of his poetry, that sense of ghosts lurking behind the scenes, and what John Hall has described as ‘quiet and tender acts in the departing shadow of the inevitably fugitive.’ This attractive venue had been used some eight weeks ago for the one-day Peter Riley conference and Carol Watts left us with the firm sense that there are going to be many more poetry events in the Keynes Library.