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Your Scratch Entourage by Kris Hemensley (Cordite Books)

Your Scratch Entourage by Kris Hemensley (Cordite Books)

The introduction to this collection of poems by Kris Hemensley, the first to appear for some thirty years, makes an interesting and direct assertion taken from Alain (Emile Chartier):

“…men are afraid to complete their thoughts” [.]

This moment of realisation was shared between Lucas Weschke and Kris Hemensley as they were on their way to visit Greta Berlin whom Weschke had met in Zennor “as a small child and whose father, Sven Berlin, had enthralled a young Kris Hemensley in 1963 with the accoutrements of the artist and his first taste of red wine.”

One might be almost tempted to recall those words from the first chapter of Kenner’s The Pound Era where he refers to a moment on a Chelsea street in the early 1900s:

“Which is all of the story, like a torn papyrus. That is how the past exists, phantasmagoric weskits, stray words, random things recorded. The imagination augments, metabolizes, feeding on all it has to feed on, such scraps.”

The introduction goes on to give us a picture of how these poems relate to people in their places taking us “into deeply personal territory: the territory of sons and fathers, brothers and lovers; into the territory of war and its enduring shadows. The chapters are stakes embedded in the ground to mark what needed to be acknowledged”. The seven ‘chapters’, separate but connected areas of poetic ground, take the reader from 1971 to ‘Millenium Poems’, from Frank Prince to Ivor Gurney, from London to Weymouth:

“tracks along the shore
disappear almost as fast as they’re formed
in the sand”

The staked out land is a world of marked territory and as the poet looks back over a half-century of close involvement with the powerful urges and effects of language he recognises the clarity of “what’s the use of going against the wind?” :

“man, woman or child:
who walks here
whose footsteps disappear?”

This awareness of the effect of time is very different from Barry MacSweeney’s sharp outburst against the Colonel B and ‘Jury Vet’ mystification of truth from the ABC trial of 1977. Hemensley’s tone of voice uses the particular to point to the universal and his awareness of the way in which the staked out plots relate to each other is caught in the poem written in memory of MacSweeney:

“your scratch entourage
sans powder sans rouge
sans a sodding sausage
what’s it all in aid of
counted now on page 470 of Herodotus
inventory of spears swords daggers
shields bows & lassoes gold-plated helmets
of this & that regiment chain-mail tunics
women & tents horses & sheep
tanks & helicopter gunships
guided missile systems…”

An early poem which Kris Hemensley published in 1972 pointed us to ‘The Horizon’ where “the wider lights / lengthening days / the pink flood above / the tallest pine / blue grill of sky / talk of snow to come” lead on to a “question of occupation”:

“which time & place
awaiting spring…”

As Hemensley knows, we can only hope to occupy a here-and-now and his moving record of poems in this new collection offers a glance backward over a lifetime’s commitment. He might almost be thinking of Samuel Beckett’s Murphy who announced that “all life is figure and ground”. Meanwhile, as the seven sonnets which constitute the staked-out patch of ground titled ‘More Midsummer Night’s Dream Than Dante’ offer a mordant awareness of life passing we must also recall Flaubert writing to Louis Bouilhet in September 1850:

“Yes, stupidity consists in wanting to reach conclusions. We are a thread, and we want to know the whole cloth.”

Kris Hemensley is aware of the threads and, without wanting the whole cloth, he yearns to recognise how each field allows us a vision both backwards and for the future. This is a moving and serious collection of poems.

Ian Brinton 18th February 2017

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Tears in the Fence 64

Tears in the Fence 64

Tears in the Fence 64 edited by David Caddy is now available from https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, fiction, prose poetry and translations from Jeremy Reed, Jim Burns, John Welch, John Freeman, Sally Dutton, Chris Hall, Michael Henry, Beth Davyson, Kinga Tóth, Paul Kareem Tayyar, D. I., Lydia Unsworth, David Pollard, Mike Duggan, Jeff Hilson, Sheila Mannix, I.S. Rowley, Richard Foreman, Jay Ramsay, Alison Winch, Andrew Taylor, Alan Baker, Sophie Herxheimer, L. Kiew, Ric Hool, S.J. Litherland, Rachael Clyne, Andrew Shelley, Tom Cowin, Morag Kiziewicz, Matt Bryden, Jessica Mookherjee, John Phillips, Ian Brinton & Michael Grant trans. Mallarmé, Terence J. Dooley trans. Mario Martin Giljó, Greg Bachar, Jennifer K. Dick, Matthew Carbery, Mark Goodwin, Aidan Semmens, Peter Dent, Sarah Cave, Julie Irigaray and Maria Isokova Bennett.
The critical section features John Freeman on Jim Burns: Poet as Witness, Andrew Henon on Timeless Man: Sven Berlin, Mary Woodward on Rosemary Tonks & Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Jeremy Reed on John Wieners, Norman Jope on Chris McCabe, Marsha de la O in conversation with John Brantingham, Neil Leadbeater on Jeremy Hilton, Nancy Gaffield on Geraldine Monk, Lesley Saunders on Alice Miller, Belinda Cooke on Carole Satyamurti, Steve Spence on Dear World and Everyone in it David Caddy on Andrew Lees’ Mentored by a Madman, Nigel Wood & Alan Halsey, Duncan Mackay on E.E. Cummings
, Notes on Contributors, and Ian Brinton’s Afterword.
The front cover is a black & white detail of a Sven Berlin watercolour (1982, private collection) and the magazine is designed by Westrow Cooper.

Give me your painting hand: W S Graham and Cornwall by David Whittaker (Wavestone Press)

Give me your painting hand: W S Graham and Cornwall by David Whittaker (Wavestone Press)

This beautifully designed book is an affectionate portrait of the poet, W.S. Graham’s life in or near Praa Sands, Carbis Bay, Mevagissey, Gunard’s Head, Zennor and Madron, Cornwall. Whittaker provides a broad impressionistic view of Graham’s life and career, makes excellent use of his correspondence, charts key publications in his poetics and poetry, and his connections with numerous artists in Fitzrovia and Cornwall. The monograph includes more than sixty photographs and portraits of Graham and others in Cornwall, includes his major poems on Cornish artists Alfred Wallis, Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton and Bryan Winter, as well as a useful bibliography.

Early on Whittaker quotes a 1981 letter to Gavin Saunders, where Graham acknowledges that his early poems are as good as his later poetry ‘with their own particular energies’. Graham’s sense that his poetry was producing a meta-language with sound and vision uppermost has deep connections with Dylan Thomas and the neo-Romantic and modernist artists of the St. Ives community. The St. Ives connection might be said to be their joint concern with objects and process. There is the related sense that they are also variously concerned with self and place. The second is that to some extent they are mostly living and working as exiles. Although Whittaker does not make the first connection explicit or pursue deeper links, he certainly acknowledges the second. He sees Graham’s connection with artists beginning with his work on the translation of an essay on Paul Klee by Polish artist, Jankel Adler for Horizon magazine in 1942. Adler’s art, particularly his stylized faces, can be seen in the sketches and doodles that decorate Graham’s letters.

Graham first lived in gypsy caravans at some distance from the creative hubs of St. Ives working hard at his craft. From April 1945 Sven Berlin, a sculptor concerned with process, became an avid drinking partner and supplier of Benzedrine tablets, and commissioned a poem on Alfred Wallis for his Poetry London Editions book on the artist. The relationship between the two built around Wallis and the sea is clearly important to both figures. Graham used Berlin to get a copy of David Gascoyne’s Poems 1937-1942 and introduced him to Johnny Minton visiting from London, who in turn taught Berlin how to monotype. There was clearly a strong work ethic amongst the St. Ives community at this time, and the impact of Wallis as a fisherman and sailor resonated with both Graham. He was drawn to the process of journey and return, something that Wallis had done as part of his working life. Wallis’s paintings are significantly devoid of human figures. He was not painting his life as such. It is tempting to consider these early connections with the sea, its language and local idiolects, and ‘Unenglish’ landscape’ as the reason that Graham chose to settle permanently in Cornwall. This local material finds its way into his subsequent poetry.

Graham worked on his poetics ‘Notes on a Poetry of Release’ first published in Poetry Scotland in July 1946, which Whittaker quotes extensively from:

‘The most difficult thing for me to remember is that a poem is
made of words and not of the expanding heart, the overflowing
soul, or the sensitive observer. A poem is made of words. It is
words of a certain order, good or bad by the significance of its
addition to life …

Each word changes every time it is brought to life. Each single
word uttered twice becomes a new word each time. You cannot
twice bring the same word into sound …

The poem is more than the poet’s intention. The poet does not
write what he knows but what he does not know …’

About the poem, ‘The Nightfishing’, he wrote to Charles Causley that
‘Leonardo da Vinci has curious drawings in his notebooks of poured water and its currents and momentum and storms and driven tides and in a way I wanted to use those kinds of very physical phenomena in whatever real action was represented.’

Whittaker shows Graham living a materially meagre existence in remote Cornwall participating within a community of outsiders drawn to work individually on the edge of society. This community allowed access to intelligent explorers in the visual arts. Roger Hilton, for example, saw painting as a self-contained object with its own self-referential rules of coherence based on colour and form without external referents. Clearly Hilton’s approach has parallels with Graham’s poetics.

Whittaker delineates Graham’s friendships with successive generations of St. Ives artists, from Berlin, Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon, Bryan Winter through to Tony O’Malley and Bill Featherston and his various love affairs with Elizabeth Smart, Nancy Wynne-Jones, Ruth Hilton to produce a handy overview of the some of the important relationships in his life. Graham, who was not a loner, nevertheless appears as a lone figure, as distinct as his poetry. This is a useful celebration of W.S. Graham in Cornwall.

David Caddy 12th May 2016

Timeless Man: Sven Berlin by Sonia Aarons (Millersford Press)

Timeless Man: Sven Berlin by Sonia Aarons (Millersford Press)

The substantial biography of the sculptor, painter, writer and poet, Sven Berlin (1911-1999), records the whirlwind of a flamboyant, non-conformist, bohemian who upset the St Ives artistic community and paid a price for challenging their exploitative treatment of Alfred Wallis. Berlin was a self-taught artist and his erstwhile friends, Peter Lanyon, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, used this against him. He was a key and integral part of the St Ives arts community, being particularly close to the critic and artist, Adrian Stokes, the poet, W.S. Graham, and painter, Terry Frost and sculptor Naum Gabo. He was a hard-living, Romantic figure more in the mould of Augustus John than some of his genteel contemporaries. His article on Wallis in Horizon magazine and subsequent book, Alfred Wallis: primitive, published by Poetry London in 1949, made him an outcast from the art establishment and he moved to live among the New Forest Gypsies, with his second wife, Juanita, who subsequently became a successful writer in her own right. His fantasy novel, The Dark Monarch (1962), based on caricatures of St Ives, exasperated matters and he retreated again to the Isle of Wight after it was banned. The novel received four libel actions, including one from his friend, the poet, Arthur Caddick. He finally moved near Wimborne Minster, with his third wife, where he found some degree of recognition in later life.

Aarons has amassed a considerable volume of information about Berlin’s diverse artwork and writings, his connections and fluctuating career in and out of the public eye. What emerges is a telling history of how a notable figure can be ostracised and fail to recover with the result that their many talents can be obscured by time. He only had one item in the 1984 Tate St Ives exhibition. He was exiled by the art world. Yet he was a significant figure during the Forties to both Adrian Stokes and W. S. Graham, with whom he was deeply connected. The exchange of letters between Graham and Berlin are featured in The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters (Carcanet, 1999). Malcolm Mackintosh, a friend of the editors, Michael and Margaret Snow, produced a limited edition of Berlin’s poem ‘Jock Grim’ dedicated to Graham. Berlin’s wartime letters to Stokes were used for a diary-like novel about warfare experiences, I Am Lazarus (1961). Berlin’s main artistic theme became an intuitive movement towards timelessness exploring the vagaries of creation and destruction with reference to diverse life forms and situations. His relief carving, The White Buck, (1958) captures the agonising moment when a stag is caught between life and death. His drawings and paintings focused upon harbour and forest life, fishermen, shipping, animals and labourers. His expressionistic use of colour imparted a mood of mythological intensity, and was at some distance from art market requirements in the Eighties.

Aarons shows that even when his sculptures, drawings and writings were not selling sufficiently to make ends meet, he was still lauded in the media by the likes of John Arlott, John Boorman, Lawrence Durrell, Roy Fuller, Robert Graves, Adrian Stokes, Tambimuttu, Denys Val Baker and Philip Ziegler. Despite being ignored by the art world, he was a regular figure on local and national television featured in documentaries and current affair programmes. We effectively have a rebellious figure unable to find buyers for his sculptures being kicked out into the long grass where he continues to create and write whilst being part of the New Forest Gypsy community. His writings on fishing, Jonah’s Dream (1964) are well anthologized. He also wrote extensively on the New Forest, published three volumes of autobiography, collections of poetry, and Pride of the Peacock – The Evolution of an Artist (1972). His knowledge of gypsy counter-culture emerged in his novel Dromengro: man of the road (1971), as was as in numerous film items.

Berlin’s exile in a way makes his art and writings more acute, more distinct in relation to the now world famous Nicholson and Hepworth. The Dark Monarch furore and split with the competitive St Ives art colony has rather obscured his fine sculptures, in particular the enigmatic, The Timeless Man, Madonna, Serene Head, as well his Creation pictures. He was close to Wallis, Stokes and W.S. Graham, and thus well worth discovering.

David Caddy 17th April 2016

Artists, Beats & Cool Cats by Jim Burns

Artists, Beats & Cool Cats by Jim Burns

Penniless Press Publications 2014

http://www. pennilesspress.co.uk/books/ppp

 

Jim Burns’ fifth collection covers an extraordinary range of artistic, literary, film and music activity through a series of interlocking essays that show extensive reading. Written in an engaging, clear and non-academic manner they were first published in magazines between 1973 and 2013. The topics range from the history of Paris Dada, the Cornish coastal artistic communities, Sven Berlin, the letters and lives of Jackson Pollock’s brothers, the American radical documentary film tradition, the stories of Dorothy Parker, Jack Kerouac’s magazine writing, the history of Black Mountain College, the work of literary magazines, such as Origin, The Noble Savage, Art and Literature, the music of Billie Holiday and West Coast jazzmen, the Objectivists, Olympia Press, early Beat criticism, and the Bohemian scenes of Tangier and Soho, and so on.

 

Burns is adept at debunking generalized overviews of literary and artistic movements, uncovering key figures, lost connections, neglected links and understands that there are those that find prominence and others that do not but might well be of equal stature or interest. He gently points out some of the beautiful failures, the underdogs, and the omissions of critics and anthologists. He is brilliant at uncovering contrary readings, positions that offer less conventional viewpoints, the role of marketing and magazines, and has a healthy disregard for official versions of literary and artistic movements and periods.

 

The essays take the reader on a journey through the prominent points of understanding and analysis as well as suggesting other viewpoints. They are perceptive, highly informative and, at times, personal. His essay, ‘Words For Painters’ on the impact of abstract expressionism has a wonderful personal slant that helps the reader appreciate the impact more profoundly. He writes:

 

‘It is the personal effect that the paintings have had which interests me. I’ve always found in much of Willem de Kooning’s work a wonderful reaction to the city. I recall coming out of the Tate Gallery in London after a de Kooning exhibition in the late-1960s and realizing how alive I was to the colour, noise, vitality, and variety of the streets. In Dore Ashton’s fine book, The Life and Times of the New York School, she says of de Kooning. “He loved the complexity of the cosmopolis, and he found in its physical appearance an excitement and beauty that he consciously tried to reflect in his paintings.” I read that a few years after first encountering de Kooning’s work, and it confirmed what I’d felt about the paintings.’

 

The essay is beautifully constructed, effortlessly moving from the personal to the critical, to apt use of sources and quotation, from general to localized reading.

 

‘With a painter like Franz Kline, possibly my favourite of all the abstract expressionists, it similarly struck me that his large black and white canvases were also representative of urban life. It maybe a tougher street-wise version of it when compared to de Kooning, whose European sensibility still came through despite his years in America. Kline was once described as “a night person, drinking with friends first, painting later, and sleeping during the day. Kline’s nighttime joy, his love of night as a congenial time permeates the warm, expansive blacks in several of his abstractions. Like night itself, these paintings are filled with unpredictable encounters with light: incandescent flashes and glowing reflections.” Interestingly, it always seemed that Kline was the least talked about of the abstract expressionists, both in terms of conversational focus and critical evaluation.’

 

The essay, which is typical of the collection as a whole, moves economically forward covering a lot of ground on Kline, his contemporaries and their work, and leaves the reader wanting to view the paintings and read more about the painters.

 

This is an exceptionally strong collection of diverse essays, which serve to illuminate and widen understanding. The reader finishes the book in a happier and more informed mood.

 

David Caddy 17th June 2014

 

 

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