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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

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Balkan Poetry Today, 2017 edited by Tom Phillips (Red Hand Books)

Balkan Poetry Today, 2017 edited by Tom Phillips (Red Hand Books)

In his editorial comments at the opening of this first issue of a new magazine, Balkan Poetry Today, Tom Phillips stakes out his purpose with clarity and determination:

Balkan Poetry Today is not designed to be a comprehensive survey. Nor is it a ‘greatest hits’ package. Not every country in SE Europe, not every language spoken there is represented in this issue (although many are) and readers already familiar with those few poets from the region who have been translated into English may wonder at some of the more notable absences. This, though, is a magazine, not a representative anthology, and our policy has simply been to publish the best work which we have been sent or otherwise come across rather than to fulfil the more ambitious task of charting an entire region’s poetic output.”

This is the beginning of an adventure and it carries with it the momentum of a serious journey. That setting of keel to breakers reminds me a little of J.H. Prynne’s ‘Tips on Translating Poems (Into or Out of English)’ which he wrote in Cambridge a little over ten years ago. The last of the 24 tips pointed to the importance of recognising that no translation work is ever fully completed since there “can never be a best or a right solution”. He reminded his readers that the best kind of poetical translation of a poem is another poem, “without any didactic extras” so that the reader “will be rewarded by enjoyment of a good poem which gives a strong experience of its foreign original”. Prynne concluded that this was the aim of all poetical translation and that it allowed the efforts of the translator “to bring very real benefit in understanding between cultures”.
This last point is one which was highlighted by Ana Martinoska in her introduction to the 2011 Arc publication of an anthology of Six Macedonian Poets in which she commented that “there are no nations or literatures that are small, insignificant or culturally less important than others” and that every culture and genre “should be presented to a broader audience without hesitation or fear of marginalisation”. Prynne’s last comment in his tips was “Translation is noble work!” and Martinoska referred to the translation of poetry as being “one of the best forms of cultural representation, as mediation among languages and nations, cross-cultural and inter-cultural communication bringing the world closer together, both in time and space”.
With this last statement in mind it is refreshing and heartening to read Tom Phillips’s words:

“It is, of course, conventional for any publication with the term ‘Balkan’ in the title to attempt a definition of the region. BPT has adopted a rather loose one with blurry edges – and one which includes the various and not inconsiderable Balkan diasporas. We are, in fact, pretty much leaving it to the poets themselves to decide whether they identify themselves as Balkan or not and to define where the cultural, geographical and linguistic boundaries lie. In practice this means that in this issue you’ll find work by a Romanian poet who writes in Czech, a Bulgarian who lives in Slovakia and a Croatian who writes multilingual poems in Croatian, French and English. In future issues we hope to publish work in transnational languages like Roma and Vlach. We use the word ‘Balkan’ in the broadest possible sense and with no intention of suggesting that ‘Balkan poetry’ exists as a single, homogenous entity.”

This first issue of an exhilarating new journal is sheer delight and one of the first poems that drew my attention immediately was ‘Private lessons in May’ by Aksinia Mihaylova (translated by Roumiana Tiholova):

“I’m trying to teach you the Cyrillic alphabet of scents:
that the geranium on the balcony across the street
is more than a mere geranium,
that the linden tree in June
is more than a mere tree,
but we aren’t making progress fast enough.
Your thumb is following the candle shadow
that the wind is making tremble on the open page,
as if drafting mobile borders
between you and me,
as if to protect you,
as if you are that boy,
who once lost his watercolours
on his way home from school,
and who’s still painting
the lost sky of his childhood and the hills
in the same colour.”

In 1923 William Carlos Williams had been convinced that “so much depends / upon // a red wheel / barrow // glazed with rain / water // beside the white /
chickens”. Wallace Stevens was to refer to those words as a “mobile-like arrangement” and Hugh Kenner suggested that they dangled in equidependency, “attracting the attention, isolating it, so that the sentence in which they are arrayed comes to seem like a suspension system.” The delicate movement in Mihaylova’s poem traces the act of translation itself, the spaces between one mind and another in a world of “mobile borders”.

Balkan Poetry Today is available in a limited edition print version via the Red Hand Books website: http://www.redhandbooks.co.uk/ and an e-book version will be available soon.

In a world of narrowing confines this new journal is refreshing: it opens doors on each page.

Ian Brinton 30th July 2017

Raceme

Raceme

This new Bristol-based magazine is edited by Matthew Barton and Jeremy Mulford and is published by Loxwood Stoneleigh, an imprint of Falling Wall Press. The first issue appeared in May last year and the Winter issue for this year, number 5, has just come into view. For those whose botanical knowledge is not quite up to the mark a quick glance at the Shorter Oxford is helpful:

From the Latin for a cluster of grapes ‘Raceme is a simple inflorescence in which the flowers are arranged on short, nearly equal, pedicels, at equal distances on an elongated axis’.

The editorial at the front of the first issue presented an attractive engagement with the way writing can prompt responses and it boded well for the future of this attractively produced magazine. As Barton and Mulford put that first issue together there was clearly an intention that the magazine could make space for ‘strings or sequences of poems with contextual thread or preface from the authors’. What they also discovered was that ‘connections began to sprout between pieces by diverse writers, a crackle of igniting responses’. The issue included poems by Graham Hartill (whose selection from Slipping the Leash appeared in my blog from earlier this month) and Philip Gross. It also contained tributes to Anne Cluysenaar alongside some of her poems and it is worth recalling the comments that poet made about the art of translation in her contribution to the book on British Poetry Since 1960 by Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop:

‘Translation is indeed a symbol of the basic activities of sympathy and metamorphosis involved in creative writing.’

As if in response to those words written over forty years ago Tom Phillips offered us in issue number 3 ‘Bulgaria Revisited’:

‘Not so many years ago, two young writers in Sofia, friends from school, launched an online project. Letters of Flesh was arguably one of the first signs that a new generation of writers was emerging in Bulgaria, a generation born after the end of the communism in 1989 and savvy to the potential of the internet and a generation which was almost certainly going to ruffle the feathers of the country’s literary establishment.’

The two writers, Georgi Belorechki and Ilyan Lyubomirov, had collaborated with Tom Phillips in translations of their own work represented in that issue. Belorechki had translated his own short poem in which the wall between the self and the other dissolves in a manner I have become used to in reading Philippe Jaccottet:

‘When you find me
in the dark,
don’t go out looking
for light –
I swallowed it.’

Phillips’s poetry has a particular timbre and when I reviewed his Unknown Translations in October this year I recall being struck by his reference to the way he started writing in Bulgarian as the new language prompted ‘unexpected connections in my mind’. There was in that fine collection a clear sense of life beyond the parochial and it is surely no coincidence that he should have found space for his work in this adventurous new magazine.

The editorial to that issue number 3 also offered a clear sign for the promising future:

‘Wherever we live we place our steps mostly unwittingly on the back of the past, but touching into it is a fascinating undertaking and one perhaps very close to the delvings of poetry, reconnecting with the undertow – all the more powerful because invisible – of a reality that exists for us only if we recreate it in the imagination.’

Other work to look out for in that issue included poems by Peter Robinson, David Cooke and David Punter . It also contained stunningly fine engravings by Trevor Haddrell, a retired teacher of Art who spent many years at Ashton Park School on the south side of the city.

Other magazines based in Bristol have included both The Resuscitator and The Present Tense. The former, co-edited by John James, started in 1963 and contained poetry by George Oppen, Charles Tomlinson, Roy Fisher and Peter Armstrong before it moved its headquarters to Cambridge for the second series. The latter was edited by Michael Abbott and contained work by Tomlinson, Anthony Rudolf, John Greening and Glen Cavaliero. All of this is far removed from the parochial sense of self-satisfaction gloried in by inhabitants of what Hugh Kenner was to call ‘The Sinking Island’ (a title by the way that he took from a letter written to him by Tomlinson!).

Issue number 5 of Raceme has just appeared containing amongst many other delights Peter Robinson’s translation of Georgio Bassani. Details of how to subscribe can be found on the Raceme website: http://www.racemepoetry.com and contact for subscription can be made via fallingwall76@gmail.com

Ian Brinton 30th November 2016

Unknown Translations by Tom Phillips (www.scalino.eu)

Unknown Translations by Tom Phillips (www.scalino.eu)

I recall reading a poem by Tom Phillips titled ‘Wearing Thin’. It was published in a fine collection, Recreation Ground, put out in 2012 by Peter Robinson’s Two Rivers Poets and it opened with movement:

‘Going home, with decisions unmade
and threats of further paperwork,
you’re jostling for position
at a crossing point, taking
the lights’ delay as a reluctance,
the pavement for a starting grid.
As if the whole town could do its best
to hold you back.’

A similar restless journeying also leads the reader through this hauntingly beautiful new mindscape which Tom Phillips has translated from the Bulgarian originals written by Tom Phillips! When J.H. Prynne gave his speech in 2008 at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in China on the topic of the difficulties of translation he quoted John Keats’s comment ‘I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess’ before going on to add

‘I think that the excess he had in mind was to run past the normal bounds and limits, in making new combinations of words and thoughts that draw the reader into new kinds of pleasurable excitement. In a more technical way we can acknowledge that unfamiliarity plays an important part in pattern-recognition, and we can ask how this feature gains its effect. If two words are placed together that are not normally associated as from the same field of reference or meaning, a kind of semantic spark or jump may be created that is intensely localised within the continuity of the text process: it may be a kind of “hot spot” that burns very bright but which the reader can quite quickly assimilate within the larger patterns of composition.’

This placing of words together, prompting a brightness, is there within the pages of this new publication by Tom Phillips and his introductory note draws us into a world where language seems washed clean:

‘I started writing the poems in this book in Bulgarian because I wanted to practise a language that I have been studying since my first visit to Sofia in 2013. While I was learning vocabulary, noun by noun, verb by verb, adjective by adjective, I would find myself repeating seemingly unconnected series of words – “room”, “confused”, “hungry”, “flowers”, “silently” – and these sometimes came to suggest situations and images or at least to forge unexpected connections in my mind.’

Phillips continues by reminding us that it is very easy ‘to become trapped in your own voice, to repeat the things which have worked in the past, and pushing at the boundaries of your comfort zone – by, for example, attempting to write in a language whose traditions and riches you’re only just beginning to appreciate – is one way of finding an escape route’. To an extent he lets ‘language take the lead…’.
Unknown Translations, new journeys, are threaded with present participles: ‘children playing / by a war memorial’, ‘walking along the pavement, / past the market’, ‘in the park, the dogs are walking / like old men’. At the same time Phillips is fully aware of those trammels which recur and that ‘Purity / is only an instant of being’ (Olson). We carry our pasts like mollusc shells closely attached to us and ‘approach / a possible fate / under magnificent architecture / which the lightest breeze / can destroy’ (‘Old Directions’). That earlier poem from Recreation Ground concluded

‘As red turns to green,
you’ve almost reached the other side
before you’re pulled up short
by a misread fashion headline:
‘You Are What You Were’.’

The opening poem in this new collection offers ‘Sunlight in March’:

‘It’s clear to me that
in an unknown town,
I met another life
suddenly, unexpectedly,
like sunlight in March.’

Newness of both language and geography reveals a map of an unknown town and ‘then took me home’.

This is a refreshingly original little volume of poems and I recommend you to get hold of a copy before the poet melts back into Bulgaria.

2nd October 2016

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