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Lithos by Anthony Barnett (Allardyce Book ABP)

Lithos by Anthony Barnett (Allardyce Book ABP)

From the subtitle to this carefully crafted new publication from the pen and press of Anthony Barnett we should immediately be alerted to a Joycean sense of humour:

“LITHOS: OR, GULLIBLE’S TROUBLES, OR, A DISACCUMULATION OF KNOWLEDGE BEING NOTHING MORE THAN DRAFTS & FRAGMENTS THAT, NOT WHICH, ARE NOT ENOUGH”

In the world of Anthony Barnett words spill and spin in different directions. A reference to the easily deceived character from the voyaging creation of an Irish clergyman from the early Eighteenth Century is merged with that of a glyphic sans-serif typeface designed by Carol Twombley in 1989 for Adobe Systems. A tale of Shaun or Shem from Finnegan’s Wake holds the reader within the webs of a poetry moving from “I” to “We” and “She” to “He”. Joyce’s language is dream-like:

“Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!”

As the prose merges sounds of night-time farewell (“Night! Night!” & “Night now!”), sounds in the mind merge words and Shem and Shaun become “stem or stone”. Language petrifies as characters move from the vegetal to the stone-like; moments of memory are caught, held, in lithos.
As if to confirm this Joycean humour Barnett has a short poem on page 15:

“Neverending but ending

Who has something to say
Who has nothing to say

I sigh at this speech this speechlessness”

The need to communicate, accompanied by a recognition that the tools of communication are inadequate possesses a sly reference perhaps to another Irish source, that of Samuel Beckett whose ‘Three Dialogues’ contain the cry:

“The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”

This is the painful world of the artist, poet or novelist, who recognises that whatever he/she says/writes it will never capture the ever-fleeing sense of what is thought. In an Anthony Barnett poem “speechlessness” is accompanied by a “sigh”: words become a noise of exhalation.
If there is a haunting theme weaving its way through these poems it is perhaps one of lost love, lost time, caught only in the sharp presence of language as in ‘What Bright Shoes’:

“Moss blown from the roof sweet mounds

Mistletoe blown from the red squirrel door knocker

Destined to repeat fallen for not spoken to

So very upset

What bright shoes you are wearing, thinking. You are a strange one. I think
it might be disruptive. Almost wandering, across the evening street, distracted disrupting sputtering”

In the words of ‘Sunday Post’, “She is present even when she is not” or ‘On a Starlit Night’

“On a starlit night, September 8th to 9th to be exact, I dream about you that
you are with me or I am with you or we are with each other”

Anthony Barnett is widely read and it is no surprise to find these pages containing references to writers and artists who have influenced him over the years. Zanzotto, Kästner, Nelly Sachs, Veronica (Forrest-Thomson?), Celan, Skvorecky, Walser… They become spectral presences throughout Lithos both in terms of styles and as shades both there and not there: present in their absence. Sometimes I am also reminded of the wonderful opening pages of Dostoevsky’s short novel White Nights in which the narrator finds himself alone in Petersburg during the summer vacation. Recalling his moral condition one day the Russian novelist writes:

“From early morning I had been oppressed by a strange despondency. It suddenly seemed to me that I was lonely, that everyone was forsaking me and going away from me. Of course, anyone is entitled to ask who ‘everyone’ was. For though I had been living almost eight years in Petersburg I had hardly an acquaintance. But what did I want with acquaintances? I was acquainted with all Petersburg as it was; that was why I felt as though they were all deserting me when all Petersburg packed up and went to its summer villa.”

The narrator in Lithos can feel ‘Much Better’ as he contemplates

“How lovely it is to sit in a café or a carriage and listen to languages one
doesn’t know very well or at all. Then one is shielded from all the latest or past its best nonsense.”

The closing lines of ‘Soliloquy’, the last full poem in Lithos before a short ‘Requiem’, refer us to flight

“I shall not try to worry too much about the perfect unless I am building / a spacecraft / Or a parachute.”

And this, as in Finnegan’s Wake where the ending takes the reader forward to the beginning, leads us back to the opening lines of the collection and “It is the way it is” with the “newborn bird dead on the ground” with the “rooks wanting it”. That first poem concludes with self-explanation:

“Everything can be explained with a dream. Once I did not believe that.

I want to say it doesn’t matter.

It will always be in the writing.”

Lithos…lithography, written in stone.

This book can be obtained from the author’s website: http://www.abar.net

Ian Brinton, 12th August 2017

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The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan)

The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan)

I am no great reader of theoretical approaches to poetry but the name of the author of this one suggested something rather more exciting. I wasn’t disappointed! Of course when I first thought about reading this recent publication the well-worn quotation from Creeley to Olson about ‘form is never more than an extension of content’ sprang to mind. I have lived with this phrase for years and have often associated it in my mind with that early line from Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’:

‘Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy’

What I like about this new book by Robert Sheppard is the way in which I am taken back to the poems themselves (or the prose in the case of Veronica Forrest-Thomson) with that clear sense of what is at stake,

‘…the agency of form: how it extends, reveals or – in my terms – enacts, enfolds, and becomes content.’

This book is about how we read poetry and it is refreshing to hear Sheppard say that ‘form’ cannot be held any longer ‘to be a simple opposite to content, a vase containing water, or even a cloud permeated with moisture.’ As a former school-master I am delighted to read the reference to Wallace Stevens’s wry note ‘The poem is the poem, not its paraphrase’. That quotation itself should be given to all teachers of poetry to pin up in their classrooms!
There are chapters in this book dealing with, amongst many others, Tim Atkins and Peter Hughes, Rosemarie Waldrop, Geraldine Monk, Allen Fisher, Bill Griffiths and Barry MacSweeney. There is a chapter on ‘Translation as Transformation’ and it reads as if Sheppard had his copy to hand of Yves Bonnefoy’s The Curved Planks, translated by Hoyt Rogers with its terrific afterword about the French poet and the ‘Art of Translation’. Paraphrasing Mallarmé Rogers suggested that translations are not made with images , but with words, and goes on to refer to a letter sent him by Bonnefoy in which the focus is on the French word “bateau” which corresponds well with “boat”. In his poetry Bonnefoy often used the word “barque” but an English equivalent (“bark” or “barque”) simply won’t do since the word is far more unusual in our language. When Rogers settled for the word “boat” he recognised that the French “barque” was evocative because, as Bonnefoy put it, ‘between the consonants the vowel forms the same dark hollow we see in a boat between the curved planks of the prow and the stern’. In his translation Rogers settled for “boat” which itself has an accumulated lyric connotation through a precedent such as The Prelude with its episode of the stolen boat. In this chapter on ‘Translation as Transformation’ Robert Sheppard looks at the practice of rendering poetry from one language into another in terms of a textual engagement, a reading, a response to the original and suggests that ‘Poetry is what is found in translation, as we shall see’.
It was a delight to see a chapter on what I find the bizarre but intriguing world of Stefan Themerson, a world ‘like that of Lewis Carroll…in which logic and poetry wrestle’. In considering the building of cathedrals Themerson writes:

‘its tower
is the thought
of its buttresses’

An example of how Robert Sheppard prompts the reader into thinking closely about the poetry being read can be exemplified by the provocative consideration of Paul Batchelor’s Bloodaxe anthology of essays, Reading Barry MacSweeney (2013) and MacSweeney’s 1997 Bloodaxe publication, The Book of Demons where

‘…readers face two models of poesis, each of which may be seen doubly. The ‘Pearl’ poems, focused upon the figure of a mute young girl as reported by the suffering ‘Bar’, are either read as rich post-Wordsworthian pastoral or as sentimental bucolic. The second half of the volume, the contrasting ‘The Book of Demons’, is read either as the self-indulgent mythologizing of an alcoholic about alcoholism, or as evidence of MacSweeney’s deep, raw honesty about dependency and its attendant psychological horrors.’

Robert Sheppard’s book is one to keep dipping into: it prompts you to want to go back to sources whilst at the same time it offers advice about how to read poetry. It is no mere accident that the first chapter should look closely at Veronica Forrest-Thomson, the critic whose question was always ‘how do poems work’. Referring to the posthumous collection from 1976, On the Periphery, the question for Sheppard remains ‘how will the poems be made?’

Ian Brinton 21st October 2016

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