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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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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

The Victor Poems by Anthony Caleshu (Shearsman Books)

The Victor Poems by Anthony Caleshu (Shearsman Books)

When I first heard some of Anthony Caleshu’s ‘Victor’ poems being read last November at the Shearsman book-launch at Swedenborg Hall I was intrigued. At the time, and not having read any of them before, I was a little unsure of the tone of voice; there was a sense of yearning connected to a cold journey and there was a wry sense of humour which haunted many of the startling moments encountered on the way. When I heard them again at a reading in the University of Kent I had had an opportunity to look with greater care at the texts themselves and found myself becoming increasingly respectful of what I registered as an elegiac sense of loss in the early pieces. The character of Victor still contained, of course, its Latin association of achievement but now another Victor hovered in my mind. This second character came from Flaubert’s late tale ‘Un Coeur Simple’ and as Félicité, in some ways a later incarnation of Emma Bovary, goes to Honfleur to catch a last glimpse of her nephew, Victor, as he sets out on an ocean voyage I recognised how I had arrived at the haunting elegy which threads its steps through the early Caleshu poems:

‘When she arrived at the Calvary she turned right instead of left, got lost in the shipyards, and had to retrace her steps. Some people she spoke to advised her to hurry. She went right round the harbour, which was full of boats, constantly tripping over moorings. Then the ground fell away, rays of light criss-crossed in front of her, and for a moment she thought she was going mad, for she could see horses up in the sky.
On the quayside more horses were neighing, frightened by the sea. A derrick was hoisting them into the air and dropping them into one of the boats, which was already crowded with passengers elbowing their way between barrels of cider, baskets of cheese, and sacks of grain. Hens were cackling and the captain swearing, while a cabin-boy stood leaning on the cats-head, completely indifferent to it all. Félicité, who had not recognized him, shouted: “Victor!” and he raised his head. She rushed forward, but at that very moment the gangway was pulled ashore.’

In Caleshu’s epigraph from Emerson’s essay on ‘Friendship’ I could gain a sense of the isolation and needs of Flaubert’s character:

‘We walk alone in the world. Friends such as we desire are dreams and fables. But a sublime hope cheers our ever faithful heart.’

The first poem opens with a question, ‘Victor, we say, where are you?’ and as if in answer the line continues ‘The wind has a mind of its / own’. The air, wind, insubstantiality, friendship, hope are both now and are gone:

‘We follow the horizon to where the blue of the sky meets
the white of the ice.’

In the second poem the questioning continues as a recollection is interrupted:

‘The last time we saw you…when was the last time we
saw you?’

The awareness of continuance in absence is presented in festive terms as ‘Even in absentia, you put your credit card’, followed by a white space on the page before the decisive word ‘down’.

‘It’s all paid for, the bartender said’.

As friendship melts before new friendship forms there is a bleak recognition that ‘In the cold we get dark’ and, in poem 6, there is the plea ‘Victor, we want your friendship not your money!’ But the journey of dissolution continues and the poet asks ‘How do we stop the melting?’ before recognizing that

‘Each step has become a wish to step back’.

It was perhaps Anthony Caleshu’s use of the word ‘step’ that brought back to my mind that 1970 tour-de-force by W.S. Graham, ‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land’ which opens with its elegiac tone of friendships left behind:

‘Today, Tuesday, I decided to move on
Although the wind was veering. Better to move
Than have them at my heels, poor friends
I buried earlier under the printed snow.’

Graham’s words move step by step, ‘word on word’, and as Tony Lopez put it in his monograph on the poet ‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land is in many senses a particular place with its own natural history and its own community of strange inhabitants. The full description does not occur in any one place, but reading across the poems we pick up a consistent level of reference which builds a territory outside but linked with normal reality. It is a place of terror and madness, inhabited by monsters, beasts and gods.’
As Flaubert’s character dies she opens her nostrils to breathe in with ‘mystical sensuous fervour’ and ‘as she breathed her last, she thought she could see, in the opening heavens, a gigantic parrot hovering above her head’. A ‘sublime hope’ certainly does cheer ever the ‘faithful heart’ and Caleshu’s concluding poem asserts ‘Victor, we’re replacing this story of you with this story of / us’.
This short review is really just an exploration of a few ideas which came to me at further reading. I shall read this powerful and moving sequence of poems many more times yet.

Ian Brinton 28th January 2016

The Time We Turned by Martyn Crucefix (Shearsman Chapbooks)

The Time We Turned by Martyn Crucefix (Shearsman Chapbooks)

In Mary Lavin’s short story ‘The Widow’s Son’ a woman waits outside her gate for her son to come home from school. A passing neighbour stops and comments upon the steepness of the hill next to the farmhouse and suggests that it is a feature of such prominence that it will be found on the Ordnance Survey map:

“If that’s the case,” said the widow, “Patrick will be able to tell you all about it. When it isn’t a book he has in his hand it’s a map.”
“Is that so?” said the man. “That’s interesting. A map is a great thing. A map is not an ordinary thing. It isn’t everyone can make out a map.”

The conversation is central to the story because the widow is incapable of seeing ahead; she is incapable of recognising how her bullying manner in bringing up her son will lead to her losing him. Maps not only refer to the way places relate to each other; they also bring back memories and arouse expectations. They reveal a sense of how we relate to the world around us.

In his powerful poem ‘The map house’, the opening piece in the volume The Time We Turned (Shearsman Chapbook, 2014), Martyn Crucefix presents us with a delicate and moving understanding of how maps and memory intertwine.

‘When I knew him I knew him in the city
then in this northern town

there he was walking towards me
still balding aggressively though slate-grey tufts

and corkscrews the colour of the skies
on that morning above the fells

proliferated over and round his ears—
there beside him the son I’d never seen

though by then he was already six years old
and that morning already two Easters ago

The man recalled! The opening statement in the past tense, emphasised by the placing of ‘then’ as the first word of the second line, gives way to movement as ‘was’ is juxtaposed with the present participle, ‘walking’. The looming reconstruction has a cinematic effect with the phrase ‘towards me’ and the vista widens to include ‘the son I’d never seen’. An elegiac tone is introduced with the sense of a particular moment of the past being high-lighted with the distance of ‘then’ giving way to ‘that morning’ and the poet’s removedness from the picture, the map, is offered to us with the finality of ‘already two Easters ago.’
The second section of the poem gives us the context for the thoughts which have returned now although the poet lost touch with his friend. The owner of the temporary accommodation in which the poet sits has ‘decked’ (note the association with oceans of travel) the house ‘with maps of all kinds / both upstairs and down’. In looking at these maps Crucefix discovers what Philippe Jaccottet was to term an ‘ouverture’: a rent in the world, an opening through which the past becomes immediate once more:

‘One of those evenings we met in the city
he confessed his love of the thrill

of standing on the ground floor of Stanfords
on Long Acre of being surrounded

by maps and globes and charts in books’

The shop in Covent Garden, on Long Acre, merges the rural and the urban in its placing and the poet remembers that what really excited his friend about maps was not to do with dimensions (‘the length or breadth of a map’) but with its ‘other hidden dimension…something always there if you look for it’.
This is a serious elegy and its conclusion points to a dimension which goes far beyond the particular:

‘I’d want to tell it right—some obscurely-
inherited sense of debt or what promise is it
we make to those we hardly see for years—

I’d want to say it was past seven o’clock
or perhaps by then even seven-fifteen—

I’m sure of it now—a quarter past the hour
was the time we turned and part of what it meant’

The tone of voice is that of W.S. Graham’s ‘The Thermal Stair’. But as I re-read the poem for the third time what came most to my mind was a letter written in 1842 describing Matthew Arnold’s reaction to the death of his father, Thomas, the famous Headmaster of Rugby School:

‘Matthew spoke of one thing which seemed to me very natural and affecting: that the first thing which struck him when he saw the body was the thought that their sole source of information was gone, that all that they had ever known was contained in that lifeless head. They had consulted him so entirely on everything, and the strange feeling of their being cut off for ever one can well imagine.’

The Time We Turned
is a chapbook of ‘New Poems’ and it contains a sequence of sixteen sonnets inspired by the writing of the Galician Rosalia de Castro and, as the blurb on the back of this lovely little book states, these sonnets ‘explore the way in which we inhabit time’. I urge you to get hold of this little thirty-page volume: you will return to it time and time again.

Ian Brinton 2nd December 2015

Poetry Penguin

Fifty years ago this year Penguin started their series of volumes each containing the work of three poets. Penguin Modern Poets was a startling and splendidly eclectic venture than ran to 27 volumes over the next thirteen years and it says something about the faith a publishing firm had in both its readership and the value of the poets published. In 1962 the first volume must have sounded a safe note with its choice of Lawrence Durrell, Elizabeth Jennings and R.S. Thomas but by the following year Christopher Middleton was there and the American West Coast scene was represented by generous selections from Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg. To suggest a measure of the importance of the Penguin venture here it might be worth recalling that Andrew Crozier’s American supplement to Granta and Charles Tomlinson’s Black Mountain supplement to Ian Hamilton’s the Review did not appear until 1964. The series continued its highlighting of the Americans in 1967 with Penguin Modern Poets 9: Denise Levertov, Kenneth Rexroth and William Carlos Williams. Number 12 presented the punchy world of former San Quentin inmate William Wantling and in 1969 Charles Bukowski appeared alongside Philip Lamantia and Harold Norse. The series gave some context for the use of the word ‘Modern’ by re-issuing work by David Gascoyne, W.S. Graham (17), Adrian Stokes (23) and offering space to the more recent voices of Tom Raworth and Lee Harwood (19). It was a remarkable achievement and Geoff Ward’s comment in The Salt Companion to Lee Harwood is worth bearing in mind in terms of what it tells us about the poetry world of 1971: ‘Tom Raworth, packaged alongside John Ashbery and Harwood in volume 19 of the Penguin Modern Poets series, offers work that is broadly comparable at this early stage in its insistence on present tense actualities, rather than their ironised recovery by experience at a metrical remove.’

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