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Tag Archives: Wallace Stevens

The Problem of the Many by Timothy Donnelly (Picador)

The Problem of the Many by Timothy Donnelly (Picador)

‘Deep in the brain of invertebrates, the pineal gland gets its name from/ its resemblance to a pinecone.’ ‘In German, a Kepler makes hoods.’ ‘Pandora’s box was just a jar/ before Erasmus mangled it.’ This is poetry that tells you things; that’s about the world in general rather than about individual relationships, full of biology, ancient history and philosophy, and written in long sentences in long prosy lines in long poems in a portly volume of 198 pages. Where much contemporary free verse cuts and cuts, such super-expansiveness can feel oddly original. 

The poems themselves leap outlandishly from Alexander to umbels to Whitesnake, via Isaiah, glyphosate, Hobbes, Zeno’s paradox and milkweed. Similes, rather than being merely decorative, usually shunt the poem in a new direction: ‘White birches lean/ through a mist like plastic drinking straws, the same/ kind a tribesman from Papua New Guinea […]’ and we’re off among the anthropologists. Nor can the speaker resist telling you extra facts as if in parentheses: ‘Canada’s/ Bank Island, Earth’s twenty-fourth largest island, upon which […]’. Self-corrections and hard-to-parse sentences act as if he’s working out his thoughts while talking to you and not always getting them clear: 

We want what we don’t know, or what we know of mostly

through a long furnaceous rumbling lack of it composes

piecewise into numbers the choir of our never having 

had it sings

The skill, then, is not only in manipulating such an offbeat style, but also in deploying techniques that would make this potentially difficult, garrulous and haphazard voice appealing. So the speaker regularly reassures you, in asides, of his friendly mundanity: ‘Looking at it [i.e. Kircher’s calculation on the number of bricks in the Tower of Babel] now, between loads of laundry […]’. Yes, while doing all this heavy thinking, he’s going to the laundromat, taking an Uber, getting home exhausted from work, washing the dishes, just like us. Meanwhile, balancing the references to Jean Baudrillard, Wallace Stevens and Plato’s Phaedo, there’s plenty of down-home Americana: bobolink, Dairy Queen, burlap, True Value, popsicles… The overall effect is of a genial, ordinarily confused persona with enthusiasms for vanilla, lapis lazuli or cyan Powerade, and frustrations from his limited options in the face of pollution and world politics:

On average 130 Yemeni children died each day last year

of extreme hunger and disease. A Saudi blockade on seaports

stops the ships delivering aid.

What’s more, these combinations of the local and global, the quotidian and high-flown, form the theme as well as the rhetorical strategy. One major aspect is the way we poison the world in order to produce comestibles that then poison us. ‘What you’ve done to my popcorn, my popcorn/ does to me.’ The last poem contains a relentless list of extinct animals, sometimes matching their extinction dates with those of pop trivia:

…the last [golden toad] was seen on May 15, 1989, the week 

Bon Jovi’s ‘I’ll Be There For You’ topped Billboard’s Top 100.

Then it dropped to three.

The wry despair isn’t the whole story, however. There are smart metaphors and fun with classical epic: ‘I sing/ the body mac and cheese, deep-fried’. There are odes that address Diet Mountain Dew, lichen, Earth’s first living cell (‘first living cell, what have you got to say for yourself/ now?’) and a pesticide/GM company (‘at what point do you suspect a versified address/ to you begins to take the place/ of legitimate action?’); a poem of recursive similes; and one written as Nebuchadnezzar using the royal ‘we’ (‘we’re working on ourself tonight’). Plus an overarching message about how beauty and imagination keep you going, despite it all. Evidently, it’s not just its size that’s made it a poetry blockbuster. 

Guy Russell 20th April 2021

Air Vault by Andrew Taylor (Oystercatcher Press)

Air Vault by Andrew Taylor (Oystercatcher Press)

In 1923 a doctor from Rutherford was convinced that something important depended upon a ‘red wheel / barrow’ and the picture that his sixteen words conjured into being was a firm belief that American culture was based in a realization of the qualities of a place in relation to the life which occupies it. Andrew Taylor’s Air Vault, where the mind is prompted to jump into echoing spaces, realises that

‘there is a poem in that
no, there is a poem in that’

John James’s poem of recollection from a 2012 Oystercatcher volume, Cloud Breaking Sun, was subtitled ‘Les Sarments’ with its reference to the twining growth of vine-shoots. Taylor’s ‘Poem beginning with a line of John James’ opens with an echo of that earlier ode:

As August counts itself out

As if to herald a clear sense of tradition Andrew Taylor not only opens his poem with the James quotation but has a clear sense of how the older poet had himself published a ‘Poem beginning with a line of Andrew Crozier’ in that 2012 collection. And it is in that earlier poem that we read the statement ‘I reach toward the poetry of kindred’.

The precision of Andrew Taylor’s writing is an infectious delight:

‘The respite of a rest area
temperature drops at midnight

Carried sandwiches foil & plastic
wrapped evening before

some kind of souvenir bread
like bread bought from a post office

Treated like a treat some things taste
better away from home

Mattresses floored a camp
shutters shut this is France after all’

John James’s ode counted August out ‘like a Rosary worn with kisses’ and autumn ‘arrives when you least expect it’. The patience of devotion is a reminder of Keats’s ‘last oozings hours by hours’ and is followed by the unexpected shift of time. Taylor’s jazzing rhythms give us ‘Fig’

‘drop with days between
a rustle’

and ‘Kenny was right’

‘Autumn falls early’

Jeremy Hilton referred to Andrew Taylor’s poetry in Tears 60 when he reviewed the Shearsman collection Radio Mast Horizon and noted the ‘expression of everyday life in all its vivid details’:

‘Colour, sound, speed and technology weave through the poems…This is a poetry of the present-time’ which carries with it a ‘full awareness not just of history but of the impact of historical changes on the lives of people’.

As I race along the tracks of this new volume I am confronted with that colour, sound and speed’: ‘Pitted repaired // there is a preference / for the plaque Michelin’

‘send a postcard
to arrive after return’ [.]

This is a world of evocative moments as the ‘square folds into quietness // after lunch’ and a ‘woodpecker feather // falls onto gravel’. The feather ‘finds a place in the notebook’.
The front cover of Air Vault invites us to peer into a room framed in blue and we have a snapshot of that poetry which reaches toward kindred: the domesticity of the scene has a privacy and austerity which is emphasised by the table-lamp on a chair and its reflection in the cabinet. Looking back at my copy of John James’s Cloud Breaking Sun I sit in front of the bold type of the introductory lines:

to the side of the terrace

the painted blue brick in the wall

warmed by the sun

spoke to me in the afternoon

it said

only you can do this

Wallace Stevens referred to Carlos Williams’s red wheel / barrow as a ‘mobile-like arrangement’ and Hugh Kenner suggested that the words ‘dangle in equidependency, attracting the attention, isolating it, so that the sentence in which they are arrayed comes to seem like a suspension system.’ I find this balancing of word in relation to word attractively present in the light swift movement of Andrew Taylor’s new poetry

‘Sunflowers bow
row after row

season seems
hardly done

time for Autumn
reflections

so soon?’

Ian Brinton 21st August 2016

Tony Lewis-Jones’ Fuero (Increase) Edited by Rachel Bentham & Rive Gauche

Tony Lewis-Jones’ Fuero (Increase) Edited by Rachel Bentham & Rive Gauche

The American poet William Carlos Williams was convinced about how much depended upon ‘a red wheel barrow’ and what made the Rutherford doctor so convinced was that something depended upon that picture which the words conjured into being:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

The picture becomes more exact with the following lines of description

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

Here was a firm belief that American culture was based upon a realization of the qualities of a place in relation to the life which occupies it. Williams’s poem was written only a year after the publication of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land where the American hope for cultural distinction seemed to be based upon an inheritance of a European and classical tradition of placing oneself in a very different context from the one asserted by the doctor from Rutherford. In defiance of Eliot’s world, Williams insisted upon starting with local materials and ‘lifting these things into an ordered and utilized whole (The American Background, 1934). However, if so much is to depend upon this localisation of background then it must be because firm observation of the local leads to a greater insight into thoughts and emotions which transcend what could otherwise be regarded as simply parochial.
I suppose that Haiku were originally written in the days before the camera. If a traveller through the world wished to register a moment of the here-and-now which could be placed in contrast to an echo of both the past and the hoped-for future then a short piece of poetry might be the best way of providing that record. Some of these short poems by Tony Lewis-Jones place that recorded moment against a clear white background:

March frost—
Winter’s last throw
of the dice.

The juxtaposition of dark dots on a die contrasts with the surrounding whiteness of the cube itself. Small moments are the remnants of a gone season, a last throw cast by a loser whose frosty belligerence will not prevent what will, inevitably, overcome: Spring wins!
We measure out our life, perhaps, not with coffee spoons but with the unbidden recollection prompted by a cup of ‘café au lait’: ‘up early / café au lait- / thinking of you / our nights / in Paris’

Wallace Stevens referred to that red wheelbarrow as a ‘mobile-like arrangement’ and Hugh Kenner suggested that the words used by Williams ‘dangle in equidependency, attracting the attention, isolating it, so that the sentence in which they are arrayed comes to seem like a suspension system.’

Have a look at these new Haiku by Tony Lewis-Jones who runs the Bristol-based on-line site Various Artists and the book is available via Amazon.

Ian Brinton 10th March 2015

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