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Smoke Rising, London 1940-41 by John Seed (Shearsman Books)

Smoke Rising, London 1940-41 by John Seed (Shearsman Books)

The blurb on the reverse side of this important new arrival from Shearsman raises interesting and central issues for the reader of History as well as the reader of Poetry:

Smoke Rising is a documentary poem. Very much in the tradition of Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony, it utilises oral sources to capture the speech—and perhaps the experience—of those who suffered the London Blitz. However, its elective affinities are also to Walter Benjamin’s great unfinished Arcades Project: “to carry the principle of montage into history…to assemble large-scale constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut components…to discover in the analysis of the small individual moment the crystal of the total event.”’

John Seed’s awareness of the relation between Poetry and History has been evident throughout his career and one has only to turn back to his contributions to the Crozier-Longville anthology, A Various Art, to recognise this. The poem which takes its title from Antonio Gramsci, “History Teaches, but it has no Pupils” , gave the reader ‘unimagined contradictions’ in terms of ‘Imagining the real’:

‘…to make poetry of these streets
Hours and days
contemplating a page a line a word’

And in ‘During War, the Timeless Air’ the image of Bede’s sparrow ‘swooping through the bright hall’ offered us the searchlight intensity of the fleeting moment. An emphatic sense of place can grow out of the singular and I am reminded that Charles Olson appended an epigraph to the first publication of The Maximus Poems, Jargon 24, in 1960: ‘All my life I’ve heard / one makes many’. The words were used by Cornelia Williams, cook at Black Mountain College, and incorporated into a letter sent by Olson to Creeley on 1st June 1953.
Other figures of course provide the backdrop to John Seed’s moving re-creation of ‘London 1940-41’. There are the figures of the Annales School of History and Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou; there is Charles Reznikoff whose first volume of Testimony reflected in verse the social, economic, cultural and legal history of America and its people from 1885 to 1890. When that appeared from New Directions in 1965 it had a comment from Robert Creeley on the back: Reznikoff ‘has used all his skill as a poet to locate the given instances sans distortion, in the intense particularity of time and place.’

John Seed’s poem is a very moving document and in a world of ‘violent and indiscriminate bombing’ (a statement from the Ministry of Transport, 11 September 1940) the poet moves outwards from the particular to the general. It doesn’t have to be the irony of that 9/11 coincidence to bring domestic chaos into focus; we recognise the shocking dismemberment of domestic life in the steady stream of refugees escaping from war-torn countries in the Middle East. Poetry makes things happen! The artist, more than the historian, recognises the interweaving images that constitute a fugue and this new Shearsman publication is haunting in its clarity:

‘Blasted windows clocks without hands glass

on stairs mounds of yellow

rubble poisonous tang of damp plaster

and coal gas the house still

smouldering scraps of cloth hanging bare

walls at the side still standing

burnt piece of wood like a

gibbet jutted out into the sky

weary blistered firemen grimy half-clad

homeless mirror swinging steeples scorched and

discoloured by fire the sound of

swept off the streets a few

seconds above the trees lines of

figures asleep scrawled over

obscene inscriptions

The picture is vivid and that last word, ‘inscriptions’, offers a historical perspective suggestive of life’s unchanging desolation. The gibbet which ‘jutted out into the sky’ recalls both Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ and Dickens’s opening image of marshland in the first chapter of Great Expectations.
John Seed is a very important poet and I urge readers to get hold of a copy of this book. Whilst you are at it you might also search out SNOW 3 with his ‘Recollections of the Durham Coalfield’; this is poetry for our time!

Ian Brinton, 18th September 2015.

Michael Henry’s Bureau of the Lost and Found (Five Seasons Press, 2014)

Michael Henry’s Bureau of the Lost and Found (Five Seasons Press, 2014)

Michael Hulse’s back cover blurb captures the spirit of this collection:

‘In Bureau of the Lost and Found Michael Henry’s
poetry resembles W.G. Sebald’s prose in its rich
understanding of the invisible connective tissues of
individual lives and national cultures. A lover of the
little things and the larger significance alike, he wears
his erudition lightly in these wonderfully sensitive,
even-humoured poems.’

The collection reads like a W.G. Sebald journey with its illuminating twists and turns through history, knowledge, geography and relationships, movements back and forward in time. The discovery of a genealogical hidden past through his German father, a Liverpool based surgeon, of a Belgian grandfather with French connections, and a great grandfather, who married in Brussels in 1882, with French and German witnesses, leads to travels and archival research.
The narrative of lost family connections and a quest for roots, prefaced by an extensive portrait of the narrator’s father in exile, and the intense recall of childhood memories, is quite distinct from say Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood, around 1900, with its pursuit of fugitive knowledge through sensory memory and farewell to old Berlin. Here the poems, rich in detail and cultural accretion, produce a sense of wonderment at a missing family connection that disappeared between the world wars. We are though in the world of migration and a difficult past.

Colophon for my Father

My father wrote his name
on Page Thirteen of all his school textbooks:
de Vigny’s Cinq-Mars – the writing
tall and spiritual like a saint’s cathedral carving;

….

But on Page Thirteen
of Conrad’s Tales of Unrest,
his History prize, I can still make out
his former German name, in spite of crossings out.

Henry explores the nuances of cultural resemblances and connections, traits and obsessions in an effort to discover larger substantive knowledge. This begins with naming and a search for identity and leads on to the acquisition of a bureau of documents, objects, in a widening arc of associations.

The Invisible Man

His occupation stands in the register:
tailleur between pelletier and coiffeur,
The man who came to Brussels from Aix-la-Chapelle;
I never knew him.
Ce n’est pas un Belge.

….

He lived in one of the ‘disappeared’ streets
Of Old Brussels, seen only
In old maps and aquarelles.
I never knew them.
Ce n’est pas une adresse.

The narrative unfolds as much as by implication as what is said. The narrator’s family moves to Cheltenham where father, with his ‘Gladstone bag of tricks’ and son become immersed in the old English ways of education, with Latin as its bedrock and a guidebook to hand, a Victorian eye for detail, cricket, teas and love of the countryside.

The poems are unassuming, cumulative, and effortlessly draw the reader into their world with an exactness of detail and measurement.

David Caddy 20th January 2015

Openings, A European Journal by Jeremy Hooker (Shearsman), Silent Conversations, a reader’s life by Anthony Rudolf (Seagull Books)

Openings, A European Journal  by Jeremy Hooker (Shearsman), Silent Conversations, a reader’s life  by Anthony Rudolf (Seagull Books)

I have recently been reading two fascinatingly different accounts of a personal life, a life lived with intensity and passion. Anthony Rudolf’s examination of his collection of books and papers, an extensive and serious library which must be the envy of all bibliophiles interested in Modernsim, owes much to Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘Unpacking My Library’ (Illuminations). It also raises the ghost of Marcel Proust:

‘Moving indoors, Proust plays the ‘proprietor in a room filled to overflowing with the souls of others and which preserves the imprint of their dreams…’ As a proprietor myself, I intend to begin sorting out the books in my sitting room.’

Anthony Rudolf’s account of his library is a personal document and the importance of this reckoning-up is emphasised from the very start:

‘Now that I am approaching seventy, when I am supposed to have put aside childish things, the experience of literary time and its double, literary space, remains a major consolation.’

Throughout the five hundred or so pages we see history come to life as Rudolf comes across book after book on his shelves, under the desk, in a pile on the floor; each one has its own provenance; each one reminds both writer and then reader that these documents were written by real poets, travel-writers, translators, philosophers. This ‘silent conversation’ is the reflection of a collector, a person who seeks in Walter Benjamin’s words ‘to renew the old world’; and this collector gives us the history of the acquisition of his books so that the names and faces of those now gone appear again in front of us.
Jeremy Hooker’s journal reminds me more of Edward Thomas’s first book, The Woodland Life. It is also more immediately personal as we are presented with autobiography and the world of poetry weaving in and out of each other:

‘21 April 1983
After the Poetry Festival at Cambridge from Thursday evening until Monday night.
Mieke—how aware of each other we were at once, how easily and naturally we talked and touched. We stayed up alone together all night on Saturday, at Göran Printz-Påhlson’s, talking and making love. I walked back across Cambridge to Glen Cavaliero’s on a grey, wet morning, streets almost empty, birds singing loudly and sweetly in gardens. Went to bed at 8 and slept on and off until 1, waking to the strange sensation against my neck of the tiny silver dolphin on a chain which she had given me, and the questions often in my mind since then—Is it true? Is it possible? Can we be so suddenly in love?’

Anthony Rudolf’s book is almost like an encyclopaedia and I found myself wishing that there had been an index at the back so that I could quickly make reference to names that appear in different sections. I also found myself just questioning slightly the accuracy of all the information given when I read the comments about Andrew Crozier:

I always respected and admired him, though it took a while before I appreciated what a treasure he was. His widow Jean sent me Star Ground, a finely produced posthumous pamphlet containing three unpublished poems, one of which is the poignant and beautiful title poem dedicated to her and ending: ‘Frost heaves all night / To rise like waves / Spent on the margin / On the enduring /Particular resistance of our love.’ These are plainly the last words of a man who knows that his brain tumour is going to kill him, perhaps soon, as it did.

That little pamphlet, Star Ground, was in fact a republication of Crozier’s highly acclaimed poem from the 1970s, ‘The Veil Poem’ alongside the last major sequence he wrote, ‘Free Running Bitch’, published in Iain Sinclair’s 1996 anthology Conductors of Chaos. The title poem is a one-page, last-page, conclusion to the Silver Hounds chapbook.
Perhaps by virtue of being a diary, a journal, Jeremy Hooker’s Openings is much more readable to my mind and I became bound up in a chronological movement of reflections in which a lover, the author’s children, parents and geography weaved in and out of each other’s lives:

Did I expect to be as “free” as Sue says she is, and to grieve no longer? I must learn to watch these feelings pass. And to love the children less selfishly.
A love like M’s that draws me out…I’ve so much to learn, so much to unlearn.

Ian Brinton 11th August 2014

Continental Drift by Nancy Gaffield (Shearsman Books)

Continental Drift by Nancy Gaffield (Shearsman Books)

When David Herd wrote that Nancy Gaffield’s poetry ‘speaks directly and beautifully to the contours of our contemporary moment’ he touched upon something very important indeed. Not only do these delightful pieces of writing resonate with a contemporary sound but also the contours of their language and focus take us into an imaginative world which breathes that salt-laden fragmentary lyricism to be found in Sappho.

 

The first of two epigraphs placed by the poet at the opening of this fine volume is a quotation from James Schuyler’s ‘Salute’ in which he asserts that the ‘Past / is past’

 

I salute that various field.

 

That salute to the field, that greeting to the long gone, brings to my mind the opening lines of Robert Duncan’s ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’

 

as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,

that is not mine, but is a made place,

 

that is mine, it is so near to the heart,

an eternal pasture folded in all thought

so that there is a hall therein

 

that is a made place, created by light

wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

 

I have written more about this Duncan poem some ten years ago in Tears in the Fence 44. That field to which Schuyler refers is ‘various’ as he thinks of the ‘clover / daisy, paintbrush that / grew in that field / the cabin stood in…’ and his poem is haunted by the inability to make a past stand still. As Nancy Gaffield recognises in this, her second collection of poems (Tokaido Road won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize three years ago) the world is in constant flux and the title, Continental Drift, bears a suggestion of both seismic trauma and reflective eyes cast back on a world now gone. I am reminded here of Walter Benjamin’s extraordinarily fine essay on ‘The Task of the Translator, published in Illuminations where he sees the translator not in the centre of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge. Translation, like bringing the past into a present, calls into that forest aiming at the single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one. The sounds of such movement can be heard in Continental Drift and as the short prose piece which closes this delightful volume makes clear

 

Something happens when you dislodge the outward aspect of the familiar. A border has been crossed. You become a world-builder. Place-making means multiple acts of remembering. Pas à pas imagination slides between the frames of reference. Not opposition, but apposition. We go by side roads.

 

In his monumental novel Les Misérables Victor Hugo tells us that the past is like a ghostly voyager who, like his main character Jean Valjean, convict and outcast, always travels with a false passport. But as Nancy Gaffield tells us ‘you cannot / wipe the slate clean / language gets used / over and over again / re-coupling / letting see / what has been hidden / beneath’

 

Ian Brinton 25th May 2014

 

Benjamin and Blake In Cambridge

Benjamin and Blake In Cambridge

I have just been reading Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘Unpacking My Library, a Talk about Book Collecting’, published in Illuminations (Pimlico 1999). Writing about the palpable nature of book collecting he says ‘what I am really concerned with is giving you some insight into the relationship of a book collector to his possessions, into collecting rather than a collection. If I do this by elaborating on the various ways of acquiring books, this is something entirely arbitrary. This or any other procedure is merely a dam against the spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions.’ This emotional and physical connection between the collector and his possessions is something recognised by any book collector. Are there not many of us who still sniff the pages as we open up a well-known copy that has been on our shelves for years as if in imitation of Edward Thomas who shrivels the ‘grey shreds’ of southernwood before sniffing them and thinking, trying ‘Once more to think what it is I am remembering.’

The mysterious relationship between object and ownership! Benjamin points to the ‘most profound enchantment for the collector’ being the ‘locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed, as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them.’ This talismanic sense of the importance of the object took me back to my little 1905 Pocket edition of George Gissing’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft where he referred to his small library, battered from many house-moves, in terms of each book’s individual nature: ‘I know men who say they had as life read any book in a library copy as in one from their own shelf. To me that is unintelligible. For one thing, I know every book of mine by its scent, and I have but to put my nose between the pages to be reminded of all sorts of things. My Gibbon, for example, my well-bound eight-volume Milman edition, which I have read and read and read again for more than thirty years—never do I open it but the scent of the noble page restores to me all the exultant happiness of that moment when I received it as a prize.’

Benjamin suggests that ‘Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the [book] collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories. More than that; the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order? You have all heard of people whom the loss of their books has turned into invalids, or of those who in order to acquire them become criminals. These are the very areas in which any order is a balancing act of extreme precariousness. ‘The only exact knowledge there is,’ said Anatole France, ‘is the knowledge of the date of publication and the format of books.’ And indeed, if there is a counterpart to the confusion of a library, it is the order of its catalogue.’

And so where to put my recently acquired copy of Ben Watson’s Blake in Cambridge  or ‘The Opposite of David Willetts’ (Unkant Publishers 2012). Do I catalogue it on the shelf alongside E.P. Thompson whose superb book on William Blake occupies the centre of the Zappa expert’s focus? Or does it sit better on the shelf with J.H. Prynne since the last chapter of Ben Watson’s scurrilous, energetic, vital prose is devoted to ‘A Mixed Cheer for Kazoo Dreamboats’? Any informal and non-library cataloguing system says much about the library’s owner. In what might appear to be some confusion on my shelves I think I know where everything is according to my individual association. At the moment Ben Watson is staying upstairs with Prynne rather than downstairs with Blake.

Ian Brinton

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