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Tag Archives: William Blake

Embodiment by Dinah Livingstone (Katabasis Press)

Embodiment by Dinah Livingstone (Katabasis Press)

Embodiment is a less scary word than incarnation but its choice as title of Dinah Livingstone’s tenth collection reflects her loyalty to Christian theology as a central metaphor. This consistency also allows her to lay claim to a continuous selfhood:

I knew that I was me when I was five,
I’m grown up now and not a little girl
but still myself, though I don’t look the same. ‘Keeping Faith’

The continuity is upheld despite physical changes in the body she speaks from. Livingstone maintains that the poetic voice is always embodied which is why so many of these poems are written in her own voice and explore her own experience. About three fifths of the poems use the first person where this can be identified with the poet. It is not egotistical self-indulgence that motivates her writing, but the belief that physical life on earth is a common or shared experience and that if the poet writes accurately and honestly in their own embodied voice the words will communicate and recognised by others. The first half of the collection uses not only the voice of the poet but includes and acknowledges the voices of others:

Any voice, whether
of someone dear, or hated
like an obnoxious politician,
though each speaks the language
of its social niche, its daily connections,
has its unique print. ‘Loved Voices’

Sometimes, she simply describes the other voice, be it neighbour, teacher, grandson or even the poet, Stevie Smith. In other cases, she takes different personas, as in the delightful sonnet shared between a boy and a fox. In ‘The Yearning Strong’, an eco-protest, she invents a voice from the future which uses the perspective of distance to record some of her own most cherished experiences: ‘There’s a huge animal you can ride on,/stroke its furry neck and trot/through the wood or gallop over the moor.’ In another very powerful poem, she reports the voices of drowning migrants in English and through some of their own languages. This poem records a failure of communication in one of the few moments where the overall tone of positivity falters:

‘Who listens?
Something is very wrong.
What can we do?

Perhaps the implicit message is the importance of listening and hearing, without which there can be no action.

In the second part of the collection, ‘Embodiment’, the voice is the same and themes are developed from the first section which are familiar from the writer’s other work. The first poem, which relates to the cover reproduction from Blake’s illustrations of Paradise Lost, serves as a manifesto. For Livingstone, as for Blake and Stevie Smith in the first section, gods are human inventions and their stories are metaphors or projections of what humans want:

the full embodiment of Christ will be
an actual reign of kindness long imagined,
which now – with nothing supernatural –
ordinary people try (or not)
by love and work to give something towards. ‘Alpha and Omega’

The confident ‘will’ in the first line of this quotation is slightly undermined by the bracketed ‘or not’ in the penultimate, perhaps reinforcing the recognition that it is up to humans what they make of the world.

In the sequence Keeping Faith, Livingstone brings together two of her concerns, the nature of the self and the embodiment of ‘faith and hope and love’ in a world where ‘kindness’ in its fullest sense prevails. I think this is because the fullest embodiment comes through self-realization, as in ‘November’ where she describes a plane tree: “Self-possessed, this London plane/spreads high into the blue’ , a notion of self-hood clearly derived from Hopkins. To oversimplify, the best community will be reached through ‘all those different selves’ achieving their full potential or selfhood. Sometimes it seems that ‘embodiment’ is purely physical; sometimes, it seems to include works of art, such as a poem.

Or you write what you didn’t expect
and it is beyond prose –a poem.
And when, at last, your living child is born,
you see his face and the midwife
gives you him to hold,
himself and snuffling in your arms. ‘Nature and Grace’

However, the age-old divide between body and spirit is challenged in ‘Prologue’, an introductory sonnet to the sequence Embodiment: ‘How could a disembodied spirit speak/or dance or sing the paradox, the power,/the passion and the truth of human hearts?’ We may note the verbs, ‘speak’, ‘dance’ and ‘sing’ are all rooted in the body, and presented as the only way in which the abstractions of ‘power’, ‘passion’ and ‘truth’ can be expressed, i.e., physically.

Among other things, this book confronts the process of aging with grace. Although it could be described as mellower than some of her other work, this is a collection in which Livingstone continues to observe, celebrate and strive.

Kathleen McPhilemy 2nd September 2019

Psycho-Neurological Poem in 3 Parts & A Clean Heart and a Cheerful Spirit by Felicity Allen (Litmus Publishing 2019)

Psycho-Neurological Poem in 3 Parts &  A Clean Heart and a Cheerful Spirit by  Felicity Allen (Litmus Publishing 2019)

In the State run Panopticon of the ‘Institute of Psychology’ in Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest Big Nurse sits at a ‘centre of this web of wires like a watchful robot’. She tends ‘her network with mechanical insect skill’ and knows every second ‘which wire runs where and just what current to send up to get the result she wants’. This is the world of the early Sixties in the United States of America. She works for what one patient calls the ‘Combine’, a large organization that aims to adjust the Outside as well as the Inside and according to Chief Bromden who has been there for longer than he can remember she has been ‘dedicating herself to adjustment for God knows how long’.
Felicity Allen’s astonishing illustrated ‘Poem in 3 Parts’ was written ‘in response to and from recordings made when visiting the Art Studio of the charity Perspektivy, situated in The Psycho-Neurological Centre No, 3’ outside St. Petersburg in Russia. The scene: a confined residential home in which most residents have either grown up or come from other orphanages at the age of eighteen. Qualifications for entry to the home: some type of disability ‘either at birth’ or in ‘early years’. Life inside: ‘the only activities generally offered to residents are watching television or eating. Numbers of inmates: ??? [‘Numbers are missing’].
Sound haunts the fragmentary lines of this poem and we both read and listen to the ‘Caged heirs’. William Blake’s voice of outrage from 1803 gave us a ‘Robin Redbreast in a Cage’ which put ‘all Heaven in a Rage’; Maya Angelou’s autobiographical writings, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings came from 1969; Felicity Allen’s art as an ‘adventure into an unknown world’ is immediate, it is NOW. Her response to a reading of Angelou’s confrontation with a paternal world of sexual violence is to assert that ‘our function as artists’ is ‘to make you see the world our way not / his way’. Art and Music are assertions; look and listen to this remarkable book and foul up those Big Nurse wires as McMurphy does when he runs his hand through the glass window of her Nurse’s Station:

“I’m sure sorry, ma’am,” he said. “Gawd but I am. That window glass was so spick and span I com-pletely forgot it was there.”

Ian Brinton 18th May 2019

http://litmuspublishing.co.uk

Along Mosaic Roads by Calliope Michail (The 87 Press Ltd)

Along Mosaic Roads by Calliope Michail (The 87 Press Ltd)

This is a very promising debut collection of poems and I shall want to read more of Calliope Michail’s work. The words on the back cover of this handsomely produced little volume open up a sense of the mystery of travelling: “lyrical peregrinations that chart journeys into the real and imagined spaces of wanderlust, desire, origins and memory”. Contained within the margins of stasis, five sections of poetry titled ‘Standing on the Sun’, the reader is posed questions which prompt further enquiries about what is contained within the notion of journeying. One of these questions links the world of hope and memory, the routine of what expectations we carry with us when we venture beyond where we already are:

“Memory doesn’t always serve
the precise contours of a history or
is a rosary still a rosary if
the beads have lost their thread”

Memory of course is threaded with imaginative reconstruction and the past exists only as we now view it, narrate it: its contours will be constructed in the now. There is something enclosing about the chain of rosary beads which are designed to pull us back all the time to a set sense of obedience. Like the drawing pins, doubtless with prettily-coloured heads, that can be pierced into a wall-map to denote both where we have already been or where we have yet to go. They are placed there with a sense of achievement and aspiration and put on the wall to remind others of one’s well-travelled life! But Michail’s journeying is far more true to a real sense of wonder and as such it opens up far greater possibilities than the world of repetition or self-satisfaction:

“The map on my wall gets people

asking,

where are the pins? The pins on the

places

you want to see, but don’t want to see through eyes

alone

places to soak in the colours, inhale the

sounds,

listen to the stories that float like bubbles above the

smells

of the waterfalls of people in the subway; the

windows

and doors that you wrestle with, the

smog

of the wet grass and dry dirt and damp

sidewalks

ripe with the after-fumes of

dog-shit.”

The epigraphs to this important poetry debut are from Walt Whitman, unsurprisingly since he wrote his ‘Song of the Open Road’, and Charles Manson, more surprisingly (despite his connection to the fringe of the Los Angeles music industry) since he spent his last 46 years in California State Prison. As Manson is quoted “I don’t really go anywhere. You can’t move. Anywhere you go, you always there.” After all wherever you travel you take yourself with you and see through your own eyes; and as William Blake knew “The fool sees not the same tree the wise man sees”. Whitman’s quotation, however, opens up the road ahead as we hear that he believes “that much unseen is also here” and it heralds another ghost haunting this little book of poems, that of Jack Kerouac. As Calliope Michail puts it “things happen / and happen and / happen somewhere”. For her “time / moves” and it moves far away from “lInguIstIcmazes” and only concludes with the sun as “a mandar // in your palm”. In both ordering and sending…this poetry is on the move.

http://www.the87press.com

Ian Brinton 12th November 2018

Fair by Martin Thom (Infernal Methods)

Fair by Martin Thom (Infernal Methods)

The poem that Shelley wrote on the occasion of the 1819 massacre in Manchester was titled ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ and that very word conjures up a world of deceit as though politicians, like Prufrock, prepare a face to meet the faces that they meet. In Shelley’s poem the poet meets “Murder on the way –” and he had a “mask like Castlereagh”:

“Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds flowed him”

Sidmouth, Home Secretary at the time of the Peterloo Massacre, appears

“Clothed with the Bible, as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth, next, Hypocrisy
On a crocodile rode by.”

In this recently published chapbook poem we meet Sir Michael Fallon, Liam Fox and Amber Rudd.
Martin Thom’s long-term interest in Shelley is evident when we look at the front page of the fourth issue of the magazine he edited, Turpin:

“We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest. The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of men over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world… (‘A Defence of Poetry’)

And that evidence is there now in this recent publication from the Press whose name is taken from the poetry of William Blake. In this whirling explosion of outrage where the “Strict licensing of ordinance” is swiftly followed by the “margin of collateral” and “Harm to school or hospital” is delivered “In a hell-sent British shell” Thom’s eloquence of anger is revitalising.

“Eldon, Sidmouth, Castlereagh
Are in the stocks that Shelley made
And in the cuts that Cruikshank drew
Rotten fruit that outrage threw
Turn to emblems on the page.”

In the political world of Martin Thom’s poem the “devil dust” of modern warfare brings “mayhem to the mortal screen” and “infant hope, pale despair / In a second are not there”. The poem itself was drafted in the late summer of 2017 as preparations for the DSEI Arms Fair were under way at ExCel London, in London Docklands. Perhaps the nearest we have had recently to this bitter outburst of indignation about war was Tony Harrison’s A Cold Coming, Gulf War Poems published by Bloodaxe in 1991 and then, of course J.H. Prynne’s 2004 Refuse Collection where in the “curving / mirror of enlarged depravity daily and abhorrent a / comfort of disgust adjusted to market slippage”.

Ian Brinton, 6th August 2018

Infernal Methods: 1a Lupton Street, London NW5 2JA

Black Book by Robert Vas Dias & Julia Farrer (Shearsman Books)

Black Book by Robert Vas Dias & Julia Farrer (Shearsman Books)

This profoundly serious book is an oeuvre noir, ‘an ethical response to a range of contemporary atrocities and acts of inhumanity’ (Robert Hampson). The ‘Black Book’ has an authoritarian and punitive sense to it: if you do not fit in with the rules then your name will be entered in the ‘black book’. The power of the book was legendary and even Christopher Tietjens’s father in Ford Madox Ford’s Some Do Not held an implicit belief in the ‘great book’ in which a mark might be placed against your name, damning you for social elevation! But there is also the oeuvre au noir which forms part of the alchemical magic suggesting that a new world might be created from this current one. For that we might go to Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel about Zeno. If this powerful new work by Robert Vas Dias is not despairing of humanity it is because, as the Rector of St. James’s Piccadilly puts it on the back cover:

‘…black dwells just before the light shines and hurts my eyes. Black invites me to rest from the uninvited and exhausting battery of illusions that fill my days. A book that is black narrates stories of night-time experiments in the telling of truth.’

The Forward that Vas Dias writes focuses on a register of ‘our outrage at the inhumanity of humanity’ and the book that he and Julia Farrer have composed ‘is analogous to the ways in which war poets, war artists and photographers, and journalists have always worked and exhibited’. The subtitle of the book is ‘An Assemblage of the Fragmentary’ and the poet and the artist played around with the idea of ‘an art of fragments, an art that recapitulates the way in which we receive information in fragmentary form in media reports that start as necessarily incomplete stories’. Julia Farrer’s images were drawn on a computer using a 3-D program, ‘fragmented and manipulated randomly’; Robert Vas Dias’s writing combines a ticker-tape of text which bears witness to the suffering of the body under regimes of torture with, above it, a series of statements:

‘let us consider the forming of walls, the mortar

of words I use to form my walls, to make my side

a better side, the other side is where the other side

resides, I’m on the right side and you are not, the

side you’re on is undesirable and my side is right

because I am right and you are wrong…’

Juxtaposed against these words are shorter lines in red and they include such phrases as ‘enhanced interrogation’ and ‘surgical precision’. The walls that are presented here have little to do with Robert Frost’s famous lines concerning ‘Mending Walls’ but have more in common with William Blake’s sharp proverb of Hell: ‘Prisons are built with stones of law, Brothels with bricks of religion.’ The epigraph to this book is a statement from Tagore: ‘where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls’ and the fragmentary episodes threading a narrative throughout reveal ‘black sites’ where ‘anything went’.
This book demands to be read and its responses taken to heart:

‘for refugees it’s not about seeking a better life
it’s about having any life at all

I have a dream a world without borders
today more than ever’

Ian Brinton 8th December 2016

Contemporary British Poetry by David Wheatley

Contemporary British Poetry by David Wheatley

This is a recent addition to Nicholas Tredell’s fine series of Readers’ Guides to Essential Criticism which are published by Palgrave and it is as ambitious and wide-ranging as we have come to expect from the series.

Opening with the required quotation from Adorno, ‘The recent past always likes to present itself as if destroyed by catastrophes’ David Wheatley guides us through a short labyrinthine history of ‘contestation and counter-contestation, each generation theatrically forswearing its precursor’. I am minded of the opening to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell published in the revolutionary times of 1793: ‘Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence’. In Blake’s world-turned-upside-down ‘Good is the passive that obeys Reason’ and ‘Evil is the active springing from Energy’.

In chapter 5, ‘Experiment and Language’, there is a subsection titled ‘The dust of our wasted fields’ which opens up with a statement that is worth placing next to these ‘Contraries’:

‘Narratives of rupture and discontinuity will always be to the fore in discussions of modernism, but it is also worth insisting on deeper continuities. To Jeremy Noel-Tod, surveying the links between the experimental and Romantic traditions, Prynne’s project is “essentially Wordsworthian”, confirming affinities across centuries which only the vagaries of contemporary anti-modernism serve to obscure. Reading an early Prynne essay, ‘Resistance and Difficulty’ (1961), Noel-Tod uses the first of those terms to suggest an alternative to the more usual accusation levelled at Prynne’s poetics, unintelligibility. The Romantic landscape offers resistance to our too-easy progress, and requires careful thought and engagement before it can be negotiated. Landscape is encountered rather than mastered, in the sense that familiarity does not exhaust a Wordsworth landscape, whereas a field in the path of a motorway is recognised and assessed as an obstacle and swept aside.’

Given this emphasis it is no surprise, but a real delight, to read Wheatley on Harriet Tarlo’s wonderful Shearsman anthology of ‘Radical Landscape Poetry’, The Ground Aslant (published in 2011 and worth getting hold of NOW). This anthology which reports from what Wheatley refers to as ‘more marginal zones’ corrects, as he puts it, an assumption that British experimental writing operates in a realm either of rarefied abstraction or of metropolitan indifference to anything beyond the city limits. And it is within this context that he also then writes about the fine poem by R.F. Langley, ‘Matthew Glover’. When Langley was interviewed by Robert Walker (Angel Exhaust 13) he talked about the background to this poem:

‘I didn’t start writing until I found out about American poetry. There was Donald Davie at Cambridge who talked about Pound. But Davie never talked about Olson. It was really Olson who convinced me that I might write something myself. So that something like ‘Matthew Glover’ is a fairly naïve attempt to do a miniscule Olson in an English setting.’

I recall writing a review of the Harriet Tarlo anthology, soon after it appeared, for Todd Swift’s EYEWEAR publishing and since that review is still up there online I had a quick peek to remind myself what it was that I had found so refreshing and valuable about that book: ‘Language is a form in which landscape can come alive’.

David Wheatley’s overview of the contemporary scene is a balanced and intelligent one. Of course there are points at which we want him to say more but this is a ‘Readers’ Guide’ and its purpose is to point out features of the landscape which we can go and explore for ourselves. The test of a good book of this type is whether or not it can engage the reader with an infectious sense of enthusiasm that prompts him then to use the bibliography, the reading list, the list of further suggestions. This is a good book!

Ian Brinton 17th January 2015

Tony Barnstone’s Beast in the Apartment

Tony Barnstone’s Beast in the Apartment

Tony Barnstone’s Beast in the Apartment (The Sheep Meadow Press, 2014) comes with a book cover of William Blake’s etching of Cerebrus, the three headed creature, used to illustrate Dante’s Inferno, and hints at potential encounters. The beast in the apartment is a paper lion, rather than a tiger, that comes alive. Barnstone, (like his father, Willis Barnstone, the respected poet and New Testament scholar), is well travelled, an accomplished translator of Chinese poetry, with a solid grounding in religious studies and a number of poetic traditions. Indeed, his father appears and reappears throughout the book. Barnstone’s previous books include, The Golem Of Los Angeles (Red Hen Press, 2008), which exudes a joyful playfulness in its modern psalms, parables, testaments, sermons, sutras and gospels, and Tongue of War: from Pearl Harbor to Nagaski (BkMk Press, 2009), which offers multiple perspectives from found material from both sides of the Pacific conflict.  Both are well worth reading.

 

Beast in the Apartment, divided into five sections, with crisp narrative poems, traditional sonnets, repeated imagery and intriguing, yet not in-yer face, juxtapositions is perhaps more conventional than his earlier work. It works around a series of opposites or near opposites and has a smoothness and symmetry. The poem, ‘The Strangeness’, for example, with its hinted echoes of John Donne, follows a poem where Friedrich Nietzsche’s on the eve of mental breakdown sees a cab-horse flogged and begins to eat hunger, relates the experience of seeing a strange, dead creature washed up by the swale, to two sets of couples, (moving bodies, synced and unsynced) that disperse and separate as a memory trace.

 

the way in memory the people that we were

are just now shaking the sand off the blanket

 

and folding, and you take my arm and squeeze

the bicep as we walk to the car, and I shift my neck

to pilfer a last, small glance at the strangeness of it all,

of all we leave behind us, gleaming on the sand.

 

‘The Strangeness’ echoes later as one reads the sequence and considers whether the narrator’s encounter with Gwyneth on the beach is a matter of luck, randomness or fate, and whether we read the strange creature as an emblem of all our dead selves. The poem is skillfully placed to end the first section with its worship of women’s bodies and seemingly fatal and camouflaged world.

 

The second section has some fine sonnets, such as ‘Die’, with its amusing opening line, ‘One day your toe fell off, the tiniest toe’, and ‘Lamp or Mirror’, on the strangeness of self, with its last line, ‘The mirror breaks. I gasp awake. He’s here.’, which serves to add to the circular play of absence and presence, life and death, old self and new self. The third section follows watchmakers from Istanbul, his father dancing, and the thief of time, and segues into the fourth section titled after the medieval concept of rota fortuna, casting its shadow, dominated by a sequence of sonnets, odes to chaos and bags, and a plea to marry opposites:

 

And yet when starlight fills Yosemite

like dreams, then we might understand this call:

 

to put down iPhones, turn off HBO,

and find the hidden meadow, secret cove,

to turn back from the world we think we know

and enter the ecology of love.

 

The last section, the beast in the apartment, echoes the first and third sections and serves to produce a wonderful circularity that plays around with the themes of fullness and emptiness, order and disorder, life and death, past loves and new loves, movement of bodies, and saying goodbye to former selves, fumbling in the darkness of a new becoming.

 

 

David Caddy 25th January 2014

 

 

 

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