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Balkan Poetry Today, 2017 edited by Tom Phillips (Red Hand Books)

Balkan Poetry Today, 2017 edited by Tom Phillips (Red Hand Books)

In his editorial comments at the opening of this first issue of a new magazine, Balkan Poetry Today, Tom Phillips stakes out his purpose with clarity and determination:

Balkan Poetry Today is not designed to be a comprehensive survey. Nor is it a ‘greatest hits’ package. Not every country in SE Europe, not every language spoken there is represented in this issue (although many are) and readers already familiar with those few poets from the region who have been translated into English may wonder at some of the more notable absences. This, though, is a magazine, not a representative anthology, and our policy has simply been to publish the best work which we have been sent or otherwise come across rather than to fulfil the more ambitious task of charting an entire region’s poetic output.”

This is the beginning of an adventure and it carries with it the momentum of a serious journey. That setting of keel to breakers reminds me a little of J.H. Prynne’s ‘Tips on Translating Poems (Into or Out of English)’ which he wrote in Cambridge a little over ten years ago. The last of the 24 tips pointed to the importance of recognising that no translation work is ever fully completed since there “can never be a best or a right solution”. He reminded his readers that the best kind of poetical translation of a poem is another poem, “without any didactic extras” so that the reader “will be rewarded by enjoyment of a good poem which gives a strong experience of its foreign original”. Prynne concluded that this was the aim of all poetical translation and that it allowed the efforts of the translator “to bring very real benefit in understanding between cultures”.
This last point is one which was highlighted by Ana Martinoska in her introduction to the 2011 Arc publication of an anthology of Six Macedonian Poets in which she commented that “there are no nations or literatures that are small, insignificant or culturally less important than others” and that every culture and genre “should be presented to a broader audience without hesitation or fear of marginalisation”. Prynne’s last comment in his tips was “Translation is noble work!” and Martinoska referred to the translation of poetry as being “one of the best forms of cultural representation, as mediation among languages and nations, cross-cultural and inter-cultural communication bringing the world closer together, both in time and space”.
With this last statement in mind it is refreshing and heartening to read Tom Phillips’s words:

“It is, of course, conventional for any publication with the term ‘Balkan’ in the title to attempt a definition of the region. BPT has adopted a rather loose one with blurry edges – and one which includes the various and not inconsiderable Balkan diasporas. We are, in fact, pretty much leaving it to the poets themselves to decide whether they identify themselves as Balkan or not and to define where the cultural, geographical and linguistic boundaries lie. In practice this means that in this issue you’ll find work by a Romanian poet who writes in Czech, a Bulgarian who lives in Slovakia and a Croatian who writes multilingual poems in Croatian, French and English. In future issues we hope to publish work in transnational languages like Roma and Vlach. We use the word ‘Balkan’ in the broadest possible sense and with no intention of suggesting that ‘Balkan poetry’ exists as a single, homogenous entity.”

This first issue of an exhilarating new journal is sheer delight and one of the first poems that drew my attention immediately was ‘Private lessons in May’ by Aksinia Mihaylova (translated by Roumiana Tiholova):

“I’m trying to teach you the Cyrillic alphabet of scents:
that the geranium on the balcony across the street
is more than a mere geranium,
that the linden tree in June
is more than a mere tree,
but we aren’t making progress fast enough.
Your thumb is following the candle shadow
that the wind is making tremble on the open page,
as if drafting mobile borders
between you and me,
as if to protect you,
as if you are that boy,
who once lost his watercolours
on his way home from school,
and who’s still painting
the lost sky of his childhood and the hills
in the same colour.”

In 1923 William Carlos Williams had been convinced that “so much depends / upon // a red wheel / barrow // glazed with rain / water // beside the white /
chickens”. Wallace Stevens was to refer to those words as a “mobile-like arrangement” and Hugh Kenner suggested that they dangled in equidependency, “attracting the attention, isolating it, so that the sentence in which they are arrayed comes to seem like a suspension system.” The delicate movement in Mihaylova’s poem traces the act of translation itself, the spaces between one mind and another in a world of “mobile borders”.

Balkan Poetry Today is available in a limited edition print version via the Red Hand Books website: http://www.redhandbooks.co.uk/ and an e-book version will be available soon.

In a world of narrowing confines this new journal is refreshing: it opens doors on each page.

Ian Brinton 30th July 2017

Seeing Sights by Paul Rossiter (Isobar Press)

Seeing Sights by Paul Rossiter (Isobar Press)

Two years ago I wrote a review of Paul Rossiter’s From the Japanese and referred to the quiet grace of the lyrical voice, a measured tracing of pictures in words to which I shall return. It is with considerable delight that I can now revisit that quiet world with this publication of all of Rossiter’s poems up to 1978 (excluding three pieces from 1969 set in Japan and published in that earlier collection which had so attracted me).

One of the influences behind the meditative tones of this poetry is of course Gary Snyder and a quick glance at the second section of ‘Bare Rock’ reveals an interesting comparison with Snyder’s 1959 poem ‘Above Pate Valley’ which opens with the poet finishing a clearing of trail ‘High on the ridge-side / Two thousand feet above the creek’. Snyder notes the small details which accumulate to give a picture of an individual within a landscape and concludes with a far-reaching context which stretches over distances:

‘……I followed my own
Trail here. Picked up the cold-drill,
Pick, singlejack, and sack
Of dynamite.
Ten thousand years.’

Rossiter’s precision bears excellent comparison with this:

‘Crossing a pass in late afternoon light,
pitching a small tent at sunset,

busy with guy ropes and sleeping bags
among slabs, boulders and scree;

as the light fails we heat water
over a bud of hissing blue flame,

and sit at ease, leaning our backs against
five hundred million years of stone.’

I am struck by the shift from movement to stillness as present participles settle into an immediacy of present tense: ‘crossing’ and ‘pitching’ has an energy which comes to rest with ‘light fails’ and ‘we heat water’. The movement is kept in focus with the participles becoming adjectives (‘sleeping bags’ and ‘hissing blue flame’) and the relaxation into an awareness of the poet’s place in the world is given quiet emphasis with the drawn out last line ending on that lingering ‘years of stone’.
In Part III of this collection there is a poem ‘after Du Fu’ and again it is interesting to see what Rossiter has done with earlier models of this poem of ghostly presence and absence. William Carlos Williams had translated the poem as ‘Visit’ and the meeting of Du Fu with his friend, the recluse Wei Pa, opened in a formal manner:

‘In life we could seldom meet
Separate as the stars.
What a special occasion tonight
That we gather under the candle-lamp!’

David Hinton’s version, titled ‘For the Recluse Wei Pa’, opened with greater immediacy

‘Lives two people live drift without
meeting, like Scorpio and Orion,
without nights like this: two friends
together again, candles and lamps’

Paul Rossiter’s version, ‘Visiting Wei Pa After Twenty Years’ has a visual quality to it which is missing from both these others and as such it brings alive a presence which, Haiku-like, is here, now and timeless:

‘fresh-cut green spring chives
still wet from the rainy darkness,
fresh boiled rice and yellow millet

each night
Scorpio rises as Orion sets

but tonight we’ve slipped past fate
and sit sharing the light of this lamp’

(Lines 2, 4 and 5 should be indented a little more like a WCW three-ply line and I send apologies to the poet!).

In terms of the reference to Scorpio and Orion one of these constellations sets just before the other rises and hence the delightful leap of slipping ‘past fate’; almost like stolen moments. Rossiter’s poem goes on to mention ‘half our friends are dead, / their ghosts cry out in our hearts’ and this enduring sense of memory and grief is then juxtaposed with the concluding gesture

‘tomorrow
the mountains will be between us

once again
travelling different paths’

The opening poem of this beautifully-crafted volume is a version of the Old English poem ‘Seafarer’ and once again the poet reveals himself to have a subtle understanding of how words can be like vectors:

‘And now I fashion a tale of my travels,
iron-hard days when my blood
beat like a hammer, and brine-bitter sorrow
drenched this rib-shackled ache of a heart.’

This language, like Snyder’s, conjures up a world ‘worn smooth by water, split by frost’: buy this book, read it slowly and let its quiet, patient intelligence work on you.

Ian Brinton 3rd September 2016

The Country Gambler by Erica McAlpine (Shearsman Books)

The Country Gambler by Erica McAlpine (Shearsman Books)

The distrust that William Carlos Williams had of the poetry of T.S. Eliot is well known and for confirmation one could certainly turn up that letter Williams sent to James Laughlin in March 1939 in which he damned the American ex-pat with the faint praise of being ‘a cultured gentleman’ before going on to add ‘and cultured gentlemen are always likely to undersell the market’:

‘I’m glad you like his verse but I’m warning you, the only reason it doesn’t smell is that it’s synthetic…He can write. Granted. But—it’s like walking into a church to me. I can’t do it without a bad feeling at the pit of my stomach: nothing has been learned there since the simplicities were prevented from becoming multiform by arrest of growth…’

But we had been made aware of Williams’ distrust long before. In fact from Spring and All onwards! A couple of pages before ‘By the road to the contagious hospital’ there is the prose note ‘If I could say what is in my mind in Sanscrit or even Latin I would do so. But I cannot. I speak for the integrity of the soul and the greatness of life’s inanity…’. Maybe it’s that word ‘integrity’ that prompts me think of both Williams and Gerard Manley Hopkins when I read the introductory poem to this fine first collection put out by Shearsman: ‘Sempervivum’.

‘Long-living plant, that flowers on the ground and
spawns in circles round itself, whose low and quiet
center stores a gravity not surpassed by
stone, down to the pith,’

As the stones from a sonnet by Hopkins ‘ring’ and the ‘weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush’ in ‘Spring’ so do the houseleeks of Erica McAlpine ‘put forth into these leaves’ a sense of energy that feeds on ‘both drought and faith’. The resurgence of life that Williams captures in that roadside to the contagious hospital can be felt throughout this sensitive and uplifting volume of poems. Both poet and reader are immersed within this energy and we can recognise that ‘it’s in our power / to spend the whole afternoon drinking our fill / of sun (soaking now through the canvas over /us)’ confirming us in the feeling that ‘These are the Happiest Days’.
When George Oppen referred to the ‘isolation of the actual’ in Of Being Numerous he was thinking of rooms and ‘what they look out on’ and basements, ‘the rough walls bearing the marks of the forms, the old marks in the concrete, such solitude as we know’. McAlpine reminds us that ‘life is brief’ and therefore brings sharply into focus the immediacy of what is involved in being ‘The Country Gambler’:

‘You’ll find me in the clover patch from August
to October, detangling tangled stem from stem,
inspecting each one over, knowing three
seems four when two stems meet and send a leaf
from under, or if they cross along the neck then
six can be the number. And some are tall,
and bent with rain, and overtop the grass,
while others, tiny, clump their leaves in bunches
thick as moss.’

If there is a tone of Robert Frost’s ‘Mending Wall here there is also that of John Clare whose ‘Clock a Clay’ (ladybird) makes its home in a ‘pale green pillar topt wi’flowers’ which bends at the wild wind’s breath ‘Till I touch the grass beneath’. In the hunt for a four-leaved clover ‘shade can turn the leafage blond’ and wind ‘can push the petal-ends to ground’, making them ‘hard to sort’. With another sly glance at an English poet there is perhaps here a tone of Edward Thomas’s searching for the seemingly long-lost possibility of Eden and Erica McAlpine agrees with Thomas that ‘I wouldn’t cut the searching short’. After all, ‘Nothing’s better than the luck you find’.

I have merely scratched at the surface of these poems and I firmly recommend that you order a copy now; they represent a significant beginning of a serious poetic talent.

Ian Brinton 22nd April 2016

Whether by Alan Baker (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

Whether by Alan Baker (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

The critic G. Wilson Knight is perhaps best known for his work on Shakespeare: The Wheel of Fire, The Imperial Theme, The Crown of Life. However, he was also a great admirer of the novelist John Cowper Powys and wrote a short account of that underestimated Dorset giant, The Saturnian Quest. In Wilson Knight’s last book, Neglected Powers, he wrote about Powys as well as presenting us with a ninety page essay on ‘Poetry and magic’. In this essay he directed us towards chapter 14 of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria suggesting that ‘there is a reality being apprehended as surely as in ordinary sense-perception’. In that chapter Coleridge quotes from Sir John Davies’s 1599 poem ‘Of the Soule of Man’:

Doubtless this could not be, but that she turns
Bodies to spirit by sublimation strange,
As fire converts to fire the things it burns,
As we our food into our nature change.

From their gross matter she abstracts their forms,
And draws a kind of quintessence from things;
Which to her proper nature she transforms
To bear them light, on her celestial wings.

Thus does she, when from individual states
She doth abstract the universal kinds;
Which then re-clothed in divers names and fates
Steal access through our senses to our minds.

Wilson Knight commented on this: ‘Sublimation is a term from alchemy. Piercing through matter to essential forms, imagination grips what is universal, which is then re-clothed. The result is addressed to a new sense-perception, resembling yet transcending ordinary sense-perception.’
And then I turned to Alan Baker’s sequence of ‘Thirteen Spells Against Global Warming’, the second half of this fine little volume from last year with its intricate title that shifts from the conditional to the state of play, from ‘Whether’ to ‘weather’. I find these poems wonderfully eerie; they create a living world where the magical pierces through the mundane to tap on our windows.

‘Walk through rain
and dark
spitting leaves, cold
and here’s sleet.
Breath on the window
freezing frames
(what rhymes with breath?)
wind wails or is it squeals
and in silent rooms
curtains move by themselves.’

The sense of a living presence of the outside world, the non-human, is terrific here and it seems entirely appropriate that the poet should then take us to the world of Old English Charms and Gnomic Verses:

‘Shrink like water in a bucket.
Shrivel like coal on the hearth.’

The echo is of the Anglo-Saxon ‘Charm Against a Wen’:

‘Wen, wen wenlet little,
build not here nor find a home
but pass to the north to the next hill
and there discover your brother in pain.
He shall place a leaf on your face.
Under the wolf’s foot under the eagle’s wing
under the eagle’s claw grow into nothingness.
Collapse like a coal burnt in a hearth;
shrink like plaster in a ruined wall…’

In 1923 William Carlos Williams was convinced that ‘so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow’ and perhaps his conviction was based upon a feeling that American culture was based in a realization of the qualities of a place in relation to the life which occupies it. His little poem was written only a year after the publication of 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 Williams. The doctor from Rutherford wanted to start with local materials, ‘lifting these things into an ordered and utilized whole’ (The American Background, 1934). However, if so much is to depend upon this localization of background then it must be because firm observation of the local will lead to greater insights into thoughts and emotions which transcend what could otherwise become simply parochial.
Reading Alan Baker’s poems this morning I found myself tempted into a slight frisson, a sense of an otherness which I shall want to return to many times again. He certainly takes the reader far beyond the parochial!

1
‘I wish she’d tap
at my window
and smile
when I’m far from home.’

2
‘Path, leading me
to the riverbank
to meet our ghosts
at daybreak:
so pale and wan
and fond, like lovers
expecting rain.’

Ian Brinton 9th July 2015

The Book of Hours of Kitty Power by Moyra Torlamain

The Book of Hours of Kitty Power by Moyra Torlamain

vErIsImIlItUdE, Occasional Bulletin no.3

In the afterword to Parataxis Number 7, Spring 1995, the guest editor, J.H. Prynne, refers to the great aquarium of language:

Within the great aquarium of language the light refracts variously and can bounce by inclinations not previously observed. Some of the codes will unfold with merely adept connivance, others will swim vigorously into and by circulation inside their own medium. If you can imagine staff notation etched on the glass you can read off the scales, da carpo and mirror-folded.

The bouncing-bomb of language, like the storehouse of vectors I referred to last week, makes for disturbing reading and one is almost tempted to peer into the aquarium with the astonishment of Alice in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1872):

The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things—but the oddest part of it all was, that whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty: though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold. ‘Things flow about so here!’ she said at last in a plaintive tone, after she had spent a minute or so in vainly pursuing a large-bright thing, that looked sometimes like a doll and sometimes like a work-box, and was always in the shelf next above the one she was looking at.

I get a slightly similar feeling when reading this delightful and thought-provoking little chapbook of poems, or sequence of poem, by Moyra Tourlamain, published recently by Simon Smith’s home-grown press:

…I am feeling my way around the inside of a globe. All
the mountains and rift valleys and shorelines which might
offer a hand-hold are ridging up the outside, so I must splay
my hands and feet against the inner skin, or end up
crouching on the bottom.

Well, the buoyancy of language keeps us both afloat and trapped; its echoes of usage allow us to see the aquarium from the outside as

You place your left hand
hard against the glass.
From my side, I can see the palm,
crossed with its variable life-lines,
& your non-transferable
finger prints.

Of course we all experience things differently but language also is capable of convincing us of a commonality and a ‘snapshot’, ‘view from the kitchen window’, has hints of both Lorine Niedecker and W.C. Williams:

there’s nothing but a sheet of glass
between the warmth of the house
and distance written loud
absence driven home in fragments

That phrase ‘driven home’ is full of reverberations and not all of them are pertinent to the skilled workplace as opposed to domestic resolution. A lovely book, which is available from 58 Crescent Road, Ramsgate, CT11 9QY.

Ian Brinton, 22nd June 2015.

Simon Smith’s Navy (vErIsImILLtUdE, 2015)

Simon Smith’s Navy (vErIsImILLtUdE, 2015)

In these times of bewilderment and dislocation it is important to read poets who recognise the contours of the political landscape and it is vital to attend to voices that quietly insist upon pursuing truths despite being noised-out by the chatter from the island. Or, as one modernist poet put it in 1968:

And so slowness is
interesting and the dust, in cracks between
boards

The same poem, ‘A Gold Ring Called Reluctance’, written by a young poet in his early thirties continues ‘Fluff, grit, various / discarded bits & pieces: these are the / genetic patrons of our so-called condition.’
When Simon Smith was interviewed by Andrew Duncan for a book titled Don’t Start Me Talking (Salt 2006), a book incidentally that was dedicated to David Herd and Robert Potts, ‘visionary editors for a new sight’, he referred to poems being conceived as a type of dialogue with other poems. The precise background to Smith’s comment was his writing of Night Shift (1991), composed in ‘quite a strict or regular verse form’ in response, partly, to Peter Riley’s ‘Ospita’ and Tom Raworth’s Sentenced to Death and Eternal Sections:

‘There seemed to be some sort of dialogue going on between these poetries, formally I mean, and I found myself taking part in that dialogue, or should I say the poem found its way through this kind of engagement. The poems then ‘talk’ to one another within the sequence. Building poems in series like this is a feature of the so-called avant garde in this country—it’s a way of replacing linear narrative without losing scope, or compromising perception.

Simon Smith’s recently published volume Navy is an interesting movement forward from these ideas and it does not make for comfortable reading. The opening section of the book is titled ‘England, A Fragment’ and I am quickly made aware that this does not refer to a small part of the country but is itself a description of that which is in the process of falling apart.
The dialogue here is with William Carlos Williams and the use of the three-ply line stretches the eye down the page as we move from ‘dirt from under the nails / on Dover Beach’ to ‘a shrieking gull’. The whole sequence is threaded with fragments of poetic and musical reference and the Matthew Arnold backdrop to those opening lines soon becomes the early world of Olson’s poems as illustrated by Corrado Cagli. Debussy and Schubert are fragments stored against ruin but so is the early morning ‘station pie’ with its echo of Larkin’s change of trains at Sheffield in ‘Dockery and Son’. There is, however, another voice behind this moving and important poem-for-our-times and that is the hoof-fall of Ed Dorn’s ‘Gunslinger’. Through the world of East Kent the ‘UKKK’ are bringing ‘law to town’ and hooded men in pointy hats are on the move.
The epigraph to this terrific and terrifying volume includes words by that voice of sanity and careful consideration, John James:

‘but it’s wonderful to wake up & know that
despite everything
France is still there’

The book is, as a moment of connection to that early conversation, also dedicated to David Herd.

And to me; for which, Simon, many thanks; I am honoured.

Copies of this little collection can be obtained from the publisher at 58 Crescent Road, Ramsgate, CT11 9QY

Ian Brinton, 9th May 2015

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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