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Selected Poems 1971-2017 by Laurie Duggan (Shearsman Books)

Selected Poems 1971-2017 by Laurie Duggan (Shearsman Books)

William Carlos Williams, a Doctor from Rutherford, was convinced that something did indeed depend upon a ‘red wheel / barrow’ because he firmly believed that American culture was based upon a realization of the qualities of place in relation to the life which occupies it. Laurie Duggan, Australian poet who now lives in Kent, writes poems which share some of this concern and in his work minute and seemingly inert things come to life much as dry twigs become shoots and buds: speed is essential for such freshness. As the Australian critic and poet Fiona Wright noted on the back cover this is a “kind of history that is happening on the side-lines” and one of the memorable aspects of Duggan’s work is its ability to bring into sharp focus what seems to be caught out of the side of one’s eye. On the one hand in a public statement it possesses a dry wit such as the ‘Salute to the Cambridge Marxists’:

If you’re not at the High Table
you’re not in the room

On the other, in quiet memory of another gifted poet, Lee Harwood, an excursion to the South Coast is recorded in trees that were “partly flattened / by gales twenty years back” which are now “resuming a shape”:

a semblance of high wind,
clouds massing, the profile of a hilltop.

Turning his back on solemnity Duggan also notes in the same visit to Brighton “a mechanical duck pedals a tricycle / across a floor in Hove.” In the hands of a lesser poet there might be a temptation towards the sardonic here; in Laurie Duggan’s work it is more a Jonsonian wit. And, as he tells me, the mechanical duck was there and it was exactly what Lee would have delighted in!
The website of photographs which Laurie Duggan began some ten years ago can be located at and the precise visualisation of carefully caught moments offers an interesting insight into his poetry.
One of Jack Spicer’s posthumously published volumes, A Red Wheelbarrow, was produced in an edition of 1000 copies by Arif Press, Berkeley in January 1973 and it opens with a tone that reminds me of Duggan’s work:

“Rest and look at this goddamned wheelbarrow. Whatever
It is. Dogs and crocodiles, sunlamps. Not
For their significance. For being human
The signs escape you.”

In his indispensable book on Spicer’s work, The Poetry of Jack Spicer (Edinburgh University Press, 2013), Daniel Katz wrote about these opening lines in terms of how Williams’s “characteristically inviting tone” gives way to the no less “characteristic Spicerian note of crochety querulousness”:

“No ideas but in things these lines seems to say, with their negation of significance and their recusal of metaphor, while the imperative to Rest and look immediately valorizes the visual, in line with Williams’ emphases again.”

That sharply focussed concern for the visual links Duggan’s and Spicer’s work and it is worth looking back at the opening lines of Spicer’s first ‘Imaginary Elegy’ from the late 1940s:

“Poetry, almost blind like a camera
Is alive in sight only for a second. Click,
Snap goes the eyelid of the eye before movement
Almost as the word happens.
One would not choose to blink and go blind
After the instant. One would not choose
To see the continuous Platonic pattern of birds flying
Long after the stream of birds had dropped or had nested.”

A camera freezes one moment in time and with that “click” followed by a “Snap” the moment is both caught and broken and, in a sense, the poem does become that “continuous Platonic pattern of birds flying” which can be looked at, still life, by other people in other times. One of Duggan’s poems from 1991 makes an interesting comparison here:

“Not to assume a mantle,
not to have you look so closely,
I refuse to be explicator;

instead, a wanderer
in a landscape prefigured
trying not to bend its edges

The camera of course offers precisely that edge, that separating of one moment from another within a stream and, by holding still in front of us an image of what is irremediably gone it echoes that Orphic sense of no return. The world of appearances, Art, consists of edges, contrasts, meeting-points of different phenomena: individuality. Art also acts as a constant reminder of what is not. In Spicer’s terms the only reason for valorizing what he goes on in ‘Imaginary Elegy I’ to call “These cold eternals” is because of their “support of / What is absolutely temporary”.
Laurie Duggan is not an explicator; he presents what he sees and a late snap is ‘DEMOLITION’:

“A square of houses, windows bricked in.
Around these, dust, gamblers, the edge of a market.

A block away streets resume their regular pattern”

For a moment I hear another voice, another influence: that of Charles Reznikoff.

Ian Brinton, 11th March 2018


Poems For The Dance by Scott Thurston (Aquifer)

Poems For The Dance by Scott Thurston (Aquifer)

In 1923 a Doctor in Rutherford was firmly convinced that much depended upon a red wheelbarrow which sat “glazed with rain / water // beside the white / chickens”. Wallace Stevens referred to that wheelbarrow as a “mobile-like arrangement” and Hugh Kenner suggested that the words hung together dangling in “equidependency, attracting the attention, isolating it, so that the sentence in which they are arrayed comes to seem like a suspension system.” Seven years after the placing of that same wheelbarrow William Carlos Williams went on to weave in words a picture of a cat which “climbed over / the top of // the jamcloset”. The 27 words of the cat’s movements are described in what Kenner called “one sinuous suspended sentence, feeling its way and never fumbling.” In The Pound Era Kenner went on to present us with a surfer:

“The surfer planes obliquely down a hill that renews itself at just the rate of his descent. But for encountering the beach he could glide eternally, leftward and inward and always as if downward, but never further down: always hung midway on the face of the wave. He shifts, precarious, through innumerable moments of equilibrium. And the wave bears him and there is no moving wave: the molecules of water move not forward at all but only up and down, their forward movement a pattern not a displacement, as his downward movement is no displacement but a pattern: on and on, self-renewing. So through mere words, renewed by every reader, the cat walks safely forever.”

In her introduction to Scott Thurston’s recently published volume Poems for the Dance Camilla Nelson highlights for us the sense of movement which threads its way through this fine and intriguing moving stance:

“A key part of Thurston’s skill lies in his ability to monitor, examine and carefully express his experience as a dancing body in words. This is evidenced most clearly in the first part of the essay ‘Dancing the Five Rhythms’. The level of detail he is able to recall of the seemingly fleeting emotional-physical relation of the moving body is impressive. But ‘body’ is not enough because, as micro-biologist Margaret McFall-Ngai has observed of her bacterial studies, as the focus of study narrows “it’s difficult for scientists to even categorize what they are seeing” (2010:3). Things fall apart. That is the beauty of such fine observation. Thurston conjures a mirage of being able to think, move and write all at once.”

The reference to things falling apart carries with it no sense of Yeatsian foreboding and what becomes clear throughout this volume of poems, prose and photographs is a sense that the centre both can and does “hold”. This should come as no surprise as one recalls his 2011 Shearsman volume Talking Poetics, the four ‘Dialogues in Innovative Poetry’, a collection of four interviews conducted with Karen MacCormack, Jennifer Moxley, Caroline Bergvall and Andrea Brady:

“It may be difficult to make an apprehension of a poet’s style available to critical analysis. To some extent it must simply be accepted as the means by which their poetry comes to us, and something which we may come to be more or less aware of, perhaps not unlike the rhythm of someone’s walk.”

Commenting on these interviews he suggested that “turning the mercury of speech into the lead of type was a sort of alchemy of meditation and reflection”. The opening poem in this new collection is itself a prolonged meditation on turning and I was reminded of the ‘Message From Not Far Away’ with which Jeremy Prynne concluded the first issue of a Students’ English Magazine of Guangzhou University in 2005:

“Out on the Pearl River enjoying a festive excursion I was watching the water currents slide by, flashing with lights from the banks on either side and lightning from the sky; and I realised how brilliant would be the new magazine of the Guangzhou University English Writing Classes, full of pearl-bright moments and shining articles all moving along in the currents of these changing times. Students of writing should write, so that Chinese imagination and English expression may flow together and blend and sparkle!”

This new collection of Scott Thurston’s work accompanied by the photographs of Roger Bygott sparkles and, as Sarah Kelly notes on the back, it presents us with “moments of encounter, acts of noticing, awareness of pattern – wave by wave by wave”.


Ian Brinton, 24th February 2018

What Possessed Me by John Freeman (Worple Press)

What Possessed Me by John Freeman (Worple Press)

When I wrote about John Freeman’s work in my book last year about Dulwich College poets, Infinite Riches, I focused upon the strong influence of the post-war American poets. In an interview the poet had given to Gavin Goodwin (published in Tears in the Fence 59, 2014) he spoke eloquently about what had been his early reading:

“I’ve always been interested in the border country between speech, poetry, prose and verse; and since Whitman, Pater and the French symboliste poets there has been a great deal going on in this zone. But it’s much older than that, really. In my teens I lived close to the Old Vic in the years when it performed all Shakespeare’s plays, of which I saw a good few. The prose spoken by Hamlet and Falstaff thrilled me as much as the verse. Everyone knows, as Ted Hughes said, that the prose of the King James Bible, some of which I heard read out at school, contains some of our greatest poetry. Studying modern languages and having personal connections with France, I came across the prose poems of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and others. The exciting modern practitioners for me were William Carlos Williams and some contemporary British poets who were open to American influences, including John Riley and Jim Burns. I discovered Williams’s late verse in my gap year by taking a volume at random from a bookshop shelf, Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, and finding ‘Asphodel, that greeny flower’. From there I proceeded within a year or two to the prose poetry in Kora in Hell and Spring and All. What is liberating about Spring and All is the way prose and verse alternate, as they do in [John] Riley’s prose Pieces, and the rapid transitions within the prose, which allow for a condensed thinking on the page with the dutiful connective passages left out.”

The collection from Worple Press, What Possessed Me, reveals those influences threaded throughout a remarkable volume of honest and engaging writing. However, there is also another voice which can be heard firmly reiterating “endlessly / What no man learnt yet, in or out of school”: the reflective tones of a man who took Shakespeare’s Sonnets to war with him in 1917. Edward Thomas’s influence on Freeman’s work strikes me from the very opening poem, ‘Me and the Gatepost’:

“On the front of the gate are three numerals
in hard plastic, the colour of clotted cream,
with screw-heads aureoled in rust.”

Although of course we can hear the voice of Carlos Williams in these words distinct in terms of precision and colours we can also hear that quiet tone, that exactness which is a hallmark of Thomas’s work: this is language as painting and the next four lines of brush-work move us forward:

“……………The post leans
as if exhausted, while its thickness tapers
to the shape of a pitched roof, bleached, pale grey.
On the slant surfaces ravines have opened,
a wave of wood, a wave of shadow.”

As if peering through the immediate, the surface of the canvas, the poet’s mind is opened to the subtlety of memory and loss as he thinks

“…of the lavender, grey and blue,
growing to a sturdy hedge with gnarled stocks,
and the yellow privet by the other gate,
past which we push our bikes to the back yard.”

The placing of the word “growing” at the beginning of the line echoes Thomas’s own hymn to the artemesia, “Old Man, or Lad’s-Love”, where the poet shows us the “hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree,”

“Growing with rosemary and lavender.”

But the influence of Thomas is much more than this wistful reminiscence and the poem I am most reminded of is the first one Thomas wrote, ‘Up in the Wind’. John Freeman introduces a note of mundanity, a sense of exact recall in the portrait of his mother which rises to memory’s surface:

“Its fascination is unconnected
with my mother’s vigorous red arm
and its pointed funny bone, the funnier
for the spread thickness of the muscled flesh
surrounding it, resting on top of the gate.”

The publican’s daughter at The White Horse in Froxfield also possesses a physical sense of reality as

“Her eyes flashed up; she shook her hair away
From eyes and mouth, as if to shriek again;
Then sighed back to her scrubbing.”

The mother in Freeman’s poem is leaning on the gatepost talking with a reliable monotony and the poet’s recollection of a long-gone past has “nothing to do, I’m sure, with her voice, / going on and on, talking not to me, / luckily, but to a passing neighbour…”. In Thomas’s poem the daughter who draws the ale repeats what must have been told time and time again:

“…Here I was born,
And I’ve a notion on these windy nights
Here I shall die. Perhaps I want to die here.
I reckon I shall stay. But I do wish
The road was nearer and the wind farther off,
Or once now and then quite still”.

The words F.R. Leavis wrote some eighty-five years ago about the poetry of Edward Thomas hold true today and reading John Freeman’s quiet awareness of the importance of moments, glances, brush-strokes, I am reminded of them:

“A characteristic poem of his has the air of being a random jotting down of
chance impressions and sensations, the record of a moment of relaxed and
undirected consciousness. The diction and movement are those of quiet, ruminative speech. But the unobtrusive signs accumulate, and finally one is aware that the outward scene is accessory to an inner theatre.”

It is no mere chance that this book by John Freeman was awarded the Roland Matthias Poetry Award at the recent Wales Book of the Year Awards. I urge readers to contact Worple Press and get a copy NOW.

Ian Brinton, 12th December 2017

The Sunken Keep, A version of Ungaretti’s Il Porto Sepolto Andrew Fitzsimons (Isobar Press

The Sunken Keep,  A version of Ungaretti’s Il Porto Sepolto Andrew Fitzsimons (Isobar Press

On September 1st 1918 William Carlos Williams wrote the Prologue to his Kora in Hell: Improvisations which was later to be published by The Four Seas Company in 1920:

“The imagination goes from one thing to another. Given many things of nearly totally divergent natures but possessing one-thousandth part of a quality in common, provided that be new, distinguished, these things belong in an imaginative category and not in a gross natural array.”

Nearly a century on, David Shields published his ‘Manifesto’, Reality Hunger, in which he expressed interest in collage as “an evolution beyond narrative”. In terms of Art, and this includes poetry:

“Momentum derives not from narrative but from the subtle buildup of thematic resonances”

When Williams wrote his autobiographical account of I Wanted to Write a Poem he gave an account of that earlier time when the First World War was still raging throughout Europe:

“When I was halfway through the Prologue, ‘Prufrock’ appeared. I had a violent feeling that Eliot had betrayed what I believed in. He was looking backward; I was looking forward. He was a conformist, with wit, learning which I did not possess.”

In his introduction to this beautifully produced new volume from Isobar Press the translator, Andrew Fitzsimons, directs us to recognise the connection between what Williams was trying to do in 1918 and what Giuseppe Ungaretti was achieving in the trenches of the Carso plateau in Friuli in 1916:

“…these thirty poems are central to Ungaretti’s revitalizing of Italian poetic language; a renovation of rhythm, syntax, punctuation and diction…comparable also to the work of William Carlos Williams, given the resemblance between how both poets set about reconfiguring the parameters of the poetic line in their respective traditions, as well as their commitment to particulars.”

There is a haunting immediacy to these new versions of Ungaretti’s poems and they look at loss in terms of time passing rather than confining themselves to the nightmare presence of the trench warfare which he volunteered for in 1915 having only moved from Paris to Italy at the outbreak of war. The opening poem stands as a memorial stone dedicated to the friend of his youth, Mohammed Sceab:

“In memory
Mohammed Sceab
of nomad emirs
a suicide
for loss of
a homeland”

The words weep down the page as if engraved upon a tombstone and the fractured narrative of what follows in the second stanza accords with that buildup of thematic resonances:

“A lover of France
who became
but not French
who no longer knew how
to dwell
in the tent of his kin
to listen to the chant
of the Koran
over coffee”

The ‘s’ sound in the seventh line allows an image of dwelling to move almost invisibly between the semi-desert world of the young man’s past to the power of belonging not only to family but also to an existence within his own skin. The short next piece offers a brief account of isolation and limitation:

“Who could not
give voice
to the song
of his own desolation”

And then in a manner that Samuel Beckett would have applauded there is a precision, a placing, which gives visibility to the actuality of the person. It reminds me of Beckett as I think of the respect he held for the clarity of Dante’s Inferno in which the spirits of the dead have only a few lines to give a portrait of themselves before they merge back into the anonymity of eternal damnation.

“I escorted him
with the landlady of the place
where we lodged
in Paris
from 5 Rue des Carmes
a rundown sloping alley”

The term “escorted” brings the world of Dante again to the fore and it is worth just comparing it with two other translations. Kevin Hart’s suggestion is quite literal in terms of the Italian (The Buried Harbour, The Leros Press, 1990):

“With the woman
who owned our hotel
at 5 Rue Carmes
that faded, sloping alley
I went with him”

Patrick Creagh’s version for the Penguin Modern European Poets (1971) becomes more detailed as if spelling things out for the reader:

“I followed his coffin
I and the manageress of the hotel
where we lived
in Paris
number 5 rue des Carmes
steep decrepit alleyway”

The word used by Fitzsimons, “escorted”, manages to retain a sense of friendship and familiarity as he accompanies the body to the burial ground and the word “lodged” has a temporality to it which emphasises the fragility of a life.

“He rests
in the cemetery at Ivry
a suburb locked
in the day a fair
packs up and leaves

Maybe I alone
still know he

And I will
until my turn
to die”

“Rests”, “locked / forever”, “fair / packs up and leaves”; it has the sound of Thomas Hardy’s verse, ‘Exeunt Omnes’ or ‘During Wind and Rain’.

This is a book to keep close to hand. Not only are the translations very powerful but the drawings by Sergio Maria Calatroni have a resonance which complement the poems. Congratulations to Paul Rossiter and Isobar Press!

Ian Brinton, 13th October 2017

Temporary Measures by Paul Rossiter (Isobar Press)

Temporary Measures by Paul Rossiter (Isobar Press)

When Auden composed ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ it is possible that he was very unaware of how some of the lines would echo down the corridors of literary criticism. But they have done and they are worth recalling again:

“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.”

In Paul Rossiter’s new volume there is an inherent emphasis upon the particular, the moment, the making of nothing into happening. There is a quiet humanity of attentiveness in the observation of railway workers that brings to mind the objectivist world of Williams or Reznikoff:

“the railway workers
cross the line

over one
live rail

(turning to
each other
and talking)

and then
the other – they
do this every

day, almost
not noticing
they’re doing it


The poem lurking behind this machine made of words is, of course, Williams’s 1930 poem ‘As the cat…’ about which Hugh Kenner noted in The Pound Era “It is one sinuous suspended sentence, feeling its way and never fumbling”. The “stepping” of the railway workers is placed in a line of its own and is succeeded by a gap before the single word line which defines the nature of the stepping: “casually”. The movement forward, fraught with potential danger from a live rail, is itself suspended by the bracketed picture of the steppers who turn towards each other in conversation; feet, like words, are so sure of where they should be placed.
The majority of poems in this new collection by Paul Rossiter take place in the world of common experience, effortlessly unrestrained. In the early morning of ‘Waking’

“the unanswerable landscape reassembles
in an instant
to what we always knew

and we go down
from the empty places, to walk”

The walking will be through the “ruined valleys” and the existing will be in the “abrasive cities”. However, this is not a post-apocalyptic landscape and the poem concludes with “delight despite ourselves / with only naked consciousness to clothe us”. When Marianne Moore addressed the Grolier Club in late December 1948 she had something to say about poetry:

“Concentration avoids adverbial intensives such as ‘definitely’, or ‘absolutely’. As for commas, nothing can be more stultifying than needlessly overaccented pauses. Defoe, speaking in so low a key that there is a fascination about the mere understatement, is one of the most persuasive of writers. For instance, in the passage about the pickpocket in The Life of Colonel Jacque, he has the colonel say to the pickpocket: ‘Must we have it all? Must a man have none of it again, that lost it?’ But persuasiveness has not died with Defoe…”

As the notes on the back of this handsome volume tell us, these poems are mostly set in London, with excursions westwards in England and southwards to the Dordogne region of France. In addition they cast a glance at Tang Dynasty China with versions of Du Fu and Wang Wei and offer responses to “places and occasions” in Kuwait, Egypt, Cyprus and Greece. The poems contain the “memory of countless small devotions” and they work “moment by moment / arising from the world”. Paul Rossiter’s poetry gives life to the everyday with which our lives are filled; it survives as a way of happening, a mouth.

Ian Brinton 8th September 2017

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: 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

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

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