Recent Reading Five: More Short Reviews

The Noise of Everything at Once, by Chris Burke, Happy House Press, paperback and Kindle, ISBN: 979-1091619073

at vacuum’s edge, by Michael McAloran, Black Editions Press, ISBN: 9781326772123, 7.00 euro

Bridge of the Ford, by Susan Connolly, Shearsman Press, ISBN 978-1-84861-465-9, £10.95

Da Capo al Finne, by Krzysztof Bartnicki, ISMN: 9790902013109

CBurkeChris Burke is a Paris-based English journalist and poet whose work in this, his first collection, is a curious amalgam of a kind of Anglicised version of hard-boiled American and straightforward English whimsy. Typically, the poems in The Noise of Everything at Once use wit as a distancing device, a refusal of seriousness that might be seen as the dominant mode of post- movement English verse. This tone, for want of a better word, can be illustrated by these lines from ‘Columbo’s last case’, a poem about Alzheimer’s, addressed as the culprit in the case:

And here’s the bit

you think I’m done

then I stop, turn in the doorway

only Mrs Columbo

she lays trash bags on the doormat

keeps me from walking out

and I’ve been stuck in this spot

15 years, trawling for some line to say

It’s a tone that becomes problematic in a poem like ‘La Mort aux Juifs’, a meditation on the European tradition of casual Anti-Semitism set as a parody of ‘Adelstrop’:

Yes. I remember Death to Jews –

the name, because one afternoon…

because the name. It was ‘Juin’

I imagine it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Such lapses aside, Burke can write well and interestingly, and, when he drops the ironic mask, movingly, as in the very fine poem ‘Gravid’:

No fault of yours

the word, its strain of burden,

load, stone

to be engraved, cold

gravity

reaching up to pull

your child from weightless

space to ground

then grave. Blame me

who found the root in Latin,

lost, shivering,

something of my own to raise.

Here, with the carapace of wit stripped away, Burke finds a voice to call his own. It would be nice to think that having found it, he will produce more work in this vein.

atvacuumsedge-jpgat vacuum’s edge is composed in Michael McAloran’s characteristic disjunctive prose, a single block of italicised writing some 33 pages long, divided in to bursts ranging in length from one word to several lines, separated by slashes. These can be seemingly random phrases – ‘/dressage blind orchid/’ or almost entirely conventional sentences – ‘/time’s passage given to mark the flesh as if it were/’.

There are a number of recurring motifs that emerge: the title phrase and variants on the idea of vacuum, including ‘vacant’, ‘absent’, ‘hollow’, ‘nothing; the double ‘echo-echo’, again with variants; the idea of the human as meat, along with copious quantities of bodily excretions of all sorts. In the first third or so, imagery from the Christian mythos is prevalent, with particular emphasis on the word ‘chalice’, which is, additionally, another empty container with echoes of all sorts clustered round it. Several of the themes of these opening pages come together in the phrase ‘chalice of bone’, after which the religious language gives way, although not quite completely, to images of the body as site of decay, ‘a vacancy of meat’ with desire reduced to ‘a vacant lot of burnt bones a vacant cityscape’.

Much of this links with earlier work by McAloran that I reviewed last year, even the titles of those books, EchoNone and In Absentia, attest to a continuity across his writing, a continuity underscored by the ellipses that open and close edge. As I said in the earlier review, it would be easy to mistake McAloran’s stance for nihilism, but this would be a serious category error. Despite the surface bleakness of the work, there is an urge to persistence that denies the null. We are, after all, at vacuum’s edge, not in its suffocating heart, and the edge of a vacuum is marked by that which is full. Where there is an echo, there is a voice, and where there is a voice, there is not no thing. The act of writing is an act of affirmation in the face of the void of incomprehension, or, as the book ends, with at abundance of nothing that is still an abundance:

/it is said alone/said alone yet foreign and unsaid/undone/(an empty
echoing abounding)..

Concrete or visual poetry is not particularly common in Irish verse. Apart from Some short pieces and the epic Monster by Brian Coffey and a few pieces by Trevor Joyce, I struggle to think of any instances. Given this unfortunate circumstance, the appearance of an entire collection of visual poems by Drogheda poet Susan Connolly is, almost by default, something of an event.

Bridge of the Ford is the English for Droichead Átha, the Irish name for Connolly’s home town, and the bridge is over the Boyne,susan con the Irish river that is richest in mythological and historic freight. Indeed, the first half of the book is a sequence of images in words tracing a journey down the Boyne, through the town and out to the sea. The texts draw on place names and the visual appearance of local monuments as the material from which they are built.

The second section of the book is less unified, although religious themes predominate. The absence of a central conceit allows for a greater range of forms to emerge in this section, as Connolly plays with the words of carols, or single letters repeated in geometric patterns derived from medieval manuscripts.

In her introduction, she cites Ian Hamilton Finlay as an influence, which may have been an unfortunate thing to do. While the pieces in this book are highly competent, they lack that spark of imaginative genius that make Finlay’s concrete pieces exceptional. In fact, with the street-name map poems, the lists of names on the facing pages are more alive than the visual representations opposite.

In a note for the blurb, Paula Meehan notes that among the ‘charms’ of Bridge of the Ford ‘are the glimpses in this book of a fugitive Irish lyric poet flitting through the pages.’ Although this was clearly intended as praise, I think Meehan inadvertently highlights the main problem with this work. Connolly is, indeed, an Irish lyric poet and, like most Irish lyric poets, she is focused on locality rather than place, with the poet as actor, not recorder, the ‘I’ as an unproblematic identity, with no need for recuperation as it was never really questioned. Connolly’s decision to move to a visual mode of writing is a brave, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt at transcending the limitations of the tradition her writing voice is embedded in. She clearly understands and enjoys playing with concrete techniques; however, pouring lyric content into a visual poetry jug cannot transform that content into something it isn’t. These poems, for all their virtues, are made as visual pieces not from necessity but from volition, and ultimately that just isn’t enough.

da capoKrzysztof Bartnicki’s Da Capo al Finne is an extraordinary, uncategorizable work of conceptual something or another. It is, on the most literal level, a reading of Finnegans Wake, but a most unusual reading. In the introduction to this English-language edition, Bartnicki declares the Wake a failed novel, based on what he sees the essential criteria that literature should ‘convey information, didactic patterns, or emotions’. He argues that despite the best efforts of the book’s exegetes, it cannot be fitted into and available literary model, and so is, in essence, unreadable as such.

Further, Bartnicki’s view is that this frees the Wake to a much wider range of uses as an object. It’s a variant on the old canard that Joyce’s great work is unreadable, a view that simply does not stand up when one considers the simple fact that people have, and continue both to read it and to report on the experience. This odd hybrid of Gothic cathedral and Baroque palace of mirrors may not be a novel in any conventional sense, but it is literature, just not as we know it.

However, discussion of the rightness or wrongness of Bartnicki’s premise is neither here nor there. The real interest lies in what he has done with it. And what he has done is to present the Wake ‘stripped of all spacing, punctuation, digits, letters except for lower- and uppercase A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s, E’s, F’s, G’s and H’s’. The result is 122 pages of unbroken and literally unreadable text, which is also a long string of variations on the scale of C-major, plus B.

Bartnicki’s practice is to use this bank of potential music to extracts matches, or near matches, to pre-existing musical works, with some of the results being available on his SoundCloud page. |It’s a bit of a mad project, almost as mad as Finnegans Wake itself. It also fits into a wider movement towards using digital media and the Internet to remake Joyce’s book, a movement I discussed in a piece for the Guardian a couple of years back. It seems possible that the Web will finally make the Wake accessible to a wider range of readers, writers and artists. Bartnicki’s sceptical-inventive approach is an interesting element in this process, and I highly recommend it.

Plays and poems in Icarus by Maurice Scully: A Review

sp18playsPlays, by Maurice Scully, Smithereens Press, free e-book (plus additional material published in Icarus)

Maurice Scully is consistently one of the most interesting poets writing in English today and any new work from him is to be welcome, and this short e-booklet along with some associated/overlapping material published in the TCD literary journal that Scully once edited, is no exception. Plays comprises a series of eight interrelated texts, two of which reappear in Icarus, along with a ninth, and a short prefatory note written especially for the magazine. The Smithereens sequence is literally framed by play, a dog playing with a ball on a pier, in brief at first, and then a more extended treatment at the end. These texts call out the deliberate nature of play as a rule-bound activity, much like language. This parallel is developed in Placed, the second piece in the sequence, which starts from a game of tiddly-winks, moves through a kind of painterly abstraction:

Slim textures

in circles squares

diamonds cylinders –

 

I heard

you rang

you answered

you

and moves, as the prose note calls out, from this ‘motley’ to thoughts of Yeats, Easter 1916, and the ‘decade of commemoration’ and all it implies.

At various points Scully’s language draws on ‘canonical’ lines form what many years ago he dismissed as ‘the gem school’ of poetry.

The poets in question are Patrick Kavanagh:

O co memor

or emco morat

may by water

vat or em

 

rald grass.

Followed by Wordsworth and Heaney:

I wandered lonely in a crowd

as a meaning-bearing creature digging

over vegetables flashing signals to

light-sensitive weed-seeds in the dark.

Between yr fingers & yr thumb, humble

ambition.

These reworkings are, as I read them, sardonic comment on the persistent myth of the poet as Romantic hero, grappling with ‘significance’, the solitary purveyor of the profound. Scully, by inference, favours a more modest, social, and fruitful view of the process of writing as being in the world. In this work, the poet is both solitary and connected, exploring life as it is, not as it ideally should be, dancing in the weave of things.

The action of

burning’s a

complex action.

Crumpled

 

paper napkin

with a base

pattern of

indentations

 

overlaid with

a pattern of

pumpkins

 

mushrooms

peppers

their names

in clear letters

 

under circular

stains where a

cup was placed –

the action of

 

fending for yrself.

Scully’s control of verbal music is evident in, for example, the patterning of the sounds represented by the letter ‘a’ in the second quoted stanza above, which play across the variable single and double stress lines. The result is a complex simplicity that perfectly enacts the ‘sense’ of the lines.

The implications of this approach to writing are profoundly political, precisely to the extent that it avoids didacticism. In the note in Icarus, Scully speculates that the book-in-progress to which all these texts belong ‘might be about “power”. But I don’t know yet.’ There is a cliché in wide circulation that art (and everything else) should ‘speak truth to power’, as if truth were that simple and that power didn’t know it. The indeterminacy of Scully’s approach is, I believe, ultimately more effective. The business of poetry is to explore questions, not present answers. Scully’s restless art does this better than most.

Alicia Jane Sparrow: Irish Woman Poet

Alicia Jane Sparrow (? – 1858) was born in Killabeg, Enniscorthy, Wexford and apparently died at a relatively early age. She published widely in journals and anthologies in Ireland, the UK and the USA. The Exile’s Lament appeared in Friendship’s Offering, and Winter’s Wreath: a Christmas and New Year’s Present, which was published in London in 1844.

THE EXILE’S FAREWELL

Farewell to the shore where my father is sleeping!

Oh, sweet and unbroken his rest may it be!

Farewell to the home where my mother is weeping

Her first-born — her dearest — alas! alien me!

Far away from the friends whom I loved in my childhood.

Estranged from the hearts that I clung to of yore,

I will seek me a rest in the desert or wild-wood.

And my country and kindred shall see me no more!

Margaret Corrigan: Irish Woman Poet

I have been unable to discover anything about Margaret Corrigan apart from a single poem that was first published in the August 1941 issue of The Bell and then reprinted in an anthology of poems from that magazine, Irish Poems of Today, edited by Geoffrey Taylor, which was published by the Irish People’s Press in 1944.

A Farmer in Hospital

Between white sheets he lies, a withered leaf.
Between white pages of compressing book.
He, who, at morn, had walked mist-silvered hills,
And felt the soft white dewy wool of sheep,
And shook them free from flesh-consuming pests,
Receiving thankfulness from their mild eyes.
Now, nevermore, his heavy boots shall sink
Into the deep brown earth when he, earth’s midwife,
Opens earth’s pregnant womb for fruitfulness.
No more on frosty nights with yellow lamp
Swinging from cold red hands
He’ll see the warm white breath of sleeping cows
Take ghostly shape among the byre shadows;
He striding on from cow to cow in dread
Lest pain of calfbirth pierce them unawares.
Lamp lighting glosses on their broad smooth backs.
Nor shall he hear again resounding sound
Of horn and bay of hounds when he, as he
Swings to the motion of the swinging horse,
Blood-lust aflame, all thoughts on one thought bent,
Chases the gaunt red terror-stricken fox.
No more, at dawn, alone in wakefulness,
Striding the fields in quest of lambing sheep,
He’ll see the gold brooms of the rising sun
Sweeping the hilltops clear of the nightly dew.
And feel dark surges of unbidden joy
Pour round his heart an ecstasy of pain.
These things are passed. In narrow bed he lies,
Watching through glass a small square patch of blue,
A flick of cloud, pale smoke, and many roofs:
Seeing at times one breathless snatch of green
Beating a moment at his window pane —
The waving of a solitary branch
Uplifted from a solitary tree:
Then turns away his head and feels the ache
Of things remembered, and cold pain of loss,
And pants to know again the cool damp earth,
And seeks a long reunion in the grave.