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  • Billy Mills 09:13 on 26/05/2023 Permalink | Reply  

    Three Translations: A Review 

    The River Which Sleep Has Told Me, Ivano Fermini trans. Ian Seed, Odd Volumes of The Fortnightly Review, ISBN: 978-0999705827, £15.95

    The Dice Cup, Max Jacob (Translated, with an introduction, by Ian Seed) Wakefield Press, 2022, ISBN 978-1-939663-83-6, $19.95

    The Central Laboratory, Max Jacob, Translated, with an introduction, by Alexander Dickow, ISBN 978-1-939663-80-1, $22.95

    The joys of reviewing translations from languages one less-than-half knows are boundless. This is especially the case when the originals are by a poet I’d never heard of before; but in the case of Ivano Fermini I expect I won’t be alone in that ignorance. In fact, so little is known about Fermini that I had a moment wondering if he might be an obscure member of Robert Sheppard’s European Union of Imagined Authors, but no, he’s real enough.
    On the plus side, my sketchy Italian and the lack of biographical information meant that I approached The River Which Sleep Has Told Me with an open mind. Ian Seed includes a helpful interview with Milo de Angelis, Fermini’s one-time friend and editor as a kind of preface. I was taken particularly by the statement that for Fermini, poetry was ‘a question of naming things and each time finding the right word, which is to treat each individual thing with its own unique name, that which entreats us and lies beneath dozens of other banal words, and which demands to be said with millimetric precision.’
    This drive away from treating things as members of classes and towards avoiding the predictable goes some way towards making sense of the formidable disjunction that typifies Fermini’s use of language. This is easier to trace thanks to the facing-page Italian/English text, which Seed consistently mirrors in his translations. This formal procedure allows for disjunction within and across lines, with each line a gnomic utterance within a set of similar riddles. Take, for instance, this full poem:

    and away towards a climbing into the air
    having let your hand slip into the flood
    leaves therefore bear a title
    boats of tools and lamps to love as they are
    I know how to describe you infinitely in the garden
    with the thief of peace who hangs around the profitable side
    on this table the buzz of pebbles
    he trumpets of murderous places

    There is a consistent thread here of air, water and earth that carries the reader across the syntactical jumps in the text. The opening ‘and away’ is a typical Fermini in media res start to a narrative that isn’t while the ‘therefore’ signals a non-existent logical connection that turns out on consideration to actually make sense; that things and their names exist in and follow from a world of randomly associated other things and events. Fermi’s world of careful naming is a world populated by living things, as evoked by that ‘buzz of pebbles’.
    This is perhaps more explicit in a later poem, ‘the statue’ (some but not many of the poems collected here have titles), with the stone finding its way into life via a series of attempted namings that are and not similes:

    it’s like snow                                                                               

    the leaves                                                                                       

    like zen on the rug                                                                      

    the fingers sounded wheat ears                                              

    the thrusts in each water from sudden sweetness              

    which words brush                                                                         

    they’re false false                                                                          

    it’s true         

    I started out reading this book not at all sure that I shared Seed’s enthusiasm for Fermini’s work, but as I went on, I found myself becoming engaged more and more with this odd, distinctive voice.
    The prose poems of Max Jacob seem a more likely body of work for Seed to translate, being, as he is, an accomplished writer in that form. This handsome paperback from Wakefield Press contains his translations of the entire Dice Cup, Jacob’s seminal volume of prose poetry, published in 1917 but mostly written between 1903 and 1910, along with a highly useful introduction by the translator. Running at about 240 pages, there is, unfortunately but understandable, no space for the French originals. However, the translations stand as works of the highest interest in their on right.
    It is easier to say what Jacob’s prose poems are not that to express what they are. They are not narratives; quite the opposite. Where Fermini disrupts the syntax of logic, Jacob sets out to disrupt the logic of narrative structure. Neither are they polished gems of poetic language; these texts are often like dreams, but never dreamlike. In his own preface, Jacob rejects self-expression as the root of style, preferring another approach: “Style is the will to exteriorize oneself by one’s chosen means.”
    Part of this will to exteriorize is a recognition, again in contrast with Fermini, that the relationship between language and the world, the quest for naming, is a slippery one:

    My horse has stopped. Stop yours too, friend—I’m afraid. Between us and the slopes of the hill, the grassy slopes of the hill, there’s a woman, unless it’s a great cloud. Stop! She’s calling me and I see her beating heart. Her arm makes a sign for me to follow, her arm…unless her arm’s a cloud.
    [from ‘Translated from German or Bosnian’]

    Which is not to say that concrete themes and concerns don’t emerge: the mythical and the mundane; Jacob’s childhood in Quimper, literature and literary politics, the French Revolution and Jacob’s experiences of Anti-Semitism, which would in its most virulent form ultimately cause his death, are all woven through the texts. The poems often feature personal experiences and emotions at a slant, but in the end, it is not what’s said but the manner of its saying that makes this a key book for readers of the prose poem. This short poem serves as an almost perfect instance:

    Just to Say Nothing

    The barrow of thunder ends up in Spain via a ball of rainbow. In a country where the churches are surrounded by geraniums of all colors, I saw it on a horse’s tail.

    Many of these same concerns colour the verse poems of The Central Laboratory as translated by Alexander Dickow in an equally handsome Wakefield volume, this time with facing page originals. In his introduction, Dickow discusses Jacob’s use of the art of deception, translated as disappointment: “this art of ‘disappointment’ is precisely the art of sabotaging readers’ expectations, of producing doubt and disorientation, perhaps even sadness or a slight sense of being jilted’.
    Like Fermini, Jacob’s use of the line as the basic unit of composition helps create this disruption of our expectations, but it’s not easy for Dickow to emulate because of the need to replicate the incessant rhyming of the original. Again in the introduction, he warns us that Jacob’s verse can seem to tend toward doggerel because of this tendency, and it’s perhaps amplified in translations because the English rhymes can come across as more heavy-handed in English. Nevertheless, Dickow’s versions capture the fairground stylings of the originals, and he is not afraid to translate across time as well as language to prod the reader, as when, for example, he renders espadrilles as sneakers, a move that brings a potentially over-obscure line into focus.
    It’s also a move that avoids the need to add another endnote to the 238 that Dickow uses to explain some of the more obscure references in the poems. Note 155 reveals good deal about The Central Laboratory. The note refers to this line from ‘Reflections of an Unpublished Author’:

    Qui peignais comme on pein en Chine.

    I painted as they paint in Spain.

    The footnote reads: ‘Jacob refers to how they paint in China; I have altered this for the sake of the rhyme.’ And therein lies my issue with these poems. All too often they seem to consist of strings of lines linked only by this incessant need to rhyme, regardless. The defence may be that Jacob is playing with the conventions of nonsense verse, but even Edward Lear becomes tiresome in medium-sized doses.
    Nevertheless, I’m pleased that Wakefield Press has published these companion volumes; what I learned from them is that the poems in verse are of their time, while The Dice Cup transcends time.

  • Billy Mills 12:25 on 08/05/2023 Permalink | Reply  

    On Gary Snyder’s 93rd birthday 

    I’ve always been a big fan of Snyder, and it’s incredible to think that he’s still with us. To mark the occasion, here’s the first verse of one of his most famous poems, with a link to the rest:

    I Went into the Maverick Bar

    I went into the Maverick Bar   

    In Farmington, New Mexico.

    And drank double shots of bourbon

                             backed with beer.

    My long hair was tucked up under a cap

    I’d left the earring in the car.

  • Billy Mills 14:52 on 25/04/2023 Permalink | Reply  

    Recent Reading April 2023: A Review 

    LIFT OFF: a journey of future tense, Stephen Bett. BlazeVOX, 2022, ISBN: 978-1-60964-403-1, $16

    Residential Poems, Lee Duggan, Aquifer Press, 2022, ISBN: 978-1-8383587-8-5, £11.00

    Birds in November, Daragh Breen, Shearsman Books, 2023, ISBN 9781848618589, £10.95

    Tre Paesi & Other Poems, Peter Makin, Isobar Press, ISBN 978-4-907359-42-3, £16.27

    In the Margins, Avery Burns, Magra Books, 2022, $10.00

    My education in Canadian poetry continues via a package in the post from Stephen Bett which contained Lift Off and The Gross & Fine Geography: New & Selected Poems which was published not far from here in 2015 by Salmon Poetry, a bit long ago for a review though I will come back to it later.
    Lift Off is a book-length serial poem consisting of 45 numbered Lift Offs, each with an additional subtitle. The sequence concerns the break-up of a marriage in the wake of the complete mental breakdown of one of the spouses, Bett’s wife. As such, it is rooted in a kind of grieving and regret, but, as the title implies, there is an underlying sense of hope, of the potential for a future beyond both break-up and breakdown. Both threads come together in the recuring image of a bird, battered but stubbornly taking flight:

    This bird was
    in a cartoon

    Feathers blown
    out in all
    [from ‘Lift Off 13: on our own stunned heads’]

    I am reminded, in some ways, of the Early Irish Buile Shuibhne, filtered through a mesh of American modernism:

    I sing of
    (old Walt-

    Pls excuse me
    if all I do
    at present
    is screech
    [from ‘Lift Off 5: at present, screech’]

    Taken loosely, Bett’s work fits into the Whitman lineage, although the key influences are William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky. He writes out of the mouths of Canadian mothers, so to speak, but with Zukofsky’s sense of the musical possibilities of the short line and line and stanza breaks:

    I am galled,
    I am a gull
    for punish

    Throw me
    your scraps
    & I will
    dine out
    for days

    Gluttonous bird
    starved for
    on the
    lost at
    from a
    [from ‘Lift Off 19: half rimed word’]

    It takes an extraordinary level of care for sound and movement to carry off this kind of minimalist writing, and Bett is a fine craftsman of both. I’ll leave it to the reader to pick out the patterns of sound woven through these ‘half rimed’ lines, the flow of assonance and alliteration that structure Bett’s music.
    The poem ends with the poet/speaker finding new love. The reader might feel some qualms at the idea of the abandoned, damaged previous partner, regardless of the apparent total breakdown of the relationship, but for Bett, this ending is at one with the sense of honesty that runs through the work:

    I am told
    that this is
    (or something like that)
    [from ‘Lift Off 42: damn it’]

    The interested reader will find from an internet search that a good deal of reworking went into the shaping of Lift Off with some sections abandoned and others renumbered as the work progressed. There are also five sections included in the aforementioned Selected, with one numbered 57 which corresponds to the part 42 just quoted. These are positioned as if published in 2014, so as to take their place as the final instalment in a run of books that deal with the same relationship, and just before an excerpt from Breathing Arizona: a journal that tells the story of the new love that closes Lift off, thus creating a logical sequence into which the series under review here sits.
    Despite his Irish publication, Bett is a new voice to me, and one I look forward to re-reading. And once again I’m prompted to look for the Canadian women poets I’ve missed to date.
    Regardless of the plural in the title, Lee Duggan’s Residential Poems is also a serial work. It comprises open field sections, others in left hand justified quatrains, and some sections in which the latter opens out in to the former. The poem, again as indicated by the title, circle around ideas of home, in one way or another:

    This home is not a fixed place, and in a sense home is were we move to. These residential poems are constantly moving, between country and city and between poetic registers:

    wait for me
    as I run to the first train out
    up the road & trough the mountains to where the trees grow gnarly.

    Part of this movement is Duggan’s concern with language, both as spell and as poetry:

    shape me
    out the blah blah blah
    caught between frames
    a circus of trees
    bath robes and cracks
    there is no reason

    A number of poets are named, quoted or referenced throughout the sequence: Eliot, Dante, Milton, Ginsberg, Waldman and Browning among others. However, the two poets who came to mind most readily when reading were Maggie O’Sullivan and Catherine Walsh. These are both excellent influences for any poet who is concerned with the experience of the numinous in the everyday, but at her best, Duggan has her own distinctive voice and music:

    palmist or palimpsest I ask myself
    bearing resemblance to a former self
    layers of women and incantation

    formulate waking up
    the future is with you
    made of past events
    mud, leaves & branches
    regrets & wonders

    This sense of telescoped time and place are central to the book’s achievement; where we live is time and times are all here, all now. There is a continuity in movement that is the poet’s residence. A fine, thought-provoking work and another fine book from Aquifer.
    Daragh Breen is another poet who tends to work in sequence form, though in his case they’re not book-length. Birds in November comprises eight more or less short sequences and two sets of stand-alone poems.
    The opening sequence, ‘Navigato’, takes off from the medieval Irish tale of the voyage of St Brendan, itself an instance of the genre of imramma or voyages in search of the Other/Underworld. It’s a genre that includes the earliest forerunners of the Grail legend, although Brendan’s Navigato has a strong Christian overlay. In Breen’s handling, the story is brought into the present day, mor or less, and there is a strong environmental undertow. In the original, Brendan and his monks mistake a whale for a small island and light a fire on its back. Breen recasts this as the saint’s glimpse of paradise, and the saint’s revelation is one of respect for the hunted mammal:

    Brendan, perched in his
    hides of horses,
    had come to sing its lament,
    but glancing at it all
    through a pair of whale-bone
    sunglasses, he simply
    bowed his head in silence.

    After this introduction, animals form a strong thread throughout the book; bees, rabbits, foxes, hares and wolves especially. In the series ‘Documenta Sanctus’ the wolf merges with another key figure, Christ:
    She is her own mother.

    The Christ Wolf,
    silent and female,
    comes into the light
    trailing a snow
    of white tulips.

    The figure of Christ is a type of death, Breen’s great theme across his previous collections. Here, towards the end of the book, death becomes less the baroque myth and more personal, in poems that circle round the deaths of family members:

    Preparing for your mother’s funeral,
    we removed the coffin shroud
    four of us folding it like a flag
    to reveal the curled bat
    clung to the underside,
    an unbeating heart having stitched
    itself to the cloth
    [from ‘Libretto’]

    This more direct tone marks something of a sea-change in Breen’s work. Tellingly, the book ends with two sequences, ‘Birds in November’ and Trawler Ikos’, that owe something to the Imagist tradition, with things being present directly, and not as cyphers for other things, a process that inevitably opens the poems out to include more of the world than would otherwise be the case

    A young crow
    binds its feet
    with a tangled piece of string
    salvaged from the wreckage
    of the winds,
    a material that it recognises
    from the wattle wall of its nest.
    [from ‘Bird Wearing Mourning Clothes’]

    This shift towards a greater directness leaves me anticipating where Breen might go next; all in all, this feels like a pivotal collection.
    Peter Makin is widely known as a major scholar of modernism, especially for his work on Pound and Bunting. In the evidence of Tres Paesi he is also a very accomplished poet in his own right.
    The three countries of the title are North Kyoto, Cumbria and Lincolnshire, countries of the mind if not geographically. These place names are the titles of the first three sections of the title poem, the fourth being ‘And in conclusion’. Makin’s perceptions of lace are conveyed through an acute focus on detail:

    grassblades always uncatching
    unbending themselves form
    the weight of a grasshopper
    or a frog that’s jumped

    the language here evokes both Pound and Bashō; details are presented not as metaphor but as a means of understanding the world:

    an intimate knowledge of tree-barks
    and of the way a pee-line cuts back through
    the snow towards one’s boots,

    The value placed on such things is a poetic value.
    This intimacy with the small things of the world leads almost inevitably to ecological concerns. In ‘Cumbria’ we see the interaction of the human and the natural via the 19th century mining and railway building industries, now being reabsorbed by nature:

    out of the cutting
    you could
    see from the moon
    is now a rabbit-home:
    galleried and interconnected
    wormed and tunneled like old cowshit,
    under a crust likewise thin

    Rabbits come to represent this human/nature interaction throughout the sequence, with another flip in the balance of control occurring in ‘Lincolnshire’:

    My Myxomatosis
    Rabbit, with
    shrunken skull and fat eyes
    you are your own universe, all hell,
    and nothing to wait for.

    In the concluding, conclusion, section, the rabbits regain their rabbithood, the balance between the to domains is restored:

    Soft furry barley
    bowing your heads, splaying out your spikes
    and suddenly you’re wheat
    stubborn and ragged and stubby
    the rabbits break your outliers
    and strip your heads
    and strew them par terre
    speckled with mud

    ‘We have wasted so much time.’

    This last line seems to me at least to link the rabbits to another strand that runs through the poem, the slow dissolution of the poet/speaker’s marriage to his painter wife, who remains un-named. The two come together in ‘Cumbria’:

    How many generations of rabbits
    since she painted here?
    The conclusion section consists, in part, of a recognition of responsibility:
    I failed you
    and now I am trying to un-fail you

    Diary of a tree-stump:
    on the third day it rained,
    and I did you honour.

    On the fourth day, a little sunshine,
    and I did you honour.
    Everybody believed I did you honour
    and it did you no good;
    you were elsewhere.

    The quite music of the verse matches the elegiac tone of the passage, and of the poem as a whole. Makin’s Tre Paese are places in a lost past which he evokes, recalls (in both senses) via his poetry.
    The rest of the collection comprises ten short poems, many of which are also concerned with the past, with memory and mortality. There is also the same ecological sense of integration with he world as a whole:

    What will happen to the leech when it dies
    with my blood in it? it will shrivel
    and be part of the mulch feeding
    the next bamboo: whose new leaves
    will be eaten by the deer.

    These poems are a vital addition to the long tradition of bringing together English-language modernism and Japanese haiku. An essential read.
    Avery Burn’s In The Margins is another sequence poem; the mode is minimalist, with untitled short sections in very short lines separated by asterixis. The poem grows out of Burn’s experience of cancer, and the short, rapid lines enact something of the process of uninhibited cell splitting that characterises the disease while the title probably refers to the use of the margins of tissue removed during surgery as an indicator of successful or otherwise cancer removal; if no cancer cells are found in the margin, that suggests that the cancer has been removed, and vice versa.
    In the first half of the sequence, the word ‘one’ dominates from the opening line:








    This emphasis replicates the way in which the disease spreads through the replication of single cells, one cell becoming two, two becoming four, with each new event being one cell dividing, ‘one/and/one’. This process comes to a head at the midpoint of the sequence:


    Thereafter, ‘one’ only appears once in the remaining sections, which hover around the dot/spot that is the cells’ deadly bloom:


    This is poetry at its most non-poetic, although the careful reader will pick up on patterns of long and short vowel sounds and of alliteration that carry the text along. This is not writing as therapy or as consolation, but a clear-eyed staring down of the reality of illness. The poem closes not with a false dawn but with the awareness that cancer can lie dormant, waiting:


    Burns has written an insider’s account of the experience whose surface minimalist simplicity contains a complex set of responses to a complex situation. That’s as much as we can ask from poetry.

  • Billy Mills 14:59 on 30/03/2023 Permalink | Reply  

    Lee Harwood New Collected Poems: A Review 

    New Collected Poems, Lee Harwood, Shearsman Books, 2023, ISBN 9781848618558, £27.50

    This new edition of Lee Harwood’s poems, edited by Kelvin Corcoran & Robert Sheppard, adds a not inconsiderable 200 pages to the 2004 collected edited by the poet himself. In part, this is due to the addition of the poet’s first collection, Title Illegible at the start and an additional 60-odd pages of post 2004 work. The remaining additions are poems excised by Harwood from the earlier book but here restored in their rightful chronological positions.

    The first thing that struck me was the fact that just over 200 pages, almost a third of the work gathered here, represented work written and published between 1964 and 1970. What we see in the earliest of this work is the emergence of a love poet, but of a very particular kind, one who is interested less in ‘romance’ than in love as an integrating factor in human experience:

    you know even in the stillness of my kiss

    that doors are opening in another apartment

    on the other side of town             a shepherd grazing

    his sheep through a village we know

    high in the mountains the ski slopes thick with summer flowers

    and the water-meadows below with narcissi

    the back of your hand and –

    What we also see here is the characteristic movement of Harwood’s thought in his poems, as we move from scene to apparently unrelated scene with an underlying cohesion which is a function of the linguistic surfaces of the poems. In their very useful introduction, Corcoran and Sheppard discuss this aspect of the work in terms of Harwood’s use of collage, which derives from his early reading of Pound and Tzara. It is, however, important to note that unlike in the case of, say, Pound, knowing Harwood’s sources would not enrich the reading of the poems. In this, he shares much in common with an early admirer of his work, John Ashbery, like Ashbery, Harwood’s work demands our full attention precisely because everything we need to understand (not the right word) his poems is there on the page, in the words he has chosen to present to us and the order he presents them in. His obscurities, such as they are, are the obscurities of the human mind at work in the world. In fact, he wars us quite early on what not to look for from his tales:

    there’s no big fiery blast to end this poem,

    no sudden revelation — ‘more’s the pity’

    —and even this sounds too neat

    The one exception is the ‘Cable Street’, a longish sequence in prose and verse that engages, not quite successfully, with the history and politics of Harwood’s then London home area.

    With the poems of ‘The White Room’ sequence, we see a step up in ambition and quality in poems that are generally extended narratives that owe a good deal to Borges (an acknowledged influence) and to film makers like, say, John Heuston, using that name as a kind of shorthand for cinema in which slowness and space are significant narrative devices. The crucial factor is that these poems are fictions, things made out of words; they are not to be confused with the genre of anecdotal poetry that pretend to tease out a ‘significant moment’ to present some kind of personal insight of poetic ‘importance’ in a simulacrum of conversational realism. Harwood’s process is entirely different to this:

    If you will accept this story for what it is,
    then you may well be amused or even pleased;
    the actual reality is of no importance.

    The facts and words – even whole lines –
    could so easily be seen as matters of pure style.

    The fictive ‘I’ of these narratives is no more or less real when the poems relate apparently fictional matters than when they deal with situations that are clearly invented or borrowed. These are poems of inconclusiveness, hesitation and uncertainty, and this is reflected in the versification, How are we to parse, for example, these lines already quoted?

    If you will accept this story for what it is,

    then you may well be amused or even pleased;

    the actual reality is of no importance.

    Are the first four syllables unstressed? Or should we stress ‘you’ or ‘will’? These various readings coexist in the mind of the attentive reader, shifting the sense as the sound shifts. And this sonic variability recurs throughout these lines, the poem they come from, and the entire book.  It is part of the weave of Harwood’s work, enacting the movement of the poet’s mind as it navigates the poems.

    With the turn of the decade, there’s something of a step shift with the long poem sequence ‘Long Black Veil’, which opens with epigraphs from Pound and Gide, odd bedfellows in a way, but the quotes on the need to understand the process and for fellowship are very pertinent. The poem represents one side of what the poet described as his ‘puritan-cavalier routine’, although one could argue for a degree of interpenetration between the two facades. In any case, ‘Veil’ represents a move away from the elaborate syntax and longer lines of the preceding narratives towards a more “direct treatment of the ‘thing’”. In a frame of a log of a trip through North America that is also a love poem to a woman who happens to be married with children, the poem also incorporates visual elements, specifically a glyph that I take to be Horus and quotations that are directly attributed, moving them from being elements in a collage to acting more as commentary on the passages around them.

    It’s a fine poem in itself, but ‘Veil’ also prefigures the extraordinary Boston to Brighton the collection (in many ways an extended serial poem) that is the culmination of the first phase of Harwood’s work and also one of the finest achievements of the British Poetry Revival. The book is divided into two sections, ‘Boston 1972-1973’ and ‘Brighton 1973-1977’, the shorter opening section reflects the almost tourist experience of living somewhere for a relatively short time. After some verse poems that establish the narrator as discoverer, the section concludes with a set of prose poems that mirror the language of tour guides, which I think of not so much as ‘found’ poems than as ‘sought’ ones:

    3 gas stations, a library, post office, several churches. 2 general stores, a drug store, hardware store, and a large number of summer shops filled with ‘artistic’ bric-à-brac, and a couple of restaurants and hotels.

    Take your choice

    The matter-of-fact tone is then, in the Brighton section, applied to material that is more personal:

    In the closeness that comes with shared actions. From keeping a room clean, keeping clothes clean, cooking a meal to be eaten by the both of us. In that closeness, maybe on the edge of losing something gaining something. Questions of clarity and recognitions.

    Here the fictions are less elaborate than in the earlier work, but perhaps more complex in that they blur the lines between the real and the fictive (both words should probably be in quotes) paradoxically by virtue of the greater surface clarity of the text:

    sometimes there is

    the need

                    to explain

    make that mark


    This move towards a more direct voice means that the syntax and rhythms of the verse poems are more readily parsed, with the result that a different, but no less rich, verbal music emerges:

    stuck in the basics of survival
    rather than the trivial

    the ground to work from

    the light slowly failing, as
    they say, so I can no longer
    see this page clearly

    stuck in the basement of survival
    I reread this as mistakenly

    The alliteration on ‘s’ provides a sonic thread round which patterns of assonance are woven in ways that enact the process of dimming that is the semantic structure.

    The final poem in the set, the long ‘Notes of a Postal Clerk’, drawn from Harwood’s life and work in ‘London by the sea’,  closes the circle by including passages that echo the postcards from Boston and embedding geological diagrams of the Sussex landscape. There is also something of a return to the political concerns of ‘Cable Street’, more successful because they are integrated into the wider concerns of the text:

    For three years
    my lady and me
    have lived in one room

    I’m sick of living in one room
    I’m sick of being poor
    I’m sick of the rich taking from the poor
    (and them pretending not to even know it!)

    I’m sick of the rich.

    It’s telling that this exploration of the personal is followed by Wine Tales, a collaboration with fellow poet Richard Caddel that uses wine labels as prompts for texts that mostly resemble traditional short stories.

    Thereafter, it is possible to read Harwood’s mature work as a process of integrating the puritan and the cavalier in work that blends both tendencies neatly. This can be seen straight away in ‘Six Postcards’, the opening poem in All the Wrong Notes. Here the postcard form is used to meld the factual and the fictive in organic wholes, the place in the poet and the poet in the place.

    One very striking thing is the number of poems that are addressed or dedicated to named individuals: friends, fellow poets, artists, and members of the Harwood family. Indeed, the mid 1980s volume Dream Quilt: 30 assorted stories includes a number of pieces written by his son Rafe. This reflects, I think, a belief in the social importance of writing, in poetry as a kind of small-scale social glue or a set of interactions with others as part of Harwood’s wider dialogue with the world. Some people have just one or two poems, others, such as Paul Evans and Harry Guest reappear across the years, and some of the most moving poems of the late 80s and early 90s were occasioned by Evans’ death. The twin poles of Brighton and the USA also recur, and there’s a steady stream of ekphrastic poems that again form part of that same dialogue.

    But for the reader who is already familiar with Harwood’s work, the inclusion of the poems written or published after 2004 that make this new Collected an essential book. And yet I realise that most of this review focuses on the early work; my excuse is that there is a rare sense of consistent continuity about Harwood’s writing, with a kind of blueprint laid out in the work of the first 10 years which the later work builds on.

    And so, I’d like to conclude this all-too-short review with two stanzas from ‘Palaeontology’, a poem included in The Orchid Boat 2008–14:

    Was this where you expected to end up?
    lost or mainly so? in a dream?
    Planks scattered on the ground,
    cement smeared shuttering just left.

    But the night not that frightening,
    the landscape well known despite the strangeness.
    Been-here-before one way or another.
    To push on past weariness, but with so much baggage.

  • Billy Mills 12:00 on 22/03/2023 Permalink | Reply  

    To the Many: Collected Early Works, Lola Ridge 

    This review was first published on the Empty Mirror site in September 2018. but as that site is now in seemingly permanent hiatus, I decided to post it here so that it remains available, no matter what.

    Lola Ridge’s life was, in many ways, a tale of her times. Born Rose Emily Ridge in Dolphin’s Barn in Dublin, she and her mother emigrated to New Zealand as a child after the death of her father. She acquired a stepfather with a taste for Shakespeare and drink, married in her early 20s, lost a child, had a child, started publishing poetry in local newspapers and magazines. When she was 30, her marriage broke up and she moved with her son to Australia, where she studied art and submitted a collection of poems, Verses, to a local publisher AG Stephens, literary editor of the Sydney Bulletin in which much of her Australian work appeared, in 1905. The book never appeared.

    In 1907, after the death of her mother, Ridge sailed to San Francisco with her son. She left him in an orphanage there and moved to New York, where she became Lola, knocked 10 years off her age, and immersed herself in the literary and anarcho-socialist life of the city that was to be her home for the rest of her life.

    In To the Many, Daniel Tobin brings together Ridge’s first three published books, Ghetto & Other Poems (1918), Sun-Up & Other Poems (1919) and Red Flag (1927), together with the 1919 lecture ‘Woman & the Creative Will’ and the text of the unpublished 1905 book as an appendix.

    While I can understand the reasoning behind placing the early poems at the back of the book, on balance I think it works best to read them first, to get an idea of the technical distance Ridge travelled while moving from the antipodes to New York.

    The poems in Verses show the influences you might expect in work in English published in the first decade of the last century: Tennyson, Longfellow, early Yeats, the Rossettis. There’s a deal of sublimated sexuality, with any number of fallen maidens with turbulent breasts:

    The Bush bends o’er me with her wond’rous, long

    Wind-loosened hairs on my unquiet breast,

    Whose barred thoughts burning to confront the test,

    With glowing impulse & endeavour strong

    To rise & answer when they call the rest!

    There are also parallels with her near contemporary Banjo Paterson, who also contributed to the Sydney Bulletin, in the poems of antipodean pride:

    Where are ye now old comrades?

    Past alarms –

    Past lust of gold or gilt!

    The sinews of a nation

    In your arms,

    Out of your strength & folly

    A nation ye have built.

    The theme of the role of labour, as well as the landscape, people and events of her New Zealand childhood, were to reoccur in Ridge’s later, Modernist poetry.

    The Ghetto and Other Poems shows that Ridge had, in her new home in New York, absorbed the lessons of Whitman, Imagism and other avant garde poetry movements that she came across in the small magazines of the day, and forged her own distinctive voice from these influences. The title sequence, which opens the book, is an exploration of the everyday life of the poet and her neighbours in the Bowery district of New York. The easy sentiment of her 1915 collection is replaced by a cooler, more objective tone, but one that facilitates an immersion in the subject that is missing in the earlier work:

    In this dingy café

    The old men sit muffled in woollens.

    Everything is faded, shabby, colorless, old…

    The chairs, loose-jointed,

    Creaking like old bones–

    The tables, the waiters, the walls,

    Whose mottled plaster

    Blends in one tone with the old flesh.

    As I have written elsewhere, these poems can be read illuminatingly alongside the work of Charles Reznikoff, whose first book, Rhythms, also appeared in 1918. Ridge is an outsider, a recent, non-Jewish immigrant in an established Jewish district, the world into which Reznikoff was born. She is also more overtly political, and her somewhat utopian beliefs lead her to a more heroic vision of the people around her. Compare, for instance, her

    Young women pass in groups,

    Converging to the forums and meeting halls,

    Surging indomitable, slow

    Through the gross underbrush of heat.

    Their heads are uncovered to the stars,

    And they call to the young men and to one another

    With a free camaraderie.

    Only their eyes are ancient and alone…

    with Reznikoff’s:

    The shopgirls leave their work

    Machines are still, tables and chairs

    The silent rounds of mice and roaches begin.

    Where Reznikoff’s people are absorbed into the poverty and squalor that define their world, Ridge’s transcend them. Her politics led her to view ‘the people’ as an organized force for change, Reznikoff tends to see the world more as a process of slow evolution, which favours the individual over the collective.

    Indeed, Ridge’s writing at this period displays a Futurist pleasure in the city and the machine, albeit a Futurism tempered with the Whitmanesque. The miners of her early work give way to factory workers, especially those who worked in iron foundries:

    But I hear in the Iron singing–
    In the triumphant roaring of the steam and pistons pounding–
    Thy barbaric exhortation…
    And the blood leaps in my arteries, unreproved,
    Answering Thy call…
    All my spirit is inundated with the tumultuous passion of Thy Voice,
    And sings exultant with the Iron,
    For now I know I too am of Thy Chosen…

    Oh fashioned in fire–
    Needing flame for Thy ultimate word–
    Behold me, a cupola
    Poured to Thy use!

    Heed not my tremulous body
    That faints in the grip of Thy gauntlet.
    Break it… and cast it aside…
    But make of my spirit
    That dares and endures
    Thy crucible…
    Pour through my soul
    Thy molten, world-whelming song.
    [from ‘The Song of Iron’

    This tendency, blended with a Poundian imagism, finds its purest expression in this short poem from Sun Up:


    Out of fiery contacts…

    Rushing auras of steel

    Touching and whirled apart…

    Out of the charged phalluses

    Of iron leaping

    Female and male,

    Complete, indivisible, one,

    Fused into light.

    These poems of the urban are interspersed with memories of childhood, a concern that comes fully to the surface in the title sequence of the 1919 collection. The primary difference between ‘Sun Up’ and the earlier poems of childhood is technical. By moving to a more organic formal mode, Ridge is able to inhabit her own memories as the child she once was, and the poem gives voice not to memory ‘through a glass darkly’ but to the experience as vividly lived. The ‘Sun Up’ sequence delineates a more fraught relationship with her over-protective but cold mother than was previously shown, as well as the cruelty that children can indulge in.

    There is no one to play with

    and the flies on the window

    buzz and buzz…

    …you can pull out their legs

    and stick pins in their bodies

    but still they buzz…

    and mama says:

    When Nero was a little boy

    he caught flies on his mama’s window

    and pulled out their legs

    and stuck pins in their bodies

    and nobody loved him.

    Buzz, blue-bellied flies—

    buzz, nasty black wheel of mama’s machine—

    you are the biggest fly of all—

    you have the loudest buzz.

    I hear you at dawn before the locusts.

    But I like the picture of the Flood

    and the little babies getting drowned….

    If I were there I would save them,

    but as I can’t save them

    I like to watch them

    getting drowned.

    After this long title sequence, much of the rest of the book is made up of short poems that, despite their relatively late appearance in the book, have the feel of transitional work, with Ridge absorbing the lessons of the Imagist poets she was undoubtedly reading in the little magazines of the day and some of whom she came to know personally through her association with the journal Others:

    To O.F.T

    You have always gotten up after blows

    And smiled… and shaken off the dust…

    Only you could not shake the darkness

    From off the bruised brown of your eyes.

    There is also a longer sequence poem, ‘Sons of Belial’, that strongly echoes the style and subject matter of H.D.

    This is interesting because the Imagist poet is not among the literary foremothers that Ridge mentions in ‘Woman & the Creative Will’, a passionate defence of women’s abilities and critique of their lack of opportunity to express them. While she concedes that there have been few women writers of the first rank, with the exception of Sappho, she expresses admiration for Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson, the Nobel-winner Selma Lagerlöf and, to a lesser extent, Christina Rossetti. However, the piece concludes with a note of defiant and prescient optimism:

    Women have the greater part of the essential genius of the race. And when they have realised these two things – that art must transcend fear, and that thought is a spiritual substance to be molded like clay – they too will be masters of dreams.

    As the title indicates, at the core of Red Flag is a set of poems celebrating the Russian revolution, which she sees as the culmination of a historical process that started with Spartacus ended in Moscow. These poems are often too propagandistic to hold the interest, but the book also contains a number of sonnets, both Shakespearian and Italian, that point towards a new direction in her poetry, a move towards formal conservativism and religious themes that mark the work that comprises her later work not included here. The growing tension between her Anarcho-communism and her spiritual instincts are clear in, for instance, the sonnet ‘Easter Morning’, where the risen people and the risen god are brought together:

    They bring – while fields are chiming with soft notes
    Of the arisen lilies – from white pods
    Smell-less offerings to anæmic gods;
    As earth, resurgent, trumpets at their throats
    To hail her gods of the first dark surmise –
    Who parted waters with a glistening tusk
    And came out with the privy stars at dusk
    To trouble rivers with their small fierce eyes.

    They gather at the cross, whose haggard sign
    Impends in the moon-ushered dawn that leans –
    In rose and ivory on tender greens
    Of new corn covering an old design –
    To light the brown rapt faces who kept tryst
    With all the dark bright gods that they name Christ.

    There is still, however, a strong political consciousness running through the book, and her insistence on justice, and its abuse, as a lever of power finds its strongest expression in a number of poems here that deal with lynchings and the execution of political prisoners, including a poem for Kelvin (sic) Barry.

    This poem is one of a handful in the book that deal explicitly with Ireland, and they cluster around revolutionary politics of one sort or another: James Larkin, the Easter rising, Barry and, to quote the title of one of her Irish poems, the ‘incompatibility’ she saw between ‘British common sense’ and ‘Irish romanticism’, expressed in terms that borrow heavily from Yeats:

    Laughter in tears and malice in mirth;
    Wine quaffed at the coffin’s rim,
    And the pride that walks unbound?
    For well may theses strike cold offence

    To the guarded soul that hordes its pence
    Till they raise an English pound.

    These poems may encourage those of us who would like to count Ridge as an Irish poet, which, by birth, she is. However, by temperament, style, subject matter and self-invention we must, I think, recognise that her Irishness is accidental rather than essential and that she belongs to the great tide of poetic revolution that characterises American poetry in the early decades of the 20th century. I have already mentioned parallels with the Ur-Objectivist Reznikoff, and she has much in common with that group of poets, primarily as Modernist poets with left-wing politics. In his introduction, Tobin speculates on the reasons for Ridge’s posthumous neglect, and leans towards the problematic nature of her politics in America during the Cold War period, alongside the way in which her estate has hindered publication and study of her work.

    He doesn’t really consider her gender, which I suspect was a major factor, but equally I think her failure to find a home in any of the groups or movements that tend to define literary history (which which was part of the reason why the Objectivists were recovered far earlier than her); their weight as a group meant there were more hooks for academics and poets to hold on to and the return of George Oppen to publishing with New Directions in the early 1960s helped stimulate interest in the other members of the group. Ridge’s splendid isolation meant that she could more easily fall off the stage into oblivion. It is to be hoped that this publication will hasten the process of recovery and re-evaluation of her work and her place in the interweaving stories of Modernism, leftist political poetry and poetry by women. And for this, both editor and publisher are to be greatly thanked.

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