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  • Billy Mills 09:37 on 28/09/2020 Permalink | Reply

    On Video: Diane Di Prima 

  • Billy Mills 10:55 on 18/09/2020 Permalink | Reply

    On Video: Paul Blackburn 

  • Billy Mills 12:54 on 14/09/2020 Permalink | Reply  

    Recent reading September 2020: A Review 

    Scratches, P Inman, if P then Q, 2019, ISBN 978-1999954741, £8.00

    Belladonna, Suna Afshan, Broken Sleep Books (as Legitimate Snack 5), Out of print

    A Quarter Life, Tyler Pufpaff, self published, 2020, ISBN: 978-1714800285, $8.00

    Convenient Amnesia, Donald Vincent, Broadstone Books, 2020, ISBN:  978-1-937968-65-6, $22.50 retail, or $16.50 when you order directly from the publisher.

    Scratches is P Inman’s first collection of new work since his almost collected poems Written 1976-2013 was published by the same press in 2014. There’s a reassuring familiarity in this new work, with Inman returning to his early habit of using invented and/or extremely obscure lexical items in poems that hover around such concerns as abstract expressionist painters, the atonal music of Monk and Webern, the politics of marginality, and. of course, the nature and purpose of language.

    This last is, as ever with Inman, a question of pushing the medium to the limits of intelligibility, a language where there is ‘no syntax only levels…’ in verse where idiosyncratic punctuation is as radically part of the poem as it is in, say, Emily Dickinson:

    However, the visual aspect of this writing is no more important than it’s sonic qualities, a fact that becomes foregrounded when Inman resorts to a kind of private language, as in this section from ‘6 + 5 pieces from Webern’

    Opus 18




    On the page, this is as tantalising as a fragment of Greek papyrus, but sounded out, meanings, or traces of meaning begin to emerge, to ‘mmorph’ out of the atonal jag of the text. The mind, inevitably, demands intelligibility of language, and will prise it out where it can. Take, for example, the following lines form the second section of ‘copula (for Tina Darragh)’ which Inman tells us ‘is intended to be an homage to [Darragh’s} ever remarkable “on the corner to off the corner”:


    something or other) (tipped hail) (map

    place stubble) (print corners, time upon

    quotelessness) (a noun made of tree root)

    Darragh’s title is borrowed from Miles Davis, and it seems that ‘“klacto”/something or other’ probably refers to Blue Rondo a la Turk’s song ‘Klacto Vee Sedstein’. This, in turn, is believed to be a reference to Charlie Parker, while the band’s name is taken from a Dave Brubeck tune. Inman is tipping his hat/hail to Darragh, Parker and Brubeck in an act of multi-layered homage that unfolds with the persistence of a tree root, a persistence that Inman demands from his readers. This is not poetry as consolation or comfort, and it is deliberately defamiliarising. That’s the point; Inman doesn’t set out to tell us anything, he sets out to make us think, to think in and about language. It’s a demanding, exhilarating experience.

    Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,

    The lady of situations.

    I’m opening this review of Suna Afshan’s Belladonna with these lines from ‘The Waste Land’ because it seems evident that the poem’s title, form (Afshan’s three long sections around a short third section is a kind of attenuated version of the shape of the older poem) and much of its matter derives from a kind of argument with Eliot’s 100-year-old modernist monument.

    Belladonna, an invented tarot card, is the essence of the female foretellers in ‘The Waste Land’ from the Cumaean Sibyl of the epigraph through Madame Sosostris, to Philomel, to the unnamed speaker in the pub, and by way of the blind gender-shifting Tiresias to the three Thames-sisters whose song is the crisis point of the poem; it is, then, no coincidence that the opening section of Belladonna is called ‘Soothsayers’.

    The nature of Afshan’s conversation with Eliot is made clear in the opening lines of her poem:

    Tuesday, when lilac jam dashes

    Over buttery dusk, when the sun trips

    Behind twiggy elms, and nests of bone

    Grow cold like the gullies overrun with foxholes

    From Tuesday I pinch a handful of earth

    And I flee back through time

    And at my back from time to time

    I hear that silence which does not shift

    A stale mote of air, echoing

    In the caverns of every moment.

    Eliot’s barren April landscape is quietly transformed into a warm spring scene, the struggling lilac becoming a warm tone in a warm sunset, dry dust becomes life-giving earth while the WWI background of gullies and foxholes morph into a scene of urban wilding. Meanwhile, the famous line from Marvel leads not to sound but silence, and coincides with a move back to the past, against the flow of time.

    The cityscape it leads to is populated by the living, by schoolgirl shoplifters and the anarchic Bella who declares: ‘‘I dreamt I worked a brothel/And in the brothel Dad came.’ The ‘I’ then reads Bella’s palm, before introducing another truth teller, Gran, whose prayers are for the small things of daily life, the post to be delivered, foil to be kept out of the microwave, a resolutely unmythical world against which the narrator seems to rebel:

    Why did God have me born this sightless girl?

    Why can’t I feel my way out of yesterday’s embrace?

    ‘See, the worms in my pocket have frozen

    Time’s turned the earth I pilfered to dust’

    —In the meadow behind my comprehensive

    I swapped it for the eye of a moth

    The snout of a fox, three daisies with petals

    So crisp they didn’t survive the pluck—

    It’s interesting to see how Afshan constructs her verse in passages like this, the blending of formal and informal construction, of the everyday world of comprehensive school and the incantatory world of natural magic woven together through patterns of short and long vowels (worms/pocket/frozen, for example) and extended runs of alliteration (see/swapped/snout/ so/survive and pocket/pilfered/petals/pluck) that create a deft verbal music.

    In the second section, ‘Twilight Sleep’, personal and ecological catastrophe are brought into a single focus through a series of dream visions and nightmare semi-awakenings. We are in the new waste land in the shadow of Atropos, the inflexible Fate, cutter of the threads of life, who gives her name to Atropa belladonna, the deadly nightshade:

    Now I walk the yard barefoot

    Settling on the clover like dew

    And forever beside me, Atropos

    Stands skeletal. The silver birch

    Black, coughing sap, weeping marrow.

    The short third section is concerned with a kind of death by water, and again the ecological impact of humans is present:

    One packet of prawn cocktail crisps

    Swam in the sprawling reeds

    Uglier in its half-life than any dead thing.

    Meanwhile, by the waters of oblivion, the narrator stands and whirls ‘like some godless dervish’, an image that links us directly to the final section, ‘Dead out of Time’, which opens:

    God, with a mouth full of milk teeth

    Skimmed the words of a dog-eared text

    And I—free, free, free, and quite dead—

    Wept at his feet, begged to be written

    Back in if only for an everlasting Tuesday.

    A return to the beginning, but now stepping out of time to return to a kind of Edenic simplicity:

    So, I learned to bathe

    In tubs of dandelion milk

    Loom my own frocks of hessian

    I drank sap from saucers

    Perfumed with mud for nothing else

    But a need to preserve the old ways.

    But the past is not where we live, and Eden is gone. Those undone by death claim their right, and the narrator ends by summoning up Belladonna Atropos to perform her grim duty:

    And I bit into Belladonna’s dark

    Pebbled heart, and cried out

    For that blind clairvoyant

    Forever tending her garden:

    ‘Pick up your shears, love!

    I’ve had my fill.’

    Having said which, I realise that on another day I might chart a different path through this rich and varied poem. It demands re-reading and I can only hope that it’s possible to get it back into print one way or another so that it gains the readership it richly deserves.

    Tyler Pufaff provides a note to the reader at the start of his A Quarter Life that reads: ‘The narrator of these poems is a character similar, and at times identical, to myself, and represents my experience with mental illness.’ It’s an interesting position, an ‘I’ decentered, not by art but by life, but fully aware that it is nevertheless an artefact.

    I am that faded line erased

    Redrawn and erased again

    Because I just do not quite fit in.

    [from ‘Lines’]

    The note is followed by a quote from Bukowski, ‘You have to die a few times before you can really live.’. On the evidence of the poems, Pufpaff’s I seems compelled to test this advice:

    is it a banal platitude to say that third time’s the charm? If so, then there’s going to be a lost irony if I die the next time I attempt to take my life (if there is a next time)

    [from ‘Banal Platitude’]

    This is a slim volume, just 18 poems in verse and prose, but it’s weighty in matter. Pufpaff delineates not only the struggles of one with mental health issues, but also the kinds of survival tactics they might perform, and the mutual misunderstandings that flow from them:

    I get my hair cut

    just so I have someone to talk to

    but they just want to do

    the works

    everyone is fake happy

    [from ‘Haircut’]

    There’s a grim humour at play here that implicates all of us in the neglect of the mental health of our fellow humans, just as these lines from ‘Moribund’ implicate the political and economic structures of society at large:

    I found homes

    but am homeless.                            The government provides no relief.


    Poor breeds poor,

    my latest reality.                               what will I give up next?

    Pufpaff is a young poet starting out and, as with all of us, his influences are still a bit undigested; Bukowski of course, Plath, perhaps John Berryman, but there is a distinctive voice bursting through. I look forward to see where he takes it.

    Donald Vincent’s Convenient Amnesia is a more substantial 80 page collection, that comprises three sections, the first of which is primarily concerned with the public sphere as it impacts on the life of an African-American man in the early 21st century, the second more focused on the personal, and the third a set of responses to writers and artists. Of course, the barriers re permeable and certain themes flow through them.

    The key word in the first section is ‘melanin’, as the poet measures a works that is encapsulated in the opening lines of ‘Driving Through Alabama, Birthplace of My Grandma’

    My grand-momma never learned to say,

    yessuh-bossuh, sir. She says she only knows

    how to say, “yes, sir. Police officer!”

    This is a world where white people pretend to forget the reality of a history that black people can’t but remember, as it frames the facts of their existences. This is driven home in the first poem in the book, ‘Lucky Charm’, that is concerned by the objectification of black men by white women:

    People scramble to dodge me, the monster

    with the third arm. On trains, they sneak peeks,

    look away, and look again at my charm


    which is like Uncle Tom, too uncool to take home to moms

    so in cars, clubs, and in bathrooms, we-get-it-on-because-of-



    Hello, you remind me of a fellow by the name of Othello

    and if loving you is right, I’ve-been-wrong-all-along-charm.

    The take me by the hand because you-want-to-dance-charm.

    Emmett Till is named later in the poem as a reminder that this ‘charm’ isn’t really all that lucky: Vincent is conscious of the real risk of becoming part of a tradition of outspoken black leaders, of being ‘guilty until proven innocent’:

    See Biggie, see Tupac,

    see Martin, see Malcolm,

    see Huey, see Garvey;

    see black leaders

    and their outcomes.

    When I die, will I see black?

    Buried in a black coffin—trapped

    Waiting on Obama to address

    my situation in his fireside chats.

    Interestingly against this backdrop of institutional forgetting, the title poem of the book is in the second section and is concerned with the private sphere, a dysfunctional marriage. The gap between the partners is created primarily by the husband’s relationship with alcohol, Wild Irish Rose, perhaps as a result of his social circumstances, a link to the public poems of the first section. This link is more explicit in ‘Economic Privilege’, a poem about access to education:

    They know someone that

    Knows someone who

    Knows someone that

    Introduced someone to

    Pay someone to

    Influence someone to

    Admit a white child to



    I know someone who

    Knew of no one. Had no

    Money to pay anyone

    Lied to someone

    Telling that one person they

    Lived somewhere else so a

    Black child could get a

    Better education.

    The privilege in question is white privilege, the product of a system that ensures that too much melanin in a person’s skin is a significant factor in deprivation of all kinds, of limited opportunity for some simply on the basis of colour.

    I am

    black, not because of my skin,

    but because I embody struggle

    defying expectation every day.

    [from ‘Cultural Co-opting’]

    The tone of the third section is set in the short prefatory ‘Trigger Warning’

    Is art not

    capitalist propaganda?

    It’s a question that sits behind the subsequent set of poems, mostly ‘to’ or ‘after’ poets, with a couple of ekphrastic pieces. At times, as in ‘He Say—She Say—after e. e. cummings’ the tone is almost parodic:

    blue moon said he

    chardonnay said she

    tofu said he

    grilled cheese said she


    bill said he

    i’ve had my fill said she

    too much liquor said he

    i saw your twitter said she

    The most interesting piece in this section is the long prose poem ‘Oxymoron #FamousPoet —after Frank Bidart & James Franco’ that centres around a reading by the two dedicatees and is an extended meditation on questions of art and celebrity culture:

    Why would you support that? Why would you buy his book?


    I learned to never judge a book by its cover. Never assume why the words

    are on a page, in a particular way. Why can’t a star write poetry without it

    being seen as trolling? What does one do?


    Why can’t they have something to express? Why can’t I write what’s near

    and dear to me?

    Because my audience is not comfortable. Even though I am the page and

    the page is me.


    James’ poetry taught me this.

    An old pal of mine asked if I could send her the photo. She reassured she

    wouldn’t send it to anyone. She joked about not cropping me out of the

    photo. She cropped me out of the photo.

    But then I posted it to Instagram. And @FrancoFan69 actually crops me

    and Frank out with a condoling thank you mention and something about

    Lana Del Rey.

    The process of erasure that removes the less famous from the sphere of the A-lister reflects the wider questions of erasure that run through the book. In the end I’m left thinking that it is equally an instance of white privilege that I can review a book like this, but I’ll never have to write one. The writing here exemplifies the reality that black lives matter not only as victims of police brutality, as a cause we can all get behind, but because they just do. Black lives matter because for two long they have been ignored, marginalised, erased. Poets like Donald Vincent give voice to those lives, not for a reader like me, but for there own sake. Don’t read him to feel good about yourself, but do read him.


  • Billy Mills 14:38 on 27/08/2020 Permalink | Reply

    Recent Reading: August 2020 

    Port of Souls, Paul Brookes and Marcel Herms, Alien Buddha Press, 2018, ISBN: 978-1718873223 , £14.80

    Stubborn Sod, Paul Brookes and Marcel Herms, Alien Buddha Press, 2019, ISBN: 978-1686132384, £14.55

    Like The Dewfall, John F. Deane, Guillemot, 2019, ISBN: 978-1-9160605-1-7, £12.00

    Hunglish, Andrew Fentham, Broken Sleep Books, 2019, £7.00

    A Berlin Entrainment, Peter Hughes, Shearsman Books, 2019, ISBN 9781848616677, £10.95

    Bethesda Constellations, Peter Hughes, Oystercatcher Press, 2020, £5.50

    Mutter/Land, Steve Xerri, Oystercatcher Press, 2020, £5.00

    Readers of Paul Brooke’s blog will be familiar with his interest in ekphrastic writing; these two books, collaborations with the Dutch painter Marcel Herms, are a logical extension of this interest. It’s clear that poet and artist have discovered a shared set of themes and concerns resulting in work that goes beyond the limitations of ‘poems about pictures’; each in its own way, both books represent an integration of text and picture into a more organic whole.

    Port of Souls is the nearest to the expected model, with individual text/painting pairings that reflect each other, albeit obliquely. I claim no art expertise, but there’s something in Herms’ palette and the simplified humanoid forms that fill these pictures, often in exploding postures of pain or anger, that remind me of Francis Bacon, and Brookes’ matches the technique and tone by adopting a form that generally teeters between verse and prose, a kind of prose/verse poetry in which syntactic disjunction echoes the way in which the paintings are organised:

    Beware windows keep faces behind two panes


    eyes, cheeks, teeth captured when you glance through a wrong glass at the outside.


    From these travels circumnavigation of my ocular orbs I have discovered:


    My chameleon is a wild goat that neither eats or drinks always mouth open it lives on air.

    [from ‘Our Rats are Hounds’]

    Interestingly, it seems that these were originally conceived as short free verse lines, but the change to longer, semi-prose lineation disrupts the reading in a manner analogous to how the facing painting (also at that link) disrupts the movement of the eye. This is even more apparent in the poem/painting pairing called ‘Warlord’, where the exploding, fire-crowned head is brought to verbal life:

    After a battle where skulls are blown apart he sits and laughs at Anthem For Doomed Youth.


    After a skirmish in which men are screaming With half a leg or arm bone shattered By shrapnel, he guffaws at Dulce Decorum Est.


    The more graphic, the more comic to him.


    He says if you don’t laugh you’ll cry.


    Laughter is healthy. Laughter is human.

    The embedding of some ‘famous poems about the war’ serves to both highlight the inadequacy of conventional verse to do justice to the realities of carnage and explore new ways of doing just that. It’s a project that is encapsulated in the final pairing here, ‘A World Where’:

    I don’t orientate


    without signposts or landmarks or signatures. All is blur. Meaning elusive.


    If I make it could be false. There is grief at a loss of shape, of pattern.

    Brookes and Herms seem determined to confront this grief by discovering new patterns of expression.

    Stubborn Sod is a continuation of the Pagan Year project Brookes began in The Headpoke and Firewedding. Where the earlier book covered the months of June and July, this current instalment runs from January to May, the turn of the year and the burgeoning months of spring. Herms provides a headnote painting for each month and a series of others that reflect images and themes from the texts in a less one-to-one manner than is the case in Port of Souls. Appropriately enough, much of the writing here focuses on an earth-mother goddess figure, pregnant with new life and demanding of devotion, and with the conflict between her devotees and an incoming, aggressive Christianity. The hymns to the goddess are lyrical and graceful:

    She is a presence,
    a voice only, no image.
    A post of cypress-wood,
    draped in cloth, perhaps.

    Otherwise a living tree
    to recall her sacred grove.
    Her rites are done outside.

    She spares our daughters
    heavy with bairn,
    spares our wives
    in pangs of labour

    Cares for the mams
    who fret over their bairns
    carrying on now,
    and how they fare.

    [from ‘Chanter’]

    But all is not sweetness and light. The play on stubborn sod is crucial, being both the land to be farmed and the determined farmers who work it being central to the sequence. Although Brookes frequently draws on Classical mythology, his tone is darker and more northern, as in ‘Atti Loses his Bollocks’, his Yorkshire reworking of the story of Attis from Catullus 63, a story that is dark enough in itself, but which Brookes expands to draw out the relationship between blood and fertility.

    At this quick cry from her blood red lips

    Cyb, his mam let lions out

    goads one on left, enemy of flock


    “Come on now,” she says, “Tha fierce, get thee sen off, away

    See to it madness drives her,

    see madness set her back into me wood,

    she who scarpers from my rule.

    Come, whiplash tha back with tha tail, suffer tha own tailpain

    make all places echo

    with tha bellow and roar.


    Cyb utters these threats and with her hand frees lion from it’s yoke.

    Lion urging

    himsen to rage, rushes, roars,

    breaks brushwood with flit paws.

    And Brookes is not just concerned with the past, but also with the here and now of housing estates and industrial wastelands, where the pagan, sacred landscape is buried but not dead. The final poem in the sequence, ‘Oaksong’, works to bring these two worlds to a single focus around the most symbolic of Northern trees, the oak:

    moors were once forests

    national parks heavy industrial

    this oak headland a pitsite


    lads snap off livelimbs

    anarchic coppicing

    black dogshitbags sway

    on limbs left alone


    don’t visit in a storm

    oaks are lightningtrees

    people can be oaks


    oakgroves of druids

    duir means a door

    exit and entrance


    raw open wounds of sacrifice

    still bleed sap

    The bleeding is multi-layered, the broken tree, the broken land, and the bleeding of past into present into past, as the once forest, once pitsite, becomes forest again. It’s the yearly cycle writ large. Brookes’ Pagan Year project is concerned with the recovery of a world that is damaged but not destroyed. I look forward to the final instalment.

    John F. Deane is one of the ‘grand old men’ of Irish poetry, both as a poet and as publisher/editor through his founding roles in Poetry Ireland, the Poetry Ireland Review, and Dedalus Press. He is also a man of deep Catholic faith, a faith that runs through all his writing; Like the Dewfall is no exception.

    This is a sequence in seven parts based on the stricture of the seven sections of Olivier Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen suite for two pianos, each section being devoted to a particular ‘Amen’: Creation; Stars and Planets; the Agony; Desire Birdsong, Saints and Angles; Judgement; Consummation. The poem follows, in general outline, a narration of the spiritual development of the narrator/poet from a child on Achill Island to an old man in Dublin and is, from beginning to end, saturated in images of nature as the natural element of the central figure:

    Bog-boy they called him, for his dreaming

    among the cuttings; he was at home


    up on the bog-bank, down in the cutaways,

    moorland breathing in its variegated and sepia


    ease. He loved the world-berating

    sweet-bird wheatear, the sudden snipe,


    soprano trilling of the skylark

    [Page 13]


    there were scents of oleander, of thyme, of extravagant

    heathers; I looked for the stillness of the high, white lily.

    Beyond the walls, each day brings us reading in the papers


    of yesterday’s death routines.

    [Page 89]

    Deane writes well, as you might expect, in a smooth idiom that lacks any of the tonal jarring of Messiaen’s suite, but with a quiet music of his own. His ‘nature’ serves first as a kind of preface to his religious experience and then as a way of expressing the divine glory.

    ̶  from cockerel to hump-back whale. from quark to galaxy –

    amen to the Christ-Child, chortling in the crib, new-earthed

    heart of creation, who is, who was. who is coming-to-be;

    to sustained harmony of the spheres: amen! Pianissimo. Begin.

    [Page 11]


    In the wet-daub earth is the dwelling-place of our unruly God;


    birdsong perfected, even jackdaw, heron, water-hen,

    the very shrieks of hooded crow and magpie, those street-cleaners

    and working angels

    of an evolving world.

    [Page 62]

    While I don’t want to disparage anyone’s religious beliefs, I think it’s important to remember that this idea of nature as a kind of scripture for us to learn from is anti-ecological, as it promotes the notion that the world is, in some sense, there for us to use. The religious exploitation is different only in degree from its economic equivalent, and the one can reinforce the other. The world predates us and will outlast us, and the idea that it was made for our benefit is worrying.

    Equally problematic is the way in which religious fatalism seems to lead Deane to a kind of resigned acceptance of human-created horror:

    We, too, are instruments

    of the doleful music of suffering, have our long

    lists of Gethsemanes


    where the human project has lost its way; in our streets –

    military parades. And nevertheless! oh God,

    your will be done.

    In the final two sections, Deane writes about coming to terms with age and mortality, and the likely end of his ability to write poetry as a result. The book ends in a note of total religious devotion, as one might expect.

    Brittle-hipped, a little arthritic and taut of hearing,


    climbing contentedly, but cautiously, upstairs.

    Amen, he says, Amen; oh Christ, my Christ, Amen.

    There is no raging against the dying of the light, but a quiet acceptance based on the poet’s faith, which, even if one does not share it, is one path to contentment. Despite the reservations expressed above, I enjoyed this book, as handsomely presented as you might expect from Guillemot, much more than I expected to.

    Andrew Fentham’s Hunglish is a set of visual collage poems playing with the gaps between English and Hungarian. As is so often the case with visual poetry of this kind, the spirit of Dada is never too far away, with well-known paintings by Degas and Munch being transformed by the addition of text and/or images from other genres and the inclusion of images taken from ‘cheap’ commercial art like Disney or children’s book covers.

    Many of the poems are political in theme. with Trump being compared unfavourably with his predecessor as POTUS via a pun on the Hungarian ‘barack’, or peach and Victor Orbán being hung upside down in a gesture that reminds me, at least, of Mussolini’s ultimate fate. Other images work in less obvious ways, such as a seascape photograph with the work ‘CAKE’ superimposed. The scene is sunset, and the colour palette is browns and beiges, not the blue you might expect. This plays against the pun on ‘kék’, or blue, but again the reader might be led to think of Brexit, the distant French coast, and having one’s cake and eating it.

    This may seem a stretch, but the reality is that these texts are open fields, waiting for the reader/viewer to create meanings in them. For instance, the discovery that the ‘Ő’ superimposed on the screaming mouth in Munch’s iconic painting is an ungendered third person singular pronoun mirrors and amplifies the ambiguity of the original. Equally, the ‘MŰ’ on a collage of cattle, the final poem in the collection, is a reflexive comment on the book, given that it can translate as writing, work or creation and is accompanied by the German ‘bitte’, you’re welcome. You might, of course, argue that to the reader (me) with no Hungarian, this is too impenetrable, but that’s what dictionaries are for, and the reader who expects not to have to work shouldn’t really expect to learn anything from the act of reading. Fentham’s experiments in interlingustics certainly expect us to work, but they contain their own rewards.

    These two publications from Peter Hughes mark a return to ‘original’ work after a decade spent making versions of classic Italian poets. You can, I think, detect something of the influence of these translations in the work reviewed here, not directly in terms of technique so much as in an approach to the medium of language. Both books contain poems dedicated to the Welsh-Irish poet John James, who died in 2018, and in ‘At Red Wharf Bay’ in Bethesda Constellations we read ‘since I moved here to Wales/my English has come on no end’, a couplet that could almost serve as summary of both collections.

    This idea of finding the ‘here’ in ‘there’, of locating the language to express the world in via a process of dislocation, is central to these poems, be it the layers that unfold when preparing a meal:

    I conclude

    my own offensive

    on the onion

    & I wonder

    how we managed

    to end up

    here & now

    still in one piece

    [from ‘Stir Fry’ in BE]

    How do we end up ‘here & now’ when here is constantly shifting, geographically and/or intellectually? This is Hughes’ big question. In the title sequence that dominates A Berlin Entrainment he explores it by taking the reader on a trip round the S-Bahn-Ring, clockwise, station to station, starting at the northmost point (in a poem earlier in the book we’re told that Sonnenallee in the south-east is the poet’s local stop), each station getting a poem in three unrhymed three-line stanzas, and a facing page prose companion piece. The verse form, described in the ‘Sonnenallee’ poem as ‘half-arsed terza rima’, combined with the circular shape of the train line place us in a kind of modern Dante landscape. This is appropriate to the content of the work, streets and buildings littered with the human and inanimate detritus of what passes for 21st century western civilisationwhere we are faced with strange ethical decisions:

    Is it best to pick up a syringe discarded by the bench and put it in the bin? Or is that more dangerous to whoever might come rummaging?

    [from the prose section of ‘Hermannstrasse’]

    This world is reconfigured into kaleidoscopic structures by the poet’s imaginative language:



    skinny helter-skelter on the skyline

    bleak & disused maypole requisitioned

    for dark arts what now inner squatter


    awkward white gazebo departures

    are acid we hear them burn through girders

    & continental icepacks monitored


    by stained bears with huge paws & the faces

    of exhausted gods north ring & south ring

    meet at Westkreuz where a sky is dying

    At the back of much of what is wrong, Hughes detects the actions of self-serving lobby groups:

    The arms industry and gun lobby are feeling particularly patriotic and expansive this morning. They’d like to teach potential customers a thing or two. It’s complicated. Watch out for infiltration. If any of your neighbours have ever done a kindness report it to the church or clan. We donated a bazooka to the janitor, don’t mention it. To enhance safety. Dinner ladies keep a Glock behind each pot. Eat your greens junior.

    [the prose section from ‘Hohenzollerndamm’]

    Such hope as there is, and there is hope, is located in the marginal urban night-world, where ‘Like the finer rootlets of trees the more productive networks have been meeting in the dark’. Tis idea of an organic resistance. Once again, the poetry is redefined by a ‘there’, the poet having moved to Wales to improve his English, the shift from urban to rural environments bringing a shift in focus, even when the locus is another elsewhere:



    here’s an ant

    traversing the remains

    of an ancient Greek theatre

    in all the brilliance

    of a Sicilian spring

    April sun & shadows

    rephrase the vivid choruses

    of each astonishing wild flower

    throughout this poem

    it magnificently transports

    a tall & curving sail of leaf

    back to the workshop

    The night in which the poet/observer is different in quality to the Berlin darkness, and allows for a wider range of referents, but the reality of political upheaval is still present in the poetry:

    the rain in all these

    seaside Brexit towns

    goes on into the night


    a single taxi

    never moving

    from the station

    [from ‘Bethseda Constellations 2’]

    Any poet who mentions Bethesda is, inevitably, summoning up the shade of Dylan Thomas, and he is certainly a presence here:

    past Bethesda harbour

    with its brigs &

    barques & schooners

    plus a toy castle built

    from slavery & sugar

    [from ‘re:lode30’]

    But, as Hughes points out in a note at the back of the pamphlet, the true presiding presence is a more recent Italian, Giovanni Pascoli, poet of small things. This is a mantle that Hughes takes on with great skill and conviction, finding in tiny details, a syringe discarded, a burger van in a Welsh lay-by, tan unused taxi, emblems of the big world, the exile from ourselves that is so much a part of the world we try to live in. These poems are a record of sorts of the poet’s quest to find, and improve, the language through which this world can be interrogated.

    Hughes’ Oystercatcher Press publishes consistently interesting pamphlets, the most recent being Mutter/Land by Steve Xerri, a poet whose work is new to me. On first reading I was struck by the very English tone of his writing, a quality of reserve, of language flowing along the path of conventional syntax undisrupted, of a scope that is carefully circumscribed. On the surface, this poetry inhabits the same world as, say, Edward Thomas or, heaven forfend, Philip Larkin; a world of people and places seen from trains, quiet drinks, small gods and English churchyards:

    Trains clattering coastwards out of sight

    along the valley floor in this textbook

    twilight provide all the metaphor you need.

    [from ‘From the Zone]


    We have little commerce with things
    immaculate, unvarying: give us rather the touches


    of quantum godlings, their dabs found everywhere
    in our brick-built houses, signing a unique presence:


    theirs is the trefoil sprouting from the back step,
    theirs the thread-legged spiders in the stairwell corners,


    the groove dragged deep in the wood-block by the daily
    bite of the breadknife, the colours we choose for curtains


    and rugs.

    [from ‘Imagining the Lares’]

    Beneath that surface, however, interesting things are happening. Xerri is not merely observing his world, he is dissecting it in minute detail and presenting it in forensic display. I don’t know if he is aware of Pound’s dictum, but this is poetry that is ‘as well written as prose’, and that uses the careful skill of its writing to open up the world it documents:

    The watchers are leaving, making a last note

    of the scuttle and flicker of glass-bright insects


    in the uncatalogued mess of brokenness

    under scorched hedges, where skinny thrushes


    scratch among the roots and the dirt, finding

    striped shells of snails untenanted, chalky,


    a deposit dumped by some waterless tide.

    [from ‘The Watchers are Leaving’]

    The political element here is implied bit definite, a rejection of the idea that small worlds hare necessarily narrow, and the weighted precision of language means that when the remarkable title poems opens with the line ‘Make no mistake, I love this landmass’, the choice of final word serves to undermine the narrow provincial Nationalism that has come to corrupt the more expected ‘country’. By focusing more on geography than politics, Xerri is able to inspect the political with the same involved detachment that he applies to his insects. At its core, the poem narrates a descent through earth, time and evolution that might bring Dante to mind (the first poem in the pamphlet is ‘Nel Mezzo’, but, as the tercets that most of the poem are in opens out into a kind of open field central section, the voices of the damned resolve as ‘something like/a mother’s rhythmic/mutter’ bringing the title pun to focus before resolving the descent as a trip through the Channel tunnel to the earthly paradise of France, a kind of Nostos to a younger self for whom:

    This is home for now and I am ready

    to tangle tongues with the locals, talk

    the halting talk of the incomer, amusing


    and bemused by turns

    It’s a picture of acceptance that contrasts starkly with these lines from the earlier, English section of the poem:

    I have heard the talk in pubs, English ale

    loosening English tongues till the shiv words

    Frog, Dago, Kraut, Eyetie and the rest spill out


    always only joking but when will the terms

    turn on me, a half-outlander

    It is this turning of the English poetic tradition on the idea of Englishness as it now exists that is the major achievement of Xerri’s style in these poems. It’s an achievement to be admired.

  • Billy Mills 12:33 on 31/07/2020 Permalink | Reply  

    Gavin Selerie and Maurice Scully: A Review 

    Collected Sonnets, Gavin Selerie, Shearsman Books, 2019, ISBN 9781848616899, £17.95

    Play Book, Maurice Scully, Coracle, 2019, casebound paper over boards, ISBN 978-0-906630-61-7, €18.00

    Tilting Square, the third sequence in Gavin Selerie’s monumental Collected Sonnets, is preceded by two quotes. The second of these, from Paul Klee, could serve as a kind of introduction to the entire book, and to Selerie’s way with the sonnet form: ‘A square stood on its corner moves into the dynamic realm, the tensions are diagonal’. Selerie’s sonnets are generally 14 lines long, very rarely rhyme, and are most often presented as single blocks, or squares, their physicality emphasised by the large font size. But then the form is often opened up into two, there, four or even 14 stanzas, usually but not always right-aligned, and sometimes exploding across the page. This variety is one of the sources of tension that enable the sustaining of interest over 340-odd pages of little songs, a good deal of them, as in the ‘Twisted Circle’ sequence and the ‘Days of ’49 outtakes, previously unpublished.

    Selerie’s concerns are manifold: place, time, mortality, love, art, music and, above all else, books and writing. But these are not separate strands, they are interwoven, interpenetrating threads in the weave of a lifetime’s work. For instance, the earliest poems here conjure up a 1970s counter-culture that encompassed Grace Slick (never a chick, she’ll stick out for no/and do it—) and the idea of a sacral British landscape via Alfred Watkins’s ley lines:

    The Line


    Hugged the bracken ridge to Lastingham

    and bent down in St Mary’s crypt

    with the needle jigging


    found interlaced serpents

    and a hogback with a bear on guard


    from this hollow squat I drank moments

    of a thing on another laid


    and went over Black Howe

    and through the Bridestones

    to Dargate Dikes in pine-raw solitude


    saw them from there and couldn’t

    get away—globes or radomes

    glistening on black plinths

    in a far vigilanus whose secrets may leak

    These poems chime with the sonnets marking similar landscapes and landmarks, many associated with writers and poets, that comprise the Land Spokes series written 30-odd years later:

    How stories arrive, a track along the ridge

    between counties where two streams



    … You can dig but you’ll find nothing,

    neither a Dane vader or sacrifice. Bits of

    an early world hold more without the rummage.

    [from ‘Rollright Stones’]

    Or, to pull at another thread, the ‘Days of ‘49 outtakes’ sequence marks, as did the original collection, the year of the poet’s birth (and that of his long-time collaborator Alan Halsey), drawing largely on paintings, books and essays produced in that year. It was a time of stasis and change, with rationing still in force, the ruin of war all around, but the year after Windrush and the Truman doctrine, early robots: the cusp of a new world, the NHS shiny and new, a world that produced that late 1960s/1970s counter-cultural moment and that underpins the opposition to Blairite politics of the Short Takes poems. These are poems of emergence, of the birth of both the poet and his world:

    This melding of the natural and the man-made, the past and the present, is a significant part of the dynamic of Selerie’s tilted language squares. It is, paradoxically, a dynamic of stillness. Selerie’s sentences frequently contain no verbs, and when verbs are present they are often stative, modal, infinitives or past participles. Even his dynamic verbs tend to be quite ones. His tenses tend to be Simple Present or Past, the tenses of the habitual. The Continuous, the tenses of actions at a point in time, are rarely used. This is a poetry of accretion, of detail upon detail, nouns, adjectives and prepositions the dominant lexical forces, the syntax is vertical rather than horizontal, with layer upon layer of signification:

    Out of the yowl of Lilliput Alley and frowzy steam,

    a showpiece for stone that’s easy to cut. Honey-block retreat

    high over valley and bowl, a sweep of exact vision

    at a looser pitch. Allworthy? With an actor’s bite

    through stepped wilderness.

    [from ‘Prior Park‘]

    The result is a kind of tentative certainty, a sense of language layering the poet and reader’s sense of the world, with meanings emerging slowly, organically, without the imposed force of action. This is as true of the love poetry, which is as concerned with how to relate as it is with the specific relationships it was written out of, as it is of the Out of an English Pole sequence where Selerie writes through the works of Joseph Conrad to produce a kind f homage to Robert Hampson. I first encountered Selerie’s work in the early 1980s, with the publication of Azimuth, a long serial poem in the manner of Charles Olson. It may seem an odd journey from Projectivist verse epic to sonnet sequences, but these are, I would argue, serial sonnets, the exploration of form and matter through the constraints of the 14-line limitation. The Collected Sonnets is more than a collection of sonnets, it’s the working out of a poetic over half a century of attention. It’s a book to reread.

    I have already reviewed sections of Maurice Scully’s Play Book here, and hardPressed poetry published a section of it in Dual Poet Readers 3. It should, so, be the case that reading the book would be a bit like meeting an old friend, but the reality is that it’s full of surprises and delights. There are at least three readings of the title that are relevant, I think. First, it is a book about play. Secondly, the idea of a book of strategy and ploys, the Nixon playbook, is relevant. Finally, it can be read as an actor’s playbook, a kind of script for performance by the reader.

    The factor that binds these three strands together is Scully’s unique sense of rhythm. Frequently the form adopted is short lines of one or two (sometimes more, sometimes no) stressed syllables, with variable unstressed counts in stanzas of one to four lines. These are punctuated by singles word sentences that act as percussive interruptions of the flow.

    Snap. Look: a life –

    a packet of white envelopes –

    nobody about –

    dawn –


    chill silhouettes

    stopped in the air

    condensing into the



    daytime trees in

    pale light. Perfect

    information. No more

    ‘gems’. Right?

    This allows for rapid juxtapositions that may, at first reading, appear random, but are actually crafted representations of the movement of a mind across multiple fields of perception and intellection simultaneously held in syncopation:

    A hammer bangs

    & its echoes




    Wearing a


    touch what you

    imagine you


    can. Tick.

    Sign. Number.


    the action.

    The same kind of process is happening in passages where both line and stanza are longer, but these passages tend to be more information rich and with slower arcs. Throughout, the poetry rests on a process of analogy. Things, in the broadest sense of the word, inhabit Scully’s writing in and of themselves. His interest in natural history and his almost obsessive focus on the minutiae of quotidian life and the physical act of writing, his interest in the politics and economics of culture all stand as records of the phenomena of a life lived. They are not metaphors for each other, but by their very proximity each one illuminates the others in ways that extend beyond the limits of the metaphorical. So that this:

    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. Getting the work done, doling,

    fixing, electing, purging curricula,

    controlling policy, public opinion, dissemination,

    the Taste Police quick to be invisible, are out & about

    & busy over the generations ready to shame

    us with a terrible pun.

    And this:

    Reaching up to pick an apple

    from a tree twigs tickling the

    skin on the back of the hand

    sunlit patches on the arm

    pulsing body of a wasp

    And this:

                                                    An eel’s fibre-

    reinforced skin acts like an extended tendon, enabling it

    to generate a powerful propulsive force. I took a sheet of

    paper & put it down again. Dice rattle in the cup. You

    are born. Mother & child ok. The verb ‘to be’. For the

    moment. Rattle again and see.

    And this:

    When ecologists began looking closely at the acorn-planting

    activities of certain birds they found that the areas the birds chose

    to lay their stores by for the winter were almost always open

    country. Open country. Not a ‘Poetry Society Recommendation’.

    And so … the forest moves, a shifting tissue of melting frames …

    Expand on and illuminate each other and circle, or rather spiral, around the core of the book, a process reflected in the repetition and expansion of words, phrases and images throughout the book. And what is that core? When versions of some of this work appeared in Icarus in 2016, Scully wrote that they were from ‘a work in progress. I think this book might be ‘about’ power. But I don’t know yet’. It turns out that it is, but it’s about power of a very particular sort, the kind of power that builds a cultural, canonical hegemony that excludes all sorts of people. One of the threads that runs through the book is the repurposing of famous lines from what Scully has previously called the ‘gem school’ (No more/’gems’. Right? ) The poets quoted include Heaney, Wordsworth and Yeats, but there’s a particularly interesting passage in a piece called ‘Parabola’ (as an aside, all the texts are given titles that begin with ‘P’, and several are called ‘Poetry’) that evokes and then names TS Eliot in a context that begins and resolves in an acknowledgement of a number of women poets: Lorine Niedecker, Marianne Moore, Emily Dickinson, Mina Loy and Elizabeth Bishop; marginal representatives of the Modernist tradition of which Eliot is probably the canonical representative. The poem evokes and rewrites a ‘gem’ line from ‘Burnt Norton’:


    says a bird

    on a stone


    The change from ‘quick’ to ‘quiet’ reflects the near silencing of poets who prefer a quieter mode of expression to Eliot’s ‘public speaking’ tone and sets up a different set of expectations around what poetry might be, and be for, something less oracular, less self-important; or, to quote some lines from earlier in the book, ‘The trouble/with poetry/is poetry.’ And the trouble with canons is erasure.
    Towards the end pf the book, Scully addresses this directly:

    I used to think you had to concentrate on the work,

    fiercely on the work, and with luck, and work, then

    more work, managed a high calibre body of work

    in the end, and that was that. Job done. But no; you

    can produce a full lifetime’s work and be erased.

    Maurice Scully has, indeed, concentrated fiercely and produced a body of work of the very highest calibre, he is, in my view, one of a handful of Irish poets alive now to have really made something new of the art, and if his achievement is erased, it will be to poetry’s detriment. Buy this book, buy all of his books, and read them. Now.

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