I’m pleased to have work included in the December issue of John Martone’s excellent journal otata (it’s a PDF). It’s the third section from Four, ‘a work-in-progress, a seasonal poem with elements of the four seasons, the four cardinal directions, the four dimensions and the Pythagorean tetractys’, and follows the second section previously published by Numero Cinq.
My review of two recent books by Augustus Young is live on the Dublin Review of Books. The books in question are:
Brazilian Tequila: A Journey into the Interior, by Augustus Young, Matador, 160 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-1785899874
The Invalidity of all Guarantees: A Conversation between Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin (1934), by Augustus Young, Labyrinth Books (2017), 222 pp, £6.31, ISBN: 978-1872468853
White is a Color, Rosmarie Waldrop, Guillemot Press, £10.00
Something Other Than Other, Philip Rowland, Isobar Press, ISBN 978-4-907359-14-0, £10.00
Stack, James Davies, Carcanet, ISBN 978 1 784104 86 3, £9.99
Rosmarie Waldrop’s White is a Colour is, seen from one angle, a sequence of 19 short, numbered prose poems, or, from another, a novel in 19 short chapters. There is an ‘I’, and a ‘you’ and, inevitably, a ‘we’ that follows. We are in town, having ‘come to see a play’, when you fall on the kerb; the play unfolds. There is a hospital, everything white. Your injuries are serious. ‘A broken vertebra exerts pressure on the spinal cord’. Death is in the air; your dead gather round you. Meanwhile, I wait, in this white space, this is our play.
Your bed, as these things do, becomes the still point around which I move, and this relationship uncovers other truths about us:
I make random forays. From your gravitational pull. As if there were paths out of orbit. As if not every second were unraveled. As if I were not locked in lost for words. You cling to the bed as if it were the frame you’re painted into.
The verbless sentences, each qualifying the absent action, create a sense of indeterminate narrative flow, of the spiral wave of hope and concern that surrounds the central dramatic event, as it does in what we refer to as ‘real life’. The language thus enacts the emotion felt by the ‘I’ the helpless need to be doing something.
You recover, albeit slowly; ‘Staying still. Then not so still. Then almost moving.’ Finally, you are back to your old self, but nothing is back to its old self, there is no play without change, and everything the same is never the same again, as the story ends:
Are you leaning forward to embrace me? Or because you are again about to fall?
Pretty much no living English-language poet writes this kind of poetry of fractured syntax and perception with the skill that Waldrop has at her disposal. This bare outline does no justice to the manner in which she folds in art, philosophy, and uncertainty into her writing, so that a tiny text like this opens out extraordinary vistas. Take, for example, these two sentences for the eleventh section:
I tell myself white is a color. Opaque, Runge said in a letter to Goethe, and rarely seen pure. But contains all possible points of view.
There is enough here for the reader who doesn’t know, or care, who Runge was and why he was writing to Goethe. But for the reader who does, the whole question of perception, of how we see colours, and why, becomes part of the experience of the anxious ‘I’ of the book. Philipp Otto Runge, the German Romantic painter, was corresponding with Goethe on the latter’s Zur Farbenlehre, a book on the theory of colour, and remarked that ‘”White is the lightest colour”, and “There cannot be a transparent white.” These remarks were picked up on by Wittgenstein, the great philosopher of language. And language is the theatre of action in which the play is performed; a theatre in the round in which all possible points of view are, indeed, contained. [It might be noted in passing that one point of intersection between Waldrop, Runge, Goethe and Wittgenstein is a shared native language.]
A new book from Rosmarie Waldrop is an event, and White is a Color is no exception. And Guillemot have done her proud. This is a handsome little hardback book, with an appropriately white cover with embossed silver lettering, and ample white space surrounding each block of text. It’s a book to hold in your hand as well as your mind, to return to, to read again. The writing is that rare combination of spare and rich that only comes from full control of the medium. In what must be less than 1000 words, Waldrop says more about the human condition and how we explore it through words and most of us would manage in a thousand pages. But don’t take my word for it.
Philip Rowland’s writing is as spare as Waldrop’s, but it moves in a quite different direction. A Londoner who lives in Tokyo, Rowland is primarily known for his haiku and tanka and his work is distinctly imagistic in nature. In Something Other Than Other, he harnesses this fragmentary poetic to a larger structure in pursuit of, perhaps, an equally larger statement around, among other things, the fragility of human existence and the importance of language as a tool for clinging on.
The book is arranged in four parts or movements, the musical analogy reinforced by the fact that the first poem in the first section is called ‘Prelude’ and it is immediately followed by an evocation of Bach. As with the Waldrop, the book describes an arc, but in this case, it is less narrative than thematic.
The dominant tones in the first movement are winter and darkness, with, at its centre, a phrase from John Berger; ‘The living are the core of the dead.’ And this darkness is illuminated by a pregnancy and birth:
pregnant she sleeps
the weight of each released
This section reads, to me, as an initial statement of the themes of what’s to come, the ambition being for ‘[l]ife to move towards the condition of music.’ The medium of this music is language, and Roland signals his intent to strip this medium to its gravid essence:
winter closing in…
I visit the simplest words
on the dictionary
But from this apparently simple material, he weaves textures of great sophistication. This is particularly evident in the second movement, which consists of images of street life in Rowland’s adopted home city; the focus moves from the individual to the collective, and death is present in that most collective of things, a funeral. The bemused sympathy evinced in many of the observations takes on a somewhat more menacing aspect by virtue of the section being titles ‘Surveillance’. The city, it seems, is under suspicion, is not just being observed, but interrogated. It’s a frame of mind that may be familiar to anyone who has lived in a truly foreign city and sees human behaviour through a lens of dislocation:
bright autumn noon –
a sudden chorus of birds from inside
The section ends with the observer/investigator achieving integration of sorts:
on the late train home
I am not alone
in talking to myself
A reworking of Charles Reznikoff’s famous line ‘a girder, still itself among the rubbish’ as ‘the steel worker still himself upon the girder’ folds Rowland’s conscious awareness of a tradition of writing into his concern to move people, the individual, to the centre of his interrogation. The idea of a framing tradition is opened out further by the inclusion of a haiku-like glimpse of Mt Fuji in the distance.
In movement three, a set of ‘Bio Notes’, the focus moves in more narrowly on the lives of individuals, particularly individual poets, including Ian Hamilton Finlay and John Riley, as well as the poets’ scientist, Charles Darwin (a nod, perhaps, to Lorine Niedecker?). There’s a very fine list poem of ‘Photos of Poets’, which stretches over two pages, each line a photo, and takes Rowland’s fragmentary poetic in an interesting direction. Another departure is the concrete/erasure piece that forms section iv of a short sequence called ‘Study Notes’ and that summons up yet another writer:
shall I compare thee
shall I compare the
shall I compare th
shall I compare t
shall I compare
shall I compar
shall I compa
shall I comp
shall I com
shall I co
shall I c
That final call to silence is echoed on the final page of the section, which consists of the single, multiple, invented word ‘verbatomb’, in which language, the individual discrete unit and death form a tiny origami image.
The fourth and final movement moves the attention to an individual, specific and personally affecting death, perhaps of a mother. As with Waldrop, the scene is a hospital-like one, but here there is no movement, just two people ding a crossword as an avoidance mechanism:
with nothing to do
with the ward
Appropriately, the book ends with a return to Bach, to ‘what’s left of the light the music absorbs’. It’s a moving and fitting ending to a book that evokes a whole range of intellectual and emotional responses by the deployment of carefully minimal means.
James Davies’ Stack represents a different, more explicit form of minimalism. It consists of 103 pages of text, each page comprising nine fragments of text, usually, but not always a single line or part line, but always nine per page. The effect, after a few pages of reading, is that each unit of nine takes on something of the character of a stanza. Some words recur frequently.
There are objects that recur: a box, the moon, a bin, bricks or blocks, a room, tuna, batteries, a beach, a cup, various birds, to name a few.
Verbs: look, feel, go, paint, draw, colour.
Colours, most frequently: red, yellow, green, blue, orange.
It’s tempting to see the whole thing as an exercise in floating signifiers, an extended language game with no connection to non-linguistic reality, but this would, I feel, be wrong. What emerges as you read is something like a set of overlapping, intertwining lives: a child playing with stacking boxes or bricks of various colours; a parent or carer monitoring the child, somewhat frazzled; one of a pair of lovers who ‘did it’ in various locations (another form of stacking?); a poet contemplating their craft; an artist making notes for an installation:
a video of a woman’s walk from a piece of yellow plastic to a piece of orange plastic
As these voices weave into each other, various phrases repeat, some verbatim, others with small, musical variations, so that across pages 82 to 103 we get:
i asked a friend if I could push him for a plum
i asked a friend if I could push him for a plum
i asked a friend if I could push him by a plum
i asked a friend if I could push her for a plum
i asked a friend if I could push him as a plum
i asked a friend if I could push him with a plum
Often the phrases draw on the kind of syntactical ambiguity that would delight a structural linguist:
I saw her pencil on a tile
Or apply a level of precision to the mundane that almost breaks it:
a row of plug sockets bracketed against a white brick wall, 2 sockets with plugs in (second and third in from the left)
The cumulative effect is one of focusing attention on the everyday as a subject of great interest in and of itself, its significance deriving from a refusal to impose significance, a focus on the haecceitas of the thing observed and documented. As one perception is stacked upon another, what emerges is an organic wholeness that both intrigues and refreshes. It’s good to see an major press like Carcanet taking a punt on work of this nature.
A World Where, Paul Brookes, Nixes Mate Books, 2017, ISBN-13: 978-0999188217, Kindle Edition £2.30.
The Headpoke and Firewedding, Paul Brookes, Alien Buddha Press, 2017, ISBN: 1548371858, free on Kindle Unlimited.
The No Breath, John Goodby, The Red Ceiling Press, 2017, £6.00 inc. p&p (UK), £7.50 inc. p&p (Europe), £9.00 inc p&p (World).
Appropriately enough for a poet I came across for the first time on Twitter and WordPress, Paul Brookes seems to specialise in being published online. The two e-books under review here represent the boundarylessness of the Internet as medium, being the work of a Barnsley-based Englishman published in the United States and distributed online.
Brookes describes himself as ‘a shop assistant, after employment as a security guard, postman, admin. assistant, lecturer, poetry performer’ and his work reflects the breadth of this life experience, coming, as it does, from outside any kind of mainstream British poetry.
A World Where comprises a series of imaginings of a world where an inversion of norms is the norm, in poems whose title often take the form ‘x is y (‘Youth is Age’, ‘Loss is Good’) or otherwise express humorous paradox. This strategy allows him to reflect on the absurd unfairness of many aspects of the world as is, of lives lived in the margins, but without the ‘romance’ of liminality:
I’ll keep it short.
Folk don’t reckon.
Soft in the head.
To share’s forbidden.
Grip my hand, lad
and livelong pain.
(from ‘Before “Get Lost!” Nobody Tells Me’)
These poems are full of disease, decay and death, of death, especially, in life:
He touches me. His skin
warm. An abnormal
response. I can tell
he is dead. His heart
will beat. He will walk and run.
This is how death shows itself.
(from ‘A Movement is Death’)
But they find hope in the simple power of language, the power of simple language, as in this poem, which defies extraction and cries out to be quoted in full:
Unwalk the walk,
Step back the step forward,
unstride the stride,
exhale the blossom,
unspring the spring
unsprung the sprung,
unsee the seen,
untouch the touch,
unsmile the smile back,
unlaugh the laughter,
unlive the life,
undead the dead.
While A World Where is made up of a series of discrete short poems revolving around a single idea, The Headpoke and Firewedding is a more ambitious work. It consists of two longish sequences, the first of which, ‘The Headpoke’, hovers around the theme of fire, in its domestic and primeval emanations. Where the language of the earlier collection is quotidian, here Brookes plays with mythic, almost ritualistic, registers. In the opening set, the quotidian act of lighting a fire in a grate takes on the weight of a solemn ceremony, undercut somewhat by the voice of the grate urging a return to the everyday.
Old ash and cinders block gust makes for
poor-burning, makes for poor-thinking
prepare my gob for my tongues my gob
packed with ash piled ash in my grate
piled ash in my head crumbles like walls
from incendiaried homes
stop wandering off when I’m talking to you!
ash up against my fire-bars makes them
overheat makes you overthink
so they sag and “burn through” make me
virginal something to focus on something
for focus recall collecting ears of spelt in
The use of formatting to weave other voices and registers to the text is used here and elsewhere to great effect. There are strong echoes of Anglo-Saxon poetry in places:
Heart-ship tugs at its harbour.
My imagination in mere-flood,
in whale plunge, wide in its turns
eager for seas vastness. Gannet yells
as whale-way spirit quickens over holm’s deep
At other times, the influence of Finnegans Wake is apparent:
of the waterbride
of the waveskin.
Her inner lips of the river,
spring and waterfalls,
fermented honey drip.
The second section, ‘Firewedding’, moves away from the domestic world of grates to the natural order. It consists mainly of sections in Brooke’s South Yorkshire dialect followed by versions of the same text in ‘Received English’, the latter generally being longer than the former, which may be part of the point.
breathe in mistletoe oak, rowan, and fir.
watch massive sticky full moon rise amber an gold as if honey outa hive
yon balefires r small suns
t’ massive blaze nar set this short neet
Inhale mistletoe oak, rowan, and fir.
watch massive sticky full moon rise in amber and gold as if dipped in honey out of a hive
These balefires are small suns to the massive blaze above now set this short night
It’s a potentially interesting idea, but it tends to lose impact after a couple of iterations and you’re left thinking that the dialect sections might have been more powerful left to stand on their own merit. Nevertheless, Brookes’ voice is his own, and it’s a voice worth reading for its own sake.
John Goodby is an Englishman living in Wales who has written some of the most important critical responses to innovative Irish poetry. He’s also a leading Dylan Thomas scholar, as evidenced by his immaculate editing of the Centenary Collected Poems. He’s also a fine poet in his own right. His most recent collection, The No Breath, is published by The Red Ceiling Press in an edition of 40, so the review copy I have is digital, one of the interesting possibilities that new technology allows to small publishers and their authors.
Goodby’s poems tend to be small, disjunctive snapshots of energy, in a disembodied diction that evades the idea of a single speaking voice. He favours the lightest of punctuation, and often the main or only punctuation used is initial capitalisation of every line:
Blue silk slats slander perfume
Tied with a fist conversation
A fishbone in the mirror a grave
Walking in the dark turning-point
It is a lion cathedral decline
Which has the odd effect of causing each line to start with a missed beat, start-stopped rather than end-stopped. This is a key part to the distinctive music of these poems, but Goodby is not averse to more conventional notation, including alliteration and assonance, creating sound patterns that are almost lyrical, while mirroring the disjunction of the syntax, s in the ‘w’ and long and short ‘e’ sounds in this passage from ‘Morn’.
At three with the secrets of the world
We turn when you come to bed
From the well I had not understood
The breath you have been working
Goodby, like Brookes, has a developed a distinctive voice, low key, minor key even, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
Finally, a wonderful mixed bag of goodies of the kind that I suppose we have to call ephemera came from Rupert Loydell when I asked for the rest of the Smallminded Books series after reviewing Anna Cathenka’s Prayerbook for Tree a while back. The full set includes work by Loydell himself, Martin Stannard, Robert Shepherd, John Phillips, John Martone, Sandra Tappenden, Patricia Farrell, Andrea Moorhead and a host of others, including the excellent Sarah Cave, whose work is relatively new to me. Her tiny folded book, Cat on Ice, is a sequence about a fox, Slava:
Beneath a ridge of granite
Slava fashioned a limpet crucifix
and sucked his fingers clean
tasting sea-life to death.
The bold formatting calls out words on six of the seven pages that form an additional poem, whether intended or not I cannot say:
a solitary spruce
Also in the packet were 5 other folded A5 booklets, these of four A6 pages each, with images front and back and inside two poems with the same titles as the images. The series goes under the collective title Joyful Mysteries, numbered #1 to #5. In the first and third, the poems are by Loydell and Peter Gillies, the second and fourth feature Loydell and Cave again, and the fifth has two poems by Loydell, and the whole thing circles around the Annunciation. The final lines of the last poem, ‘God Thoughts’, capture something of the tone of the whole:
God hated being nagged by words.
They’d bugged him from the beginning,
then teamed up with consciousness
in an attempt to make people think.
He used to know how to walk on water.
Finally, there are five A5 card covered saddle-stitched pamphlets under the Analogue Flashback Books imprint that do what they say on the tin; they are a bit like time travellers from the 1970s and 80s, the great era of the photocopier and long-armed stapler for little presses. Three of the five are anthologies of sorts, one a set of responses from various poets (including a number of those who appear in the Smallminded series) to a photograph called The Poet; another is a set of prose pieces on albums that were formative in one way or another to the writers; the third is a kind of mock theology reader. Of the remaining two, Loydell’s Inner Space Ghost Machine is, apparently, a reworking of a book by Daniel Y Harris, but as I don’t know the original I felt like I was missing the point somewhat.
The fifth, Impossible Songs: 21 Annunciations, is a collaboration between Loydell and Cave that covers much the same ground as the Joyful Mysteries set, even referring to some of the same images, but in more extended form. The individual poems here are not attributed to either writer, but there are some possible clues as to authorship. Ten of the poems have titles printed on bold, title case while the rest are in regular, all uppercase, with one of the first group being dedicated ‘for Rupert’ and one of the second ‘for Sarah Cave’. This may, of course, be a complete red herring; one way or another, it’s a very interesting little book:
Your cousin’s child
came to die. Mary’s father says, ‘we all come to die’.
He came to die for our sins. ‘We take our sins with us’.
John’s hear lies half-formed
on another woman’s salver.
Salome looks smug over the reception desk.
She thought you wouldn’t want to say goodbye.
This parcel of paper is a fine celebration of the joys of quick, small-scale analogue poetry publishing at its best, long live print.
I have a short post on the Dublin Review of Book’s blog on Ashbery’s great long poem ‘Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror’, syntax, and complexity, not difficulty. Go read it. Please.