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  • Billy Mills 12:36 on 22/07/2021 Permalink | Reply  

    The Poetry Pay Scale 

    Not an entirely serious, and yet entirely serious, dig at the way poetry is being formalised that I posted on Twitter earlier:

    1. An initial draft of the pay scale in the new poetry dispensation:
    2. First published poem debutant (unpaid)
    3. Mentee (you pay)
    4. First Chapbook debutant (Royalties = 0)
    5. Competition entrant (you pay)
    6. First full collection debutant (Royalties = 0)
    7. Prize winner (money at last)
    8. Mentor (a bit of regular money)
    9. Competition judge (fame and fortune!!!!!)
    10. Festival curator (The pension fund)
     
  • Billy Mills 10:08 on 13/07/2021 Permalink | Reply  

    Recent Reading July 2021 Part 1 

    Fetch Your Mother’s Heart, lisa luxx, Out Spoken Press, 2021, ISBN: 9781838021177, £10.00

    The Yak Dilemma, Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal, Makina Books, 2021, ISBN: 9781527271654, £10.00

    Affiliation, Mira Mattar, Sad Press, 2021, ISBN: 978-1912802395, £6.00

    Notes on Sanskrit and Correspondences, by Nisha Ramayya, Oystercatcher Press, 2015 and 2016, £5.00 each

    Heredity/Astynome by Naush Sabah, Broken Sleep/Legitimate Snack, 2020, No price given, possibly out of print

    Fetch Your Mother’s Heart by lisa luxx, a poet whose work is completely new to me, is a study in the relationship between desire and violence, and the possibility of community in the point of intersection. The source moments are outlined in an introduction, and range from the suicide of a close friend to the Lebanese October Revolution, in which luxx seems to have been a participant. Organised in chapters, each one circling around a central theme, the book draws on both her British and Syrian/Arabic heritages as a way of interrogating the sufficiency of language as a medium.

    In interesting example of this interrogation is the poem ‘for a subculture to resist capitalist co-opting it must remain impossible to define’ which is an extended reclaiming and de-defining of the word ‘Dyke’ as being central to luxx’s subcultural belonging. The title, and the whole desire/violence binary, is reminiscent of some of the most interesting poetry of the 1960s, particularly the work of Denise Levertov and Diane diPrima. In fact, the list poem ‘what you learn in the aftermath’ reads like an updated addition to DiPrima’s Revolutionary Letters.

    4. ‘How are you?’ is a thesis, not a greeting.

    7. Who is stubborn to withstand a military raid for the sake of aircon.

    6. That diapers come according to weight & mothers need mothers.

    The question of mothers, and grandmothers, is also central to the book, which is partly a celebration of female ancestors, the tetas who build community by their caring presence; sisterhood depends on motherhood and the female tradition.

    In the acknowledgements luxx thanks the poet Rewa Zeinati for ‘mentoring the spoken word artist to a page poet’ and ‘pointing me in the direction of craft’. It appears that the mentoring paid off, as the technique on display here is very well honed. Take, as an example, the opening lines of ‘on things we can’t let go of’:

    8 months ago: blood fingerprints
    still on my phone & on my clothes.

    define hope? a stale prayer
    we hold in our mouths

    while pretending to be adults.
    on the bed you paint my toes,

    a howling outside turns over fruit boxes
    searching for its mother’s heart.

    brush sweeping over nail, nail. you bent in,
    use your thumb to wipe paint off my skin.

    wax drips from candelabra onto polaroid:
    me dancing. define war?

    With its starting point in one of the incidents mentioned in the introduction, this passage weaves together most of luxx’s main concerns: home, mothers, the need for and difficulty of definition, desire and violence are all here. What binds them are patterns of sound and image. On a simple level, there is a warp of assonantal short ‘o’ and long ‘a’ sounds running through the entire passage. This underpins the analogical relationships between blood/violence and nail varnish/intimacy, child and mother, what can and cannot be erased. It’s a fine example of how technique can turn raw experience into verbal art while enhancing rather than losing the immediacy of the experience from an interesting, accomplished writer.

    Questions of displacement and belonging run through Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal’s The Yak Dilemma, too. Born in the Indian Himalayas, Dhaliwal studied in Dublin and Belfast and is currently based at the University of Kent and, on the evidence of her poems, has travelled widely. Underlining these explorations outwards is the eternal pull of home:

    As a child, I wanted to venture out as far West

    as I could. As an adult, I have come crawling

    back to the mountains.

    [from ‘Appointment with Norah Richards’]

    The choice of crawling here is interesting, reflecting as it does a kind of reluctant return that chimes with the warm celebration of ‘the West’ in many of the other poems. There’s a sense, throughout the book, of being caught between two (or more) worlds, not quite belonging in any of them. To quote the closing of the title poem:

    Like the snowflakes from colourless skies

    that fall like bullets ricocheting in a war

    zone, kissing February’s hopeless

    ground, I often wonder –

    Where have I truly come to?

    This is echoed in the excellent ‘Ghazal on Living in a Hotel in Downtown Cairo’, for me the standout poem in the collection. The repeated final question of the couplet takes on new shades and implications with each repetition:

    Four walls don’t make a home or a house—it takes some doing

    Cocooned among four rented walls, I try to assume, how am I doing?

    This sense that being at home is work, is not something that can be assumed without effort, is the central theme in the book, and many of the poems can be read as addressing aslant that repeated question.

    Dhaliwal is clearly engaged with Western art and writing, with Van Gogh Edward Hopper, Patrick Kavanagh and others featuring. There’s also an interesting poem on the Repeal of the 8th Amendment, a movement that  gained momentum from the tragic and unnecessary death of Savita Halappanavar, who is remembered in the poem:

    Monday morning. Hordes of people wearing

    badges. REPEAL jumpers and Together for Yes

    merchandise chanting Savita! Savita! Savita!

    This neatly captures the atmosphere of the day, perhaps too neatly. There’s a point at which the writing veers a bit too close to reportage, with too many words to achieve the tension that marks out poetry at its very best. Another example would be in the Norah Jones poem where the parallels between visiting the home of the ‘Lady Gregory of the Punjab’ while living near the home of the original Lady Gregory are perhaps too explicitly drawn.

    This said, Dhaliwal is clearly a talented writer with an eye for telling details, and a good command of both verse and prose-poem forms. This is her first book publication, so I look forward to seeing where her writing takes her, and us. It should also be said that the production of the book, with an eye-catching cover and lots of white space to give the poems room to breathe, is excellent.

    Mira Mattar is a London-based Palestinian/Jordanian novelist and poet whose work is also new to me. The writing in Affiliations also circles around desire and violence, with specific reference to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. The book comprises to parts, the first being four poems called ‘Letters from Amman I, II, III and IV’ and the second the 24-page title poem. The writing is dense and ambitious, with a kind of jump-cut quality of juxtaposed images and registers that keeps the reader guessing and engaged:

    The reference to Allen Ginsberg here is telling, being both a critique of his limited view of the world and an acknowledgement of his availability as a model for a poet who wants to engage with the public and private spheres, the worlds of the news report and the home, personal and societal trauma, allowing equal importance to each. While the Amman poems are interesting, the book really comes alive with ‘Affirmations’, which is, on one level, The Fall of America reimagined as The Fall of Ramallah as witnessed from a self-satisfied Brexit Britain where anti-Arab hate is normalised but which also presents the possibility of a kind of freedom.

    The poem is pretty much impossible to quote from satisfactorily, the flow from image to image, idea to idea, phrase to phrase is so intertwined that extracting feels like an act of aggression. Mattar takes academic research (there are a handful of end notes, one of which, delightfully, points to Lorine Niedecker as a source), personal experience, ‘the news’ and weaves them into patterns of dynamic sound that push the reader on. This is poetry that is both deeply engaged and refreshingly experimental, using what we have to call modernist technique to map a world, to create an anti-paean to the impossible necessity of place. Here’s what the final page looks like, just to give a sense of this astounding, important work. Read it.

    In this passage we can see, in part at least, how Mattar constructs the flow of her writing. The repetitions and near repetitions of ‘glimpsed/glimpsed’ echoed later in ‘glimmers’, the proliferation of -ing words set up by the reference to the ‘present continuous’, of ‘like’ where any idea of simile is truncated, above all the repeated ‘between us’ that links the multiple ‘I’s to the ‘we’ that marks the affiliation, the acknowledgement both of shared positions and of paternity, of that ‘I’ of the poem and the father to whom it is dedicated and addressed. This is verbal music of the highest order, with the sound patterns an integral underpinning of the logical and rhetorical flow of the poem, sense and sound inseparable. It doesn’t get much better than this.

    I don’t often review work that’s half a decade old, but I’m happy to make an exception for these two interlocking pamphlets by Nisha Ramayya. The first, Notes on Sanskrit concerns the process of learning Sanskrit from Monier Williams’ 19th century Sanskrit-English dictionary, a work compiled for the distinctly colonial job of helping translate the Christian mythos as a tool for converting Indian Hindus. The work proceeds by way of textual collage, drawing on the dictionary, on Dr Johnson’s Preface to his dictionary, and various scholarly works on Sanskrit literature and Hindu myth and a set of steatite carvings featuring Sanskrit accompanied by texts that recall the didactic cards you see in museum display cases.

    On one level, the writing is a critique of the colonial project, turning the tools of the missionary back on themselves by using the dictionary to explore Sanskrit as a cultural nexus at least as important as its Christian would-be ‘improvers’. But that is only one level. Ramayya reflects on the move of Sanskrit from oral to written, a development that opened the language up to more people, specifically women who were excluded from the exclusively male Brahmin guardians of the oral tradition. Colonialism isn’t always a foreign import. From this develops a focus on goddesses, especially Vāc, the goddess of ‘voice, speech language and sound’.  We are invited to meditate, and I use that word deliberately, on the nature of nature as mediated through language:

    The laws of this language reflect the laws of the universe, we might never come closer to the truth. This language does things to me, this language that speaks you more than you know. This is me putting you into practice. The linguistic and grammatical sequence parallels spiritual progression.

    This paragraph leads into a section in which the units of Sanskrit, from phoneme through letters, words, sentences and so on lead to a contemplation of love as expressed as ‘the sound between them’.

    In this system, the dictionary compiler becomes a kind of democratic Brahmin, opening up the mysteries of Sanskrit (or any language) to anyone with an interest in exploring them. in fact, there’s a poem here called ‘The Lexicographer-Priest, containing the lines:

    these are monuments to fragility

    in an ambiguous resting ground

    words show through the page where they should not

    Ambiguity is central here. If you can use the works of the Imperial lexicographer to question the Imperial project then you may well come to respect the works, if not the intentions, of that person. The idea of words showing through the thin paper pages of the dictionary folds into that unexpected respect, grudging, unexpected, a faded presence behind the façade of the intention.

    The pamphlet closes with a passage in which is sitting at her desk reading ‘H.D. and Freud and Tantric philosophy’, a neat segue into Correspondences, a meditation on Tantra in all its aspects.

    Tantra is the practice of extending, of stretching to make connections, of creating something from those connections. Tantra is the weaving of multiple threads and the extrication of one essential part from the whole.

    A description that could equally apply to Ramayya’s writing here.

     The epigraph to the booklet is a quote from a song made famous by Fats Waller: ‘I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter/And make believe it came from you’. It’s a quote that’s doubly relevant to the contents; they can be read as letters from and to Ramayya, and the role of make believe is important to her linking of Tantra, Vāc-as-language praxis, and mantra:

    Correspondence is make believe is sacrifice is practising a falling exchange: which parts of yourself to which soft curses?

    At the core of this pamphlet is a long section called ‘Her Voice as instrument of Thought’ that circles around the idea of mantra as being pre-linguistic, a sound (the famous example being Om or Aum) that is not so much without as before meaning, with a reminder that Vāc is concerned with animal as well as human speech, and that the mantra connects the meditating human with the animal world through a shared focus on sound in and of itself.

    The booklet ends with two Postscripts, one long, the second short. This second one is a fitting ending to a body of work that works to extend our understanding of what poetry might be, not just because of what it’s ‘about’ but by the way in which it’s made:

    Now that you are here, you are in the space: what will you do, now that you are here?

    Naush Sabah’s Heredity/Astynome are also a pair of pamphlets from the ever-interesting Legitimate Snack series, though the link between them is not as immediately apparent. The first, Heredity, is a single longish poem in three sections which as, as a headnote, the second stanza of Thomas Hardy’s poem of the same name. Hardy wrote of the genetic inheritance that outlives the individual, and Sabah focuses on much the same thing, but with more of a sense of what’s lost than what’s retained.

    The poem opens with an image from her mother’s childhood in Pakistan:

    This skill of foraging out of necessity becomes, later in this first section, one apparently inherited by the poet’s daughter, but applied out of curiosity and a sense of exploration rather than need when, having made cordial from the elderflowers they picked, she notes ‘I don’t tell her that Naani/picked fruit to quell hunger.’

    In the interim, the poem traces an intergenerational journey from village to inner city to suburbs, a tamed version of the point of origin. That which is inherited is also transformed through experience and opportunity. It ends with mother and daughter learning a shared language suited to their new needs.

    In the second section, the question of language as unifier and separator is central. It starts with a joke about foreignness: ‘I tell mom/that, not being a gori,/I cannot speak English.’ but as the section proceeds we see the daughter and her children become foreign to the rest of her family through a process of drift away from that central inheritance, the mother tongue.

    The non-Urdu speaking reader is brought inside the experience of alienation through passages that are bordering on bilingual, in an effective piece of mimesis:

    The third section turns to what we might think of as socio-cultural inheritance, and again links the speaker’s parents and children to enact the change. It opens with an unspoken prohibition ‘They never said I couldn’t/befriend boys but I knew/the forbidden instinctively’. The girl comes up with a simple solution that fits in her inner-city life: ‘So I played with them every day/and never named them friends.’ A situation that was disrupted by school, an all-girls school outside the immediate area and with high expectations which we are shown leads to the speaker feeling ill at ease at ‘home’. The poem cluses by showing us the youngest generation having firmly broken the line of cultural transmission:

    Astynomewas, in Greek myth, a Trojan woman captured by Achilles and, after the fall of the city, given to Agamemnon as booty, an action that led to the god Apollo sending a plague on the Greek army until she was returned to her mother Chryses. Her name in the Iliad is Chryseis (daughter of Chryses), a name that is famous in literature as Cressida, and Sabah uses an apposite quote from The Testament of Cresseid by Robert Henrysoun:

    Because I knaw the great unstabilness,

    Brukkill as glass, into my self I say,

    Traisting in uther als greit unfaithfulness,

    Als unconstant, and als untrew of fay.

    Henrysoun undermines the standard trope of Cressida as the epitome of false womankind by showing her as being the victim of the fickle nature of love, or Venus. It’s an apposite epigraph as Sabah’s poems here circle around ideas of the relationship between love, sex, pain and abandonment. The narrating voice is clear headed in her view of men and their wish to define women to suit their self-image:

    Men: their narratives and histories,

    the myths that make them heroes or lovers.

    I’ve disgorged my witness, liquid ejecta

    flung out of the jagged fissure you made.

    Oh, you are weaker than a woman’s tears,

    the traitor who turned me so treacherous.

    [from ‘Holding the Book’]

    There’s a sense throughout these poems of love as confinement, a snaring, seductive falsehood:

    I’m sick of summer’s oppressive air,

    tired of everyone’s lurid happiness,

    blind belief in each other’s constancy,

    clammy hands entwined as they walk past me,

    upturned long gazing in locked embrasures,

    soft-lit Instagram pictures of their dates.

    I’m not jealous, I’m just disillusioned.

    [from ‘In the Park for Daily Exercise’]

    I said at the beginning that the link between these two pamphlets is not immediately apparent, but on close reading certain shared concerns emerge. Centrally, Sabah writes about how we become foreign to each other, and that love cannot prevent this. What we share emerges as being no stronger than what separates us. In the end, literally the end of Naush 9b.indd ‘Listening to Little Simz’ “Poison Ivy”’ the last poem here, what matters is the poem:

    I have inked you black and me in red,

    printed us both into feltmarked paper.

    I will close a box upon us at last,

    label this hazardous and toxic waste

    or call it a poem and end it.

    It’s been hugely interesting reading these poets whose work is new to me. It seems the future of poetry is in good hands.

     
  • Billy Mills 13:46 on 08/07/2021 Permalink | Reply
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    In Memory of Michael Horovitz: International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall 

     
  • Billy Mills 11:47 on 30/06/2021 Permalink | Reply
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    seasonal words by Harry Gilonis: A review 

    seasonal words, Harry Gilonis, Coracle, 2021, 300 casebound copies, ISBN 9780906630648, €25.00

    seasonal words is a handsomely produced collection of 100 translations of Japanese haiku, each original transcribed in Romanji with the translation facing on the verso. The versions were originally distributed to friends of the translator by email between 17th September and 24 December 2020, more or less overlapping the Japanese autumn and winter seasons, and a large chunk of the Covid lockdown period in the UK and the US presidential election. This information is provided in a note at the end of the book that begins ‘This is supposed to be one of those books you pick up and read, so I’m not going to burden you with prose.’ While this may be a refreshing approach as compared to volumes of translation that hide the poetry behind the explication, it is a challenge thrown down to the poor reviewer who has little option than to burden you with said prose. Add this to the difficulties inherent in reviewing translations from a language you’re not familiar with, as already discussed on this blog a number of times; who’d be a reviewer?

    Gilonis covers as wide a chronological range as it is possible for a haiku anthologist to manage, from the 15th century poet Iio Sōgi, whose inclusion reflects the form’s roots in renga, to a number of still living poets, such as Yumiko Katayama. One question that immediately arises is what it might be, apart from language, that connects these poets across almost six centuries; in other words, what is haiku? For me at least, this resolves to a consideration of the nature and function of analogy in poetry. Western readers will tend to think of poetic analogies in terms of simile and metaphor, the comparison or identification of disparate ‘things’ in order to illuminate some commonality, in both forms, a ‘thing’ is considered in terms of some other ‘thing’; the ship is a plough, the sea a field.

    In haiku, as I read them, things are considered in their own terms in as much as the mediating nature of language allows; their haecceitas is fully respected. The analogy is created by placing things in themselves in juxtaposition to create moments of apprehension. Consider what may be the first haiku written in English:

    The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

    Petals on a wet, black bough.

    Faces and petals are held in a relationship that is neither simile nor metaphor. They exist independently but their juxtaposition creates a kind of suspended analogy that, for me, is the essence of haiku. The haiku poet isn’t telling us what we might feel or think, they are inviting us to ponder.

    None of which should be taken as a reading in which haiku are seen as isolated fragments. In fact, they are often created in response to other poets, as responses to other aspects of Japanese culture, such as paintings or Noh, as parts of sequences or embedded in prose haibun. To take one example, Gilonis translates a famous Buson poem thus:

    yanagi chiri 
    shimizu kare
    tokorodokoro

    willow leaves are gone
    clear water dried to petals
    scattered here and there

    Even casual readers of haiku will be familiar with the 5/7/5 struture, thought of as syllables in English thought in Japanese they are strictly speaking morae, or units of syllable weight. Gilonis is unusual among English haikuists in following the syllable pattern strictly. This can often result in a certain stiffness. One exception to this is Richard Wright, who handles the strict form with great flexibility. The same is true of Gilonis; in these versions the adherence to form becomes almost invisible. This becomes evident in those versions where the originals have lines with an extra mora, jiamari lines, where this is reflected by the addition of an extra syllable. The formal fidelity is part of a wider faithfulness to the originals in almost all the versions here. Here’s an example, a haiku by Basho, with two other well-known translations for comparison:

    kono aki wa

    nande toshi yoru

    kumo ni tori       

    now  in this autumn

    how it is  feeling older

    a bird among clouds (Gilonis)

    This autumn,–

    Old age I feel

    In the birds, the clouds. (R.H.Blyth)

    this autumn

    why getting older is like

    a bird into clouds (Jane Reichhold)

    The Reichhold version is marred by that intrusive, unwarranted ‘like’, a slippage into a Western form of analogy. The Blyth seems a little confused in the final line. What Gilonis brings is a fidelity to both the words and the intent of the original. The autumn and the solitary bird illuminate the process of aging by simply being there in the poem and the inserted spaces in the first two lines serve to slow the reader at crucial points.

    I said ‘almost all versions’ because there are a small number of poems that are marked as being ‘after’ the originals. These tend to have a word or two inserted to reflect the circumstances in which the versions were originally made and shared. For instance, in this version after Kakuta Chikurei, the word ‘halved’ is included as a nod to mask wearing:

    itsumademo    
    ikiteiru ki no   
    kao bakari     
    all eternity
    that’s how long a lifespan looks
    all those halved faces

    Sometimes the original fitted the context like a glove, as in this version from Ishibashi Hideno that was first shared on the day of the 2020 US presidential election result announcement:

    wakuraba no
    uzu ni nori yuku        
    hayasakana 
    that leaf blotched with blight
    carried off in an eddy –
    how quickly it’s gone

    In the note, we’re informed that another poem was available should the result have gone the other way.

    It’s pretty much impossible to do full justice to the pleasures of this book in a thousand or so words. If you already love haiku, then this is an invaluable addition to your library. If you don’t know much about the form, then its an equally invaluable introduction. It’s also a fine addition to the corpus of Gilonis’ work as poet/translator. In my review of his selected poems, Rough Breathing, I wrote ‘[t]he Poundian injunction to ‘make in new’ includes the imperative to view time not as a straight line, but as a cycle of recurrence, so that apparently distant historic moments become contemporary with, and illuminate, each other, as the Ranters illuminate the need to protest the injustices of the now.’ This ability to make the past alive in the present is very much in evidence here again.

    Finally, I would like to congratulate Coracle on the production of this book; from the bright yellow cover to the ample white space afforded each poem and the very readable font, it’s a physical as well as mental pleasure to hold.

     
    • Markie Doczi 12:04 on 09/07/2021 Permalink | Reply

      This was a good read. (Though I feel differently about the election!) I would love to read the book, I do enjoy haikus, both reading and writing them. My favorite line: ‘the ship is a plough, the sea a field.’ Is that yours? Add a description in the middle and you’ve got a new haiku right there!

      Liked by 1 person

    • ellaaray 15:05 on 14/07/2021 Permalink | Reply

      Nice review you did here, Don’t really know much about haiku but I’ll try to do more research on it and read book also. Nice one🙌

      Liked by 1 person

  • Billy Mills 11:02 on 24/06/2021 Permalink | Reply  

    Recent Reading: June 2021 

    Love on the Isle of Dogs, Jude Cowan Montague, Friends of Alice, 2020, ISBN13 9781916030671, £11.32

    Courtship of Lapwings, Maggie O’Sullivan, if p then q, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-9999547-7-2, £15.00

    Bone House, Moyra Donaldson, Doire Press, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-907682-81-0, €12,00

    By Bus, Erica Van Horn, Ugly duckling Presse, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-946433-73-2, $20.00

    Under The Cliff Like, Tim Allen, if p then q, 2017, ISBN: 978-0957182790, £8.00

    Portland: a Triptych, Tim Allen, Norman Jope & Mark Goodwin, Knives Forks & Spoons Press, 2019, ISBN 978-1912211319, £11.00

    Jude Cowan Montague’s Love on the Isle of Dogs is a book that takes me straight out of my reviewing comfort zone. It’s a kind of graphic memoir of a marriage in 1990s London that succumbs to the severe mental health issues of her partner. The story is told twice, first vias an extended graphic treatment, then in prose. The two versions are somewhat different in the order of events, but there is a kind of visual overlap, with the graphics incorporating text and the prose using visual techniques such as indentation, double line breaks and caps lock phrases to good effect.

    It’s a sad story, but with a happy ending. The narrator falls in love, marries, has a child, watches her partner sink into psychosis and ultimately leaves under the threat of violence and the need to protect herself and her child, who we learn at the end are survivors. The story is summarised in two brief extracts, one from near the beginning, the other from near the end:

    The first emerges from an introduction that talks of the narrator’s childhood desire do find an undiscovered star:

    When I found a star, it fell into my hand.

    But it burnt me, so I let it go.

    The second is a moment of realisation that emerges from a conversation with her husband’s therapist at the London Hospital:

    Denial is a form of collusion.

    This insight is really at the core of the story; pretending nothing is wrong doesn’t make things any better, and it’s only when her partner almost kills her that the narrator snaps out of denial, realises she’s part of the problem, and leaves.

    Between these two phrases, a shouted ‘WHO ARE YOU’ acts as a kind of refrain. Ostensibly it’s the partner failing to recognise the narrator, but it evolves into also being the narrator asking the same question of herself, a question that is answered implicitly by her survival.

    The prose version is nicely done, but the graphic version caught my interest more. Cowan Montague draws in a kind of naïve style, I think, but my knowledge in this area is scant (click on the link above to see some sample pages). What is striking is the way she uses the power of the comic format to be both sequential and simultaneous. The frames or pages move us forward one to the next, but she uses the ability of the individual image to show us a situation where everything is happening at the same time, with the eye creating its own order each time an image is viewed. In this, her drawings reminded my untutored eye of the paintings of Chaïm Soutine. As I said at the outlet, it’s a book that moved me out of my comfort zone, but I’m glad I took the step.

    The marriage of verbal and visual is equally central to Maggie O’Sullivan’s Courtship of Lapwings, albeit in entirely different modes. An A4 hardback, at first glance it has the look of a book for children. Inside, poet and publisher have deployed the full range of typographic tools to create a minimalist feast for the eyes. Font size, colour and bold/italic formatting along with a range of punctuation marks and other symbols create an effect that is not unlike a partially damaged manuscript or the Anglo Saxon ‘Ruin’ come to mind. It’s impossible to quote, so here’s a more-or less random page to illustrate:

    It’s tempting to consider these typographical elements as some kind of score for sounding the poems out, but if you listen to O’Sullivan reading the work, this is not the case; the visual and audio aspects of the work exist in parallel, separate but complementary.

    The poems draw on a number of sources, including John Clare, Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe and Bill Griffiths, but the results are her own unique soundscape. This is evident in this passage that draws on Clare, but is pure O’Sullivan (the original is in a shade of purple):

    quag edge, ear lone

    Quakes mute,

    Sittest invest

    Thriving swell, hilling thy

    bill, Suited doth jellied

    mayhap, dressed desolate mystic

    oceans,

    thread remotest stag pervades.

    ear unventured gazed

    dread breath Hiding wild

    restless ever most

    tempests each sight,

    power heartens roughest wave.

     As is so often the case, she is exploring the power of language to evoke what lies under the surface of perception. It’s interesting to compare these lines with the Clare original, ‘To the Snipe’. By looking at the first four quatrains of the Clare set beside the extract above, what becomes evident is a process of mining the original for its sound patterns, so that the O’Sullivan text enters in to the bird as a maker of sounds as a poet making patterns of sound.

    Lover of swamps

    The quagmire over grown

    With hassock tufts of sedge–where fear encamps

    Around thy home alone  

    The trembling grass

    Quakes from the human foot

    Nor bears the weight of man to let him pass

    Where thou alone and mute  

    Sittest at rest

    In safety neath the clump

    Of hugh flag forrest that thy haunts invest

    Or some old sallow stump  

    Thriving on seams

    That tiney island swell

    Just hilling from the mud and rancid streams

    Suiting thy nature well

    The shift from right to centre alignment emphasises the idea that we are being presented with a core, the carved-out spine of Clare’s original. It may be significant that the snipe, like so many other birds is much less common now than it was in Clare’s time, much less of a lived presence for O’Sullivan’s readership than it was for his. It may not.           

    This entering in is an aspect of O’Sullivan’s poetry that is often referred to as ‘shamanic’, but I’m not sure that this is quite the right word. O’Sullivan seems less interested in altered states of consciousness than in a heightened condition of what, for want of a better word, we might call a normal state, and this heightening is achieved through an intense version of the language medium. In any case, it’s plain that she takes the role of the poet as a linguistic explorer seriously; her work doesn’t describe and isn’t about, it is the creation of language ‘things’ that evoke the things of the extra-linguistic world. This volume is a welcome addition to her body of work, and in if p then q she has been fortunate in finding a publisher that treats the poems with the care they so richly deserve.

    If the lyric ‘I’ is radically decentered in O’Sullivan’s work, it tends to be front and centre in Moyra Donaldson’s Bone House. In an article in the Irish Times, Donaldson discusses the importance of her Presbyterian upbringing, a childhood formed by fear, in the making of the poems here. In her introduction to the book, Paula Meehan points to the centrality of mother/daughter relationships. While it’s true that both these overlapping elements are present, it would, I think, be a mistake to think of Donaldson as a purely Confessional poet in the mould of Plath or Berryman, focused on her own suffering to the exclusion of the outside world. There are elements of this, of course, but Donaldson never really loses sight of the wider context.

    This wider context includes the natural world, myth and, as elsewhere in her work, the numinous presence of horses. In ‘Rock of Ages’, a title that echoes a popular Calvinist hymn of redemption, we see two of these elements come together as a kind of antidote to the guilt and fear:

    My poor mother envisioned me in hell, eternally

    gone, like Persephone in her dark god’s lap, but worse –

    no possibility of coming back.

    A living god

    has always been

    a fearful thing.

    The choice of Persephone here explicitly refutes the mother’s fear, as spring always returns and the linear world of the ‘living god’ is replaced by the cyclical, solar time of the dead gods. Later, in a poem called ‘Helenium Autumnale’, this cyclical, natural time is brought to focus on an image of how the patriarchal treats both women and the natural world:

    until now in late autumn,

    finches come to feast on their seeds

    and I’m still sitting, looking, thinking

    of how the earth has been salted,

    watered, fed by women’s tears.

    This interlacing of the autobiographical and the environmental is what, for this reader at least, moves the poems here beyond the limits of the confessional, away from the human-centred to a more eco-centric mode. For instance, in ‘Wildfire’ the poet presents women as both guardians of nature and victims of our accidental, willed destruction of the natural balance. In ‘Samhain’, named for the Old Irish festival when the doors to the otherworld were believed to open up, we are offered an image of reconciliation, as the speaker’s animals return home for the night; first the dogs, then the cats and finally those horses:

    When the moon had fully risen,

    the horses came galloping,

    their hooves unshod,

    their breath pluming the air.

    They had forgiven us everything.

    This is another fine book from a distinctive poetic voice.

    Erica Van Horn’s By Bus is another trip out of my zone. Listed by the publisher under Travel, this set of short prose texts chronicling Van Horn’s experiences using local and national buses around Ireland could just as easily be filed under Social Anthropology. Van Horn is an acute observer of the everyday strange who writes a prose that is both idiosyncratic and transparent, conversational in tone, yet somehow maintaining sufficient detachment.

    On one bus, a man polishes his boots, elsewhere a roadside sign seen from the window calls out a rapist. People take the bus in search of love, companionship, shopping, or just to pass the time. People get left behind and the bus has to turn back, buses get lost, arrive hours late. Through all of this, a common note is the end or loss of a sense of privacy; as Van Horn puts it ‘We were already hearing much more than we wanted to hear.’

    In one sense, the buses are places of transient community, where people come together in a confined space with shared goals and experiences, and the benefits of this are highlighted here, for instance in the final piece which highlights the importance of thanking the driver when disembarking: ‘To describe someone as a Get-Off-The-Bus-With-No-Thank-You Person is a harsh criticism.’ While this is a simple observation on a pattern of exchange the community expects, there is greater communal worth displayed in the piece called ‘No Luck’ in which the entire bus is determined to ensure that the ‘young man from the Indian sub-continent’ gets off in Fermoy successfully.

    However, Van Horn observes the dividing effect of such simple factors as window or aisle seat, left/right side of the bus. One of the most poignant observations here, ‘Get the Sheep’, closes with a group of friends entering Cahir, the town nearest to Van Horn’s home base:

    The man and the woman behind me saw the river and the weir and the steeple of the small John Nash church in the curve of the river, but they missed the castle. The people on the far side of the bus missed the view downriver. They had the castle but not the river. They were friends who were travelling together, but not together.

    In the end, this together/not together observation is the kernel of Van Horn’s study of the bus people. Fascinating book.

    The easiest way to describe Tim Allen’s Under The Cliff Like is to simply quote the note on the text at the end of the book:

    ‘Under The Cliff Like’ is constructed from the ‘Title And First Line Index’ in the 1962 edition of ‘Granger’s Index To Poetry’ (Columbia University Press. U.S.A.) which I found in a junk shop. It was written in 1996. In alphabetical order all entries beginning with ‘Like’ are juxtaposed with the equivalent number of entries beginning with ‘Under’. There are no alterations other than elimination of commas and the capital letter of the juxtaposed line plus the insertion of full stops at the end of each pairing.

    The resulting collage sentences are presented here as pairs, the ones beginning ‘Like’ at the top of the verso and those beginning ‘Under’ at the bottom of the recto’, a mirroring effect that becomes part of the rhythm of reading. This arrangement, apparently suggested by publisher James Davies, is impossible to reproduce in a review, but integral to the way the book functions as a book.

    Through his source material, Allen is collaborating here with the entire tradition of English verse, in a kind of nonce surrealist game that becomes, on one level, an interrogation of the simile as a device. If its function is to illuminate by analogy, then what is illuminated when the process of selection is transferred from the poet to the procedure? 

    Like a chained brute beast howling in the heat under a lonely sky a lonely tree.

    Under a sky of azure like a clamorous flock of startled birds.

    This example pair, from early in the series, is reasonably representative of how it works. The alphabetical nature of an index means that frequently nouns or adjectives in the recto will recur in the verso, so that, for instance, ‘sky’ gives at least the impression of coherence, encouraging our instinct for meaning to see the link between the chained beast, sky, tree and startled birds. The process is one that encourages slow reading, the way one might read a haiku or koan. The simile structure becomes less direct, more implicit. The reader is invited to concentrate on the analogies that emerge from the conjunction of the disparate elements involved:

    Like snow under the viaduct by the hot canal.

    Under the violets like snowflakes or like petals of sweet flowers.

    The note quoted above also advises that a ‘full list of the lines’ original authors is unavailable on request’; however, one additional pleasure is recognising the occasional source, and seeing a line you know well open up in its new context:

    Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall under my feet the moon.

    Under my keel another boat like a sleeping swine upon the skyline.

    The happenstance flow of congruence and incongruity on page after page results in a poem (and I read the book as a single work) that achieves the Ciceronian ambition, Docere, Delectare, Movere, by the most unusual means. Fittingly the ending is not an ending, just a single recto reading

    Like the pippin blushing high underfoot…

    An index may be finite, but poetry opens on the infinite. The temptation is to go on quoting all the pairs of pages I stuck post-its in, but it would be better if you read the whole thing.

    Allen is involved in a somewhat more conventional collaboration in Portland: a Triptych, a book comprising three interfolded texts around Portland Island by him, Norman Jope and Mark Goodwin. An introduction and three authors’ notes fill in some background, most interestingly, perhaps, the fact that these poems were written at different times. Allen’s ‘Pontoon’ sequence in the early 1990s, Jope’s ‘Veästa’ towards the end of that decade, each quite separately, and Goodwin’s ‘Portland Mix’, a set of concrete block poems, in the 2010, as a response to the two earlier sequences.

    Allen was born and raised on Portland, and his contribution is kind of autobiographical, what the introduction calls ‘experiential abstraction’. He deploys a three-line stanza as his main formal device, but with prosy sections in italics and more fractured lyrical sections in a larger, non-serif font. The triplets are frequently accompanied by marginal notes that call to mind the 1817 version of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.

    There are outlines of sexual and cultural awakenings set against a backdrop of the geology, military and prison histories and present of the island an insider’s eye that embraces and rejects simultaneously:

    I never grew up in a landscape. It wasn’t a city either

                         I grew up in a comb on an isthmus. The experience of being

                                    surrounded by the sea can be likened to looking at radio

    For the insider, Portland is a place, not a picturesque destination, as is called out in the distinction between tourist groups and local transport:

    Landscape was seen from coaches not busses.

                    Taut trips…Retinal foundations…Lacanian charm…

    This insider/outsider conflict underpins Jope’s sequence, named after a local mythical sea-monster who is the ultimate outsider, and who, in the poem, takes on something of the nature of the King under the hill, albeit the hill is replaced by the sea. In the poem, Veästa is seen walking the island and other, similar limestone outcrops in Gibraltar, Malta and Aden. It also takes on something of the nature of the rebel Shelley. But the land rejects the incomer, and at the end he leaves:

    Beneath a dark blue sky

    with indifferent stars, he bows

    before vanishing once again

    for five hundred years or a day.

    Jope’s poem interrupts Allen’s, like geological strata, and Goodwin’s blocks of text intrude throughout the book. Portland is famous for its stone, which is the material for many famous London buildings. Many of Goodwin’s pieces consist of the names of these, echoing the role of the capital in Allen’s poems as a place of escape. It is, ultimately, this folding in of the disparate elements that gives this book its great interest. If I have one criticism it is that the small, cramped page size fails to do justice to the visual impact of the texts, but that’s a minor cavil.

     
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