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  • Billy Mills 12:57 on 25/01/2023 Permalink | Reply  

    A note on one verse of Desolation Row 

    I’ve been thinking about this verse a lot recently, because that’s the kind of sad person I am:

    Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window for her I feel so afraid
    On her twenty-second birthday she already is an old maid
    To her, death is quite romantic she wears an iron vest
    Her profession’s her religion, her sin is her lifelessness
    And though her eyes are fixed upon Noah’s great rainbow
    She spends her time peeking into Desolation Row

    There’s quite a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with this exchange from Hamlet:


    That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty.


    Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?


    Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness: this was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof. I did love you once.


    Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.


    You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it: I loved you not.


    I was the more deceived.


    Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery.
    Where’s your father?

    Dylan’s Ophelia clearly took Hamlet at his word and became a kind of nun, a woman whose profession (in both senses) is her religion. Having been deceived by the man she thought lived her, she has abandoned love and become a premature ‘old maid’ and become a penitent (who wears an iron vest) and devoted herself to a religion that denies life, and as such is unnatural, a religion based on a sin.

    And her death is kind of romantic:


    There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
    That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
    There with fantastic garlands did she come
    Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
    That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
    But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:>
    There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
    Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
    When down her weedy trophies and herself
    Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;

    And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
    Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
    As one incapable of her own distress,
    Or like a creature native and indued
    Unto that element: but long it could not be
    Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
    Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
    To muddy death.

    And for many people rendered even more so by Millais’ famous painting:

    Her lifelessness is emphasised by her fixed gaze, a kind oof religious meditation, on Noah’s rainbow, which is a symbol of life and of the divine promise to protect it:

    Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you–the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you–every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”

    Ophelia in the song represents, as I understand it, those who for one reason or another turn their back on life and enter into a kind of hypocritical religious escape, a religion that fails to understand the world.

    And yet, she has some understanding of her false position; she spends her time peeking into Desolation Row because she knows that life, in all its messy glory, is there.

    • mason mckibben 19:54 on 25/01/2023 Permalink | Reply

      just before the ruse set up by claudius, polonious and gertrude, hamlet’s mother speaks of many the same words. just by participating, ophelia becomes questionable material, a participant in desolation row. a place she can not understand any more than hamlets “madness.”

      I shall obey you.
      And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish
      That your good beauties be the happy cause
      Of Hamlets wildness. So shall I hope your virtues
      Will bring him to his wonted way again,
      To both your honours.

      hamlet hits every word:
      beauty, virtue, honour

      anyhoo, falling back into the text, the piece hamlet wrote played by the players

      Liked by 1 person

  • Billy Mills 10:41 on 16/01/2023 Permalink | Reply

    Terra Terra and Bar Null by David Lloyd: a Review 

    Terra Terra, David Lloyd, Magra Books, 2022, $10.00

    The Harm Fields, David Lloyd, The University of Georgia Press, 2022, ISBN: 9-780-8203-6262-5, $19.95

    Having just reviewed some of David Lloyd’s critical work, it’s with great pleasure that I turn to his recent poetry via these two recent publications. Terra Terra is the shorter of the two, consisting of three sequences, two in verse and the last a set of prose poems.

    The first of these, ‘AA, Poeta’ is a kind of homage to the Chicano poet Alfred Arteaga, whose work Lloyd has translated in the past. The first section of this two-part poem opens in Spanish ‘el poeta/da/de nada’, which then morphs through Italian, French, German (with a nod to Heidegger) to English again. This process of transformation is shaped by the sounds of the words involved as much as a semantic thread (poet/nothing/unmoving/desire/being):

    el poeta


                    de nada




    des         seins





    gives this sign

                                    de estar

    Driven by the vowel shift through short ‘a’ to short ‘e’ to that long ‘a’ in estar, the extraordinary density of the text combined with the ‘open field’ structure sets a tone of immersion in the world, a responsiveness to the idea of the rhythm of language as a mirror of the rhythm of what is:

    measure and beat

                                    of the wing

    The second Sequence, ‘The Dull Charge of Europe’ is technically similar, but the content is more overtly both political and personal. The politics, as befits one of our most important writers on Post-Colonialism, has to do with the effects of imperialist projects:

    we laid waste, we

                    burned, we plundered


                    destroyed houses and trees

    The repeated and visually emphasised use of ‘we’ serves to emphasise collective responsibility, as opposed to moralistic fingerpointing. However, this is, as I said, only one aspect of the poem’s engagement. The second section ends with the quote that gives the pamphlet its title: ‘a terra terra remota mea’, taken from the end of the first part of Book I of Ovid’s Tristia, a poem of exile and nostalgia, the exile of a poet whose work failed to find favour in his homeland.:

    plura quidem mandare tibi, si quaeris, habebam,
         sed uereor tardae causa fuisse uiae;
    et si quae subeunt, tecum, liber, omnia ferres,
         sarcina laturo magna futurus eras.
    longa uia est, propera! nobis habitabitur orbis
         ultimus, a terra terra remota mea.

    The poet is asking his book to reconcile his fellow citizens to that work, while recognising the near impossibility of the task. The third section of Lloyd’s poem opens with a translation of the Ovidian phrase while making the leap from the west coast of the USA to the west coast of Ireland:

    o land far from my land

                    my west is not your west

                                                                     (so she sleeps)

    the Bloody Foreland

                                    a red wash

                                                                in the air

    mantled in mizzling rain

    This shift to the ‘shattered edge of Europe’ serves to complicate any notion of that continent as an imperial power; Ireland is both of Europe and of the Post-Colonial world and has embraced the former as a way out of the shadow of the latter, even more so since the Brexit farce. Lloyd’s vision of ‘an archipelago/of red republics/threaded along/this ragged rim’ is not one that is likely to find much support here, for good or ill.

    This thread is picked up in ‘Landscape’, the first prose poem in ‘Spores’ (the section has as epigraph le pire oubli, c’est l’ouble de l’oubli, a pointer towards the importance of memory, and it’s sibling nostalgia, in these pieces):

    In any place long ravaged by enforced departures, those who wove the fabric of its life in common out of the complex networks memory and feeling are more likely than not to have left….

    The migrant’s nostalgia is not the romanticization of the place or time of her youth. It is an appalled gaze levelled at desolation, grasping the landscape as the ruin that is all that remains of a life that once was to have gone on.

    This notion of presence-in-absence, of the intimate engagement with the place you no longer inhabit because, like Ovid, the centre has mandated your removal is central, although it could be argued that, from the perspective of those who did not leave, that ‘appalled gaze’ is romantic, missing the value of change for those who live in the place’s present.

    In a later piece, ‘Archive’, the reader is presented with a catalogue of absent lives: work boots, shoes, suits and shirts long abandoned, ‘letters from the archipelago of loss’; it’s a phrase that might serve as a summary of these poems.

    The Harm Field opens with a prose sequence, ‘Leavings’ a memoir of sorts in three parts, the first focused on experiences of hostility in London in, I guess, the 1970s, the second primarily memories of childhood and the third a looking back on Ireland from the same position of exile that informs Terra Terra, a ‘homesickness for places that were never yours’. A new element that intrudes here is the question of language, and specifically the loss or lack of Irish as a native tongue, as in a mamoty of the narrator’s mother teaching him and his brother ‘the numbers’:

    …a-hain, a-doe, a-tray, a-kather, a-cooig, a-shock, a-shay, the rest escapes me. Lisping in numbers. The road dips and turns, if I remember right, the architect’s modernist bungalow dominating the bend. I left on the ferry and come back by plane. Sometimes I think the language that I never learnt still weighs on my tongue, thickening my Ts behind my teeth.

    Again, the reader is struck by the complex web that lies behind this apparently simple memory: the striking conjunction of modernism and the rural belies any straightforward narrative of unsophisticated home versus cosmopolitan exile; this contrasts with he clear evidence of change in the narrator’s fortunes (ferry/plane); the rich inter-relationship between the language not learnt and the language that is the narrator’s professional concern. We are, as in Terra Terra, in a world of necessary ambiguity.

    The brutality of the London Irish experience is amplified when the poetry turns to the Middle East in poems like ‘Scarf’, that grows out of the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982:

    For the killed there is no sheltering

    and no talk of it. We do not

    speak of the dead gathering

    where stillness took over.

    And ‘Psalm’, which turns to similar events in Qana in 1986:

    Bitter ash of Qana and this is not the end

    smoke of an outrage smearing the sullen sun

    dark dusts from Zion trouble the splitting air

    ashen the fallen olives in the bulldozed groves

    ashen the captive corpses under their crusting blood

    bitter ash of Qana and this is not the end

    This stanza, from the four-verse second section of the poem, shows many of the characteristics of the lyric: assonance, alliteration, repetition, internal rhyming. One key factor is, however, removed, the first person singular; this is lyric without the lyric ‘I’. There’s a deep irony, also, that Lloyd chooses to use the Biblical song of praise to mourn, this is psalm as lamentation and a cry against injustice. The titular harm fields are, amongst other things, these places of slaughter.

    The most substantial piece in the book is the last sequence, ‘Bar Null’, a set of 14 poems of 16 lines each, written, we are told, ‘in/divisible ink’. The title is intriguing in itself. Does it refer to a zero value on a bar graph, generating in invisible (indivisible) bar? Is there an echo of the expression ‘bar none’? It almost certainly relates to Robert Kaplan’s The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero, which is referenced in the notes; not having read Kaplan’s book I can only guess as to the nature of the relationship. One thing that is clear is that Zero is neither a negative nor a positive. t is, if you loke, an absence that stands outside that binary but that makes our calculations about the world possible.

    The sequence begins with a significant absence:

    All the waves arrive bereft of their refugees,

    the trees abolish even their ruins,

    amassed in the chamber of zeroes.

    The refugee that doesn’t make landfall is a nothing that is. Beyond that, these open lines begin to establish the landscape of ‘Bar Null’: seashore, trees, rocks and stones form the world of the poem’s absences. Time and again we return to the beachscape as a place of provisional presence in absence:

    A stone standing along the rim, a pine

    cut-out, fog-dodged, determined the limit

    you’d meet, a human looming maybe on

    the foreshore.

    The ‘maybe’ is hinge, a Beckettian hesitation:

    Across the meridian

    the new thing escapes me, there then

    not there.

    Lloyd uses literary references to bring out all the dimensions of his charting of ‘this great null of ocean’ that both separates and connects, offers hope and delivers death. Four words in the sixth poem of the sequence summon up the spirit of Yeats and link the absent seekers after refuge to a global political power game in which the worst most definitely are possessed of ‘a passionate intensity’ of hate and greed:

    Like a blue water clause, scale determines

    where you step—beyond the limit

    the centre doesn’t hold, rhythm grows wily

    and makes grooves of its own, will you won’t you

    one two want to now. We were speaking of

    power, showy things and shit: the base is four-

    fold and still things move into their refuge.

    All along a slow burn festers in the root mat.

    For me, at least, another axis on this null graph is a set of ecological concerns ranging from the climate factors behind an increasing proportion of migration to a general sense of foreboding:

    Phosphor drops searing out of the scalded air,

    splutter of sparks annulling the bone:

    dredged earth laid bare afire, every thing

    burns in its own way, with an aura

    of hot breath. Dead face turned from me

    recedes into the fold, a word breathed in

    my ear catches in its knot, reticulate

    loops snaring the parting song, this science

    of disappearance checking out for now.

    Not in detail, but as a general underlay, I sense the absent presence of Hugh MacDiarmid’s great proto-ecopoetic ‘On a Raised Beach’ behind ‘Bar Null’. MacDiarmid was writing in times at least as dark as ours and out of a political sense that connected with the environment in much the same way as Lloyd does. The core perception in MacDiarmid’s poem is:

    We must reconcile ourselves to the stones,

    Not the stones to us.

    This call for humility, for the ability to live in the world in terms that are other than our own, lies, as I read it, at the heart of ‘Bar Null’, with its insistence on reconciling ourselves to the counter-power of absence as a means to undermine the anarchic power that causes environmental disaster and migrant deaths. It is not without significance that the ‘I’ is quietly, unassumingly reinserted in this poem, as an act of accepting responsibility. Its an important poem in an important book. Read it.

    • Geoffrey Squires 11:16 on 16/01/2023 Permalink | Reply

      An excellent, thoughtful reading of this work. It makes me wonder whether anyone else in Ireland is reviewing Lloyd’s poetry which must surely form part of any contemporary account of what is being produced.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Billy Mills 11:27 on 16/01/2023 Permalink | Reply

      Thanks, Geoff. I’ve yet to see any other reviews here, but I’m not an avid reader of Poetry Ireland and the like, so I may have missed some.


  • Billy Mills 10:53 on 06/01/2023 Permalink | Reply  

    The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan: A Review 

    The Philosophy of Modern Song, Bob Dylan, Simon & Schuster, 2022, ISBN: 9781451648706, $45, but shop around

    Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to any one who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.

    No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not onesided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.

    [TS Eliot ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent, with apologies for his assumption of maleness]

    Few major 20th century artists are and were more immersed in their tradition than Bob Dylan, and few have done more to alter the ideal order than he. His career is a story of regularly going back to the well to draw inspiration and renew his voice.

    This process begins with is first album and the other unrecorded, or recorded and not released until much later (like ‘No More Auction Block’) performances of the time, a tour of the folk songs he was immersed in that prefigures what was to come in his next six LPs, from the folk of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ to the ‘Sad Eyed Lady’; it’s all there in kernel.

    By the time Blonde on Blonde was released, Dylan had pretty much exhausted a vein, taken the kind of writing he was doing as far as he could. During the ‘motorcycle accident’ break, he embarked on what would turn out to be his most extensive and deepest dive into the tradition, starting with The Basement Tapes, in which he both provided a PhD level education to The Band and felt his way into a new way of making songs that was superficially simpler, but infused in the weirdness of the folk tradition. This continued through all the covers and tryouts included in Travelin’ Thru, Self Portrait, Another Self Portrait and 1970. Listening to these recordings, we hear a new style, or set of styles, emerging, opening to door to a string of records from ‘John Wesley Harding’ through his next collaboration with The Band all the way to ‘Street Legal’. Not to mention ‘Music from the Big Pink’, of course. It would take a whole other essay to tease this out in full, but if you listen to the vocals on ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ and ‘Sad Eyed Lady’, or play the piano version of ‘Spanish is the Loving Tongue’ followed by ‘The man in Me’ and ‘Romance in Durango’ you may start to agree.

    The 1980s were, let’s say, somewhat mixed, with some fine songs and some real dross, and a general sense of loss of direction. So naturally, the 90s began with two more albums that represented another trip to the well, Good as I been to You and World Gone Wrong. These records led the way to the classic ModBob records that followed, just as Christmas in the Heart and the Sinatra trilogy, a foray into another aspect of the songwriting tradition, along with the Theme Time Radio broadcasts, lead to a remarkable recovery of Dylan’s voice and the late masterpiece that is Rough and Rowdy Ways, whose final track, ‘Murder Most Foul, contains another tour of the past.

    The Philosophy of Modern Song is yet another engagement with tradition, but this time it’s less for Dylan the writer and more for Dylan and his readers as listeners. The 66 songs he writes about represent a wide spectrum of singers and writers, from Bing to The Eagles. A lot has been written about the omissions by those who appear to wish that the book might be something other than it is. Equally, the inclusion of ‘philosophy’ in the title has been the focus of much discussion, with many reviewers seeming to find it confusing or irrelevant. My position is that if we consider philosophy to be an attempt at understanding ourselves, the world and our relationships with the world and other selves, including such questions as what it means to be, to know and to act ethically in the world, then what Dylan is doing, one of the things he is doing, is looking at how songs can help us address these questions. Here’s an example, from the essay on Billy Jo Shaver’s ‘Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me’:

    This song has a philosophical point of view. Keep moving, it’s better, let the train keep on rolling. It’s better than drinking and crying into your beer. Let’s go. Let’s go forever. Let’s go till the glacial age returns.

    Or, as Heraclitus might have put it, ‘there’s nothing permanent but change’.

    In his essay on Charlie Poole’s ‘Old and Only in the Way’, he quotes Confucius on filial piety while bemoaning the growing tendency to dismiss older people as ‘Boomers’ and ‘olds’. Other pieces touch on the philosophy of art:

    Take two people – one studies contrapuntal music theory, the other cries when they hear a sad song. Which of the two really understands music better?

    [on ‘Black Magic Woman’]


    Like any other piece of art, songs are not seeking to be understood. Art can be appreciated or interpreted but there is seldom anything to understand.

    These thoughts on art chime with two references to MAGA in which Dylan claims that if you want to make America great again, you start with its art, with songs and movies. Those of us who feel that he never really abandoned politics will find much to support our position in the book.

    The essay on Edwin Starr’s ‘War’ ends on a meditation on democracy, citizenship and responsibility:

    As a people, we tend to feel very proud of ourselves because of democracy. We walk into that booth and cast our votes and wear that adhesive ‘I Voted’ sticker as if it is a badge of honor. But the truth is more complex. We have as much responsibility coming out of the booth as we do going in. If the people we elect are sending people to their deaths or worse, sending other people half a world away—whom we never even consider because they don’t look like us or sound like us—to their deaths and we do nothing to stop it, aren’t we just as guilty?

    And if we want to see a war criminal all we have to do is look in the mirror.”

    It may not be Wittgenstein, but this is a philosophical meditation on political ethics. It also contains a contrast between the wars carried out by Bush senior and junior which amounts to calling the latter a war criminal. And it reminds me that ‘1970’ includes a cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s ‘Universal Soldier’

    The ‘War’ essay is also an extended commentary on ‘Masters of War’. Dylan has previously clarified that this is not an anti-war song, but an anti-profiteering-from-war one. Here he spells it out at considerable length:

    One mark of civilization is the ability to increase the distance between yourself and the person you kill—the blade gave way to the gun, which gave way to the bomb, which gave way to any number of long-range killing machines. The more powerful you were the further you could be from the action. The most powerful were half a world away, snug in their bathrobes while nameless soldiers did their killing. Plausible deniability helped these warmongers sleep, with arrogance born of distance and an ignorance of specifics they believed kept their hands clean.

    Which leads me to my second major conclusion about the book; Philosophy is, in a sense, the long-awaited Chronicles: Volume Two. Inevitably, a songwriter writing about other people’s songs will bring their own interests and concerns to the test. One striking example is that on turning the first page of the essay on ‘Old Violin’ by Johnny Paycheck the reader comes face-to-face with a photo of Albert Einstein playing the fiddle. If this doesn’t immediately call to mind the fifth verse of ‘Desolation Row’, then you’re probably not really part of the target audience for the book. The connection is reinforced towards the end of the essay by the use of the adjective ‘mercurial’.

    And so, the attentive reader turns back to the opening paragraphs:

    There’s lots of reasons folks change their names. Some have new names thrust upon them as part of religious ceremonies, coming-of-age rituals or arrival into new lands where the unusual diphthongs or combinations of consonants coupled with hitherto unseen umlauts and tildes force ethnic names to be shortened into blander alternatives.

    And then there are those who change their own names, either on the run from some unseen demon or heading towards something else. Donald Eugene Lytle knew he was born for more than his birth name had in store.

    As, thinks that same reader, did young Robert Zimmerman.

    The book is full of slantwise personal references like this: in his piece on The Temptations’ ‘Ball of Confusion’ we are presented with part of the reason young Dylan abandoned ‘protest’; when discussing ‘If You Don’t Know Me by Now’ he ends by thinking about why people turn away from God, concluding that ‘Helping people fit things into their lives is so much more effective than slamming them down their throats.’ So that’s why he abandoned the dreary evangelicalism of the 1980s? And this quote from the essay on ‘Big Boss man’ by Jimmy Reed, a key figure for Dylan, could serve as a self-portrait:

    He plays the harmonica through a neck rack. And you can’t do too much with a harp in a neck rack. But he found a way to pull it off and even today he can’t be imitated.

    Equally, when he writes of Nina Simone’s  version of ‘Don’t Let me Be Misunderstood’, the line ‘things lost in translation, people getting a wrong impression of what you’re about’ could have been written about any one of a number of Dylan classics:

    People see me all the time
    And they just can’t remember how to act
    Their minds are filled with big ideas
    Images and distorted facts
    Even you, yesterday
    You had to ask me where it was at
    I couldn’t believe after all these years
    You didn’t know me better than that
    Sweet lady


    The book is physically beautiful, the design, typography and treasure trove of old photographs make it as much a thing look at as a book to read. The text itself comes in two flavours, straightforward (to an extent) essays and what the dustjacket front flap text calls ‘dreamlike riffs’. Some songs only get a riff, some only an essay, and some get both. And the variation in length runs from half a page to half a dozen. It should be mentioned that the ‘song and dance man’ is as interested in specific performances of these songs as in the songs themselves; songs come alive when performed.

    The riffs are invariably second-person narratives, inviting you, the reader, to participate in the world of the song. They are fictions to set against the oddly factual, informative, and often funny essays (all but one of the quotes above are from the essays), and need to be read as such. Some of the attitudes to women expressed in the riffs, along with the paucity of woman songwriters included have led to very understandable, but, I think, somewhat misguided accusations of misogyny. To support this, you need to read the riffs as Dylan expressing his own opinions, overlooking the nature of fiction; should we read the celebration of the adrenalin rush of gambling in the riff for ‘Viva Las Vegas’ as indicating that the author has a gambling addiction?

    As for the inclusion of only a handful of women writers, I see that as part of a wider element of surprise omissions: on Joni Mitchell, but also no Neil Young or Leonard Cohen, to take one example. It’s equally worth noting the number of performers of colour that feature, part of Dylan’s career long commitment to criticising racism, a commitment that is foregrounded in the last essay, on Dion’s recording of ‘Where or When’, when he condemns the inclusion of a blackface seen in the Hollywood version of the musical (Babes in Arms) it was written for.

    The fact is that the book is Dylan writing about 66 songs that he felt moved to write about, and criticising him for not writing about other songs is missing the point by a mile. One more quote seems apposite. In the essay on Pete Seeger’s ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’, he tells the story of how Seeger’s performance of the song was cut from the Smothers Brothers TV show in 1967 (Seeger had been excluded from television for his political leanings) because it was seen as critical of the Vietnam War. A year later, the tide of opinion was turning and he was invited back to sing it on the same show. The point being made is that in those days, everyone, pro, anti or indifferent to the war, tuned in to the same programme. Dylan bemoans the fragmentation that has replaced media forums where we were exposed to lots of views and kinds of cultural performances:

    Turns out, the best way to shut people up isn’t to take away their forum – it’s to give them all their own pulpits. Ultimately most folks will listen to what they already know and read what they already agree with. They will devour pale retreads of the familiar and perhaps never get to discover they might have a taste for Shakespeare of flamenco dancing.

    What a long strange trip it’s been.

  • Billy Mills 11:44 on 16/12/2022 Permalink | Reply  

    Mixed Circuits now available 

    The CD and Bandcamp download of Mixed Circuits is now available to buy from farpoint recordings, with the CD coming in at €16.00 plus P&P.

    Mixed Circuits is available in CD and digital formats. The double CD version comes as a limited edition 6 panel fold-out eco pack sleeve and a 36 page booklet with extensive liner notes. It is published as a first edition of 500 copies. The album is also available as a digital download (with a pdf booklet featuring full texts & images) from Bandcamp.

    Each of the four works on this double album is a cycle of several short movements or panels, investigating a single impulse: the exploration of a minimal, drone aesthetic through an atonal harmonic fabric of continuous gradual unfolding. Gesture and rhetoric are avoided in favour of a flickering presence, with imperceptible transitions

  • Billy Mills 09:27 on 15/12/2022 Permalink | Reply  

    Counterpoetics of Modernity: On Irish Poetry and Modernism by David Lloyd: A sort of review 

    Counterpoetics of Modernity: On Irish Poetry and Modernism, David Lloyd, Edinburgh University Press, ISBNs Hardback: 9781474489805, Ebook (ePub): 9781474489836’ Ebook (PDF): 9781474489829, £85.00 (all formats)

    [Disclaimer] Four of the poets discussed in this book are personally known to me, one I’ve met a few times, one I know quite well, one I’ve known for well over 50 years and the fourth I am married to. I also know Lloyd, and hardPressed poetry published him in the 1980s, a fact acknowledged in the preface. Irish Counterpoetics is a small world.]


    David Lloyd is one of the most interesting commentators on the state of Irish poetry, with a particular interest in those poets who tend towards the margins of critical and popular attention. In this latest book, Lloyd questions the received idea of a counter-tradition of Modernist/experimental/innovative (call it what you will) writing and posits in its place a series of discontinuities that have created pressures that provoked some poets to adopt a counterpoetic stance to the practices of their contemporaries. I’m not sure I have the critical skills or knowledge of theory to do Lloyd’s arguments justice, so what follows is a series of strictly amateur observations.


    After an introduction and overture in which he sets out his frames of reference, as it were, Lloyd completes the first, background, half of the book with chapters on James Clarence Mangan, W.B. Yeats and Susan Howe.

    As one who doesn’t share his enthusiasm for Mangan’s work, I approached the chapter, ‘Crossing Over: On James Clarence Mangan’s “Spirits Everywhere”’, with a degree of trepidation. It amounts to a study of the poem “Spirits Everywhere”, Mangan’s translation of the German poet Ludwig Uhland’s “Auf der Überfahrt”. By focusing on Mangan’s reworking of the original he situates Mangan’s approach to translation in a context both of his personal haunting and a specific disjunction that involved the decline of the Irish language both a spoken medium and the primary language of poetry along with famine and political activity ranging from Catholic Emancipation to the Young Irelander. As he points out, Mangan’s practice of translation is counterpoetic by ‘questioning and parodying the Romantic and nationalist insistence on spirit and origin’, thus prefiguring the emergence of Modernism.


    The three poems by Yeats that Lloyd focuses on, “September 1913”, “Easter 1916” and “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” all grow out of another point of rupture in Irish history, the events that led, in retrospectively at least, to the beginnings of the end of colonialism in the country with the declaration, in 1922, of the Irish Free State, itself a partial and provisional event. Lloyd reads the poems through the lens of a near-miss meeting between James Connolly and Rosa Luxemburg which stands, I suppose, for the near miss of an Irish Socialist (as against middle-class) revolution.

    To simplify enormously, Lloyd traces an arc from the romantic view of a peaceful nationalism that underpins what he calls ‘Revival Modernism’ through a kind of stunned commemoration of violent action to a realisation that the spectacle of violence itself numbs the transformation it enables. Departing from Lloyd for a moment, it could be argued that these poems prefigure the emergent Free State as a society of pocket-size capitalists ‘fumbl[ing] in the greasy till’ and ignoring the urban and rural poor while turning its back on the cultural moment that was the Revival in favour of a respectable, contained, safe dilution of the arts. And here, perhaps, we see the roots of the cult of the ‘well-made poem’ Lloyd discusses at some length later in the book.


     The first half of the book ends with a chapter on Susan Howe’s poem “Melville’s Marginalia”. The chapter opens with an extensive discussion on the possibility of Irish Modernism; can a movement that is seen as ‘International’ be associated with a nationality or ethnicity? Of course, he has already answered his own question in his earlier references to Revival Modernism. Equally, few critics would argue that William Carlos Williams or Lorine Niedecker are debarred from being modernist poets because of their deep engagement with Paterson and Fort Atkinson.

    Yet it is a strong undertow in the critical hostility to Irish poetry that engages with the Modernist tradition, from Coffey to Walsh. Yes, Joyce is celebrated as a handy tourist attraction, but his influence, such as it is, tends to be confined to the early ‘realist’ fiction. And yes, Beckett is acknowledged, but is misunderstood more often than he is cited. Yet the odd thing is that Seamus Heaney, to take an obvious example, who spent his adult life between the twin poles of suburban Sandymount and the ‘green pastures of Harvard University’ and whose new collected translations runs to a little over 700 pages to is at least as ‘Internationalist’ as, say, Trevor Joyce. It is a false dichotomy used to mask a hostility to that which is seen as Other to the post-Yeatsian tradition of the self-centred lyric of minor-key illumination, Lloyd’s ‘well-made’ poem; the actual objection is technical, not geographical.

    More disturbingly, for me at least, Lloyd centres his discussion of Howe’s poem on questions of ‘race’ and ‘racialization’, of the Irish experience in New England as one of engaging with ‘racial’ identity. As can be seen from my use of scare quotes, I find myself uncomfortable with the use of the term ‘race’ when discussing humans, preferring the scientific, empirical view that there are no races, that race, in this context, is a void category. It might of course be argued that ‘race’s is being used as a kind of shorthand for a complex mix of ethnicity, melanin levels, cultural background, ancestry, etc, but it’s simply, in my view, the wrong word to use. More significantly, by adopting the vocabulary of race, one risks legitimising the rhetoric of racists. I was particularly uncomfortable with the idea, following Fanon, of race as ‘an instance and product of the aesthetic’. But what do I know? Rant over.


    The second half of the book, “New Things That Have Happened” opens with a chapter that discusses two poets whose work I’m not particularly familiar with, Ciaran Carson and Medbh McGuckian. Lloyd sees these poets as representing breaks with the commodity form (what Lloyd refers to later as the “money form”) of the established Irish lyric, Carson through his formal development of a ‘long, sinuous mostly blank verse line’ that enabled poems that pushed beyond the anecdotal scaffolding of the well-made poem and McGuckian through her practice of constructing mosaics of fragments of found language. This practice has, it seems, led to accusations of irrelevant unreadability, a dismissal of the non-representational in her work. Lloyd’s discussion has prompted me to go look at more McGuckian, which is the best any critic can hope for, I think

    Lloyd draws a parallel between these poets and the three he discusses after them, Maurice Scully, Trevor Joyce and Catherine Walsh, through his device of disjunction; how are Irish poets to find ways to adequately deal with ‘the conditions of unfreedom that the neoliberal transformation of society in all its domains has produced’.

    Here I have definitely sailed beyond the limits of my navigation, but I would like to point out that the notion that Walsh writes ‘“lyrics” composed largely out of apparently overheard speech’ may, even with the ‘apparently’ included, be something of an underestimation of the poet’s powers of invention. Poets may or may not be liars, but they frequently make stuff up.


    The three chapters that follow are, for me, the meat of the book. First we have a chapter, “Intricate Walking: Scully’s Livelihood” that focuses on Maurice Scully’s magnum opus Things That Happen, which I review at some length here. Lloyd looks at two key tropes in Scully commentary: his use of weave/net/mesh/lattice as a central image and his playful deconstruction of lyric modes. One outcome of these is the irregular recurrence of key phrases, images and ideas throughout this epic lyric (or lyric epic work). Lloyd also notes, as I did, the dialogue with Pound that permeates the book; Scully dismisses the older poet’s grandiose intentions, but this weaving of key perceptions through the work, recurring in new contexts with new weight and depth. I’m reminded of a passage from Pound’s “Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony, with Supplementary Notes.”:

    A sound of any pitch, or any combination of such sounds, may be followed by a sound, or any combination of sounds, providing the time interval between them is properly gauged; and this is true for any series of sounds, chords, or arpeggios.

    This serves as a pointer to how Scully’s large-scale music works.

    Scully’s poetry is representational, but what makes it unique lies in the fact that what it represents is not the ‘significant moment’ of the well-made poem. His work represents something much more ordinary and important, the unending interconnected weave (yes, that’s the word) of life in its mundane, extraordinary entirety. It is the totality of things that happen captured provisionally in the full knowledge that in the next moment, on the next page, the world will have shifted just on the edge of the perceptible, that, to take an instance Lloyd calls out, the gull that recurs across 200 pages of Livelihood is both he same gull seen differently and a different gull seen the same way, and that this matters, is the matter of poetry as Scully makes it.

    And then another insight of Lloyd’s sends me off in another direction, the thought that Scully’s poetics ‘counterposes to the “money form” of the contemporary lyric an ethics and aesthetics of dispossession’. This is true in itself, but any mention of dispossession in the context of Irish poetry may send the reader’s mind off to Thomas Kinsella and Sean O’Tuama’s vital anthology An Duanaire, 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed, a book that recovers the tradition that Mangan watched dying. More recently, in 2016, Louis De Paor edited Leabhar na hAthghabhála / Poems of Repossession, an anthology of 20th century Irish-language poetry. It’s a fine anthology with some really good poetry in it, but the title fascinates me, both as a claim to continuity and as a cloth-eared error in the wake of an economic crash that made the threat of repossession a daily one for many Irish citizens and residents. The contrast with Scully could hardly be starker.


    In “Rome’s Wreck: Joyce’s Baroque” Lloyd discusses Trevor Joyce’s third collection, Pentahedron as a work of Mannerism. The original blurb from the 1972 New Writers’ press edition reads, in part, ‘Pentahedron is a collection of experimental poems. The poems attempt to make language describe reality while at the same time remaining aware of itself as language… [it] is, in a sense, an essay towards the description of an epistemology of poetic apprehension’.

    It is, perhaps, this self-awareness of poetry as a process of filtering that feeds into Lloyd’s reading. He draws heavily on the ideas of Deleuze, who ‘associates the enfolded traits of the Baroque both with he labyrinthine, composed of multiple folds, and with a peculiar characteristic of its disposition of material where “matter tends to spill over into space, to be reconciled with fluidity at the same time fluids themselves are divided into masses”’. This chimes with my own sense that Joyce’s work partakes of the nature of the fractal.

    There follows a fascinating discussion of the nature of Baroque allegory that describes its own labyrinth through the ideas of Benjamin and Marx, lifting out of the realms of the humble poet whose task it is to set words beside each other in shapes that are, in one sense or another, satisfying. Or at least satisfying enough. It does, however, help explain Joyce’s later interest in Edmund Spenser, and the chapter moves on to a consideration of Rome’s Wreck, a translation into monosyllabic 21st century English of Spenser’s 16th century translation of Joachim Du Bellay’s Les Antiquités de Rome, fold upon fold. Joyce’s version is set in a context of fugal composition and the recessive perspectives generated by Baroque artists via the camera obscura. Lloyd notes the recurrence of key words from Pentahedron: ash, stone, dust, flood, ruin, the slow time of geological process. These are, if you like, the elements from which Joyce generates his fractal patterns, his ‘recursive cascade of accreted possible meanings’. This chapter is the most thought-provoking discussion of Joyce’s work I’ve come across.


    Finally, in “Conclusion. Conduits for the Humane: Walsh’s Optic Verve” Lloyd returns to the discussion of Walsh’s ‘major Irish feminist text of the post-Celtic Tiger moment of affective as well as financial deflation’ he began in the first chapter of the second half of the book. For what I hope are obvious reasons, I’m reluctant to say too much here, but I think Lloyd makes two very acute observations. The first of these concerns the use of ‘mixed genres’ in Optic Verve: ‘The text’s dissolution of generic boundaries corresponds with its dissolution of the division os spheres into which modernity has distributed both its modes of practice and the affective and discursive regimes appropriate to each, fragmenting the subject’s experience and narrowing its potentialities’. Earlier in this paragraph, he uses the word ‘porosity’; as I read it, in Optic Verve, and indeed in Walsh’s work in general, the world becomes text in a very specific way, a constant immersion in a debased language that renders the work of writing both impossible and essential, essential if we are to redeem language, to regain some kind of wholeness.

    The second observation is closely related: ‘that effort at control is drowned out by the ready-made language of the commodity sphere, mediaspeak and bureaucratic euphemism that has a peculiar helter-skelter poetics of its own’. Walsh’s response is not to confront but to subsume, to use this language of marketing and control to her own ends, holding it up to the light and seeing what lies beneath, or within, its empty rhetoric. To use one of the more unfortunate cliches of our day, she owns it.


    This conclusion itself concludes with a restatement of Lloyd’s major theme: ‘Across great divergences of form and language practice, and against any hankering after a continuous tradition, they [Scully, Joyce and Walsh] share a corresponding commitment to reinventing the means and materials of poetry that make it adequate to the now.’ This insistence on discontinuity is an important addition to the map of critical discourse around Irish modernisms which chimes with something I tried to express at the Assembling Alternatives conference in New Hampshire in 1996; that the Irish poets in attendance were inevitably not given to assimilation into an American (or UK) model of ‘alternativeness’, because the thing we were alternative to was not the same thing. This brings us back, I suppose, to the question of Irish (or American/British/whatever) modernism. The new things that happen happen somewhere, not nowhere, and that which is counter, is counter to some specific set of circumstances. Lloyd’s great strength here is to bring out into the light of critical examination the specifics of a distinctly Irish counterpoetics.


    And yet. The question arises ‘can you have discontinuity without continuity, disjuncture without connection? Lloyd describes the critical moment for the ‘SoundEye poets’ thus: ‘their acquaintance with one another’s work having been occasioned by their chance meeting’ at Assembling Alternatives. This is both true and not true. Most, if not all, of the relatively younger Irish attendees were all ready well aware of the work of Joyce and co-editor Michael Smith, as well as Geoffrey Squires, Augustus Young and other New Writers’ Press poets for quite a long time previously, thanks in part to the late and much missed Eblana Bookshop in Dublin’s Grafton Street. And Michael and Trevor in turn were instrumental in the recovery of the work of Brian Coffey, Denis Devlin and Niall Montgomery (I first encountered Coffey via the New Writer’s Selected Poems in the mid 1970s).

    And Maurice Scully included a set of Coffey’s versions of Eluard in the first issue of his magazine The Beau in 1981, having discussed Coffey’s work in an interview with Anthony Cronin (another poet published by New Writers’ Press) in the TCD magazine Icarus in 1976. Joyce and Smith also reprinted Beckett’s seminal review “Recent Irish Poetry”, referenced by Lloyd, in an issue of their journal The Lace Curtain.

    And incidentally the postal address for New Writers’ Press from around 1979 was Smith’s new home address on Clarence Mangan Road. Smith also edited a Selected Mangan for Gallery Press.

    None of this is an argument for influence, although such an argument could, to a limited degree, be made. Beckett is not like Coffey is not like Devlin, just as Joyce is not like Smith is not like Young and Scully is not like Joyce is not like Walsh. Each of these poets, and others, found their own counterposition starting from their own unique position and discovering their own distinctive poetic voices (to use that word extremely loosely). However, they did so with some awareness of the fact that others had engaged in similar ventures in counterpoetics, although they might not have used that term. In the ideal ‘big book of everything’, the roles of disjuncture and continuity would be given equal weight, but for mow Lloyd has teased out the implications of the former, hitherto mostly neglected, element in successive Irish modernisms in a book that I believe will be seen as a key moment in our understanding of what is most vital in Irish poetry.

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