Mark Weiss, As Luck Would Have It, 116pp, 9x6ins, £9.95 / $18, 978184861413-0
Robert Sheppard, A Translated Man, 130pp. 9x6ins, £9.95, 978-1848612846 88
Peter Philpott, Ianthe Poems, 72pp, 8.5×5.5ins, £8.95, ISBN 9781848614178
Mark Weiss is a US native and As Luck Would Have It is his fourth full-length collection. Weiss sits clearly in the line of 20th century American poetry, with influences as varied as the Beats, Spanish-American verse and Language poetry all in evidence. His work, consequently, shifts between multiple formal/technical approaches, albeit with a solidly identifiable voice throughout. His poetic philosophy is neatly summed up in two lines from the book:
Poetry first and foremost
a tool for knowing
As Luck Would Have It is a book in five sections. The first two, California Girls and Glass Palace: 17 Poems are, in tone and matter, distinctly American, exhibiting a characteristic blend of the folksy and the urban, expressed through both expansiveness and haiku-like concision. The poem ‘A Simile’, for instance, reads in its entirety
Tastes like rabbit, the fox thinks,
slinking from the henhouse.
The third section, Riffs, begins with a set of variations on WC Williams’ red wheelbarrow and then moves through a number of other poems that play with the idea of riffing, the language and technique are looser than in the earlier sections, frequently running with the sound of the language as source of pleasure:
John Handcock. Hand
as real as grass
The fourth part, Different Birds, is the longest section of the book. A journal-poem in prose and verse, it charts a visit (presumably real) to Australia. The poem reads as an odd hybrid of Allen Ginsberg’s travelogue poems, minus the oracular imperative, and some of the more deadpan bits of Language writing.
A road through a desert almost devoid of vegetation
pinker than the burnt land around it. One billabong
visible. Must be the bed of an ancient lake. On its edge,
just into a greener place, a square of farmland, different
colors, green to rust, and all right-angled, like a set of
tiles. Down the road the messiness of a small settlement,
twenty buildings and an air strip.
The poem contains some very fine passages, but is, I think, just too long to sustain interest.
The fifth section, Dark Season, circles back around some of this Australian matter, but in a tauter, more lyric style and contains the most interesting writing in the book. In particular, the longish ‘Dark Season’, is, amongst other things, a wonderful reimagining of medieval romance as fractured post-modern verse.
Here is a pearl of great price
clasped in your palm
emergent urge urgent tangent demiurge
This poem is as good as anything Weiss has written, and is worth the price of the book by itself.
Robert Shepherd’s A Translated Man purports to be the selected poems in Flemish and Walloon of an imaginary Belgian poet, René Van Valckenborch, as rendered into English by two equally fictitious translators, all three of whom vanished mysteriously among accusations that the translators invented their subject. The blurb says that by heaping fiction upon fiction, Sheppard ‘is exploring the limits of the author-function’.
I mean no disrespect when I say that he’s doing no such thing. If A Translated Man were a novel, nobody would think of making such a claim, and by virtue of putting his own name on the title page, neither is Sheppard. What he is doing is something much more interesting; he is exploring the possibility of writing poetry from a place and tradition that is not, properly speaking, one’s own.
The tradition is which Sheppard places these poems is, at its core, an interesting blend of Francis Ponge’s poetry of the thing and the Dutch avant-garde De Vijftigersbeweging (‘The Fiftiers’), a group of experimental writers who grew up through the Nazi occupation and began publishing in the 1950s. Ponge’s focus on the thingness of things is evident in the opening section of ‘Walloon’ poems, which are formally conservative, mainly written in tercets, and acknowledging the Pongian influence is fore-fronted from the beginning with a set of poems excerpted from a series called thingly:
closed they’ve a single
point and purpose perfected
cool blades left sleeping
open a dancer –
limbs of flexing steel leap in
frozen cuts of light
The second half of the book is devoted to more experimental ‘Flemish’ poems in a significantly more experimental mode, with nods to such Fiftiers poets as Remco Campert and the (Belgian) Hugo Claus. Ponge’s things still feature, as in these lines from ‘The Word’:
Sky the hue of a sick egg unbroken.
A half-formed beak. Talons clawing at fog. Mottled rug
flung over the furniture of day.
But what really serves to bring the twin influences into focus is a shared suspicion of poetry and the ‘poetic’. Ponge became a poet in spite of himself, constantly declaring an outright hostility to poems, while the Fiftiers were united in their desire to abandon the Dutch poetic tradition and write a kind of anti-poetry.
This restlessness comes more to the fore as we move towards the end of A Translated Man in a series of odes and songs that push the limits of readerly engagement to its limits. the final ‘Twitterodes’ section (a poem comprising putative tweets by Van Valckenborch in 100 numbered sections) carries this to a kind of logical conclusion as the triteness of Twitter is subsumed into an opaque linguistic surface that both repels and draws in.
▪ 99 piggybacking girls round the monument/NEPTUNE stamping his
horses (a café steal his water thunder)/black tooth windows/ladies sipping
This is a fascinating, if uneven book. On the whole, Sheppard succeeds in his attempt at a kind of cultural ventriloquism, creating works that expand his range as a poet not just through the exploitation of technique but also by allowing him to inhabit a different, borrowed voice. It’s a book I will be returning to.
Peter Philpott has been writing, performing and publishing poetry since the late 1960s. He studied under Andrew Crozier at Keele and wrote an MA thesis on Gertrude Stein and co-founded Great Works, one of the key magazines of the 1970s British Poetry Revival scene and became involved with what has come to be known as the Cambridge scene. He then somewhat dropped off the radar (or my radar, at least) for a couple of decades, although he continued writing.
Around the beginning of the new century, Great Works re-emerged as a website and Philpott began publishing again. Ianthe Poems, his most recent book, reflects his experiences as a new grandfather, with many of the poems that make up its three sections having been written in coffee shops on his daily outings with his granddaughter Ianthe.
There’s something about an engagement with a young child’s earliest attempts at pre-verbal and verbal communication that seems to take us to the very roots of language, and this, it seems to me, is the underlying drift of this book. Philpott enters into the language of childhood in as unpatronising a manner as is imaginable. Although it only appears once, and then at the very end of the book, the name Ianthe is, I think, a driving impetus behind this linguistic exploration: Ianthe, I and the, I and thee, I am thee.
I see daddy
at work I see
pictures of words
I put in order
I, I, I
There is a risk of making this sound like an exercise in theory, but nothing could be further from the truth. While Philpott is aware of what he is at, the poetry is sharply lyrical, and a pleasure in the mind and on the ear:
How joyful to write on this English
spring that muddy slide out of death
like a Radio 3 soundtrack
to write so defiantly non-avant-garde
look! the bluebells are little tiny dots
swirling into a numinous haze
The poems were written in the shadow of the 2010 UK General Election, and politics form part of their patchwork, as are the casual prejudices of other childminding adults encountered on the daily round, but these take their place in the natural process of birth, growth and change that a child exemplifies. And central to the celebration of this process is the unacknowledged importance of poetry:
be careful of the poetry
in lines and verses
a sort of unprogressive dialectic
nothing at its centre
but an influx suddenly of meaning
sometimes of its lack
a great shadow
turns off the light
In this book, Philpott has been careful not to let the shadow fall, and the light shines out strongly from his lines. Ianthe Poems is one of the most purely enjoyable collections I’ve read for some time.
Shearsman are, without a doubt, the most interesting, active and prolific medium-sized poetry press in the UK right now, and have been for some years. Editor Tony Frazer has adopted print-on-demand technology to build a list that is varied, adventurous and growing all the time, with the result that these three titles represent a fraction of the press’s 2015 output. Long may they thrive. [As full disclosure, I should point out that Shearsman has published my work in the past.]