Fur Coats in Tahiti, Jeremy Over, Carcanet, 2019, ISBN: 978 1 784107 63 5, £9.99
Meridian, Nancy Gaffield, Longbarrow Press, 2019, £12.99
Truth, Justice, and the Companionship of Owls, Peter Riley, Longbarrow Press, 2019, £12.99
Jeremy Over’s new book is, seen from one angle, a collection of procedural experiments, a jaunt through the territories of Flarf, erasure, Ouliopian N+7 (Williams’ red wheelbarrow as interior design), collage, reverse translation, alphabetical order and minimalist riffing that results in a book of witty, probing forays into the relationship between language and the world. The temptation is, of course, to dwell on the procedures as ‘things in themselves’ and ponder their validity (does the world actually need another reworking of that particular Williams’ poem?). It is, I think, more fruitful to think of Over’s methods as the equivalent of sonnets or ballads, and to ask not ‘is this a well-done sonnet/erasure piece?’ but ‘is this a good poem?’
One of Over’s great merits as a poet is the manner in which he uses scraps of language to create almost mesmeric patterns of sound, so that a single phrase can create a structure as complex and satisfying as, say, a song by Arnaut Daniel:
gawp in at
gawp at in
gawp in at gawp at in
gawp at in gawp at in gawp at in
gawp in at
at in at
gawp in at at in at
The careful balance of, in this case, exclusively short vowels, the semi-rhyme of ‘it’ and ‘at’, the minimal but vital variations of word order and pause/spacing are the elements that build the music by means of the method.
This is, amongst other things, a poem built from ‘a selection of language really used by men’. The comparison with Wordsworth is both warranted and instructive, I think. Warranted because the book includes ‘a largely semo-definitional treatment or literal translation back into English’ of a German translation of ‘My heart leaps up when I behold’ by Ernst Jandl, which produces lines like:
So thus so much this way so really looks nigh near Emma scything
But Over’s response to the ‘Preface’ is brought most fully into focus in a prose poem called ‘The Maid of Buttermere’:
Buttermere is made of butter, mere butter,
the Buttermere maid is made of Buttermere butter, not mere butter. The Buttermere maid made the mere more merry, made beer for the mere, made the mere more beery. Barmaid Maud made the beer more beery more barmy, Maud made the mere mutter: ach mutter, meer mutter, das meer mutter, mère mutter, mère die mutter, mutter de la mer die mutter, mère mutter mère mutter, Walter de la Mare mutter, merde,
What becomes evident is that where for Wordsworth language was, or became, a vehicle for self-expression, for Over it is a material substance that enables discovery. Over, it seems to me, does not start out to write a poem to communicate some ‘important’ fact about himself or the world, rather, his intention seems to be closer to Paul Klee’s ‘a drawing is simply a line going for a walk’; Over’s poems are language taking the poet on a stroll through the network of words.
This is most evident in the final section of the book, ‘The Orderly World’, an alphabetical sequence of 27 poems based on a reading/writing through AM Williams’ 1933 The King’s English Dictionary. Each poem invites us to play a game of ‘spot the adjacent word’; for example, the P poem begins with a definition of Pullman Car, and proceeds:
a scarf and hat
one that vomits
swallows in the dust
What emerges is a picture of the temporal nature of language, and, above all, of any illusion of linguistic ‘mastery’; poetry like this is made by knowing and working with how language works, not by bending language to the poet’s will. This is underpinned by the inclusion of the 27th poem dedicated to the ampersand ‘&’, a symbol of linguistic openness, a symbol of linguistic openness:
I am just a small, bald figure sitting in an empty land
offering you nothing from my upturned hand
It is this nothing offered that makes Fur Coats in Tahiti such a rewarding read, because it leads to destinations unknown, a restless, constantly moving walk after not knowledge, but illumination, the unexpected relationship between word and word that opens a window to the world. It is, I realise as I write, a kind of Dada Zen book; what more can I say?
The walking, and the line, in Nancy Gaffield’s Meridian are literal, as the book/poem traces a series of walks she took along the Greenwich Meridian from its imagined landfall at Peacehaven on the south coast of England to its equally conventional return to the sea just north of the Humber estuary. The meridian is a line of more than ordinary significance, as its establishment and acceptance as a zero point has made possible all kinds of tools and procedures for locating ourselves and others in space and time, and this is key to Gaffield’s text. Ordnance Survey map sheets serve as section titles throughout, locating both reader and writer in a paper representation of the real world and reminding us that Gaffield’s explorations are, in one sense, of a charted landscape; her discoveries are not of places but of relationships: between politics and geography, the self and others, poetry/language and responsibility.
One concern is with the role of the woman as walker in a society where women do not always feel safe from male hostility:
I am wary of the stranger
on the path
without a dog
She also shows an interest in alternative methods if mapping. as when she gives a list of Alfred Watkins’ ‘reliable markers’ of leys, followed by the comment ‘This is a spatial practice.’ This reference to Watkins helps locate Meridian in a tradition of British walking and landscape art that draws heavily on ley theories, a tradition that includes Iain Sinclair and Hamish Fulton, both of whom Gaffield draws on directly.
There are fine passages of what might be termed ‘landscape writing’ in the book that nod to this tradition:
I walk with empty hands
amongst the nut-gatherers
tracking an impression
after those that made it
have passed by
presence in absence
I walk through dappled wood
where the nut-gatherers
But despite these passages and the references to Wordsworth and Clare (‘a constant companion’ according to the notes), Gaffield is not so much concerned with the poetry of place as with the place of poetry. Her walking and writing are temporally located in the twin shadows of Brexit and climate catastrophe:
Each night we sleep in our own time zone
with another 1.8 billion people
as the sea levels rise &
the Arctic ice melts
faster than even the scientists predicted
people are booking
cruises to see it
The deceptively flat tone of Gaffield’s verse lends itself well to this kind of factual meditation, but there’s an interesting undertone of sound patterning going on under that still surface. Listen to the long ‘e’ sounds, for example, running through this passage: each/sleep/people/sea/even/people/see. These patterns may seem trivial, but they constitute a key part of how we read and understand the text.
At the heart of all this is the question of what poetry might be for in a world under threat.
it starts with listening
beyond the mechanics
to the unsaid
you are the means
by which the poem happens
The section that these lines come from draws heavily to Paul Celan’s acceptance speech on receiving the Georg Büchner Prize in 1960; called ‘Meridian’, it’s a key text for Gaffield. In it, Celan talks about art requiring us to ‘travel a certain space in a certain distance on a certain road’ (I’m using Rosmarie Waldrops’ translation as the one I have to hand, not the Pierre Joris version Gaffield uses). He also says that ‘[t]he poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author stays with it.’
Meridian, seen in this light, reads like a kind of requiem, a poem that mourns the passing of the world it is travelling through:
I breathe in
the early settlements
of mud huts on the dykes
& willow-lined ditches & later
on the chalk & limestone uplands
& later villages lost
to the plague & enclosure
the only visible sign
of their existence
And behind all this there is the realisation that the meridian and the maps of space and time it helped refine, the very tools that Gaffield set out to use to make her poem, are parts of our destructive, ultimately self-destructive, ‘domination’ of nature.
Auden may well have had a point when he wrote that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, but what poetry can do is remember and remind, and Meridian remembers that ‘this route/describes a circle’; it is a line with neither beginning nor end, and what seems like an ending to us is just the next stage in the line’s journey. The walk may end at the sea’s edge, but the line
takes leave of the land
John Clare is also a strong presence in Peter Riley’s Truth, Justice, and the Companionship of Owls. The book consists of four interconnecting sequences, ‘Pennine Tales’, ‘Hushings’, ‘Ring Cairns’ and ‘Nine Poems’, the first, second and fourth sections comprise poems in twelve lines, while ‘Ring Cairns’ is made up of poems in three-line stanzas, but of varying length.
I reviewed ‘Pennine Tales’ when it was published as a pamphlet by Calder Valley Poetry, and in that review I wrote ‘These poems are firmly based on stubborn ground, a stubborn resistance to the easy gesture, to finality, to baseless certainty. They are the latest stage in Riley’s long-term exploration of Englishness, a modest, inclusive vision that is, now more than ever, a necessary corrective.’ This is a view that still holds for the larger canvas of this book.
Here we wait, as if waiting
for the return of truthful politics. And in
all this land, this nothing-much, there are
hidden values, seeds waiting to announce themselves
as cotton grass and bugle.
Riley’s Englishness is inclusive, and encompasses Lully and John Clare, Italian Madrigal and Walt Whitman, Sandy Denny and Handel, the Kinder Scout trespass and Stanley Spencer, and finds its focus at bus stops and in pubs as much as in books and museums. And it is a tradition, a culture, that is under threat of being erased, with libraries being kept open in the face of ‘the whole vast empty and hungry State’ by recruiting volunteers in towns already all but killed by mine closures. Once again, the question of what poetry might be for in such circumstances is addressed:
everything gained for centuries is chucked away without
thought a second thought and for what? For the end of the chorus,
the end of public truth. So we sing together all the
songs of the centuries one by one and nobody hears us.
Up here above the above the town the site is so fair, the weather
so kind and the sense of our silent singing is passed from
generation to generation.
So that the notion of survival of and through art returns us to that ‘end’ and we realise that it is both termination and purpose, finality but also reason.
Ring cairns, as Riley informs us in a note, are or were sites of burial, and this formally distinct sequence is a meditation, or series of meditations, on mortality, both individual and collective and on the power of language to both remember and forget:
The bit of pavement in Birstall where
Jo Cox was killed, near the library, I take
a photograph, of nothing, to remind me
Of nothing, and how her name sails clear of it
how her speech is written on a history and
the killer’s name forgotten soon as said.
But, as Riley writes a few pages on, ‘most of what is is not right, and is not good, either’. In a sense, this is the central insight of the book, and it leaves open the question of whether we acquiesce or resist. In the end, there is a note of resistance and hope in the darkest of times:
I kept the images at bay for as long
as possible but here they come:
the black river crashing under the station
the burning huts on the horizon, the snowdrops
dead on time. The last of the wine, another century
of massacres, the hope extant in one blind rhyme.
But fine sentiments do not necessarily make for good poetry by themselves. What makes Riley’s work special is the sound it makes. True to the tradition he sees himself part of, this sound rests on careful patterning of vowel and consonant via assonance, alliteration, near rhyme and repetition. These poems are songs of high quality that repay the effort of close listening:
Sunlight filtered through thin cloud at mid-day
touches the stone outside the Hare & Hounds.
The stone beams back its own shades, not
illuminated but responding, accepting the offer.
Such a spectre orders the regional ghosts
back to the tumuli and abandoned warehouses
where they belong. Such a spectre sets
history back in our own hands, the plug riots
on the road again, the great engines hiss and cease.
Plumes of smoke rising across the valley, and this
spectre in the throat, this hope in the hand, that won’t,
that just will not, abandon the children.
The thread of sibilant ‘s’ initial and terminal sounds stitches the whole poem together, and plays of more subtle patterns of consonant and vowel echoes (filtered/thin/mid/children back/abandoned/belong/abandon, to pick out a few instances) weave through a rhythm that sits on a free base of iambs and trochees, with variation provided by spondees and amphibrachs.
SUNlight | FILtered through | THIN CLOUD | at MID-day
TOUCHes | the STONE | outSIDE | the HARE | & HOUNDS.
These patterns form part of the ‘meaning’ of the poem, where sound is meaning, and they don’t happen by accident, but are a result of craft and care. Truth, Justice, and the Companionship of Owls represents a remarkable late flowering for one of England’s most interesting living poets; Riley has entered the post-truth world with his eyes and ears wide open, but he has not abandoned hope in the power of language to conserve and to set things right.