Recent Reading: August 2020

Port of Souls, Paul Brookes and Marcel Herms, Alien Buddha Press, 2018, ISBN: 978-1718873223 , £14.80

Stubborn Sod, Paul Brookes and Marcel Herms, Alien Buddha Press, 2019, ISBN: 978-1686132384, £14.55

Like The Dewfall, John F. Deane, Guillemot, 2019, ISBN: 978-1-9160605-1-7, £12.00

Hunglish, Andrew Fentham, Broken Sleep Books, 2019, £7.00

A Berlin Entrainment, Peter Hughes, Shearsman Books, 2019, ISBN 9781848616677, £10.95

Bethesda Constellations, Peter Hughes, Oystercatcher Press, 2020, £5.50

Mutter/Land, Steve Xerri, Oystercatcher Press, 2020, £5.00

Readers of Paul Brooke’s blog will be familiar with his interest in ekphrastic writing; these two books, collaborations with the Dutch painter Marcel Herms, are a logical extension of this interest. It’s clear that poet and artist have discovered a shared set of themes and concerns resulting in work that goes beyond the limitations of ‘poems about pictures’; each in its own way, both books represent an integration of text and picture into a more organic whole.

Port of Souls is the nearest to the expected model, with individual text/painting pairings that reflect each other, albeit obliquely. I claim no art expertise, but there’s something in Herms’ palette and the simplified humanoid forms that fill these pictures, often in exploding postures of pain or anger, that remind me of Francis Bacon, and Brookes’ matches the technique and tone by adopting a form that generally teeters between verse and prose, a kind of prose/verse poetry in which syntactic disjunction echoes the way in which the paintings are organised:

Beware windows keep faces behind two panes

 

eyes, cheeks, teeth captured when you glance through a wrong glass at the outside.

 

From these travels circumnavigation of my ocular orbs I have discovered:

 

My chameleon is a wild goat that neither eats or drinks always mouth open it lives on air.

[from ‘Our Rats are Hounds’]

Interestingly, it seems that these were originally conceived as short free verse lines, but the change to longer, semi-prose lineation disrupts the reading in a manner analogous to how the facing painting (also at that link) disrupts the movement of the eye. This is even more apparent in the poem/painting pairing called ‘Warlord’, where the exploding, fire-crowned head is brought to verbal life:

After a battle where skulls are blown apart he sits and laughs at Anthem For Doomed Youth.

 

After a skirmish in which men are screaming With half a leg or arm bone shattered By shrapnel, he guffaws at Dulce Decorum Est.

 

The more graphic, the more comic to him.

 

He says if you don’t laugh you’ll cry.

 

Laughter is healthy. Laughter is human.

The embedding of some ‘famous poems about the war’ serves to both highlight the inadequacy of conventional verse to do justice to the realities of carnage and explore new ways of doing just that. It’s a project that is encapsulated in the final pairing here, ‘A World Where’:

I don’t orientate

 

without signposts or landmarks or signatures. All is blur. Meaning elusive.

 

If I make it could be false. There is grief at a loss of shape, of pattern.

Brookes and Herms seem determined to confront this grief by discovering new patterns of expression.

Stubborn Sod is a continuation of the Pagan Year project Brookes began in The Headpoke and Firewedding. Where the earlier book covered the months of June and July, this current instalment runs from January to May, the turn of the year and the burgeoning months of spring. Herms provides a headnote painting for each month and a series of others that reflect images and themes from the texts in a less one-to-one manner than is the case in Port of Souls. Appropriately enough, much of the writing here focuses on an earth-mother goddess figure, pregnant with new life and demanding of devotion, and with the conflict between her devotees and an incoming, aggressive Christianity. The hymns to the goddess are lyrical and graceful:

She is a presence,
a voice only, no image.
A post of cypress-wood,
draped in cloth, perhaps.

Otherwise a living tree
to recall her sacred grove.
Her rites are done outside.

She spares our daughters
heavy with bairn,
spares our wives
in pangs of labour

Cares for the mams
who fret over their bairns
carrying on now,
and how they fare.

[from ‘Chanter’]

But all is not sweetness and light. The play on stubborn sod is crucial, being both the land to be farmed and the determined farmers who work it being central to the sequence. Although Brookes frequently draws on Classical mythology, his tone is darker and more northern, as in ‘Atti Loses his Bollocks’, his Yorkshire reworking of the story of Attis from Catullus 63, a story that is dark enough in itself, but which Brookes expands to draw out the relationship between blood and fertility.

At this quick cry from her blood red lips

Cyb, his mam let lions out

goads one on left, enemy of flock

 

“Come on now,” she says, “Tha fierce, get thee sen off, away

See to it madness drives her,

see madness set her back into me wood,

she who scarpers from my rule.

Come, whiplash tha back with tha tail, suffer tha own tailpain

make all places echo

with tha bellow and roar.

 

Cyb utters these threats and with her hand frees lion from it’s yoke.

Lion urging

himsen to rage, rushes, roars,

breaks brushwood with flit paws.

And Brookes is not just concerned with the past, but also with the here and now of housing estates and industrial wastelands, where the pagan, sacred landscape is buried but not dead. The final poem in the sequence, ‘Oaksong’, works to bring these two worlds to a single focus around the most symbolic of Northern trees, the oak:

moors were once forests

national parks heavy industrial

this oak headland a pitsite

 

lads snap off livelimbs

anarchic coppicing

black dogshitbags sway

on limbs left alone

 

don’t visit in a storm

oaks are lightningtrees

people can be oaks

 

oakgroves of druids

duir means a door

exit and entrance

 

raw open wounds of sacrifice

still bleed sap

The bleeding is multi-layered, the broken tree, the broken land, and the bleeding of past into present into past, as the once forest, once pitsite, becomes forest again. It’s the yearly cycle writ large. Brookes’ Pagan Year project is concerned with the recovery of a world that is damaged but not destroyed. I look forward to the final instalment.

John F. Deane is one of the ‘grand old men’ of Irish poetry, both as a poet and as publisher/editor through his founding roles in Poetry Ireland, the Poetry Ireland Review, and Dedalus Press. He is also a man of deep Catholic faith, a faith that runs through all his writing; Like the Dewfall is no exception.

This is a sequence in seven parts based on the stricture of the seven sections of Olivier Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen suite for two pianos, each section being devoted to a particular ‘Amen’: Creation; Stars and Planets; the Agony; Desire Birdsong, Saints and Angles; Judgement; Consummation. The poem follows, in general outline, a narration of the spiritual development of the narrator/poet from a child on Achill Island to an old man in Dublin and is, from beginning to end, saturated in images of nature as the natural element of the central figure:

Bog-boy they called him, for his dreaming

among the cuttings; he was at home

 

up on the bog-bank, down in the cutaways,

moorland breathing in its variegated and sepia

 

ease. He loved the world-berating

sweet-bird wheatear, the sudden snipe,

 

soprano trilling of the skylark

[Page 13]

 

there were scents of oleander, of thyme, of extravagant

heathers; I looked for the stillness of the high, white lily.

Beyond the walls, each day brings us reading in the papers

 

of yesterday’s death routines.

[Page 89]

Deane writes well, as you might expect, in a smooth idiom that lacks any of the tonal jarring of Messiaen’s suite, but with a quiet music of his own. His ‘nature’ serves first as a kind of preface to his religious experience and then as a way of expressing the divine glory.

̶  from cockerel to hump-back whale. from quark to galaxy –

amen to the Christ-Child, chortling in the crib, new-earthed

heart of creation, who is, who was. who is coming-to-be;

to sustained harmony of the spheres: amen! Pianissimo. Begin.

[Page 11]

 

In the wet-daub earth is the dwelling-place of our unruly God;

 

birdsong perfected, even jackdaw, heron, water-hen,

the very shrieks of hooded crow and magpie, those street-cleaners

and working angels

of an evolving world.

[Page 62]

While I don’t want to disparage anyone’s religious beliefs, I think it’s important to remember that this idea of nature as a kind of scripture for us to learn from is anti-ecological, as it promotes the notion that the world is, in some sense, there for us to use. The religious exploitation is different only in degree from its economic equivalent, and the one can reinforce the other. The world predates us and will outlast us, and the idea that it was made for our benefit is worrying.

Equally problematic is the way in which religious fatalism seems to lead Deane to a kind of resigned acceptance of human-created horror:

We, too, are instruments

of the doleful music of suffering, have our long

lists of Gethsemanes

 

where the human project has lost its way; in our streets –

military parades. And nevertheless! oh God,

your will be done.

In the final two sections, Deane writes about coming to terms with age and mortality, and the likely end of his ability to write poetry as a result. The book ends in a note of total religious devotion, as one might expect.

Brittle-hipped, a little arthritic and taut of hearing,

 

climbing contentedly, but cautiously, upstairs.

Amen, he says, Amen; oh Christ, my Christ, Amen.

There is no raging against the dying of the light, but a quiet acceptance based on the poet’s faith, which, even if one does not share it, is one path to contentment. Despite the reservations expressed above, I enjoyed this book, as handsomely presented as you might expect from Guillemot, much more than I expected to.

Andrew Fentham’s Hunglish is a set of visual collage poems playing with the gaps between English and Hungarian. As is so often the case with visual poetry of this kind, the spirit of Dada is never too far away, with well-known paintings by Degas and Munch being transformed by the addition of text and/or images from other genres and the inclusion of images taken from ‘cheap’ commercial art like Disney or children’s book covers.

Many of the poems are political in theme. with Trump being compared unfavourably with his predecessor as POTUS via a pun on the Hungarian ‘barack’, or peach and Victor Orbán being hung upside down in a gesture that reminds me, at least, of Mussolini’s ultimate fate. Other images work in less obvious ways, such as a seascape photograph with the work ‘CAKE’ superimposed. The scene is sunset, and the colour palette is browns and beiges, not the blue you might expect. This plays against the pun on ‘kék’, or blue, but again the reader might be led to think of Brexit, the distant French coast, and having one’s cake and eating it.

This may seem a stretch, but the reality is that these texts are open fields, waiting for the reader/viewer to create meanings in them. For instance, the discovery that the ‘Ő’ superimposed on the screaming mouth in Munch’s iconic painting is an ungendered third person singular pronoun mirrors and amplifies the ambiguity of the original. Equally, the ‘MŰ’ on a collage of cattle, the final poem in the collection, is a reflexive comment on the book, given that it can translate as writing, work or creation and is accompanied by the German ‘bitte’, you’re welcome. You might, of course, argue that to the reader (me) with no Hungarian, this is too impenetrable, but that’s what dictionaries are for, and the reader who expects not to have to work shouldn’t really expect to learn anything from the act of reading. Fentham’s experiments in interlingustics certainly expect us to work, but they contain their own rewards.

These two publications from Peter Hughes mark a return to ‘original’ work after a decade spent making versions of classic Italian poets. You can, I think, detect something of the influence of these translations in the work reviewed here, not directly in terms of technique so much as in an approach to the medium of language. Both books contain poems dedicated to the Welsh-Irish poet John James, who died in 2018, and in ‘At Red Wharf Bay’ in Bethesda Constellations we read ‘since I moved here to Wales/my English has come on no end’, a couplet that could almost serve as summary of both collections.

This idea of finding the ‘here’ in ‘there’, of locating the language to express the world in via a process of dislocation, is central to these poems, be it the layers that unfold when preparing a meal:

I conclude

my own offensive

on the onion

& I wonder

how we managed

to end up

here & now

still in one piece

[from ‘Stir Fry’ in BE]

How do we end up ‘here & now’ when here is constantly shifting, geographically and/or intellectually? This is Hughes’ big question. In the title sequence that dominates A Berlin Entrainment he explores it by taking the reader on a trip round the S-Bahn-Ring, clockwise, station to station, starting at the northmost point (in a poem earlier in the book we’re told that Sonnenallee in the south-east is the poet’s local stop), each station getting a poem in three unrhymed three-line stanzas, and a facing page prose companion piece. The verse form, described in the ‘Sonnenallee’ poem as ‘half-arsed terza rima’, combined with the circular shape of the train line place us in a kind of modern Dante landscape. This is appropriate to the content of the work, streets and buildings littered with the human and inanimate detritus of what passes for 21st century western civilisationwhere we are faced with strange ethical decisions:

Is it best to pick up a syringe discarded by the bench and put it in the bin? Or is that more dangerous to whoever might come rummaging?

[from the prose section of ‘Hermannstrasse’]

This world is reconfigured into kaleidoscopic structures by the poet’s imaginative language:

Westkreuz

 

skinny helter-skelter on the skyline

bleak & disused maypole requisitioned

for dark arts what now inner squatter

 

awkward white gazebo departures

are acid we hear them burn through girders

& continental icepacks monitored

 

by stained bears with huge paws & the faces

of exhausted gods north ring & south ring

meet at Westkreuz where a sky is dying

At the back of much of what is wrong, Hughes detects the actions of self-serving lobby groups:

The arms industry and gun lobby are feeling particularly patriotic and expansive this morning. They’d like to teach potential customers a thing or two. It’s complicated. Watch out for infiltration. If any of your neighbours have ever done a kindness report it to the church or clan. We donated a bazooka to the janitor, don’t mention it. To enhance safety. Dinner ladies keep a Glock behind each pot. Eat your greens junior.

[the prose section from ‘Hohenzollerndamm’]

Such hope as there is, and there is hope, is located in the marginal urban night-world, where ‘Like the finer rootlets of trees the more productive networks have been meeting in the dark’. Tis idea of an organic resistance. Once again, the poetry is redefined by a ‘there’, the poet having moved to Wales to improve his English, the shift from urban to rural environments bringing a shift in focus, even when the locus is another elsewhere:

Ant

 

here’s an ant

traversing the remains

of an ancient Greek theatre

in all the brilliance

of a Sicilian spring

April sun & shadows

rephrase the vivid choruses

of each astonishing wild flower

throughout this poem

it magnificently transports

a tall & curving sail of leaf

back to the workshop

The night in which the poet/observer is different in quality to the Berlin darkness, and allows for a wider range of referents, but the reality of political upheaval is still present in the poetry:

the rain in all these

seaside Brexit towns

goes on into the night

 

a single taxi

never moving

from the station

[from ‘Bethseda Constellations 2’]

Any poet who mentions Bethesda is, inevitably, summoning up the shade of Dylan Thomas, and he is certainly a presence here:

past Bethesda harbour

with its brigs &

barques & schooners

plus a toy castle built

from slavery & sugar

[from ‘re:lode30’]

But, as Hughes points out in a note at the back of the pamphlet, the true presiding presence is a more recent Italian, Giovanni Pascoli, poet of small things. This is a mantle that Hughes takes on with great skill and conviction, finding in tiny details, a syringe discarded, a burger van in a Welsh lay-by, tan unused taxi, emblems of the big world, the exile from ourselves that is so much a part of the world we try to live in. These poems are a record of sorts of the poet’s quest to find, and improve, the language through which this world can be interrogated.

Hughes’ Oystercatcher Press publishes consistently interesting pamphlets, the most recent being Mutter/Land by Steve Xerri, a poet whose work is new to me. On first reading I was struck by the very English tone of his writing, a quality of reserve, of language flowing along the path of conventional syntax undisrupted, of a scope that is carefully circumscribed. On the surface, this poetry inhabits the same world as, say, Edward Thomas or, heaven forfend, Philip Larkin; a world of people and places seen from trains, quiet drinks, small gods and English churchyards:

Trains clattering coastwards out of sight

along the valley floor in this textbook

twilight provide all the metaphor you need.

[from ‘From the Zone]

 

We have little commerce with things
immaculate, unvarying: give us rather the touches

 

of quantum godlings, their dabs found everywhere
in our brick-built houses, signing a unique presence:

 

theirs is the trefoil sprouting from the back step,
theirs the thread-legged spiders in the stairwell corners,

 

the groove dragged deep in the wood-block by the daily
bite of the breadknife, the colours we choose for curtains

 

and rugs.

[from ‘Imagining the Lares’]

Beneath that surface, however, interesting things are happening. Xerri is not merely observing his world, he is dissecting it in minute detail and presenting it in forensic display. I don’t know if he is aware of Pound’s dictum, but this is poetry that is ‘as well written as prose’, and that uses the careful skill of its writing to open up the world it documents:

The watchers are leaving, making a last note

of the scuttle and flicker of glass-bright insects

 

in the uncatalogued mess of brokenness

under scorched hedges, where skinny thrushes

 

scratch among the roots and the dirt, finding

striped shells of snails untenanted, chalky,

 

a deposit dumped by some waterless tide.

[from ‘The Watchers are Leaving’]

The political element here is implied bit definite, a rejection of the idea that small worlds hare necessarily narrow, and the weighted precision of language means that when the remarkable title poems opens with the line ‘Make no mistake, I love this landmass’, the choice of final word serves to undermine the narrow provincial Nationalism that has come to corrupt the more expected ‘country’. By focusing more on geography than politics, Xerri is able to inspect the political with the same involved detachment that he applies to his insects. At its core, the poem narrates a descent through earth, time and evolution that might bring Dante to mind (the first poem in the pamphlet is ‘Nel Mezzo’, but, as the tercets that most of the poem are in opens out into a kind of open field central section, the voices of the damned resolve as ‘something like/a mother’s rhythmic/mutter’ bringing the title pun to focus before resolving the descent as a trip through the Channel tunnel to the earthly paradise of France, a kind of Nostos to a younger self for whom:

This is home for now and I am ready

to tangle tongues with the locals, talk

the halting talk of the incomer, amusing

 

and bemused by turns

It’s a picture of acceptance that contrasts starkly with these lines from the earlier, English section of the poem:

I have heard the talk in pubs, English ale

loosening English tongues till the shiv words

Frog, Dago, Kraut, Eyetie and the rest spill out

 

always only joking but when will the terms

turn on me, a half-outlander

It is this turning of the English poetic tradition on the idea of Englishness as it now exists that is the major achievement of Xerri’s style in these poems. It’s an achievement to be admired.