Recent reading September 2020: A Review

Scratches, P Inman, if P then Q, 2019, ISBN 978-1999954741, £8.00

Belladonna, Suna Afshan, Broken Sleep Books (as Legitimate Snack 5), Out of print

A Quarter Life, Tyler Pufpaff, self published, 2020, ISBN: 978-1714800285, $8.00

Convenient Amnesia, Donald Vincent, Broadstone Books, 2020, ISBN:  978-1-937968-65-6, $22.50 retail, or $16.50 when you order directly from the publisher.

Scratches is P Inman’s first collection of new work since his almost collected poems Written 1976-2013 was published by the same press in 2014. There’s a reassuring familiarity in this new work, with Inman returning to his early habit of using invented and/or extremely obscure lexical items in poems that hover around such concerns as abstract expressionist painters, the atonal music of Monk and Webern, the politics of marginality, and. of course, the nature and purpose of language.

This last is, as ever with Inman, a question of pushing the medium to the limits of intelligibility, a language where there is ‘no syntax only levels…’ in verse where idiosyncratic punctuation is as radically part of the poem as it is in, say, Emily Dickinson:

However, the visual aspect of this writing is no more important than it’s sonic qualities, a fact that becomes foregrounded when Inman resorts to a kind of private language, as in this section from ‘6 + 5 pieces from Webern’

Opus 18

squim’ch

morph

epistc

On the page, this is as tantalising as a fragment of Greek papyrus, but sounded out, meanings, or traces of meaning begin to emerge, to ‘mmorph’ out of the atonal jag of the text. The mind, inevitably, demands intelligibility of language, and will prise it out where it can. Take, for example, the following lines form the second section of ‘copula (for Tina Darragh)’ which Inman tells us ‘is intended to be an homage to [Darragh’s} ever remarkable “on the corner to off the corner”:

(“klacto”

something or other) (tipped hail) (map

place stubble) (print corners, time upon

quotelessness) (a noun made of tree root)

Darragh’s title is borrowed from Miles Davis, and it seems that ‘“klacto”/something or other’ probably refers to Blue Rondo a la Turk’s song ‘Klacto Vee Sedstein’. This, in turn, is believed to be a reference to Charlie Parker, while the band’s name is taken from a Dave Brubeck tune. Inman is tipping his hat/hail to Darragh, Parker and Brubeck in an act of multi-layered homage that unfolds with the persistence of a tree root, a persistence that Inman demands from his readers. This is not poetry as consolation or comfort, and it is deliberately defamiliarising. That’s the point; Inman doesn’t set out to tell us anything, he sets out to make us think, to think in and about language. It’s a demanding, exhilarating experience.

Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,

The lady of situations.

I’m opening this review of Suna Afshan’s Belladonna with these lines from ‘The Waste Land’ because it seems evident that the poem’s title, form (Afshan’s three long sections around a short third section is a kind of attenuated version of the shape of the older poem) and much of its matter derives from a kind of argument with Eliot’s 100-year-old modernist monument.

Belladonna, an invented tarot card, is the essence of the female foretellers in ‘The Waste Land’ from the Cumaean Sibyl of the epigraph through Madame Sosostris, to Philomel, to the unnamed speaker in the pub, and by way of the blind gender-shifting Tiresias to the three Thames-sisters whose song is the crisis point of the poem; it is, then, no coincidence that the opening section of Belladonna is called ‘Soothsayers’.

The nature of Afshan’s conversation with Eliot is made clear in the opening lines of her poem:

Tuesday, when lilac jam dashes

Over buttery dusk, when the sun trips

Behind twiggy elms, and nests of bone

Grow cold like the gullies overrun with foxholes

From Tuesday I pinch a handful of earth

And I flee back through time

And at my back from time to time

I hear that silence which does not shift

A stale mote of air, echoing

In the caverns of every moment.

Eliot’s barren April landscape is quietly transformed into a warm spring scene, the struggling lilac becoming a warm tone in a warm sunset, dry dust becomes life-giving earth while the WWI background of gullies and foxholes morph into a scene of urban wilding. Meanwhile, the famous line from Marvel leads not to sound but silence, and coincides with a move back to the past, against the flow of time.

The cityscape it leads to is populated by the living, by schoolgirl shoplifters and the anarchic Bella who declares: ‘‘I dreamt I worked a brothel/And in the brothel Dad came.’ The ‘I’ then reads Bella’s palm, before introducing another truth teller, Gran, whose prayers are for the small things of daily life, the post to be delivered, foil to be kept out of the microwave, a resolutely unmythical world against which the narrator seems to rebel:

Why did God have me born this sightless girl?

Why can’t I feel my way out of yesterday’s embrace?

‘See, the worms in my pocket have frozen

Time’s turned the earth I pilfered to dust’

—In the meadow behind my comprehensive

I swapped it for the eye of a moth

The snout of a fox, three daisies with petals

So crisp they didn’t survive the pluck—

It’s interesting to see how Afshan constructs her verse in passages like this, the blending of formal and informal construction, of the everyday world of comprehensive school and the incantatory world of natural magic woven together through patterns of short and long vowels (worms/pocket/frozen, for example) and extended runs of alliteration (see/swapped/snout/ so/survive and pocket/pilfered/petals/pluck) that create a deft verbal music.

In the second section, ‘Twilight Sleep’, personal and ecological catastrophe are brought into a single focus through a series of dream visions and nightmare semi-awakenings. We are in the new waste land in the shadow of Atropos, the inflexible Fate, cutter of the threads of life, who gives her name to Atropa belladonna, the deadly nightshade:

Now I walk the yard barefoot

Settling on the clover like dew

And forever beside me, Atropos

Stands skeletal. The silver birch

Black, coughing sap, weeping marrow.

The short third section is concerned with a kind of death by water, and again the ecological impact of humans is present:

One packet of prawn cocktail crisps

Swam in the sprawling reeds

Uglier in its half-life than any dead thing.

Meanwhile, by the waters of oblivion, the narrator stands and whirls ‘like some godless dervish’, an image that links us directly to the final section, ‘Dead out of Time’, which opens:

God, with a mouth full of milk teeth

Skimmed the words of a dog-eared text

And I—free, free, free, and quite dead—

Wept at his feet, begged to be written

Back in if only for an everlasting Tuesday.

A return to the beginning, but now stepping out of time to return to a kind of Edenic simplicity:

So, I learned to bathe

In tubs of dandelion milk

Loom my own frocks of hessian

I drank sap from saucers

Perfumed with mud for nothing else

But a need to preserve the old ways.

But the past is not where we live, and Eden is gone. Those undone by death claim their right, and the narrator ends by summoning up Belladonna Atropos to perform her grim duty:

And I bit into Belladonna’s dark

Pebbled heart, and cried out

For that blind clairvoyant

Forever tending her garden:

‘Pick up your shears, love!

I’ve had my fill.’

Having said which, I realise that on another day I might chart a different path through this rich and varied poem. It demands re-reading and I can only hope that it’s possible to get it back into print one way or another so that it gains the readership it richly deserves.

Tyler Pufaff provides a note to the reader at the start of his A Quarter Life that reads: ‘The narrator of these poems is a character similar, and at times identical, to myself, and represents my experience with mental illness.’ It’s an interesting position, an ‘I’ decentered, not by art but by life, but fully aware that it is nevertheless an artefact.

I am that faded line erased

Redrawn and erased again

Because I just do not quite fit in.

[from ‘Lines’]

The note is followed by a quote from Bukowski, ‘You have to die a few times before you can really live.’. On the evidence of the poems, Pufpaff’s I seems compelled to test this advice:

is it a banal platitude to say that third time’s the charm? If so, then there’s going to be a lost irony if I die the next time I attempt to take my life (if there is a next time)

[from ‘Banal Platitude’]

This is a slim volume, just 18 poems in verse and prose, but it’s weighty in matter. Pufpaff delineates not only the struggles of one with mental health issues, but also the kinds of survival tactics they might perform, and the mutual misunderstandings that flow from them:

I get my hair cut

just so I have someone to talk to

but they just want to do

the works

everyone is fake happy

[from ‘Haircut’]

There’s a grim humour at play here that implicates all of us in the neglect of the mental health of our fellow humans, just as these lines from ‘Moribund’ implicate the political and economic structures of society at large:

I found homes

but am homeless.                            The government provides no relief.

 

Poor breeds poor,

my latest reality.                               what will I give up next?

Pufpaff is a young poet starting out and, as with all of us, his influences are still a bit undigested; Bukowski of course, Plath, perhaps John Berryman, but there is a distinctive voice bursting through. I look forward to see where he takes it.

Donald Vincent’s Convenient Amnesia is a more substantial 80 page collection, that comprises three sections, the first of which is primarily concerned with the public sphere as it impacts on the life of an African-American man in the early 21st century, the second more focused on the personal, and the third a set of responses to writers and artists. Of course, the barriers re permeable and certain themes flow through them.

The key word in the first section is ‘melanin’, as the poet measures a works that is encapsulated in the opening lines of ‘Driving Through Alabama, Birthplace of My Grandma’

My grand-momma never learned to say,

yessuh-bossuh, sir. She says she only knows

how to say, “yes, sir. Police officer!”

This is a world where white people pretend to forget the reality of a history that black people can’t but remember, as it frames the facts of their existences. This is driven home in the first poem in the book, ‘Lucky Charm’, that is concerned by the objectification of black men by white women:

People scramble to dodge me, the monster

with the third arm. On trains, they sneak peeks,

look away, and look again at my charm

 

which is like Uncle Tom, too uncool to take home to moms

so in cars, clubs, and in bathrooms, we-get-it-on-because-of-

my-charm.

 

Hello, you remind me of a fellow by the name of Othello

and if loving you is right, I’ve-been-wrong-all-along-charm.

The take me by the hand because you-want-to-dance-charm.

Emmett Till is named later in the poem as a reminder that this ‘charm’ isn’t really all that lucky: Vincent is conscious of the real risk of becoming part of a tradition of outspoken black leaders, of being ‘guilty until proven innocent’:

See Biggie, see Tupac,

see Martin, see Malcolm,

see Huey, see Garvey;

see black leaders

and their outcomes.

When I die, will I see black?

Buried in a black coffin—trapped

Waiting on Obama to address

my situation in his fireside chats.

Interestingly against this backdrop of institutional forgetting, the title poem of the book is in the second section and is concerned with the private sphere, a dysfunctional marriage. The gap between the partners is created primarily by the husband’s relationship with alcohol, Wild Irish Rose, perhaps as a result of his social circumstances, a link to the public poems of the first section. This link is more explicit in ‘Economic Privilege’, a poem about access to education:

They know someone that

Knows someone who

Knows someone that

Introduced someone to

Pay someone to

Influence someone to

Admit a white child to

college.

 

I know someone who

Knew of no one. Had no

Money to pay anyone

Lied to someone

Telling that one person they

Lived somewhere else so a

Black child could get a

Better education.

The privilege in question is white privilege, the product of a system that ensures that too much melanin in a person’s skin is a significant factor in deprivation of all kinds, of limited opportunity for some simply on the basis of colour.

I am

black, not because of my skin,

but because I embody struggle

defying expectation every day.

[from ‘Cultural Co-opting’]

The tone of the third section is set in the short prefatory ‘Trigger Warning’

Is art not

capitalist propaganda?

It’s a question that sits behind the subsequent set of poems, mostly ‘to’ or ‘after’ poets, with a couple of ekphrastic pieces. At times, as in ‘He Say—She Say—after e. e. cummings’ the tone is almost parodic:

blue moon said he

chardonnay said she

tofu said he

grilled cheese said she

 

bill said he

i’ve had my fill said she

too much liquor said he

i saw your twitter said she

The most interesting piece in this section is the long prose poem ‘Oxymoron #FamousPoet —after Frank Bidart & James Franco’ that centres around a reading by the two dedicatees and is an extended meditation on questions of art and celebrity culture:

Why would you support that? Why would you buy his book?

 

I learned to never judge a book by its cover. Never assume why the words

are on a page, in a particular way. Why can’t a star write poetry without it

being seen as trolling? What does one do?

 

Why can’t they have something to express? Why can’t I write what’s near

and dear to me?

Because my audience is not comfortable. Even though I am the page and

the page is me.

 

James’ poetry taught me this.

An old pal of mine asked if I could send her the photo. She reassured she

wouldn’t send it to anyone. She joked about not cropping me out of the

photo. She cropped me out of the photo.

But then I posted it to Instagram. And @FrancoFan69 actually crops me

and Frank out with a condoling thank you mention and something about

Lana Del Rey.

The process of erasure that removes the less famous from the sphere of the A-lister reflects the wider questions of erasure that run through the book. In the end I’m left thinking that it is equally an instance of white privilege that I can review a book like this, but I’ll never have to write one. The writing here exemplifies the reality that black lives matter not only as victims of police brutality, as a cause we can all get behind, but because they just do. Black lives matter because for two long they have been ignored, marginalised, erased. Poets like Donald Vincent give voice to those lives, not for a reader like me, but for there own sake. Don’t read him to feel good about yourself, but do read him.