Recent Reading: October 2020

New York Hotel, Ian Seed, Shearsman Books, 2018, ISBN 9781848615724, £9.95

Operations of Water, Ian Seed, The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, £10.00

You Do Not Have To Be Good, Madeleine Barnes, Trio House Press, 2020, ISBN 9781949487046, $16.00

Telling the Beads: A Spiritual Year Book for Our Times, Peter Philpott, Great Works, 2020, £6 + £1.40 postage

Perseverance Valley, Sarah Cave, The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2020, £16.00

The prose poems that comprise Ian Seed’s New York Hotel depict a world that is non-real, a logically consistent narrative universe in which improbable and impossible things happen in the most mundane of circumstances. Occasionally this world teeters on the brink of the surreal, but more often, the strangenesses that occur are less shocking, apparently more explicable than surrealism, and perhaps the more disturbing for it: an encounter with the Pope, working as Putin’s English tutor, or meeting the daughter of Elvis:

I found Priscilla weeping on a bench. She waved me away without even looking up. It was people like me who through our adoration had killed her loved one, she shouted after me.

All filtered through an ‘I’ whose nature is hinted at in the epigraph to the book, some lines from Wallace Stevens’ ‘Angel Surrounded by Paysans’:

Am I not, Myself, only half a figure of a sort,

A figure half seen, or seen for a moment, a man

Of the mind, an apparition appareled

in Apparels of such lightest look that a turn

Of my shoulders and quickly, too quickly, I am gone?

This I exists only in its narrations of movement and flux, flitting from city to city (Paris, Rome, Turin, Warsaw and more), through hotel rooms, homelessness and airports, with many ex partners who merge into one another, and across times. Running through the whole is a sense of a troubled relationship with a father, or fathers.

I wasn’t sure whether she was addressing me or her husband, but I felt obliged to tell them of my own father’s compulsive philandering, his bitter separation from my mother when I was eight, and her breakdown when he went to Italy and vanished there. Later I tried to find him, and ended up living for several years in Turin. Here I discovered and translated the books of Cesare Pavese, another philanderer, who wrote poems despairing of the possibility of ever being able to love and who hanged himself in a hotel room.

[from ‘Interview’]

These brief tales from a world not so much of dream as that state between waking and dream where we try to impose sense on the fragmented are a rare delight.

Seed’s verse poems in Operations of Water are, in one sense, mining similar territory, but minus that binding narrative logic, the effect is more disjunctive and disorientating. The poem that gives the book its title begins with the line ‘its colourless mouth has shaped unseizable words’, a line that can be taken as a description of what Seed does with language. Water is an operating principle here, and not just in the title poem; these poems proceed by the kind of means by which flowing water finds its level. There are eddies, currents, backwaters, still pools and sudden plunges, so that each poem moves by a process of organic impulse.

I lace my shoes and cross the road, a stranger

but not of foreign blood. Is it okay to share

your toothbrush? Or to wear your pyjamas?

My dreams wander around the distant town.

The progression is not linear, but nevertheless we start at point A and find ourselves, eventually, at point B.

The I that makes these observations is a kind of phenomenological experiencer, an idea made explicit in the poem ‘Phantom Limbs: After Maurice Merleau-Ponty’:

We do not see from our bodies as from inside

a box. We pertain to the whole, we take our place

in the landscape, in the touching of the sleek and rough.

It is this phenomenological perspective, the poet/I recording the body’s experience of the phenomena that it encounters as they are encountered and working to create meaning from them that underpins these poems, that make them coherent texts rather than random juxtapositions, poems of experience as experienced in which ‘[a]n unreal/world achieves its own consistency.’

The final, title poem ‘Operations of Water’ pushes this to the limits. It’s a longer piece in nine numbered sections, each consisting of a set of single line stanzas, each line a tentative observation of water’s operations (in the broadest possible sense) with the gaps between operating as spaces in which meaning can be both created and disrupted:

in a wide dose rivers left to grow were down their rapidly web

counted in night I stroll untouched threads forest dreamt

the made stage of matter sing back have the deeper wear

as almost parts a child done no dark sailors running

footprints red in a want love handkerchief

could knot to street you through the made in one move

What carries the reader is the weaving of sound into coherent patterns, alliteration, assonance, the balance of long and short vowels create a music not far removed from folk song that plays against a syntax that’s nearer to John Cage. The pleasures of this book are of a different order to the prose poems, the challenges and rewards of reading them are greater, but worth the effort.

Madeleine Barnes’ first full-length collection, You Do Not Have To Be Good, consists of seventeen sections, each with a title that follows the structure of the book name. These include: ‘You Do Not Have To Be Earthly, You Do Not Have To Seduce, You Do Not Have To Take My Word for It, You Do Not Have To Generate Capital, You Do Not Have To Know, You Do Not Have To Be Rigorous. There’s a sense that the ‘you’ being addressed is a composite of Barnes herself, poetry in general, unnamed individuals to whom poems may be addressed, and an imagined reader. As a result, the I that narrates the majority of Barnes’ poems favours compassion over certainly; these are not instances of a Wordsworthian ‘(wo)man talking to (wo)men’ where the poet imparts wisdom, but rather a form of mutual exploration, writer and reader engaged in creating meaning together.

Stylistically, perhaps the most striking aspect of the book is the relative paucity of simile and metaphor; Barnes writes with a rich directness, a language in which analogy is used sparingly and, generally, to telling effect:

I don’t want muscle and shape,

or the distractions of size, or change’s

spectacular ramifications. I want stability

against a final loss of everything entangled,

glittering away insignificantly

a leaf appearing and falling

from an invisible branch.

[from ‘Medicinal Properties’]

This is a characteristic passage, the metaphor earned by the exposition of the preceding lines, with those sibilant initial and mid-word ‘s’ sounds enacting the entanglement and ensuing loss, the leaf appearing organically, not forced. The appearance of the leaf serves to highlight the fact that Barnes is primarily concerned with the human world; nature rarely appears, and the one slightly clumsy analogy in the book is at a point where it does:

while egrets landed

like slender teeth

in the marsh,

The idea of loss and death is central to the book, the deaths of friends, lovers, family and of the speaking ‘I’ are woven in a tapestry of shared experience:

At her funeral I wondered

if I wasn’t really dead, too.

 

Fine gold—the gold of her hair,

rubbed by rain, gold behind my eyes

 

flint-like, petrified everything.

[from ‘A Fire’]

But against the shadow of death, Barnes posits the light of friendship, love and family, above all love, the force that compels us to live in the face of death:

I do love the golden colors

of Betelgeuse against

a velvety black night sky.

So turn. He said, and live.

[from ‘I See Her among the Stars]

It is this resilience that shines through in these carefully crafted poems.

Peter Philpott’s Telling the Beads: A Spiritual Year Book for Our Times is an interesting addition to the tradition of English calendar poems, but with a twist; he’s following the Anglo-Saxon calendar as recorded by Bede in his De temporum ratione. It’s a twelve-month calendar, possibly lunar, with the intercalated festivals of midsummer (Lythe) and midwinter (Yule). The sequence has a complex structure, best explained

Each month begins with a text composed of a poem (in a simple strophic form to be used for that month), and then a sentence and a further short poem in an open field form… Following this is a series of poems (in principle in the same form as the month’s initial poem), brief prose passages, and combinations thereof. These are allocated to specific days… Each month, until midwinter, the number of these holy day and their texts increases by one — each with its own format and following the same sequence — then each month loses one until midsummer. In addition, Yule has, of course, twelve days, each with its own little text, and Lithe, three.’

The context is the same period of migration in Britain between the fall of Rome and the rise of England, a period in which mixed populations of British, Latin, Scandinavian and Germanic peoples formed, in Philpott’s view, a communal society with flat hierarchies, shared ownership and freedom from rulers, a kind of utopian agrarian anarchism. Overlain on this is the poet’s stated position as a ‘Hardcore Polytheist Agnostic. The poem is infused by the presence of this polytheistic system, and presence is the operative words; Philpott’s deities are not rulers, but gentle enablers. This is a world of ‘neither god nor master’.

The days remain the same, presenting us always with the same problems – (1) how do we live? (2) how do we live without taking from others what they have? (3) how do we prevent the men with well made weapons which they know how to use from taking from us all that we have? (4) how can we bring an end to this state of affairs? (5) how can we bring up our children & grandchildren to live a life of better days?

Unwine thought he knew (but failed on number 5). Cerdic thought he knew (but failed on number 2, badly). Bæda thought he knew (but failed on number 4). The Prophetess of Eostre thinks she knows: start with number 5. We should struggle to make ourselves live in a land where all our children & grandchildren, all of the children, that is (– do you want yours to be the only children? What a curse! –) can thrive and flourish & burgeon & grow and develop after their own natures together. Embrace such a hope at this time of struggling life (lots more cold wind yet to blow) and absolute potential: resurrection is a yearly miracle we ought to have learnt from better.

The politics of migration and the idea that all populations are mixed, that there is no such thing as, for example, a ‘pure’ English person, is, of course, relevant to the period (July 2016 to July 2017) in which the book was composed. In fact, Philpott is concerned to collapse time, so that past and present coexist, interpenetrate each other:

Upstairs at the café it’s pretty good

the town slowly gridlocking in the rain

oh how it’s all already fading

the left behinds in the countryside

these the ones who’ll take over

again

– no like always really

this whole society only had one reset

& that one mostly pretty botched

something about the weather & the seasons

driving us never to change but

keep up the same old bloody crap we

were born with

into: stuck

in the exact repetition of 2000 years about

maybe less – who cares?

One thread that runs through the book is the image of cake, derived from Bede’s ‘placentae’, again not entirely irrelevant to the Brexit landscape and associated ideas of English exceptionalism.

There are a number of other threads: Brecht, Tove Jansson’s illustrations for The Hobbit (and the parallels between that tale of migratory quest and Philpott’s narrative structure), but ultimately what interests me most is the craft on display.

Philpott’s prose is pellucidly clear, even when the story being told isn’t:

This is a strange land, one not clearly belonging to any time or place – these low hills mimic the erotic flanks of the rushing water. The trees that grow are sparse, but wide – beautiful shade trees. This land must hold many large grazing creatures. Flying towards us is along line of great birds – huge, bigger than we appear. Our company is slightly alarmed. Unwin turns to me and says: “Just write how things and people are. That’s all. If you can manage it. I don’t know whether we are going to be rescued or eaten. These moments are intense and full of wonder. Everything is new again.”

Meanwhile, the verse sections display a quiet control of sound as an organising feature, as in the opening poem for ‘Before Yule’:

After deep frost is greyness

under the gloom gather holly

build up the logpile too

make sure your foods are ready

this is the first thing to do

decay ebbs with the cold

all life is searched through

hide & feast while you can

outside warbands are clashing

all the pride dead in the mud

 

bury them later!

now hold

all that you can together

preparing to live into a new age

where the sun shines hot again

 

some things do want to grow

these you must nurture in love

you don’t live in bare rubble

a rich mulch of connections

kept alive by fungal thread

 

these now your tokens & guides

burrowing through the cosy dark we culture

our exemplars sleeping little creatures

living out this time to return

Here the move from the closed, tight patterns of alliteration, assonance and rhyme that enact the shadow of dying in the first two stanzas open out after the exclaimed pivotal injunction to focus on life that opens the third. Thereafter, the freer melody opens out to the idea of regeneration and hope. Through this aural switch, Philpott brings into being the crucial calendrical cycle in which the mid-winter season prefigures a new spring, both in nature and culture. The book is full of such moments of quiet melodic invention.

Quests and religion are also at the heart of Sarah Cave’s Perseverance Valley, with the Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity being cast in the role of questors through a process of imaginative personification. The Rovers, especially Opportunity, engage in a series of meditations on art, religion and love, all set in a blighted desert landscape that echoes our current eco-catastrophe.

The artist and Rover watch

–  from a safe distance –

the sun rise over the mountain

 

a ruined planet

 

the artist starts to paint

and the Rover starts to collect

 

and all enjoy their own purpose

At the heart of the book is a Bible verse, Hebrews 6:19: ‘We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain’, a verse what, to those of a religious persuasion, hold out the hope that this ruined world will be made whole again, through the promise made by god to humanity of a future redeemer. Cave transfers this belief system to our technology in a poem called ‘Opportunity doubts’:

DSN, you are the light

the life

the resurrection

but who made you?

The Rover is a type of the isolated being, an anchorite in the desert, and it’s fitting that WS Graham acts as a point of reference, especially in the second section of the book, ‘Night Phishing On Mars a Soliloquy’ , a reference to Graham’s ‘The Nightfishing, a study in isolation and the problem of communicating with others. This part of the book also references King Lear, TS Eliot and Yeats’ ‘No Second Coming’ to underline the Cave’s preoccupations.

The best writing in the book occur when Cave gives full rein to her own voice and pleasure in the sounds of language:

the swallower swallowing the smaller mountains swallowed their

breath to breathe the swallows and there sit still with the mountain

child’s position swallowers playing ‘Swallows in Spring time’ the B side

of the planet fifty seconds of silence talking with the mountain

 In passages like this, Cave strikes me as being one of the most interesting younger poets around at the moment. However, this book left me pondering the questions left unaddressed: what are we to think of our quest to colonise space? If we are concerned with our impact on earth’s ecosystems, how can we justify, let alone celebrate, our space debris? Is the hope of redemption by divine agency anything more that a cop-out, a way of ignoring our responsibility for the way we’ve treated the planet? If Perseverance Valley addressed these matters, I think it would be a better book.