Recent Reading: September 2021

Woman Drinking Absinthe, Katherine E. Young, ASP, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-942892-24-3, $15.99

Love Took the Words, Christopher Jane Corkery, Slant Books, 2020, ISBN 9781725264229/9781725264212/9781725264236, $27.00/$12.00/$9.99

A crocodile out of nowhere, James Roome, The Red Ceiling Press, 2021, £7.00

Second Memory, Alycia Pirmohamed & Pratyusha, Guillemot Press, 2021, ISBN 978-1-913749-13-2, £10.00

Sonata, Philip Lancaster, Guillemot Press, 2021, ISBN 978-1-913749-07-1, £6.00

Achatina, achatina!, Ellen Dillon, 2019, SoundEye Press, €15

Cities, Jimmy Cummins, Distance No Object, 2021, £5 (UK) / £8 (EU)  / £10 (USA/ROW)

The fourth (of five) sections of Katherine E. Young’s Woman Drinking Absinthe is a single sequence, ‘Place of Peace’ that takes off from a visit to the Civil War memorial at Shiloh National Military Park. The fourth section of the sequence opens with he line ‘Who doesn’t desire to be mesmerized by love?’ and ends ‘once more I fear the shadow of his hand.’ These lines could be said to serve as the twin poles of the entire collection.

For Young’s core subject is love, but there’s nothing redemptive or particularly healing about its manifestations. Elsewhere in this section, the narrator addresses her son:

So many battles are accidental. Love,

my son, when it finally comes—unlooked-for,
 
savage, bursting riotous into bloom,

stunning us while we lie dreaming—love’s
 
the only thing worth fighting for.

In fact, the poems in this collection depict love (and sex) as a battlefield, both physical and psychological. The physical violence is explicit in places and is inflicted on women by men:

That first time when you hit me,

I marveled at the crack
 
your hand made as it struck

flat against my face.

[from ‘Soul Food’]

The more insidious psychological violence that love can be responsible for is clearly delineated in the closing lines of ‘Home Visit, in which a married man decides to have his lover meet his family:

and, chatting randomly about backsplash

and tile while she steeped tea,
 
the wife, who’d clearly taken pains

to tidy up the place.

This poem is in the second part of the book, a set of poems that describe a ‘suburban affair’, an affair whose battlefield is two families, and whose victims are the people who comprise them. It’s a bleak, and very urban, view of relationships, and that urban-ness is called out in ‘Postcards from the Floating World’, a set of four haiku-like poems whose title evokes the hedonism of Edo-period Japan. Each poem begins ‘I cry out.’ and the set progresses again from the romantic to the aggressive:

iv.
 
I cry out. His hands

claw fierce, wild, deeper than pain

cradling my face.

This image recalls the second poem in the book, ‘The Bear’, in which the female protagonist is wooed, if that’s the right word, by the eponymous animal. In this poem, however, the potential for harm is drawn in, like the bear’s claws when he smooths the woman’s cheeks; there’s a tenderness in the relationship that is for the most part missing from the human-to-human pairings that appear elsewhere in the book. The world of love that Young delineates in these poems is far from being a place of peace.

Christopher Jane Corkery is also concerned with love, as the title of here Love Took the Words makes clear. The title phrase serves as the first and last line of the opening poem, ‘As In The Days Of The Prophets’, and it’s immediately clear that Corkery’s love is quite different to Young’s. For Corkery, love is what lies under the quotidian, a sustaining force:

Love took the words right out of my mouth.

Not the making of love, the clinging and plunge,

the tongue’s deep spiral, but the acts of days,

the sun up and down, the dish and the pot,

the light on the head of first one, then another,

the stairs unswept, the bed made, the light out,

This sense of the importance of everyday experience, its numinous quality, runs through the book, as does a focus on the centrality of poetry and of poets, with many references to canonical names: Dante, Herbert, Marvell, and, above all, Yeats:

I clung to that great body. His delight

In love, and loss, and water, and swans was mine!

It was Yeats who took me, (I was seventeen),

And showed me, word by word, what life could mean.

[from ‘It Was Yeats Who Took Me’]

As you might expect from a poet who was taken by Yeats in the 1960, as opposed to, say, Eliot, Pound or Williams, Corkery tends to work in more traditional forms (the Yeats poem quoted above is a villanelle, for instance) but she does so with, for the most part, some considerable skill and a nice sense of subversion, as in the sestina ‘When Your Daughter Was Turning Twenty-Eight’ which opens with the self-reflective:

When your daughter was turning twenty-eight

I began a sestina,

that box-like wonder

of words, of let-in light.

It was an exercise only, but I thought—

Better the intended, than the forgotten
 
Gift.

and continues with the short lines that lend something of the feel of the Troubadour and Tuscan song that she weaves into the poem’s fabric:

The gold light

of the Languedoc would have been better, thought

anaesthetized by a Chenin haze, twenty-eight

years celebrated in Occitan wonder—

a curved street, a glass she might have drunk. I had forgotten

how much I loved that green sestina
 
of Dante’s, the first time around, the sestina’s

trobar clu —how green-gold light

could be pressed from suffering.

All of which, of course, moves us from the orbit of Yeats to the complimentary world of Pound. There’s a deftness of touch here that is so often missing in the work of the more belligerent proponents of the new or old formalism, a sense of form as opportunity, and of poetry as song that is a delight. This formal control allows the confidence to paly with free verse and semi-prose forms, but also brings an admirable restraint to those poems here that deal with the death of the narrator’s husband:

My head is storms at morning

With all the things I’ve read.

And then at night my head is still.

And you are still dead.

[from ‘By the Ocean’]

Here, the moving simplicity of statement seems to owe something to Emily Dickinson, but Corkery has the skill and confidence to bend that most dangerous of influences to her own needs, her own voice. Her first book, Blessings was published in 1985, but the long gap to this second collection was not a silence, as she apparently continued to publish in periodicals in the interval. On the evidence of the poems collected here, that 35 years was a prolonged but fruitful apprenticeship to her art.

I’m inordinately keen on pamphlets that are designed to fit in to a pocket easily, like James Roome’s A crocodile, out of nowhere. The pamphlet consists mainly of long, narrow justified blocks of prose, with some poems in verse interspaced between them. Roome’s work here delineates a world that is syntactically coherent but semantically out of kilter. It’s tempting to describe it as surrealism, but there’s a precision of thought and language on display here that is all too often missing from surrealistic writing. Roome builds situations that flow logically because of the even tenor of his writing, but where what happens is absurd, in the best possible sense. I was going to pull examples from a number of poems, but in the end decided to focus on one piece to look at how Roome works:

The Arsonist
 
Two days before the festival,

the arsonist placed all of his

equipment in a neat row

on the windowsill. There

was his lighter fluid, his box

of matches, his balaclava

and his fire proof gloves.

He sat back on the bed and

admired his tools, then

rose and stood straight as a

column, arms clenched to

his sides, tilted his head to

the left and closed his eyes.

In this way, he became the

bottle of lighter fluid. Next,

he sliced up his gloves with

some kitchen scissors, found

a needle and thread, and

sewed the fire proof material

to the skin of his hands. In

this way, he became the

gloves. Feeling emboldened

by his success, he raised the

scissors to his mouth and

cut off his lips, then used

his thumbs to gouge out

both his eyes. In this way,

he became the balaclava.

Finally, he ran outside into

the road and rubbed his

head against the tarmac

until his scalp hung from his

skull. A bloody mess. In this

way he became the match.

Hot pearls burned his cheeks

and filled up the eyeholes of

his balaclava. The fire proof

skin of his hands became

saturated with blood. His

neck seized in a constant tilt.

His head hung open to the

steaming air. Only now was

he ready for the festival. And

all of this had only taken half

an hour.

This tale of horror opens with a favourite Roome device, a string of simple declarative sentences to set the scene. There’s nothing out of the ordinary until the first bolded term, the logical and temporal connecting adverb ‘then’ introduces what might be considered mildly eccentric behaviour.

This use of connectors, bolded above, continues to lend a sense of order to the ensuing madness. In particular, the refrain-like repetition of ‘in this way’ helps make each escalation of the arsonist’s self-mutilation seem reasonable, something that follows a logical sequence of cause and effect, with the ‘finally’ and ‘only now’ adding an air of reasonable conclusion, a job well done. That final sentence beginning with ‘and’ (a lot of sentences in the pamphlet begin ‘and’) rounds the whole thing off with a kind of muted ‘imagine that’. The writing both shocks and lulls the reader, so that you’ve finished the poem before you’ve quite taken in just what has happened. It’s a delightfully serious, comic sleight of hand that reveals the dark substratum behind the mundane.

For such a small object, A crocodile, out of nowhere is packed full of such pleasures, just read it.

In Second Memory, Alycia Pirmohamed and Pratyusha collaborate on what is a kind of genre-defying book, part memoir, part essay, part prose poem, part meditation, presented in short blocks of prose, with an acknowledgements page that is actually a bibliography of sources quoted. The book revolves around ideas of memory and the self, the role of memory in the creation of selves, our own and others. At the centre of the book is a paradox that is expressed in these two passages, separated by just a couple of pages:

Notice how often I pull at this thread in a slow attempt to unravel history. Relentless, they arrive one after another, all of these repetitions —

and

To return is impossible, but we continue to retrace our steps, each shared exhale a new line of flight.

The past repeats itself, differently, partly because the I that experiences is different. A grandmother whose grave was eroded into a river blends with ‘this ghost that crosses back and forth, heels wet with geography’ and on through multiple images of submersion and resurfacing, until we arrive at Mātaṅgī, goddess of words, who ‘rises from the waters, her green skin turning the waters green’. On the next page we are told that:

Mātaṅgī is another kind of second memory, her name concealed in the sediments of my childhood’ a goddess never spoken of but in hushed tones.

In another aspect, the second memory of the title is, I think, to do with the act of collaboration, each of the authors shares in the memories of the other, a composite past/present (only two blocks, one addressed to P and the other to A, give any real hint of authorship although it’s tempting to guess at others). In another again, our second memories are those that are not really ours, but have been passed on to us in family lore so that we feel them as if they were, like the stories of a great-aunt who is both known and unknown:

I look at her, the face of a woman I’ve never met, with whom I cross paths in my dreams sometimes. She is constructed entirely through stories my grandmother has told me. The decades fall away, and she is fiery in front of my eyes, striding across tiled floors with infectious energy, striding both towards me and away from me. Her laugh pierces through me as I reach out to touch the gap.

Second Memory is a quiet meditation on how our memories, our past, our ancestry is constructed for and by us and how we are, in turn, constructed by them, and it’s all the more effective for that quietness. As ever, the production quality from Guillemot also serves them well in this handsome hardback.

If, as Pound wrote, all art aspires to the condition of music then it may be that all music aspires to the condition of silence. Philip Lancaster’s Sonata is dedicated ‘for Graham and all those who crave the music of silence’ and circles round the question of the (im)possibility of attaining that condition.

As well as being a poet, Lancaster is a singer and composer and this fifteen-part sequence is structured like a piece of music, with theme and counter theme being stated, expanded, contracted and restated throughout. Some of the major themes consist of simple phrases that are repeated, with or without variation, throughout the work. One key motif first occurs in the second section and echoes on, always with brackets and in italics: ‘(Is there silence/where there is none/there/not to hear?)’ This first occurrence is the only complete statement of the theme, and the final repeat is simply ‘(Silence?)’ The Zen reference here reflects the meditative ambiguity of much of the sequence.

A second theme is the phrase ‘do I dare?’ and variations on it. Indeed, the poem opens ‘I have dared    taint’, the taint being the intrusion of the poem into the desired silence. Again, the reference to ‘Prufrock’ is relevant to the poem’s procedures:

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

Two more important terms that recur are the word ‘staves’ in a number of senses, musical, as parts of a barrel, and as props or supports, and ‘the Larching’, an obscure (to me at least) term which I read as referring to a clump or grove of larch trees. Part of the recurring, Beckettian, drama of Sonata mirrors a significant event in human evolution, the move from an arboreal existence to a life on the open savanna as outlined in these extracts from sections CII, IX and XII of the sequence:

Do I dare?
 
to step free into the lonely grassland

and set in earth

a tentative seed

an uncertain sapling

in our dusk’s

darkening woodcut

But I do not dare.

I do not dare set foot

beyond

 
the Larching   the dead

silence    defeated

I sit

near its edge   feeling

feeling for the edge

of beyond

Despairing    I return

to the Larching

I return    to the edge

where once

I did not dare

I return   to where

dead silence

marred the peace

Here we seen the final refrain that strikes me, the image of ‘dead silence’, a kind of negative version of the desired state. In the end, it is, in fact, death that leads to fulfilment of the wished-for:

and with the last breath

silence breaks
 
as the dawn

upon our ending

Lancaster’s particular verbal music, a music which in ways reminds me of the work of Brian Coffey, who I have no way of knowing if Lancaster has read, played out here with minimal means but on a large scale, displays an ambition that is all to scarce in contemporary poetry, and I have only scratched the surface of it in this review. A fascinating poem indeed.

SoundEye Press is a legacy of the late, lamented SoundEye Festival, which was, when it ran, a highlight of the Irish poetry calendar. Bothe Ellen Dillon and Jimmy Cummins (although not published by the press) are part of the younger generation of poets who were associated with the festival over a number of years.

Dillon’s writing in Achatina, achatina! if firmly based in the texture and flexibility of language. In a typical poem here, various registers, advertising, popular culture, literature, the sciences, demotic and so on, are bumped up together to see what happens:

Kerry Agrifoods welcomes you
to our neck of the woods, sleek
with wolves, dietary staples, world-class
dairy products. Protect us from all
evil, lurking in the undergrowth and
gurning down from billboards both,
deliver us to chance another arm.

Nevertheless, as here, much of the work is firmly grounded in Dillon’s physical landscape in rural Limerick and a number of poems start from a close observation of a plant, mollusc or animal:

The cuckoo, not a pretty bird, reiterates his raucous grating call

through afternoon’s cloying greyness. Its agitating blatter

speeds the blood up; tachycardic drumming at the pulses pulls
 
the breath up short

[from ‘If in danger run to the woods; after Niedecker’]

It’s worth noting that this poem also features a pet dog called Lorine!

The play on the cuckoo folk song here is also typical of Dillon’s humour, with puns often at the heart of the absurdist joke:

Eating my cornflakes one by one,

when the clicking stops I’ll put the kettle on

but it won’t fit me.

[From ‘One Leg at a Time, Sweet Jesus’]

Dillon’s work is unusual among her generation of Irish poets in owing as little to, say, Boland as it does to Heaney.  In the punningly titled final poem in the book, ‘Re: Ducks’ she specifically rejects an expectation of poetry ‘larded with allusions to//early Yeats and Hopkins. Dense and satisfying,/with a slightly cloying aftertaste’. I’m interested to see where she takes this next.

Jimmy Cummins’ Cities is a set, or perhaps sequence, of 26 prose sections, each shorter than a single page and conveniently starting on page 1 and ending on page 26 (why don’t more pamphlets adopt this?). There is a kind of narrative arc that runs through the pieces, with four personas, I, you, he and we, recurring. The events, such as they are, tend towards the quotidian. To quote from the text on page 19:

We all have a story, mine is not worth listening to, and that is ok. It has been heard before.

Of course, the everyday isn’t all that simple, as we are led to see from the next sentence:

I cast nets and sails and thousands of tiny pieces of colourful paper before consulting my maps and the tears of the prophets.

The whole sequence is suffused with a tone of regret, of a lost past unrecoverable, and of some kind of ecological trauma that lies behind the sadness:

There, covered in tinfoil and bitumen, lay the remnants of the world. After the rain had washed away the sods tears were shed leaving the eyes puff puff puffy and the cheeks stained International Klein Blue.

As with Ellen Dillon, Cummins shows a wary distrust of poetry and a tentative preference for numbers:

I can barely read two lines of poetry without getting bored or resorting to eating reams of paper, which cost above average in today’s market, but oranges are always five for a pound no matter which way the wind blows.

This wariness would appear to derive, in part, from a sense of the abuse of language for political ends, and the political dimension surfaces towards the end of the set, on page 21:

A cop smashes into a traffic light and comes off her horse. They have no right to be there or to bring horses. Love is the chosen eclipse or an act of pedagogy and so is the drowning of Colston. History is not being rewritten, it is being named, it is the great reclamation and where we cast our voices and ears is the stuff of substance.

The text goes on to reference Claudia Rankine, and there is definitely something of her tone in the fractured prose that Cummins deploys here, a prose of intertextual fragments and allusive statement. Towards the end, the narrator declares ‘It is 2020 and I have lost poems, faith, and one of the dogs.’ It’s a sentiment I suspect many of us can relate to. The hope is that this is not a swansong, but a necessary stage in Cummins’ development as a poet.