Recent Reading November 2021

 A Suite of Dances, Mark Weiss, Shearsman Books, 2021, ISBN 9781848617476, £14.95 / $25

Peasant Tower, Tim Allen. Disengagement Books, 2021, ISBN 9781678082826, £8.50

The Other Body, Flo Reynolds, Guillemot Press, 2021, ISBN 978-1-913749-05-7, £10.00

Kusudama, Minoru Yoshioka (trans. Eric Selland), Isobar Press, 2021, ISBN 978-4-907359-37-9,

The blurb for Mark Weiss’ A Suite of Dances quotes Pound’s dictum ‘that music begins to atrophy when it gets too far from the dance, that poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music’ as a kind of way into the book. Reading the book, I found myself led, more or less inevitably, to a consideration of another Poundian idea, the notion of logopoeia, ‘the dance of the intellect among words’, or, as Weiss has it at the beginning of the 10th dance, ‘Manchester Train’: ‘To invent language assume language.’ this is echoed and amplified by the following lines from near the end of the book:

No ideas

but in music.

No music

but in things

This bringing together of Pound ad William Carlos Williams is indicative of the nature of Weiss’ writing here, a kind of marriage of the former’s scope and the latter’s particularity. Weiss is aware of the fact that when we dance, we do so in the shadow of history:

Over the gates:

“What happens in Auschwitz

stays in Auschwitz.”

It’s as if we had drawn a line to cross it.

And let this be the work of memory.

And that this is no new thing is evident in the recurring figure of Helen:

Here’s a girl who bears a warning.

Makes much

of an ordinary self,

a face remade as the launch

of a thousand ships. “I deal

in death,” she says

“and sell it

wholesale.” Dressed, as she was,

to kill.

Weiss is conscious of the fact that dance can be many things: ritual, courtship, play, art, a reflection of a social order, and even death, the danse macabre that infuses much of the book. In a number of ‘dance as ritual’ passages, he draws on the language and style of ethnopoetics as exemplified by, say, the 1970s journal Alcheringa:

Let us become the deer to summon meat.

Let us become the goddess, invent

the step of the deer

and the wolf behind them.

Prey and predator.

Loved and lover.

But Weiss doesn’t limit himself to any single style here, the whole world is his dancefloor and all dances are available. And al the time it is language that serves as his measure, the play of the mind through the sound and sense of words is what distinguishes this fine book most:

Trial by threes.

By snails.

Unlike you, they grew

in curlicue.

Deny the I

the you

and also it.

so that’s the deal the deli

the delight.

the candidate of candy.

Rhyme, assonance, consonance and semantics weave an intricate yet simple figure, the perfect enactment of the dance.

Tim Allen’s Peasant Tower is bracketed by two short texts that provide a kind of way in to the concerns in this rich, multi-layered. disjunctive text. The first is the book’s epigraph, a quote from Raoul Vaneigem’s seminal work The Revolution of Everyday Life: ‘poetry always gets what it wants in the end’. The second is a spoof blurb supposedly provided by Andre Breton: ‘My friends and I enjoyed Peasant Tower very much and so did my enemies.’

This positioning between the twin poles of surrealism and Situationist anarchism  places Allen’s work here in a long tradition of disruptive art that also encompasses the punk bands that frequent the text, and the gently subversive humour of Morcambe and Wise, who also feature. The full sentence from which the Vaneigem quote comes reads ‘Even when it is recuperated and turned against its original purpose, poetry always gets what it wants in the end.’ Allen’s writing, here and elsewhere, is constantly concerned with the avoidance of recuperation, a concern he shares with this tradition.

peanut wore grey to the wedding of cold war to poetics

the cia in ica look beat

Formally, the book consists of 50 lines presented as 275 couplets across 46 printed pages, six couplets to a page with five on the final page. It is possible to read the work as discrete couplets, as 46 page-length texts, or as a single, semi-narrative poem. The narrative consists of a bus journey across or around Plymouth in the 1990s, and Allen’s true protagonist is a floating peanut, which I imagine rolling around on the floor of the bus:

freefalling and bored

peanut falls from floor to pocket

line-dances on his own looking distinctly cuboid

sink overflowing with new names for peter

In one sense, the title of the poem is another link with French surrealism as an echo of Aragon’s novel Paris Peasant:

in gilbert&George museum looking for eric&ernie

paris peasant lets out his caravan to london statue

quite upright peasants tow buckled tower sprightly

weather man reverses wheelchair up transgender gap

Elsewhere it could be a tower block or a state of mind. Meanwhile the world passes by the bus window in language that sometimes resembles Daddist newspaper headlines (‘loanshark rescues conductor from construction-gang’) or sequences of disrupted and disjointed images:

insomniac’s rucksack crammed full of bumps

introvert sleeps without saying goodbye to extravert

seat keeps seeping into experience

so schedule some unbreakable concrete voids

the fresh bread had a utilitarian audience

bargain margins in literary splints

Here, as throughout the book, the thread that binds the apparently random world is sound, the sibilant alliteration, the assonance and near or full internal rhymes (sleeps/ keeps, bargain/margins, the run of long ‘e’ sounds) form a kind of audible syntax that creates coherence as Allen plots a world in which ‘only the quotidian is marvellous’. It’s as if he’s saying that to bring about the revolution of everyday life, we must first immerse ourselves in it and Peasant Tower is a highly immersive experience.

Flo Reynolds’ Guillemot pamphlet The Other Body consists of work that addresses the interconnected condition of life, those characteristics that are shared by living things. In one poem, ‘Compost Reading’, they celebrate decomposition as a source of life, the compost heap as ecosystem, ‘a waste that shall not go to waste’, which can be read like tea leaves or a Tarot deck to elicit a vision of the continuum that is life.

This continuum is a kind of lost homeland in which slugs and humans carry the same weight as living things. This notion is most fully explored in the title poem, a sequence in eleven numbered sections, the last of which opens:

the attempt at neighbourliness

is the verb ‘neighbourliness’

belonging is

to be longing or


                                passes an indelible hiraerth

                                i don’t want to tempt that word

The conflation of longing/belonging echoes both Reynolds’ awareness of wholeness, of a world in which everything that lives is our neighbour, and an equal sense of estrangement from that world. The ‘hiraeth’ is, as I read it, a longing for full immersion in that whole.

The choice of Welsh here echoes some lines in the fourth section that include:

once a wife

a stranger made

flesh + blodyn

The stranger once a wife with the Welsh word ‘blodyn, flower, evokes, for this reader at least, Blodeuwedd, the flower-made, fatal wife of Lleu Llaw Gyffes in The Mabinogion. She is both the embodiment of the continuum, a being both flower and woman, and a representative of its cyclical nature, as her myth is essentially that of the solar god who dies in winter and is reborn in spring, a macrocosmic playing out of the cycle of life that the compost heap enacts on a smaller scale.

In this sense, Reynolds’ work here is profoundly ecopoetic, an attempt to integrate the world in verse.  The best summary of what they are working towards is found in these lines from section ix of the title poem:

there is + there is not


to the livingness + there is only

learning + unlearning

Not only do these lines bring together the core themes of the pamphlet, the gentle but insistent repetitions, the consonance on ‘l’ and ‘t’ sounds serve as a good example of the music Reynolds makes throughout these poems. This is my first encounter with their work, and I look forward to more.

I’m more than grateful to Isobar Press for continuing my education in 20th century Japanese poetry with this handsome revision of Eric Selland’s 1991 translation of Minoru Yoshioka’s Kusudama. Yoshioka, the useful afterword informs us, was a late modernist given to weaving quotations through his work, ‘borrowing the voices of others’ to make something uniquely his own. This method is apparent from the very first poem here, ‘Rooster’, where the lines “Hairpins fall/from the jet-black hair of mothers and daughters” recalls Buson’s haiku on the death of his wife:

mi ni shimu ya / nakitsuma no kushi wo / nuya ni fumu

it cuts deep –

by the bed my foot finds

my dead wife’s comb

Followed a little later by “’The women straddle an open grave and give difficult birth’”, a definite echo of Waiting for Godot.

‘Rooster’ also introduces the key concerns of the book: sex, birth and death and the centrality of the family (mother, father sisters and brothers run through all these poems). The family is both a locus of memory, specifically a childhood recalled, as exemplified by the numerous references to the kinds of cheap sweets that would have been sold by street vendors in the suburb where Yoshioka grew up. There is, however, another Oedipal line running through the family references:

Be joyful at your father’s death

                                                                smash his chin with a hammer

                                                                and pull out his canine teeth

Go over the weather-beaten fields

And throw them inside a possum’s den

[from ‘Collection of Green Branches’]

In fact, throughout the book the male grandfather/father/brother figures tend to represent death while the grandmother/mother/sister figures embody sex, birth and life:

A girl is born

                        (nothing mysterious)

The earth is bright

                                      and three grasshoppers lie dead

Mother plants corn

                                      while father cuts down the big tree

For a moment they resemble a painting

[from ‘A Spring Ode’]

And here we see the mother/father theme take on another shade deriving from the fact that Yoshioka draws heavily on Frazer’s The Golden Bough. As the book progresses the father is identified with the sacrificial King of the Woods figure, with the mother becoming a kind of Diana figure, described in the final poem in the book. as being incarnated as an earth goddess and elsewhere shown explicitly as “dressed as a huntress”. The Golden Bough identification is made explicit in a poem about one of those favoured sweets:

(Father holds an oak branch

                                                       and mother carries a wine flask)

[from Turkish Delight]

This mythic element occurs in other contexts, as in the lines in ‘Shadow Pictures’ where “mother mounts/not the aging father/but something that looks like the water god”. And the theme of birth is linked explicitly with poetry in ‘Pilgrimage’ where he writes ‘I was present at my sister’s birth/poetry’s advent’.

This intertwining of birth and death and the notion of the father as sacrificial figure is, I think, underpinned by a background of Japan’s participation in WWII that runs through the poems here as a quiet thread. Mostly this emerges as a vague sense of rupture, but there are occasional explicit images of troops and battle that evoke what must have been a formative factor in the poet’s development, serving, as he did, reluctantly, in the Imperial army. It is my strong feeling that it informs the air of life’s near meaninglessness, the overwhelming presence of death, that suffuses this work. It seems that his reaching back to his own childhood, to earlier literature and to mythic time is, on one level, a nostalgia for the world before the war, an attempt to reclaim the cycle of natural fertility that was ruptured by that cataclysmic event, both on a personal and collective level. It’s an intriguing and necessary read.