Recent Reading February 2022

Covodes 1-19, Robert Hampson with Joanna Levi, Artery Editions, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-871671070, £10.00

You cannot see yourself with your eyes shut, Sally Barrett, Some Roast Poets, 2021, £5.00 + P+P

Wonderland in Alice: Plus Other Ways of Seeing, Paul Brookes, Jane’s Studio Press, 2021, ISBN: 978-1739828103, £5.99

Postamble, For an Invisible Sangha, Peter Jaeger, if p then q, October 2021, £8.00, ISBN: 978-1-9999547-9-6

Dánta Grádha: Love Poems from the Irish (A.D. 1350-1750), Augustus Young, (3rd, revised, edition), The Duras Press/Menard Press, 2021, ISBN 9781874320746, £10.00

Reading Robert Hampson’s Covodes I was immediately reminded of Brian Coffey’s statement in ‘Concerning Making’: “The political use of words kills the capacity to use words to make poems.” Hampson’s book is a set of 19 odes, of sorts, that take in Brexit, Trump, hobby space travel, the general political landscape of the last few years and, of course, Covid. The spirit of the work is captured in a line from the fourth Covode, ‘”in future, words will have no value”. Hampson teases out this idea by playing with a range of words and phrases that have recently been drained of meaning and value, including “test and trace”, “sovereignty”, “vulnerable” and “loved ones”:

the risk was a short-term lock-in

& the loss of “loved ones”

(no-one mentions the unloved)

we stay inside

the structures of racism

where all men flash binary

for the sake of the chancellor

[from ‘Covode 6 – risky business’]

Here we see how Hampson folds his multiple concerns into a single nexus with the multiple challenges that confront this ambition for equity that should underpin our society seen as a continuum. Against which we see the prevailing influence of money and power, with, for example, the hippie idealism of The Eden Project morphed into a kind of delightful bubble for the rich, Boccaccio’s villa full of people with no interesting stories to tell:

the residents need all this stuff

luxury is the key to survival

along with regular spraying

& varying degrees of fumigation

[from ‘Covode 4: the pleasure dome’]

As the title strongly hints, Hampson is playing here with the ode form, much as many of his peers have been doing with the sonnet. These Covodes are irregular in form, and if we think of the ode as a poem ‘in praise of’, they circle around the idea that there is little to praise in a world where:

we try to remember the names

of those who have been killed

of those who have died

obliterated by this politics

[from ‘Covode 15: something in the air’]

In the end, what there is to praise is a kind of low-level resilience, a will to survive:

our conversations were clotted

with new terminology

our exchanges grew softer

as restrictions eased

then the second wave broke

with an end to the conversations

the walks across the fields

our lungs full of / cold city air

exhausted frustrated increasingly

emotional about / missed connections

we return to a baseline

knowledge of what closeness might be

[from ‘Covode 18: out of this world’]

Again, the role of language in disrupting our ‘knowledge of what closeness might be’ is central to Hampson’s concerns. It’s all too easy to dismiss poetry that s ‘about’ writing, about language, as being a bit up itself. What this book reminds us is that the language we use forms the society we are, for good or ill.

The book comes with a CD of the poet reading the text interspersed with music for solo cello by Joanna Levi which I enjoyed but feel unqualified to comment on.

While I’ve known Robert Hampson’s work for decades (and I should add that hardPressed poetry has published him), Sally Barrett’s work is entirely new to me. You cannot see yourself with your eyes shut is a longish poem in fourteen sections, plus prologue and epilogue, that traces an undefined ‘she’ through an often dreamlike melding of memory and present experience that hangs on the idea that knowledge, including self-knowledge, is provisional and imperfect. This begins with the title with its implication that self-knowledge is superficial, in the literal sense, and not driven by introspection. The ‘she’ figure sees herself as others see her:

she is three out of ten                    bucked teeth

surprise her again            protruding

Images of the self as seen in a mirror or photograph run through the sequence and serve as a way for the character to step out of a world in which “there is danger all around” and where “clothes help her to feel real”. This culminates in the final text in the pamphlet, ‘Group Exercise’, that serves as an epilogue to the epilogue:

take a photograph of your face

imagine you are another person

another person you do not know

take a good look at yourself

describe what you see

 This emphasis on the surface, on face value, raises interesting questions around the nature of identity and the self and, indeed, the nature of the real, that Barrett is wise enough to leave hanging. The nearest she comes to an answer is the end of the epilogue, a poem that begins with a man peering over a fence to intrude on the narrator’s tranquillity and forcing her indoors by his presence.  Meanwhile, a boat passes on a nearby canal. It has all the hallmarks of an all-too-familiar story, but the ending of the poem undercuts readerly expectations by emphasising the fictive nature of this reality:


that is all a lie

there is no man no fence. no boat and no embankment

It’s a fitting closing to a sequence that has much to say about perception and the self and does so interestingly.

There’s a passage near the end of Paul Brookes’ Wonderland in Alice that could almost have been written in response to Barrett:

To survey the whole scene

You must close your eyes’

commands the Red Queen

of Alice. But then I won’t

be able to see anything.’

You’ll be able to see

the whole plan laid out,

replies the Queen.

[from ‘Survey’]

This is the opening of the fourth poem in what is the second of a twin pair of seven-poem sequences that turn the already topsy-turvy world of the two Alice books on their heads, with disconcerting effect. Before the paired Alice sequences there are a series of individual poems that also look at the world askew: a child’s vision of a church and spire as a unicorn; natural phenomena refusing to behave as expected, a variation on the fairy tale motif of christening blessing that go wrong; the blurring of the lines between Life and Death as primal forces.

It is, however, in the Alice poems that the collection really comes to life for me, the absurdist world of the originals bent back on itself:

Teapot is fast asleep

curled inside the dormouse

curled inside Alice.

This is the idea of the inner life taken to illogical extremes; everything is inside and is seen from that perspective, a phantasmagorical hall of mirrors:

inside Alice

the looking glass

steps through her

Brookes calls into question our sense of the self and of the ‘real’, and addresses this problem directly right at the end of the book in a passage that can serve as the end of my review of this intriguing collection:

An odd thought pops

into her head What or who

do I make real? I can’t make

up myself, can I? All

that we see or seem

is but the real

within the real.

In passing, I would like to note the illustrations by publisher Jane Cornwell, a set of drawings that marry something of the innocent menace of Tenniel’s defining images with the deceptive flatness of the graphic novel to make an apt companion to the texts.

Peter Jaeger’s Postamble cries out to be read as a kind of postlude to he earlier Midamble, from the same publisher. The echoes start with the title, continue with the cover design (the earlier books all white cover with the single word title in gold on the spine followed here by an all-black cover with Postamble in grey-blue on this spine), and carries on through another link to the world of information tech.

Inside, the use of white space is another visual echo, but the technique here is very different to that of the earlier book. Here Jaeger uses single lines separated by spaces, with the same structural model throughout: ‘in noun, phrase. These are organised in three sections, ‘34543’, ‘Painting Science’ and ‘Given Everything’. The blurb on the publisher’s website compares this to sonata form, and music does seem to be the best parallel for understanding how the book works. Each lime contains repetition and variation, and the three sections or movements work with different reading tempos, the first having 5 evenly-spaced lines per page, the second three, and the third seven, resulting in a kind of allegro, largo, molto allegro progression.

In the first section, the nouns are taken from a range of natural objects, while the phrases are from a range of religious and spiritual writings, with he nouns being repeated in irregular patterns bit in partnership with different phrases. The resulting text minimalist, trance-inducing weave:

in sand, one two three

in thorns, postamble

in herds, family

in moss, idleness

in wheat, a prayer

The second section pairs ‘elements, chemicals and geological minerals found in pigment used by the Swiss painter Paul Klee, along with the titles of some of Klee’s works’, again with the same deployment of repetition and variation. I was reminded of Klee’s description of his artistic process as ‘taking a line for a walk.

In the third section, ‘Given Everything’, the pattern is ‘in Name, the noun of Name’. It quickly becomes evident that the names used represent a broad section of culture and ethnicities; the 14 on the first page are: Aiko, Preem. Hayat, Pierre, Elsa, Rolf, Adam, Noor, Douglas, Kath, Edna, Bruce, Laure and Preem again. New names appear and then recur on either side of the comma, as do the nouns that represent essential characteristics of those named:

in Li Wei, the sorrow of Adam

in Natsume, the work of Wang Xiu Ling

in Laurie, the sorrows of Mei

in Xu Ling, the love of Andreas

in Mira, the cells of Anita

in Alma, the birth of Matsuo

in José, the dreams of Silas

The resulting litany seems like an effort to summon up the invisible Sangha or community of the subtitle. The section has an epigraph from the German mystic Meister Eckhart: “Could you completely forget yourself even for an instant, you would be given everything.” What Jaeger is pointing to, it seems to me, is that the process of forgetting the self depends on the interpenetration of the self with other selves in the ideal community the poem evokes. It’s a strange, wonderful effort.

Augustus Young’s pamphlet of versions of poems selected from T.F. O’Rahilly’s 1916 anthology of the same name first appeared in 1975 and was reprinted in 1880. The pamphlet is a small classic, and anyone interested in Irish verse will welcome this reprint, especially as Young has added a new version, of O’Rahilly’s poem 12, ‘Coisg do dheór, a mhacaoimh mná’. The subject of these dánta grádha, or love poems, is, in O’Rahilly’s words, ‘love, and not the direct passion of the folk-singers or the high vision of the great poets, but the learned and fantastic love of European tradition, the amour courtois, which was first shaped into art for modem Europe in Provence, and found a home in all the languages of Christendom wherever a refined society and the practice of poetry met together.’ In short, they represent a slightly awkward marriage of the imported Norman ideas of courtly love with the long-established native Bardic tradition. The resulting poems take their content from the former and their forms from the latter, specifically the Bardic form of Dán Díreach, poems (to simplify enormously) in quatrains with a sophisticated use of assonance, consonance, alliteration, and rhyme (often assonantal half-rhyme to the English ear), mostly ABAB.

In a preface, Young describes his versions as not being strictly literal but having a ‘literal conscience’, meaning that he tries to capture the essential meaning of the poem and then reflect the Dán Díreach form in English versification. This may become clearer by looking at a few lines from the new Poem 12. Here it is in the original:

Iomdha ainnir mhánla shuairc

ar gach bruach don loch-sa thíos,

ag iarraidh mo mheallta uait,

is ná bíodh gruaim ortsa tríd.

And here’s a crude prose rendering:

Many fine women from every bank of the lake below are trying to seduce me, but you needn’t worry about that.

And another verse translation by Young’s one-time publisher, Michael Smith:

Many’s the fine lady

on the lakeside down below

trying to tempt me from you,

but you’ve no cause to care.

The context is a glib man trying to dismiss his lover’s suspicions while taking some considerable pride in his ‘successes’ with other women. Smith’s version captures this, but really misses the element of song, the verbal music of the original.

And now for Young’s rendering:

I admit there’s been a few

sprightly ones from around here

who tried to coax me from you.

But you have nothing to fear.

The characteristically sardonic tone captures the situation perfectly, allowing Young to abandon the specificity of the lakeside setting so as to establish patterns of sound, not just the rhymes but the recurring ‘I’, admit/around and been/here assonances, to focus on the more obvious patterns. There’s nothing mawkish here, no Celtic Twilight twaddle, but the spirit of the original song shines through Young’s English surfaces. This book is an essential for anyone interested in Irish poetry, or in any poetry, for that matter. It can be purchased by contacting Impress Books