Recent reading November 2022: A Review

An Open Parenthesis, Philip Rowland, Isobar Press, 2022, ISBN 978-4-907359-40-9, £12.00

NORTHANGERLAND – (re)versions of the poetry of Branwell Brontë, Andrew Taylor, Leafe Press, 2022, 9781739721329, £10.95

it is like toys but also like video taped in a mall, James Davies, Pamenar Press, 2022, ISBN 978-1-915341-04-4, £15.00

The Prodigal’s Progress: The Man Who Doesn’t Want to Be Loved, Augustus Young, Independently published, 2022, ISBN: 979-8847221450, £7.99 (pbk) £3.99 (Kindle)

Philip Rowland’s An Open Parenthesis consists of his characteristic short poems clustered into nine sequences, with themes and images recurring across all nine to form a single, coherent whole. These themes include the experience of parenthood, life in Tokyo and, centrally, the act of writing via a ‘discipleship of uncertainty’:

somewhere in the building

faintly audible

                                a faltering scale

on an unidentifiable instrument

Time and again, we see Rowland’s engagement with the haiku tradition, but unlike so many English-language haikuists, his focus is not on nature as such but on the human environment:

going the wrong way

down a one-way street –

flawless winter sky

Not that he limits his writing to any single approach. His ‘(N+) Variation on Elaine Equi’s ‘Detail’’ is apparently an exercise in the Oulipo tradition, although without access to the original poem it’s hard to appraise. Elsewhere, there are fruitful applications of other ‘minimalist’ procedures:









Poems in the eight section that are concerned with music lead us to another aspect of the poet’s art:


from note to


                                                of the note


                    to word:



          in the notes not


It is easy, in the kind of poems Rowland makes, to overlook the importance of sound, of the verbal music he makes. Easy and mistaken. Take, for example, this short section from the seventh sequence:

on my way, on a bike in the rain,

to pick up my daughter from school,

reaching out to brush roadside bushes,

the meaning in not knowing why

The first thing that strikes me is the hesitant rhythms. I read the first line as ‘on my way / on a bike / in the rain’, or amphimacer/anapest/anapest, a halting stride, followed by a second line that goes amphibrach/amphibrach/iamb, a kind of landing that gives a false sense of meter before the careful disjunction of the remaining two lines:

reaching out to brush roadside bushes,

the meaning in not knowing why

The ‘not knowing why’ is enacted through the rhythms, and through the patterns of assonance that run through them, like the thread ‘way/bike/brush/bushes/why’ with the moves from long to short vowels pivoting on the move from ‘w’ to ‘b’ alliteration and back again. This understated musical structuring is the mark of Rowland’s poetic control of a kind of radical doubt. The last poem brings the book to the nearest thing to a resolution that is possible:

morning sun
on mossy stone

the words alone
almost enough

This is a book that grows with rereading, a book to live with for a while.

Andrew Taylor’s Northangerland is billed as a collaboration with Branwell Brontë, whose poetry has been more or less ignored, overshadowed by his more famous sisters. In his introduction, Taylor references Peter Hughes’ reworkings of Petrarch and Robert Sheppard’s experiments in the English sonnet tradition as models, and Sheppard provides a blurb in which he compares Taylor’s ‘(re)versions’ to Basil Bunting’s erasure work-throughs of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

I’m not sure that I fully agree with this. It seems to me that Bunting’s intention was to stop reading the Sonnets, or at least to stop rating them so highly, by highlighting what he saw as their flaws. Taylor, on the other hand, would encourage us to read more Branwell by hiding his flaws, or those aspects of his work that might strike a contemporary as flaws. And these flaws were, in a way, the flaws of his place and time: verbosity, an obsession with darkness and death, a certain Victorian post-Romantic sentimentality. It’s not a coincidence, I think, that one of the poems worked on here is a tribute to Landseer, the chief artist of that sentimental view of the world. Of Branwell I think it might be said that his true season was winter and his true hour was midnight. Preferably in a graveyard. Interestingly, given his family background, there seems to be an absolute absence of any consolation from religion.

Like Bunting, Taylor’s method is essentially erasure, retaining words from the original text, generally but not always in the original order, with no additions apart from the occasional preposition or conjunction for the sake of coherence. From these words, he builds new structures, with line and stanza breaks being vital structural elements in what are, in effect, original new poems. Take, for example, his reworking of ‘On Caroline’, as compared to the source text:

On Caroline

Light of ancestral hall
palace for a pall garden

to aisles & eternal sleep
mute & motionless

Slow midnight moments
to morning’s beam

churchyard stone can
hide past smiles

memory with her soul
joy itself has flown


On Caroline

THE light of thy ancestral hall,

   Thy Caroline, no longer smiles:

She has changed her palace for a pall,

   Her garden walks for minster aisles:

Eternal sleep has stilled her breast

   Where peace and pleasure made their shrine;

Her golden head has sunk to rest —

   Oh, would that rest made calmer mine!

To thee, while watching o’er the bed

   Where, mute and motionless, she lay,

How slow the midnight moments sped!

   How void of sunlight woke the day!

Nor oped her eyes to morning’s beam,

   Though all around thee woke to her;

Nor broke thy raven-pinioned dream     

   Of coffin, shroud, and sepulchre.

Why beats thy heart when hers is still?

   Why linger’st thou when she is gone?

Hop’st thou to light on good or ill?

   To find companionship alone?

Perhaps thou think’st the churchyard stone

   Can hide past smiles and bury sighs:

That Memory, with her soul, has flown;

   That thou canst leave her where she lies?

No! joy itself is but a shade,

   So well may its remembrance die;

But cares, life’s conquerors, never fade,

   So strong is their reality!

Thou may’st forget the day which gave

   That child of beauty to thy side,

But not the moment when the grave

   Took back again thy borrowed bride!

So much has been trimmed away because there was so much fat to trim, and the poem that emerges is faithful to the tone of the original while transforming the execution in a manner that calls Bunting to mind again, as quoted by Pound: ‘dichtung = condensare’. One of the most striking aspects of the change is the greater musicality of Taylor’s version. The move away from a primary dependence on rhyme calls out the consonances and assonances as primary musical elements in this new poem.

Taylor has run Branwell through his condenser to great effect. So great that he risks a kind of failure; if his intention is to send us back to the poetry of the Brontë brother, for this reader at least he has actually convinced me that he himself is the better poet.

James Davies’ it is like toys but also like video taped in a mall consists of 201 two-line poems (I hesitate to call them couplets, for a number of reasons, not least because some of the lines are so long as to become virtual stanzas) that are part haiku, part Zen koan, part text art and all Davies. These are presented centre aligned both horizontally and vertically, which surrounds them in a visual silence that brings each piece in the set (the book reads as a single whole) into focus. At the back of the book, we are provided with a list of sources and influences that range from The Prodigy to Gertrude Stein, The Gateless Gate to William Carlos Williams. Many of the items listed are not familiar to me, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

The focus is on the everyday and how it interacts with us, and a kind of tone is set early on:

felt clad roofing

(everyone’s asleep)

The play on ‘felt’ as adjectival noun/verb is a minor example of the kind of linguistic play that characterises the book. Usually, it’s more disruptive disjunction around subject/verb or article or demonstrative/noun/plural agreement:

I had standing in front of this famous paintings of fruit

(look at mine                     i’ll seen yours)

These occur frequently if not regularly, and have the effect of slowing the reader down, of making you bring your focus back to the words on the page.

A number of words recur: rocks, beach/sea, box, tub, plums (and lots of other foodstuffs), many of which are ‘traditional’ haiku elements. They are often integrated into the sound patterns of Davies’ verbal music, on and across pages, as in this pair on pages 50 and 51:

free recovery ends                          wardrobes personified to loot

(there is a box                   but it was after)


(selected out)

The plums inevitably bring to mind the aforementioned Dr Williams, and his other most famous poem also gets a nod:

white steel wheelbarrow

(it’s a little different than how I imagined it)

Which brings us back to the central subject of the book, which is, as I read it, how language shapes our understanding of the world we live in, our toys and our filtered experience of the consumerist world we move through. These are koans for our time and place:

the most simple way is to walk a different path

(the second way is to give it a different name)

Here two ‘sources’ that are not named in the list come to a single focus, the famous Robert Frost poem and the Tao Te Ching (The Tao that can be described is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be spoken is not the eternal Name.) In fact, I find the omission of the Tao very surprising, as the book ends on the most Taoist note imaginable:

an rivers

(if youve worked it out youve got it all wrong)

The book, like life itself, is not a puzzle to be solved, but a flow to immerse yourself in. Like another uncited work that’s full of ‘an rivers’, Finnegans Wake, the flow turns on itself and we are invited back to the beginning to reread. As ever, the pleasure of Davies’ wordscapes is not in understanding, but in exploration. He remains one of our most intriguing and enjoyable ‘experimental’ poets.

Augustus Young’s The Prodigal’s Progress draws, the blurb tells us, on Rilke as much as the New Testament parable, with hints of Diogenes, Bunyan and Van Gogh, but the result is a prose text in Young’s distinctive style. In the Bible narrative, the reason for the son’s departure is unstated, and is really just to set up the moral of his return, in Rilke’s poem, the prodigal leave so as the better see the place left, but also to start a new life. One echo here is the German poet’s ‘To glimpse how vast and how impersonal/is the suffering that filled your childhood.’ Young’s unnamed narrator leves to escape the love of his family, a love he rejects because, it seems, of the absence of his mother, who died in childbirth. This love is what he suffers and must escape: ‘The alternative to death for a child is an escape into solitude’.

Plunging into a life of hedonism, the prodigal makes an interesting discovery, that ‘the opposite of hate is mutual tolerance’. He discovers his true calling as troubadour poet, and in effect the tale is really about discovering a poetic vocation. In the first phase of his poetic career, he plays the part of the rebel poet, cast out at risk of his life as a consequence of his work, only to become a hero among younger singers who see his break with tradition as an ‘advance’. It’s hard not to see a reflection of Young’s early reputation as a part of the ‘New Writers Press’ avant garde: ‘Once you break a tradition you own it.’ In his exile within an exile, he becomes aware of the limitations of a poetic of being the other, that a reconciliation with his ‘self’ was needed to find his way back to love: ‘Maybe I could save my “self” by understanding it’. Again, I read this as being somewhat autobiographical, in the light of Young’s numerous and excellent memoirs that seem to be efforts to do just that.

The return at the end of the book is straight out of the Bible, apart from the protagonist’s ambiguity about the love with which he is greeted. In a neat twist, the brother who remained builds him a hut to write in, s the no-longer prodigal sets out contemplate ‘the history of human love. Hoping to make poems that rise above the hypocritical way of the world’ It is through his art that ‘the man who doesn’t want to be loved’ will find his way back home. It’s quite an extraordinary little book from one of Irish writing’s true originals.