Recent Reading April 2023: A Review

LIFT OFF: a journey of future tense, Stephen Bett. BlazeVOX, 2022, ISBN: 978-1-60964-403-1, $16

Residential Poems, Lee Duggan, Aquifer Press, 2022, ISBN: 978-1-8383587-8-5, £11.00

Birds in November, Daragh Breen, Shearsman Books, 2023, ISBN 9781848618589, £10.95

Tre Paesi & Other Poems, Peter Makin, Isobar Press, ISBN 978-4-907359-42-3, £16.27

In the Margins, Avery Burns, Magra Books, 2022, $10.00

My education in Canadian poetry continues via a package in the post from Stephen Bett which contained Lift Off and The Gross & Fine Geography: New & Selected Poems which was published not far from here in 2015 by Salmon Poetry, a bit long ago for a review though I will come back to it later.
Lift Off is a book-length serial poem consisting of 45 numbered Lift Offs, each with an additional subtitle. The sequence concerns the break-up of a marriage in the wake of the complete mental breakdown of one of the spouses, Bett’s wife. As such, it is rooted in a kind of grieving and regret, but, as the title implies, there is an underlying sense of hope, of the potential for a future beyond both break-up and breakdown. Both threads come together in the recuring image of a bird, battered but stubbornly taking flight:

This bird was
in a cartoon

Feathers blown
out in all
[from ‘Lift Off 13: on our own stunned heads’]

I am reminded, in some ways, of the Early Irish Buile Shuibhne, filtered through a mesh of American modernism:

I sing of
(old Walt-

Pls excuse me
if all I do
at present
is screech
[from ‘Lift Off 5: at present, screech’]

Taken loosely, Bett’s work fits into the Whitman lineage, although the key influences are William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky. He writes out of the mouths of Canadian mothers, so to speak, but with Zukofsky’s sense of the musical possibilities of the short line and line and stanza breaks:

I am galled,
I am a gull
for punish

Throw me
your scraps
& I will
dine out
for days

Gluttonous bird
starved for
on the
lost at
from a
[from ‘Lift Off 19: half rimed word’]

It takes an extraordinary level of care for sound and movement to carry off this kind of minimalist writing, and Bett is a fine craftsman of both. I’ll leave it to the reader to pick out the patterns of sound woven through these ‘half rimed’ lines, the flow of assonance and alliteration that structure Bett’s music.
The poem ends with the poet/speaker finding new love. The reader might feel some qualms at the idea of the abandoned, damaged previous partner, regardless of the apparent total breakdown of the relationship, but for Bett, this ending is at one with the sense of honesty that runs through the work:

I am told
that this is
(or something like that)
[from ‘Lift Off 42: damn it’]

The interested reader will find from an internet search that a good deal of reworking went into the shaping of Lift Off with some sections abandoned and others renumbered as the work progressed. There are also five sections included in the aforementioned Selected, with one numbered 57 which corresponds to the part 42 just quoted. These are positioned as if published in 2014, so as to take their place as the final instalment in a run of books that deal with the same relationship, and just before an excerpt from Breathing Arizona: a journal that tells the story of the new love that closes Lift off, thus creating a logical sequence into which the series under review here sits.
Despite his Irish publication, Bett is a new voice to me, and one I look forward to re-reading. And once again I’m prompted to look for the Canadian women poets I’ve missed to date.
Regardless of the plural in the title, Lee Duggan’s Residential Poems is also a serial work. It comprises open field sections, others in left hand justified quatrains, and some sections in which the latter opens out in to the former. The poem, again as indicated by the title, circle around ideas of home, in one way or another:

This home is not a fixed place, and in a sense home is were we move to. These residential poems are constantly moving, between country and city and between poetic registers:

wait for me
as I run to the first train out
up the road & trough the mountains to where the trees grow gnarly.

Part of this movement is Duggan’s concern with language, both as spell and as poetry:

shape me
out the blah blah blah
caught between frames
a circus of trees
bath robes and cracks
there is no reason

A number of poets are named, quoted or referenced throughout the sequence: Eliot, Dante, Milton, Ginsberg, Waldman and Browning among others. However, the two poets who came to mind most readily when reading were Maggie O’Sullivan and Catherine Walsh. These are both excellent influences for any poet who is concerned with the experience of the numinous in the everyday, but at her best, Duggan has her own distinctive voice and music:

palmist or palimpsest I ask myself
bearing resemblance to a former self
layers of women and incantation

formulate waking up
the future is with you
made of past events
mud, leaves & branches
regrets & wonders

This sense of telescoped time and place are central to the book’s achievement; where we live is time and times are all here, all now. There is a continuity in movement that is the poet’s residence. A fine, thought-provoking work and another fine book from Aquifer.
Daragh Breen is another poet who tends to work in sequence form, though in his case they’re not book-length. Birds in November comprises eight more or less short sequences and two sets of stand-alone poems.
The opening sequence, ‘Navigato’, takes off from the medieval Irish tale of the voyage of St Brendan, itself an instance of the genre of imramma or voyages in search of the Other/Underworld. It’s a genre that includes the earliest forerunners of the Grail legend, although Brendan’s Navigato has a strong Christian overlay. In Breen’s handling, the story is brought into the present day, mor or less, and there is a strong environmental undertow. In the original, Brendan and his monks mistake a whale for a small island and light a fire on its back. Breen recasts this as the saint’s glimpse of paradise, and the saint’s revelation is one of respect for the hunted mammal:

Brendan, perched in his
hides of horses,
had come to sing its lament,
but glancing at it all
through a pair of whale-bone
sunglasses, he simply
bowed his head in silence.

After this introduction, animals form a strong thread throughout the book; bees, rabbits, foxes, hares and wolves especially. In the series ‘Documenta Sanctus’ the wolf merges with another key figure, Christ:
She is her own mother.

The Christ Wolf,
silent and female,
comes into the light
trailing a snow
of white tulips.

The figure of Christ is a type of death, Breen’s great theme across his previous collections. Here, towards the end of the book, death becomes less the baroque myth and more personal, in poems that circle round the deaths of family members:

Preparing for your mother’s funeral,
we removed the coffin shroud
four of us folding it like a flag
to reveal the curled bat
clung to the underside,
an unbeating heart having stitched
itself to the cloth
[from ‘Libretto’]

This more direct tone marks something of a sea-change in Breen’s work. Tellingly, the book ends with two sequences, ‘Birds in November’ and Trawler Ikos’, that owe something to the Imagist tradition, with things being present directly, and not as cyphers for other things, a process that inevitably opens the poems out to include more of the world than would otherwise be the case

A young crow
binds its feet
with a tangled piece of string
salvaged from the wreckage
of the winds,
a material that it recognises
from the wattle wall of its nest.
[from ‘Bird Wearing Mourning Clothes’]

This shift towards a greater directness leaves me anticipating where Breen might go next; all in all, this feels like a pivotal collection.
Peter Makin is widely known as a major scholar of modernism, especially for his work on Pound and Bunting. In the evidence of Tres Paesi he is also a very accomplished poet in his own right.
The three countries of the title are North Kyoto, Cumbria and Lincolnshire, countries of the mind if not geographically. These place names are the titles of the first three sections of the title poem, the fourth being ‘And in conclusion’. Makin’s perceptions of lace are conveyed through an acute focus on detail:

grassblades always uncatching
unbending themselves form
the weight of a grasshopper
or a frog that’s jumped

the language here evokes both Pound and Bashō; details are presented not as metaphor but as a means of understanding the world:

an intimate knowledge of tree-barks
and of the way a pee-line cuts back through
the snow towards one’s boots,

The value placed on such things is a poetic value.
This intimacy with the small things of the world leads almost inevitably to ecological concerns. In ‘Cumbria’ we see the interaction of the human and the natural via the 19th century mining and railway building industries, now being reabsorbed by nature:

out of the cutting
you could
see from the moon
is now a rabbit-home:
galleried and interconnected
wormed and tunneled like old cowshit,
under a crust likewise thin

Rabbits come to represent this human/nature interaction throughout the sequence, with another flip in the balance of control occurring in ‘Lincolnshire’:

My Myxomatosis
Rabbit, with
shrunken skull and fat eyes
you are your own universe, all hell,
and nothing to wait for.

In the concluding, conclusion, section, the rabbits regain their rabbithood, the balance between the to domains is restored:

Soft furry barley
bowing your heads, splaying out your spikes
and suddenly you’re wheat
stubborn and ragged and stubby
the rabbits break your outliers
and strip your heads
and strew them par terre
speckled with mud

‘We have wasted so much time.’

This last line seems to me at least to link the rabbits to another strand that runs through the poem, the slow dissolution of the poet/speaker’s marriage to his painter wife, who remains un-named. The two come together in ‘Cumbria’:

How many generations of rabbits
since she painted here?
The conclusion section consists, in part, of a recognition of responsibility:
I failed you
and now I am trying to un-fail you

Diary of a tree-stump:
on the third day it rained,
and I did you honour.

On the fourth day, a little sunshine,
and I did you honour.
Everybody believed I did you honour
and it did you no good;
you were elsewhere.

The quite music of the verse matches the elegiac tone of the passage, and of the poem as a whole. Makin’s Tre Paese are places in a lost past which he evokes, recalls (in both senses) via his poetry.
The rest of the collection comprises ten short poems, many of which are also concerned with the past, with memory and mortality. There is also the same ecological sense of integration with he world as a whole:

What will happen to the leech when it dies
with my blood in it? it will shrivel
and be part of the mulch feeding
the next bamboo: whose new leaves
will be eaten by the deer.

These poems are a vital addition to the long tradition of bringing together English-language modernism and Japanese haiku. An essential read.
Avery Burn’s In The Margins is another sequence poem; the mode is minimalist, with untitled short sections in very short lines separated by asterixis. The poem grows out of Burn’s experience of cancer, and the short, rapid lines enact something of the process of uninhibited cell splitting that characterises the disease while the title probably refers to the use of the margins of tissue removed during surgery as an indicator of successful or otherwise cancer removal; if no cancer cells are found in the margin, that suggests that the cancer has been removed, and vice versa.
In the first half of the sequence, the word ‘one’ dominates from the opening line:








This emphasis replicates the way in which the disease spreads through the replication of single cells, one cell becoming two, two becoming four, with each new event being one cell dividing, ‘one/and/one’. This process comes to a head at the midpoint of the sequence:


Thereafter, ‘one’ only appears once in the remaining sections, which hover around the dot/spot that is the cells’ deadly bloom:


This is poetry at its most non-poetic, although the careful reader will pick up on patterns of long and short vowel sounds and of alliteration that carry the text along. This is not writing as therapy or as consolation, but a clear-eyed staring down of the reality of illness. The poem closes not with a false dawn but with the awareness that cancer can lie dormant, waiting:


Burns has written an insider’s account of the experience whose surface minimalist simplicity contains a complex set of responses to a complex situation. That’s as much as we can ask from poetry.