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  • Billy Mills 20:11 on 22/04/2019 Permalink | Reply
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    Recent Reading April 2019 

    riverrun, Alan Baker, Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2019, £9.00

    the loneliness of the sasquatch, Amanda Bell, Alba Publishing, Nov 2018, ISBN-13: 978-1912773060, £10

    Table of Contents, Bruno Neiva, Timglaset, 2018, Out of stock, but cost €5

    The Credit, Augustus Young, Menard/Duras, Oct 2018, €12, not listed on either publisher’s web sites, but Duras can be contacted here.

    riverrunAlan Baker’s riverrun is an exploration/celebration of the river Trent in a series of 63 untitled sonnet-like 14 line poems that circle around a number of recurring themes: the borderland nature of rivers themselves; the poet’s own position as outsider, being an adoptive Trentsider; history and politics; the odd ecological niche of the urban river, where nature is brought in to the city, the city is pushed in to nature. Right from the beginning, the poet/speaker’s position and the paradox at the core of the book are made explicit: ‘lover of the liminal tinct of an unsurvivable element/we couldn’t survive without’. Each poem is then a snapshot, taken from a distinct angle, of this concern.

    Many of these concerns come together in the 59th poem in the sequence:

    beyond the cluster of bare trees

    there are allotments, and beyond those

    the winter sun lights a brick terrace

    parallel to others, and I think that

    tenacity is what’s required, or fatalism

    in the face of business parks and

    the global knowledge economy

    while the river reminds us

    that it’s a city of reflections

    that the engine of our day is idling

    the water of our wetlands

    is increasingly saline, and a memory leak

    is fuelling the currents and undertows

    that drag us to unmentionable places

    That the river is seen as not being a ‘useful’ economic element; that the knowledge economy knows so little worth knowing and erases so much that is; that our modern parks are places of labour, not leisure; that we are wheeling ourselves to hell in a virtual handcart: these are the facts that Baker invites us to contemplate, and then to act on. The Joycean nod in the book’s title remind us that rivers, like history, run in cycles that our great disruptors risk rupturing for the sake of a quick buck.

    These poems have, as I mentioned, the qualities of the snapshot, quick, fresh, and sometimes a bit technically imperfect; for example, the ‘and I think that’ in the poem quotes is a bit like the edge of a thumb intruding on the frame. However, they also contain flashes of compositional brilliance. For instance, the 16th poem contains the line

    nothing is easier than erosion or division

    This is one of the most perfectly balanced instances of verbal music I’ve come across in ages, from the initial and final ‘n’s via the visual assonance of the two initial ‘e’s to the pattern of short and long vowels in the four stressed syllables

    No-thing is EA-sier than er-O-sion or div-I-sion

    (short – long – long – short)

    Here is the poet’s ear in operation, an (almost) instinctual command of the sound language makes as it traces thought in the air. There is much to be admired in this book, this music more than anything.

    sasquatchAmanda Bell’s the loneliness of the sasquatch is, apparently, a ‘transcreation’ of a work in Irish by Gabriel Rosenstock, but as I am unfamiliar with the original, I read the book as if it were an original piece. The cover helpfully informs the reader that the two most significant variations from Rosenstock are that Bell makes the sasquatch female and to remove the individual titles that are present in the original, thus presenting the work as a continuous series of short sections.

    The sasquatch, or Bigfoot, is a specific instance the ‘wild man’ of a phenomenon that can be traced back to the earliest literature in the figure of Enkidu, the hairy man in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The ‘wild man’ figure can also be detected behind the idea of ‘the noble savage’, and hence as a form of pastoral innocence, a state of prelapsarian grace. By regendering the sasquatch, Bell reminds us, among other things, that even the noblest savage requires sexual reproduction if it is to exist, and by extension brings home the point that solitude is relative and depends on the presence of others of our kind from whom we can be isolated. She also challenges the idea of the sasquatch as a figure of fear; hers is a thinking, feeling, almost human Bigfoot. And in turn, the sources of her fear take on a new layer of meaning by virtue of her gender; it’s impossible not to read the dangers of encounters with wolves and bears without thinking of contemporary human parallels.

    In her loneliness, she remembers a mother and father, and imagines a ‘you’ with whom an almost romantic relationship seems to be at least latent:

    the first flower she plucked

    she held out like a gift –

    but for whom?

    and six pages later:

    more flowers for me!

    but from whom? from whom?

    no answer from the silent mountain

    It’s easy to see from the writing here that both Bell and Rosenstock are seasoned writers of haiku, with that form’s emphasis on flashes of insight into and through the natural world, but the sasquatch as presented here takes it a step deeper than that, she is both in and of the natural world in a way that the alienated human isn’t. She partakes in non-human nature as a participant:

    lean on me

    she whispers to a tree

    sensing

    it’s about to fall –

    lean on me

    not that she lacks self-awareness, far from it, but her awareness is of herself as part of the weave of her world:

    looking into the eyes of a deer –

    you pause to consider me

    without asking what I am

     

    when you do not flee

    our gazes meld

     

    now I have a greater sense of what I am

    The text of an e-mail interview between the two transcreators included in the back of the book opens up another layer of outsiderness that permeates the sequence, the position of a minority language speaker in an environment that is either hostile or indifferent to their language, specifically of an Irish speaker in predominantly Anglophone Ireland in the 21st century. If we accept that the language one speaks at least colours the way in which you perceive the world then it’s easy to see the sasquatch’s world view as reflecting that kind of difference. The poem includes a kind of reconfiguring of the Early Irish ‘Song of Amergin’, a poem of interconnectedness between the human and natural worlds. As translated by Bell, Rosenstock’s reworking ends with the lines ‘the silence without/the silence within’, which strikes me as being a decent summary of what this book is trying to evoke.

    Bell is one of our most interesting younger exponents of the short poem in English, and. I have a sense that this book represents an opening up of new possibilities for her; one way or another, it’s a fine book in and of itself.

    TOCBruno Neiva’s Table of Contents is an entirely different kind of beast, being the putative table of contents for an imagined academic work on gender (so maybe not that entirely different). It’s presented by Swedish small press Timglaset as a kind of university handout, stapled sheets in a light card folder and stamped DUBBLETT on the first page (helpfully parsed on the Timglaset web site as the Swedish for ‘duplicate’). Neiva is not primarily concerned with the gender concept but focuses on language categories and their academic appropriation, so that we have chapter headings that draw on cook books (Gender au gratin), software development (Gender unicode), popular culture (Gender cred), MBA textbooks (Value-add gender), lit crit (Iambic gender), political thought (Gender derive) and so on.

    The effect is both humorous and serious at the same time, and an added dimension is added by the page numbering for each chapter or section, which leads the reader to reflect on the question of academic prioritisation of one topic over another, why one chapter merits a single page while others are significantly longer. It also makes for a wonderfully disjunctive litany when read aloud. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of so-called ‘conceptual’ poetry, but Neiva’s work, here and elsewhere, is a lot more pleasurable and thought provoking that that of many more notorious exponents of the genre.

    Finally, it’s good to see Augustus Young’s The Credit back in print and finally gathered into a single volume. I have little to add to my comments about this work included in an earlier review of his m.emoire:

    ‘Young’s next two books pointed in a somewhat different direction, however. The first, Dánta Grádha. Love Poems from the Irish (AD 1350-1750) saw him become more engaged with syllabic verse structures, while Rosemaries. A Verse Sequence, published by Coffey’s Advent Books, combined autobiographical themes with an increasing facility for rhyme. These strands came together in The Credit. A Comedy of Empeiria, published in 1980, a fictional bildungsroman in syllabic ottava rima.

    ‘When The Credit. Book Two / Book Three appeared six years later it consisted of a mix of that same verse structure and a type of rhymed open field composition in the form of a kind of Brechtian epic drama. It was now clear that Young was doubly outside, associated with the Irish avant garde but unwilling to conform to narrow notions of the experimental. Young is very much a one-off writer and The Credit remains an unrecognised landmark text.’

    If you don’t know Young’s work, you really should, if you’ve never read The Credit get a copy and read it. There’s nothing else quite like it in the entire corpus of Irish poetry.

     
  • Billy Mills 20:33 on 03/09/2016 Permalink | Reply
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    Six Irish Poets: A Review 

    Undercurrents, a psychogeography of Irish rivers in haibun and haiku, by Amanda Bell, undercurrentsAlba Publishing, ISBN 9781910185353, €12 / £9 / $14

    Haibun is a literary form of mixed prose and verse that has its origins in the travel journals of Basho, the great Japanese master haiku poet. These include his most famous work, the Oku no Hosomichi or Narrow Road to the Deep North. It’s a highly flexible form that allows the poet to blend the inner and outer paths that any journey involves, and to seamlessly incorporate memory, history and immediate sensation into the text.

    It’s a form that is experiencing something of a revival, in part at least because of the rising interest in psychogeography as a crucial mode of landscape writing. In Undercurrents, Amanda Bell applies it to a very specific end; a meditation on various Irish rivers that for one reason or another have significance for her. This is not a journal of a single journey, but rather of multiple trips through both space and time, the resulting texts being both local and personal, the rivers ranging from the Liffey to the Mulcair to an un-named mountain stream.

    Rivers are, of course, the most liminal of sites, and Bell’s haibun reflect this essential fact. The Liffey damned at Poulaphouca for Dublin’s water supply covers flooded farms and houses that reappear when the level falls, a drowned world momentarily, and vacantly, revived. The Clare, on the Limerick/Tipperary border, is site of a double death. The Mulcair, which flows a few hundred yards from where I’m writing this review, marks an adolescent rite of passage.

    Bell’s prose is direct, unpretentious and lucid, conveying fact and impression with ease. Haiku is one of the most difficult verse forms to carry off, allowing the poet the narrowest of opportunities to fire a synapse in the reader. Often, this reaction turns on a single word. At her best, Bell manages admirably:

    cutting this year’s wood

    for next year’s fires –

    who will feel its warmth?

    Undercurrents is an interesting and rewarding little book, not least for the way it indicates something of a shift in the dynamic of Irish verse as our poetry of place moves away from the pieties of the last century and towards a more exploratory, indeterminate mode.

    inabsentia

    EchoNone, Michael McAloran, Oneiros Books, ISBN 9781326289393, €8.40. `


    In Absentia
    , Michael McAloran, Black Editions Press, ISBN 9781326618292, €7.18.

    Place, in the sense of a defined location, is entirely absent in Michael McAloran’s work, which is grounded in a nihilistic view of the void in which nothing is, or can be, known or communicated; a state in which, to quote the epigraph to EchoNone, ‘what resonates is the sound of zero cracking apart’. The texts that comprise these two books are not prose poems, but rather poetry in prose (McAloran also writes in verse), syntactically disrupted blocks of language, in which the only punctuation used is an occasional parenthesis and frequent slashes and ellipses.

    Both books are an attempt to articulate the nothing, zero, the great egg of the world, and these punctuation marks are a crucial device to help the poet avoid the danger of total stasis that could all too easily ensue. In EchoNone, for example, each block of text opens with an ellipsis, pointing back to the previous text and ends similarly, pointing on to the next (or, in the case of the first and last pages of the book, to the silence the text emerges from). Slashes punctuate the constituent markers as pauses, not of the breath (these are very much texts for silent reading, not for performance) but of the mind that would comprehend the underlying, almost Socratic, maxim ‘I speak therefore I know no thing’.

    EchononeThe idea that life is meaningless, unknowable, unutterable presents certain challenges for the nihilist writer. The problem is that language continually asserts meaning. Put a word on the page, say ‘a’, and already a constellation of expectation asserts itself. A noun is required, a thing, indefinite but real. ‘a shred of pulse’, which is life, and what of it? What does it do?

    …a shred of pulse sung some distance din breath lapse of reduced to nothing or of what matter echo/

    And the reader makes sense of it, the ellipsis sends us back to what went before (‘silence silenced/…) and the slash both stops us and prepares us for a something next. Which is to say that the nothing is not everything, that endurance and continuity matter. That, to quote an obvious exemplar, ‘I’ll go on.’

    There is a great deal of Beckett here, not least in the emphasis on silence and echo, a mutually contradictory complement. Or, to quote the final paragraph of In Absentia:

    seals up in wound of speech echoing distance untraceable/ stillness/merely broken bones

    More surprisingly, I am often reminded of Beckett’s Irish contemporary Brian Coffey, who, for all I know, is not known to McAloran. In lines like

    black light vibration returns unto premise premise none yes or no/ futility bitten artery un-shine

    there is a strong echo of passages from ‘Advent’ or ‘Mindful of You. Of course, Coffey leaned on religion as a stay against the void. McAloran has no such easy answers, and yet there is a sense through both these books that he is aware of something behind the nothing. Whatever that may be, he’s clear that it is neither simple nor easy.

    Like so many of our most interesting and challenging poets, present and past, McAloran is published mainly by small foreign presses or his own Black Editions. Consequently, you’re unlikely to come across his books in your local bookshop or library, but they are very much worth tracking down and reading.

    oranges in finland, Judy Kravis, Road Books, €5.00oranges-finland

    Road Books is an imprint run by Judy Kravis and Peter Morgan from their home in West Cork. Her most recent publication, oranges in finland, is part of the second series of their ‘colour books (will fit in a shirt pocket) line of handsome little books. If McAloran’s writing can sometimes teeter on the edge of nightmare, Kravis inhabits a somewhat different dreamscape. As she puts it herself ‘Forty-three dreams. Forty-three mornings. Write after breakfast, before the dream disappears. Revise in the evening with the day’s weather, the day’s plot woven in.’

    These poems capture the banal absurdity that characterises most of our dreams: an airport becomes a hospital; you open a knocked door but nobody’s there; journeys lose their destinations. Kravis presents these dream incidents in carefully crafted poems that refuse the temptation to interpret, hovering on the edge of sense, and not straining to impose an artificial order.

    in media res

     

    the people you have met

    merge with the people you

    have not – you know who

    they all are but not yet

    who you are nor just

    how brinkish the

    middle of thi-

    ngs can be

    Despite their obvious differences as writers, Kravis’ work sits outside the Irish mainstream as much as McAloran’s does. She eschews the expected rhetoric of self to create small poems in a minor key that are individual, honest, unpretentious, and carefully crafted. They are poems that feel like they have been written for the sake of it, and not to appeal to a putative audience. This is, indeed, a book to slip in your shirt pocket and enjoy in quiet moments.

    A Childhood UnsharedA Childhood Unshared: The Crumlin Poems, Teri Murray and Pauline Fayne, Clothesline Press, ISBN 9780951941232, €10.00.

    Teri Murray and Pauline Fayne grew up in mid-20th century Crumlin, a working class suburb of Dublin and although their experiences overlapped they didn’t meet until adulthood, brought together by a shared interest in poetry. Here they present a set of paired poems reflecting their different but similar childhoods. It’s a conversation between two distinct but complementary voices that grow out of lifetimes immersed in books. Fayne sums it up well in her opening piece ‘The Poet Dreams of Crumlin’:

     

    The shock of recognition

    in each others words –

    the dream lives and perfect homes

    born between the pages

    of the books that sustained us,

    the same envied neighbours, the one

    need to belong.

    Unlike most Irish poetry of place, which depends on the magic of naming and of rootedness, to the point of cliché, these urban place poems are, like most working-class urban living, a negotiation between a sense of community and a kind of rootlessness. In the 1930s, Crumlin went from being the dairy farm of Dublin to a sprawling development designed to facilitate inner-city slum clearance. As such, Fayne and Murray represent the first or second generation of children to grow up in this new environment, which is both theirs and not. The poems they collect here reflect this reality, celebrating not the shared history and myth of the place, but rather the creation of its history and myth. Phil Lynnot is a god who walks among them, as too, in a different way, are young men in uniform, whose army jobs are a kind of way out.

    The resulting work has a surface simplicity, but any idea that it is simple is undercut by Murray’s first poem in the book, ‘To Me Fella, A Letter’, a well-judged parody of Pound’s ‘The River Merchant’s Wife. A Letter’:

    At sixteen, you departed, went into far Drum-Con-Dra,

    by way of the dark lanes across the river

    of swirling eddies and you have been gone five months.

    The magpies make sorrowful noises overhead.

    However, the rest of the work avoids a self-conscious literariness and is Poundian only in its direct treatment of the thing; the thing being daily life. Crumlin and the poets’ experiences of it are not made to stand for something else, they are lucidly themselves. In ‘Theatre of the Absurd’, a poem about back-garden entertainments, Fayne brings this world to life in the sophisticated ordinariness of her particulars:

    Patiently accepting

    well watered squash,

    Marietta biscuits

    and cornflake sandwiches.

    If variety is the essence of a literary culture, these quiet poems, these poets, must be welcome as an integral part of the pattern.

    Distance, by Ron Carey, Revival Press, €12.00FRONT-Jpeg-Print-Ready-Distance-Cover-Final-Draft.indd-page-0011-191x300

    Distance, the first collection by Limerick poet Ron Carey was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2016 for the United Kingdom and Ireland. This is, I imagine, a pleasing achievement for the poet and for his publisher, a small Limerick-based press dedicated to the publication of local poetry.

    It’s not difficult to see why Carey’s book would be popular with the judges; it’s a very self-consciously literary book in the rural Irish tradition of Kavanagh, who is the presiding spirit in the collection. Carey covers the well-worn themes of childhood wonder, eccentric relations and neighbours, fathers and mothers, rural electrification and the confessional, and the redeeming powers of art in a series of ‘well-made’ anecdotal poems, with all the strengths and dangers of the genre. It’s not a kind of poetry that I read much of, so I am, perhaps, not well-placed to judge this book.

    There is, however, one thing that jumps out of these pages, which is a dependence on simile and metaphor as a central organising method. If Fayne and Murray respect their landscape in and of itself, in Carey’s poems, everything tends to be seen in terms of something else.

    This is fine when it works organically in the poem and when the comparison forces the reader to see things in a new light. However, there can be a tendency to a bathetic flatness, as when a dry-stone wall is compared to a Large Particle collider, or in a poem about one of the eccentric relations:

    In the evening, his head on Aunt Lilly’s lap, they lay

    Among the grey-haired dunes.

    At other times, comparison seems to be made simply for the sake of it, adding nothing to the poem but extra words:

    My Aunt Babbie wore a shawl, black as midnight

    In a country lane

    There are moments when the method does work:

    I find life now – much the same

    As the robin does – wriggling

    In my mouth

    On balance, however, the poet seems to be in love with comparison, but not in control of it.

    Carey now lives in Dublin and it will be interesting to see if his second collection moves away from his essentially rural vision to encompass the realities of his new urban environment or if he will develop a different vocabulary and more open method for his work as a result.

     
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