Of And, Keith Waldrop, Guillemot Press, 2018, £6.00
like fragile clay, Sarah Cave, Guillemot Press, 2018, £9.00
The arc of Keith Waldrop’s poetic career is a movement from verbosity to minimalism, a paring away of the extraneous. His early work tends to follow the logic of prose, of sentence and paragraph, but his mature poetry removes this scaffolding to let the silence out. However, while the method has evolved, many of Waldrop’s central concerns have remained constant, especially how ‘the spaces between things/all but make up for the intervening/entities (The Space of Half an Hour, 1983).
In that same book, Waldrop wrote
Many years ago
I wanted to write about
prayer, but was hindered by centuries of
practice – also my religion
got in the way. Am I finally ready?
And now, 35 years later, it seems he is, as prayer is at the core of this tiny recent book from Guillemot. These prayers are offered to ‘gods one need not/believe in’, an idea that, to me at least, summons up that New England Transcendentalist tradition with which Waldrop seems to have so much in common, as when Emerson wrote ‘We have no experience of a creator, and therefore we know of none’.
A little later, Waldrop writes
those who believe in God have
no reason to pray
And so these poems are prayers to an unacknowledged god who has no need of them, an exercise in perception with the inward looking eye of the ‘god in ruins’. What Waldrop seems most to believe in is the act of writing, the word isolated for emphasis:
I decline my soul in
old eyes now in my
just where lights are
The word ‘decline’ here acts, I think, as fulcrum for multiple puns around ideas of refusing, leaning in (as opposed to ‘incline’) and conjugating, as one would a verb. Of And has the feeling of something ending, of being both coda and codicil. If so, it is a fittingly quite, voluminously quiet, closure to a remarkable poetic career.
Religion is also in the mix in Sarah Cave’s like fragile clay, with the title apparently deriving from a letter of St Paul in which the human body is described as a fragile clay vessel containing the divine light or grace, and Job’s ‘What then of those who live in houses of clay, who are founded on dust? They are crushed as easily as the moth’.
Cave’s exploration of our fragile clay is constructed in a framework of Tove Jannson’s Moominvalley stores, a body of work that I am almost entirely ignorant of. This is, I think something of a disadvantage when reading the book, as the distraction of working out who’s who served as a distraction from Cave’s undoubted qualities as a writer. There are four main figures at play, a family consisting of Moominpapa and Moominmamma and their son Moomin along with Snorkmaiden, Moominpapa’s lover.
The poems circle around this affair and the sense of grief and loss it brings to the protagonists. At the core of the book, Snorkmaiden is conflated with the Virgin Mother of the Christian mythos in a poem called ‘Moominvalley Annunciation’, presumably an offshoot of the Annunciation poems she worked on with Rupert Loydell:
Heavily pregnant, Snorkmaiden
fills her basket with the tide’s
clutter. She sees the world
endlessly rocking through
the keyhole of a pebble
or transparent sea glass.
Elsewhere in the book, Cave uses typography and the full resources of the page to create interesting tensions, but the Moomis keep getting in the way, and the most successful poem in the book, for me, is ‘Moomin visits the Rauschenberg Exhibition at the Tate Modern’, where they appear only in the title and where Cave’s ekphrastic are allowed free rein in a set of chant-like theme and variations:
in a painted
dirt and mould
dirt and mould, thorns,
thorns and snail shells
in a wood box
It’s worth reading like fragile clay for this poem alone.
Red Bank, David Annwn, 2018, Knives Forks and Spoons, ISBN: 9781912211197, £7.00
David Annwn’s latest book is a study in the mind’s ability to hold multiple heres and nows simultaneously. Specifically, the poems in Red Bank bring together late 1960s Beatles, the Battle of Red Bank in the English Civil War, 1970s Lancashire and the now of their composition in a set of three interlocking sequences that are mutually illuminating.
Each sequence centres around one or two Beatles’ songs; in the opening section, Red Bank, the songs are ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Golden Slumbers’, the first drawing on Bach’s early 18th century 2nd Brandenburg Concerto, the second on Thomas Dekker’s early 17th century ‘Cradle Song’, the two bracketing the mid-17th century titular battle.
‘Penny Lane’ is a song of community located in the ideal world of 1960s optimism. It represents the home to which the singer in ‘Golden Slumber’s once had a way to get back. Later in the book we see surviving Royalist troops fleeing ‘to Renfrew, to Linlithgow’, also trying to get back home.
At the time the Beatles were writing and recording the songs, Red Bank was also a different kind of community, a school for young offenders and home to some of the most notorious child ‘criminals’ of the 20th century, the flip side of the hippy dream. Annwn weaves a flexible verbal music to bring together these disparate documentary strands as poetry of great fluidity:
Cromwell’s fenland grey-green eyes
weighed this incline
came as silent suns to night.
Too much of it lost
under work and study though we hid
on the bank with our willow-herb spears.
Red Bank assessment unit
for young offenders – once we knew
a way – kept them fit
and away from their families.
Their dormitories backed our
bungalow road; each mode
and splay of their sleeping minds
precious – though not a screw
I was a screw’s son.
The title of the second sequence, The Last Masque, refers to the Stuart Court’s delight in the masque as a form of propagandistic entertainment. The sequence opens with the Beatles’ famous rooftop performance of Get Back, a song that brings the homecoming theme to the fore. That concert coincided with a wreath-laying at the statue of Charles I at the distinctly unromantic nearby Charing Cross Road traffic island to mark the anniversary of the king’s execution. In one sense, this death was the last masque to be performed in the Stuart era, but the conjunction also calls out the parallels between the ‘Cavalier’ 1960s counterculture and their ‘Roundhead’ contemporaries, the office workers who had the music cut short by complaining to the police. This is underscored by the appearance of Paul, George and Ringo in carnivalesque Sgt Pepper’s costume on horseback in the promotional film for ‘Penny Lane’:
To read these fields by the king’s
festivities, a reinvention
As in the habit of masquerade
Sgt Pepper’s reflective wit
establishment. Even Hendrix
in his black hussar’s jacket.
The carpe diem element in ‘Get Back’ is accentuated by a reference to Herrick’s ‘Gather ye rosebuds’ as song ‘with William Lawes’ lunar music/remote and incontestable,/those vast distances’. Herrick’s poem is directly contemporary with the battle, and links it, a chance encounter in the early 1970s with Prince Charles (‘Carolus Hic Rexque Futurus’) and Red Bank school in another multi-layered ‘now’ that encompasses the Matter of Britain, albeit aslant. The placement of both battle and school in the vicinity of Hermitage Green Lane serves to underscore the mythic element while linking back to a possible bus destination from ‘Penny Lane’ in the first section of the book (‘Anyone is free to Hermitage Green Lane.’)
The final sequence, Harvest, opens with a conflation of the harpsichord-like sound of Paul’s Lowrey organ at the start of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ with William Davenant’s Salmacida SpoliaI (the actual last Stuart masque) and John’s notorious ‘Jesus’ remark:
A harpsichord prelude
descent into spell
a pavane with
triple tempi for chorus
Lucy’s in the sky with diamonds
again and so is the queen:
‘a huge cloud of various colours
and within a transparent brightness
of thin exhalations, such as the gods
are feigned to descend in’
“We’re more popular than Jesus”
‘from over her head dart
Lennon’s ‘Lucy’ lyric was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Carroll, another Cavalier among Roundheads, created a topsy-turvy logic that might serve as a suitable prism for Annwn to focus his multiple nows:
It is another England
streaming backwards over
of 70s Lancashire
through grey corridors
and bus terminals
to (where else)
Carroll’s church at Daresbury
not far as you might think
as the raven flies
-triple tempi for chorus-
where Lennon caught a walrus.
This other England, one that can hold both flamboyant musicians and drab princes, Wonderland and schools for young offenders (Liverpool Reformatory Farm School for Boys, later the Red Bank secure unit opened just four years after Alice in Wonderland was published in 1865 and finally closed almost a century and a half later) is other because of what happened in the battle of Red Bank. The country’s odd blend of democracy, puritanism and hedonism, tradition and experimentation derives from the Civil War period and lies beneath the tensions, from rioting to Brexit, that break the surface of British society at regular intervals. In Red Bank, Annwn explores the roots of these tensions through the lens of a set of moments in time that exemplify them. At the back of it all is the expectation of past glories recovered, the return of empire or the reawakening of the Rexque Futurus, the sleeping lord and his hermit knights, a Beatles reunion rendered impossible by death. The book ends on an acknowledgement of this note:
To have seen seasonally the farm bonfire
with its acrid toffee and raked potatoes
and a calf, with sacs pulled around it,
and Fawkes’s effigy flare
and stranger things
a schoolscape lasting one hundred and fifty
to walk the track
and then forget
Requiescat in pace
Where is the well’s hermit
of this green Hermitage?
Red Bank is a book to come back to, each reading unpacking new layers of engagement with a society ill at ease with itself. Annwn is in full control of but his technique and the materials he has assembled to make these poems and the result is a deeply satisfying read.
Rough Breathing: Selected Poems, Harry Gilonis, Carcanet, 2018, ISBN: 978 1 784103 72 9, £16.99
I should begin this review by acknowledging two pertinent facts: firstly, Harry Gilonis’ first book, Reliefs was published by hardPressed poetry in 1988; secondly, I am the dedicatee of a poem in this Selected. The first of these facts is explained simply by saying that we published him because we found his work to be worth publishing, the second came as something of a surprise. In the 30 years since that first publication, Gilonis has produced a substantial body of poetry and critical writing, including some of the most important exegesis of the work of Brian Coffey, was a regular attendee at the SoundEye festival in Cork, run a small press, edited a journal, and held down a full-time job in publishing.
At the core of this activity are the key values that run through his poetry as collected in Rough Breathing. These are an emphasis on the role of collaboration as a key component in any act of making, an interest in political ethics, and a clear view of the importance of translation as a creative act.
Gilonis’ collaborators are many and varied, and include musicians, poets, both living and dead, and friends. Similarly, his approach to translation spans the arc from literal renderings of works in other languages through cultural borrowings to translations through time, so that, for example, Horace’s poems urging Rome to invade Arabia fold into Tony Blair’s Gulf War, to the credit of neither party. At the back of this, although his politics and poetic voice are radically different, lies the example of Ezra Pound, whose Cantos were pivotal reading for the young Gilonis.
In much of the work collected here, all three aspects I have mentioned are apparent simultaneously. For instance, the sequence ‘from far away’ is a renga written in collaboration with poet and friend Tony Baker. It is a dialogue between London and rural Derbyshire, where Baker lived at the time, both sitting in the shadow of Thatcherite politics:
How long shall I hear the sighs and groanes
O Tythes, Excize, Taxes, Pollings &c
This government is firmly committed to
brute strength hauled up
“dark matter”, undetectable, nameless
names burnt against the wall
[the first stanza is by Gilonis, the second by Baker]
The folding of the 17th century English Ranter Abiezer Coppe into a renga with reference to Thatcher’s poll tax is precisely the kind of ‘cultural’ translation that drives much of the best of the work in this book. The Poundian injunction to ‘make in new’ includes the imperative to view time not as a straight line, but as a cycle of recurrence, so that apparently distant historic moments become contemporary with, and illuminate, each other, as the Ranters illuminate the need to protest the injustices of the now. This bringing together is evident again in his attack, via Horace, of those ‘liberal’ voices, including poets, who likewise enabled the Gulf War 2000 years later:
you white Spes at rare Fides
fraudulent friends veiled cloth
houses share the suffering
nor quit ne fall / the state’s tall
liar an unpoetical word
like dried shit
[from ‘A Misreading of Horace, Odes 1.35]
Perhaps the finest work in the book is contained in the selection from NORTH HILLS, Gilonis’ versions ‘quite a way after’ old Chinese poems. In a note, Gilonis draws attention to the importance of syntax in Chinese poetry (an observation that holds good for his own work) and points out the impossibility of replicating the kinds of ambiguities achieved directly into a language like English, while charging his versions ‘to do just that’.
To achieve this aim, he provides two versions of each poem, and I want to look at how this method works by briefly examining his versions of Wang Wei’s famous ‘Lù Zhài’ (‘Deer Enclosure). Here’s is a transliteration of the poem, with some of the possible meanings of each character given beneath:
Kōng shān bù jiàn rén,
[empty/hollow/bare] [mountain/hill/peak] [negative participle] [see/observe] [person/other]
dàn wén rén yǔ xiǎng.
[yet/only/still] [hear/smell/broadcast] [person/other] [voice/language/words] [(make) sound]
Fǎn jǐng rù shēn lín
[return to/restore/reflect] [sunlight/view] [enter/join] [deep/very far/extreme] [forest/grove/surname]
fù zhào qīng tái shàng
[again/repeat(edly)] [shine/reflect] [blue/green/young/black] [moss/lichen] [on/top/send up]
Here is Gilonis’ first version:
no change on the hollow hills
sole solo voice duplicated
flickering light through trees
falls on blue lichen
The poem as rendered here brings out some of Wang Wei’s Buddhist mysticism, with its teasing out of the idea of the transcendent within the illusion of the sensible world.
And here his second take:
wild sky | HILLS | unseeing people
still conversation sounding
brightness moves into deep woods
again shines again onto green moss
The original impulse is still there, but given the translator’s interest in British political history, it’s impossible not to hear a very specific moment behind the word ‘enclosure’ and not to be taken to the world of the Highland clearances by the wording of the first line. In this reading, the deer become the property of the hunting, shooting and fishing classes who emptied the mountains for their own gain and pleasure, and the illusory Buddhist landscape becomes rooted in the context of the self-advancement of wealth, power and status. The price of the beauty captures in the second couplet, we are reminded, was the near annihilation of a people, a culture and a language. If the true end of translation is the renewal of the subject text in the target language, as I believe it is, then this version is as good an example of the art as you’ll find anywhere.
Gilonis has laboured away at the margins of a poetic culture for three decades now, and it’s nice to see that Carcanet have done his work justice in this well-edited and serviceably handsome book. There is so much more that could be said; for instance, I haven’t touched on the importance of music in Gilonis’ poetry, the strand of occasional poems that run through the book or the visual element that comes to the fore in the selection form Forty Fungi that is included here. You’ll just have to buy the book and read them for yourselves. You won’t regret it.
I’m pleased to see that Maurice Scully has a new WordPress site called Maurice Scully, appropriately enough.
Also delighted to see he’s used a quote from my Sustainable Poetry essay:
The sheer concreteness of [Scully’s] writing mirrors the desire to present what is, with minimal interference from the vanity of the writing ego. The world is not presented as a stage set for the acting out of some human drama but as a complex system of which the human domain is just a part … this is a poetry of learning to live with and in the world, not explaining and improving on it.