Desire Lines – Unselected Poems 1966-2000, Barry MacSweeney: A Review

Desire Lines – Unselected Poems 1966-2000, Barry MacSweeney (edited by Luke Roberts), Shearsman 2018, SKU 978-1-84861-579-3, £16.95

In Desire Lines, Luke Roberts and Shearsman have done readers of poetry the very great service of bringing together much of Barry MacSweeney’s work that was excluded from the 2003 Bloodaxe volume, Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems, 1965-2000. In a sense, the two volumes should be read in tandem to provide a broader view of MacSweeney’s breadth of achievement, but for the sake of this review, I want to approach this new book as if it were the reader’s first encounter with his work.

Fortunately, the selection begins with the entire text of MacSweeney’s 1968 debut The Boy from the Green Caberet Tells of his Mother alongside half a dozen other poems from the same period, so my imaginary reader gets to see the poet’s early voice emerge from a welter of influences and reading, including 19th century French Symbolism, the emergent Cambridge School of Prynne and others, Basil Bunting and, perhaps, the Liverpool/Mersey Sound poets. This early work is assured, inventive, somewhat of its time and very much taken up with the act of walking, and these walks become occasions of fine perception:

It is not

of fish,

the sea



it is not

of water.


What binds these poems is their regular prose syntax, even the title poem depends on semantic effects to achieve a sense of dislocation:

The mail coach upturned,

wheels spin like planets,

poems pinned to its shafts!

Dames, merchant, musketeer,

in the dead season.

This is apprentice work, albeit of a high order, the echoes of others running through the emerging individual voice of the poet. Within a few years syntactic and spatial disjunction found its way into his repertoire, especially in the 1971 sequence Twelve Poems and a Letter he co-wrote with his then partner Elaine Randell. here the words explode across the page in a more thorough-going open-field manner than he had previously employed. How much of this change is due to Randell’s influence is not something the reader can be sure of, but the immediate return to the safety of the left margin in the two longish and very personal poems that follow, Fools Gold (dedicated to Randell) and Dance Steps (For Paul). While these poems abandon open-field composition, they are open in other ways, open to the world outside and inside the poet’s mind:

by the river

eating snow

for breakfast

soaking wet

what a long winter

I photograph myself


then tear it up

for fun

Both these poems and the next work collected here, Toad Church, are dated 1972, a measure of MacSweeney’s virtue and vice of prolific abundance. Toad Church is one of the many abandoned longer projects that occur across his career, and it’s not difficult in this case to see why. It reads as a grand failed experiment, with the poet pushing his materials beyond the then limitations of his technique. This was followed by the more modestly ambitious Fog Eye, in part, at least, an elegy to fellow poet Mark Hyatt. Here the material and technique blend in a more controlled, but deeply personal, disjunctive conjunction that is moving without sentimentality:

An irrecoverable move not quite plume

or slow-motion wing-beat.

The bird, book, flower, man, all fold up

with the approaching cumulus sudden dark.

And then we have what is one of the great recovered treasures to be found in this book, the 1973 sequence Pelt Feather Log. Although unfinished, there is not the same sense here of a work abandoned because it was outside the poet’s reach; the open-endedness is fitting to the open composition of the poem. In some respects, this is a variation on the classic trope of town versus country, with the dull routines and casual violence of the city being set against an almost Edenic vision of the rural. The poem opens in London, a place of


matic bovver boots, nuts

bolts gleaming oiled wrench

and rusty scaffold crown

and then moves from this site of strife to the reconciliation of the countryside:

after three stops

we reached the summit

behind the house

and all problems and heat

resolved in the sea wind

This rural location is specifically aligned with the biblical root of the country/town, nature/civilisation dichotomy shortly after this resolution:

mark the open branch pressed against the garden wall

this is your eden, among withered fruit

and is later further called out through the element of water when the purification found by standing under a waterfall is contrasted with the ‘wet oily dirt’ of city rain. Sadly, there is a snake in this eden, too, the inner demon that would haunt MacSweeney’s life and work until the end:

sad drunk self

mewing cloyed brain

tipping on desk

to write murder

in the vine.

In Roberts’ selection, this is followed by the distinctly ordinary Starry Messenger which in turn is followed by the quite extraordinary Black Torch (1978). This consists primarily of documentary poetry around the history of industrial unrest among the mining community in Durham. Drawing on first-hand testimony in the local dialect, it invites comparison with Jarrow March by Tom Pickard (to whom it is dedicated) which was broadcast on the BBC in 1976, and Bill Griffiths’ 1990s sequences drawing on similar source materials. One of the distinguishing features of MacSweeney’s work here is that it draws on the dialects of both the miners and the owners, so that we hear both groups in their own voices, with the warmth and humanity of the former highlighted by the cold calculation of the latter:

they fined him 3 and 6 for losing a shovel

yi can buy one for a shullin in the shop

ti put ya tally on the tub

ti tell wees done it

the keeker at the tub

i am a kind and indulgent master

they are infatuated with this union

it is a rabble

led by radicals and revolutionaries

should i speak with them

There are passages in this poem where the present and recent (relatively) struggles are placed in a longer temporal context, taking in the early history of the region, in ways that indicate that MacSweeney may have been absorbing lessons from the work of David Jones

Roman sentries dreaming of Naples

pulled down by long hooks from the wall

as Alaric approached the gates

of the seven hills

there have been straight roads through Newcastle

& household gods

In his introduction, Roberts discusses the impact of the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979 impacted on MacSweeney’s poetry, making it more overtly political and angrier. However, one of the main targets of his anger, corrupt, venal and ‘sell-out’ Labour politicians are already there in Black Torch and later on in the book Arthur Scargill (the trade union leader who lead the miners in a strike that broke both the unions and the existence of their employment) and Thatcher are given equal blame for what happened. The sad reality is that the political poetry he wrote through the 1980s and 1900s is generally dull, repetitive and difficult to read. This comes to a head in the 1998 volume Postcards from Hitler.

Discussing this later work, Roberts talks about the poet’s ‘pessimism and bravado’. For this reader at least, there certainly is pessimism, and some bravado, but these are drowned out by a great deal of self-indulgent name dropping and a bitterness  of spirit that gets in the way of the poetry, such as it is, with page after page of writing that displays the very worst of the Ginsberg/Blake inspired self-aggrandising litany:

I am Lucifer

little miss Froo Froo,

very Sixties white no-whats

ah-ha, Marianne Faithfull,

Give it to you Neil boy, Tony boloney,

let’s see what happens.

This also mars his variations on Apollinaire, Horses in Boiling Blood

Young poet Barry

only 20

Already you have witnessed the appalling world

What is your judgement on the adults who betrayed you

Try as I might, it is difficult to divorce this degree of self-indulgence from what Roberts calls ‘the terminal crisis of MacSweeney’s alcoholism’. There is a frantic quality to the writing that, married with lapses into deep sentimentality, that remind you of being cornered in a pub by a highly intelligent, extremely articulate, but ultimately dull stranger who insists on telling you their troubles.

It is then an enormous relief to come, at last, to MacSweeney’s final extended piece of writing, the prose-poem sequence Letters to Dewey, a warm, self-deprecating set of words of advice to the son of the poet and friend Stephen Rodefer.

Here, at the end, the self-absorption gives way to a genuine interest in another human being, and sentimentality to deep feeling. There is a sense that MacSweeney may have a sense of his own possible failings as a parent, but these are subsumed into a drive to pass on experience in a way that is shot through with humour and warmth:

Listen Dewey, I am a common man. I am as common as muck. I am the original muck-spreader after farmers Noble and Nicholl who built their ginormous leeks up here in the high grounds and we all sat around and read Zane Grey when the fires died and we were dead asleep until the lentils and the beasts the next dawn.

Being a common man is most special.

What you have to do is turn it.

So, what would my imagined new reader make of MacSweeney based on this book? My feeling is that she would be impressed by the notion of a poet of rare gifts that were all too often unfulfilled, largely through the circumstances of his personal life. However, the cumulative effect of the early work, Pelt Feather Log, Black Torch and Letters to Dewey should be enough to convince her that at his best, he was a poet of real and important achievement. Those of us who value poetry should be grateful for Roberts for bringing this work back into the public domain and to Shearsman for publishing the fruits of his labours.


Ravenna Diagram by Henry Gould: A Review

Ravenna Diagram, Henry Gould, Dos Madres, 2018, ISBN 978-1-939929-92-1, $25.00ravenna-diagram-cover-428x642

Henry Gould’s Ravenna Diagram is, to quote the introduction,

‘a long poem which follows in the vein of ‘Leaves of Grass,’ ‘The Bridge,’ ‘Paterson,’ ‘The Cantos,’ ‘A,’ and ‘The Maximus Poems.’ It is an attempt to come to new terms with old epic and visionary traditions, epitomized by Dante and Milton, and carried on by Hart Crane, H.D., Louis Zukofsky, Jay Wright and others. The poet aims to take up the primordial challenge of bridging heaven and earth, the spiritual and temporal, in a new voice. There is a special affinity with the Acmeist movement of Russian poetry and Osip Mandelstam—tracing to Dante, toward the end of his life, in Ravenna, completing his Divina Commedia under the clear shadows of Eastern Orthodox mosaics. But this is an American poem, and a work-in-progress—juxtaposing Dante’s spiritual “vertical” with the vast “horizontal” of colloquial, pilgrim American time and space.’

Well, there’s an ambitions statement of intent, if ever you saw one.

Unlike most of his cited American antecedents, Gould’s method is formalist, with the poems in this 400+ page series being written in quatrains, mostly seven quatrains per poem, but with some of 14 or 21, and an occasional aberration from the rule of seven. For the most part, the quatrains rhyme, more or less fully, ABBA, although again this is fluid. In fact, fluid is an apt enough adjective for Gould’s formalism.

Metrical variation is also the order of the day, with a disjointed syntax driving line length and stress patterns, including lots of cross-line and cross-stanza enjambment. The result is a rich, sometimes challenging, always delightful verbal music. A typical passage, if such a thing exists, might go like this, from about a third of the way in:

……………………….. This great nation


that wum nursed wim fingerpainting

– “Dang George’s fault – that bad,

mad King – we all been had!”

squished into gouache, wid fingerpointing.


Like a rain-map by John the Daubist

of Ethiopia,

the cornucopia’s

lost tramp-vein – 50 states list



Gould’s wordplay reads like a cross between late Joyce and even later Zukofsky, and is in deadly earnest, like all good fun. Puns and other verbal echoes serve to weave themes and motifs into each other, as in this early passage:

A sort of green eye on Green

Island (bordered by sand

and ocean). Unmanned

bee, beneath ziggurat (unseen,


see) – this mound (sounding beyond

Ursa Minor). By Jimini!

(cracked the barrelly,

garrulous wheedler) – yer mind?


–  ‘s gone!

Where images of America as both Dante’s Eden transplanted weave into Old World splendours, with ziggurat and mound representing a continuity of habitation with hints of the funerary, where we shall unmanned be(e) under the eye(land) of the green-eyed god. And one of the poem’s great figures, Ezra Pound, sneaks in the door (the truncated stanza at the end contains a reference to Cathay).

In fact, Pound is an almost ever-present presence, frequently paired with Apollinaire, whose name suggests an Apollonian counterpoint to Ezra’s Bacchanalian madness. Of course, in Gould’s fluidity, nothing remains the same, and at almost the exact mid-point they swap roles, when on facing pages (210/211) we read ‘Apollinaire’s//the latest Dionysus’ and Pound’s Apollonian, paradisiacal ‘Don’t move,/let the wind speak’.

These poets are just one among the poems multiple pairings, axes on the graph that plots ‘heaven and earth, the spiritual and temporal’. Another such pairing is Dante and Henry, the latter being the poet himself, John Berryman’s anti-hero and Dante’s great failed hope, the emperor Henry VII, whose ‘rocky throne/stands empty now’, as does his golden one in Dante’s vision.

Another crucial pairing starts with a cousin glimpsed in childhood via some old Super-8 film:

you hop off the see-saw, Juliet


sans warning – take me by surprise.

I land on my little ass

Whose suicide by drowning links her to Hart Crane, and whose proximity to a ‘brilliant golden spider’ pairs her with another recurring figure, Ariadne/Arachne, weaver goddess and wife of Bacchus, as it happens, and so round we go, all things connected.

An inchworm dangles calmly

from green thread; she

might be Ariadne’s cousin, gone


to ground

At the heart of Gould’s explorations is an imminent move from Providence, where he lived for many years, back to his home town of Minneapolis. This pulls together an interest in American place names as marker of the disjoint between the world views of the First Peoples and the Christian settlers, the latter sometimes lending names that reflected their utopian projects, sometimes borrowing the older names, and sometimes, as In Minneapolis (the town of water) combining the two.

And the two cities have much in common. Both live on and by water and both were established by a process of fair dealing with the aboriginal inhabitants. Indeed, Roger Williams, the religious free-thinker who established Providence is among Gould’s heroes, again often paired with Coke and Blackstone, jurists, in a distinctly Pounding grounding of the ideal city in the rule of law.

immaculate origin of Providence.


I see her hero stepping through the gate

of stone, one hand held out

on a wave of love. Light

scout, scouring the root of hate –


defanging that lamprey of predatory

malice, hostile cruelty –

injustice clamped on history.

With Coke & Blackstone whispers: Now be free.

There are a lot more threads that run through this weave: The figure of Olson’s Maximus; the Old Testament and Jewishness; the goddess Isis (with attendant, more recent echoes); Venn diagrams and catenary curves; Eeyore; the Matter of Britain and matters of Ireland. There is one remaining pairing that remains absolutely central; the raven, bird of ill omen, whose name echoes Ravenna and whose symbolism includes the picking over of dead bodies, and its complement, the dove, bird of peace. These are Noah’s birds, harbingers of the promised land, whose physical manifestation is repeatedly the American landscape:

The soft Bruegelish colors here

at India Point, at the end

of October. Moist diamond

apex of the bay, calm mirror


of gray sky… jade, orange.

Moss, oak leaves, quiet

water. Still boats, nets.

Strange silver vortex…

The dove recalls, memory being key to all things, Cavalcanti’s great canzone ‘Donna me prega’, with its insistence that love resides ‘dove sta memoria’, where memory is.

And so, we return to Cavalcanti’s friend Dante in Ravenna, hell and purgatory behind him and heaven almost completed, building to the great final silence:

A l’alta fantasia qui mancò possa;
ma già volgeva il mio disio e ’l velle,
sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,


l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.

In the love that moves everything, which is also the final goal of Gould’s extraordinary poem, driven by memories of a dead cousin, Juliet, by Pound’s prompting to make things cohere, by the riven, unfinished history of America, a vision of justice not fully achieved, Ravenna Diagram finds a resolution. Unlike the Cantos or Maximus, and Like ‘A’, this is not an open-ended epic. But unlike Zukofsky, Gould does not close with a grand chorale, but on a quieter, but no less satisfying note:

The King of Milk is by the riverside.

He washes memories

like Papa’s hand – a breeze

murmuring. Everything’s OK. I sighed.


A child is comforted. The Earth

will be. Like Magdalen

or Beatrice – when the sun

colors a morning cave (in Nazareth).



Heavy Years, by Augustus Young: A Review

Heavy Years, Augustus Young, Quartet, 2018, ISBN 9780704374478, £20.00

Heavy Years is Augustus Young’s most recent volume of autofiction, or fictionalised memoir, following from his highly praised Light Years and the more recent Brazilian Tequila. In this book, the unnamed narrator is a medical graduate, not quite a doctor, from Cork who moves to London to work for the NHS as a freelance researcher/process improver. He’s an idealist whose philosophy is summed up in a quote from Rudolf Virchow that serves as an epigraph to the book: ‘Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing but medicine on a larger scale.’ The arc of the book describes the journey from this belief that the NHS and the politicians whose role it is to fund and nurture it should be focused in health rather than illness, prevention before cure, through a slow absorption into the status quo to a kind of resignation and the ‘redemption by default’ of early retirement.

Our narrator is employed on the recommendation of a senior consultant called Mal Combes whose intention is to use his protégé as a constructive disruptor who will challenge established patterns of behaviour within the health service to the benefit of patients. It’s a job he takes on with initial enthusiasm, and in the process he constructs a map of the NHS hierarchy, from ’the mandarins’ at one end to ‘the humans’ at the other, and decides to focus his efforts on the front-line staff who, he feels, are most likely to share his view of the proper role of medicine and less likely to be involved in politics for its own sake. All of this is accompanied by a Greek chorus consisting of the talking in his head.

He decides to use his outsider status as an Irishman to his advantage:

What could be seen as a disadvantage was an asset. I could use my Irishness, and English colleagues couldn’t. at least not directly. I did not disguise my accent, but spoke very distinctly (like my mother on the phone). I decided it was a magical weapon like Fionn MacCool’s gae-bolg (spear). It entered my enemies like a javelin and its barbs opened up inside.

[It hardly detracts from this to point out that the gae-bolg was Cuchulain’s spear.]

On balance, things go pretty well at first, until the election as Prime Minister of the woman he calls Mrs Sybil, known in the real world as Mrs Thatcher. The new, market driven, politics before health means he has two options, unemployment or compromise, and he settles for the latter. He had, in any case, begun to have doubts about Virchow’s ‘big idea’, having come to the conclusion that sickness, at a certain point, is inevitable as we grow older and that the inevitable outcome of a health-focused policy would be an aging, ill population. And so, he moves on to the ‘little idea’ of removing the patently incompetent from the system through a series of disciplinary proceedings. This, while generally effective, is unpopular and ultimately induces a kind of paranoia in the unnamed one as the higher powers in his hierarchical tree begin to take more interest in his actions. It also leads to a sense of change without progress, and as he moves closer to the higher powers in the system, his idealism is further diluted.

In a sense, this is close to the character of another Young doctor, Pedrinho Diaz, whose transformation from idealistic young medico to corrupt politician is at the heart of Brazilian Tequila. This, of course, leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that the NHS jungle is very much like the Brazilian rainforest, at least where the integrity of medical administration is concerned. It’s a conflict that also resonates through another recent book by Young, The Invalidity of all Guarantees: A Conversation between Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin, where Brecht’s pragmatism is set against the purity of Benjamin.

Alongside this tale of woe, we see glimpses of the Irish wing of literary London, the scene of Young’s earlier autofiction Light Years. This mostly revolving around pubs, with some interesting sightings of the near-legendary figure of Donegal poet and aspirant bag-lady Madge Herron. It is in these low relief passages that Young’s characteristically rambunctious style is most in evidence:

She was built like a chick albatross, and her vocal range was that of a starling, calls varying from chortled warbles to alarming squawks with tender little trills in between.

It is also here that the elements of the Venn diagram that links the narrator, his inventor Augustus Young, and Young’s inventor, Dr James Hogan fully overlap, bringing the nature of the autofiction into focus. Hogan, after all, was a consultant epidemiologist in the NHS and, unlike the lone bachelor narrator, a married man. And so, the story takes on something of the nature of that most particular genre of fictional distortion, the fable. But what, if any, is the moral? Here is the tale of an Irish doctor working for the NHS in London inspired by the work of a German thinker and, in real life, whatever that is, retiring to writerly seclusion in the South of France. It is, in short, a European fable. Given the post-Brexit prospects for the NHS, the following passage seems particularly prescient, whether intentionally or otherwise (I suspect the former):

Newly formed companies were scrambling for consultancy work. Interest in the American health system included exchanges of visits by professionals. I could see on the horizon competitive tendering by multinationals for service takeovers. The talking shook its head sadly, ‘How long, O Lord, how full of cant you are. A nation of shopkeepers is never going to go global.’

Which is, of course, exactly what said shopkeepers and their customers, behind a tattered banner unfurled on the playing fields of Eton, now intend to attempt.

And so, for all its playful poking of fun at human and organisation foibles, Heavy Years is, in the end, a deeply serious book, a story of idealism broken on the wheel of power, but also a finger pointing at the anti-moon of a post-Brexit privatised health ‘service’ whose reality draws ever closer. It may be too late to undo the referendum, but the moral of this fable is that the NHS must be defended at all costs.

Poetry after Brexit; some recent reading

The Soil Never Sleeps, Adam Horovitz, Palewell Press, 2018, ISBN 978-1-911587-05-7, £9.99

Twitters for a Lark, Robert Sheppard (ed), Shearsman, 2017, ISBN 978-1-84861-565-6, £9.95

Dear Mary, Rupert Loydell, Shearsman, 2017, ISBN 9781848615199, £9.95

Burdlife, Kevin Reid, Tapsalteerie, 2018, £3.00

Romanesco, Andrew Fentham, Eyewear, 2018, £6.00

All the Relevant Gods, Robin Houghton, Cinnamon Press, 2018, ISBN: 978-1910836958, £4.99

TSNS-Front CoverOne of the minor oddities of the bizarre post-Brexit UK landscape was seeing a photograph of arch-Brexiteer Michael Gove holding a copy of AdamHorovitz’s The Soil Never Sleeps taken at the launch of the book. Horovitz rationalises the photo by talking about the book’s balancing of conflicting points of view as a necessary condition of its faithfulness to its matter, but seen from Ireland, where the prevailing view is that the Brexit vote and process represent a kind of collective insanity on the part of our nearest neighbours, and one with potentially catastrophic consequences for the people of this island, it is difficult to take quite such a sanguine view.

Horovitz spent a year and a quarter as poet in residence for the Pasture-fed Livestock Association, and the book explores the various ways in which farmers across England and Wales are working to restore more traditional, ecologically sustainable ways of farming. Unfortunately, he was unable to include views from Scotland and Northern Ireland, the two regions most opposed to Brexit, which somewhat limits the perspectives available to him. In his introduction, Horovitz expresses regret about the absence of Scotland, meaning that the ‘book does not cover the entire island’; an interesting reminder of the fact that Northern Ireland is excluded from the category ‘British’.

The book is constructed as something of a seasonal poem, with the first four of its five sections taking their titles form the seasons, but in the odd order spring, autumn, winter, summer. The fifth section, which shares its title with the book as a whole, ‘investigates the ethics, politics and future of farming’ and is, inevitably, concerned with the impact of Brexit.

The irregular ordering of the seasons seems to be a device to reflect the rhythms of the working year, with the lambing/calving of spring linking to the fatted, market ready livestock, feasts of windfall apples and cider-making of autumn, as the two busiest seasons of the farm year, while the relative stasis of winter and summer mirror each other; the seasons of doing followed by the seasons of tending.

In their nature, the poems tend to the documentary and narrative, with a momentum often built around the relationship between the clumsy but willing vegetarian outsider learning to fit with a way of life that is alien but attractive, a narrative of learning, of challenging preconceptions, as in a poem marking a visit to an abattoir:

There are always choices to be made. To eat,

or not. To live. To help each other do the same.

[from ‘The Abattoir’, in the final section]

But Horovitz is a fine poet, capable of producing delightful verbal music that lift the stories onto another level:

A green shimmering of germinating oats

hangs over a raised lip

of ploughed earth, heavy

with the last weight of a well-timed rain.

[from ‘Feeding the Pigs’ in the spring section]

There’s a lot going on in lines like these, from the obvious alliteration (g/g, h/h, w/w/w) to the spine of murmuring ‘m’ sounds that links the first and last lines of the stanza. The two long runs of unstressed syllable in the first line (SHIM|mer|ing |of |GERM|in|a|ting OATS) contribute to the sense of expectancy while the clustering of stress in the final line enact the ‘well-timed’ weather.

This poet’s ear for the detail of language is evident throughout:

True hunger begins at the roots

of want. I have felt its brief touch,

elusive as the rasp of soil on my teeth.

[from ‘The Abattoir’]

The Kind of farming celebrated in the book is, of course, the kind that would be most under threat form a post hard Brexit deregulated Britain, with floods of cheap, additive-laden imported meat from the Americas and elsewhere, and the poems, especially in the final section, reflect this reality and Horovitz’ clear discomfort with the aftermath of the June 2016 referendum:

Everything’s an experiment in these

discordant, Brexit-weighted times.

The world seems stranger than it’s ever been

on the surface. It moves so fast that soil

is an irrelevance, in certain circles.

Unworthy of complicated thought.

[from ‘The Abattoir’]

Those circles must include Michael Gove, who clearly hadn’t read the book he was holding in that photograph. Or perhaps he had; who can tell the depths of duplicity a politician is capable of?

Twitters larkTwitters for a Lark, the latest volume of Robert Sheppard’s world of invented European poets represented in the European Union of Imagined Authors (EUIA), is, if anything, even more explicitly engaged with Brexit. This is an anthology of imaginary poetry from the 28 member states of the EU, with the UK represented by a made-up Robert Sheppard. The ‘poems’ are collaborations between Sheppard and a number of collaborators (he is involved in all 28 collaborations) and, as with the rest of the EUIA work, it is a plea for the recognition of a unified European literary culture, particularly as expressed in poetry. And the full range of that tradition is hinted at, with work that is romantic, classical, modernist, formalist and concrete on display.

It is, in places, almost too successful as a fictional multilingual anthology, with some of the work included teetering, intentionally or otherwise, into a kind of translatorese:

Invincible dust shakes most furiously from flesh

because no one is to be born after.

But then again, readability almost isn’t the point in this book, as I see it; this is a kind of conceptual work, an object more than a book. Of course, all books are objects, but objects intended to be read. Twitters for a Lark does its work without being read at all, the idea of what it is, what it stands for, takes precedence over the contents.

And what it stands for, I think, is resistance to the nonsense idea that the UK is, or can be, anything other than European. The main theme that emerges is an interwoven history, from the classical world through the fall of the Berlin Wall to the Greek bailout, and it is fitting that the final country represent ed is the UK, the country that proposes to turn its back on that shared history, the ‘fictive cartography’ that is all too real, and that binds us all together.

You’d need a reviewer with a far broader and deeper knowledge of European languages and literature than I have, so I’ll just comment on two of the virtual contributors. Spain is represented by the bilingual Catalan/Spanish poet Cristòfol Subira, whose very readable contributions, written by RS in collaboration with Alys Conran are possibly an echo of the real-world Joan Margarit. The ‘Irish’ poet has the ludicrous name of Sean Eoghan (John John) and his ‘poetry’, a bastard child of late Joyce and early Yeats, seems inspired by Father Ted more than anything else.

But, as I said, the contents of the book matter less than its being. Nonetheless, I can’t but wonder if it’s getting near time for the EUIA to disband.

Rupert Loydell’s Dear Mary is a set of ekphrastic poems on the Annunciation in European Dear Marypainting. Although there is no reference to Brexit and many of the poems were written before the referendum, we are again reminded of our common European religious and artistic traditions. At the core of the work is the, often exasperating, relationship between visual and verbal art:

How does paint speak

down the centuries,

flaking from a forgotten wall

or crumbling in a shadowed chapel,

overlooked by tourists and guides?

[from ‘Hidden’]


we have names for only a few

of the thousands of colours

around us. We improvise and

negotiate, compare and group,

neatly divide the spectrum up

[from ‘Between’]

But then again, if your subject the invisible, the not yet present, then perhaps it’s fair to say that your language should be inadequate, your poems a series of graspings after articulation. Annunciations concern both immanence and absence, that which is perpetually about to be, and the task of both painter and poet is to suggest what lies outside the frame. In this context, it’s interesting that Loydell frequently writes about paintings he failed to see; the locked church or museum under repair is another form of annunciation.

He also adapts the language of other contexts to approach his subject, giving us prose poems and lyrics, collage and/or parody, the annunciation as a UFO sighting and as online dating:

When he disrobed, it was a bit of a shock to see what he’s kept hidden. He folded his wings around me and we made love all afternoon. I’ve never been so fulfilled, so satisfied. It was heavenly. Then he departed from me.

What an angel! I long to see him again.

[from ‘Online Dating Annunciation’]

The question arises as to what these paintings mean to those of us for whom they are simply works of art and not objects that lead us to religious meditation; they have no more ‘spiritual’ content than, say, ‘The Birth of Aphrodite’ and perhaps less than ‘Guernica. For many of Loydell’s readers, annunciations are no longer doorways into the numinous, unless we redefine the numinous as a purely aesthetic experience.

This question is addressed in ‘Evidence’, the final poem in the book:

Here, I commandeer the patio table,

despite the morning mist,

and wonder what David meant

in his surprise email this morning

about whether or not it is possible

to write about faith today.

To which the immediate response is ‘well, I’ve just finished a book on the subject’. It isn’t, of course, that simple, and David, whoever he be, has a point. Loydell is writing in a context where the same science that makes emails and print on demand books possible, also leads us to question, and in many cases reject, angels and virgin births. It’s not surprising, although it may be disappointing, to find him address science later in the same poem:

Our explanations are to do with science

and how things were first made, what

they will become. There is no room

for wonder or any sense of doubt;

the grey that fills the valley

is just moisture, not an obscuring veil,

and if we get a rainbow it is water

acting as a prism, not a sign from God.

Disappointing because he misrepresents what science is. Science is full of wonder, full of doubt, an arena of provisional, improvable models of the world, in contrast to the certainty of religion. And the facts of how droplets of moisture form a mist or a rainbow are no less full of wonder for being explicable; if anything, the opposite.

That said, Dear Mary is a book of great interest, perhaps Loydell’s finest to date, and one well worth reading.

Cover-Burdlife-Kevin-ReidMeanwhile, Brexit or not, the unbusiness-like business of small independent presses producing more or less tiny chapbooks of poetry goes on, as it must. Kevin Reid’s ‘limited-edition micro-pamphlet’ Burdlife takes as its starting point Ivor Cutler’s ‘Birdswing’ and is a short set of equally short burst of dialect birdsong. These are poems that are a delight to read but are almost impossible to write about, so the best thing to do is to give you one and send you off to buy and read the rest:









me tae

Cover_fenthamAndrew Fentham’s Romanesco, from the always interesting Eyewear imprint, is somewhat more substantial and varied than Reid’s little book. In fact, it has the appearance of a young poet playing with form, ranging from concrete poetry to the sestina. It’s refreshing to see such an experimental approach from a new (to me at least) writer, and it should be said that the experiments are invariably interesting and, for the most part, successful. The two longest poems in the book, ‘Supplément au Voyage de Gauguin’ and ‘Au Hasard Pantomime’ are the most successful. The latter is a kind of reworking of the story of Balaam’s ass in the style of Beckett, the former uses extracts from the artist’s letters in English translation;


relevant_godsRobin Houghton is a blogger and co-founder of the Telltale Press, whose books I have previously reviewer, so she knows a thing or two about small press production. All the Relevant Gods is her second pamphlet. The poems here are tinged with gentle surrealism, sometimes veering into a kind of magic realism.


Sagra’s office walls flare chilli and lime.

To enter is to firewalk:

my dry skin reddens.

[from the title poem]

Her main subjects are places and the mundane world of daily work; the places include offices, hotels, conferences, commuter trains and the kind of displaced activity they entail:

Our wheels sharpen on a drawn-out mass

of points and then we’re stationary, our heaving


carriage balanced over Union Street arches,

hearts beating up out of sleeping bags below


where once packers and platers lit their fags,

off to the Rose & Crown, after the factory closed.

[from ‘London Bridge to Waterloo East’]

Gap Gardening by Rosmarie Waldrop: a review

Gap Gardening: Selected Poems, Rosmarie Waldrop, New Direction, 2016, ISBN-gap_gardening_cover13: 978-0811225144


If the eye were a living creature, says Aristotle, its soul would be its ability to see.

[p. 172]

Which, by a process of parallel reasoning leads to the conclusion that the soul of Rosmarie Waldrop is her ability to make things out of language that please an illuminate in equal measure. This selected poems, which I am very belatedly reviewing, serves as a comprehensive introduction to her work for those who don’t already know it and as a confirmation and reminder of her exceptional abilities for those of us who do.

The arc of her technical development is, broadly, from verse poetry to prose poetry, and this is evident here; of the first 70 pages or so, about three quarters is in verse, and for the remainder of the book a similar majority consists of prose texts which have, in appearance on the page, something of the quality of a series of propositions a la Aristotle or Wittgenstein, but here the exploration of language, the world and the relationships between them is worked out in terms that are poetic rather than philosophical.

Many of Waldrop’s essential themes and concerns are laid down in the early verse books. For instance, the insertion of graphic road signs in The Road is Everywhere, or Stop this Body prefigures the emphasis on sign and sight that runs through the book while the sequences from When They Have Senses included are early statements of the essential I/you/we or she/he/they relationship that is the essential geometry of much of Waldrop’s work.

her knees crossed

over the manner of

his undressing her


This triangle, which can be either personal or public, concerned with the possibility of love or of a functioning social order, is laid over a background of the life of an outsider coming to terms with American society and language with an eye for the telling detail that may lie invisible to the insider. The gaps between these figures in the Waldrop landscapes are, on one level, those that she is cultivating, but this is also true of the space between the world and the text, a text that remains constantly aware of its own textuality:

Voices, planted on the page, do not ripen or bear fruit. Here placement does not explain, but cultivates the vacancy between them. The voices pause, start over. Gap gardening which, moved inward from the right margin, suspends time.

[p. 90]

There is a repeated questioning of the verb ‘to know’; what can be known, how it can be known, if it can be known are refrains that run through the pages of this selection. The gaps are epistemological challenges, the space between the I/she and you/he means that the emerging we is limited by the impossibility of truly shared experience, the we being a product of this impossibility:

Intermittent, she says, as if a space of time, too, could not be occupied by two bodies. Even bodies of experience and memory. As if we had no history, only a past purloined by nothing to show for it.

[p. 101]

And so the work turns, in the volume Reluctant Gravities to a sceptical investigation of knowledge, with section headings that echo the titles of Montaigne’s essays (‘On Vertigo’, ‘On Place’ for example). These poems, from which the quotation just preceding this paragraph is taken, are meditations on the epistemology of each other, of the necessary, but unknowable ‘we’. And in the books that follow, with their focus on American history and on language, this ‘we’ becomes increasingly social rather than personal, so that in A Key into the Language of America, which also uses the essay-title device, reflections on Native American language and culture (via a 17th century book on Narragansett), are folded into the text in ways that illuminate the role of language in excluding the Other from the socio-political ‘we’. The same radical scepticism was previously applied to reworkings of key texts in America’s story about itself in Shorter American Memory:

We hold these trysts to be self-exiled that all manatees are credited equidistant, that they are endured by their Creator with cervical answerable rims, that among these are lightning, lice and the pushcart of harakiri.

[p. 106]

After the density of these prose sequences, Waldrop turns, in a verse sequence called ‘Pre & Con, or Positions & Conjunctions’ to a Zukofskian focus on extra-semantic language in a set of finely honed poems driven by grammar words, the prepositions and conjunctions of the title:

If a bird if

up into the air

if cold if


we must adhere if

a road if renamed by

if each if travelling


From this point, say 1998, onwards, all the elements of Waldrop’s mature writing are in place, and in the books that follow, her concerns fold into each other in ever new, ever invigorating ways:

A different relation to knowing, the pursuit cannot define the object of pursuit even if the road is lit by a crystal cage, lighthouse, bright red plumage, high noon. I was not surprised to be alone.

[p. 186].

The book closes with a substantial selection from the 2010 volume Driven to Abstraction, and a sustained meditation on that most problematic of signifiers, zero. Here Waldrop’s sceptical interrogation of language reaches its ultimate conclusion, a delicate balance between the destructive and generative powers of the word:

The word’s power to kill – I’m not thinking of white-gloved White House memos – its violence against what it names, what it can name only by taking away its materiality, destroying its presence. Is death itself speaking.


Or is it? If the word both kills and shows “a certain slant of light on winter afternoons” that we’d search in vain anywhere else? If the word “horse” boils the animal down to the concept, and yet, in the way of hunger, hallucinates four legs, a mane, and folds of flesh? Then maybe this death is not a simple matter. And must hold a kind of life the way fog holds light?


Here, more than anywhere else, Waldrop refers overtly to a literary tradition to support her ultimate belief in the efficacy of language as a creative medium, the visionary power of the Dickinson overcoming the Gradgrindian utilitarian epistemology of those who would use it as a destructive force.


I’ve been wondering how to close this all too brief review of what is an exceptionally important book, and have decided that it’s best to leave the last word to Rosmarie Waldrop herself, to close the circle, at least temporarily:

Out at the sea I stare. As if it were the universe. Could pull the infinite into my eye. Without the rational lines of perspective. With absent wavelengths represented as imagination. Slow the eye I brought with me from Germany. And does not leave its body. Nor change the stance of distance.