The Last Recent Reading of 2017

Language of Objects, Text & Images: Murdo Eason, Sound: Brian Lavelle, Blind Roads Press 2017, ISBN: 978-1-9997718-0-5, £10.99 plus P&P.

Bone Ink, Rico Craig, the now defunct Guillotine Press, but available from the author for 20.00 Australian dollars.

The Orchard Keeper, Susan Connolly, Shearsman 2017, ISBN 9781848615601, £6.50

A Day that you Happen to Know, Nic Stringer with illustrations by Lucy Kerr, Guillemot Press, £8.00

Broken Stories, Reuben Woolley, 20/20 Vision, ISBN: 9781907449031, £9.50

Lang_obj.jpgLanguage of Objects is a collaboration between Murdo Eason of the Fife Psychogeographical Collective and Brian Lavelle, sound artist and the Edinburgh Drift project. It consists of a book containing photographs and texts by Eason and a CD of a sound piece called Sullen Charybdis, the Blue of Scarabs by Lavelle, the music responding to, and in some ways mirroring, the book rather than accompanying it in any narrow sense.

Eason’s images are mostly of two kinds. Many are of abandoned or closed off apertures of one kind or another that have been defaced by human activity or, more frequently, time and natural process, so that they end up resembling framed easel paintings featuring a palette of rust, lichens, peeling or faded background paint and the play of light on weathered surfaces. These often remind this reader of the works of the Catalan painter Antoni Tàpies. The objects photographed are, in one sense, decaying or disintegrating, but in another they are reintegrating, becoming an organic element in the wider landscape they inhabit, and as such the work is profoundly ecocentric.

The other main group is made up of skylines, sometimes rural, sometimes urban (and often, in this case, architectural in subject and construction) and generally claustrophobic in effect; Eason’s skies enclose rather than opening out, and like the doors and windows of the other images, frame vision in a confined range. Many of the architectural images see buildings take on organic forms: a tiled roof becomes a series of waves; a spiral staircase takes on the nature of a sea shell, so that they actually for a continuity of concerns with the other group.

The texts that accompany these images are attempts to live up to the book title, to give voice to the objects Eason’s inquisitive eye falls on, to inhabit, for a moment and imperfectly, their ‘thingness’:

 

It is only on close inspection

that my imperfections become clear.

 

An index of expansion and contraction.

Not quite perfect circles.

Lavelle’s composition reflects the concern with ‘thisness’ and integration, as it folds birdsong, the sound of flowing water and other background ‘noise’ into carefully constructed patterns of information. He deploys the kind of scrupulous poverty of means you associate with European Minimalist music to create the same sense of respect for the found that informs the book. Language of Objects represents an interesting extension of many of the concerns that cut across Eason’s big book of his blog, From Hill to Sea, which I reviewed last year, albeit on a smaller, more intimate scale. His is one of the more interesting landscape projects out there, and well worth following.

boneinkOne of the personal pleasure of the old Poster Poems series I did for the Guardian was discovering a lot of fine Australian poetry via the Australian Poetry Library website. It struck me that there were many parallels between (white) Australian and (white) North American ways for writing verse, due, in part at least, to the similar colonial histories and, in both cases, the resurgence of interest in the poetry and world views of the indigenous populations of both continents.

Rico Craig is one of the younger Australian poets I’ve come across, and his debut collection, Bone Ink, is literally a book of two halves. The first section, Bone Ink, is primarily set in Australia (with some forays into the poet’s Malay childhood) and is primarily concerned with the drinking, drug taking and car expropriation of the disaffected youth of suburban working and lower middle-class Sydney. There is no doubting the skill in these poems, or the authenticity of the voice; indeed, the authenticity is part of their limitation, as it is a voice we’ve heard so often before, think early Bruce Springsteen, for instance. The problem is to bring new insight to the mythology of dislocation, and for all his abilities, Rico doesn’t convince.

The second part of the book, The Upper Room, is a different matter. Here the landscape is London, and the poems revolve around the problems of migration and integration; the Old World is discovered as something new, which also enables a more integrated view of ‘home’. The book ends with an extraordinary poem sequence, ‘Lampedo’, in which an urban London fox, Amazons, a lover visiting from home and a mythic hunt fold into each other to remarkable effect:

I have your feather behind my ear

and the pouch you gifted, unclutched

 

from the heat of your sternum. Inside

are chunks of jasper, obsidian, chert

 

from them I pick the shape of my first

arrowhead. Our fox sleeps in her blanket

 

earth; she waits for the strength

to shepherd me through our streets.

 

Here the patterning of long and short vowels around a spine of ‘s’s sounds show a poet coming into their own voice, their own control of verbal music. It’s enough to leave you impatient to see what Craig might do next.

223_6443Susan Connolly’s The Orchard Keeper is a pamphlet of two halves, or two sequences, rather. The first, eponymous section is a six-part exploration of the life of Irish poet Francis Ledwidge. The second section, Woman in a Black Hat, also consisting of six poems, remembers female friends and relations of the poet.

Despite a recent revival of interest in his work sparked off by some praise from Seamus Heaney, Ledwidge was a distinctly minor Irish Georgian poet who is best remembered for the circumstances of his life rather than his writing. He was one of the few Irish poets with Republican sympathies who did not take part in the Easter 1916 Rising, but went off to fight in WWI, where he died in Ypres in 1917. He was also something of a star-crossed lover, as the girl he courted, Ellie Vaughey, married another man and died young.

Connolly’s poems revolve around Ledwidge the man, and build up a minor-key portrait of his friendships with Vaughey and with fiddler and orchard keeper Matty McGoona, whose cottage, and a visit Connolly made there, lies at the centre of the sequence. Connolly’s tone is appropriately restrained and ‘Georgian’ throughout:

 

Late September, the smell of ripe

apples filling this overgrown

orchard where six horses graze

near moss-covered cherry trees

 

The Woman in a Black Hat sequence is tonally quite similar. Here the poet draws on people she knows to portray women alone, in love, as mothers and female friendship. The most interesting of the poems, Cycling to Renvyle, is, because of its open typographical layout, pretty much impossible to reproduce here. This is a very slim volume indeed, and makes an interestingly convergent companion piece for Connolly’s visual pieces I reviewed previously.

a-day-coverNic Stringer’s debut collection circles around questions of faith and power, especially as they affect women. Her method is to show believers ‘cold’, as it were, but to use technical means, ‘exploded’ text, palimpsest, and so on, to undermine what they tell us. Her writing works best when pared back, as in these lines from the sequence Sisters:

 

Oh Temperance

 

Whatever we love ritual matters

I am back in my separation phase

 

I don’t think on it

I don’t say it out loud

I don’t do anything

 

Unfortunately, some of the work here tends towards unwarranted verbosity that teeters towards the most prosaic of prosiness at times:

 

Dominated by the chorus, she has lost

the intellectual focus of the fanatics.

Resistant to the sound and shape of fate

she must regret them all, but Chloris.

[from Niobe]

 

There are just too many words here, obscuring the music that undoubtedly lies beneath them. However, this is forgivable in a young poet who is finding their own voice, and when she gets it right, Stringer can be very good indeed:

 

Human agony has no redemptive power,

there is no reward. it is a votive offering,

concerned with anatomy rather than technique.

[from Laocöön in the Vatican]

 

This is a debut of great promise.

broken storiesReuben Woolley tends to a much sparer use of language in what I think of as classic free verse form, with hints of jazz and Imagism throughout. Woolley is from the UK and now lives in Spain, and there are some direct references to the poetry of his adopted home on display in his Broken Stories

 

green

i want you

breathing

 

However, the poet he most reminds me of is Carl Rakosi. Like Rakosi, Woolley foregrounds the lyric ‘I’, with the first-person pronoun featuring in almost all the pomes here, frequently as the first word of a poem or stanza in a poem. However, this is a modest I, not a shouty one, and Woolley seems aware of his own human limitations, his place in a larger world:

 

the treasured deaths

 

one day i’ll know

the wearing of all these spaces / the places

of questionable safety

 

i’ll see the agreement

of bones / the bare

worlds opened

 

my sands run through

to end & time

still comes in torrents

 

Woolley champions political poetry, or rather poetry of protest, through his popular I am not a silent poet blog, but here the politics are implicit rather than overt, consisting of the effort to reclaim our ‘broken stories’ from the control of those who, as a note on the flyleaf says, would ‘use them for their own ends’, an effort that again chimes with Rakosi’s work.

 

in taken cities a cold wind

they’re hacking the wings

off angels

tuberculous

[from perishables]

 

This is a solid collection from a poet whose work is far more neglected than it should be. Read it.

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Augustus Young Review

My review of two recent books by Augustus Young is live on the Dublin Review of Books. The books in question are:

Brazilian Tequila: A Journey into the Interior, by Augustus Young, Matador, 160 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-1785899874

The Invalidity of all Guarantees: A Conversation between Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin (1934), by Augustus Young, Labyrinth Books (2017), 222 pp, £6.31, ISBN: 978-1872468853

Saying Less – Rosmarie Waldrop, Philip Rowland, James Davies Reviewed

White is a Color, Rosmarie Waldrop, Guillemot Press, £10.00

Something Other Than Other, Philip Rowland, Isobar Press, ISBN 978-4-907359-14-0, £10.00

Stack, James Davies, Carcanet, ISBN 978 1 784104 86 3, £9.99

Rosmarie Waldrop’s White is a Colour is, seen from one angle, a sequence of 19 short, waldrop-scannumbered prose poems, or, from another, a novel in 19 short chapters. There is an ‘I’, and a ‘you’ and, inevitably, a ‘we’ that follows. We are in town, having ‘come to see a play’, when you fall on the kerb; the play unfolds. There is a hospital, everything white. Your injuries are serious. ‘A broken vertebra exerts pressure on the spinal cord’. Death is in the air; your dead gather round you. Meanwhile, I wait, in this white space, this is our play.

Your bed, as these things do, becomes the still point around which I move, and this relationship uncovers other truths about us:

I make random forays. From your gravitational pull. As if there were paths out of orbit. As if not every second were unraveled. As if I were not locked in lost for words. You cling to the bed as if it were the frame you’re painted into.

The verbless sentences, each qualifying the absent action, create a sense of indeterminate narrative flow, of the spiral wave of hope and concern that surrounds the central dramatic event, as it does in what we refer to as ‘real life’. The language thus enacts the emotion felt by the ‘I’ the helpless need to be doing something.

You recover, albeit slowly; ‘Staying still. Then not so still. Then almost moving.’ Finally, you are back to your old self, but nothing is back to its old self, there is no play without change, and everything the same is never the same again, as the story ends:

Are you leaning forward to embrace me? Or because you are again about to fall?

Pretty much no living English-language poet writes this kind of poetry of fractured syntax and perception with the skill that Waldrop has at her disposal. This bare outline does no justice to the manner in which she folds in art, philosophy, and uncertainty into her writing, so that a tiny text like this opens out extraordinary vistas. Take, for example, these two sentences for the eleventh section:

I tell myself white is a color. Opaque, Runge said in a letter to Goethe, and rarely seen pure. But contains all possible points of view.

There is enough here for the reader who doesn’t know, or care, who Runge was and why he was writing to Goethe. But for the reader who does, the whole question of perception, of how we see colours, and why, becomes part of the experience of the anxious ‘I’ of the book. Philipp Otto Runge, the German Romantic painter, was corresponding with Goethe on the latter’s Zur Farbenlehre, a book on the theory of colour, and remarked that ‘”White is the lightest colour”, and “There cannot be a transparent white.” These remarks were picked up on by Wittgenstein, the great philosopher of language. And language is the theatre of action in which the play is performed; a theatre in the round in which all possible points of view are, indeed, contained. [It might be noted in passing that one point of intersection between Waldrop, Runge, Goethe and Wittgenstein is a shared native language.]

A new book from Rosmarie Waldrop is an event, and White is a Color is no exception. And Guillemot have done her proud. This is a handsome little hardback book, with an appropriately white cover with embossed silver lettering, and ample white space surrounding each block of text. It’s a book to hold in your hand as well as your mind, to return to, to read again. The writing is that rare combination of spare and rich that only comes from full control of the medium. In what must be less than 1000 words, Waldrop says more about the human condition and how we explore it through words and most of us would manage in a thousand pages. But don’t take my word for it.

RowlandPhilip Rowland’s writing is as spare as Waldrop’s, but it moves in a quite different direction. A Londoner who lives in Tokyo, Rowland is primarily known for his haiku and tanka and his work is distinctly imagistic in nature. In Something Other Than Other, he harnesses this fragmentary poetic to a larger structure in pursuit of, perhaps, an equally larger statement around, among other things, the fragility of human existence and the importance of language as a tool for clinging on.

The book is arranged in four parts or movements, the musical analogy reinforced by the fact that the first poem in the first section is called ‘Prelude’ and it is immediately followed by an evocation of Bach. As with the Waldrop, the book describes an arc, but in this case, it is less narrative than thematic.

The dominant tones in the first movement are winter and darkness, with, at its centre, a phrase from John Berger; ‘The living are the core of the dead.’ And this darkness is illuminated by a pregnancy and birth:

pregnant she sleeps

the weight of each released

piano key

This section reads, to me, as an initial statement of the themes of what’s to come, the ambition being for ‘[l]ife to move towards the condition of music.’ The medium of this music is language, and Roland signals his intent to strip this medium to its gravid essence:

winter closing in…

I visit the simplest words

on the dictionary

But from this apparently simple material, he weaves textures of great sophistication. This is particularly evident in the second movement, which consists of images of street life in Rowland’s adopted home city; the focus moves from the individual to the collective, and death is present in that most collective of things, a funeral. The bemused sympathy evinced in many of the observations takes on a somewhat more menacing aspect by virtue of the section being titles ‘Surveillance’. The city, it seems, is under suspicion, is not just being observed, but interrogated. It’s a frame of mind that may be familiar to anyone who has lived in a truly foreign city and sees human behaviour through a lens of dislocation:

bright autumn noon –

a sudden chorus of birds from inside

a briefcase

The section ends with the observer/investigator achieving integration of sorts:

on the late train home

I am not alone

in talking to myself

A reworking of Charles Reznikoff’s famous line ‘a girder, still itself among the rubbish’ as ‘the steel worker still himself upon the girder’ folds Rowland’s conscious awareness of a tradition of writing into his concern to move people, the individual, to the centre of his interrogation. The idea of a framing tradition is opened out further by the inclusion of a haiku-like glimpse of Mt Fuji in the distance.

In movement three, a set of ‘Bio Notes’, the focus moves in more narrowly on the lives of individuals, particularly individual poets, including Ian Hamilton Finlay and John Riley, as well as the poets’ scientist, Charles Darwin (a nod, perhaps, to Lorine Niedecker?). There’s a very fine list poem of ‘Photos of Poets’, which stretches over two pages, each line a photo, and takes Rowland’s fragmentary poetic in an interesting direction. Another departure is the concrete/erasure piece that forms section iv of a short sequence called ‘Study Notes’ and that summons up yet another writer:

shall I compare thee

shall I compare the

shall I compare th

shall I compare t

shall I compare

shall I compar

shall I compa

shall I comp

shall I com

shall I co

shall I c

shall I

shall

shal

sha

sh

That final call to silence is echoed on the final page of the section, which consists of the single, multiple, invented word ‘verbatomb’, in which language, the individual discrete unit and death form a tiny origami image.

The fourth and final movement moves the attention to an individual, specific and personally affecting death, perhaps of a mother. As with Waldrop, the scene is a hospital-like one, but here there is no movement, just two people ding a crossword as an avoidance mechanism:

gradually accumulating

 

final sense

with nothing to do

 

with the ward

Appropriately, the book ends with a return to Bach, to ‘what’s left of the light the music absorbs’. It’s a moving and fitting ending to a book that evokes a whole range of intellectual and emotional responses by the deployment of carefully minimal means.

James DaviesJames Davies’ Stack represents a different, more explicit form of minimalism. It consists of 103 pages of text, each page comprising nine fragments of text, usually, but not always a single line or part line, but always nine per page. The effect, after a few pages of reading, is that each unit of nine takes on something of the character of a stanza. Some words recur frequently.

There are objects that recur: a box, the moon, a bin, bricks or blocks, a room, tuna, batteries, a beach, a cup, various birds, to name a few.

Verbs: look, feel, go, paint, draw, colour.

Colours, most frequently: red, yellow, green, blue, orange.

It’s tempting to see the whole thing as an exercise in floating signifiers, an extended language game with no connection to non-linguistic reality, but this would, I feel, be wrong. What emerges as you read is something like a set of overlapping, intertwining lives: a child playing with stacking boxes or bricks of various colours; a parent or carer monitoring the child, somewhat frazzled; one of a pair of lovers who ‘did it’ in various locations (another form of stacking?); a poet contemplating their craft; an artist making notes for an installation:

a video of a woman’s walk from a piece of yellow plastic to a piece of orange plastic

As these voices weave into each other, various phrases repeat, some verbatim, others with small, musical variations, so that across pages 82 to 103 we get:

i asked a friend if I could push him for a plum

i asked a friend if I could push him for a plum

i asked a friend if I could push him by a plum

i asked a friend if I could push her for a plum

i asked a friend if I could push him as a plum

i asked a friend if I could push him with a plum

Often the phrases draw on the kind of syntactical ambiguity that would delight a structural linguist:

I saw her pencil on a tile

Or apply a level of precision to the mundane that almost breaks it:

a row of plug sockets bracketed against a white brick wall, 2 sockets with plugs in (second and third in from the left)

The cumulative effect is one of focusing attention on the everyday as a subject of great interest in and of itself, its significance deriving from a refusal to impose significance, a focus on the haecceitas of the thing observed and documented. As one perception is stacked upon another, what emerges is an organic wholeness that both intrigues and refreshes. It’s good to see an major press like Carcanet taking a punt on work of this nature.

 

Electronica, ephemera, etcetera

A World Where, Paul Brookes, Nixes Mate Books, 2017, ISBN-13: 978-0999188217, Kindle Edition £2.30.

The Headpoke and Firewedding, Paul Brookes, Alien Buddha Press, 2017, ISBN: 1548371858, free on Kindle Unlimited.

The No Breath, John Goodby, The Red Ceiling Press, 2017, £6.00 inc. p&p (UK), £7.50 inc. p&p (Europe), £9.00 inc p&p (World).

Various bits and pieces from Stride.

a world whereAppropriately enough for a poet I came across for the first time on Twitter and WordPress, Paul Brookes seems to specialise in being published online. The two e-books under review here represent the boundarylessness of the Internet as medium, being the work of a Barnsley-based Englishman published in the United States and distributed online.
Brookes describes himself as ‘a shop assistant, after employment as a security guard, postman, admin. assistant, lecturer, poetry performer’ and his work reflects the breadth of this life experience, coming, as it does, from outside any kind of mainstream British poetry.
A World Where comprises a series of imaginings of a world where an inversion of norms is the norm, in poems whose title often take the form ‘x is y (‘Youth is Age’, ‘Loss is Good’) or otherwise express humorous paradox. This strategy allows him to reflect on the absurd unfairness of many aspects of the world as is, of lives lived in the margins, but without the ‘romance’ of liminality:

I’ll keep it short.
Folk don’t reckon.
Soft in the head.

To share’s forbidden.
Grip my hand, lad
for sores
and livelong pain.
(from ‘Before “Get Lost!” Nobody Tells Me’)

These poems are full of disease, decay and death, of death, especially, in life:

He touches me. His skin
warm. An abnormal
response. I can tell

he is dead. His heart

will beat. He will walk and run.
This is how death shows itself.
(from ‘A Movement is Death’)

But they find hope in the simple power of language, the power of simple language, as in this poem, which defies extraction and cries out to be quoted in full:

The Undo

Unwalk the walk,
Step back the step forward,

unstride the stride,
exhale the blossom,

unspring the spring
unsprung the sprung,

unsee the seen,
untouch the touch,

unsmile the smile back,
unlaugh the laughter,

unlive the life,
undead the dead.

headpokeWhile A World Where is made up of a series of discrete short poems revolving around a single idea, The Headpoke and Firewedding is a more ambitious work. It consists of two longish sequences, the first of which, ‘The Headpoke’, hovers around the theme of fire, in its domestic and primeval emanations. Where the language of the earlier collection is quotidian, here Brookes plays with mythic, almost ritualistic, registers. In the opening set, the quotidian act of lighting a fire in a grate takes on the weight of a solemn ceremony, undercut somewhat by the voice of the grate urging a return to the everyday.

Old ash and cinders block gust makes for
poor-burning, makes for poor-thinking
prepare my gob for my tongues my gob
packed with ash piled ash in my grate
piled ash in my head crumbles like walls
from incendiaried homes

stop wandering off when I’m talking to you!

ash up against my fire-bars makes them

overheat makes you overthink

so they sag and “burn through” make me
virginal something to focus on something
for focus recall collecting ears of spelt in
reaper’s baskets

The use of formatting to weave other voices and registers to the text is used here and elsewhere to great effect. There are strong echoes of Anglo-Saxon poetry in places:

Heart-ship tugs at its harbour.
My imagination in mere-flood,
in whale plunge, wide in its turns
eager for seas vastness. Gannet yells
as whale-way spirit quickens over holm’s deep

At other times, the influence of Finnegans Wake is apparent:

Sheflow.
Her flaps
of the waterbride
of the waveskin.
Her inner lips of the river,
spring and waterfalls,
fermented honey drip.

The second section, ‘Firewedding’, moves away from the domestic world of grates to the natural order. It consists mainly of sections in Brooke’s South Yorkshire dialect followed by versions of the same text in ‘Received English’, the latter generally being longer than the former, which may be part of the point.

breathe in mistletoe oak, rowan, and fir.

watch massive sticky full moon rise amber an gold as if honey outa hive

yon balefires r small suns
t’ massive blaze nar set this short neet

or

Inhale mistletoe oak, rowan, and fir.

watch massive sticky full moon rise in amber and gold as if dipped in honey out of a hive

These balefires are small suns to the massive blaze above now set this short night

It’s a potentially interesting idea, but it tends to lose impact after a couple of iterations and you’re left thinking that the dialect sections might have been more powerful left to stand on their own merit. Nevertheless, Brookes’ voice is his own, and it’s a voice worth reading for its own sake.

John Goodby is an Englishman living in Wales who has written some of the most important critical responses to innovative Irish poetry. He’s also a leading Dylan Thomas scholar, as evidenced by his immaculate editing of the Centenary Collected Poems. He’s also a fine poet in his own right. His most recent collection, The No Breath, is published by The Red Ceiling Press in an edition of 40, so the review copy I have is digital, one of the interesting possibilities that new technology allows to small publishers and their authors.
Goodby’s poems tend to be small, disjunctive snapshots of energy, in a disembodied diction that evades the idea of a single speaking voice. He favours the lightest of punctuation, and often the main or only punctuation used is initial capitalisation of every line:

Court

Blue silk slats slander perfume
Tied with a fist conversation
A fishbone in the mirror a grave
Walking in the dark turning-point
It is a lion cathedral decline

Which has the odd effect of causing each line to start with a missed beat, start-stopped rather than end-stopped. This is a key part to the distinctive music of these poems, but Goodby is not averse to more conventional notation, including alliteration and assonance, creating sound patterns that are almost lyrical, while mirroring the disjunction of the syntax, s in the ‘w’ and long and short ‘e’ sounds in this passage from ‘Morn’.

At three with the secrets of the world
We turn when you come to bed
From the well I had not understood
The breath you have been working

Goodby, like Brookes, has a developed a distinctive voice, low key, minor key even, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

DSC_0016Finally, a wonderful mixed bag of goodies of the kind that I suppose we have to call ephemera came from Rupert Loydell when I asked for the rest of the Smallminded Books series after reviewing Anna Cathenka’s Prayerbook for Tree a while back. The full set includes work by Loydell himself, Martin Stannard, Robert Shepherd, John Phillips, John Martone, Sandra Tappenden, Patricia Farrell, Andrea Moorhead and a host of others, including the excellent Sarah Cave, whose work is relatively new to me. Her tiny folded book, Cat on Ice, is a sequence about a fox, Slava:

Beneath a ridge of granite
Slava fashioned a limpet crucifix
and sucked his fingers clean
tasting sea-life to death.

The bold formatting calls out words on six of the seven pages that form an additional poem, whether intended or not I cannot say:

A bear
in shadow
petroleum
limpet crucifix
seven seals
a solitary spruce

Also in the packet were 5 other folded A5 booklets, these of four A6 pages each, with images front and back and inside two poems with the same titles as the images. The series goes under the collective title Joyful Mysteries, numbered #1 to #5. In the first and third, the poems are by Loydell and Peter Gillies, the second and fourth feature Loydell and Cave again, and the fifth has two poems by Loydell, and the whole thing circles around the Annunciation. The final lines of the last poem, ‘God Thoughts’, capture something of the tone of the whole:

God hated being nagged by words.
They’d bugged him from the beginning,
then teamed up with consciousness
in an attempt to make people think.
He used to know how to walk on water.

Finally, there are five A5 card covered saddle-stitched pamphlets under the Analogue Flashback Books imprint that do what they say on the tin; they are a bit like time travellers from the 1970s and 80s, the great era of the photocopier and long-armed stapler for little presses. Three of the five are anthologies of sorts, one a set of responses from various poets (including a number of those who appear in the Smallminded series) to a photograph called The Poet; another is a set of prose pieces on albums that were formative in one way or another to the writers; the third is a kind of mock theology reader. Of the remaining two, Loydell’s Inner Space Ghost Machine is, apparently, a reworking of a book by Daniel Y Harris, but as I don’t know the original I felt like I was missing the point somewhat.
The fifth, Impossible Songs: 21 Annunciations, is a collaboration between Loydell and Cave that covers much the same ground as the Joyful Mysteries set, even referring to some of the same images, but in more extended form. The individual poems here are not attributed to either writer, but there are some possible clues as to authorship. Ten of the poems have titles printed on bold, title case while the rest are in regular, all uppercase, with one of the first group being dedicated ‘for Rupert’ and one of the second ‘for Sarah Cave’. This may, of course, be a complete red herring; one way or another, it’s a very interesting little book:

Your cousin’s child
came to die. Mary’s father says, ‘we all come to die’.
He came to die for our sins. ‘We take our sins with us’.

John’s hear lies half-formed
on another woman’s salver.

Salome looks smug over the reception desk.
She thought you wouldn’t want to say goodbye.

This parcel of paper is a fine celebration of the joys of quick, small-scale analogue poetry publishing at its best, long live print.

Recent Reading Six: More Short Reviews

Wound Scar Memories, Peter Philpott, Great Works, 2017, ISBN 9781326857165, €7.79.
.pinned., Sonja Benskin Mesher, 20/20 Vision, 2017 ISBN 9781907449017, £14.99.
Shape of Faith, John Phillips, Shearsman Books, 2017, ISBN 9781848615328, £9.95.
What the Wolf Heard, Daragh Breen, Shearsman, 2017, ISBN 9781848614963, £9.95.
Scarecrow, MW Bewick, Dunlin Press, 2017, ISBN: 9780993125928, £9.99.
Prayerbook for Tree, Anna Cathenka, Smallminded Books, 2017.

Wound Scar MemoryIt’s warming to see Peter Philpott revive his somewhat legendary Great Works imprint after a long absence and his own Wound Scar Memories is a fine collection to do it with. The book comprises three verse sequence, each of 17 ‘sonnetty things’ and an extended prose note, adding up, perhaps coincidentally, to a full deck of 52 texts exploring various aspects of identity.
The first sequence, ‘Fragments of Vulgar Things’ takes off from a visit to the Provencal village of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, sometime home to Francesco Petrarca combined with a reading of recent versions of the Italian poet’s work by Tim Atkins and Peter Hughes. The primary voice in this sequence is that of a reimagined Laura, who queries the nature of her identity as filter through the sonnets, as well as the identities of her sonneteer (Frank) and those of Atkin, Hughes and Philpott:

the self bit, Frank, is important
you know nothing at all about me
all I read is you talking about yourself
without really daring to – oh
the pretence is pretty stupid, yes?

Alongside these epistemological questions around the existence of the self and others that are addressed, the poet(s) depends on language as anchor; where there is interaction there must be people who are engaged:

whatever poetry is or what it looks like
what it senses

what language it uses

interplay is a good word &
some complex level of humane intercourse

The next section, ‘Action in the Play Zone’ narrows the focus on to the role of pronouns in mapping possible selves and their interplay. Philpott’s riffs on the word ‘I’ can be reminiscent of similar explorations in the work of Maurice Scully, with a similarly playful seriousness evident in the disjunction achieved:

I was looking for a purpose until I woke up
one morning like a great big wind
the self is a broken fence don’t you think?
the I just another rotten post

The third ‘sonnetty’ sequence, ‘Hedge of Utterance’ moves the examination on fersonal to cultural or ‘national’ identity as, in part at least, a response to the vote in the Brexit referendum. These poems excavate the various ‘Matters of Britain’: Mercian kings, Roman villas, Welsh myth and history, the Arthur stories and the Norman invasion to uncover an archaeology where nothing is quote what it seems. The sequence opens with Cerdic, an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ king with a Celtic name, and moves through Arthur denying the validity of his own story to the overlapping of the poet’s grandson Neirin with the author of Y Gododdon who, as the prose ‘Not a Note on Some Matters with Britain’ reminds us, the earliest known Scottish, British and Welsh poet. Or, to quote the second poem in the sequence ‘mongrels we’re born & mongrels we’ll be’.
The drive of the poems is to debunk any notion of ‘pure’ origins, a point which is taken up and driven home by the prose section. It’s an interesting piece in itself, but appended here it has the unfortunate effect of overly explicitly explaining that which should, and does, emerge organically from the poems.
In a short review like this, it would be all too easy to make the book seem somewhat preachy, which would do Philpott’s skill as a poet no justice. The book is rich in verbal music, as in the wonderful juxtaposition of vowel sounds and the use of punctuation as scoring in this stanza from part 2:

like politics? or symbols? this is
mediocre fun but talks about itself
look! here! this poem! no notes!
no other circus to learn about and love
here’s coming round the final bend
time for a break – OK

pinned.pinned. is Sonja Benskin Mesher’s debut publication. She is self-described as ‘a painter who writes, an author that paints’, and the book reflects this dual nature of her work. A handsome hardback, it comprises 11 facing page parings of text and image, speaking to each other across the spine. The images are printed as tiny squares of colour in the centre of an expanse of white page, while the facing texts, though short, tend to dominate by virtue of being printed in a possibly excessively large font. Nevertheless, I think it would be a mistake to think of the writing as primary; each pair is a complimentary whole, and themes resurface across pairings.
The images are generally assemblages of the everyday, pins, buttons, stitching samples, a doll. They are quiet moments of colour, lacking drama but repaying careful consideration. And the texts (Mesher avoids the word ‘poem’) echo these preoccupations in a carefully unpoetic manner. The result is often (in as much as anything can be ‘often’ is such a short range) surprisingly revealing. Take, for instance, the following entire piece:

.the crossing.
carefully you drew crosses on my skin
i looked at you
‘kisses?’
no, you said, crosses

The careful undercutting of romantic sentimentality, the denial of the metaphorical, here takes on an entirely other resonance when the image opposite is considered, consisting, as it does, of a set of crosses stitched into white fabric in blood-red thread.
Other pairings deal with personal and family narratives, a mania for collecting and death, all in what, to quote the title of one text, we must consider ‘measured tones’. An intriguing debut that also serves as an example of the quality of presentation that can now be achieved through print on demand (POD) technologies.

John Phillips’Shape of Faith Shape of Faith is a more substantial Shearsman paperback of 80-odd pages, again demonstrating the range of possibilities of POD. Like Philpott, Phillips is concerned with language as a means of forming our map of the world, and this also leads him to question assumptions of the self. Indeed, although the title poem refers to more topical questions of belief, the shape delineated across the book is that of a tentative faith in language as a reciprocal arrangement between the self and the world:

Towards five
in the morning:
My hand creates
the words
I write,
the words I write
create me.

The danger of this kind of writing is that it can slip into a kind of Idealist solipsism; knowledge of the thing is not the thing, and things exist outside our naming of them. So that while I may admire lines like:

We look at what we think
is real knowing it is

only what we think it is

I find myself slightly at odds with their refined detachment form the world. It is, I think, its very unknowableness that requires poetry to engage with it a bit more messily than Phillips sometimes does. But then, he writes so well that I find myself carried along by his language as it teeters along the line that separates it from silence.
In many respects, the concerns of Phillips’ work here overlap with those of Cid Corman, to whom one of the more substantial pieces is dedicated. Like Corman, Phillips has the ability to capture a complexity in a handful of lines of carefully swift verse:

What I mean to say
and what I say
are different things.

Always this
wasn’t it.

This short, untitled, poem comes near the end of the book and strikes me as being key to the whole collection, with its implicit question instantly withdrawn through a simple act of punctuation. It’s a poem, and a book, that repays rereading with attention.

What the wolf heardShearsman has become a very broad-church publisher in recent years, and What the Wolf Heard by Daragh Breen is as far removed from Phillips’ quiet work as one could imagine. Breen is clearly, and heavily, influenced by the early Ted Hughes, and writes a poetry of Gothic nature ‘red in tooth and claw’.  These are poems that are heavy with simile and metaphor:

Dusk, just above the horizon,
the sun is the blood-soaked reds
of a foal’s birthing sack

The very specific ‘foal’ is illustrative of a general tendency for Breen to over-explain:

A murder of currachs, like upturned
crows’ beaks, crowd towards the rocks

where the crow is there for the reasonably alert reader and doesn’t need to be named. As happens with Hughes, the result can be a ‘nature poetry’ in which everything stands for something else, that denies the haecceitas of things.
One theme that runs through many of the poems is the figure of metamorphosis: people take on animal masks that merge with their human heads; crows become the lost wolves they once scavenged off; a boy is shod like a horse on his father’s instructions. These passages are clearly intended to shock the reader out of complacency, and initially they do, but like anything else, the shock wears off if the effect is used too often
There are, however passages of rich simplicity where the poetry is allowed to emerge through the language:

Amongst the hillocks of rusting metal
on the narrow harbour of Rossaveal,
waiting for a ferry to the Aran Islands,
three elderly Japanese women sit patiently
in white wide-brimmed sun hats,
they have some to see where the sun sets.

The book is divided into four sections, the first being a trip along the west coast of Ireland by way of its lighthouses, the second a set of animal poems, the third titles Requiem for Ned Kelly and the last a set of three poems concerned with the sun. Of these, the Ned Kelly poems are the most successful. Tropes that are familiar from earlier poems gain new urgency:

When the authorities
removed the jaw-less tomb
of his metal helmet,
what they found
was the dingo’s head
that his Mary had substituted
for poor, dear Ned’s.

And the metaphors are crisper, less insistent:

Night had left a bark
of frost on the dead wolf
where he lay in the
dark-ridged muck.

While not a kind of poetry that appeals to me usually, I detect an individual voice below the Hughesian surface. It would be interesting to see it emerge more fully into the light.

MW_Bewick_ScarecrowScarecrow is MW Bewick’s first collection and is published by Dunlin Press, which he runs with Ella Johnston. The somewhat whimsical notes at the back of the book inform the reader that most of these poems were written on trains while commuting between London and his home in Wivenhoe, and they deal with his experience of both places, but not as some kind of big city/small town duality, but as a continuum. Urban train lines are fine locations for the student of the ecology of decay, and Bewick takes full advantage:

Flowers escape identification
as carriages shunt by the spare ruins
of wrecked hotels            Liverpool Street Station
hides its true treasures deep

And on the continuum, the buddleia clinging to urban spoil is the buddleia that grows by the fence at the edge of a field, both of them ‘arcing for wilderness’, just as the city sparrows are sib to their rural counterparts, in this book full of birds. And the poet attends because:

Nothing ever sings if we don’t listen
and we’ll never come to listen again.

And the urban/rural range encompasses many aspects, one being from the closed spaces of office and train through city streets and squares to the lanes and open fields of Essex, with the figure of the scarecrow bridging both, out in the field but trapped:

staked into the soil,
flapping at the wind
with the gulls and crows

And yet, with a key role in the circle of life, as hinted at on the next page:

Dunlins skit from the field,
and pigeons lift by the fold
for the peregrine’s blood talons

Inevitably, many of the London people observed in these poems are, like some of the birds, migrants; most memorably Jesus of Kingsway, a kind of scarecrow figure himself whose accommodation with London is mapped in a long piece that draws on the folk ballad tradition to very contemporary ends.

Jesus of Kingsway stands
ten worn hours on his soles,
aches for the minimum wage,
aches for his foreign home

beyond the blind owl’s flight
and the night foxes soon
coming up from the Strand
for whom he’ll throw out bread

If London is, to quote some graffiti quoted in turn by Bewick, a ‘City of Sludge’, these poems are an attempt to find some solid footing from which to make it make sense. It’s an ambitious book, a little uneven at times (for instance, the line ‘watch the bees bathe in the dust of our dry white days’ could do without the last five, overly poetical, words) but generally successful. I look forward to reading more of this poet whose work was previously unknown to me.

Smallminded Books is a fugitive enterprise from poet and Stride publisher Rupert Loydell. They consist of a single A4 sheet cut and folded to make a booklet of 7 A7 pages, plus a cover. Anna Cathenka’s Prayerbook for Tree is the only one I’ve seen to date, and it makes for a very inviting introduction. The sequence is subtitles ‘translated from Lichen’, and I read these tiny poems, which the poet describes as experiential, as an imaginative entering into the symbiotic relationship that exists between lichen and trees, a commensalist relationship in which the lichen benefits and the tree is not harmed and may even gain some accidental benefit.
In short, the prayers (named ‘prayer 1, prayer 2, etc.) are a venture into the unknowable, and Cathenka pares language back to a minimal limit to achieve expression of the experience she tries to enter in to, thus minimising the temptation to anthropomorphise the subject by making the praying lichen overly articulate in human.
Apart from the title, what remains is a handful of words, some slashes and square brackets, a colon and an exclamation mark, deployed to the maximum effect, and the result is one of the most interesting and challenging pieces of ecopoetry I’ve read in some time. Here, for instance, is ‘prayer 5’:

self
[ironic:] just like the flowers

If you want to read, and reread, the entire sequence, contact editor@stridemagazine.co.uk. I’m off to try to get the rest of the set.