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

[p.35]

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

[p146]

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?

[p.226]

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.

[p.174]

 

 

 

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The Magic Door, by Chris Torrance: A Review

The Magic Door, Chris Torrance, Test Centre, 2017, ISBN: 978-0-9935693-4-0, £30.00

Chris-Torrance_Magic-Door_frontBy way of setting the scene, The Magic Door is an ongoing long poem-cycle centring around Torrance’s life in rural isolation in the Neath valley since the early 1970s and published in more or less impossible to find small press booklets over the period 1975 to 1996. Under the editorship of Will Shutes and with an introduction by poet and long-time friend of Torrance Phil Maillard, Test Centre have done poetry a considerable service by gathering them together in a substantial (400+ pages) and handsome paperback edition. The book contains six ‘canonical’ parts of the series, The Magic Door (TMD, as distinct from the full title used to refer to the cycle as a whole or this complete edition), Citrinas (Cit), The Diary of Palug’s Cat (Palug), The Book of Brychan (BoB), The Slim Book/Wet Pulp (SB/WP) and Southerly Vector (SV). Torrance’s 1973 volume of Neath poems, Acrospirical Meanderings In A Tongue Of The Time (AM), as a ‘portal’ and inserts the unnumbered interlude Cylinder Fragments of the Twentieth Century (CF) chronologically placed between BoB and SB/WP. but not The Book of Heat, originally published together with SV as ‘two further books’ of the cycle. The omission is, presumably, a result of Maillard’s stated editorial decision to exclude work originally written for performance.

It is impossible to do full justice to what is, in my view, probably the most important ‘poem of some length’ by any British poet since Bunting’s Briggflatts, so what follows is an indication of some ‘ways in’ to the cycle that have occurred to me over several decades of familiarity with The Magic Door as it appeared in print.

*

One of the crucial questions facing Torrance’s readers is ‘just what is the magic door?’ It’s not a question with a single answer; the door is many-faceted, but perhaps one answer is that the magic door is a point of entry into a ‘purer’ life, a means of discovering the ‘true’ self. It’s interesting to compare Torrance’s move with the better-known case of William Wordsworth. To begin with, for Wordsworth moving to the Lakes was not a retreat from the city, where he never really lived, it was much more a homecoming and his quest was really for a return to a personal, rather than a general, state of innocence, his own childhood. It was also a move towards creating a literary community in the surrounding area.

Torrance, Edinburgh born and London bred, was actually travelling the classic pastoral route from city to country (together with Val Torrance, who illustrated much of the early work in this book) and in the process was potentially leaving behind a fairly extensive literary community; his movement was towards a future self-discovery, not a recovery of a personal past. He sought ‘a life of no more deception, of no more lies!’

Of course, as Maillard points out in his introduction, things are rarely that simple. Indeed, in an interview with Peter Hodgkiss in Poetry Information 18 published in 1978, Torrance is at pains to reject the notion of Arcadia, explain that as a writer he depended on the company of other writers, especially poet visitors to his Neath home, as input into his work, a fact that is evident in the earlier volumes of the cycle where individual pieces are frequently dedicated to fellow writers. This new, transient community took on greater stability when he started teaching extra-mural creative writing evening classes in Cardiff and then performing as part of the music and poetry group Poetheat.

The great, deflating realisation that besets the true Arcadian dreamer who sets out to live the dream is that the life of the country entails a considerable amount of hard work. It’s a realisation that comes early to Torrance, and that is central to his realistic appreciation of his new life. It’s also an understanding that unfolds and develops across time, and comes to encompass an understanding of politics and economics that some readers may find surprising:

MD1

and quite another kind of work:

md2

and finally reaches a kind of provisional resolution in a passage that reads both as a statement of absorption into the process and an expression of futility.

mdcorr

*

Meanwhile, Torrance’s friend and publisher Iain Sinclair had made the opposite journey, fleeing Wild Wales to explore the dark glamour of the capital. At the same time that Torrance was writing the early volumes of the cycle, Sinclair wrote Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge, a pair of books that delineated a kind of mythic geography of London and its environs, drawing largely on Alfred Watkins’ theory of leys as reimagined by John Michell.

Michell’s The Flying Saucer Vision: the Holy Grail Restored and The View Over Atlantis reimagined were part of the zeitgeist of late 1960s and 1970s British counterculture, serving something of the same role as Native American earth wisdom did in the American equivalent. Michell reconfigured Watkins’ system of ‘old straight tracks’ used as a network of trade routes, into a grid of mystical ‘energy’ aligning with the supposed flight paths of flying saucers which, in common with other Ufologists, he thought of as being, in the words of Erich von Däniken, ‘the chariots of the gods’. His ideas were as influential as they were fanciful, particularly in the revival of leys in contemporary British land art, especially Richard Long and Hamish Fulton who both studied Watkins’ writings and, via Sinclair, on much British place writing and psychogeography since Lud Heat.

In the Poetry Information interview, Torrance discusses the role of leys in The Magic Door:

‘In looking at ley lines I’ve discovered I’m looking at a decayed system, but one with still some latent energy in it, which could be tapped, which I perhaps try to tap, but which is perhaps also perverted in some ways…The Ley lines are helping and hindering: they’re sometimes shining with white light and telling me to go on, and they’re sometimes corrupt and discharging foul and noxious forces.’

In fact, there are actually remarkably few overt references to leys in the poem, but there is one fairly evident allusion to Michell:

md4

As I read it, leys serve as lines of enquiry, some fruitful, others less so, that Torrance pursues as ways in to the Neath landscape, and one such line leads him to a literal ‘magic door, when he stumbles across the stone entranceway at Glan Yr Afon in Cit.

md5

And almost immediately, Torrance’s suspicion is evident:

md6

And ultimately he comes to see Glan Yr Afon in a very negative light:

MD7

*

And Bendigeid Vran commanded them that they should cut off his head. “And take you my head,” said he, “and bear it even unto the White Mount, in London, and bury it there, with the face towards France. And a long time will you be upon the road. In Harlech you will be feasting seven years, the birds of Rhiannon singing unto you the while. And all that time the head will be to you as pleasant company as it ever was when on my body. And at Gwales in Penvro you will be fourscore years, and you may remain there, and the head with you uncorrupted, until you open the door that looks towards Aber Henvelen, and towards Cornwall. And after you have opened that door, there you may longer tarry, set forth then to London to bury the head, and go straight forward.”

One day said Heilyn the son of Gwynn, “Evil betide me, if I do not open the door to know if that is true which is said concerning it.” So he opened the door and looked towards Cornwall and Aber Henvelen. And when they had looked, they were as conscious of all the evils they had ever sustained, and of all the friends and companions they had lost, and of all the misery that had befallen them, as if all had happened in that very spot; and especially of the fate of their lord. And because of their perturbation they could not rest, but journeyed forth with the head towards London. And they buried the head in the White Mount, and when it was buried, this was the third goodly concealment; and it was the third ill-fated disclosure when it was disinterred, inasmuch as no invasion from across the sea came to this island while the head was in that concealment.

The Mabinogion, specifically in the translation by Lady Charlotte Guest, was yet another strand in that zeitgeist, and it is hard to imagine that Torrance wouldn’t have known of this most striking instance of a magic door in Welsh literature. The taboo nature of the door, the fact that it opens on to a sad restlessness, and, of course, the pull Torrance must have felt from time to time (a number of early pieces in AM and TMD refer to visits back to the city) make it relevant to many sections of the cycle, given Torrance’s scrupulous honesty about the difficulties of his chosen life and occasional bouts of depression. The most extended treatment of this is the narrative that flows across the final section of Cit and all of Palug.

This chronicles the end of Torrance’s marriage to Val and his failed attempt to build a relationship with a much younger and deeply troubled woman called Sue, followed by a brief, but happy, third relationship. There is much interest in the triptychal form that unfolds: forgetting how to love; failing to be loved, finding a mutual love.

There is what I take to be a reference to The Mabinogion in the final section:

md8

The echo is from the following passage, again in the Guest translation

At that time, Math the son of Mathonwy could not exist unless his feet were in the lap of a maiden, except only when he was prevented by the tumult of war. Now the maiden who was with him was Goewin, the daughter of Pebin of Dôl Pebin, in Arvon, and she was the fairest maiden of her time who was known there.

In The White Goddess, Robert Graves discusses this passage in the context of his notion of the lame god, a solar deity who dies annually. Math is, it is worth remembering, the magician who creates the flower-woman Blodeuwedd in defiance of a taboo against love. Interestingly, Torrance reverses the genders of lord and lap holder, promoting the woman to the position of power. Nevertheless, on the whole I think that Palug is the least satisfying section of the work to date, largely because Torrance’s attempt to get inside the head of another person is hindered by his tendency to revert to a bitch/goddess view of her role in their relationship.

*

The door at Glan Yr Afon is described in terms that reveal Torrance’s autodidactic knowledge of geology, and Cit as a whole is saturated in scientific terminology from that field, just as the earlier books are laden with Latin nomenclature from botany, and especially mycology. The confluence of scientific and mythological ways in to the landscape are integral to Torrance’s position as a poet of the ecosphere and of the long view:

md9

This is the earliest use of the word ecosystem in British poetry that I’m aware of and it announces a thread that runs through entire weave of The Magic Door.

md10

and:

md11

and again:

md12

I has been said, including by me in a piece on Torrance I wrote for The Guardian a few years back, that Torrance is a British Beat, but that bald statement is in need of some qualification. The Beat figure he is closest to is Gary Snyder, whose concern with how to be in the world and insistence on taking the long view, to think in terms of geological and/or mythical rather than human time, are close to Torrance’s concerns.

md13

Torrance’s close attention to the minutiae of the world around him, both human and ‘natural’ and his integration of scientific language into his writing practice mark him out as one of the key figures in British ecopoetic writing, and I suspect that his influence in this area far exceeds his wider reputation. An instance to illustrate this aspect of the cycle is the way it is saturated in weather, and that these observations are not decorative, but are folded into the wider socio-political strands already mentioned.

md14

*

In both the interview and a note at the end of this book, Torrance explains that his great theme is transformation, and in the early sections this is evident in his use of terminology from of alchemy. However, the single most important act of transformation in any poem is the act of turning language into poetry, the alchemy that actually works, and it is Torrance’s ability as a poet that is the true basis of the importance of The Magic Door.

In his conversation with Hodgkiss, Torrance discussed his poetic influences at some length, and these include the Beats, the Black Mountain poets, especially Olson, and some of his British contemporaries, notably Lee Harwood. He also cites the example of William Carlos Williams’ Paterson as a model of how an extended poem about place might be structured. It is clear that Williams integration of prose into his poetic structure and his willingness to discuss the difficulty of writing the poem within the poem, the work of the poet taking its place in the broader spectrum of work that Torrance acknowledges, are reflected in The Magic Door:

Blocked.

(Make a song out of that: concretely)

By whom?

(Paterson, Book Two)

md15

Torrance also retracts an interjection in TMD in which he expresses a preference for David Jones over the ‘elite uptightness’ of Ezra Pound, telling Hodgkiss ‘I think differently now. I’ve had some tremendous experiences with The Cantos since then, and if you ask me now what I think about that comment, I’d say yes it’s wrong, but the excuse is that it’s true evidence of a state of mind.’

This change of heart is evident from early in BoB:

md16

The reference is to the preface to Nennius’s Historia Brittonum: ‘Ego autem coacervavi omne quod inveni’, generally translated as ‘I have made a heap of all I could find’. The phrase was something of a motto for Jones, but could equally serve to describe The Cantos. This passage is almost immediately followed by an aptly misremembered quote from Pound:

md17

The versification from here right through to the end of SV shows Torrance to be one of very few British (or any) poets to really get what Pound achieved in the late Cantos:

md18

Right from the beginning of the cycle, Torrance’s interest in Egyptian myth is evident, especially through his identification of Neath with the goddess Neith, the first and prime creator and Opener of Paths for the souls of the dead. In the later books, the figure of Ma’at gains equal prominence.

md19

The concept here is Poundian, but gains extra specificity when you learn that Ma’at uses her feathers to weigh the souls of the dead to decide if they would be successful in their journey to the afterlife, and still more by the knowledge that in her role as guardian of morality she is responsible for ensuring proper treatment of the environment. The convergence between Ma’at and Neith is completed in the great ‘Praise Poem to Neith’ that ends SV and, thus, the cycle as it stands.

*

There are, of course, any number of other ‘ways in that, if I were writing a book, I would discuss: drugs, including alcohol, as ‘doors of perception’, important in the earlier books, but diminishing as we go on; Torrance’s Jungian interest in recording his dreams; the vital importance of the gathering and consumption of firewood.

For now, suffice it to say that this is a vital poem, and that Test Centre have served it, Torrance and readers of poetry hugely by the care and attention they have put into bringing it together for the first time in this handsome, hefty volume. In his Afterword, Torrance refers to ‘at least 3 more books, taking The Magic Door into the 21st century’. I can only urge you to buy the current volume so that they might publish these outstanding volumes with the same diligence.

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.

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.