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  • Billy Mills 10:19 on 19/10/2021 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: poetry   

    Local Wonders anthology from Dedalus Press 

    I’m very pleased to say that seven of my lockdown haiku from my ongoing Very Far After project are going to be included in this handsome looking volume. A rare Irish publication for my work:

     
  • Billy Mills 10:40 on 04/10/2021 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: poetry   

    The English Strain and Bad Idea by Robert Sheppard: A Review 

    The English Strain, Robert Sheppard, Shearsman. 2021, ISBN: 9781848617469, £12.95

    Bad Idea, Robert Sheppard, Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2021, ISBN: 9781912211746, £11.00

    ‘What is badly needed at the present moment is some small Malherbe of free verse to sit on the sonnet and put it out of action for two hundred years at least. Perhaps Mr Pound…?’

    So wrote Samuel Beckett in 1934, but sadly Mr. Pound declined and the sonnet continues, if not exactly to flourish, at least to be written and has, in recent years, undergone something of a reinvention at the hands of what we might loosely call ‘linguistically innovative’ poets, including Robert Sheppard.

    The two Sheppard books under review here form part of a trilogy of volumes in which he works through the ‘English strain’ of the sonnet and the influence of Petrarch on its development. Given that the books were both written in and about the emerging Brexit shambles, a bad idea if ever you saw one, the emphasis on Petrarch reads, to me at least, as implicit comment on the long-standing interpenetration of British and European culture, with the great flowering of the Elizabethan age stemming from Wyatt and Surrey’s ‘discovery’ of the Italian poet’s work. In fact, much of the first volume consists of versioning the versioners’ versions, with Sheppard writing through translations from Petrarch by Wyatt, Surrey and Charlotte Smith, alongside some radical reworkings of the Italian’s Sonnet 3, ‘Era il gorno ch’al sol si scoloraro’ and of original sonnets by Surrey, Smith and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. There are also a number of original Sheppard sonnets

    The versions, and ‘original’ sonnets here are peopled with BoJo, May and their assorted advisors and ministers in a kind of carnival parody of the Tudor courts in which many of the originals were written, and these distortions work both ways, with, for example, Wyatt’s career as a diplomat across Europe being repurposed as an involvement in Brexit negotiations.

    I’m taking the rap (again) between these sheets (alone)

    or undercover in Brussels. My mind presents present promise

    against the presence of the past, which is expiring faster than

    my EU passport. (When I speak like that I wish I were dead.)

    Meanwhile, Smith’s connection with Sussex leads to meditations, not quite the right word, on connections with France, and Europe, across the sea:

    Are they grey EU gunboats firing on our freighters,

    our entrepreneurs smuggling flammable cladding,

    the dead and the dying dumped in the English Channel

    as France dowses England’s chalk redoubt in cheep cheese? No.

    With echoes of Elizabethan sea piracy folding into the contemporary news. Similarly, in the ‘Brazilian Sonnets’ versioning from Browning, the forfeiture of the family estate in Jamacia in the wake of abolition folds into the Brexit narrative of international debt, while the poet herself stands as a physical reforging of the link to Petrarch and direct English entanglement in a cultural Europe.

    If the first volume jumps from the Tudor roots of the English sonnet strain to its revival in the Romantic and Victorian eras, Bad Idea bridges that gap by bringing us back to the form’s Renaissance pinnacle via Michael Drayton’s ‘Idea’ and ‘Idea’s Mirror’ sequences. Sheppard’s title folds Drayton’s into the Brexit narrative immediately (a definite bad idea), but an epigraph quote from Gregory Bateson that begins ‘There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds, and its characteristic of the system that basic error propagates itself’ opens out into a much wider field of failed thinking that underpins the rise of the so called ‘Alt Right’. Incidentally, the opening sonnet of Drayton’s sequence, an unnumbered address to the reader, is the source of Sheppard’s overarching title:

    My Muse is rightly of the English strain,

    That cannot long one fashion entertain.

    As may befit writing that delineates a world that revolves around the twin poles of Boris and Donald, the poems here frequently deploy the language of hard sex, of porn even, as part of its rhetorical armoury, and this finds echo in an accusation of lewd behaviour made against Drayton in the London Consistory Court in 1627, which is used as epigraph to Sonnet XXI in the ‘Bad Idea’ sequence, which opens:

    The shitless scumbag Member, Rut, entreated his ‘tart’

    To a filing-cabinet knee-trembler and implored me

    To draft his chat-up (as a sonnet)!

    The obvious level on which this works is the simple notion that Brexit was a way of the Tory elite to fuck the rest of the country for their own benefit, but I also read it as a kind of study of the commodification and instrumentalization of sex; to adapt a slogan of Sheppard’s (and my) youth), the interpersonal is political.

    There is some inevitable tension between Sheppard the ‘avant-garde’ linguistically innovative poet and Sheppard the apparently insatiable sonneteer, a tension that he addresses head on in Sonnet XLII of the ‘Idea’ sequence:

    Some like my multiform methods,

    and commend my social poetics.

    Some say I’m a funny old translator,

    ‘expanded’ like a supersized codpiece.

    Some that I excel in explicit vitality.

    But others call this strange ventriloquism

    ‘unsuccessful and overheated, loud and repetitive.’

    Ignore my grudge over the ‘esquire’ thing. Now

    Duffy’s off, poets leave the laureateship alone.

    Am I not best remaining bard for Brexit’s long betrayal,

    the ‘better spirit’ that even Shakespeare envied,

    before I drank him to death with fat Ben?

                 I’ll knock one out for the local elections. Free.

                 Flick through the only Companion I need: you

    Reading this sends the diligent reader back to these lines from one of the ‘original’ sonnets near the beginning of The English Strain, in a poem addressed to the memory of Lee Harwood:

    I searched everywhere for your letter

    that I know says something like You’ve

    got a special language for poetry,

    Robert, and I haven’t. I didn’t find it

    but I’m trying to lose that language now

    For me, this attempt to lose his ‘special language’ through the ‘strange ventriloquism’ of versioning is perhaps the most interesting part of these two books. When the politics pales, as politics always will in the end, we are left with some wonderful patterns of sound. Take, for example, the first four lines of the Drayton version just quoted:

    Some say I’m a funny old translator,

    ‘expanded’ like a supersized codpiece.

    Some that I excel in explicit vitality.

    But others call this strange ventriloquism

    Other readers may place the stresses differently, in an attempt to force the lines to match the rhythm of an iambic metronome, but I’m taken with the idea of a kind of mad ballad metre being imposed on the sonnet form. More interestingly, the patterns of assonance and consonance that Sheppard weaves here, primarily the sibilant alliteration and the predominance of short vowels in stressed positions, with an exception for that vital ‘strange’ marks a kind of departure for Sheppard, a move away from his ‘special language’ towards something of a new departure.

    So, with Beckett in mind, does the world need what promises to be in the region of 300 new (or ‘new’) sonnets? I’m not sure, but the fact is that the two instalments of Sheppard’s trilogy are endlessly fascinating, both for their rumbustious handling of the surreal reality of Brexit and as an instance of a poet doing what poets do, deploying technique to make poetry out of the matter that is given to them. As a sonnet sceptic, I find myself wondering what he’ll do with the morass of the Romantic sonnet in the final volume.

     
  • Billy Mills 12:33 on 01/09/2021 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: poetry   

    Recent Reading: September 2021 

    Woman Drinking Absinthe, Katherine E. Young, ASP, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-942892-24-3, $15.99

    Love Took the Words, Christopher Jane Corkery, Slant Books, 2020, ISBN 9781725264229/9781725264212/9781725264236, $27.00/$12.00/$9.99

    A crocodile out of nowhere, James Roome, The Red Ceiling Press, 2021, £7.00

    Second Memory, Alycia Pirmohamed & Pratyusha, Guillemot Press, 2021, ISBN 978-1-913749-13-2, £10.00

    Sonata, Philip Lancaster, Guillemot Press, 2021, ISBN 978-1-913749-07-1, £6.00

    Achatina, achatina!, Ellen Dillon, 2019, SoundEye Press, €15

    Cities, Jimmy Cummins, Distance No Object, 2021, £5 (UK) / £8 (EU)  / £10 (USA/ROW)

    The fourth (of five) sections of Katherine E. Young’s Woman Drinking Absinthe is a single sequence, ‘Place of Peace’ that takes off from a visit to the Civil War memorial at Shiloh National Military Park. The fourth section of the sequence opens with he line ‘Who doesn’t desire to be mesmerized by love?’ and ends ‘once more I fear the shadow of his hand.’ These lines could be said to serve as the twin poles of the entire collection.

    For Young’s core subject is love, but there’s nothing redemptive or particularly healing about its manifestations. Elsewhere in this section, the narrator addresses her son:

    So many battles are accidental. Love,

    my son, when it finally comes—unlooked-for,
     
    savage, bursting riotous into bloom,

    stunning us while we lie dreaming—love’s
     
    the only thing worth fighting for.

    In fact, the poems in this collection depict love (and sex) as a battlefield, both physical and psychological. The physical violence is explicit in places and is inflicted on women by men:

    That first time when you hit me,

    I marveled at the crack
     
    your hand made as it struck

    flat against my face.

    [from ‘Soul Food’]

    The more insidious psychological violence that love can be responsible for is clearly delineated in the closing lines of ‘Home Visit, in which a married man decides to have his lover meet his family:

    and, chatting randomly about backsplash

    and tile while she steeped tea,
     
    the wife, who’d clearly taken pains

    to tidy up the place.

    This poem is in the second part of the book, a set of poems that describe a ‘suburban affair’, an affair whose battlefield is two families, and whose victims are the people who comprise them. It’s a bleak, and very urban, view of relationships, and that urban-ness is called out in ‘Postcards from the Floating World’, a set of four haiku-like poems whose title evokes the hedonism of Edo-period Japan. Each poem begins ‘I cry out.’ and the set progresses again from the romantic to the aggressive:

    iv.
     
    I cry out. His hands

    claw fierce, wild, deeper than pain

    cradling my face.

    This image recalls the second poem in the book, ‘The Bear’, in which the female protagonist is wooed, if that’s the right word, by the eponymous animal. In this poem, however, the potential for harm is drawn in, like the bear’s claws when he smooths the woman’s cheeks; there’s a tenderness in the relationship that is for the most part missing from the human-to-human pairings that appear elsewhere in the book. The world of love that Young delineates in these poems is far from being a place of peace.

    Christopher Jane Corkery is also concerned with love, as the title of here Love Took the Words makes clear. The title phrase serves as the first and last line of the opening poem, ‘As In The Days Of The Prophets’, and it’s immediately clear that Corkery’s love is quite different to Young’s. For Corkery, love is what lies under the quotidian, a sustaining force:

    Love took the words right out of my mouth.

    Not the making of love, the clinging and plunge,

    the tongue’s deep spiral, but the acts of days,

    the sun up and down, the dish and the pot,

    the light on the head of first one, then another,

    the stairs unswept, the bed made, the light out,

    This sense of the importance of everyday experience, its numinous quality, runs through the book, as does a focus on the centrality of poetry and of poets, with many references to canonical names: Dante, Herbert, Marvell, and, above all, Yeats:

    I clung to that great body. His delight

    In love, and loss, and water, and swans was mine!

    It was Yeats who took me, (I was seventeen),

    And showed me, word by word, what life could mean.

    [from ‘It Was Yeats Who Took Me’]

    As you might expect from a poet who was taken by Yeats in the 1960, as opposed to, say, Eliot, Pound or Williams, Corkery tends to work in more traditional forms (the Yeats poem quoted above is a villanelle, for instance) but she does so with, for the most part, some considerable skill and a nice sense of subversion, as in the sestina ‘When Your Daughter Was Turning Twenty-Eight’ which opens with the self-reflective:

    When your daughter was turning twenty-eight

    I began a sestina,

    that box-like wonder

    of words, of let-in light.

    It was an exercise only, but I thought—

    Better the intended, than the forgotten
     
    Gift.

    and continues with the short lines that lend something of the feel of the Troubadour and Tuscan song that she weaves into the poem’s fabric:

    The gold light

    of the Languedoc would have been better, thought

    anaesthetized by a Chenin haze, twenty-eight

    years celebrated in Occitan wonder—

    a curved street, a glass she might have drunk. I had forgotten

    how much I loved that green sestina
     
    of Dante’s, the first time around, the sestina’s

    trobar clu —how green-gold light

    could be pressed from suffering.

    All of which, of course, moves us from the orbit of Yeats to the complimentary world of Pound. There’s a deftness of touch here that is so often missing in the work of the more belligerent proponents of the new or old formalism, a sense of form as opportunity, and of poetry as song that is a delight. This formal control allows the confidence to paly with free verse and semi-prose forms, but also brings an admirable restraint to those poems here that deal with the death of the narrator’s husband:

    My head is storms at morning

    With all the things I’ve read.

    And then at night my head is still.

    And you are still dead.

    [from ‘By the Ocean’]

    Here, the moving simplicity of statement seems to owe something to Emily Dickinson, but Corkery has the skill and confidence to bend that most dangerous of influences to her own needs, her own voice. Her first book, Blessings was published in 1985, but the long gap to this second collection was not a silence, as she apparently continued to publish in periodicals in the interval. On the evidence of the poems collected here, that 35 years was a prolonged but fruitful apprenticeship to her art.

    I’m inordinately keen on pamphlets that are designed to fit in to a pocket easily, like James Roome’s A crocodile, out of nowhere. The pamphlet consists mainly of long, narrow justified blocks of prose, with some poems in verse interspaced between them. Roome’s work here delineates a world that is syntactically coherent but semantically out of kilter. It’s tempting to describe it as surrealism, but there’s a precision of thought and language on display here that is all too often missing from surrealistic writing. Roome builds situations that flow logically because of the even tenor of his writing, but where what happens is absurd, in the best possible sense. I was going to pull examples from a number of poems, but in the end decided to focus on one piece to look at how Roome works:

    The Arsonist
     
    Two days before the festival,

    the arsonist placed all of his

    equipment in a neat row

    on the windowsill. There

    was his lighter fluid, his box

    of matches, his balaclava

    and his fire proof gloves.

    He sat back on the bed and

    admired his tools, then

    rose and stood straight as a

    column, arms clenched to

    his sides, tilted his head to

    the left and closed his eyes.

    In this way, he became the

    bottle of lighter fluid. Next,

    he sliced up his gloves with

    some kitchen scissors, found

    a needle and thread, and

    sewed the fire proof material

    to the skin of his hands. In

    this way, he became the

    gloves. Feeling emboldened

    by his success, he raised the

    scissors to his mouth and

    cut off his lips, then used

    his thumbs to gouge out

    both his eyes. In this way,

    he became the balaclava.

    Finally, he ran outside into

    the road and rubbed his

    head against the tarmac

    until his scalp hung from his

    skull. A bloody mess. In this

    way he became the match.

    Hot pearls burned his cheeks

    and filled up the eyeholes of

    his balaclava. The fire proof

    skin of his hands became

    saturated with blood. His

    neck seized in a constant tilt.

    His head hung open to the

    steaming air. Only now was

    he ready for the festival. And

    all of this had only taken half

    an hour.

    This tale of horror opens with a favourite Roome device, a string of simple declarative sentences to set the scene. There’s nothing out of the ordinary until the first bolded term, the logical and temporal connecting adverb ‘then’ introduces what might be considered mildly eccentric behaviour.

    This use of connectors, bolded above, continues to lend a sense of order to the ensuing madness. In particular, the refrain-like repetition of ‘in this way’ helps make each escalation of the arsonist’s self-mutilation seem reasonable, something that follows a logical sequence of cause and effect, with the ‘finally’ and ‘only now’ adding an air of reasonable conclusion, a job well done. That final sentence beginning with ‘and’ (a lot of sentences in the pamphlet begin ‘and’) rounds the whole thing off with a kind of muted ‘imagine that’. The writing both shocks and lulls the reader, so that you’ve finished the poem before you’ve quite taken in just what has happened. It’s a delightfully serious, comic sleight of hand that reveals the dark substratum behind the mundane.

    For such a small object, A crocodile, out of nowhere is packed full of such pleasures, just read it.

    In Second Memory, Alycia Pirmohamed and Pratyusha collaborate on what is a kind of genre-defying book, part memoir, part essay, part prose poem, part meditation, presented in short blocks of prose, with an acknowledgements page that is actually a bibliography of sources quoted. The book revolves around ideas of memory and the self, the role of memory in the creation of selves, our own and others. At the centre of the book is a paradox that is expressed in these two passages, separated by just a couple of pages:

    Notice how often I pull at this thread in a slow attempt to unravel history. Relentless, they arrive one after another, all of these repetitions —

    and

    To return is impossible, but we continue to retrace our steps, each shared exhale a new line of flight.

    The past repeats itself, differently, partly because the I that experiences is different. A grandmother whose grave was eroded into a river blends with ‘this ghost that crosses back and forth, heels wet with geography’ and on through multiple images of submersion and resurfacing, until we arrive at Mātaṅgī, goddess of words, who ‘rises from the waters, her green skin turning the waters green’. On the next page we are told that:

    Mātaṅgī is another kind of second memory, her name concealed in the sediments of my childhood’ a goddess never spoken of but in hushed tones.

    In another aspect, the second memory of the title is, I think, to do with the act of collaboration, each of the authors shares in the memories of the other, a composite past/present (only two blocks, one addressed to P and the other to A, give any real hint of authorship although it’s tempting to guess at others). In another again, our second memories are those that are not really ours, but have been passed on to us in family lore so that we feel them as if they were, like the stories of a great-aunt who is both known and unknown:

    I look at her, the face of a woman I’ve never met, with whom I cross paths in my dreams sometimes. She is constructed entirely through stories my grandmother has told me. The decades fall away, and she is fiery in front of my eyes, striding across tiled floors with infectious energy, striding both towards me and away from me. Her laugh pierces through me as I reach out to touch the gap.

    Second Memory is a quiet meditation on how our memories, our past, our ancestry is constructed for and by us and how we are, in turn, constructed by them, and it’s all the more effective for that quietness. As ever, the production quality from Guillemot also serves them well in this handsome hardback.

    If, as Pound wrote, all art aspires to the condition of music then it may be that all music aspires to the condition of silence. Philip Lancaster’s Sonata is dedicated ‘for Graham and all those who crave the music of silence’ and circles round the question of the (im)possibility of attaining that condition.

    As well as being a poet, Lancaster is a singer and composer and this fifteen-part sequence is structured like a piece of music, with theme and counter theme being stated, expanded, contracted and restated throughout. Some of the major themes consist of simple phrases that are repeated, with or without variation, throughout the work. One key motif first occurs in the second section and echoes on, always with brackets and in italics: ‘(Is there silence/where there is none/there/not to hear?)’ This first occurrence is the only complete statement of the theme, and the final repeat is simply ‘(Silence?)’ The Zen reference here reflects the meditative ambiguity of much of the sequence.

    A second theme is the phrase ‘do I dare?’ and variations on it. Indeed, the poem opens ‘I have dared    taint’, the taint being the intrusion of the poem into the desired silence. Again, the reference to ‘Prufrock’ is relevant to the poem’s procedures:

    Do I dare

    Disturb the universe?

    In a minute there is time

    For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

    Two more important terms that recur are the word ‘staves’ in a number of senses, musical, as parts of a barrel, and as props or supports, and ‘the Larching’, an obscure (to me at least) term which I read as referring to a clump or grove of larch trees. Part of the recurring, Beckettian, drama of Sonata mirrors a significant event in human evolution, the move from an arboreal existence to a life on the open savanna as outlined in these extracts from sections CII, IX and XII of the sequence:

    Do I dare?
     
    to step free into the lonely grassland

    and set in earth

    a tentative seed

    an uncertain sapling

    in our dusk’s

    darkening woodcut

    But I do not dare.

    I do not dare set foot

    beyond

     
    the Larching   the dead

    silence    defeated

    I sit

    near its edge   feeling

    feeling for the edge

    of beyond

    Despairing    I return

    to the Larching

    I return    to the edge

    where once

    I did not dare

    I return   to where

    dead silence

    marred the peace

    Here we seen the final refrain that strikes me, the image of ‘dead silence’, a kind of negative version of the desired state. In the end, it is, in fact, death that leads to fulfilment of the wished-for:

    and with the last breath

    silence breaks
     
    as the dawn

    upon our ending

    Lancaster’s particular verbal music, a music which in ways reminds me of the work of Brian Coffey, who I have no way of knowing if Lancaster has read, played out here with minimal means but on a large scale, displays an ambition that is all to scarce in contemporary poetry, and I have only scratched the surface of it in this review. A fascinating poem indeed.

    SoundEye Press is a legacy of the late, lamented SoundEye Festival, which was, when it ran, a highlight of the Irish poetry calendar. Bothe Ellen Dillon and Jimmy Cummins (although not published by the press) are part of the younger generation of poets who were associated with the festival over a number of years.

    Dillon’s writing in Achatina, achatina! if firmly based in the texture and flexibility of language. In a typical poem here, various registers, advertising, popular culture, literature, the sciences, demotic and so on, are bumped up together to see what happens:

    Kerry Agrifoods welcomes you
    to our neck of the woods, sleek
    with wolves, dietary staples, world-class
    dairy products. Protect us from all
    evil, lurking in the undergrowth and
    gurning down from billboards both,
    deliver us to chance another arm.

    Nevertheless, as here, much of the work is firmly grounded in Dillon’s physical landscape in rural Limerick and a number of poems start from a close observation of a plant, mollusc or animal:

    The cuckoo, not a pretty bird, reiterates his raucous grating call

    through afternoon’s cloying greyness. Its agitating blatter

    speeds the blood up; tachycardic drumming at the pulses pulls
     
    the breath up short

    [from ‘If in danger run to the woods; after Niedecker’]

    It’s worth noting that this poem also features a pet dog called Lorine!

    The play on the cuckoo folk song here is also typical of Dillon’s humour, with puns often at the heart of the absurdist joke:

    Eating my cornflakes one by one,

    when the clicking stops I’ll put the kettle on

    but it won’t fit me.

    [From ‘One Leg at a Time, Sweet Jesus’]

    Dillon’s work is unusual among her generation of Irish poets in owing as little to, say, Boland as it does to Heaney.  In the punningly titled final poem in the book, ‘Re: Ducks’ she specifically rejects an expectation of poetry ‘larded with allusions to//early Yeats and Hopkins. Dense and satisfying,/with a slightly cloying aftertaste’. I’m interested to see where she takes this next.

    Jimmy Cummins’ Cities is a set, or perhaps sequence, of 26 prose sections, each shorter than a single page and conveniently starting on page 1 and ending on page 26 (why don’t more pamphlets adopt this?). There is a kind of narrative arc that runs through the pieces, with four personas, I, you, he and we, recurring. The events, such as they are, tend towards the quotidian. To quote from the text on page 19:

    We all have a story, mine is not worth listening to, and that is ok. It has been heard before.

    Of course, the everyday isn’t all that simple, as we are led to see from the next sentence:

    I cast nets and sails and thousands of tiny pieces of colourful paper before consulting my maps and the tears of the prophets.

    The whole sequence is suffused with a tone of regret, of a lost past unrecoverable, and of some kind of ecological trauma that lies behind the sadness:

    There, covered in tinfoil and bitumen, lay the remnants of the world. After the rain had washed away the sods tears were shed leaving the eyes puff puff puffy and the cheeks stained International Klein Blue.

    As with Ellen Dillon, Cummins shows a wary distrust of poetry and a tentative preference for numbers:

    I can barely read two lines of poetry without getting bored or resorting to eating reams of paper, which cost above average in today’s market, but oranges are always five for a pound no matter which way the wind blows.

    This wariness would appear to derive, in part, from a sense of the abuse of language for political ends, and the political dimension surfaces towards the end of the set, on page 21:

    A cop smashes into a traffic light and comes off her horse. They have no right to be there or to bring horses. Love is the chosen eclipse or an act of pedagogy and so is the drowning of Colston. History is not being rewritten, it is being named, it is the great reclamation and where we cast our voices and ears is the stuff of substance.

    The text goes on to reference Claudia Rankine, and there is definitely something of her tone in the fractured prose that Cummins deploys here, a prose of intertextual fragments and allusive statement. Towards the end, the narrator declares ‘It is 2020 and I have lost poems, faith, and one of the dogs.’ It’s a sentiment I suspect many of us can relate to. The hope is that this is not a swansong, but a necessary stage in Cummins’ development as a poet.

     
  • Billy Mills 09:19 on 31/08/2021 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: poetry   

    Happy Birthday Charles Reznikoff 

    The Objectivists’ Objectivist. Born August 31, 1894 in New York. Here’s a poem to mark the day:

    Te Deum

    Not because of victories
    I sing,
    having none,
    but for the common sunshine,
    the breeze,
    the largess of the spring.

    Not for victory
    but for the day’s work done
    as well as I was able;

    not for a seat upon the dais
    but at the common table.

     

     
  • Billy Mills 11:54 on 17/08/2021 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: poetry   

    Recent Reading August 2021: Live Canon 

    The Bone Staircase, Kerry Priest, Live Canon, 2020, ISBN: ‎978-1909703698, £7.00

    Fire in the Oubliette, Vasiliki Albedo, Live Canon, 2020, ISBN: 9781909703711, £7.00

    On Long Loan, Vanessa Lampert, Live Canon, 2020, ISBN: 978-1909703452, £7.00

    Dihedral, Mary-Jane Holmes, Live Canon, 2020, ISBN: 9781909703704, £7.00

    How High Did She Fly?, Tania Hershman, Live Canon, 2019, ISBN: 1909703826, £7.00

    Why? And Other Questions, Robin Houghton, Live Canon, 2019, ISBN: 978-1909703773, £7.00

    My Shrink is Pregnant, Katie Griffiths, Live Cannon, 2019, ISBN: 978-1909703780, £7.00

    Out of True, Susannah Hart, Live Canon, 2018, ISBN: 978-1909703353, £9.99

    With Love, Alice Willitts, Live Canon, 2020, ISBN: 9781909703957, £10.00

    Confetti Dancers, Sue Burge, Live Canon, 2021, ISBN: 9781909703476, £10.00

    Back in April I tweeted ‘I get sent a lot of really good, interesting poetry I’m still not getting enough books from women and people of colour to review, sadly.’ The result was immediate and almost overwhelming, as anyone who’s read my blog over the last few months can testify. Perhaps the single most enthusiastic response was when Live Canon Poetry sent me ten of their publications, seven pamphlets and three collections, by ten different women, most of whom were new names to me.

    Live Canon is more than just a press, as they run events, have a performing ensemble, hold competitions, make poetry videos and even have a poetry and chocolate thing going on. And they’ve kept this going for well over a decade. And they publish anthologies and poetry be men. The pamphlets and collections they publish appear to be primarily selected by competition, with open entry and relatively modest fees which, I assume, fund the cost of publication. I’m not a fan of poetry competitions, but this is a better use of them than the awarding of money to individual poets, on the whole.

    Kerry Priest is one of the new-to-me names. Her pamphlet The Bone Staircase is concerned with apparently autobiographical experiences of trying for a baby through IVF. The book is structured around three ‘rounds’, titled in order Biology, Astronomy, Anthropology (the last being a successful round). The conceit is to use the language of each discipline as a way into writing about the potentially painful with some kind of distance:

    The cottonwood has evolved to give out so much seed,

    but not many of its umbrellas ever make a tree.
      
    The nurse explains the procedure over and over.

    Perhaps some of this will stick.

    [from ‘Over and Over’]

    The pun on ‘stick’ here is not untypical of the tone of much of the writing here; a kind of ironic humour as survival mechanism. There’s also a strong sense of connection with other women through a shared experience of trying for and having children as a kind of offering to our DNA, the bone staircase of the title, especially in the Anthropology round:

    We’ve done it in beds and on beaches,

    pushed out wet babies in huts, in woods,

    all for you, all for you.

    [from ‘Gilt’]

    Occasionally there’s a sense of a poet trying on styles and voices to see what fits; for instance ‘Song of Alice through the Embryoscope’ echoes ‘The Mouse’s Tale’. However, Priest’s own distinctive voice comes through strongly, especially in the Epilogue, a prose poem called ‘Womb’, which rewinds personal and human history through a process of birth reversal, reclaiming, in the process, history for and of women:

    Soon, my mother is pushed back into grandma’s womb and women everywhere leave factories and start unpicking their knitting. Hemlines get lower and lower and dresses suddenly puff to a sheen as everything gets slower and slower, but there are still wombs. Marie Antoinette finds her head. Men wear wigs, then tights and Columbus or the Vikings lose America. The Mongols and Muslims and Goths and Christians and Romans retreat, retreat, cities disappearing. Cleopatra brushes off her make-up.

    It’s a powerful ending to an interesting pamphlet.

    The title of Vasiliki Albedo’s Fire in the Oubliette is a fair indicator of the main concerns of the pamphlet, which is suffused with images of fire and burning and a sense of confinement:

    Flowers
      
    Here’s a beautiful garden,

    tend the flowers,

    watch them burn.

    In these poems, fire is both a creative and destructive force, capable of inspiring:

    Manic fire in my throat

    give me words to make you gloat

    [from ‘Little Fire’]

    but also acting as symbol of the darker side of experience:

    oh unemployable fire

    playing fetch with memories

    fire of breakups and breakdowns

    [from ‘To Heal the Burning Dog (a ritual for mental health)’

    The idea of poetry as ritual or magic also runs through these poems, with titles like the above, ‘A healthy brew. Ingredients:’ and ‘A spell against wildfires’. The identification between poetry and magic or The Craft underpins ‘Poetry’, in which nature poetry as such is dismissed in preference for cat familiars. The poem begins

    Trees never hurt anyone

    except in falling

    or with their fruit.
      
    Forget that.

    I adopted a clowder of cats.

    The poem closes with an expression of language as power that closes the circle:

    Then I knew I could command them all with one word.

    That word was my fruit.

    As counterpoint to this, there’s another strong thread of poems about violence, specifically sexual violence, against women: a psychiatrist forces a woman’s hand to his crotch, in ‘Panama Airport’, her medication leads to a strip search, and in ‘Resin’, perhaps the most powerful poem here, she fights off a would-be rapist:

    the man to whom you said no
      
    the force of that word that made him so weak

    and the strength you found

    That strength is poetry, the power to ‘put it on paper until it marks the page, like this.’

    The poems in the first half of On Long Loan by Vanessa Lampert are characterised by a kind of wistful nostalgia, full of childhood memories, a circus the narrator wanted to run away to join, the image of a perfect park where the narrator can experience ‘[the] warm / weight of your hand in my hand.’ The image of the mother is also central, be it a young woman carrying her baby down a road in which ‘toads were walking home to spawn’, ushered safely across the road by caring residents. The end of this poem expresses the frustrations of motherhood:

    I liked that after spawning

    every single one on those toads was free

    from family ties. I told none of this to the baby.

    [from ‘Toads’]

    This finds a mirror echo in ‘Canada’, in which the narrator having been told that her ovaries have been ‘shut down’ thinks on the unborn potential locked in:

    I’d like to think

    the little half-people made it safely out.

    I’m picturing them looking like me

    on the Isle of Wight or in Canada. Yes,

    that’s the place. Say it with me. Canada.

    Just after the mid point, the tone changes with two facing-page poems, ‘Therapy’ and ‘Pneumonia’ detailing the breakdown of a marriage:

    Then, almost ready to tell the kids we’d be loving them

    from separate buildings, you fell ill.

    The poems that follow focus on freedom and loss, the freedom of a rescue dog that’s taken out to run in the open for the first time and the loss of two young men to suicide:

    If you hadn’t killed yourself we’d have come up here

    together to see the cooling towers demolished.
      
    you would have been the first one awake, would have said let’s go

    and legged it up the hill, the only boy among girls.
      
    Now I walk to the highest place and wait.

    The flat, almost matter-of-fact tone when writing about the most difficult of feelings is typical of Lampert’s perhaps Movement influenced approach to writing.

    Mary-Jane Holmes’ work in Dihedral is more technically adventurous, with text sometimes laid out in columns, sometimes open field, and with the inclusion of found materials. There’s a focus on female experience and a dry interrogation of love set in an exploration of the conflict between the intrinsic and extrinsic elements of the poet’s work:

    Walking the chapel trail, I am content

    to name things and not to think
      
    crab apple, chaffinch,

    gravedigger, e-bike.
      
    Up ahead, the sign says

    River Walk Closed.

    Steep Drop.

    But everyone knows
      
    all women are masochists
      
    so I delve

    into pestled mud, the mortared roots

    of wych-elm the size of ox’s shin bones

      
    and consider Ammon’s Eve feeding

    rovings with delicate fingers

    from distaff to spindle

      
    the making of supper at her feet,

    the fire a roar of anticipation

    for the pot.

      
    This was how I was taught

    to see myself

    in love.

    [from ‘The Fall’]

    This longish quotation is, I think, a fair representation of how Holmes’ writing works. The quiet music of assonance and muted conversational rhythm, the juxtaposition of long and short lines, all serve to underpin the move from the particularities of immediate experience to the equally particular, more insidious facts of cultural conditioning. The title of the pamphlet is also the title of a poem here dealing with the death of a father, but the idea of planes meeting at an angle, planes of experience intersecting in the poem, is apt for all the work here, from the bilingual Spanish/English piece ‘Dividing Line’, based on a manual for American ranchers to instruct their Mexican workers which develops into a kind of political commentary on the subject of fences, to the poem that is the centrepiece of the pamphlet, ‘Thirty-Six questions That Lead to Love (New Your Times, 2011) as responded to by a selection of named and anonymous Andalusian female poets from the 8th to the 15th Century’. The interleaving of magazine pseudo-psychology and recovered poetry forms a perfect dihedral that opens out both planes to the reader:

    24
      
    How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
      
    How many of us have sung this to our mothers?

    This madness must stop or I will die.

    Somehow I must heal, fetch wine.

    This is a rich and various little book that reveals more with repeated reading.

    Half the poems in Tania Hershman’s How Hight Did She Fly?, the ones on the recto pages, open with quotes from Act I, Scene I of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. In her acknowledgements, Hershman records the ‘enormous impact’ seeing a production of the play when she was 16 had on her. It would be all too easy to assume that this impact had to do with the subject matter, young women being prosecuted for behaviour that sat uncomfortably with the Puritan society in which they lived, but on the evidence of these poems, it would appear that Miller’s language was at least as important a factor. Take, for instance,, this the sixth ‘Crucible’ poem, with the quote that opens it

    REBECCA NURSE: A child’s spirit is like a child, you can never catch it by running after it; you must stand still, and for love, it will soon itself come back.
      
    Come back, it will soon –

    itself a child – stand still, stand

    still, never catch. Running after you

    is a child, love. Love

    and spirit it must itself. Never catch

    a spirit, soon a child

    will come.

    The syntactic variations on Miller’s words serve as a kind of commentary, both on the play and on the world outside the play, by opening up new vistas along a corridors of words. Implicit in this is a reminder that poetry has at least as much to do with sound as with sense, and that its primary material is language itself.

    This approach is mirrored in the ‘non-Crucible’ poems, in which Hershman recounts encounters and experiences in language that enacts without necessarily clarifying:

    I say to the chef,

    Make me something

    with cheese. The chef
      
    is my mother, my father,

    my uncles and aunts,

    the grandmothers
      
    I never had

    [from ‘Fed’]

    Many of these poems circle round the unknowability of other people, be they strangers encountered on the street or in the park, aunts who advise avoiding being exceptional to the confusion of the advised child, or lovers who are drawn together and yet repulsed by the force of gravity. And under it all, the importance of connection, of belonging in some small way to the company of others:

    Screen-Shot-2019-11-26-at-15.45.18

    This is another pamphlet that rewards multiple readings. There are, to simplify greatly, two kinds of poets, those who write poems because they have something to say, and those whose poems are what they want to say. Hershman, it seems to me, belongs firmly to the second group.

    Robin Houghton is a poet whose work I am already familiar, having previously reviewed her pamphlet All the Relevant Gods. There’s quite a different tone to these poems than the ‘gentle surrealism I noted in that earlier work. This pamphlet is, essentially, a series of vignettes concerning things removed, absent, gone, sometimes recovered. Thieves steal a Barbara Hepworth statue for scrap, elsewhere a father is rediscovered through a stone memorial to the Home Guard. in ‘Cut | Burn | Poison’, man destroys in order to defend a spurious notion of beauty:

    man lights fire         burn  the dark dirt patch

    cauterise the blades all good and clean   sterilise

    the deep wrong colour hole of beauty

    to be saved by man

    Elsewhere a mother lost to forgetfulness is recovered through an old black and white photograph. This latent conflict between our tendencies to make and mar, find and lose, is most strongly captured in a pair of poems, ‘Drowning the Doves, 1916’ and Under Hammersmith Bridge, 2016’, about the destruction and recovery of the Doves typeface, an arts and crafts metal font created by T. J. Cobden-Sanderson and then thrown into the Thames by him in a dispute with his business partner. The first poem is sympathetic to the act of destruction:

    With each piece of type, a piece of himself also–the moon

    as witness–bequeathed in bits to the river, rag and bone:
      
    four parts sacrifice, six parts revenge.

    The second poem, dedicated to Robert Green, who was responsible for the physical recovery of 150 pieces of typeface from the river, is a kind of closure, the healing of a wound:

    Because the beauty of letters lasts longer

    than the exit strategies of wronged parties. U is underwater,

    horseshoe-like, for luck. E is no longer the enemy, just water

    under the bridge. H is what happened, and Q is the questioning

    eyes of pike and passing barge men. D is for utter devotion.

    And diving. E for even now, eventually. A, alone and always.

    This sense that it is possible to recover that which was lost is central to the poems here. As Houghton writes in ‘Missed’, a poem about a taxi journey to an airport for a plane that won’t be caught ‘I will write about this one day. Maybe I’ll change the ending.’ It is our creative impulse that allows us to repair the damage.

    Katie Griffiths is another poet whose work I’ve previously, as recently as last month, in fact. It’s interesting to read her work in reverse order, so to speak, first the 2021 book, then the 2019 pamphlet. The ironic humour of the former is here in abundance but set in a much tighter frame. The 47 short poems here, each with a title beginning ‘My Shrink…’ that also serves as first line, relate a series of patient/psychiatrist sessions or encounters over the six months from September to March, with the titular pregnancy being announced in November.The basic premise is a kind of role-reversal, with at least as much being revealed about the shrink as the client:

    My Shrink is Late for our Appointment:
      
    because she’s just had her toenails painted,

    stayed in the salon as long as she could

    to let them dry.
      
    And even though it’s February,

    she pads across the Maplewood floor

    in flat tan sandals

    with ten shiny fuchsia petals

    on the end of her toes,

    the omens of summer.

    As the relationship, and the pregnancy, advance, the therapist is drained of here power by circumstances, the relationship becomes more mutual, as in the lines ‘My Shrink is Sad Today//and I want to give up my seat for her’. In another poem, she ‘nods off’ while the client is talking, or she drops her notes on the floor and gathers them up randomly.

    The poems are also full of quiet absences: there are no trees outside the office window, a dropped stitch mars some knitting, when aske what pet she had, the client answers that she never had any, but dreamed of owning a grapefruit. Near the end f the sequence, the shrink produces an eraser ‘as if to adjust the images/I’ve carried ever since that morning’.

    What this amounts to, I think, is that under their ironic façade, these poems are asking some very serious questions about the process and value of therapy and the possibility of professional exploitation is ouched on in the final poem ‘My Shrink is Planning to Peddle My Dreams’ whose closing lines round off the central preoccupations of the whole:

    me distilled through her through me through her,

    our leakage, our botched edges.

    Susannah Hart’s work in Out of True is primarily concerned with the power of stories in shaping our worlds. The title phrase is embedded in ‘Loft’, a poem about someone’s entire life story, such of it as remains, being hidden away in an attic from where it threatens to bring the whole house down, but it could be applied to most of the poems in this collection. Hart’s stories are both aslant, the world out of kilter, and tales that emerge from what is true. This is the case whatever the source of the story may be. Some of them are reworkings of children’s stories and nursery rhymes:

    Baa bass ego, have you any id?

    Oh yes, oh yes, I’m chock full of it.

    Id full of cravings, id full of lust’

    Id that hangs round sheepishly till ego turns to dust.

    [from ‘Four philosophical nursery rhymes’]

    In this short extract we can see Hart’s method at its best, transfiguring the familiar to disconcert the reader’s expectations. In other poems, the source story is based in myth, a particularly fine example being ‘The glass courtesan’, a reimagining of the Pygmalion story in which the statue of the ‘ideal’ woman is made of glass, with inevitable, harrowing but entirely deserved consequences when the man’s list results in him being literally ‘pierced by love’.

    In ‘Hypotheses about the hypothetical ancestral mollusc, Hart turns her slantwise gaze on the language of science, or rather reimagines that language in terms of a kind of conventional poetic diction, a bringing together of two distinct, sometimes possibly hostile, linguistic fields:

    H3: No. It slid, sluggish, slack and slimy,

    across the sludge of a swamp, just a slub,

    a plug of slop, lugging its bulk through a slew of slurry.

    The exuberant over-abundance of alliteration, assonance and rhyme here leads the reader to a consciousness of artifice in both fields, to a kind of askew reconciliation.

    There are a couple of poems here that read like exercises that didn’t quite come off, one an ode ‘In praise of rats’ whose contrarian attitude reads a bit contrived:

    Praise the rat whose enemy is the world

    whose world’s the enemy,

    the rat whom no one welcomes in,

    for whom no plate is ever filled.

    The second is an erasure piece based on a text about the Time Magazine Person of the Year award which seems to this reader at least just a bit too obvious in its focus on gender imbalance. These are minor cavils, however, in a collection that is intriguing and well written. The book closes with an unlikely evocation of the spirit of Ezra Pound, via another reworking, this time of his ‘The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter’ (one of my favourite poems, I should add) called ‘Two small people’, which in part constitutes a kind of self-criticism:

    I’m looking back

    at my superfluous words, Ezra,

    all the different words,

    too deep to clear them away.

    The quality seems to me

    very uneven

    and perhaps there is

    after all nothing

    to be done with the news

    that I grow older.

    This is exactly the kind of self-awareness that bodes well for any poet.

    Some books are so entirely themselves as to almost defy review. This is the case, for me at least, with Alice Willitts’ With Love. The book is not so much a collection of individual poems so much as a single sequence in three parts, LOVE 1, LOVE 2 and LOVE 3, with a short appendix. Section 1 consists of six prose texts with pendant footnotes in verse, LOVE 2 is itself a sequence of 21 parts, the first titled ‘love’ and the other twenty al bearing titles that begin ‘love /…’. The final section is a single 13-page long poem.

    Willitts is a gardener who sews as well, and these two disciplines inform much of the writing in this book. while here central theme is love, and the poems are written ‘with’ love in both senses of the phrase, her underlying concern is ecological. In the first prose piece, she introduces the idea of Boro, a Japanese mending technique in which ‘(t)he original garment is mended hundreds of times until the stitches themselves seem to replace the garment with decades of layering.’ As you read on, this layering takes on multiple resonances: enduring love is also a process of mending and layering, as both people and relationships change over time; the analogy also holds for the process of writing, of patching words and ideas together to make poems that circle around a handful of threads; most directly, there’s a rejection of the fashion industry as it is currently constituted with a focus on ‘reduce, reuse’ enshrined in repeated references to clothes made over, borrowed and repaired.

    thumbnail_20210812_095508

    Or, in more practical form:

    … — in the morning

    I choose a patch — I’ve kept our old shirts and jeans, scraps

    I cut a circle of shell brown and with pricks of pink, stitch down a pattern

    like cats tongues, overlapping the love that mends us.

    [from ‘love / same old sex my pretty elbow’]

    What, you might ask, does this have to do with love. Willitts’ answer, as I read it, is that love is the thread that binds us all, human and non-human, animate and inanimate, into an interdependent whole:

    and whoever said

    the four ages of man —

    we were wrong

    we need to say

    for the ages of

    all living things

    beating the song

    in each cooling body

    [from ‘love / life is change’]

    Through the book we see the poet’s concern for the future of her children in a world potentially doomed, but the writing is not without hope, and that hope lies, as it must for the poet, in the words at her disposal:

    Language that makes

    Loves also makes

    Lives.

    We’re told

    Love lies

    To the eye

    Poets are the poorest liars

    That’s on of

    Our mending powers.

    With Love,

    [from the closing pages of ‘LOVE 3’]

    Poets make bad liars because they see the necessary interconnectedness of everything, and the need for mending the weave. The great strength of With Love is that it reminds us of this vision; it may be that poetry makes nothing happen, but it can point us to what is happening beyond our notice.

    In an interesting post on her website, Sue Burge fills in some background to the poems in her Confetti Dancers collection, and also notes that the structure is based on that of a ballet, with three acts, and interlude and a coda. The book is informed by her personal experiences of the world of dance as it was devastated by the AIDs pandemic in the 1980s and ends with poems written during our current health crisis.

    Act I centres around an idea of Eastern Europe (broadly enough defined to include Germany and  Zurich) as a ‘place where rumours start and people are scapegoated for their dreams’.  There are a number of versions ‘after’ poets from the region, and these are the most interesting poems in the section, on the whole, particularly ‘Interlude in a Locked Room’, after Yehuda Amichai, which ends:

    A row of old shoes, full

    of sweat and air; a windowsill smeared

    with fingerprints, witness to nothing

    that can easily be recalled.

    In contrast to this precise vagueness, there’s a sense of strain to some of the effects in Burge’s original poems here an overdetermined striving for the poetic

    The chill of a milk blue day evaporates

    in the womb of the cabaret boat.

    [from ‘Concert on the Herzbaracke Cabaret Boat, Lake Zurich’]

    However, the book comes into its own in the second act, with he move from the general to the specific, with Burge focusing on her time working at The Royal Academy of Dancing in Battersea in poems that commemorate the living legends of the dance world she encountered there (‘I have made coffee for the women who danced for Diaghilev’) and the friends she lost to AIDS, especially the choreologist Bryce Cobain:

    the boys, the boys, the beautiful boys

    all in a line to take their bows

    smiles bright in the spotlight

    until tomorrow guns them down

    and we’re clapping an empty stage

    sobbing Bravo! Bravo!

    to the echoing wings

    [from ‘Confetti Dancers’]

    Here the diction abandons the poetic in the face of direct experience, the result being very fine, moving poetry.

    The Interlude, an ekphrastic piece called ‘Read My Lips’, is based on a documentary film called Battle of the Somme continues the theme of young men dead, literally gunned down in this case, and the impact on ordinary life of these extraordinary disasters, the broader focusing in on the specific:

    In her narrow Manchester bed

    a woman dreams of her lover

    runs towards his muddy back

    the distance between them undiminished

    until, in a moment of stop-motion illogic,

    she is touch-close,

    rising on tiptoe

    to kiss him

    where his mouth used to be.

    This leads us nicely to the third act, a set of poems relating stories from Bruge’s family history, a history formed by the cataclysms of the wider history of the last century and how that shared history formed her own childhood and her mother’s mental health issues:

    and I have made a list of the words I don’t want to talk about/the first item is two words stomach + pump/I’m not going to talk about how old I was/when I first heard these words/what I believed they meant/how they seeped into everything like slow damp

    [from ‘Today there was a cliffside’]

    But behind the bleakness there is hope, the survival of the child and emergence of the poet in the teenage ‘hippy-me’ who we get a glimpse of at the end of the act/ballet proper.

    The Coda brings us up to date and closes the circle, in the sense that it comprises poems relating dreams of wholeness captured during the 2020 lockdown. They bring the book to a fittingly ‘repaired’ ending:

    Let’s rethink this. Look, the seed-heads are like clusters of stars. Gaze upwards – the generosity of the bright night sky will show us how to navigate this fearful newness.

    [from ‘Glow’]

    These ten publications are refreshingly diverse in their approaches to writing. While Live Canon may have a house style when it comes to the physical objects they publish, they don’t when it comes to the poetry those objects contain. In fact, they appear to be refreshingly open to the multifaceted nature of the art. Long may they continue to be that way.

     
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