Peter Riley notices, just about, The City Itself in his Fortnightly Review column.
My top ten poetry (well, one isn’t) books of the year as reviewed/to be reviewed by me are here as a Twitter thread. Let me know what you think of my choices. What are the top books I missed?
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
Language 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.
One 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.
Susan 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.
Nic 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:
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.
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.
Reuben 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
i want you
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
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
This is a solid collection from a poet whose work is far more neglected than it should be. Read it.
I’m pleased to have work included in the December issue of John Martone’s excellent journal otata (it’s a PDF). It’s the third section from Four, ‘a work-in-progress, a seasonal poem with elements of the four seasons, the four cardinal directions, the four dimensions and the Pythagorean tetractys’, and follows the second section previously published by Numero Cinq.
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, numbered 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.
Philip 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
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
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
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:
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 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.