Recent Reading April 2019

riverrun, Alan Baker, Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2019, £9.00

the loneliness of the sasquatch, Amanda Bell, Alba Publishing, Nov 2018, ISBN-13: 978-1912773060, £10

Table of Contents, Bruno Neiva, Timglaset, 2018, Out of stock, but cost €5

The Credit, Augustus Young, Menard/Duras, Oct 2018, €12, not listed on either publisher’s web sites, but Duras can be contacted here.

riverrunAlan Baker’s riverrun is an exploration/celebration of the river Trent in a series of 63 untitled sonnet-like 14 line poems that circle around a number of recurring themes: the borderland nature of rivers themselves; the poet’s own position as outsider, being an adoptive Trentsider; history and politics; the odd ecological niche of the urban river, where nature is brought in to the city, the city is pushed in to nature. Right from the beginning, the poet/speaker’s position and the paradox at the core of the book are made explicit: ‘lover of the liminal tinct of an unsurvivable element/we couldn’t survive without’. Each poem is then a snapshot, taken from a distinct angle, of this concern.

Many of these concerns come together in the 59th poem in the sequence:

beyond the cluster of bare trees

there are allotments, and beyond those

the winter sun lights a brick terrace

parallel to others, and I think that

tenacity is what’s required, or fatalism

in the face of business parks and

the global knowledge economy

while the river reminds us

that it’s a city of reflections

that the engine of our day is idling

the water of our wetlands

is increasingly saline, and a memory leak

is fuelling the currents and undertows

that drag us to unmentionable places

That the river is seen as not being a ‘useful’ economic element; that the knowledge economy knows so little worth knowing and erases so much that is; that our modern parks are places of labour, not leisure; that we are wheeling ourselves to hell in a virtual handcart: these are the facts that Baker invites us to contemplate, and then to act on. The Joycean nod in the book’s title remind us that rivers, like history, run in cycles that our great disruptors risk rupturing for the sake of a quick buck.

These poems have, as I mentioned, the qualities of the snapshot, quick, fresh, and sometimes a bit technically imperfect; for example, the ‘and I think that’ in the poem quotes is a bit like the edge of a thumb intruding on the frame. However, they also contain flashes of compositional brilliance. For instance, the 16th poem contains the line

nothing is easier than erosion or division

This is one of the most perfectly balanced instances of verbal music I’ve come across in ages, from the initial and final ‘n’s via the visual assonance of the two initial ‘e’s to the pattern of short and long vowels in the four stressed syllables

No-thing is EA-sier than er-O-sion or div-I-sion

(short – long – long – short)

Here is the poet’s ear in operation, an (almost) instinctual command of the sound language makes as it traces thought in the air. There is much to be admired in this book, this music more than anything.

sasquatchAmanda Bell’s the loneliness of the sasquatch is, apparently, a ‘transcreation’ of a work in Irish by Gabriel Rosenstock, but as I am unfamiliar with the original, I read the book as if it were an original piece. The cover helpfully informs the reader that the two most significant variations from Rosenstock are that Bell makes the sasquatch female and to remove the individual titles that are present in the original, thus presenting the work as a continuous series of short sections.

The sasquatch, or Bigfoot, is a specific instance the ‘wild man’ of a phenomenon that can be traced back to the earliest literature in the figure of Enkidu, the hairy man in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The ‘wild man’ figure can also be detected behind the idea of ‘the noble savage’, and hence as a form of pastoral innocence, a state of prelapsarian grace. By regendering the sasquatch, Bell reminds us, among other things, that even the noblest savage requires sexual reproduction if it is to exist, and by extension brings home the point that solitude is relative and depends on the presence of others of our kind from whom we can be isolated. She also challenges the idea of the sasquatch as a figure of fear; hers is a thinking, feeling, almost human Bigfoot. And in turn, the sources of her fear take on a new layer of meaning by virtue of her gender; it’s impossible not to read the dangers of encounters with wolves and bears without thinking of contemporary human parallels.

In her loneliness, she remembers a mother and father, and imagines a ‘you’ with whom an almost romantic relationship seems to be at least latent:

the first flower she plucked

she held out like a gift –

but for whom?

and six pages later:

more flowers for me!

but from whom? from whom?

no answer from the silent mountain

It’s easy to see from the writing here that both Bell and Rosenstock are seasoned writers of haiku, with that form’s emphasis on flashes of insight into and through the natural world, but the sasquatch as presented here takes it a step deeper than that, she is both in and of the natural world in a way that the alienated human isn’t. She partakes in non-human nature as a participant:

lean on me

she whispers to a tree

sensing

it’s about to fall –

lean on me

not that she lacks self-awareness, far from it, but her awareness is of herself as part of the weave of her world:

looking into the eyes of a deer –

you pause to consider me

without asking what I am

 

when you do not flee

our gazes meld

 

now I have a greater sense of what I am

The text of an e-mail interview between the two transcreators included in the back of the book opens up another layer of outsiderness that permeates the sequence, the position of a minority language speaker in an environment that is either hostile or indifferent to their language, specifically of an Irish speaker in predominantly Anglophone Ireland in the 21st century. If we accept that the language one speaks at least colours the way in which you perceive the world then it’s easy to see the sasquatch’s world view as reflecting that kind of difference. The poem includes a kind of reconfiguring of the Early Irish ‘Song of Amergin’, a poem of interconnectedness between the human and natural worlds. As translated by Bell, Rosenstock’s reworking ends with the lines ‘the silence without/the silence within’, which strikes me as being a decent summary of what this book is trying to evoke.

Bell is one of our most interesting younger exponents of the short poem in English, and. I have a sense that this book represents an opening up of new possibilities for her; one way or another, it’s a fine book in and of itself.

TOCBruno Neiva’s Table of Contents is an entirely different kind of beast, being the putative table of contents for an imagined academic work on gender (so maybe not that entirely different). It’s presented by Swedish small press Timglaset as a kind of university handout, stapled sheets in a light card folder and stamped DUBBLETT on the first page (helpfully parsed on the Timglaset web site as the Swedish for ‘duplicate’). Neiva is not primarily concerned with the gender concept but focuses on language categories and their academic appropriation, so that we have chapter headings that draw on cook books (Gender au gratin), software development (Gender unicode), popular culture (Gender cred), MBA textbooks (Value-add gender), lit crit (Iambic gender), political thought (Gender derive) and so on.

The effect is both humorous and serious at the same time, and an added dimension is added by the page numbering for each chapter or section, which leads the reader to reflect on the question of academic prioritisation of one topic over another, why one chapter merits a single page while others are significantly longer. It also makes for a wonderfully disjunctive litany when read aloud. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of so-called ‘conceptual’ poetry, but Neiva’s work, here and elsewhere, is a lot more pleasurable and thought provoking that that of many more notorious exponents of the genre.

Finally, it’s good to see Augustus Young’s The Credit back in print and finally gathered into a single volume. I have little to add to my comments about this work included in an earlier review of his m.emoire:

‘Young’s next two books pointed in a somewhat different direction, however. The first, Dánta Grádha. Love Poems from the Irish (AD 1350-1750) saw him become more engaged with syllabic verse structures, while Rosemaries. A Verse Sequence, published by Coffey’s Advent Books, combined autobiographical themes with an increasing facility for rhyme. These strands came together in The Credit. A Comedy of Empeiria, published in 1980, a fictional bildungsroman in syllabic ottava rima.

‘When The Credit. Book Two / Book Three appeared six years later it consisted of a mix of that same verse structure and a type of rhymed open field composition in the form of a kind of Brechtian epic drama. It was now clear that Young was doubly outside, associated with the Irish avant garde but unwilling to conform to narrow notions of the experimental. Young is very much a one-off writer and The Credit remains an unrecognised landmark text.’

If you don’t know Young’s work, you really should, if you’ve never read The Credit get a copy and read it. There’s nothing else quite like it in the entire corpus of Irish poetry.