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  • Billy Mills 12:03 on 23/06/2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: poetry   

    Recent Reading June 2022 Part 2 

    Riptide, Amanda Bell, Doire Press, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-907682-85-8, €12.00

    Revolution, Amanda Bell, wildflower poetry press, 2021, ISBN: 979-8565843385, £6.00

    Wintermoon, Robert MacLean, Isobar Press, 2022, ISBN 978-4-907359-39-3, £11.83

    Amanda Bell’s Riptide is a mix of ‘conventional’ poems, haiku and haibun (or perhaps haibun-like texts) that makes for an interesting set of contrasts. As the title would lead you to expect, the sea features as a central preoccupation, as do the symbolist paintings of Edvard Munch. The book is dedicated to Bell’s daughters, and questions of family also run through the collection. For me, however, the main thing that comes across is the contrasting styles between the longer poems and the haiku/haibun.

    The contrast is evident in ‘Sea, My Love’ where the sea is addressed directly, personified:

    Dear Sea, you feel like home

    when I slide into your icy embrace

    hissing like coal.

    The first time I broached your shallows’

    combed through your jewelled weeds,

    dark kelp parted to reveal, then re-conceal,

    with each successive wave.

    While these lines, and the entire poem, make interesting sound patterns and are well written, there is, I think, a sense of the reader being led by the hand too much; the subjective element in stark contrast with the objective directness of a haiku that appears just a few pages later:

    drifts of seafoam

    the clack of a sea otter

    smashing a clam

    For me at least, an entire world is evoked in this dozen words, while the more capacious earlier poem excludes by over-evoking. There’s an interesting case in point towards the middle of the book where a poem rising from a visit to the Vigil of Our Lady of Ransom in Cadiz is immediately followed by a haibun concerning the same event. In the poem we read

    Before the Residencia inmates line up in chairs

    to watch the train of brass and incense pass.

    I tuck a little card into my billfold, and peruse it

    over tapas. Redemptionis captivorum. On the

    countertop a ham-stand with a black pig’s leg,

    the small neat foot en pointe, tilts heavenwards;

    I let its rich smoked fat melt on my tongue,

    and afterwards recall display, not sacrifice.

    Again, this is a well-written piece of work, but for me the ham is being asked to do too much work, to be something other than ham, to stand for rather than simply stand. By way of comparison, on the next page we read:

    Tonight, the Vigil of Our Lady of Ransom, Nuestra Señora de la Merced, is honoured by a procession through the parish.

    tapas pile up –

    from distant lanes

    the sound of drumming

    moonlight –

    through winding alleys

    I follow trumpets

    Here the elements of the evening fall into place more naturally, each thing itself, each thing part of the larger picture, with nothing forcedly ‘poetic’ getting in the way of the poetry.

    Which is not to say that bell’s ‘conventional’ poems lack interest; some of them are very fine indeed and ‘A Compost Bin in Rathmines’ is a tour-de-force riff on Derek Mahon’s ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’. It just strikes me that she is at her best in the haibun and haiku gathered here.

    Speaking of which, her Revolution is a set of 24 calendar haiku, two per month, with he interesting twist that the calendar in question is the French Revolutionary version, with Bell choosing to start with spring rather than autumn. In each case, the haiku are thematically linked to the month name.

    The punning title is almost too obvious to mention.

    Reviewing a chapbook that consists of 72 short lines of poetry isn’t a simple matter, so what I intend to do is to tease out some of the implications of just one haiku, the first of the pai for Messidor, Month of Harvest 19 June – 18 July:

    six weeks of drought

    blackbirds in the cherry tree

    pick each stone clean

    So many layers get folded in to these 13 words. The birds, too, are harvesting, and the sweet, juicy cherries provide food and drink in time of drought. Beyond that, there is the compassion of the orchard owner who shares their crop with the thirsty birds, compassion being central to the Buddhist haiku tradition.

    Crucially, the sense is framed in a delicate verbal music, those long ‘e’ vowels (weeks/tree/each/clean) carrying the poem’s burden with a counterpoint of short ‘I’ sounds (six/birds/in/pick) and the necessary discord of the short ‘e’ in cherry. These patterns sit on a neat tension in the rhythm. For instance, the metricist in us might want to scan that final line as two iambs, but the ear hears for stressed syllables, or, if you will, a pair of spondees. This richness of formal control is characteristic of the work in Revolution. Highly recommended.

    Robert MacLean is a Canadian poet who spent a quarter of a century in Japan studying and practicing zazen under various masters. Wintermoon is, in a sense, the public fruit of those years. The book consists of 119 haiku presented in 11 titles sections. The book roughly follows the course of the year, but each section has its own unity and follows a distinctive arc.

    True to the tradition of Bashō, Buson and Issa, MacLean’s vision is democratic, with the same care and attention paid to the smallest thing as the biggest:

    cockroach scuttles

    across the sidewalk


    There’s a neat inversion of feeling here, a reminder that the cockroach has more to fear the human than we do the cockroach. This entering in to the world of the non-self is at one with the zazen imperative to study the self in order to forget the self:

    fall inside yourself

    until that word too

    is gone

    This departure from the self is also a departure from language; the ultimate end of haiku is silence. It is, however, important to remember that the loss of self is not to be feared but welcomed. It is the way to truly immerse yourself in the world of the ten thousand things:

    if you get lost

    far enough

    is that home

    Of course, MacLean is working in multiple traditions, and I detect an echo of Robert Frost in the opening haiku of the sequence ‘Back Route on Fushimi Inari’ to go along with the evocation of Bashō in the title:

    main path

    that way

    go this way

    The sequence is a good example of the distinctive arcs I mentioned above. After this opening, the sequence takes us through a set of luminous moments on this road less taken but in the end we have moved from the philosophical position of choice to the physical act of walking:


    feet braille-read the path

    in the dark

    This sense of returning to the dark points ahead to the shadow of death that hangs over much of the rest of the book. The next sequence, ‘Migrations’, deals with the deaths of parents, but it is the penultimate sequence, ‘January’ that is the most poignant of all. This set of eight haiku circles round the premature death of a son, the tone set by the opening poem again:

    the first place we phoned

    said he was too small

    for ashes

    There’s a world of heartbreak captured on these dozen words. The grief is personal and alienating:

    we go to separate rooms

    to take off

    our faces

    But the arc of the set is towards some kind of love, an image of unexpected union:

    breath whorl window

    snowflakes holding each other

    as they fall

    Here the act of falling is not one of oblivion, but of care. There’s an inevitable comparison with Issa’s great poems on the deaths of his children, but it’s to MacLean’s great credit that his poems more than hold their own.

    I realise that I’ve done little but quote in this review, but it’s in the nature of work of this crystalline clarity that all you can hope to do is point the reader at it and get out of the way. Let me finish by quoting one more time:


    from nowhere

    to nowhere

    Wintermoon takes us on just such a journey, but the pleasure is in the ten thousand things observed along the way.

  • Billy Mills 12:03 on 21/04/2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: poetry   

    Recent Reading: April 2022 

    A Journal of Enlightened Panic, Alan Baker, Shoestring Press, 2020, ISBN: 978-1-912524-56-3, £6.00

    light light light; 21 Poems, Charlie Ulyatt, Essence Press, 2022, Price dependent on location

    Wasp on the Prayer Flag, Maeve O’Sullivan, Alba Publishing, 2021, ISBN 9781912773398, £10/€12/$15

    ‘When a man goes out’, the opening poem in Alan Baker’s pamphlet, begins with an echo of the folk tradition, specifically the ballad known as ‘As I Roved Out’:

    When a man goes out on a Sunday morning among May-month trees

    (maple, sycamore, rowan, oak) and sees the tarmac paths,

    the metal bench, the individual grass stalks and daises

    and realises they’re the same ones he saw forty years ago

    Baker’s quickly moves away from the folk tale of sex and deceit towards a journey through a closely observed world was the poem turns first to a meditation on the ecological impacts of our actions, the responsibilities of the artist, and finally the speaker’s mortality, via a return to song:

    The songs of summer, where are they? They’re so dependable.

    but achingly lonely, so forget them and consider instead

    the thoughts a man may encounter as he goes out

    on a Sunday morning walking the park in the autumn of his life.

    We are travelling but going nowhere except towards an encounter with the self, whatever that may be. The uncertainty and hesitancy of our going in deftly echoed in the weaving of two and three syllable feet, an expectation of an iambic rhythm established and then disrupted by dactyls and amphibrachs knitted together by assonantal patterns of sound in long, capacious lines.

    The idea of journey is taken up in the long closing poem ‘Voyager’ which blends the interstellar travels of the titular space probe, the third-person wanderings of Alan through an urban landscape, and stories of seafaring, including references to the Odyssey, specifically the Nekyia:

    I think the dead talk to me said Alice,

    but Alan doesn’t want to hear that

    even though he’s setting out to meet them.

    This journey towards the dead takes on more significance at the end when we’re informed in a postscript that the poem is for Baker’s mother, who died in 2015.

    Baker plays neatly with he conventions of narrative to create a sense of distance and dislocation:

    Alan is pleased to announce that Night

    and its attendant Deserted Street

    stretched out before him and required

    that he walk. That such walks

    have the quality of dream.

    Between these two longish narrative(ish) poems we find a number of shorter lyrics, mostly addressed to poets and artists. While these are interesting, the meat of the pamphlet is in the bracketing poems discussed above.

    While Baker immerses us in the conventions of language, Charlie Ulyatt is engaged in a very different approach to poetry.  Here words are stripped of their significance so that their meanings become clear, or at least less unclear. He’s a minimalist, not in the sense of, say, Philip Glass, but in the same way that Issa is a minimalist. The focus is sharp, defined, and deceptively simple. The poems are full of floating pronouns with no referents which opens up these tiny texts to vistas as large as the reader’s experiences:











    This poetry is almost impossible to discuss, it is, so to speak, what it is, and the temptation is just to point at it and say ‘read’. The movement across the 21 poems collected here is towards silence, to the realisation that the use of words is to bring us to the now and leave us there, connected to some kind of essence:








    And that is enough. Ulyatt has elevated his chosen poverty of means, his deliberately restricted linguistic range to the condition of art.


    There is, of necessity a similar but different narrowness to Maeve O’Sullivan’s book of haiku and senryu Wasp on the Prayer Flag. The book is divided into three sections. The first, Seasons, is what we might think of as the ‘traditional’ format for arranging haiku. The second, Sequences, comprises poems primarily concerned with specific locations. The final section, Senryu, contains sequences concerning human nature, with some focus on bereavement and the Covid pandemic. These on the whole are more serious, less ironic, that you might expect from senryu.

    Rather than discussing the themes and topics covered, I’m going to focus on a few individual poems to look at how O’Sullivan handles the limitations and potentials of her chosen forms. First, there’s this from the ‘Howth Head’ sequence:

    yellow furze in bloom

    back down the hill

    hot whiskies on the beach

    There are varieties of furze that bloom all year round, but traditionally it’s a flower of spring, its golden glow reflecting the warm-cold nature of early sunshine. The hot whiskey echoes this idea of warmth in cold while also providing a visual parallel of the yellow of both flower and sun. The plural ‘whiskies’ introduce a sense of companionship, of a shared human warmth; it’s a whole picture, a cycle of place and time, evoked in 13 words.

    There’s an element of a kind of rural psychogeography underlying the place sequences, in the casual but close attention to detail and the interplay between ‘natural’ and ‘human’ elements apprehended. Take this haiku from the ‘Kerry Dreamtime’ sequence:

    a Speckled Wood lands

    on Japanese knotweed


    the specificity in the naming of the butterfly brings the reader to close focus as it lands on the invasive week, introduced by human intervention and considered a pest but serving the insect’s purposes as well as any native plant would. The last line then folds the warning against cutting, and thereby spreading, the weed into a concern for the scene as a whole, with butterfly, plant and sign forming a composition from which nothing can be removed without disturbing some kind of microcosmic balance.

    The last example I want to look at is from the ‘Pandemic’ senryu sequence:

    in separate trees

    a pair of magpies

    a pair of collared doves

    The simple complexity of this short poem is what strikes me. The book is full of birds, just being birds. On one level, it’s possible to read the poem as analogical with the human situation during lockdown, separated as we were in our tiny bubbles, alone together. But that’s only one level, perhaps the least interesting one; what these birds do is to remind us that there is a world and a life beyond our concerns, and that it endures without us. During lockdown, many of us became more aware of the avian world, but birds became no more aware of us, they just carried on being birds. This is the picture that O’Sullivan, in her typically understated formal control, presents to us here. This is a book to read and reread.

  • Billy Mills 08:58 on 11/04/2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: poetry   

    Recent Reading March/April 2022: A Review 

    Stone Mountain Fairy Shrimp, James Goodman, Guillemot Press, 2022, ISBN 978-1-913749-22-4, £12.00

    YARN, Peter Dent, Leafe Press, 2021, ISBN: 978-1999945114, £9.00

    Life Here is Full of Tomorrows, Mélisande Fitzsimons, Leafe Press, 2021, ISBN: 9781999945190, £8.00

    The question of what ecopoetry, or an environmentally engaged poetry, might look like is, I think, extremely unresolved. Opinions range from the view that ecopoetics are purely a way of reading poems, and not a viable approach to making them to the conflation of nature poetry with ecological work. I have long argued against this last position: it seems evident that poetry that uses capital N Nature as a proxy for human emotions, that indulges in the pathetic fallacy, for example, is egocentric rather than ecocentric. Wordsworth, to take a salutary instance may be a Nature poet but his work is not in any meaningful sense engaged with the natural world as a system in which the human is just one part.

    James Goodman’s work in Stone Mountain Fairy Shrimp takes a very different approach. Goodman is concerned to engage with impending and actual ecological disasters and our roll in them and to place the human and non-human in scale, while accepting, indeed confronting, the limitations of language for the task in hand. A number of the poems here draw on the IUCN redlist of threatened species as source material, using a range of technical procedures to bring this material into poetic focus.

    For example, the book begins and ends with a pair of list poems that use typography to emphasise sense. The first, ‘Redlist’ begins:

    Branchinella lithaca (Stone Mountain Fairy Shrimp)

    Status: Critically Endangered under criteria B1+2cd ver 2.3

    (needs updating)

    and closes, after a series of 13 intervening entries each in a smaller font than the previous:

    Oryx dammah (Scimitar-horned Oryx)

    Extinct in the wild, ver 1.1

    The closing poem, ‘Black’, consists of a list of species from the redlist whose names begin with the word black. This time the font stays the same size, but as we move down the list the print fades until the last line, ‘Blackwinged Thrush’, is almost illegible.

    These poems make material the process of species extinction in a manner that a more discursive poetry would fail to achieve. They also represent Goodman’s ability and willingness to use scientific language, as opposed to the language of sentiment, into his work. This ability to integrate science into his work is one defining characteristic of the book:

    Remember when sunlight had that peculiar quality

    of being produced by a fusion reaction of hydrogen?

    And remember when small objects used to be attracted

    by larger ones, albeit weakly, and the word ‘gravity’

    would be used to describe this, as when a curtain hangs?

    [from ‘The Curtains’]

    The shift between registers works nicely to create and confound expectations, while the past tense makes me, at least, consider the poem as something of a comment on our dangerous drift towards science denial.

    Contrasting language registers are also the organising principle in ‘Morro Shoulderband’, which folds items from the consumer price index basket into another list of species form the redlist. This placing in juxtaposition of such ‘necessities’ as Chilled Pot Dessert with things that are actually necessary is as telling a take on our human (lack of) priorities as you could ask for.

    Elsewhere, Goodman revels in the physicality of the spoken language, as in these lines from ‘From the woods and into the exploding fields’, one of a series of poems celebrating doves and pigeons:

    I say the names   quist   quest

    culver    culver    cushat    curhat

    its meat vinous and stilted

    its plumage cryptic

    Once again, I’m drawn back to Bashō’s ‘from pines, learn pine; from bamboos, bamboo’; Goodman’s poems approach this condition of identification in ways that have nothing to do with the haiku tradition, but the result is the same in that they lead us into a contemplation of nature in its haecceity and it is this that makes them properly ecocentric.

    Goodman is a poet whose work is new to me; Peter Dent is someone whose work I’ve known for decades now. The 61 short prose pieces that make up Yarn are, I suppose, typical of his late style. Each piece contains the word ‘yarn’ in its title, and the punning use of that word as story and thread is the principle organising factor of the book. Each piece is a yarn of sorts comprising multiple strands or threads woven to form a life, or lives, in absurdist snapshots. The sense of discrete strands is emphasised visually by the use of double (or possibly triple) letter spacing between sentences, creating an idea of an open weave fabric. The weave is also held in tension linguistically between anaphoric and exophoric reference: “How eerie when sentences connect with others typed earlier.”

    For me, one key thread is expressed in the final sentence of the second piece, ‘A YARN FOUND WANTING’: “The job of the living unfailingly is ‘to be undead’.” On one level, this links with recurring images of aging that run through the book (“the skin of my (fast depleting) teeth”); on another, it echoes the poet’s belief in the act of writing as affirmation of life. Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate what’s going on is to quote a full yarn:


    Did she really arrive from a village with church and steeple – a stream with duckweed?   Did I really climb over the college railings and help myself to bluebells?   How often does a siren warn of an enemy approaching?   Is your house still full of things of worn-out beauty: to what extent do you consider you patch and mend?   If a job’s not worth the aggravation forget it.   Asked how you’re feeling everybody I know grumbles.

    The opening sentences evoke a personal and historical past; a gone world in both senses. The text then shifts to a past-in-the-present world in which the yarn is put to practical use (“patch and mend”) to keep that past undead. This is the ‘job’, but so I the act of writing, of preserving life through words. Finally, the “mustn’t grumble” cliché is undermined in a way that seems to say that grumbling is part of being “undead”. It’s a story of youth and age, of youth seen from the perspective of age, of the past alive in the present.

    There’s also a considerable paying attention to the sounds of the language used. For example, take the repeated long ‘e’ sounds in the first sentence: she/really/steeple/stream/duckweed. Similarly, there’s another sting of long ‘I’ sounds in the second sentence. These sound pattens are another yarn in the weave.

    Although one of the shorter yarns in the book, I think Dent’s method is amply illustrated by it. The bringing together of apparently unrelated strands creates a sense of a living mind at work, filtering the threads of experience as they occur to create patterns that are whole in unexpected ways.

    Mélisande Fitzsimons’ Leafe booklet also consists of short prose pieces, 39 of them on the verso pages, each with a matching reproduction of an old postcard from Tom Jackson’s Postcards from the Paston the recto.

    There’s an interesting tension between the age of the postcards and the references in the text to TikTok and lockdown. The result is a kind of timeless zone in which we get glimpses of conversations between the generally nameless authors of the cards and the implicit ‘yous’ to which they are addressed. Each card has the potential to open out in the mind of the reader to create in the mind a rounded picture of these paired lives. Let’s take as an example opposite a card that carries a photo of the bay in question completely people-free:

    Starehole Bay, Salcombe. A local card, obviously. We all remember the weather last May, at least we had sunshine to tan our way out of lockdown. No such luck this year. Sometimes this feels like a conversation with a hostage taker we can’t get out of or like being stuck in a hammock forever. Still, I remain optimistic.

    The somewhat eerie emptiness of the image and the idea of hostage-taking speak to each other across the gap, creating a tension that is semi-resolved in that final sentence, a sentence that opens as many doors as it closes.

    Interestingly, despite the fact that each of the 39 texts here are stand-alone, there is an irresistible readerly urge to find an over-arching narrative arc in a book that has “One feels that there is something wrong. Perhaps there is.” on the first page and “This is the last you will hear of me.” as its closing sentence. This arc has something to do with physical and temporal displacement and it is tempting to read it as being rooted in the Covid experience. I may be quite wrong as to Fitzsimons’ intent, but authorial intent is so overrated.

    Reading these two Leafe books set me to thinking about the unanswerable question ‘what is prose poetry?’ On the whole, I’m inclined to think that the answer has something to do with a technique that is less concerned with meaning or plot than with sound, rhythm, verbal music. By this deeply subjective measure, Dent’s work strikes me as being prose poetry and Fitzsimons’ as a kins of micro fiction. Not that it matters much in the end; both books are full of quiet pleasure.

  • Billy Mills 09:47 on 15/03/2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: poetry   

    Kim Dorman's Kerala Journal and VOU: Visual Poetry, Tokio, 1958–1978, Taylor Mignon (ed.): A Review 

    Kerala Journal, Kim Dorman, Xylem Books Lign Series 4, 2021, ISBN 978-1-9163935-5-4, £10.00

    VOU: Visual Poetry, Tokio, 1958–1978, Taylor Mignon (ed.), Isobar Press, 2022, ISBN: 978-4-907359-38-6, £15.00

    Bashō advised poets ‘From pines, learn pine; from bamboos, bamboo’. Kim Dorman is one of a handful of living English language poets to carefully heed this advice. The poems in Kerala Journal are, we’re told in an author’s note at the back of the book, inspired by, among other things, ‘the poetic travel diaries of Bashō’ but these are no mere imitations of the master haikuist, but rather an application of an approach to poetry, and to the world, that is derived from close reading resulting in poems that capture moments of silent apprehension in precisely carved fragments of language. In addition, Dorman draws on Hindu, Chinese and classical European traditions and on what might loosely be called the Imagist tradition in English-language poetry.

    And his world spans both what we term the ‘human’ and the ‘natural’; like Bashō, Dorman is concerned with how his neighbours might manage to live:

    By the paddy bund

    an old man

    grows melons.

    The old man inhabits the same world, the same field of apprehension, as a bird or a pebble, and that field is not a human privilege, but one that is shared by other eyes, in a kind of continuum of observation, a unity:

    I toss a small


    into the river.

    A kingfisher

    sees it


    in silence

    And this silence is the natural destination of Dorman’s language, but it is the silence that comes from having said that which is to be said, not the silence of having nothing to say.

    At the heart of this work is a concept of analogy that transcends comparison to open tiny doors into larger worlds. Take for instance this haiku-like piece:

    morning sky

    the pale calligraphy

    of birds

    A moment of recognition that brings together more strands than it uses words. The reader may think of certain Japanese ink drawings, Chinese ideograms and Pound’s theories concerning them, a haiku by Bashō that reads ‘higoro nikuki / karasu mo yuki no / ashita kana’ in Romanji and might be rendered as ‘bloody crow /he too this morning / against the snow’ and the Greek myth of Hermes inventing the alphabet after observing cranes in flight.

    In this extraordinary book, it is apparent that Dorman has learned the world from the world and has found shapes made of words in which to render what he has learned. It’s a book to read, reread and read again, as I can tell you from experience.

    VOU: Visual Poetry, Tokio, 1958–1978 is the latest instalment in Isobar’s presentation of a world of Japanese poetry beyond haiku, and a handsome piece of publishing it is, with reproductions of over 80 works by nine different contributors to the magazine, an introduction by Eric Selland, an Editor’s Afterword and a one-page introduction for each poet. The magazine grew out of the VOU club, founded in the 1930s by Kitasono Katue whose contacts with Pound and others brough an international modernist dimension to the group.

    In the introduction, Selland contrasts the work of the VOU poets with the older Japanese tradition of combining writing and painting. Where these works depart from that tradition, he argues, lies in the fact that in the VOU work, ‘dependence on semantic relationships (or ideogrammatic relationships) has been broken, moving the art more into the area of total abstraction’. This also means that, on the whole, this visual poetry has little enough in common with what we think of as concrete verse in the tradition of Stephen Hawes, George Herbert or Apollinaire, where language is formed into shapes that are readable both semantically and visually.

    One or two pieces are clearly concrete in this sense, ‘op. I’ by Kiyohara Etsushi, with its rays of language cascading down the page clearly owes something to Apollinaire, while a number of works by Takahashi Shōhachitō, most notably ‘[shadow]’ incorporate blocks of Kanji with shapes and objects to create texts where the language used has a semantic relationship to the overall image.

    Neither are the VOU poems scores for performance as in the work of Jackson McLow and Bob Cobbing.

    This is not to say that the VOU poets don’t ever incorporate language into their work, they frequently do, but it is used as a purely visual element, not intended to be read, as in the series of text/letter picture pieces by Shimizu Toshihiko where fragments of decontextualised text are incorporated into abstract collage compositions reminiscent of Cubism or Dada. Ironically, the work in the book that most closely resembles pure concrete is his ‘hommage a augusto de campos: popcrete poem 1968’. This is classically concrete in as much as it represents a shape, a perspectival triangle with its vanishing point just above the apex, but the elements that comprise this shape are not language, but images.

    As this indicates, not all the works here use text elements of any sort beyond the title. As already mentioned, much of the visual work relates to early 20th century European avant garde art, the work of Seki Shiro is unusual in that his poems resemble monochrome Klee or Mondrian. Other contributors use treated photographs as their texts. All of this raises questions around what makes these works poems. As I’ve already said, overwhelmingly they do not incorporate text as semantic elements but depend solely on visual composition of image and text elements (when present) for their impact. In what sense are these pieces poetry rather than visual art? Part of the answer is, I think, the mode of reproduction. Although the VOU poets held exhibitions (there’s a photograph in the book of one such event), the pieces were primarily consumed as printed pages in the journal. The flatness of photographic reproduction means that the works are drained of any painterly qualities and become things to be read rather than looked at. This flatness, it seems to me, is the defining characteristic of the work gathered in this most interesting collection, allowing the works to open up moments of pure, timeless perception, which is, I suppose, one of the primary functions of poetry, albeit that the language of these poems is a purely visual one. By calling them poems but denying them any semantic resonance, the VOU poets are calling attention to the relationship between language, the image and thought in ways that leads us back to poetry with wider horizons.

    But it is, inevitably, a quality that resists description in language, so I’ll complete this review by sharing an image of Tsuji Setsuko’s work ‘Photo poem’, which, I think, gives a flavour of what the reader might expect:

    In the process of working on this review, I asked Poetry Twitter a very simple question, ‘visual poetry, yes or no?’ A couple of interesting things came out of the large number of responses it got. Overwhelmingly, the answers were in the affirmative, which surprised me a bit. More importantly, the vast majority of respondents were conflating concrete and visual work and a number of people stated that all poetry is visual, or at least all printed poetry. This led me to respond: ‘There’s a continuum I think between ‘normal’ text poetry, concrete poetry and visual poetry, with a space in there for sound poetry, or text as score for performance. The VOU work is pretty close to one end of the spectrum.’ If we think of, say, a sonnet, the form on the page is a kind of vehicle for carrying and organising sound and sense. With so-called free verse, the printed representation of regular, predictable stanza breaks and rhyme patterns takes this a step further, with line and stanza breaks, indents and other visual elements acting as a kind of scoring of sound and semantics. Two strands flow from this development; on the one hand you have pure sound poetry, where the text has no meaning until it is performed and on the other you have concrete poetry, where form is both visual and semantic, shape and language in harmony. Although concrete poetry has roots in Hawes and Herbert, it was the move away from formal verse that took hold in the 1910s that enabled a real flowering of the form. Visual poetry as represented in this anthology moves a step further, separating semantics from language. Here the form is the meaning and words become pure visual elements.

    In the end, it probably doesn’t matter if the works of the VOU poets are poetry or visual art, they’re interesting, provoking and generally just good, and this anthology is a vital piece of recovery. Once again, Isobar have introduced an English-reading audience to something vital and almost unknown to us.

    • maurice scully 18:31 on 17/03/2022 Permalink | Reply

      Hi Billy + Catherine

      I’ve a new book on the way & will be launching next month with Erica [of Coracle] who has a new [prose] book coming from Les Fugitives at the same time too.

      Details: Tues 12th April @ Books Upstairs, 7pm. Be great to see you there.

      Happy Paddy’s Day [in these dark, dark days]


    • Billy Mills 16:00 on 31/03/2022 Permalink | Reply

      Hi Maurice

      Great news. I don’t know if we can make it, but maybe.


  • Billy Mills 10:06 on 22/02/2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: poetry   

    Recent Reading February 2022 

    Covodes 1-19, Robert Hampson with Joanna Levi, Artery Editions, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-871671070, £10.00

    You cannot see yourself with your eyes shut, Sally Barrett, Some Roast Poets, 2021, £5.00 + P+P

    Wonderland in Alice: Plus Other Ways of Seeing, Paul Brookes, Jane’s Studio Press, 2021, ISBN: 978-1739828103, £5.99

    Postamble, For an Invisible Sangha, Peter Jaeger, if p then q, October 2021, £8.00, ISBN: 978-1-9999547-9-6

    Dánta Grádha: Love Poems from the Irish (A.D. 1350-1750), Augustus Young, (3rd, revised, edition), The Duras Press/Menard Press, 2021, ISBN 9781874320746, £10.00

    Reading Robert Hampson’s Covodes I was immediately reminded of Brian Coffey’s statement in ‘Concerning Making’: “The political use of words kills the capacity to use words to make poems.” Hampson’s book is a set of 19 odes, of sorts, that take in Brexit, Trump, hobby space travel, the general political landscape of the last few years and, of course, Covid. The spirit of the work is captured in a line from the fourth Covode, ‘”in future, words will have no value”. Hampson teases out this idea by playing with a range of words and phrases that have recently been drained of meaning and value, including “test and trace”, “sovereignty”, “vulnerable” and “loved ones”:

    the risk was a short-term lock-in

    & the loss of “loved ones”

    (no-one mentions the unloved)

    we stay inside

    the structures of racism

    where all men flash binary

    for the sake of the chancellor

    [from ‘Covode 6 – risky business’]

    Here we see how Hampson folds his multiple concerns into a single nexus with the multiple challenges that confront this ambition for equity that should underpin our society seen as a continuum. Against which we see the prevailing influence of money and power, with, for example, the hippie idealism of The Eden Project morphed into a kind of delightful bubble for the rich, Boccaccio’s villa full of people with no interesting stories to tell:

    the residents need all this stuff

    luxury is the key to survival

    along with regular spraying

    & varying degrees of fumigation

    [from ‘Covode 4: the pleasure dome’]

    As the title strongly hints, Hampson is playing here with the ode form, much as many of his peers have been doing with the sonnet. These Covodes are irregular in form, and if we think of the ode as a poem ‘in praise of’, they circle around the idea that there is little to praise in a world where:

    we try to remember the names

    of those who have been killed

    of those who have died

    obliterated by this politics

    [from ‘Covode 15: something in the air’]

    In the end, what there is to praise is a kind of low-level resilience, a will to survive:

    our conversations were clotted

    with new terminology

    our exchanges grew softer

    as restrictions eased

    then the second wave broke

    with an end to the conversations

    the walks across the fields

    our lungs full of / cold city air

    exhausted frustrated increasingly

    emotional about / missed connections

    we return to a baseline

    knowledge of what closeness might be

    [from ‘Covode 18: out of this world’]

    Again, the role of language in disrupting our ‘knowledge of what closeness might be’ is central to Hampson’s concerns. It’s all too easy to dismiss poetry that s ‘about’ writing, about language, as being a bit up itself. What this book reminds us is that the language we use forms the society we are, for good or ill.

    The book comes with a CD of the poet reading the text interspersed with music for solo cello by Joanna Levi which I enjoyed but feel unqualified to comment on.

    While I’ve known Robert Hampson’s work for decades (and I should add that hardPressed poetry has published him), Sally Barrett’s work is entirely new to me. You cannot see yourself with your eyes shut is a longish poem in fourteen sections, plus prologue and epilogue, that traces an undefined ‘she’ through an often dreamlike melding of memory and present experience that hangs on the idea that knowledge, including self-knowledge, is provisional and imperfect. This begins with the title with its implication that self-knowledge is superficial, in the literal sense, and not driven by introspection. The ‘she’ figure sees herself as others see her:

    she is three out of ten                    bucked teeth

    surprise her again            protruding

    Images of the self as seen in a mirror or photograph run through the sequence and serve as a way for the character to step out of a world in which “there is danger all around” and where “clothes help her to feel real”. This culminates in the final text in the pamphlet, ‘Group Exercise’, that serves as an epilogue to the epilogue:

    take a photograph of your face

    imagine you are another person

    another person you do not know

    take a good look at yourself

    describe what you see

     This emphasis on the surface, on face value, raises interesting questions around the nature of identity and the self and, indeed, the nature of the real, that Barrett is wise enough to leave hanging. The nearest she comes to an answer is the end of the epilogue, a poem that begins with a man peering over a fence to intrude on the narrator’s tranquillity and forcing her indoors by his presence.  Meanwhile, a boat passes on a nearby canal. It has all the hallmarks of an all-too-familiar story, but the ending of the poem undercuts readerly expectations by emphasising the fictive nature of this reality:


    that is all a lie

    there is no man no fence. no boat and no embankment

    It’s a fitting closing to a sequence that has much to say about perception and the self and does so interestingly.

    There’s a passage near the end of Paul Brookes’ Wonderland in Alice that could almost have been written in response to Barrett:

    To survey the whole scene

    You must close your eyes’

    commands the Red Queen

    of Alice. But then I won’t

    be able to see anything.’

    You’ll be able to see

    the whole plan laid out,

    replies the Queen.

    [from ‘Survey’]

    This is the opening of the fourth poem in what is the second of a twin pair of seven-poem sequences that turn the already topsy-turvy world of the two Alice books on their heads, with disconcerting effect. Before the paired Alice sequences there are a series of individual poems that also look at the world askew: a child’s vision of a church and spire as a unicorn; natural phenomena refusing to behave as expected, a variation on the fairy tale motif of christening blessing that go wrong; the blurring of the lines between Life and Death as primal forces.

    It is, however, in the Alice poems that the collection really comes to life for me, the absurdist world of the originals bent back on itself:

    Teapot is fast asleep

    curled inside the dormouse

    curled inside Alice.

    This is the idea of the inner life taken to illogical extremes; everything is inside and is seen from that perspective, a phantasmagorical hall of mirrors:

    inside Alice

    the looking glass

    steps through her

    Brookes calls into question our sense of the self and of the ‘real’, and addresses this problem directly right at the end of the book in a passage that can serve as the end of my review of this intriguing collection:

    An odd thought pops

    into her head What or who

    do I make real? I can’t make

    up myself, can I? All

    that we see or seem

    is but the real

    within the real.

    In passing, I would like to note the illustrations by publisher Jane Cornwell, a set of drawings that marry something of the innocent menace of Tenniel’s defining images with the deceptive flatness of the graphic novel to make an apt companion to the texts.

    Peter Jaeger’s Postamble cries out to be read as a kind of postlude to he earlier Midamble, from the same publisher. The echoes start with the title, continue with the cover design (the earlier books all white cover with the single word title in gold on the spine followed here by an all-black cover with Postamble in grey-blue on this spine), and carries on through another link to the world of information tech.

    Inside, the use of white space is another visual echo, but the technique here is very different to that of the earlier book. Here Jaeger uses single lines separated by spaces, with the same structural model throughout: ‘in noun, phrase. These are organised in three sections, ‘34543’, ‘Painting Science’ and ‘Given Everything’. The blurb on the publisher’s website compares this to sonata form, and music does seem to be the best parallel for understanding how the book works. Each lime contains repetition and variation, and the three sections or movements work with different reading tempos, the first having 5 evenly-spaced lines per page, the second three, and the third seven, resulting in a kind of allegro, largo, molto allegro progression.

    In the first section, the nouns are taken from a range of natural objects, while the phrases are from a range of religious and spiritual writings, with he nouns being repeated in irregular patterns bit in partnership with different phrases. The resulting text minimalist, trance-inducing weave:

    in sand, one two three

    in thorns, postamble

    in herds, family

    in moss, idleness

    in wheat, a prayer

    The second section pairs ‘elements, chemicals and geological minerals found in pigment used by the Swiss painter Paul Klee, along with the titles of some of Klee’s works’, again with the same deployment of repetition and variation. I was reminded of Klee’s description of his artistic process as ‘taking a line for a walk.

    In the third section, ‘Given Everything’, the pattern is ‘in Name, the noun of Name’. It quickly becomes evident that the names used represent a broad section of culture and ethnicities; the 14 on the first page are: Aiko, Preem. Hayat, Pierre, Elsa, Rolf, Adam, Noor, Douglas, Kath, Edna, Bruce, Laure and Preem again. New names appear and then recur on either side of the comma, as do the nouns that represent essential characteristics of those named:

    in Li Wei, the sorrow of Adam

    in Natsume, the work of Wang Xiu Ling

    in Laurie, the sorrows of Mei

    in Xu Ling, the love of Andreas

    in Mira, the cells of Anita

    in Alma, the birth of Matsuo

    in José, the dreams of Silas

    The resulting litany seems like an effort to summon up the invisible Sangha or community of the subtitle. The section has an epigraph from the German mystic Meister Eckhart: “Could you completely forget yourself even for an instant, you would be given everything.” What Jaeger is pointing to, it seems to me, is that the process of forgetting the self depends on the interpenetration of the self with other selves in the ideal community the poem evokes. It’s a strange, wonderful effort.

    Augustus Young’s pamphlet of versions of poems selected from T.F. O’Rahilly’s 1916 anthology of the same name first appeared in 1975 and was reprinted in 1880. The pamphlet is a small classic, and anyone interested in Irish verse will welcome this reprint, especially as Young has added a new version, of O’Rahilly’s poem 12, ‘Coisg do dheór, a mhacaoimh mná’. The subject of these dánta grádha, or love poems, is, in O’Rahilly’s words, ‘love, and not the direct passion of the folk-singers or the high vision of the great poets, but the learned and fantastic love of European tradition, the amour courtois, which was first shaped into art for modem Europe in Provence, and found a home in all the languages of Christendom wherever a refined society and the practice of poetry met together.’ In short, they represent a slightly awkward marriage of the imported Norman ideas of courtly love with the long-established native Bardic tradition. The resulting poems take their content from the former and their forms from the latter, specifically the Bardic form of Dán Díreach, poems (to simplify enormously) in quatrains with a sophisticated use of assonance, consonance, alliteration, and rhyme (often assonantal half-rhyme to the English ear), mostly ABAB.

    In a preface, Young describes his versions as not being strictly literal but having a ‘literal conscience’, meaning that he tries to capture the essential meaning of the poem and then reflect the Dán Díreach form in English versification. This may become clearer by looking at a few lines from the new Poem 12. Here it is in the original:

    Iomdha ainnir mhánla shuairc

    ar gach bruach don loch-sa thíos,

    ag iarraidh mo mheallta uait,

    is ná bíodh gruaim ortsa tríd.

    And here’s a crude prose rendering:

    Many fine women from every bank of the lake below are trying to seduce me, but you needn’t worry about that.

    And another verse translation by Young’s one-time publisher, Michael Smith:

    Many’s the fine lady

    on the lakeside down below

    trying to tempt me from you,

    but you’ve no cause to care.

    The context is a glib man trying to dismiss his lover’s suspicions while taking some considerable pride in his ‘successes’ with other women. Smith’s version captures this, but really misses the element of song, the verbal music of the original.

    And now for Young’s rendering:

    I admit there’s been a few

    sprightly ones from around here

    who tried to coax me from you.

    But you have nothing to fear.

    The characteristically sardonic tone captures the situation perfectly, allowing Young to abandon the specificity of the lakeside setting so as to establish patterns of sound, not just the rhymes but the recurring ‘I’, admit/around and been/here assonances, to focus on the more obvious patterns. There’s nothing mawkish here, no Celtic Twilight twaddle, but the spirit of the original song shines through Young’s English surfaces. This book is an essential for anyone interested in Irish poetry, or in any poetry, for that matter. It can be purchased by contacting Impress Books

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