Tuesday, 15 November 2011
Beuckelaer reports from the biblical scene by Janet Kofi-Tsekpo
after four paintings by Joachim Beuckelaer at the National Gallery
A thousand fish found stranded in the middle
of a market town have had better days.
Hooked and gutted and sliding over
each other in barrels, they have the eyes
of humans who secretly worship nothing.
Some get a fair bit of attention
as they shimmy along the cobbled stones,
their mouths agape. Traders throw up their hands.
A man with long hair holds up two fingers,
says he knows nothing about it.
Singing sea shanties to the empty waters,
half the sailors are longing for their wives;
courtyard women who wring the necks of birds.
They lost their flight some time ago. Talons
are removed from the foot of a falcon
that like a slovenly girl lies featherless
amongst the ordinary poultry, partridges
and guinea-fowl, and other wild game.
What we create are pale imitations;
this meat on the hob, these bodies hanging
over a flame. The fire gently nibbles
the trees of the forest. She lays down
her blanket like a vixen covering
her young. A volcano is just
an adolescent nosebleed, an eruption
that might disturb her parents; make them
wake up and feel the heat of their own making.
As if it had been lifted into the air
and dropped again, the earth
belches something sweet,
shedding and renewing
by mere circumstance
the rotten and the riches,
as we scoop vegetables in their packs
and ignore the cauliflowers, smiling
superfluously like maiden aunts.
from New Poetries V © Janet Kofi-Tsekpo
The internet has many advantages for poetry, not least being blogs like New Poetries, which put poets and their readers in contact. Search engines and online encyclopaedias, too, are invaluable for tracing references and allusions. I often wonder how different the debates about ‘difficulty’ and ‘obscurity’ in modern poetry would have been if the early readers of, say, Pound’s Cantos had been able to look things up online – but of course, there are complex reasons and ramifications as to why poets felt the need to include so much in their work at just the time that they did (the influence of Ezra Pound’s poetics on the theories of Marshall McLuhan being a case in point). The internet is especially helpful with ekphrastic poems – poems about visual artworks – in enabling you to see the image, as in the case of Janet Kofi-Tsekpo’s “Beukelaer reports from the biblical scene”.
But it can be a double-edged sword. It’s easy to get tangled up in the chain of links – skim-reading articles, letting information stand in for understanding, even forgetting what it was you were trying to find out. In fact, these dangers are very similar to those faced by the critic writing on ekphrases: there’s a continual temptation to think that seeing the picture means knowing the poem, and vice versa, finally settling for a superficial acquaintance with both. One can perhaps guard against this by determining to look for what the poem is doing, either with the picture or on its own.
With these preliminary warnings, then, I would direct you to the National Gallery’s website, where you can see Joachim Beukelear’s “The Four Elements”. Look at them; scrutinise them; but then look back and see what Janet Kofi-Tsekpo makes of them.
In “Water”, the fish flopping over the foreground “have the eyes // of humans who secretly worship nothing”, a glazed, nihilistic stare. But look at the eyes of the humans in this scene. They look back, apparently surprised to find themselves being watched, but with only a bare minimum of interest. They seem to see us, but can’t; and this makes it unsettling to return their gaze, knowing it never reaches them. Contact vanishes into mise en abyme. What dead, empty eyes their spectator must have.
The sailors in “Air” are not in the picture; perhaps they’re the Disciples, just visible in the background of “Water”. In the foreground, their wives; beyond, a “slovenly girl” appears to flirt with someone’s prodigal son. There’s a contrast, not visible in the painting, between this open-air intimacy, and the loneliness of these women married to mariners. “Fire” continues the imagery of families and old flames, and seems to take off even further from the picture; while in “Earth”, the cauliflowers smile “superfluously like maiden aunts.” If this suite of poems has an underlying theme, without amounting to a message, it’s something to do with families: what drives them, and the times when that motor stalls.
And look: in the top left of “Earth”, the holy family, with the virgin mother, goes trundling over a bridge.
Wednesday, 2 November 2011
A Letter from Polème by Alex Wylie
This Year of Good God 1790 (blighted
be its annal!) year of common
rule, uncommon riot; the old ways rutted-at,
untenable, I rode southward
to Polème. Three days of cold (writing without light)
three nights, saddle-weary, well passed.
How slowly came I here! How masterfully kept
my back straight on the straight road back
to Hell – such wrought enormities housed in this place! –
dreaming of the green walks to come,
his gardens rustling rustic fictions in my brain.
The Count coddled me in rich wine.
I watched him lace the air and palated my quiet,
movement being air made flesh, flesh
unspeakable. Like an anxious shade, the candles
cast me on his lordship, arranged
thereon the wight of his lost house, an alien
cadenza playing on itself
(Nota, the question of the sum is yet unfixed
the Count is more distrait, abstracted, these last days –
if this seems strange I am sorry)
He admires my selflessness and confessed as much;
I confess in faith, coming to
his point of view, I admire him for saying so.
Quixote of your riven sky,
O Moon! Enmantled yet, my comprador of light!
For I would not alert my host
to this my writing – there is a weird, subtle wire
binds me to this blasted helix,
a thing of Youth with scant attachment to the world
taking account of dead money.
(Tempered in the hissing wine, the will – iron, but hot –
is forged and bent. See! in the glass
grows a dawn of iron, as wine passing hot through blood;
as through a washed-up, half-drowned wretch.
Dribbling white sand, he dreams himself a golden mouth.
Yet politicking with the Count,
I count myself, of late, with the dreamers, lying
earth-hooked, tracing his lineaments
on ruin’d cloud)
For what dim purpose came I so
slip-shoddy into Hell? Through purpose, accidence,
I am quite utterly absorbed –
his kindness adversarial compels me here –
the Oleanders spike my heart
like Opium – the Count coddles me,
holding me in usufruct as in rich wine
(writing in the dark is seldom easy, my friend)
from New Poetries V © Alex Wylie
“if this seems strange I am sorry.” Many of Alex Wylie’s poems are very strange, and ‘A Letter from Polème’ is no exception. In fact, it may be the oddest one I know – vocally, syntactically, down even to the very question of what is going on and what we are supposed to ‘take’ from it.
These are not, however, criticisms, and the above-quoted apology, though partly in earnest, is only partly so. With most of Wylie’s poems, and emphatically here, we are asked to enter the world of the voice almost entirely on its own terms. In fact, this is one of the main drivers behind the poems. They are voices from nowhere, placed somewhere, and trying to communicate. This poem is not in ‘Wylie’s’ voice, but that doesn’t necessarily set it apart. It is not an exercise in mimicry, a workshop entity, so much as a problematic means of self-expression, exploration, through the vehicle of another. Another way of saying that is that, although faked, the voice is entirely genuine and the distinction between voice and poet muddy.
On one level, ‘A Letter from Polème’ is a gothic romp, an anti-pretension piss-take of characters like Stoker’s Jonathan Harker – earnest penners in the diary of self-important thoughts and ‘unusual’ experiences. Wylie loves rhetoric, but is suspicious of it, so he glories in this opportunity to give his lyrical skills full rein (without having to take the rap) in lines like “the old ways rutted-at, / untenable” and “Dribbling white sand, he dreams himself a golden mouth”.
Yet, as that last line suggests, there is a wistfulness at play for the very ‘pretension’ which he seems to knock. This image, like many in Wylie’s poems, is in fact profoundly beautiful, and captures with succinctness the central dilemma of his art. Prophecy and the yen for ‘knowledge’ are prominent themes – in, for example, the “moonstruck man” in ‘The Star and the Ditch’ – and suggest, in the very mode of their expression, the sense that, at its best, humanity is a glorious, a wonder-inspiring thing. On the other hand, they are simultaneously qualified or cut down by both context and irony. Or perhaps the context is the irony. Stars always have a ditch to go along with them, the ‘light’ its opposite number in ‘dust’. And the seeker after ‘beauty’ or ‘truth’ is always overseen by a gallery of disapproving livers by commonsense, with whom Wylie is not entirely unsympathetic. In some cases, as in ‘Jericho’, the reader is included in that gallery. Does he distrust his reader? I think he does; I also think he’s right to. His poems are difficult to understand because they are uncompromising, refuse to pay their tithe in common currency – common in the sense of ‘shared’. They’re dispatches from the interior, hard-won, fiercely honest and always, of necessity, partly opaque. To use his own words, the poem is “an alien / cadenza playing on itself” – aware of its aloneness, trying to speak, but not willing to tell untruths to do so.
The gothic offers us a world turned upside down, turned against the accepted world, both as pure antagonism and as a means of showing the latter to itself. Wylie has a foot in both camps, and grants them equal ‘reality’, just as Lorca did the dream against the ‘real’. Past critics have found him difficult to write on, and have blamed him rather than themselves, which is mistaken. We shouldn’t be trying to sum these poems up. Rather, we should accept that they are difficult (though also very pure), and that, if we lack the critical vocabulary to pigeon-hole them, that is down to the uselessness of pigeon-holes, and also part of his point.
Saturday, 29 October 2011
Tuesday, 25 October 2011
At Burscough, Lancashire by Helen Tookey
Lancashire’s Martin Mere was the largest lake in England when it was first drained, to reclaim the land for farming, in 1697.
Out on the ghost lake, what's lost
is everywhere: murmuring in names
on the map, tasted in salt winds
that scour the topsoil, westerlies
that wrenched out oaks and pines, buried now
in choked black ranks, heads towards the east.
Cloudshadows ripple the grasses as the seines
rippled over the mere by night, fishervoices
calling across dark water. Underfoot, the flatlands'
black coffers lie rich with the drowned.
from New Poetries V © Helen Tookey
I’ve been reading Helen Tookey’s work with growing admiration. Her quiet, precise poems have a genuine eeriness – a spooky quality that I've met with nowhere else in recent poetry. I think it comes from the fact that she has interests in both archaeology and psychology, but knows intuitively that they aren't separate – that when we dig up the past it’s our own roots we are looking at; and when we explore the dark corners of our personal psyche, we’re also daring to open up the hidden aspects of our culture and society.
'At Burscough, Lancashire' is a case in point. The poem is about a lake that's no longer there. Helen Tookey uses its absence to evoke the landscape (a strange, nondescript no-man's-land) in vivid, sensuous detail but also with semantic depth, so that the placenames on the map recalling the lost mere merge into the sound of the wind, and the trees which still turn up now as fossilised bog oak and the like become disturbingly evocative of mass human graves. Ruminating on the loss of the mere, she writes, by implication, an elegy for the communities that lived and worked there and have now, like the lake, gone with hardly a trace. She also hints at the other cultural obliterations which have stained past centuries. The 'choked black ranks' recall ethnic cleansing, forced migration, mass starvation. And the simple fact that, over the centuries, many people, fishers and other, must have drowned in the lake and been forgotten. Even money is there, faintly, with the substitution of 'coffers' for the expected 'coffins'.
But it’s all held together by a consciousness which sees in a context of myth. The ‘fisher voices calling/across dark water’ are voices from the other side of the river – Styx or Lethe – that separates the dead from the living. These are the souls of the dead that might call to us in sleep. Could it even be that they are fishing for us? The choice choice of ‘flatlands’ is deft also – and again a neat substitution, because we would expect ‘wetlands’ (indeed, the remnants of Martin Mere are now a bird sanctuary run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust). Not just a neat label for the nondescript alluvial west-Lancashire landscape, it suggests a flat earth that might tilt up one day and show worrying things underneath. For the mathematically aware it also recalls Edwin Abbott’s 1884 Flatland, a brilliant Lewis-Carroll style fantasy which enables even the simplest person to understand the amazing nature of spatial dimensions.
Helen’s poem shows us just how many dimensions an absent lake and a depopulated landscape can have. And she tells us about it in such deceptively gentle and musical tones, hovering on the edge of blank verse, but always staying flexible, floating between four stresses and five – 'rippling' and 'murmuring' as the poem says. It's like listening to a lullaby that soothes and seduces with its beauty; but just might give you nightmares.
Wednesday, 19 October 2011
Marianne Moore disliking it.
Welcome to 'Our readers write', where we throw out a question related to poetry and ask readers to jump up and catch it. Got a question you'd like answered? Drop it in the comments section for use in the near future.
Reading over the introduction to New Poetries V and thinking about canons and contributions, who for you is an important poet with a small oeuvre?
Dan Burt: I take your question [w]ho for you is an important poet with a small oeuvre to mean, a dead poet to whom I return regularly. They are: Ransom and Snodgrass (Americans); Housman and Eliot (English).
Julith Jedamus: I would choose Bishop and Larkin: both perfectionists, both intensely private and self-censoring. Bishop published, if I recall correctly, seventy-eight poems in her lifetime; Larkin’s output, during the ten-year gestation of High Windows, was reckoned to be two-and-a-half poems per year. It is hard, in both cases, not to wish for more—and yet we have their prose (her travels, his jazz), their letters, and, controversially, their notebooks. How glad I am for his crossed-out cul-de-sacs, and tracks gone cold or stale; and her snatches of description (‘begonias ghostly in a galvanized bucket’) and rejected titles, her lists of possible rhymes (imposture/imposter) and musings on her art. In the unfinished essay ‘Writing Poetry Is an Unnatural Act’ she wrote that the qualities she admired most in the poems she liked best were ‘Accuracy, Spontaneity, and Mystery.’ Ah, yes....
Evan Jones: The question strikes me as very Modernist: Eliot published sixty-six poems, Marianne Moore seventy-one. But it brings to mind immediately a little-known Canadian-America poet, Joan Murray (1917-1942), whose work was published posthumously in one slim book, selected by Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Competition in 1947. For John Ashbery, she is 'one of the poets of the forties I most enjoy rereading'.
Rory Waterman: Well, there are many obvious choices, for all sorts of reasons: Wilfred Owen, Philip Larkin, A. E. Housman. But where would we be without the remarkable and tiny oeuvre of Ian Hamilton? No poet has squeezed so much out of so little. And whilst I'm on the subject, our perpetually back-patting generation (of poets, critics, magazines) would benefit equally from taking note of his editorship and his incisive criticism, as well as his catholic tastes.
Monday, 17 October 2011
Jericho by Alex Wylie
Funnily enough there's only airbetween us, no wallof monumental moment and renownto storm at, blow up or bulldoze down,nor lock to twist off with the minor key of song;
though for some reason – as you mark well –I've brought alongmy own wall-flattering trumpet to blowwith one desire, to enter Jericho.
from New Poetries V © Alex Wylie
I didn't notice for weeks. Perhaps my own upbringing, permeated by Bible stories, left me over-familiar, too complacent for close reading: the story of the Israelites marching around the walls of the besieged city of Jericho every day for a week until the sound of their trumpets (and Jehovah’s wrath) brought the walls to the ground. Or perhaps it was that off-hand opening: 'Funnily enough...' The letters are even deceptively simple in shape. For whatever reason, I had been reading the second-to-last line, as one might expect it, as a wall-flattening trumpet. But wall-flattering? What to make of that?
So, let’s go round it again. The poem is addressed to someone, thus there's some kind of relationship in play – but the speaker is disconcerted by the fact is that 'there's only air / between us, no wall'. It feels like there should be a barrier between them; the feeling is so strong that it is itself a barrier. In the tradition genre of carpe diem poems – exemplified, in English, by Marvell's 'To his Coy Mistress' – the poet employs his eloquence to persuade an unwilling woman into accepting his advances. The story of Jericho might seem like a perfect conceit to deploy in this situation. But the declared permeability disarms the usual demolition strategies; and the superbly Augustan metaphor (not forcing a new trope, but finding it in the language itself) of the 'lock to twist off with the minor key of song' implies, through the metonymic connection of song and poetry, that poetry isn't going to guarantee access, either.
But the speaker – the poem's Joshua – has brought along his 'wall-flattering trumpet', one that will not bring down but actually build up the wall, however insincerely. In fact it already has: the wall 'of monumental moment and renown', with its play of sounds, has been raised by the poem’s diction to a rather grandiose stature. Distracted by the wordplay in the penultimate line, one might not notice the in-built idiom, to blow one's own trumpet. So the trumpet – a variation on the poet's lyre or lute – is to flatter the wall, but also the poet himself. His stated desire, 'to enter Jericho', seems more and more like a pretext for this self-aggrandisement.
But this is what happens in the classic carpe diem poems: the poet cannot just assume the girl's objection or the other obstacles; describing these provides opportunities for the poet to display his virtuosity, just as much as he uses it to overcome them. 'Jericho' extends the carpe diem tradition by commenting on it, sending up the masculine hubris of the genre. Most telling is the aside '– as you mark well –' in which the poet acknowledges that his listener is not naïve; she's heard this one before, and if she's going to accept the poet it won't be because she's left defenceless by his rhetorical prowess. But if this poem isn't intended to do exactly that, still, it finally got through to me.