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Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Henry King on Janet Kofi-Tsekpo's 'Beucklaer reports from the biblical scene'

Beuckelaer reports from the biblical scene by Janet Kofi-Tsekpo

after four paintings by Joachim Beuckelaer at the National Gallery

1 Water
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.

2 Air
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.

3 Fire
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.

4 Earth
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

Miriam Gamble on Alex Wylie's ‘A Letter From Polème’

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
&c. &c.
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.

Miriam Gamble's first collection, The Squirrels Are Dead (Bloodaxe), received a Somerset Maugham Award in 2011.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

‎'These editors know their onions when it comes to poetry'!


Something worth shouting about: a nice review by Nick Lezard earlier this week in the Guardian. Lezard is full of praise for the poems in the book and the editors. Read it here.

New Poetries V is available to purchase from the Carcanet website with a 20% discount and free p&p.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Grevel Lindop on Helen Tookey's 'At Burscough, Lancashire'

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.

Grevel Lindop's Selected Poems and Playing With Fire are published by Carcanet. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Our readers write

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

Henry King on Alex Wylie's 'Jericho'

Jericho by Alex Wylie
Funnily enough there's only air
between us, no wall
of monumental moment and renown
to 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 along
my own wall-flattering trumpet to blow
with 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.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Sasha Dugdale on James Womack's 'Balance'

Balance by James Womack

It didn't want to let the morning
Come, as if the globe were rocking back,
Back and forwards, twisting gently like
A fair-day weathervane, and turning
Towards the sun, turning us away.
Calm but firm, the world like a mother
Did not allow it to be either
One thing or the other, night or day.
The sky was gritty with darkness, with
The light and the dark mixed, for the air
Was full of masonry-dust, plaster,
Powder, snowflakes, soot. I thought that if
I tore the page off the calendar
The next page would have the same number.
It didn't want to let morning come.
Fine by us. But the mechanism
Slips suddenly out of gear—we are
Jerked forward, lose balance once more.
This is the last station in autumn—
The sun is up, the scales have fallen.
from New Poetries V © James Womack

I copied and pasted this poem into a document so I could read it and write about it at the same time. The computer grasped the words but dropped them without punctuation and line structure onto the blank sheet. As an exercise, in a kind of poetic curiosity, I began to put back in the line breaks and when I had reassembled 'Balance' I checked it against the original. The poem had reassembled itself easily and entirely, like a well-made travel cot, snapping rigid back into place, the rhymes and internal rhythms bolting down, despite the weathervanity, the apparently undecided cusp of a moment it describes.

I like this balance between day and night, and between seasons, like a gently rocking cradle, I like this observation because I know it to be generally true. But the gentleness, the lunar holding pattern, belies a ruthless diurnal drive forward. In James Womack's poem the move forward is a jolt, a jerk, the loss of balance. But this is odd: his machine has slipped out of gear. In his version of time the rocking motion is the constant, the drive onwards is the mechanical failure: a surprising and thought-provoking reversal for the reader, who knows all about the inevitability of time and the seasons. The morning is dissonance and decision and revelation: 'the scales have fallen' is a beautiful rendering of balance lost and eyes opened, some cradle-innocence shorn away.

I find myself teased and made anxious by the masonry-dust and plaster. What has happened in the half-light, as the snow falls mixed with the soot? Womack has not written any particular event into the poem, but we are immediately alert to the possibilities. Too many memories of early Autumn days darkened by grit and horror, when balance has been irrevocably lost. And the placing of horror, once it has been read and registered, changes the poem, works at it uneasily. Are we rocked by the world, because we need numbing and calming? Are we held in this no-time because the wrench forward into a new world is too much? Or is the world merely reverberating, the weathervane swinging aimlessly, the calendar’s torn pages repeating? I cannot honestly say whether this balance is benign or not, whether it is anything to us, or we anything to it.

A last word about the last station. The last station is the burial. Silence and darkness. But in this poem the last station is brightness and vision. No sense of reconciliation though, as we survey the world after its mechanical convulsion. No redemption. The scales have fallen. Judgment has been made.

Sasha Dugdale's most recent collection is Red House (Oxford Poets/Carcanet).

Monday, 10 October 2011

Evan Jones on Helen Tookey's 'America'

America by Helen Tookey

Broad and smiling as a Sunday
rivermouth, impossible word

between us: america. Wide
and easy speech, argument smooth

and seamless as an egg. Half-tongued
I stumble through the station at

Stephansplatz, past memorials
to lost wars, and to the playground

in the beautiful gardens, where
I watch my children disappear

undisturbed: macht nichts, sie kommen
wieder zurück. America

is where we can never meet, though
we lived there together for years.
from New Poetries V © Helen Tookey

I like Tables of Contents. A lot. Question one of the four Auden asks in his test for a critic is ‘Do you like, and by like I really mean like, not approve of on principle: 1) Long lists of proper names … ?’[1] It’s like he picked me first for his crab-soccer team in gym class. But I’ll admit it’s not just the names: I’m after the titles. Titles function, it’s true, but they’re a big part of whether I’ll stick with a poem or not. What I’m looking for is specific: I want something that tells what the poem is about and yet has to it a shake – by which I mean that it both sets up and defies expectations, turning function on its head while simultaneously starting to press down on the kick. There was a band awhile back called The Dentists, and they had some great titles (and some great songs to go with them): ‘One of Our Psychedelic Beakers Is Missing’, ‘Strawberries Are Growing In Our Garden (And It’s Wintertime)’, ‘I Had An Excellent Dream’ (this last probably their best). Too few poets pick up on the bracketed title of the pop song.

The ToC in New Poetries V has some real gems: ’You Could Show a Horse’, ‘Aunt Jane and the Scholar’, ‘Kamasutra (the subsidiary arts)’ to list a few. At each title that interests me, I swim into the book and read the poem. You should see me with a new CD, flipping from track to track, following not the play order but the titles that sound interesting. Maybe this isn’t how everybody gets into a book,but maybe too it’s more common than I think. Anyway, when I get to ‘America’, a funny thing happens. I start to hum, even before I get to the page the poem is on, Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘America’, its ‘Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together’ the only line I can fully remember, and then, maybe, some la-la-las, before arriving at ‘Michigan seems like a dream to me now’.

Helen Tookey’s poem has both little and everything to do with that song. Her place is not ‘America’, but instead an alternate universe, a world that never happened and never will. The poem is also a start and another start: there is firstly the point where the reader meets an ‘us’ with a word between (a word we don’t get until the end of the sentence): america. The French and the Germans spell national adjectives lower-case: américain, amerikanische, only proper nouns need capitals. Gertrude Stein tried to pull this into English usage in The Autobiography Alice B. Toklas, but nothing-doing, it seems. Yet this word is a proper noun, so it’s mispelled here, italicised, equal on either side, even as it separates.

Then there is the second start: the poet in Vienna, at the U-Bahn station in Stephansplatz, through which an ‘I’, ‘half-tongued’ (does this refer to the language barrier or that she’s been kissed, awkwardly, partingly?) and stumbling, breaks from the ‘us’ to a public garden where her children are playing – her own and not ‘ours’. Is this a consequence of the first start or its own separate event? There’s an argument, there is impossibility, but none of that tells us that this moment follows the last. This is another beginning, and we begin to sense the alternatives that are taking place. For this is not america, but touristic Vienna, where the Wienfluss flows into the Donaukanal. But ‘nevermind, they’ll return’, those children – who and how many will they be when they do? – real or unreal, whether they too have travelled to america, or simply come here to look for it.

Finally, there it is, ‘America’, bolder and more certain of itself as we reach the end, on a line that begins in German. Can it separate itself further? It can. For the ‘we’ return here twice, and America leads the way: it’s not in-between this time and not at the end, even as the poem comes to its end. ‘All come to look for America’: Paul Simon’s song aimed to capture youthful curiosity about national identity – but does in the end little more than reinforce clichés. At best, that song is about setting-out, beginning. Helen Tookey’s ‘America’ is both an end and a beginning. For Vienna, too, is a dream, and curiosity flourishes, wherein both Americas – in one a lover waits and in another he has never had to wait – exist.


[1] I also devour acknowledgements like they were written for snacking on during a film. I go looking for the fine print. The Canadian poet, Jay Macpherson, in her Poems Twice Told (1981), composed her ‘Notes & Acknowledgements’ in rhymed iambic tetrameter couplets. With this, she fills in the blanks between the poems and author. She’s more alive.

Friday, 30 September 2011

John Redmond on Will Eaves's 'Three Flies'

Three Flies by Will Eaves

Three flies on a rock,
Orion’s belt in negative,
a cold beer in my hand.
And, after the storm, the day’s
hot handkerchief shakes out
a flock of butcher birds,
black holes for eyes, from
Sugarloaf and Mount Buggery.
Calici Virus thrived up here 
and didn’t stop at rabbits. 
Cane-toads shipped in to eat beetles 
ate everything else instead. 
That’s pest control for you! 
I smiled. Which maybe shows
I like a poisoned chalice – the
creek, the hut, the iced-bun
reek of sunblock and repellant.
Butchers wait in the trees all night.
The stars settle. It’s pleasant.
from New Poetries V © Will Eaves

Rarely will a poem invite you to dislike its author. That seems a pity, after all, one of the commonest flaws of many poems is that they are coded invitations to admire—coy advertisements for a self. This is especially the case when they include a dash of modesty, a strategic measure of self-reproof. One of the immediately reassuring things about this poem is that the author doesn't fret about being disliked. As in many a curmudgeonly poem by Philip Larkin or Frederick Seidel, there is a certain glorying in unofficial feelings—thrilling to the kind of thoughts which won't get you on to Oprah. The author contemplates the extermination of local creatures and seems cheered. The notion of pest control as a pestilence seems to amuse him. I say 'author' but shouldn't I separate author from speaker? So we tell schoolchildren, and so they probably should be told. Brodsky, in Less than One, argues, however, that we shouldn't cling to the distinction, 'because a lyrical hero is invariably an author's self-projection.' Certain kinds of poem depend on the distinction seeming flimsy—this is one.

The poem has its ostensible theme—'pretext' might be a better word—which is 'oblivion'. Orion is, of course, The Hunter, and a good deal of hunting is in evidence. Butcher birds prey on flies. Cane-toads prey on beetles. Like flies, the stars will eventually get swallowed. Depending on your point of view, the speaker might be a fly, or a star, but it doesn’t matter much because he will get swallowed too. In the meantime, though, he will do some swallowing of his own: a cold beer (literally), a poisoned chalice (metaphorically.) That’s the theme, but, as with the landscape, it is not where the action is. The poem’s pressure is entirely psychological. The sensibility revealed to us is mixed: a blend of the apparently aged, the theatrically jaded, with the not-quite mature, the 'kidult'—that's where the fascination lies. As in Derek Mahon's 'Lives', the feelings are those of someone who does not have a full stake in what they survey, though they must have had a sufficient stake in something, once, to find the idea of obliteration so satisfying.

The poem gains by omission. Think of all it does not say. Somebody is supplying the author with details about the locality (the poem is set in Australia) but this person remains unidentified. The speaker is addressed but, beyond that rather sinister smile, doesn't seem bothered to reply. What, we wonder, is he really doing? His apparent passivity—the cold beer is merely in his hand, we don’t even get to see him lift it—omits the many steps he must have taken to reach this point.

One way the poem keeps us on the move is by changing the angle of view, especially in an ‘up’ and ‘down’ manner. It’s a poem with a pronounced ‘vertical axis’, a kind of existential chain with flies on one end, stars on the other, and the author hanging down somewhere in the middle. Opening verblessly, it relies on prepositions for a few lines, and then, consistent with this, goes on to make a lot of spatial positioning. Like Muldoon's 'Mink' and 'The Frog', we are encouraged to think about about what is 'native' and what is 'alien', via the introduction of species to a new environment. From the question how did he end up here? it is but a step to asking, how did he end up like this? We assume the author is travelling, but what is he travelling for? Is he on the run? Is he running from himself? All that creepy sibilance—'flies', 'virus', 'pest', 'chalice', 'pleasant'—suggests that, under the mask, Gollum might be waiting to get out.

Is the poem, then, a Grail myth 'in negative' (in the manner of Frost's 'Directive')? The poet has journeyed to a place and found a 'poisoned chalice', yet he is hardly Gawain or Galahad. 'Calici' has its origin in 'calyx', the Latin for cup, but here the magic cauldron is not a horn of plenty, but a voracious mouth, a black hole. Should the reading, then, be sexualised? Has the oral, as it were, gone anal? That would be too reductive, but, even so, a libidinal strand is detectable. The first ‘movement’ of the poem ends, after all, with 'Mount Buggery'. While this does refer to a real place (located in the state of Victoria) the more usual use of the noun might cause us to muse on the pleasantness of what is repulsive. Other darts of physicality—'Orion’s belt', 'hot handkerchief', 'reek of sunblock and repellant'—might be read by this re-arranging light.

The slightly old-fashioned atmosphere puts me in mind of a type of 1940s expatriate poem. The tone is clipped, proto-confessional, post-Audenic. Here is an Englishness made all the more English by questioning its Englishness. We think of Durrell in his 'Alexandria' moving, 'Through many negatives to what I am.' Or Douglas reflecting on his Cairo ('All this takes place in a stink of jasmin.') Another writer of warped expatriate poems, James Fenton, ghosts the last two lines ('The cigarettes are burning under the trees/Where the Staffordshire murderers wait'). The author is not saying any more than he has to. The lines are determinedly short and the most significant sentences are the shortest—'I smiled.' 'It's pleasant.' A series of intransitive verbs also suggests a policy of self-containment and self-sufficiency (verbs in need of no object). As with the sociopathic ending of Hughes's 'Hawk Roosting', the concluding lines are made more emphatic by the coincidence of sentence-endings and line-endings. The full-stops are bigger than 'normal', like bullet-holes.

John Redmond's most recent collection is MUDe (Carcanet). His Poetry and Privacy: Questioning Public Interpretations of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry will be published by Seren in July 2012.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Dan Burt on Lucy Tunstall's 'Remembering the Children of First Marriages'

Remembering the Children of First Marriages by Lucy Tunstall

Oh remember the children of first marriages
For they are silent and awkward in their comings and their goings;
For the seal of the misbegotten is upon them;
For they walk in apology and dis-ease;
For their star is sunk;
For their fathers’ brows are knitted against them;
For they bristle and snarl.
All you light-limbed amblers in the sun,
Remember the grovellers in the dark,
The scene-shifters, the biders, the loners.

from New Poetries V © Lucy Tunstall

I read and reread many poems in New Poetries V, and would happily have written about any one of them. But I chose Lucy Tunstall's 'Remembering the Children of First Marriages' ('Remembering...'), a ten line lyric sermon, because its unusual subject, insight, logic and craft memorably embody an experience I had not thought about, and because she and her work were new to me.

'Remembering...' memorializes the damaged progeny of first marriages who grow up in the family of a second. The first line’s exhortation – Oh remember the children of first marriages – strikes an elegiac note, calling 'Adonais' to mind – Oh, weep for Adonais – he is dead! – in a tone sustained throughout the poem, and reinforced by its mostly tetrameter lines.

The next seven lines clinically evoke the miseries these children endure by showing how they behave, behaviour rooted in how others treat them, using Old Testament sonorities and repetition to suggest the inevitability of their suffering:
For they are silent and awkward in their comings and goings;
For the seal of the misbegotten is upon them;
For they walk in apology and dis-ease;
For their star is sunk;
For their fathers' brows are knitted against them;
For they bristle and snarl...
The last three lines of 'Remembering...', beginning – [A]ll you light limbed amblers in the sun – command us, the lucky reading congregation, to recall our good fortune in not having come from such families by parading the pariahs they produce, the grovellers in the dark /The scene-shifters, the biders, the loners. These lines starkly and unemotionally describe the lasting psychological damage done in second families, the lilting alliterative phrase used for the fortunate – light limbed amblers – juxtaposed with the guttural, harsh consonants of the damaged – grovellers in the dark. The last line's 'hook', which epitomises the damage the poem's subjects suffer by naming what they become – [T]he scene-shifters, the biders, the loners – suggests and is worthy of Larkin’s [A]nd don’t have any kids yourself.

'Remembering...' sympathetically and convincingly presents a class of children who suffer through divorce and remarriage, while simultaneously and dramatically analyzing how they are hurt. The reader is not told but shown the cause and the consequence of their affliction, almost scientifically, in plain language rendered resonant and memorable by its literary and biblical echoes.

I don't know if there is an identifiable class of children from first marriages damaged in the course of a second, though literature and anecdote make me rather suspect there is, but I do know 'Remembering...' is what a lyric poem should be, a world in a grain of sand.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Don Share on Kate Kilalea's 'Hennecker’s Ditch'

Hennecker’s Ditch by Kate Kilalea

                      I stood at the station
like the pages of a book
whose words suddenly start to swim.

Wow. The rain. Rose beetles.

Formal lines of broad-leaved
deciduous trees
ran the length of the platform.

Ickira trecketre stedenthal, said the train.
Slow down please, said the road.
Sometimes you get lucky, said the estate agent
     onto his mobile phone,
it all depends on the seller.

Dear Circus, 
Past the thicket, through the window, 
the painéd months are coming for us –

See the bluff, the headland, announcing
the presence of water.
See the moths...

The trees walk backwards into the dark.

*     *     *

Hello? Hello? The snow
comes in sobs.
Dogs sob.
Cars sob across town.

Dear Circus, 
When you found me 
I was a rickety house.

There was a yellow light and a blanket
     folded up on the stoep
and the yellow light – Dear Circus
was a night-blooming flower.

We pushed a chest of drawers against the door.
It’s nice now that the corridor’s empty.
A necklace. Vacant. Light wrecked the road.

Dear Circus, 
We took off our clothes 
and did cocaine for three weeks.

The washing machine shook so badly
that a man asleep four floors down reached out
     to hold it:
Shut that dirty little mouth of yours...

*     *     *

Hennecker’s Ditch.

You’ll never find it, he said over dinner,
a black lobster and bottle of vinegar,
unless, unless...

Blackened,
the dog tilts his head from beneath
     the canopy of the Karoo tree.
Look at my face, he said. Can you see what
     I’m thinking?

A red jersey. Bot bot bot.
Sevéral breezes.
Boats on the water were moving at different speeds.
The baker took a portable radio
     into the garden
to listen to the cricket
in the shade of the bougainvillea.
Tick-a-tick-ooh, tick-a-tick-ah.

It was cloudy but hot. We were moving
     as shadows.

Three times he came upstairs and made love to her
then went back down and read his book.
The air was blood temperature
     and the consistency of blood.

Look at my face, he said.
I see you. I see you. I see you
     in our murky bath
I see you in our black and white bath like a cat.

*     *     *

Barbed wire around the fisheries.
A letter from the municipality
Come closer, sir. Step into my office.

Above the harbour, tin roofs and cranes.
Henry? he said.
Hello? Henry? he said.
What’s been happening in Dog Town these days?
The Audi keys lay heavy on the table.
Aaaaah Henry, he said. How wonderful it is
     to see you.
The mists came down.
The moon was bright.
Collectors searched the night market
     with flashlights, and the wind outside,
with its slight chill, howled.
Henry, the breezes – they bolt across the open market 
like meatballs, Henry, 
like windmills, Henry, 
like policemen, Henry, apprehending criminals...

A man in a collared shirt put a cigarette
to his mouth
and looked at his watch.
And what happened then?
He wore a street hat. He wore a street hat and
carried a belt over one arm.
And what happened afterwards?

Tell her... I think he has given up.
Tell her... I know now, this is what I’ve been afraid of
     all my life.

He closed the door and came in.
He closed the door and the sound of the bathwater dimmed.

*     *     *

Thirty-one back gardens.
Thirty-one back gardens overlooking
     the backs
of thirty-one houses.
Thirty-one houses looking out over the sea.
And the sea -- of course it was -- was marbled
and contorting.

Are you sleeping? – Yes.
Figures in yellow mackintoshes make their way
along the coastal path.
And what then, what then if I were to ask,
How much longer?
If I were to say, How much further?
It’s just –
I have used up all my reserves.

There was a yellow light
and a blanket folded up on the stoep.
The light was burning dimly now.
By that time,
the light had begun to flicker.

He opened the door and fastened
     his lonely shadow,
and she fastened hers
and sat on the chair.

I think we are in the middle, aren’t we.
He said, I think we may be.
We certainly aren’t at the beginning anymore.

*     *     *

The moon was acting strangely.
The moon was moving fast.
It was cloudy but hot.

Electricity cables gathered round a pole
like the roof of a marquee.

He wore a gold vagina on his chest.
He had gold lining on the flaps of his jackét.
She lay her head against the window and sang a song
     by Silvio Rodriguéz
wearing ten gold balls on a chain around her neck.

Dear Circus, 
Sometimes we are just so full of emotion.

And what happened then,
And what happened afterwards.
Chicken bones and Pick ‘n Pay receipts.
We were moving as shadows.
And the only light
    was the light from the bakery.

A lampshade swings above the window.
Tick-a-tick-ooh, tick-a-tick-ah
We have no history. Nothing has passed between us.

A hundred years pass like this.

Dear Circus, 
I need to see more glass!
I need to see more glass! 
This has to be more gentle.
from New Poetries V © Kate Kilalea

On YouTube, you can see Kate Kilalea reading 'Hennecker’s Ditch'—it's called 'Dear Circus' in the video—which she introduces by saying that 'there’s no work to be done' by her audience; she adds that one will find in the poem a 'series of characters and observations without any kind of authorial interpretation, so I'm in the same position as you, and there's no work to be done, really, but to listen.' And indeed, the only other explanation of any kind she gives is that 'it's worth knowing that the character Henry is a dog.'

It's hard to tell from the video what the audience makes of this, but my ears perked up when I heard Kilalea lay down that gauntlet because 'work', in this context, is such a misleading word. Watching her on my computer, I set to work right away. And what I did wasn't very difficult, and it's what many readers would do, for the fun of it, and out of curiosity. A laptop and a few books on the shelf—the tools were all readily to hand.

Kilalea's mention of 'characters and observations', for instance, immediately brings to mind T.S. Eliot ('He Do the Police in Different Voices') as well as Marianne Moore, whose first book was called Observations. And when a contemporary poet devises a character named Henry, one is going to think of John Berryman's Dream Songs. So, after I read a printed-out copy of 'Hennecker's Ditch', I reached for my books by these poets to root around awhile. I got lost in them, which was great fun. But my roaming though their pages – not exactly work – didn't quite answer the question of whether these initial associations were important, or useful, or even pertinent. I thought I'd better dig in a little more.

I Googled 'Hennecker’s Ditch'. After all, I'm a reader who lives in the US, and I didn't know whether this is a real place or not, or if so, what significance it could possibly have; it might be, for instance, a place like Basil Bunting's Brigflatts, or Eliot's East Coker, or Frank O’Hara's Second Avenue. With a few keystrokes I find a place called Hennicker's Ditch in a BBC report about a site exposed during construction for the future Velopark (whatever that is!) to the North-East of the Olympic Park: the ditch was a medieval waterway along the route of the ancient river Leyton. But is this ditch same as Kilalea's, with its minutely different spelling? I read through the poem a few times, doing no further work at all, and felt that it just might be. I then left the text to read up on the poet, who I discover is from South Africa, though she now lives in the UK. This bodes well, I feel. But is this information crucial to my reading? I didn’t work very hard to get it, but even a small and pleasurable effort leads me to wonder whether the poet is right to dismiss this way of reading her work. Isn’t that my own call, anyway? Either way: to borrow words from the very first stanza of the poem, as I reread 'Hennecker's Ditch' it's as if I'm standing 'at the station / like the pages of a book / whose words suddenly start to swim'.

I push forward, try to let puzzling things pass, but it’s hard to do. 'Ickira trecketre stedenthal', for instance, says the train at her station. How on earth can I resist looking this up? But when I Google the phrase, all I get is... a link to the poem itself, as published in PN Review. I'm now quite distant from my Eliotic and Berrymanesque touchstones; I'm in, let's say, a postmodern place, yet I feel fine. I’m practically in another country, and I like it. The poem is lengthy, and it unfolds... like a poem, or a bit of travel. And so I read, just taking it all in, how the road talks, a real estate agent is overheard, somebody repeatedly and directly addresses (in italics) a Circus (and remember the poem’s apparently provisional title). Trees walk backward into the dark, and I try here to think about Dante, but it just doesn’t get me anywhere. So I keep going wherever the poem takes me. And when Hennecker's Ditch at last actually appears in the poem, a dinner companion (the fare is black lobster and vinegar, which is simultaneously surreal and eschatalogical) says: 'You'll never find it...' And I never do. But a Karoo tree is mentioned, and here the internet helps again: Karoo is a South African term – a word of uncertain etymology that relates to a semi-desert region. And with delight I discover that there's both a Great and Little Karoo.

As an editor, I read lots of poems. I confess that this has led me to a jaded bias against poetry that uses the word 'bougainvillea' because most poets who plant it in their poems, with the possible exception of Derek Walcott, are trying to ride on its florid coattails, trying to import the exotic. But Kilalea's poem really is exotic. Even her name is, for me, exotic (it chimes with Karoo). Is it wrong to say this? I feel lushly lost, flustered, and rather happy to be in such a state. And when I stumble upon the lines 'Bot bot bot' and 'Tick-a-tick-ooh, tick-a-tick-ah', I'm happier still to see them as analogues with language that poetry has always deployed in its most mysteriously ebullient moments. There's Bunting's 'tweet, tweet, twaddle, / tweet, tweet, twat; Tweet, tweet, twaddle', for instance, and Eliot's 'Jug Jug' and 'Twit twit twit / Jug jug jug jug jug jug'; and (I’m showing off now) Lyly's 'Jug, jug, jug, jug, Tereu', Nashe's 'Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo', and Skelton's 'Dug, dug, / Jug, jug, / Good yere and good luk, / With chuk, chuk, chuk, chuk'.

And now the poem says: 'It was cloudy but not. We were moving as shadows.' I do feel the warmish murk. I can see figures from the past, poetry's and even my own, moving as shadows. The poem's landscape is partly familiar and partly brand-new, and it’s oddly ravishing. 'Three times he came upstairs and made love to her, / then went back down and read his book.' As an ardent, but bookish fellow, I feel pleased and warmly curious. They say that the word travel has its roots in travail, but I don't feel that I've been working very hard at all.

Before long, Henry, as promised, appears. He's asked about what’s happening in Dog Town. Dare I think of Charles Olson, whose famous Maximus came from Dogtown (a place inland from Gloucester, Massachusetts, and depicted by Marsden Hartley)? John Berryman would have. But those poets were bookish and ardent modernists; what, I wonder, are we? 'Aaaaah Henry', the unknowable 'he' of the poem sighs: 'How wonderful it is to see you.' There are things that can only exist in the poet's imagination, like Stevens's jar in Tennessee, and so I am unfazed by Kilalea's breezes that are said to be like meatballs, like windmills, like policemen (Eliot again?) apprehending criminals...

And now, a fellow like, say, Prufrock, or someone from Eliot's 'Observations' puts a cigarette in his mouth, looks at his watch. An italicized voice asks: And what happened then? And what happened afterwards? I note that these questions are posed using the past tense. And ... well, I can’t tell you what happened next. You’ll need to read the poem on your own. You may have to do things like Google the musician Silvio Rodriguéz; you can tell from his name that he’s a musician, can’t you? And that will depend upon your inclination to “work” to read a poem. But the poet has excused us. Why? Well, sometimes, the italicized voice says, we are just so full of emotion. Sometimes, by the same token, we are not. There’s a time to work, and a time to refrain from working ... but I've misremembered; the ancient words I meant to bring to mind are these:
What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?
I stop working, for now.

There's a voice in the poem that says: 'We have no history. / Nothing has passed between us. // A hundred years pass like this.' I take this to mean that we can have it both ways: work, and no work. Time passes, and leaves behind its texts and ditches and references, all waiting to be lost and perhaps found again. A poem is a place of amusement and musing; it really is a circus, a dear old circus, after all.

*  *  *

'All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music', Pater famously said, but poetry perhaps aspires more constantly in that direction than do the other arts. Basil Bunting, describing the 'sonata' form he became interested in for his poems, said—
With sleights learned from others and an ear open to melodic analogies I have set down words as a musician pricks his score, not to be read in silence, but to trace in the air a pattern of sound that may sometimes, I hope, be pleasing.
Bunting's imprecations about poetry and music are often misunderstood and misapplied; really, he was just saying that poetry can take over some of the techniques that we usually only know from music, and I think Kilalea is after something along those lines, too: for both of these poets, there's music in what the voice can do in a poem; it’s a form of elaboration. And it's also a pleasure.

It’s also worth observing that this kind of music-in-poetry is, for both poets—Bunting as a Northumbrian ('northron', as he liked to say) and Kilalea as a South African living in England—a way of being both inside and outside a culture, as Peter Quartermain once put it. The poet, he says, 'is both outside and inside the culture / the koiné at the same time, using what he subverts, subverting what he uses. But it is not an ironic relationship, and his linguistic, syntactic and formal stance is not finally satiric. It is compositional.' It makes sense that poets resist interpretation, to some extent, that they are reluctant, as Bunting memorably put it, to devolve 'so much useless information upon my reader.'

It’s not really much work to seek out information that can inform, so to speak, a poem.

But in the end, maybe Kilalea is right: working at the poem really won't help you that much, once the words begin to swim, as in they do in the very best poems we can find.

Don Share is senior editor of Poetry. His most recent books are Wishbone (Black Sparrow) and Bunting's Persia (Flood Editions).

Monday, 19 September 2011

Julith Jedamus on Tara Bergin's 'The Undertaker's Tale of the Notebook Measuring 1 x 2 cm'

The Undertaker’s Tale of the Notebook Measuring 1 x 2 cm by Tara Bergin
For forty years I have had in my possession: 
A notebook, morocco-bound and blue in colour
which was so small it could be covered over by a thumb.
I found it at the bottom of her
apron pocket;

And for forty years I have had in my throat
the rotten apple of Mordovia
which for forty years
I could not swallow;

And I have held in my possession
the year Nineteen-Forty-
One:
a year too small for her
to write in.
from New Poetries V © Tara Bergin

‘The Undertaker’s Tale’ is a powerful poem and a conundrum. Its ambiguities are part of its strength. We are given a date (‘1941’) and a place (the ‘rotten apple of Mordovia’) that suggest the former owner of the blue notebook may have been a victim of Stalinist or Nazi terror—a deportee to the Gulag, a prisoner in a concentration camp, or an accidental victim of the terrible upheavals of that year.
What is conveyed, very clearly though elliptically, is the enormity of the woman’s suffering, and the vivid contrast between this and the smallness of her notebook, and of the year which we presume to have been her last. And we wonder: was the notebook small so that it could be concealed? Was it a form of samizdat—a private record that the woman hoped might be discovered and preserved, as indeed it appears to have been? Or is this a false assumption?

The poem begins with three lines in (rough) iambic pentameter, but this regularity soon dissipates, until we arrive at a line of a single stress and syllable word: ‘one.’ It is as if the poet had decided that a traditional form was inadequate to convey the events to which she alludes. I was reminded of Geoffery Hill’s sonnet ‘September Song,’ an indictment of the calculations that led to the Holocaust (‘Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented/terror, so many routine cries’) that forsakes the form’s conventions of rhyme and meter (‘I have made/an elegy for myself it/is true’) as being inappropriate to the horrors that are suggested.

We are left, in Bergin’s poem, with a single object upon which all meaning is brought to bear – rather like the shawl in Cynthia Ozick’s masterful story of the murder of an infant in a Nazi concentration camp. The smallness of the notebook is, we realise, in inverse proportion to its significance. ‘Small’ has many connotations in Bergin’s poem: spatial (the size of the notebook, or perhaps the size of the cell or room in which its owner was confined), temporal (the shortness of the last year of the woman’s life) and ethical (the moral vacuity that has presumably led to her death).

We realise, too, that the narrator of the poem is morally compromised. How did he come to possess the notebook? The fact that he found it in the woman’s apron seems to suggest that she did not surrender it voluntarily. Yet why an undertaker? This subverts our expectations. Surely no undertaker would be called upon to attend to a corpse in a camp. Had he more sinister reasons? Or have we been misled?

The undertaker has obviously been changed by his finding of the notebook: he has kept it for forty years, and is unable to part from it, or from the guilt which it seems to have induced. Has the notebook, then, served the woman’s purpose? Does it exert a moral pressure on the reader, as it does on the man who obtained it?

Bergin offers us a tale that is as enticing as it is incomplete. We come to believe wholly in the existence of the vanished woman, despite (or perhaps because of) the distance that the poet imposes between her and our experience. As Akhmatova’s Christ declares in Requiem, ‘Weep not for me, Mother. I am alive in my grave.’

Friday, 16 September 2011

Justin Quinn on Julith Jedamus's 'The Drowning of Drenthe'

The Drowning of Drenthe by Julith Jedamus

I travelled to a level land
Past sleeping towns with names of sand:
          Now they are gone.

The polders from the marshes won,
The houses made of brick not stone:
          Raise no alarm.

The linseed mill with icy arms,
The whitewashed churches purged of charms
          Evade our look.

The beeches smooth as vellum books,
The storks and blackbirds, doves and rooks
          Are rare as rare.

The coffee urns, the huis-vrouw cheer,
The biscuits furled like the New Year:
          The guests are late.

Bronze dagger, pin and carcanet,
Twice-strangled girl rescued from peat
          Bright waves obscure.

The tower wet with widows' tears,
The lion weltered in cold lairs
          Cannot be traced.

I hear the cries from each high place
As it rose up, victorious:
          The rampant sea.

The past is new, the future old;
Who can say now what rhymes are told
          In this drowned world?
from New Poetries V © Julith Jedamus

The great pleasure of rules is keeping them until the right moment comes to break them. This is what the sea does at the end of the poem. It refuses to rhyme with the first line of the last verse: the sea should make a sound like the word 'old'. Or rather the next line should be, or talk of me, or flee, or offer a key. What rhyme is resisted here? There are so many words with the same phoneme, it’s impossible to say. The last tercet compensates by providing what many critics hate—'closure', with the three lines singing out with one rhyme. Why do they hate closure? As far as I can work out, they seem to dislike closure because it is a pretense that the world's OK. The poet who wrote this poem doesn't, fortunately, think that the world is OK, and to prove the point removes an 'r' from the phoneme. Poets like the word 'world' very much: it gives us a feeling of vastness, but it is difficult to rhyme well. Awful words have to be avoided, such as 'curled', 'furled', 'swirled', 'whirled', 'purled' and worst of all 'skirled'. But we still have to keep writing poems that would give us good rhymes for the word.

Some of the rhymes are old and evoke other poets: 'alarm/arms' makes me think of Yeats's 'Politics'; 'level land/sand' makes me think of Shelley's 'lone and level sands'. These romantics, especially the older English one, liked mountain-tops and not Dutch plains. They are like the sea in this poem, that enjoys rising up over the level landscape. There were rumours of rule breaking before this. The linseed cannot only have one arm to rhyme with alarm, and so the sibilant is added. 'Traced' prompts the word 'placed', and the shape of the preceding line suggests 'cannot be placed', which is a suggestive
uncertainty. But the poet denies us this, and lops off the dental. I take issue with 'obscure/tears/lairs'—for my taste much too louche. Also 'place/victorious' is wrong, to my ear, especially given the shift in accent in the second line. But I'm not complaining, given the pleasures the poem provides, as we read it properly from right to left.

Justin Quinn's latest book is Close Quarters (Gallery Press).

Monday, 12 September 2011

Rory Waterman on Henry King's 'Windower'

A Windower by Henry King

The house has too many rooms, now;
there’s too much room in the bed.

A daughter in the Met, a son
at Cambridge; at home, long quiet spells.

On bright days, he stands by the window
looking into the garden. A windower.

Twenty, thirty years like this? Years
of evenings, weekends. Christmases.
from New Poetries V © Henry King

Consider the title and the form. There is the ghost of cruel wit in the term 'windower', denoting (presumably) a widower who spends much of his time gazing redundantly out of a window, and this is preceded by the indefinite article, to remind us that he is one of many: 'A Windower'. And the claustrophobic little poem below this title is in couplets, each line having its partner. Then immediately the poem strikes us with other pairings, in the repetition and near-repetition of words and phrases ('too many rooms' / 'too much room', 'window' / 'windower', 'years' / 'Years'), and in the juxtaposition it sets up: his children – a daughter and a son – are doing well at the start of busy adult lives, and the poem's subject is alone and anything but busy nearer the end of his.

The first couplet is metrically the first two lines of a ballad stanza, but this is 'let down' by the more prosaic second couplet, emphasising the grim bathos of the subject’s life. The balladic rhyme our ear expects does not happen, just as the subject's apparently busy and productive life has been replaced without warning. Our windower’s existence is now marked by 'long quiet spells' – a superbly dull cliché that only emphasises the seeming emptiness and redundancy of his life. But, the word 'now' in the first line implies that once his big house was busy, that a family fitted it perfectly, and we should be appalled to realise that the man we pity could so easily be us. And like us he has – if he is lucky – plenty of time left for things to get even worse, the clink of internal rhyme at the end of the poem sounding with the finality of truth. He is in the anteroom to death, and the wait would appear to be quite a long one. How on earth did he end up like this? It hardly seems to have been his fault: his wife has died, not left him; and his children are pursuing success – perhaps much as their father did. I am reminded of Philip Larkin's words at the end of 'Dockery and Son', that life is replaced by 'what something hidden from us chose, / And age, and then the only end of age'. The windower exists in a purgatorial stasis brought about by what something hidden from him chose, a fate he might not have imagined.

So, what are we to take away from this short, tight piece of beautiful miserableness? King does not moralise, of course, but a message seems to inhere in the move from irreverent term of description to the portrait of what might be someone we know. We could be the son or daughter; or we could be on our way to becoming the windower, even if our lives seem successful, happy, ripe. Behind the grinding lethargy of the windower's life, then, is a call to urgency. What a marvellous, multi-faceted, emotionally intelligent poem.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Stephen Burt on Vincenz Serrano's 'Static'

from New Poetries V © Vincenz Serrano

*Click on the image above to enlarge it, or click here to read Vincenz's poem on another site.

Two apparently, or at least initially, unrelated texts, lineated in two columns to make up one poem, one text more conventionally introspective, the other more plotted, and grisly: the device isn't entirely new (see W. D. Snodgrass's 'After Experience Taught Me') but it's still unusual, and it comes with questions of its own. What does each column or queue of text say and do, separately? how and why do they come together? what do the juxtaposed dual texts do that an obviously unitary poem (or essay) could not do or mean?

In this case, they are new takes on an old verse form, the dialogue (as in Yeats and Marvell, for example) between the body and the soul, whose overtones of information theory and quantum paradox ('I' as wave, "soul" as pattern, as information; body as medium) dovetail with the dualities of the poem's form.  The narrow text speaks both for and about the self, the 'I', the soul, comparing it to the disorganized waves we call static, distinct in kind from what they pass through. 'No tempo no/ tone no melody/ no lyrics'  inhere in it, yet it is part of 'hearing', is background noise: the ear can register it as 'silences', since it is something we learn to ignore, and while we can associate it with death, the end of the ego ('cliffs/ crumbling') we can associate it with the ego as well. As static occurs in the background of almost all sound, so my selfhood, my presuppositions and predispositions, inflect everything that happens to me; who I am is part of my experience, it pervades my experience, and yet it belongs to no isolable part. I move through my world as a wave moves through water, as a light wave moves through space—so this column implies—an immaterial unity, easy to notice (once sought), but impossible to capture all on its own.

So this column says, comparing my self, the self that speaks for me in my poem, to a wave, in 'the trough and/ crest of my/ voice'; so it joins its mildly scientific language to the centuries-old queue of poems in which the poet identifies himself, or herself, with a battery of incompatible things: poems of 'I am... I am', from Taliesin to Berryman. I can be all those things, and yet none, and still be unitary, if I am a spirit, a wave, a phenomenon, whether meaningful (music) or without clear meaning (like static), able to pass through them all, and remain the same.

The wider, more eventful, more disturbing text makes a lot more sense if you read it second (no wonder the narrower, 'When songs' text starts first); that wider text speaks, as it were, for bodies, for matter, suggesting that bodies and souls might be things of the same kind. If the narrow text meditates on a unity, the wider one is all about multiple thing, discrete actors, and objects changed or destroyed when acted upon. It's 'dramatic' in that sense (though not in others) rather than lyric or meditative, and it's disgusting, when it concerns flies or The Fly. When it concerns teleportation (whose failed invention permits the plot for The Fly) it lets us go back to the questions the first column raises, and it lets us start to connect the two.

The novice inventor can teleport inanimate objects, but not living things, not 'flesh', or not without making them dead; there's something in them—call it spirit, or soul, or self—that can't be described by descriptions of mere matter. (That something, that spirit, may just be the wave, the pattern, the narrow column described.)  The people in this wider column later discover that they can rearrange the still-mysterious relation between soul (or spirit or self) and body (or matter or flesh). One can put a soul into an amulet; another can take his soul with him when he teleports, but combines it with that of a fly.

The amulet is the dream of the lyric poet, the encapsulation (without reduction, without killing anything) of a soul in a human-made thing. The Fly is the reverse of that dream, soul modified by inventions designed to protect it until body breaks soul down. Do these stories (amulet and teleporter) belong to the same plot, describe the life of the same character? Or are they different stories Serrano found and juxtaposed? Whichever way we read them, both plots (wartime superhero and horror-film insect) imply a kind of pre-philosophical dualism, a willingness to believe that body and soul are discrete things, able to alter each other, contain each other, destroy each other, but not to merge. Serrano's poem, with its paired, skewed wraparound columns, represents that view with its printed page; the wider column's fractured stories, with their emotional range (curiosity, disgust, admiration, pity, perhaps even terror), look like a panorama of responses to such dualist outlooks on life.

But the poem's double columns explore that outlook without finally endorsing it. The biggest change in either part of Serrano's poem comes when the pronouns in the wider column shift from 'he' to 'we' (the narrow column has used only 'I'). At this point we may decide that we are reading a love poem, a disorienting one to be sure: 'we move towards each other and corrode into closeness.' Would you want to take part in such a process? You might, if the alternative involved spending eternity alone: Marvell's 'soul' and 'body' yearn for divorce, but 'we' may well be better off together, however grotesque the pairing feels.

A poem about the relationship between souls and bodies (Is soul like a wave in a body, or like a thing lodged in it? Can the soul be dislodged?) here morphs into a poem about how souls move from one body to the next; how lovers can share them, and how poets can too. We might (despite 'static', despite difficulties in communications) represent this process as an exchange of information. Really selves move, are communicated, make their connections, not through amulets, nor through teleportation (which only moves matters, or pieces of matter, about), but through the exchange of words, of information (the opposite of 'static'), of words like the words in this poem, whose discomfort with physical embodiment, whose unease about an intuitively plausible solipsism, Serrano communicates over to you.

Serrano therefore stops at one of the few sites where you can read two texts as if they were one and discover that they make grammatical and intellectual sense: 'The future is the present passing away the ocean through cracks in the wall. On the other side, let me merge with who I am, of my speech[,] and come out undisguised.' It is an impossible aspiration—no soul can be undisguised, un-simplified, un-distorted, and still be represented, made present for others. In the same way, no wave can be without a medium. And yet light passes through space without any need for a physical, tangible medium (as Michelson and Morley proved); like a light ray, like a teleporter's signal, the soul of one writer can be made present to others, not in the present but in the future, as long as poets can find the right words for poems.

To end that way makes 'Static' sound more hopeful than it feels: it is a grotesque poem, in the uneven hybridity of its visual form and in the fate that Serrano allots his characters (dissipated, deformed, eroded, taken away). We, too, face grotesque fates—we die young or get very old; we may find that due to our own infirmities, or due to cultural change, our own words become as unintelligible as static, as surf, as dust, as the hissings of flies. You had better try to figure out what you want to say, what you want to create, what 'we' and what body might fit your soul, while you have time.

Stephen Burt's latest books are Close Calls With Nonsense: Reading New Poetry (Graywolf Press) and, with David Mikics, The Art of the Sonnet (Harvard University Press).

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Our readers write

André Breton considers cleaning out his library.

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.

We all have poets we love, but sometimes that love affair can be shaken when we come across something in their oeuvre that doesn't meet the quality of the rest of their work: a poem so terrible it makes us question why we read the poet at all. So, again, subjective, I know, but what do you consider to be the worst poem by your favourite poet?

Monday, 5 September 2011

Alex Wylie on James Womack's 'Little Red Poem'

Little Red Poem by James Womack

If they ask for me tell them I have gone away
to lead my people and be led by them;
to take the thorny path that leads to the light
to struggle, suffer and finally prevail.

Tell them the only home a man can hope for
if he wish to prove his life worthwhile
is the struggle to create a home for all mankind,
not the lone sad fight from one day to the next.

Tell them that if they want me they shall find
my thoughts in others' books, in others' words,
that I am nothing but an honest vessel,
a witness to the truth and not the truth itself.

But do not tell them I am in the attic
behind the false partition, biting my arm in fear,
my gun by my side; that, although reluctant,
I could, at a pinch, employ it for the cause.
                                                    freely adapted from the Slovenian
from New Poetries V © James Womack

The difference between a translation and a version is that a translation feels guilty about the liberties it takes. If every translation is a compromise, every version is a liberty. James Womack's 'Little Red Poem' is a version, 'freely adapted from the Slovenian', which retains a sense of linguistic guilt about its liberties, a guilt felt residually in its international-English-diction, its un-localness – which is compromised by the leaked information of the poem’s ending, its 'loose lips'. The poem as it is reads quite tonelessly: but this, I would say, counts vitally towards its effect, and as such the poem is a superb bit of opportunism. Womack makes a virtue of the poem's placeless translationese, which registers the speaker's attempt to translate his fear, as we realize at the end of the poem, into a grand official heroism.

The poet Roy Campbell wrote that 'translations (like wives) are seldom faithful if they are in the least attractive.' Though this is a version, its (for want of a better word) 'unattractive' diction is exactly in accord with its ironic performance. 'Little Red Poem' creates a seam between propaganda and confession, official and unofficial speech; its payoff is the sudden change of focus from television broadcast to raggedly whispered confession – or, perhaps, from pulpit to priest hole. But the shock of its effect lies in the similarity of tone between the speaker's two versions of himself. We don't get a change of scene: the speaker was in the attic all the time, and at its ending the speaker's preceding testimony is revoked. What we took to be the studied rhetoric of a great leader becomes a man talking himself up to himself, at bay, and the most public posture shrinks into the most private, doubled-up in fear. And the poem is 'doubled-up' in another sense: this is a monologue which is actually locked in dialogue with itself. Just as the notion of the 'version' troubles the notion of an original, so the speaker here, in a fit of wishful thinking, wishes to create versions of himself, so that the 'real' him, hidden in the attic, is a politically inflected version of the picture of Dorian Gray, the reality behind the public, heroic face.

But is this 'political poetry'? If it is political, it performs rather than preaches, and its cause is its effect. Lulled by the studied earnestness of the first three stanzas, one is caught out by the poem's turn, made to feel guilty, even, about one’s assumptions. 'Little Red Poem' is to political poetry as the Northumbrian modernist poet Basil Bunting was to Ezra Pound: that is, it sees the human emotion beneath political contingency, as Bunting saw through Pound's shrill denunciations of European 'USURA' to the universal human reality of greed. 'Little Red Poem' is 'red', but it is also 'little': it is as much about its emotional situation as it is about political realities.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

PN Review 200th Issue Celebrations!

All are invited to the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester from 5.30pm on Thursday 8th September for wine, discussion and debate to celebrate the 200th issue of the UK's leading poetry magazine, PN Review. The evening will include a lecture by Booker-prize longlisted author (and New Poetries II contributor!) Patrick McGuinness, who will discuss Donald Davie and the history of PN Review. This will be followed by The New Editors' Forum: a discussion about the future of poetry magazine publishing, chaired by John McAuliffe (Manchester Review) and featuring panel members Rory Waterman (New Walk magazine), Carol Rumens (the Guardian) and James Byrne (The Wolf). There will also be a poetry reading by Tara Bergin and Jeffrey Wainwright

PN Review, the outstanding poetry magazine of our time, was founded in 1976 as Poetry Nation by Michael Schmidt and Brian Cox. The complete PN Review digital archive was launched in January. This vast online resource, spanning four decades of literary writing, can be accessed at www.pnreview.co.uk.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Arto Vaun on Jee Leong Koh's 'Attribution'

Attribution by Jee Leong Koh 

I speak with the forked tongue of colony.
                                          Eavan Boland 'The Mother Tongue'


My grandfather said life was better under the British.
He was a man who begrudged his words but he did say this.

I was born after the British left
an alphabet in my house, the same book they left in school.

I was good in English.
I was the only one in class who knew “bedridden” does not mean lazy.

I was so good in English they sent me to England
where I proved my grandfather right

until I was almost sent down for plagiarism I knew was wrong
and did not know was wrong, because where I came from everyone plagiarized.

I learned to attribute everything I wrote.
It is not easy.

Sometimes I cannot find out who first wrote the words I wrote.
Sometimes I think I wrote the words I wrote with such delight.

Often the words I write have confusing beginnings
and none can tell what belongs to the British, my grandfather or me.

from New Poetries V © Jee Leong Koh

While in exile in Paris in 1929, Nigoghos Sarafian, one of the very few modernist Armenian poets of the twentieth century, wrote: 'We can retain our Armenian essence intact even if we write in foreign languages and on non-Armenian subjects. It is a matter of finding a universal form free from romanticism. We Armenians must exploit to the full our dispersion, our exile'. This was only 14 years after the Armenian Genocide, so to make such a bold statement was mostly anathema among Armenian intellectuals and artists. Collective trauma is usually followed by a strong desire to refortify and assert cultural and national traditions and values. And one of the places where this groping-in-the-dark plays out is in language. This is certainly also true in the effect British colonialism has had on various peoples. The dominant or host language either becomes an enclosure or a tool for empowerment, or perhaps something in between. 'Attribution', by Jee Leong Koh, attempts to reconcile this tenuousness, when one is culturally both inside and outside English, grappling with its seductive, sometimes contradictory powers.

Right from the beginning, by way of the poem's title and the quote by Eavan Boland ('I speak with the forked tongue of colony'), Koh makes clear that the poem is more a question than answer. Yet the poem's diction and form counteract this implied conflict. Written in loose-metered couplets with the majority of lines end stopped, the poem exudes a directness and overall lack of heightened imagery. Consequently, one is pulled into the language itself in a starker fashion. 'I was good in English. / I was the only one in class who knew 'bedridden' does not mean lazy.' The repetition here, as well as the schoolboy-like assertion, hints at the potential for stuckness within cultural hybridity. The speaker is both confident and insecure, wanting to point out his English skills when a child, but perhaps aware that this also reveals a desire to assert his place within the host culture.

It is of no little importance that the one metaphor in the poem is the English alphabet itself. 'I was born after the British left / an alphabet in my house, the same book they left in school.' The alphabet is both a remnant but also the future place of identity-making. And the grandfather, rather than resisting the colonial imposition, claims a preference for it, though begrudgingly. The speaker's later plagiarism highlights this quality of being uncertain about the 'ownership'  of English. 'Sometimes I cannot find out who first wrote the words I wrote.' Ultimately, 'Attribution' is a poem about loss. Yet its matter-of-fact rhythms and ambiguous ending reveal an empowered acceptance of the diasporic condition. 'Often the words I write have confusing beginnings / and none can tell what belongs to the British, my grandfather or me.' Sometimes confusion itself is a means to self-realization.