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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...

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-
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

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.