Monday, July 31, 2006

Deleted Poem


Authorial Dominance

Which authors dominate my bookshelf? I saw this post from Anecdotal Evidence and decided to check out my own bookcases.

The rule is that an author must have five books on the shelf to get a mention on my list. My books are not very ordered, so my list may not be perfectly accurate. It also doesn’t take certain things into account. A large ‘Collected Poems’ only counts as one book, but may contain more poems than five slim volumes.

I started ordering my list by nationality, but that presented immediate difficulties. Where does T.S. Eliot go – the UK or USA? How about Salman Rushdie? Or Charles Simic?

So I’ve just stuck them all together. There were a few surprises. I didn’t realise I had so much J.G.Ballard, Charles Dickens, George Orwell and Carl Hiaasen. I expected poetry to have more representation, but the presence of several Collected Poems and Selected Poems probably explains that, and also I have a wide taste in poetry, rather than restricting myself to a few favourite authors. Here’s the list.

Alasdair Gray
T.S. Eliot
Tim Parks
Graham Greene
Salman Rushdie
J. G. Ballard
George Orwell
Paul Auster
Don Paterson
Douglas Coupland
Paul Theroux
Haruki Murakami
Carl Hiaasen
William Shakespeare
Charles Dickens
Louis de Bernières
Seamus Heaney
Charles Simic
John Gardner
Don DeLillo
Simon Armitage
Primo Levi
James Kelman
Raymond Chandler
Ernest Hemingway
Simone de Beauvoir
Jean-Paul Sartre
Henry James

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Tommy Sheridan Trial

“Tommy who?” people from outside Scotland might well ask. In Scotland, he must be one of our most instantly recognisable personalities.

Tommy “the tan” Sheridan, member of the Scottish Parliament, unofficial champion of the successful Scottish anti-poll tax campaign in the early 1990s, and former leader of the Scottish Socialist party has, for the last few weeks, been involved in “the [Scottish] trial of the decade.” He has sued the tabloid newspaper, The News of the World, for £200,000 damages over various allegations it made about him.

Predictably, the tabloids have focused gleefully on the juicy details – the alleged three-in-a-bath sex romps with a prostitute and another man, alleged affairs with a News of the World journalist and an ex-prostitute/party member (described at the trial as a “bammer with severe mental health problems”), alleged sado-masochism, and alleged attendances at swingers’ clubs.

More seriously, Sheridan’s entire reputation is on the line. He has always presented himself as a “man of the people”, a left-wing icon with impeccable credentials – a sober, married man who has worked tirelessly and selflessly for justice for the worst-off in our society. The News of the World has portrayed him as a hypocritical, champagne-guzzling sex addict who used his position to fulfil his personal lust for power, drugs, and sex.

In addition, his trustworthiness is on the line. When allegations first surfaced, Sheridan claims he told a meeting of his Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) that the allegations were nonsense. But now several members of the SSP claim that Sheridan admitted going to swingers’ clubs, and have produced a minute of the meeting that bears that out. Sheridan claims the minute has been fabricated and some other members of the SSP agree with him.

A leading member of the SSP then told the court that he backed Sheridan’s version of events, but bizarrely went on to say that he would have backed Sheridan even if Sheridan’s version of events had been untrue.

A week or so into the trial came another sensation. Sheridan, “incandescent with rage” (his own words), sacked his legal team, branded them incompetent, and resolved to represent himself in court from then on. The result has been fireworks, no surprise given Sheridan’s fierce oratory reputation, although at one point he also broke down in tears due to the pressures the allegations had put on him.

He has branded the allegations made against him as “a pack of lies”. He’s claimed there were factions within the SSP who wanted to unseat him, and that the right-wing News of the World had run the story because of his own left-wing credentials. He claimed that his political commitments “hardly left time for a secret life of sex Olympics". At the beginning of his defence, Sheridan added, "You will hear evidence of my addiction to Scrabble and sunbeds, not champagne, cocaine and swingers clubs."

In the last few days, a witness has claimed that another senior SSP official, Duncan Rowan, who had an affair with Fiona McGuire (“the bammer” Tommy Sheridan is also accused of having a 4-year affair with), had to move to England due to “death threats” he had received – threats he suspected were made by someone connected to the woman. Rowan had told the News of the World that there was no connection between Sheridan and McGuire, although McGuire then sold her story of an affair with Sheridan for a reported £20,000.

If Sheridan is guilty, he is a prize hypocrite. The case has nothing to do with any moral view on sado-masochistic sex with prostitutes or on fidelity within marriage. It has everything to do with Sheridan’s reputation, a public perception of him as a volatile, passionate stirrer, but nonetheless an honest, what-you-see-is-what-you-get stirrer - a public image that Sheridan himself has taken great care to cultivate over the years.

But if the allegations are false, and he wins the case, I think he deserves far more than £200,000 from the News of the World. Tabloid newspapers get away with far too much mud-raking, but £200,000 will hardly make a dent in Rupert Murdoch’s vast fortune. The tabloids can destroy people’s reputations and effectively get away with it. Mud tends to stick even if allegations are untrue.

Of course, one way to stop the mud-raking is to stop buying the mud. Whether it's true mud or not.

The trial continues.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

11. Tom Lowenstein

The eleventh in this series.

I’m going to try to keep these a little shorter than they have been, although this one will still be longer than an average blog entry.

Tom Lowenstein is an ethnographer as well as a poet, and specialises in the Inuit of Alaska. His contribution to the anthology is a single poem over 10 pages, La Tempestà’s X-Ray. The title refers to a painting by Giorgione from about 1505, in which a lightning bolt is just visible above the city in the background. In 1939, an X-Ray revealed that beneath a second nude woman, poised to bathe in the river in the picture, there was a soldier, and that there was a background of rectilinear forms, suggestive to Lowenstein of a twentieth century city landscape.

So behind the pastoral, the city waits to come into being, behind the woman is a soldier also waiting for discovery. This leads Lowenstein to explore his ideas of time endlessly repeating – the past coming both after and within the present, and the present containing both the past and the future. Lowenstein switches effortlessly between meditating on the picture’s surface to its hidden X-ray mysteries, via Magdalenian cave drawings, ancient Egyptian columns that allow life to continue as long as they are kept vertical, the Eskimo villages of the Tikigaq, and an exploration of our human bodies and souls.

This isn’t poetry that values the chatty vernacular. The lines stretch across the page, often split into two or three sections. It’s complicated to do on a blog, so I‘ll just have to use “sausage quotes” to illustrate. The picture is described first as:

Like the crushed particles of some used match-heads/ rubbed on/ cartridge paper – out in broad charcoally flanks/ a ragged/ honeycomb of fretwork, light-charred,/ flawed with excrements/ of lunar interstices/ (crumbled nightwhale jointed into vertebrae/ of chiaroscuro…)

Lowenstein casts a rueful eye over the environmental disasters that make up the modern city and sees it as a repeat of past violence:

…those spectres
that are to have arisen in the furore of the future
pluperfect, inherent as they must be in the burning molecules
of its foetus.

Life is suffering, an endless repeating loop. Humans desire to be free and to break out from the prisons they create for themselves, but they seldom manage it:

The eternal dagger of unsatisfied illumination,
which, held crippled in the closely burgeoned
flatulence of minerals and gases,
like a zigzag of agate in some gloomy matrix,
breaks never in the after-thought
or after-revelation of a thunder,
although we may wait epochs for it in asphyxiation.

So it’s not exactly optimistic, although there’s nothing to say poetry has to be.

In this poem, Tom Lowenstein doesn’t like the plain phrase and would rather spend ten lines piling grandiloquent image onto image then say something simply in a few words. Sometimes it works and he succeeded in astonishing me with the sheer power of his writing. At other times, it all went too far. Here’s a description of the city emerging through the pastoral painting:

Raising its vast sunless concrete ectoplasm in the brown-out,
the cold prefabricated stanchions of the future
rearing their anticipated, sheetlike femurs,
flesh stripped in the ice masque -

Tom Lowenstein is a poet of intelligence, who isn’t afraid to take on big ideas and to write in a grand style quite out of keeping with today’s fashionable short-lined, conversational epiphanies (although I have read one or two other poems, which employ less elevated diction). I couldn’t quite warm to this poem, but I wouldn’t mind reading more. The few poems I’ve seen by him have been very different from one another and I find that intriguing.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Sonnet Parody

I would compose a sonnet but I can’t,
as sonnets ne’er do work the way I plan.
I once did meet some guy from Krygystan
who didst prefer a long, nice, good, old rant
to sonnets. “Want some padded verse? I shan’t
clip you any headless iambs. I’d ban
all unforced rhyme if I had time. I’ll fan
the shards of meaningless debate. I’ll plant

what seems a volta, but is only a
dodgy break, yet this, my friend, is still a
poem. I plan to have it published in
the Formalist, or some such ‘zine. A
rant just cannot e’er waste even a
word, unlike a metred stanza.” Fin.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

10. Grace Lake a.k.a. Anna Mendelssohn (part 1?)

The first half of the tenth in this series. I hope there will be a part 2.

I am having real trouble with Grace Lake (a.k.a. Anna Mendelssohn). I began at the level of meaning and quickly realised that was going to be a non-starter. So I looked at form, structure, content (other than meaning), sound, and didn’t make any headway into what she might be doing. I thought about politics – maybe the reason her poems made no sense to me is because she has deliberately gone out of her way to make sure the poems make no sense – she has made the decision that language/syntax is a masculine/bourgeois/white construct that has emerged from a dead tradition, and she has tried to re-engage people by undermining everything about it. Could be. But I don’t really know.

I found a kind of review of one of her pamphlets (by Andrew Duncan, discussed earlier, at number 5), but to be honest, it didn’t help me much. Here’s a paragraph from it:

“Lake is a social poet, writing against something always being said. A lot of people, in the sixties, found the style of Marx and Freud about as credible as a speech by Harold Wilson; most of the poets who began in that decade, you could say, were attacking official knowledge. The problem was then to create a poetry which was simultaneous and constantly shifting and irrational but never falsifiable, seductively fluent, never slipping back into informativeness to explain what was going on, and, if Lake has found the perfect answer, it shouldn't be too hard for us to remember the question.”


What I’m going to do is post a poem by Grace Lake below. If any of you have any thoughts on how to read it (i.e. not on what it means exactly– but on how to approach it) please let me know. Wild guesses, ideas (informed or not) are welcome. It might give me a clue as to how to read the rest of her stuff. What I really need to do is read this book by Tony Lopez. I expect he really would know how to read Grace Lake. If anyone knows him and wants to direct him here, please do.
Here’s the poem (edit - I've now removed most of the poem, but left a little to illustrate Grace Lake's style):

there being no books allowed at table
took to minor anti apartheid reminders
on envelopes in christmas work
and reveries upon custard
ladled out from giant vats
by pasty girls in white stitched caps
a painting struck my dream the other night
within a frame of three grooved wooden white
behind a partly revealed green foliage
custard came to light as delicious paint might

I didn't really get anywhere with Grace Lake and it wasn't for lack of trying, but of course, if any of you readers like what you’ve just read, then buy her latest book!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Poem (deleted)

deleted poem

9. Philip Jenkins

The ninth in this series.

With Philip Jenkins, we’re back into fragments, images that repeat and echo throughout a poem, abstract postulations, constantly shifting tones and registers within the same poem, non-sequiturs, and blurry connections.

Only one poem is included in the anthology, Cairo. It’s a long poem comprising of two “books”, each with ten sections. It’s much harder to get into initially than Lee Harwood, Roy Fisher or Harry Guest. The style corresponds more to that of Richard Caddel and David Chaloner, discussed earlier in this series.

I didn’t get much of a picture of Cairo from these poems - not in a physical sense at all. The city is a vehicle for Philip Jenkins to reflect on various concepts – some have an Egyptian reference, such as myth, water, dust and sand, the boat to the afterlife. Other concepts that crop up include the familiar poetic territory of darkness, Void, emptiness, time, movement, film, death – and of course, geometry, a popular word in this anthology.

There is no narrative. The sections are arranged so that similar images repeat in different sections, and the reader can make of these what he/she wants to. At the centre of the poem (“centre” in a vague way) is revelation, symbolised by an inundation of water onto parched earth and dust. Then the ground is revitalised and the boat can sail from one realm to the other (i.e. the realm of earth and heaven, death and life). However, not every section of the poem directly (or even indirectly) relates to this. The poem is like a cocktail, made up from disparate elements, and is liable to make you dizzy when you’ve drunk the lot. Not everything is going to be clear, that’s for sure.

To give you an idea, the poem begins:

and the darkest hour is just
before dawn         goes the song         the sound
necessarily fades

a spacious wooden floor
right angles extending out
touch the heavy curtains

the darkest segment of the film

the night
a diamond
hard tonality

Now darkness keeps cropping up in the poem. It’s not something I associate with Cairo, but the darkness is later shown to be the first principle of the universe (as the ancient Egyptians imagined), and this darkness is also a primal property of light and all created things.

The film comes up later too, as if there is something outside reality as we know it – whether we are all in the film and there is another real world or whether the film is the other world is ambiguous.

Reality comes under scrutiny. The narrator imagines himself to be the centre of things, but only a loosely defined centre i.e. the centre of something that is a “world of meanings and contexts.” However, this, by implication, may not be an accurate way to describe the world, and certainly not the world of this poem.
In another section, there is a line that ties a bottle’s neck to the edge of a table (how it does this isn’t clear). This line and others create or at least make up reality:

in this one, he seems
to be contemplating geometry
in the next, he has
discovered the wheel

that elegant curve
separating black from white
yin from yang…

…the line that can be built anew

There is a spiritual search going on through the poem. The Egyptian image of a snake eating its tail illustrates perpetual flux, the “cosmic ocean”. There is Divine power in chaos, and meaning seems to lie in emptiness, in the waters of the Abyss, which will open the canals and provide passage to the afterlife.

No matter what we do, there is an inevitability about life:

We arrive by a despite our own efforts. Inexorably and without remorse, we shall be here.

Sometimes the tone shifts abruptly from section to section. In section 5 of Book 1, Jenkins considers the importance of water, how rain and snow will build up to the “inundation” he looks forward to and bring liquid to dry lands, and he points to:

secret of movement
a darkness in the daytime

imperceptible, I suppose he means. Then the tone changes completely in section 6, which reads like a pulp novel that isn’t taking itself entirely seriously:

He re-entered, visibly flustered. “Whatever you
do,” he reminded, “don’t mention the Void. I mentioned
it once but I think I got away with it.”

To be honest, I could have done with a few more of these moments. It is, generally, earnest, serious verse, full of ambiguity and very puzzling in places. I can’t say I really warmed to it much. It didn’t leave me completely clueless, but I’ve no idea if my thoughts on it are anywhere near the writer’s intentions. I suspect my ability to read this kind of material isn’t quite adequate for Philip Jenkins.

Now next up is Grace Lake, and at the moment, I really am clueless when it comes to her. Let’s hope the penny will suddenly drop. Soon. Otherwise, I won’t have much to say, which may be no bad thing.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Tim Love

Tim Love has recetly updated his “literary references” site.
It’s a vast poetry resource. Click on any of the links there and you’ll see what I mean.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

8. Lee Harwood

The eighth in this series.

Bears dance to the music, slowly, awkwardly
in the grand piazza.
A thin but sufficient chain keeps them in place.

So begins, Coat of Arms on Wall in Ancient City, the first of Lee Harwood’s poems in the anthology, set in an unnamed Italian city where an evening of decadence is about to begin. The tourists marvel at the humiliations and pleasures of the evening, as the city icon looks on with apparent indifference. The tourists board the steamer and head into darkness where a bored bus driver waits to escort them back to their hotels. The poem finishes:

The bears troop off and disappear into the night.
Their plans remain ambiguous.

I’ve been asking myself what makes this poem so unforgettable and why the conclusion is so successful. The poem makes me think of Venice, its great square, the music and crowds and street performers, except Venice is a gentile version of this poem’s city, which is inhabited by “systematic and cold debauchery.” There’s that delight in being a tourist, the high of seeing something outlandish, but there’s always the low to come, of the bus back to unambiguous routine. Yet those bears who seem like the victims – trapped animals performing for the tourist gawkers - they are the ones who slip off into the night, the ones with secrets, the ones who can’t be pinned down. The surrealism of the picture is earthed in human longing. We want to be the bears, not the tourists looking on and then rushing off to bed.

Lee Harwood was born in 1939 in Leicester, was brought up in London, and has lived in Brighton since 1970. His Collected Poems was published by Shearsman Books a couple of years ago. In the 1960s he met up with members of the New York School and was influenced by John Ashbery and others. His poetry developed along very different lines from his mainstream UK counterparts, although, on the evidence of these anthologised pieces, his poems are less fragmented than his American contemporaries. He has been named as one of three judges (along with John Burnside and Alice Oswald) in the UK Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition 2006 – an interesting choice!

His poetry strikes me as deeply questioning and meditative on the nature of reality, love, faith, death. It often conjures up a mood, rather than a narrative. At times sentences trail off, thoughts drift, images come and go, but the poems remain remarkably cohesive.

The Unfinished Opera is a long poem that interweaves two stories. The first is a love story. A man goes to visit his lover in the ‘Overture’ section of the poem. This gives way to Act 1, where the lover dreams an opera, and it’s a traditional opera in which plot is no more than a backdrop to music. The characterisation is wooden, the plot a ridiculously convoluted love story, and this part is told in coolly humorous prose:

The confusions and trials seem endless. Who is behind the locked door? Who leapt from the window as the baritone approached? Who has seemingly left with another?

As the curtain falls we feel totally exhausted.

Then comes the Interval, during which the man reaches the house of his lover. At first I was surprised by the diction here. It seemed almost melodramatic, the kind of language one might read in a romance novel, except heightened and chastened:

Your eyes glitter as we lie in the half light
in so close an embrace that
our breath and lips and limbs are one.


A clear crisp new moon rises,
a pure silver white awesome in its power.
I gasp at this as at our love.

It seems so heartfelt, and yet so artificial, so poetic. But back we go into Act 2, with more intrigue, and then a couple united after years of separation, a chorus praising the virtues of a tender and constant heart, and then:

Suddenly I drop the curtain on this scene.
I stand in front of the red velvet, the toy theatre,
this elaborate allegory of our story.

Allegory, yes, perhaps. But I look at it like this. The opera presents passion, music raw with emotion, and it may bring us to tears even when we know that what it presents is artificial. It’s the intensity of the music, not the love story, that affects us. However, in the real love story between the man and his lover, the art, the words, seem inadequate to express what’s felt and experienced. We might be able to look on and experience the artificial with intensity, but we can’t experience what’s real. After the (deliberate) poetic clichés of the Interval section, Harwood resorts to quotation marks, as if to remind us that we are kept at a distance:

No one ever in my life has that “power” you always have,
a force even greater than love…
…The “perfection” and “paradise” of such moments
as your kiss brushes my lips…

The poem ends with the opera characters getting very cross at the interruption. The real characters step into the wings and the opera continues.

Brecon Cathedral has a very different atmosphere. This poem explores faith and does so from an open, ambiguous perspective. The narrator is present in the cathedral just as the sun rose against the stained glass:

I can’t forget that
moment nor the powers there


But to praise God is a strange deed.
God or the gods need no praise,
only some thanks now and then

He goes out into the hills and mountains, which are oblivious “to all this stuff (maybe),” and the town below goes about its business as usual. But he thinks back to the open book in the service, the priest’s calm blessing, and “it’s clear enough/ clear as the mountains.” Then a child asks if he believes in God:

To which a faltering adult answer
goes nowhere near satisfying the simple question.

It’s a beautiful, thoughtful poem. It might look simple to construct a poem like this, with simple language, without complex sentence structures, with calm and seemingly casual observation. It is of course extraordinarily difficult to achieve. There is great art in managing to get something looking really simple and yet saying something profound.

Cwm Uchaf does without punctuation for the most part. Its unfinished thoughts and broken-off sentences merge into one another in a collage, the theme of which appears to be decay, crumbling, slipping off – a voice falls from a window to a dark street, “a fuzz of stars sweeps across the world”, a silence you can almost touch never achieves completeness as there’s always a “faint ringing in/ the darkness”, and:

The faint glitter of the rocks mica the sky
catching the eye stood still almost

The dust the waves going nowhere in particular
a gradual leaking away

On the Ledge has the narrator witness his friend fall from a snowy mountain to “a final thudding stillness.” The narrator is left to weep alone:

and you gone silently down
through grey winter air
the mountains we loved

What really impresses me about Lee Harwood’s work is his evocation of mood. His subtle use of language gives his poems both intensity and intelligence, and many of his images stick in the mind well after the poem is finished.

Roy Fisher, Harry Guest, Lee Harwood – that’s three in a row who have delivered big time. Can Philip Jenkins continue the run?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Tichborn's Elegy

Katy Evans-Bush quoted this poem on a poetry board. I hadn’t heard it before, but it’s good stuff. She wrote as introduction:

Chidiock Tichborn was executed in 1586 as a Catholic conspirator against Queen Elizabeth. the night before the execution (disembowelled alive, by the way) he wrote the only poem we know about from him: usually known as Tichborn's Elegy, it was part of a last letter he sent his wife.

And now the poem:

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

My tale was heard and yet it was not told,
My fruit is fallen, and yet my leaves are green,
My youth is spent and yet I am not old,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and saw it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I was but made;
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Two Poems

I have two poems in the new July edition of nthposition. It’s an excellent Internet magazine, full of interesting articles on a bewildering variety of subjects, and usually the poetry section is very good too.

7. Harry Guest

The seventh in this series.

I’m not even going to try to classify Harry Guest’s poetry. Each poem has its own specific atmosphere, its own voice.

There is little of the wilful obscurity I’ve found in some of the writers in this anthology. He doesn’t twist grammar and syntax. He doesn’t try not to make normal sense. The lines in his poems set out from the left margin and rarely splash themselves around the page.

That doesn’t make him an “easy” writer. His poems have depth, both in terms of thought and of emotion, and a poet can’t afford to be superficial when dealing with complexities. Harry Guest’s poems take concentration, but there are many rewards for taking the time and energy to read them.

Seven poems are included in the anthology, and the last four can be classified as responses to art – painting (Paul Klee), music (Grieg), science fiction (Edgar Rice Burroughs), English watercolours (general). Normally I’d be worried about approaching poems like this as my knowledge of art and classical music is poor, but Harry Guest made it a pleasure.

The description at the beginning of The Sorcerer’s Squares or One Way to Read Paul Klee, illustrates how well he can describe a world, even though, in this case, it happens to be an imaginary world inspired by the abstract canvas of a Klee painting:

This grid of pastel colours could be roofs,
crooked chimney-pots, high factories, pale fields beyond them –
the raw material of bricks and sunlight for a child to organise
into a lyric city set on a tidal river.
The mudflats glisten. Fisherman berth their punts among reeds.
The cry from a tower is sung in an unknown language.
Birds dart from the tiny gardens. At night there are fireworks.

Guest builds up his picture of what is happening in the abstract painting. He offers one way to read it, but not a definitive one, and in making that plain, sets out an approach to all art, including poetry. He isn’t clear on what a blue patch in the painting might be communicating – the wrong colour for sky, the wrong angle for water – and concludes it must be “an enormous carpet hung out to be beaten”:

Flecks within flecks leave scope for differing views,
which is as it should be: find somewhere for hope to inhabit…

He offers Two Interpretations of a Piece by Grieg. If titled simply ‘Last Spring’, referring to the preceding season, one can look on it as a bud that grew up to summer’s flower,

…an event
obliterated by its outcome. Scaffolding
gets taken down when the builder’s finished
though hedges tend to hide their structure.

But if titled ‘The Last Spring’, the final season with nothing ahead, then there is “no hope, no warmth again./ A white full-stop in space will mark the close.”

Barsoom is a metrical rhyming sonnet, a description of the planet Mars in the John Carter novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, none of which I have read, but it’s hard to resist two quatrains as good as this:

It is a world that has been left to die.
Cold sun probes thinning air. The last canals
lead from the ice-caps under ruined walls.
Mere skeletons of farms guard fields gone dry.

In arid light, waves of vermillion moss
break on abandoned wharves. Tall cities stare
from vacant windows past worn headlands where
the dead sea-bottoms roll through emptiness.

In A Very English Art, Guest describes the typical nature scenes of the English countryside immortalised in visual art, as well as scenes from abroad that have been painted in an English ‘style’. He concludes:

Art is the here and is the there,
the seen, the dreamed, the known, the longed for,
a winding path, meticulous
crossbars of a cottage window,
sunset beginning in a lake…

The poems are lyrical meditations, subjective reflections on art and life that possess an expansive and generous appeal to a reader’s sensibilities. You can virtually see the paintings, hear the music, through the power of the words. I never felt like I was locked outside a gallery listening to a poet intoning his response to a painting from a 5th floor balcony, which is what some poems on art make me feel.

The Fifth Elegy is a twisting, complex journey, or set of journeys. Seasons change, the summer sun is shining, then there is frost on the ground. Two lovers climb up a mountain path in autumn, but on a June evening guests gather for a dinner party. A deserted museum is populated only by skulls in glass cabinets, and then suddenly we are transported to a pastoral scene amid flowers, fields, and rivers. A host of memories interweave, slip in and slip out of the narrative, almost dream-like. It’s not easy to make rational sense of, but the writing is so good that I didn’t mind that too much. In any case, Guest writes:

is an outmoded form. For a millennium
those who were buried in the shadow of that church-tower
have known of life what we know, that reason
reaches only so far before the truth
takes over.

The elegy, I think, is directed to a place and to the people who have moved through it and through the narrator’s life. The poem is like a journey through the memories and all the changes that have come about:

Who though can put a face on words or claim
to interpret the sundial? All we can say for certain is
there was a house, a tomb, a copse, and beyond
the land sloped to the river-mouth. This journey
will take its place among the many ways
of identifying movement.

I must admit, I could detect the (still living) ghost of John Ashbery in this poem, but Ashbery when he is good, so that’s OK.

Grave-Goods: Lithuania, c.6000, B.C, tells of the ritual sacrifice of a woman, a horrific event, and Guest gets the horror of it over very effectively. Those performing the killing are afraid. Their power is controlled by that fear. They lash the woman’s legs together so that she couldn’t walk:

They had all seen those who were dead
loom threatening like strangers.

They bury her alive and gaze at the mound in terror. Her eyes “press through the dirt”, striving to see the buriers:

Muttering words that had to be said
they backed away.

When she dies, the air above quivers with curses.

I didn’t enjoy High Orchids as much, even though I admired again the lyrical descriptions of the English landscape. This poem was dedicated to Lee Harwood, who is the next poet on the list.

The poem ends with a description of orchids, which lift “fragile above their mottled lizard leaves,” and then lines that many poets will concur with:

Would that our desks produced such blooms –
so unexpected, so correct –
as lovely though less perishable.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Anecdotal Evidence

I’ve been enjoying reading Patrick Kurp’s blog at Anecdotal Evidence. His relections on poetry and literature at the intersection with real life are always interesting, unpretentious, and very well written.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

6. Roy Fisher

The sixth in this series.

Roy Fisher, from Birmingham, England, is easily the best known poet in the anthology. His collected poems, The Long and the Short of It, spans a 50-year writing career that still continues. He is now 76. That book came out on Neil Astley’s Bloodaxe imprint, the UK’s biggest poetry publisher. Fisher isn’t part of the mainstream, but he has been accepted by it, although that doesn’t appear to be important to him. Here’s an excellent article written by August Kleinzahler in the London Review of Books.

What strikes me about his poetry is the sense of place. Wherever a poem is set, the reader is there, with all the sights, sounds and smells of the landscape the words evoke. Fisher is also capable of pulling off surprising and remarkably well-drawn images, and the endings of his poems are never what you’d expect; they surprise, haunt, and live on in the memory.

The first poem Near Garmsley Camp is a good example of all these points. The narrator and friends are coming down a slope on a hot, hazy day. They go down a track and come to a gate, beyond which is:

…an unmarked meadow, thickly
hedged round and floating above itself,
floating a foot above its own grassy floor
as a silky, flushed
level of seed-heads, lifted
on invisible stalks and barely
ruffling; a surface cloudy and soft enough
to turn the daylight;

This a “translucent patch set into/ what seems the opaque ground”. The heat haze above is mirrored on the landscape, except for this one point where everything seems translucent. But the haze in the sky also has its moment of clarity. Although the trees and towers and poles rise into the haze and disappear:

a man stands sunlit and hammering
high on Edvyn Loach church steeple,
trespassing in the air claimed for spirits
by the stone push upwards, and giving
the game away; an entire man standing
upright in the sky.

What a fantastic finish!

The Burning Graves at Netherton centres on a church graveyard. The ground becomes parched and splits, and because there is coal there, smoke curls out the holes. The gravestones keel over:

Strange graves in any case;
some of them edged
with brick, even with glazed white
urinal brick…

This image is memorable enough in itself, with its strange cohabitation of gravestone and urinal, but later in the poem Fisher turns his attentions to the council estate over the hill, a place of decay, boarded windows, cracked roads, and “ a purpose-built/ shop like a battered command-post”. He then echoes the description of the graves in describing the houses:

…Concrete, glazed brick
for limits. A wooded hill
at its back.

So the poem is cleverly constructed, and the proximity between the living and the dead is more than just geographical.

Staffordshire Red is dedicated to fellow-poet, Geoffrey Hill, and it’s a poem that I’m sure Hill would appreciate, about a normal moment where things changed for good. The narrator is driving along a steep road and turns suddenly into through a tunnel of trees before the car comes out the other side. Something has happened to him in that tunnel, something he can’t explain. He then turns round and goes back through again and the experience is the same. The poem begins:

There are still clefts cut in the earth
to receive us living:

now that’s a candidate for best opening lines of the 20th century. Then he goes through the tunnel:

I had not been looking for the passage,
only for the way;

but being suddenly in
was drawn through slowly

- altering by an age
altering again –

and then the road dropped me

There’s a real drama about this poem that cuts to the quick. Fisher is pointed. He paces the narrative well, interspersing the necessary detail with more meditational material. He concludes at the end:

How hard
is understanding? Some things
are lying in wait in the world,
walking about in the world,
happening when touched, as they must.

That’s great – nothing pretentious or overblown, but at the same time thoughtful and liable to stay with the reader. A fantastic poem.

The final poem, Handsworth Liberties, a 16 part poem that takes its cue (I presume) from Handsworth, an area of Birmingham, is much more non-mainstream. The reflections are more abstract, the connections less easy to place together, the leaps in logic and sense more unsettling. But there is plenty of strong writing. Kleinzahler quotes one section in his article. I liked this one:

This is where the game gets dirty.
It plays
the illusion
of insecurity.

give way to hoardings,
to ground rumbles,
the street turns to a bridge –
flare and glitter of a roadway
all wheels and feet.

There’s no substance;
but inside all this
there’s a summer afternoon
shining in a tired room
with a cast-iron radiator,
pipes for a gas fire:
no carpet. No motion.
No security.

Roy Fisher is definitely someone I aim to read more of. The same might be said of Harry Guest whose work I have enjoyed very much. He's next.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Life Lines: Poets for Oxfam

I bought the CD, Life Lines: Poets for Oxfam, from an Oxfam shop the other day.

It features 69 of the UK’s best-known poets e.g Simon Armitage, Wendy Cope, George Szirtes, Carol Ann Duffy etc...

At only £4.99, the CD is very good value, and all money goes to Oxfam’s work in over 60 countries.