Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Lives of the Animals

I’ve been reading Lives of the Animals by Robert Wrigley, an American poet who teaches at the University of Oregon. It’s a startling collection, one of the best I’ve read in ages, which combines close observation, an acute mind, a flow of consistently memorable lines, and an ability to move readers (me, at any rate) well beyond what most poets are capable of.

My favourite poem for most of the book was the first one, The Other World, until I reached the penultimate one, Bear Dreams (you’ll notice the text at the link is slightly different from the later version below, which I’ve taken from the book – instructive in itself, as the revisions are all improvements on an already excellent poem).

The poem starts out with a simple scenario – a description of flowers, a bear that looks at “something”.

Bear Dreams

What had seemed to him in June just a few

five-petaled pink wild roses
was in fact a weeks long, slow-moving onslaught

of blossoms. He sees this now, of course,

in September, having come down from the house
to the edge of the deep undergrowth outside his fence,

fence that keeps his dogs inside, fence

the young bear had pushed against just minutes ago, paws resting
on the steel diamond links as it looked

toward something the man couldn't see inside the yard.

At the very click of the back door's latch
the bear bolted away, looked back once

from the narrow gravel road, and was gone.

Nicely done, but nothing remarkable yet, you might think. In a sense, yes. But when you get to the end of the poem, you’ll see how every detail is significant, nothing superfluous. And the “something” that might seem vague becomes central to the poem. It continues:

Beside the man the dogs pant and wait,
and there is nothing else in the world but the song

of a bird he wonders at but will not
seek out, neither in the branches of trees
nor the leaves and plates of the field guide,

preferring to portrait or flight the sourceless singing,
wanting less to unknow some words than their meanings.
The way "rose" suddenly means the bare skin of a girl

ten billion blossoms ago, who'd undressed and let him
look and only look and look at her looking back.
He'd wanted to see the whole soft machine then, all the cogs

and stigmata. She wanted to see him seeing,
and this is what he remembers now, just the half-gone image
of his seeing, not what he saw, though now a twig dangles broken

from the bear's going away, and he sees how
a cool autumn wind sets the whole sprawling rose bush
nodding, and he knows the rose does not love

the bear or the birds or any man,
nor even the early bees that bob inside and pollinate its flowers.

Suddenly the poem drives into a different gear. The speculation on the birdsong leads to a reflection on meaning, and then to the image of the woman who let him “look and only look and look at her looking back”. The reflection on his seeing and what he didn's see snaps back to reality with the parallel image of the broken twig and the absent bear, which draws us back to the roses again. At this point, you might well wonder where he’s going to take this, how can he possibly draw it all together. Well..

What a perfect five-petaled plucked roulette

a wild rose is: started right, she could never love me not.
And though he knows this opulence of hips, this abundance
of fruit and seed, could likely lure another, braver bear,

who'd take the fence and feast to its fill—
which in a bear is almost never—he also knows that
in the long winter's sleep that's coming, a bear too,

even the fullest, most sated of bears, will dream
and see as it could not in the midst of its feasting
all that is no longer there, those seeds of another hunger.

That’s stunning writing, in my opinion. The brave bear would take the rose, take the lot, but even the fullest bear will dream and see what wasn’t there even as it feasted, the "seeds of another hunger."

And then if you read the poem again, all kinds of questions can be asked – “what was the ‘something’ the bear saw inside the yard that the man missed? How does the birdsong (that the man doesn't need to see, preferring the sourceless singing) fit in with all this? How far should we take the rose petals/woman correspondence? What is seen and what isn’t seen in this poem (as ‘seeing’ seems key to it)?

I’m away on holiday for a couple of weeks. So this blog will be on hiatus until I get back. But Bear Dreams is worth coming back to again and again. If you like it, the entire collection won’t disappoint you. There are a few dodgy poems included, but the good ones more than make up for them. Better that than a whole book full of average.

Monday, May 22, 2006

New Review

A new review of my chapbook has just gone online. This kind of thing:

“…where the poet leads us: to the slipstream, the borders where a look at the strange tells us more about usual life…”

It’s a positive review, although I wish that, rather than “solid debut”, she had said “sparkling debut”. Well, I need a few quotes for my non-existent CV.

Sunday, May 21, 2006


The Eurovision Song Contest finished with a victory for Finland, an act described in the pre-contest hype as a “death-metal” group, who sounded more to me like Bon Jovi-in-search-of-a-tune. The UK finished 19th out of 24, although doing too well probably does no good for anyone’s credibility. The Scandinavian countries voted for other Scandinavians, and the Balkan countries voted for other Balkans. Former eastern-block nations unaccountably voted for Russia. The UK and Ireland offered generous votes for one another. My favourite was Latvia, a weird vocal-only group who sounded like they should be appearing in a seaside-tent variety show for children rather than in a pop music competition, and all the better for it.

Here’s where you can find more news of the event and, by clicking the video button at the top right of the link, you can hear some of the highlights.
If you’re not from Europe and have no idea what I’m talking about, clicking on the link will confirm what you may have suspected, that Europeans can unite only in madness.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Christian Aid Week

It’s Christian Aid Week in the UK. Christian Aid is, in my opinion, one of the best charities. The work they do is first rate in relieving hunger and poverty, in campaigning for fairer trade, and (sadly) is born of necessity. They operate without reference to the beliefs or politics of those who benefit from their input.

In Edinburgh, the biggest second-hand book sale in Europe takes place on behalf of Christian Aid each year during this week. I dropped in yesterday and picked up three poetry collections – Peter Porter’s Afterburner, Kate Clanchy’s Slattern, John Ashbery’s Where Shall I Wander.

All that amazes me is why anyone would want to give these collections away. Unwanted Christmas presents? But to whoever passed them on – thank you!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A Road Taken

I just wrote this draft and, to say the least, the final couple of strophes were unexpected to me. I had expected the poem to go on to explore themes of mortality and memory and their effect on the narrator.

However, sometimes a line will come into my head when I'm writing, as if from nowhere, and lead me down a completely different road to the one I thought I was taking. I've learned always to follow it to its conclusion, even if - in revision - I end up chopping the lot. In this case, I probably will, as there's something faintly ridiculous about it, and yet...

Here's the draft as it stands. I'll leave it up for a little while.

** I've now taken the draft down. It needs some work on the diction in the early strophes, which was a touch flat, and the ending needs to be thought out more and given more depth. Some poems never really come right and have to be abandoned, but I think this one should work in the end.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Poetry Publishing

Poetry Scotland have a “guest appearance” by HappenStance editor, Helena Nelson (you have to click the “guest appearance” link at the site – no direct link is possible). It’s a good read. She talks about why book and chapbook publishers like poets to have a ‘track record’ before taking them on board, about how each new publication can be crucial for the reputation of a small publisher, about how a publisher chooses who to publish, and about why poets should read poetry (amazingly some don’t).

I liked:

Good poets write bad poems and seriously flawed poems. They do it all the time. The main difference between good poets and bad poets is that good poets sometimes write good poems.


I can only make new publications happen, if readers buy the last lot—and approve them. Readers have the power. Readers can make a publication a success. They can make a publisher’s reputation. They are the pivotal centre of the whole operation.

Poets sending in submissions are also readers. Their power to buy is very significant. If they don’t buy from that publisher—and from other poetry publishers—how on earth do they think somebody else will buy their publication? Those of us who care about poetry, all need to buy some. Not a lot. A little bit, but regularly. Then more poetry will be published. Some of it might be yours.

There is no crisis in poetry publishing. That crisis is a myth. The crisis is in poetry reading. And the solution is simple. For every poem you write, read 50 and buy one book, or chapbook, new or second-hand.
Poets need lots of readers and one publisher. Publishers need a handful of poets and thousands of readers.

In her list of factors that can influence why a publisher chooses to publish a poet or not, I enjoyed:

5. You included 3 villanelles. The publisher loathes villanelles.

I liked this because in the initial manuscript I sent to HappenStance, I included one villanelle (not three, I’m glad to say) and I still have the copy I sent with Helena’s pencilled comment at the top, which is probably best not shared on this blog in case anyone of a nervous disposition is reading.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Olive Dehn

HappenStance Press are about to release a new chapbook, Out of My Mind, and it looks fascinating. It’s by Olive Dehn who, in 1933, was staying in Germany when her satirical poem Goebelchen was intercepted on its way to Punch magazine in London. It was regarded as so dangerously subversive that its 19-year-old author was deported under armed guard.

I’ve heard that she has a really interesting life-story, which (with any luck) might bring media publicity to HappenStance.

She has written children’s books, but even though she has written poetry throughout her life, this is her first poetry collection, and she is now 91 years old! Just goes to show it's never too late.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Where Do Poems Come From?

Sometimes the answer is best left unknown. An enquiry into a poem’s origin means an enquiry into your own psyche, into your heart even, and you might not find what you expect.

My poems often make me wonder about myself, but I try not to wonder too much. Other people’s poems don’t make me wonder about them as people, although a good one gives me a sense of wonder of a different kind.

I had posted a draft poem below, but have decided to remove it. After a revision or two, it might come good enough to do something with. However, if any of you missed it and want to see the draft, by all means email me (at the address in my profile) and I'll send it to you.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Lion Taming and Poetry

I decided to wite a poem about lion-taming, for one reason or another, and did some research on the Internet. I found a site run by Steve Katz, who has written a book, based on his experience of interviewing lion tamers, showing how the principles of lion tamers also apply to working in a business environment.

Actually, they apply to many other situations too. I wrote the poem and sent Mr Katz a copy (as I’d cribbed bits from his website). He told me he’d enjoyed the poem and that his mother had edited a literary journal for several years. A couple of days ago, a free copy of his book arrived at my house. What a nice guy!

I’ve been revising the poem, and have re-visioned the relationship as one between a lion tamer beginning a new career as literary critic, and a poem (the lion).


I’ve adopted several new links – Anna Evans, Cailleach, Rachel Bunting, the Poetry SuperHighway, Todd Swift, Mario Petrucci – all good sites.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Avatar Review

I have a couple of poems in the new Avatar Review. In fact you can hear me read them if you prefer that to seeing the words on screen.

Strangely, the voice reading the poems doesn’t sound like me at all, although I know it is me.

The issue looks good, with review articles by Howard Miller, Paula Grenside and David Ayers, and some interesting poems. I haven’t had time yet to read it all in detail, but soon will.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

By Heart

Well, this challenge is very interesting. Not only the challenge, but the discussion that has ensued from it, which starts on page 2 of the thread.

The challenge is to:

go away and learn a short poem by heart, until it's near as dammit word perfect
---the poem MUST not be a poem you already know or half-know by heart
-- it has to be a new one
-- and not one written by you
---come back and post the poem (from memory, naturally) together with comments about how learning it by heart affected your understanding of or reaction to the poem.

I have begun learning a poem and will post something about it at the site either tomorrow or the next day (I started late due to being busy at work and with NaPoWriMo). I’m not sure I’ll be able to add much to what’s already been said, but I'll have a go.

*** I have now posted my poem with my reflections on the process.