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Summer’s end 2013: brief notices.

By Peter Riley.

Kelvin Corcoran
For the Greek Spring.
Shearsman Books 2013. 138pp  £9.95 $17.00

Ashur Etwebi
translated by Brenda Hillman and Diallah Haidar
Poems from Above the Hill: selected poems.
Parlor Press (USA) 2011. 36pp £10.00 $14.00

Amy Hollowell
Giacomettrics.
Corrupt Press 2012. 80pp 12.00

Angela Leighton
The Messages.
Shoestring Press 2012. 78pp £9.00 $12.07

Michael Heller
This Constellation Is a Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010.
Nightboat Books (USA) 2012. 612pp. £11.63 $22.95

As I did last summer, I’m surveying a small collection of books which have found their way here (not necessarily asking for review) and of which I can speak only briefly. —PR

I HAVE SPOKEN at some length elsewhere about Kelvin Corcoran and specifically his involvement with Greece1, so I will not do much more than give a sketch of For the Greek Spring.

The collection gathers poems set in Greece from five previous books with the addition of new poems of the same nature. I find these pieces to be a great relief in the field of contemporary British poetry. They sweep aside a trend towards rebarbative ugliness founded on prescriptions of guilt, and recover lyrical beauty in the substantial discursive poem without a trace of nostalgia. The engagement with Greece, ancient and modern, is constantly authenticated by the figure of the poet at its centre. Personal experience and widespread knowledge constitute the theatre of the poems, but it is the passionate cast of the writing which sets everything into a truly poetical mode. The poet ranges through mythology and history in exactly the way he ranges through the Greek countryside close to his house, that is, relaxed and determined. There are no doubt abstruse references, especially for those not given to reading Greek classics, but I think that what is mysterious in one poem is probably made clear in another, and occasionally in the notes. Perhaps the most impressive achievement has been in the most recent work where he seems single-handed to have recovered the possibility of a modern narrative poetry. There is a strong moral and political insistence which has distinct reverberations, sometimes explicit, in places like Westminster, but there is also the condition of “drunk with seeing” in a Mediterranean climate zone—

this is all there is, the blue
upon blue of layered mountains
to the sea below Parnassos

Apollo and the wooded valley
at the centre of the world
all thought is thought about something

one column of smoke rises
the radio plays, I want nothing
the substance of light surrounds the hills

This is an indolence entirely free of oppressive urges to police the entire culture, and free too of the tortured souls of neurotic self-laden poets, and as such it stands as a rarity in current British poetry.

GENERALLY I AVOID writing about translations even from languages I can cope with, a category which doesn’t include Arabic, since the experts always know better than you do. Etwebi is Libyan and evidently much respected in his own country. I am struck as I have been before by how well modern poetry in Arabic appears to come through in translation, its richness of imagery and versatility of form and genre which seem to bespeak the presence of a classical tradition still felt in the author’s bones.

These poems must be considered “modernist” back home for their imagery of urban life, and the multivocal staging of some pieces, but that ancient poise still seems to be there. Particularly effective are a set of 63 haiku-like triplets, mostly perfectly happy to “say nothing” but standing defiantly on the earth’s surface, and the title-sequence of 57 free-formed mostly short poems of considerable point and range. Not the sweeping lamentational power of Darwish, nor the tense writerly concentration of Adonis, but obviously a poet of worth.

HollowayGiacoTHOUGHTFUL AND VENTURESOME poems by an American in Paris, carefully set on the page without punctuation in a range of presentations from short-line columns to scattered phrases all over the page. I’m reminded of William Carlos Williams, though Amy Holloway is less held to empirical experience. She was the founder of an international Zen group and the meditative suspension you would expect from that — the focus on word, thing or “being” as such — is certainly present but the writing is frequently more dynamic than this suggests.

The book is a writing project concerned with Giacometti — probably the whole of the book, though there are many poems which don’t evince that purpose and would normally be read as notations of direct experience. The focus is in any case quite submerged, and Giacometti sources of which the author is aware seem to have sunk under the demands of the poem itself. Only one long poem openly declares Giacometti as its subject.

The blurb declares that the poems translate Giacometti’s forms intact into a verbal medium but I can’t see that at all; I don’t believe that transfers as categorical as that are possible, and indeed I find the poems more appealing than such a dependent ekphrastic status would let them be.

ANGELA LEIGHTON’S POETRY has always been that of the poet in various places investigating her experience through careful metaphors, seeking out its paradoxes and “clinching” it verbally. It is the kind of poetry where you can take pleasure in finding a place or experience which is known to you and testing your memory against someone else’s. (In her first book I found a poem called “Storks in Hungary” which happens to be a subject very dear to me. Compared with my treatment of it2 hers is more closely bound to the occasion.)

Her third book continues this tenor, with again plenty of places, and again I am surprised at how many of them I know, but with the language more dynamic than in the earlier books, the rhythms less smooth and the vocabulary more extended. The blurb claims a specifically musical focus in this book as an analysis of the listening experience, but the only poem I can find is one called “Wolf Note”, which is a thing those of us who have fought with a cheap ‘cello know all about.

TO SUBJECT A book this size to a “brief mention” must be the most absurd or impertinent act I have performed for some time. There is 45 years of Michael Heller’s work here which I can hardly hope to characterise in a few words. But it is an open, vastly expansive enterprise, ranging widely over world and experience, formally free, working out painstakingly the implications for self and humanity of a mass of places, ideas, books, art and what-have-you.

Everything is tackled head-on, assuming a common language of understanding, without, on the whole, bending to the lyric daze or the abstruse formulation, and tending not to be conclusive: we end with the observed thing as we found it, commented but not translated. It is like a self-portrait of the “large American”, the world traveller, committed to serious consideration of whatever comes his way, very aware of a Jewish heritage but not exclusive. This figure addresses us about its perception of the world, worrying or serene as it may be, always balanced on what is deeply felt.


Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry – and some of prose. His latest book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

NOTES:

  1. “Kelvin Corcoran and Greece” in The Writing Occurs as Song: A Kelvin Corcoran Reader due from Shearsman Books later this year.
  2. This is in the piece “The Road” in the book of travel sketches The Dance at Mociu, Shearsman Books 2003.

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