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Narrative poetry.

A Fortnightly Review of

The Book of Isaac
by Aidan Semmens
Parlor Press | 84pp | $14.00 £8.63

A Cabin in the Mountains
by Paul Brown
Reality Street Editions  | 114pp | $14.00 £8.48

feasible stratagems
by Catherine Hales
Veer Books  |  68pp | £6.00

By Peter Riley.

I SUPPOSE THE writing of narrative poetry became a lost art around 1925-1935, last seen from such poets as Yeats, John Masefield, Lawrence Binyon, E.A. Robinson and Robinson Jeffers. That is, real narrative poetry in the tradition filtered down from Homer, and not including accounts of personal experience, transcended or symbolised or interior narratives, anecdotal verse such as Edgar Lee Masters and Osbert Sitwell wrote, or very long poems from Scotland saying what’s wrong with the world.

It wasn’t just so-called modernism which banished narrative by abhorring explicit continuity; most of the respected poets of the first half of the twentieth century settled entirely for the short, lyrical/meditative/depictive poem (Sassoon and the war poets, Lawrence, Auden, Spender, Graves, Edith Sitwell et al.). There were exceptions—Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger is perhaps one, though it is a surprise to find what the subject matter actually is if the title leads you to expect an Irish historical narrative, and there were occasional later essays in ballad form (Dylan Thomas, W.S. Graham, George Mackay Brown etc.) which tended to foreground the verse technique rather than the story. From the late nineteenth century onwards, the pervasive influence of French poetry as well as the way the concept “myth” was understood both militated against narrative. Probably the most valiant foray into the latter tangle was the short poem (in this context) “Aristeas, in Seven Years” by J.H. Prynne (1968).

Yet there remains an urge towards narrative in much recent poetry, especially among the practices known as “innovative” or “modernist”. This is hardly surprising, since it is only in these zones that any real attempt seems to be made to reach further ranges of thought, to touch on the forces which govern the politico-cultural world or any large-scale comprehension of humanity and civilisation, even if conceived as necessarily fragmented or wrapped in forms close to mysticism. Conventionalist poets are mostly entirely happy with accounts of the self in social and personal terms handed down from Romanticism.1

semmensAIDAN SEMMENS HAS a story to tell, a big one. It’s about his ancestors in an important Jewish-Russian family, especially his great-grandfather Isaac Hourwich (1860-1924), economist, lawyer, journalist, Marxist activist, who like many radical Russian intellectuals at that time was imprisoned and exiled to Siberia, and then to America, then back and then back again. He was the author of The Economics of the Russian Village (1892), Immigration and Labour (1912) and translator of Marx into Yiddish.2 His biography covers a major slice of European and American history, and other family members make an appearance, including the wife and children Hourvich left behind, from which Semmens is descended. This branch includes the first leader of the Communist Party of the United States.

From this rich material Semmens has made a sequence of 56 sonnets (though sonnets only in having 14 lines), drawn from archival sources including Hourvich’s own writings, but which he describes as “distressed” or “damaged” sonnets. So, apart from two end-pieces drawn from The Book of Esdras, the texts are all to a greater or lesser extent disrupted by all the disruptions and irregularities of contemporary poetry. There is almost no punctuation, the periods get lost in broken grammar—tenses, plurals and grammatical connection get violated, and what is said is again and again subjected to moments of unyielding stutter, or a disorder as if the speaker has not mastered English. Yet there is a constant sense behind it that a weighty discourse is intended:

radicalism is not your mistake
your tub is  poison & the stink of later
is very deep dark & all unseen
the name of a flower is a name
of something else, respected citizens…

This is what makes this in parts a particularly difficult text. Rather than the disconnected and floating bits of language which you get in a very different kind of contemporaneity, the manner and context lead us to expect an argued and narrated discourse of which we are frustrated. It may sometimes be a matter of abandoning the reader to a word-salad but normally it is a serious discourse which doesn’t quite fit together, rendered more serious by a scriptural tone which is never far away. If it is garbled it is sometimes a garbled psalm:

I conducted you through & sea, at the beginning
gave to you soft passage, Moshe for the leader of
& Aaron for the priest; I gave to you light
in the first, great interests they have made I among you,
but for forgot me & is triumphed not in my name
for destroying your enemies;…

which will sometimes emerge unscathed, as in the continuation of the above:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxI had a pity on your mournings,
gave to you a bread of angels, cleft the rock for your water,
covered you with leaves; I shared among you the fruitful earth…

These incantatory passages are from near the start of the sequence, which is soon involved in more detailed documentary material. Whatever difficulties are encountered, the theme is clear throughout: a man, a family, and a culture of integrity beset constantly with opposition, suppression and conspiracy, as well as its own internal conflicts,  and at the same time praise for the context and continuity which enabled serious and informed radical discourse and campaigning to grow to such strength in the exiled Jewish communities.

Among all this impressive contemporary poetical textuality, the figures of the story come and go like shadows.

BUT WHAT OF the story? The story is a difficulty, because sometimes you get it and sometimes you don’t, but more often than not you don’t. Among all this impressive contemporary poetical textuality, the figures of the story come and go like shadows. We cannot always know what person or event governs a particular sonnet or why. There is a tone of connected intellectual discourse but propositions seldom emerge intact. Each poem is obviously viewed as a self-sufficient entity. There are prose notes at the back, one to almost every sonnet, which “…provide context and the means to make coherent sense of whatever might otherwise be difficult or unclear” (blurb). This isn’t quite true. Very little is actually explained in these notes and many provide only  asides to some of the names involved without saying why they are involved. There is some very interesting material in the notes such as the verdict on Pound, who does not figure in the text (“Thus an anti-Semitic windbag is a significant figure in the development of a partly Jewish aesthetic tradition.”) and on Adorno’s famous proscription of poetry after Auschwitz, which “…would if followed hand a small but crucial victory to the Nazis (It is for this reason that Adorno himself later retracted it).” But this is rather curiously in the note to a sonnet which ends with Adorno’s proscription verbatim as if endorsed, unless we are to read ironies which are not self-evident.3 The general effect of the sequence is of two recognisable forces struggling to emerge from a modernist text: the story and the psalmic cadence, neither entirely succeeding.

However much I admire this writing I have again to ask myself the question that has haunted me since I took to reviewing modernistic poetry. What is gained by subjecting the text to this damage and what is the principle at work? It is only partly answerable. Treated as it is here the text escapes the story and the history, and is obviously a reflection on the current condition, including the author’s. It becomes a critique of our culture through disrupted language, which is a thing we quickly read into such usage. So the damage is not enclosed in the history but spreads out towards us, but losing a firm grip on the history in the process. The theme of the book becomes the destruction of the city and everything of worth, of Jerusalem in the Book of Esdras, of Moscow and New York in the story, and all round us.

This is, I think, a better account than the one given in the publisher’s blurb, that the disturbed textuality “embodies …the theme of migration and dislocation, and the experience of living in societies whose language is not wholly familiar to the user…”  The text creates “misunderstanding” and (as if automatically) “new understandings.”  This is a modernist principle which I have struggled with for a long time, finally becoming convinced that a story such as this would be far better “embodied” to the reader in the wholeness of a coherent and connected narrative, whether in poetry or prose, without constant distraction by linguistic pitfalls.

As regards the process of distressing, the author declares that these were at one time “more-or-less regular sonnets” which he disrupted, and the process is more fully described in an interview in the Salt blog. His original texts were in fact put through translation software, more than once I think, producing poor translation and mistranslation which determined the final condition of the text. I think there is more to it than this, for there are things such as incomplete words which are unlikely to have been produced by this method, and I’m sure the author interfered further with the sonnets, probably to increase their distress. One of the purposes may be that Hourvich was a hundred years ago and the broken text serves to remind us of our distance from him, of how he is becoming more difficult to see as he recedes in time,  while determined to represent him, or as if the disruptions we now inhabit interfere with our understanding of history itself.

The Book of Isaac is surely one of the most fascinating books of poetry to be published this year…

The Book of Isaac is surely one of the most fascinating books of poetry to be published this year, with its meld of fervent enthusiasm and meticulous wordsmithery. It is never less than engaging and the interplay of factual and apocalyptic can be impressive, as in the sonnet on page 48 drawn from an account of the siege of Leningrad, which begins

at last it has come to this: bread, dust, the artillery
stretched through that crystal waterway
our brains which reach the ice of silver burns…

and dramatically ends with a line recalling an earlier encounter with Hourvich’s book on Russian village communism:

the wheel of the field which exceeds the city

As a non-Jew I sometimes feel excluded, but this is perhaps inevitable when a writer espouses a specifically Jewish vision at the same time as the contemporary poetical insistence that nothing must be explained. I end by quoting an entire and untypical sonnet in rhymed couplets concerning the Yiddish theatre in New York, very little distressed as far as I can see, and causing no division among its readers, as an example of the author’s skill:

bay mire bistu sheyn, to me are you
so beautiful; on Second Avenue
the curtain rises, enter the greenhorn
yidishe meydel, object of our scorn
& mirth, our lust for the shtetl-born,
she brings fresh air in songs
love inconstancy and wrongs
that struck her cynical swain
father or severe again
we participate in laughter, happy tears
peel off to leave behind our plight & fear
haunts our night & day since we were here
teeters boundaries between chutzpah & pity
this fear of drowning in a foreign city

The drift of this poem within the maintenance of the song structure is surely very fine.

The author speaks of possibly producing a prose work from this material. I suspect that this admirable project may not be entirely complete until that appears, and perhaps also the 56 more-or-less regular sonnets, if they are extant. I feel that the story deserves to be released from the maskings of modern poetry, without losing them.

browncabinPaul Brown’s A Cabin in the Mountains consists of six poem sequences in two divisions, in which there is a strong suggestion of narrative, but narrative of what? This is impossible to say. There is narrative but no plot, tension without location, statements obscured by deviation. There is a frequent sense of intimate event but the language is so displaced and the elements and persons so concealed that there is no knowing whether the story hinted at is factual or derived from film or book or non-existent. Any possibility of an evident account is normally translated instantly into an abstracted and dramatic body language, frequently of the damaged body:

Almost believed in
the seduction of the sun
behind hands bled to the bone
each pore sweats a retina, skin
so full of greasy images I
could rub myself blind.
This body permits no such modesty but
a temporary thrust of blood
flushes out the game
to the perimeters of pain.

A certain amount of clarity surfaces from time to time but basically the writing is submerged, it is an under-text to perception, and as such it participates in a whole twentieth-century art/psychology ethos, a prioritisation of subconscious event with Surrealism at its roots, though Brown’s language is rarely surrealist.

The book is prefaced by a quotation from Beckett’s The End, a particularly bitter paragraph where the speaker enters the disgusting and derelict “cabin in the mountains” that has been allotted him. Set in this position at the portal of the book it announces the enterprise as entry to a decayed or soiled world which is the normal term of our existence, rather than any natural or political disaster. One of the sequences has an epitaph from Freud, on games that are the most likely origins of future neuroses, and that sequence, ‘The Games that Are’, is particularly heavy in psychological theatre. A hinted narrative which seems to inhabit a personal zone translated into half-theory and half-confession is cut into by imagery of violent wounding and murder.

Occasionally the author rather defiantly states his position in a way which confirms his dedicated belief in the subconscious —   “Dreams / help you bleed / more easily” […]  “Truth is never distinct / ever vacant. The imperative necessity / to incomplete itself.”  And his proposal “…to read these lines / between the lies / unlike / a listening machine pre-/ programmed to empathise…”. The discourse is thus the very contrary to all the poetry which is put out these days to persuade you to empathise with the authorial self; if the author shows his face at all here, he appears as something like a probing surgeon or a psycho-invalid on the operating table. If this seems grim, well so it is because the rejection of surface validity is insistent, so that nothing is ever fully evident, but the ethos opens the poetry to a great variety of crises in many half-formed scenes, with episodes of bitter irony and an expert use of the spacing of lines, mainly the “floating” kind.  And occasionally, as I said, there is a quite open little poem which while it drops the insistent tone nevertheless usually concludes with a sense of emptiness or Beckettian squalor or a trivialised version of ultimate extinction–

Hammer to Reflex

why a white carton
totters across the street
in mid-morning? There’s
no breeze to speak of
maybe the heat
playing havoc with its particles
who knows?
The red bus with a hiss
of hydraulics
puts an end to it.

I find [Brown’s] manner intriguing in its deployment of wit and the determination which extends the poetical impulses into sequential episodes.

Paul Brown’s poetry is at least as strong as many another in the tribes of the unconventional and although I probably disagree with the ethos which motivates it (truth, or the truth we seek, is, in my book, entirely distinct) I find his manner intriguing in its deployment of wit and the determination which extends the poetical impulses into sequential episodes. I’m also always glad to promote those the pundits forgot (or never knew about in the first place), for Brown has been but sparsely noticed among the hierarchies of the avant-garde, and Ken Edwards’ Reality Street Editions showed enterprise and generosity in producing this book.

halesCatherine Hales’ feasible stratagems has just arrived and it struck me immediately as a collection of substantial poems in a quite boldly modern idiom which maintains a sense of obligation to speak to the point of the time/place nexus in which the author finds herself, bearing the reader with her in pursuing an impulsion or a thought to a conclusion. These are not common qualities in a context where it is often considered enough simply to break the sentence. There is no punctuation (in some quarters punctuations seems to be becoming a thing of the past), but the use of extended spacing between words or phrases provides a substitute choreography, and a fine balance is maintained between continuity and disconnection, in the unfolding of a scene as in the pursuit of an argument, and particularly in the movement between perception and message.

What distinguishes her poetry is its acts of escape from the vision of ruin, rather than let itself become an apocalyptic doom scenario.

The central issue might be put again as the despoliation of the city, the story or causality of which is assumed as a given and therefore not narrated either openly or occultly. This is particularly so in the opening sequence of 14 sonnet-like poems entitled “City State” which is very much concerned with hostile forces in a city at war with itself and the conflicted and reduced state the mind is thereby put into. The publisher’s blurb speaks of “the extreme depletion of space and sense in the contemporary city by agents of capital” but I think the scope is wider than that, the enemy less doctrinally defined, and the theatre more specific. It begins, “there’s beauty in this dereliction…” and there is a constant unwillingness to relinquish the stately poetical line or the resonant scene for ideological reasons or in favour of totalised complaint. What distinguishes her poetry is its acts of escape from the vision of ruin, rather than let itself become an apocalyptic doom scenario. There is thus a great deal more hope than you would expect from a straight alienist reading. The issue remains a question, of whether there is or isn’t an inhabitable space left, and the poetical disposition of the language itself, especially its confident verse movement, speaks of the existence of such a place whatever it says, by constantly returning to an ancestral elegance among the waste, and to authentic feeling. As she says: “the erasure of the lines xxxxxthe tenderness”

These innocent personal interventions are able to construct a valid first-person plural by figuration of the largely resistant or brutalist scenarios that confront it, with a notable lightness of touch. “We” are not monodic victims, but multiple entities tangled in all the harm and healing. The ending of ‘in the wash room’—

…yet here we are, mon semblable, our
hegelian lines unravelling, caught in a trip-
le trick of utility mirrors. one spins
one measures one cuts & in between
we stitch momentous events
our history is here and now —
here else in time in tact (the sym-
pathetic harmonies on taut
wires, hear that?) attenuated
by circumstance to a rather damaged
version of ourselves germ-free environment indeed
wishing we could be better than we are

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.


  1. The exceptions and corrections to this fairly outrageous statement are too many to enumerate. They would include “versions” of Homer, Beowulf, Aeschylus, Dante and others done by Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Tony Harrison and younger poets, where I have generally found that the need for “modern relevance” is understood as necessarily reductive and for some reason the big dignified verse forms have to be ditched. The most recent of these, Memorial by Alice Oswald (Faber 2011) which is based on the Iliad, declares from the first words of the introduction that no attempt at narrative will be made at all: “This is a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story”. It seems to be agreed in the whole of this new tradition of translation that our poetry can now only comprehend the small-scale. Memorial is an engaging book consisting of short poems made from all the accounts of death in battle in the Iliad — but without the battles. All these men are killed from nowhere and for no reason, perhaps like the victims of a drone strike. The book would be more engaging if so much of the text didn’t occur twice, and if the Homeric similes weren’t all introduced with the American usage of “like” as a conjunction.
  2. There is a detailed biographical note here.  Among other noteworthy acts Hourvich was the first to propose uncontrolled immigration as beneficial to the economy. Isaac, you should be here at this hour.
  3. The Polish name Oświęcim is used instead of Auschwitz, which perhaps adds some hint of alienation from the dictum.
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  1. Mild and Polite wrote:

    Mr Riley, your criticism is a joy to read; generous, holistic, and entertaining.

    It’s alarming how few critics these days admit that bad books often possess some good characteristics, and vice versa. I feel you are very fair on this point. Please keep it up.

    Sunday, 22 September 2013 at 14:56 | Permalink
  2. I revived the traditional narrative poem two years ago when I started writing an epic poem with a coherent and connected narrative about the lives and ideas of philosophers and scientists which I name Scientia Hermetis, or Science of Hermes. So far I have written 77,000 lines of blank verse about the lives of 25 Greek philosophers in the classical age from Hermes and Thales through Plato and Epicurus to Archimedes and Philodemus of Gadara. I use present tense in verbs to give the reader a sense of being in the action, a style I call Cinemism.

    Thursday, 3 October 2013 at 18:06 | Permalink
  3. Thank you so much, Peter. A critique of this depth and attentiveness from anyone would be an honour – from you, whose ‘notes’ here I always read, that much more so. Inevitably, there are thoughts here that I don’t necessarily agree with, but they are all interesting and worth my consideration, I think. There is only one comment I’d care to remark on: you say that Pound ‘doesn’t appear in the text’, but the sonnet which the note about Pound attaches to (or at least the original, pre-distressed version) is in fact composed entirely of lines lifted from The Cantos, apart from the introductory ‘expound, expound’, in which the clue ‘ex-Pound’ is perhaps too cryptically buried.
    I have now embarked on the process of following up with a book, not entirely prose but mixing prose and verse, of various kinds and degrees of ‘difficulty’; your generous closing comment gives me encouragement to press on committedly with that.

    Monday, 14 October 2013 at 15:17 | Permalink
  4. I have been writing an epic narrative poem in the old original style about the lives of philosophers since July 2011 which I call Hermead for Hermes. The Hermead is currently 813,000 words in 113,000 lines of blank verse covering the lives of 26 Greek philosophers in 600 years in the Classical age.

    Friday, 2 January 2015 at 05:28 | Permalink

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