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The year-end bedside reading table

of ANTHONY HOWELL.

POETRY BOOKS ACCUMULATE on my bedside table; some no sooner read than shelved, or shelved because unreadable, others remaining within reach for ages.

This year, God Loves You by Kathryn Maris (Seren 2013, £8.99) remains a book to which I keep returning. An embarrassing title, perhaps, if you’re reading it on the tube, but the writing swiftly convinces you that the poet’s relationship with the divine is less the issue than the rhetoric of religious verses. Maris understands how the cadenced development of a passage from the old testament, say, confers a resonance to the message that can read as significance, so employing this rhetoric could lend significance to anything! The numbered “verse” of biblical chapters also provides an iconic narrative structure that will turn a visit to the dentist into a parable.

However, as a modernist, the poet calls narrative into question (just as figuration was dislodged by modernist painting), so her narratives often set off at crazy tangents. She also messes with significance itself. Some modernist writing may remain intactly narrative but with the significance, the moral, the ultimate message removed – and it is this which may differentiate it from standard, pre-modern narrative where some specifically intended meaning is what the writing ponderously ‘signifies’. Maris plays neat games with this sense of the weighty. Take Verse 6 of the title poem.

On the road there was a child who pressed into my palm a yo-yo where it was written: ‘God loves you.’ And I thanked the child, held him and wept, for he was righteous, and he was called Matthew. But still I was unloved.”

Maris also comprehends the lyricism that informs a biblical approach to rhetoric, as in Verse 7 of “It Was a Gift from God”:

So the Lord sent an angel to open the prison door and it came to pass that the woman was followed to the sea by the beast who, when it was night, fled to the dunes and withdrew from this world.”

Lyricism and rhetoric combine in “My Father Who Art in Heaven” to generate a poem where the reader becomes unsure of the allusion. It seems likely that the poet is referring to her own father, who may have passed away, rather than to some supreme being. But this is only an inclination in the poem, and the father here is complex – just as “daddy” becomes ominous in Plath. Less hysterical than Plath, Maris introduces a father who is broad-bellied: a more tropical archetype perhaps.

My father, who art in heaven,
sits under an umbrella that is his firmament.
The umbrella drifts when the wind blows
and is not much of a shelter to anyone
but him. He has kept the family under it.
He would like to keep the world under it,
and though the world is not under it,
he thinks it is, and is happy to think it.
And he’s happy. He’s happy when he’s God, and God
is what he is when he’s under his umbrella.
But when it drifts, or when he turns
it around so it’s a walking stick to lean on,
he isn’t God at all, but we say
he is and thank him for protecting us —
and the rest of the world too — who kneel
under trees that bow to him in the rain
and feed him fruit and fan him with their leaves
in a show of our appreciation.”

This uncertainty as to the subject or evasion of the specific is a quality of the poem, and not at all a shortcoming. To my mind, it is part of the poet’s remit to raise the reader’s awareness of how mercurial language can be, how sonorous, how ambivalent – and how a poem can be an entity in its own right, without being pinned down by that to which it refers; and just as significance may be removed by a writer such as Italo Svevo, with his dead-pan narration of mundane social dilemmas, so significance can be added, almost as if it were a colour, simply by an artful use of archaic syntax.

Some of the most successful poems in the book are to be found in the first section, “What Will the Neighbours Think?” I like “Hilary Has Left the Building Unless She Hasn’t”:

Hilary did something to her house:
No one knows exactly what
she did, but it is wrecked
and no one can enter for fear
of the whole thing collapsing.

The firemen stood outside her door
for a few solid days
but they left to save another house
on which they could use their hatchets —
and that had a better outcome.

Her parents and friends have knocked
at the door gingerly,
as have employees of the council,
and even a devious estate agent
who saw a plot of land at the ready.

I, too, knocked,
questioning her, as a teacher must,
and though it had always been in her nature
to give me the correct answers,
this time there was nothing.

The matter remains to this day:
if she is still in the house
there can be no hasty decisions;
but if she has left the house
the structure can be razed without regret.”

Maris is sensitive to the ironies of humdrum existence, to its surprises.

Maris is sensitive to the ironies of humdrum existence, to its surprises. She draws our attention to how far from straightforward things which seem simple enough may ultimately turn out to be. The writing proves elusive in a way I find intriguing – she is clearly aware of the alternative body of twentieth century poetry which may be termed “abstract” while nevertheless she can be immersed in the reality that works so well for poets such as Philip Larkin and Hugo Williams. There’s a very funny, and nicely controlled, sestina – Darling, Would You Please Pick up those Books? – and a poem I particularly admire called “Will You Be My Friend, Kate Moss?” This maintains a deliciously gossipy tone which accurately typifies London parenthood, in this case – creating a poetry which is original, and delightfully of its time.

JACKIE WILLS HAS a new book out too, Woman’s Head as Jug (Arc Publications 2013, £8.99). There’s a powerful six-part poem in it – “Translations from the Silence of Colour”:

Even red, first and loudest, is silenced
as it totters into cornfields and flirts,
as it murmurs and smudges,
shelters under the rock
grunting words for deer, stream, placenta.

From somewhere in the mess of a peony
collapsed on a table, from veins in an eye,
the tip of a tampon, a sore and a crater,
red is smeared with its own absence:
what remains when there’s no skin to paint on?

There is a poem for each of six colours. The piece is perceptive in its sense that colour is in a dimension apart from words, and though words may be used to invoke colour, colour remains a silent force. I’ve noticed this myself when painting water-colours. My thought is operating in the manipulation of the paint, but the experience of painting is not necessarily a language thing, though of course it can be. This poem is less reliant on synesthesia than on example, reference and metaphor. It reminds me that for some poets colour is an inspiring force – one feels this in the work of Georg Trakl. There is something of Trakl in the way Wills drops isolated images into a poem, allowing them to chime together, as in “Canopy”:

 “When boots left the path
in that forest,
the canopy hushed.

Each tree held back light,
mote by mote.
Ants stripped the bones.

The city creeps
up mountainsides
towards distant, painted shrines.

Thorns whiffle with ribbon,
a newborn’s sock,
a doll’s lace bra.”

Many of the poems in this new collection are short, with the intensity of epigrams or Haiku, and Wills often threads nouns together like beads in an almost ceremonial process of naming. I tend to prefer her more extended poems, where she explores her origins, and also the origins of her environment – a poem concerning her great grandmother opens opposite a poem about the Lewes Road – so personal and geographic histories are both seen as carrying weight. At the same time, or concomitant to this idea, Wills is concerned with transience, and she is aware of how time causes disintegration. Wills knows how particular nouns amount to details that can typify a situation. She has a strong poem on the gutting of a house called “Dirty Business”.

Jam-jars of screws are thrown into the van,
Barbara’s sewing machine, John’s car manuals,

half an exhaust pipe, swivel chair, three rusty saws.
With each crash I want to run next door.

Four lads and a girl from Dirty Business are tipping
the house into the garden. Paper, wood, metal, glass –

as Barbara did when words went missing.
On this forecourt every summer, they aired the trailer tent.

The street listens to a mallet shatter mirrors,
bolts fire from a tin – and a wind picks up the inventory.”

I HAVE ALWAYS admired the work of Fleur Adcock, and she has a new book out called Glass Wings (Bloodaxe, 2013, £9.95). What distinguishes her poetry is a pared-down clarity of thought, while the thought itself has a cutting edge to it. The notion for a poem must work simply for itself, without the support of embellishment. Often the thought delivers the jolt of surprise since there’s some disconcerting twist, as in “Mrs Baldwin”:

And then there’s the one about the old woman
who very apologetically asks the way
to Church Lane, adding ‘I ought to know:
I’ve lived there since the war.’ So you go with her.

This comes with variations, usually leading
(via a list of demented ancestors)
to calculations of how much time you’ve got
before you’re asking the way to your own house.

But it’s not so often that you find the one
about how, whenever you hear of someone
diagnosed with cancer, you have to hide
that muffled pang that clutched you, at fifteen,
when you saw Pauline Edwards holding hands
with the boy from the Social Club you’d always fancied.”

The “muffled pang” is skilfully over-layered, the phrase being like a signpost pointing in both directions. Such thought has an independence about it that seems to emerge from the process of making the poem, and that is refreshing.

The current collection contains a brief but extremely intense elegy to her husband, and this powerful lyric prefaces quite a few pieces deriving from meditation about those who have passed away – which seems to have prompted research into family origins. Adcock, who is almost a New Zealander (having lived here and then there and then here again), is fascinated by her English ancestors and their peculiar wills, including that of the granddaughter of Robert Tighe, one of the translators of King James I’s Bible – and this generates a remarkable poem about the task of translating that book whose resonant cadences have left such a mark on our language and our poetry – as Kathryn Maris acknowledges in her collection.

Adcock’s sensibility has been described as ‘sardonic’, but I think it is more a sense of terseness that derives from an unwillingness to draw conclusions. The facts, or the words that are their pictures, must speak for themselves. It is up to the reader to deduce what these may amount to. Reading her work is thus a distinctly active engagement. And as with many a poet of significance, her verse is often preoccupied with language itself. There’s a wonderful poem called “Spuggies” – which plays with two of the gnarly words that delighted Basil Bunting – while “Charon” delves cunningly into the meaning of a name:

Where is Dr Shipman when we need him
to ferry us across the fatal stream
and land us gently in Elysium?

Shipman, boatman, ferryman – whatever
the craft he plies to help us cross the river –
we seem to have been waiting here for ever.

How did we get the timetable so wrong?
Things are becoming vague, and we’re not strong.
Life was OK, but it went on too long.

When we’ve forgotten how to keep afloat,
scoop us up, Doctor, in your kindly boat,
and carry us across the final moat.”

For me the most intriguing verse in this collection, which is full of hits, is contained in the last section, “My Life with Arthropods”. These are creepy poems about insects, spiders and crustaceans. There’s a certain tart descriptiveness to these, a concern with minutiae, which is in itself a commentary on the writing of poetry, since this is a meticulous craft, and a poem comes into being through a certain fastidious pickiness as the writer peers ever more closely into the text. Adcock’s poems about these weeny beasts have a quality to them that reminds me of Marianne Moore with her poem about the paper nautilus. But Adcock’s poems are less elaborate, and less distanced. They reveal as much about the poet as they do about the arthropod. Memories are prompted – again there’s that sense of scrutinising some tiny incident that rewards the attention by explaining itself (just as a flower “explains” its petals). And she doesn’t simply stick with attractive specimens such as dragonflies and stick insects. Crab-lice are dealt with , and then there is “My Grubby Little Secret”:

Under armchairs, inside the carpet:
rows of miniature white papooses

in which, when I tugged an occupant,
it stretched into a prehensile thread.

All the chemicals that work are banned;
there was only the vacuum-cleaner,

with its cruel attachments, to mince,
grind and suck up the little victims

together with their woolly foodstuff
into a sickening fluffy mash.

But no one looks under furniture;
I had only to stay in control,

slaughtering on the quiet – until
I found two new nurseries, thriving.

That was it. I’d have the lot stripped out;
enough of this maggoty lifestyle.

I ordered an invented fibre
no moth would touch. There was just the shame…

but the carpet fitters were as cool
as a proctology clinic nurse

viewing yet another shy bottom;
they knew half the houses in my street.”

IT’S A TONIC to come across a distinctly erotic book of poetry. George Elliot Clarke’s Illicit Sonnets (Eyewear, 2013, £12.99) is just that. The blurb to this beautifully produced hardcover book describes it as “a reboot of Sonnets from the Portuguese (by Elizabeth Barrett Browning), told from the perspective of the lovers Salim and Laila, an ‘elderessa’.” Clarke wallows in an exuberant, exaggerated poetry, owing something to Gerald Manley Hopkins and to John Berryman – while the sequence recalls George Meredith’s Modern Sonnets. Sprung versification, alliteration, puns and archaisms proliferate, and the general tone, appropriately enough, is ejaculatory. “Take Istanbul (11)”:

xxSpelunking your silk cave, down swivel I,
Plumb a hollow of almond-blossom-tint,
Or slide my length upon your cambered back—
To fondle flesh as giving as a mouth!
xxI am gold—a palpitating pillar—
But to you I feel smooth—like Cairo silk.
Name me Sultan Salim: Thy Treasury
I pleasure with gilt but guiltless measures.
xxTo be your roi soleil, I must fuck like
A poet, and show a poet’s hunger
For fucking, and fuck as if at gallop,
My dark hands quivering your ivory breasts,
Until idyllic Pain mines deluxe Bliss,
And you fall—gitane crushed by your sultan.”

One thing I particularly appreciate is that the poet has the courage to write from Leila’s point-of-view as well as from Salim’s.

xxComme une femme de lettres, I know that men
Can befriend women, and want nothing else.
Your year’s gross of staggered letters hinted
Nothing else. Your kiss I never wagered.
xxDid you conquer? Or I concur? “A kiss:
That’s all. Nothing else.” (I knew you’d beg more:
A man’s kiss is sexual, nothing else.)
We kissed. Silk upon silk. We kissed again.
xxThe next night, your hotel room gradually
Shadowed, as our draining drinks found their mark—
Sparking painless kisses in sparkling dark:
xxWhat was vital, was not stars hovering
Like gulls, but our uneclipsed Happiness
As if Existence had burst into song.”

This interchange of male and female voices balances the collection. Illicit Sonnets makes a very nice pillow book, and I guess it would be an enjoyable present to receive from a lover.

AT LONG LAST Donald Gardner has a book out (The Wolf Inside, Hearing Eye, 2013, £8). The title poem immediately grabs the attention: you could say, with ferocity:

downstairs five to seven
caught the weather forecast

like a bad cold
could have looked outside instead

radio blares out
as I make my tea

still dark at seven
even darker than yesterday

for some reason
time seems to be going backward

make a cuppa but first
open back door and slam straight shut

but the wolf got in anyway
a raging blast

scouring the larder
howling around the kitchen

furiously licking
the four walls

clean like an empty jam jar
then out once more

but I caught his tail
as I slammed the door

hungry wind
hungry wolf

stinking tail
of a cold wet wolf

rotten way
to start the day”

Until now we have had to rely on chap-books to find Gardner’s work. He has lived in Holland for the last twenty-five years and is well known as a translator of Dutch writing, while his own poetry has been marginalised – I’d like to say “inexplicably”, but it’s clear as daylight: Back in the early seventies, Gardner was associated with “the beats”. His poetry was open, free, performative – not at all to the taste of the UK poetry establishment – which is closed, enslaved and wedded to the page. Gardner’s verse remains free. The form follows the cadences of a speaking voice, but actually it deftly espouses a tightness which is pretty economical. Every word counts, but Gardner camouflages his thriftiness in dry wit and, when you hear him read he captivates you immediately, for the poems are perfectly accessible and delivered with a stentorian intonation that reminds me of recordings by Ezra Pound. Often a poetic riff will be set off by a simple pun or item of word-play as in “Angela will see to my Correspondence”:

When I’m dead
I won’t need to meet any deadlines.
When my time has come
they’ll stretch me out in bed,

at least until the doctor’s been,
who, when I lived,
always said the same

(after a quick glance at my tongue
and reaching distractedly for my pulse):

“You’re well enough to go to work.”

And will I arise and go now
(the force of habit can be strong)
to my desk in that fierce-lit office block,
with a bleak smile –
“I decided to come in after all!”

And the rest of the staff on the eleventh floor
are standing in clusters round the coffee automat,
nudging each other:

“Are you sure you feel all right?
Oughtn’t you to have stayed at home?
Don’t worry,
Angela will see to your backlog.”

And to each other:
“I recognise the suit,
but doesn’t his face
look a little bit strained?
Perhaps it’s just stress.”

“It is him though, isn’t it?”
When I’m dead
Angela will attend to my outstanding correspondence
that seemed so urgent when alive.

See me in my coffin
with a cheerful grin,
flashing my teeth
before the final curtain.

No more trips to the dentist either.
My teeth are done,
their race is run.
Tricked out by the embalmer’s art,
they all came in more or less even in the end
as they never did when I was vertical.”

A self-deprecating sense of humour, an echo of a reference (here to “Innisfree”) and an ability to conjure a bizarre image – these are the hallmarks of his poetry; the matter of it being more complex than the simplicity of the saying may suggest. Many of the poems here concern the aging process, and we sense the poet coming to terms with mortality. There is a hard-won ease to all this, and a crispness to the language which reminds me of the best work of Harry Fainlight (another unacknowledged spirit ).

PERHAPS THE TRULY unique component is Gardner’s mind. He thinks in strange directions. This manifests itself in “The Wrinkled Sea as Viewed by the Wrinkled Seer”:

From the dizzying height
of seventy years,

like Tennyson’s eagle,
I look down on my younger self.

Far below me
a young man

is setting out in life.
Hope fills his sails.

Little fool, I say,
he has no idea.

But then I remember
the joke’s on me.

If only I could stop him,
swoop down from my vantage point

of impotent knowledge,
and seize the twenty-year-old brat

I once was
in my disparaging claws.

“If you’d seen what I see,”
I’d ask,

“would you have done things differently?”
And he replies,

“Like it or not
for worse and for better

you are my me.
We are mates for life.

You are the price I paid.”

FINALLY, FROM THE States, my attention has been drawn to innovative poetry from Todd Colby. The book of his that I have by my bedside is not so new, but his work is new to me, and so I am going to include it. It is called Tremble and Shine (Soft Skull Press, 2004, £10.34). But there is no poem of that title in the collection, and no contents page. With scant preliminaries one plunges into pages where everything is happening at the same time – parenthood, venom extraction kits, Iowa and nose bleeds. Colby is a late, but nonetheless distinguished, addition to the New York School, that cornucopia of poetic abstraction mingled with conversational “personism” – to use Frank O’Hara’s term for a poetry written as if to a pal to whom there is no need to explain what you refer to. This is a writer who is well informed about John Ashbery, Clark Coolidge, Joseph Ceravolo et al, yet he successfully comes up with a new blend of language-orientated verse. What I find unusual here (and enjoy) is the slippage between sentences that are simply aggregates of words that can be put together without amounting to signification and sentences or phrases which make complete sense. Here is “Drug on a Cot”:

If it means standing up in bed
instead of the shower, I’m all for it.
If the bedspread is a blanket,
well then, I’ll wear it
out to the sofa surrounded by cats
while I shiver under nothing
while counting the red digital I’m absorbing
through my skin like Ping-Pong balls
falling on a cab just as I climb in:
I fall asleep. People walk by here everyday
and some of them even look at me—
cheap pants, a crowd gathered
heavily, dreamily. I would never wear this
in front of someone hugging me for my own sake.
This is kind of where I’m at:
I never should have let you out of my reach. I get bored
easily enough to alarm myself. I prop myself up
and amuse myself with silver dice,
with spoons, with forks, and the lives
I want rubbed out of my life.
I dress up in foil and flaunt it, I parade
myself, I slander myself, and still the bait drops, anon,
and so forth, until I drop one foot in front of the other.
I’m going to pick up my sandwich now.
Like a drug on a cot, I bloom.”

This is the celebrated school emerging into the 21st century. There is a certain mesmerising quality to the way each poem unfolds. However crazy, however nonsensical, it is always readable. Take “The Aristocrat”:

Blue, cracked in-half with brilliant ideas like
“You gotta be a bit of a hippie to quit smoking cigarettes.”
My body is clogged with passion.
The real question tonight is “What is my effect on others?”
How difficult it is to behave responsibly during a war.
If the synopsis of last night’s production was:
“A man and a woman stay up all night in a hotel room,”
We wouldn’t have watched long, we’d have fast forwarded to
“And then he shoots a white puddle on her stomach,
while she humps a pillow.” (Impossible!)
I took a nap and had a dream that I walked by the hotel
in mustard-colored slacks, a powder pink shirt,
white patent leather shoes, and a white belt
with a silver buckle that formed the word “HONCHO.”
Maybe our nervousness is a byproduct of our brilliance
or maybe we’re both insane.
If you think about it too much everything hurts.
One thing is certain: my nipples burn.
I feel absolutely dull wearing my sissy pants in candyland.
I want to keep the river on my right and my left
and I can only do that in Manhattan.
Listen to me, Brooklyn is shrouded in smoke tonight.”

Here, most lines can be understood, taken individually, and I love how the word “Impossible!” prompts us to a coherent thought (well, yeah!) – but what does it all amount to? It is our job, as readers, to extrapolate from it what we will, and this makes that process an intensely active experience. Meanwhile, a poem such as “Where on Earth” is not afraid to court coherence more or less throughout its length as it describes the road-kill of a deer. Other poems suggest a possible meaning – a mum’s (mom’s) admonitions, the consciousness of a baby, a being nailed to a tree (in a poem called “SWEETIE” – and in this, again, there are games set in motion which remind me of the strategies brought into play by Kathryn Maris).

Were you like them Sweetie, well Sweetie,
nailed to a piece of tree Sweetie? OH.
Currently was it standard to him that I tremble with
you there as if nailed to the piece of the tree Sweetie well, tremble?
There were you when they nailed him on the tree? OH. There.
Was it a current standard that I tremble for you Sweetie,
you tremble, as if it is you nailed to him on a tree, Sweetie?
Were you perforated like him on the side Sweetie? OH.
Was it a current standard that I tremble like him Sweetie?…”

What makes a poet readable? There cannot be a formulaic answer. This is the problem with the standard model so lauded by our Oxbridge elite – as anally compressed as Ian Hamilton, with a closed form, forever ruled by the dictates of significance and economy, and very tightly organised on the page. I am happy to see this working for Fleur Adcock. But what about Edith Sitwell, e. e. cummings, Ashbery? Poets are readable in a myriad ways, as I hope this round-up gets across.

 ♦


Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of  The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice.

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