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Poets once young — with books received.

By Peter Riley.

Lee Harwood
The Orchid Boat
Enitharmon Press 2014 | 46pp | £8.96 | $23.75

John James
Songs in Midwinter for Franco
Equipage 2014 | 32pp booklet | £6.00

Stephen Watts
Ancient Sunlight
Enitharmon Press 2014 | 128pp | £7.02 | $9.64

Books Received.

Orchid boatLEE HARWOOD IS the most classical of poets. This struck me in connection with his sense of structure, the progression through the poem from beginning to end in a series of episodes leading to a conclusion. This process is particularly strong in these recent poems, and is easily reminiscent of the formal divisions of classical poems, the basic one being the division of the ode into strophe, antistrophe and epode, which can be interpreted as thesis, antithesis and resolution. Harwood’s poems are usually more complicated than this but sometimes simpler, just consisting of a proposition which runs to its conclusion, or its denial.

It is not, of course, a matter of replicating a metrical structure, nor, I think, is there any intentional adoption of ancestral procedures. Through his long and productive career1 Harwood has worked his way through many different versions of the poem, and seems now to favour, at least for his more substantial poems, a constant episodic shifting along the course of the poem from one focus to another or one scene to another or one mode to another. But there remain several shorter poems in The Orchid Boat which are entirely unified in their attention.

There isn’t a formula in operation. There is a starting point, which is frequently a small scene, real or imagined, or if not, a citation or thought which has obviously captivated the poet. And he will elaborate the implications and that may be all, but more often we are suddenly somewhere else, in a different ambiance (the point of transition perhaps smoothed over by an interpolation of some kind) and we may get a third scene with or without reference back to the first scene, and sometimes a series of scenes with something like a refrain between them. What he does is build an intuitive theatre round a selection of perceptions and experiences which are individually perfectly distinct, and he does it without necessarily implying any essential or subliminal connection — these things are gathered in one poem because they happened together or because they occurred to him one after the other. Rather than a calculated plotting it is more likely that the writing act itself binds them into an unforeseeable formal unity.

“Ben’s Photo”, a particularly segmented poem, begins (scene i) with a description of a photograph (which is reproduced on the front cover). A street scene in Bologna in 1992 in which the poet’s attention is fixed on the figure of a man, a quite ordinary man, standing under an arch, as if in a state of suspension — “ . . . stood erect, hands behind his back, / watching something, or just waiting.” Then (transition) three lines confirm the poet’s fixation on what he calls this “moment” and his identification with it through the word “pause” which is to become the refrain of the poem.

Don’t know why. This moment that keeps
coming back. Not haunting, but something else.

One pauses, as he did.

Then (scene ii / refrain ii) a passage of mirror imagery — “Through the mirror that other world, /almost like this?” suggesting that that meeting with the self image produces a sense of a place which is neither here nor elsewhere but has properties of both, and somehow forms a protected area—

What’s there before and beyond the glass,
but somehow outside. Beyond the fear.

One pauses.

scene iii / refrain iii—

You pick up a cup, taste the coffee,
put down the cup. That moment midway
between cup and lips. A timeless pause.

and immediately scene iv, which describes how in Japanese calligraphy you hold the brush “elbow tight to the body” and ends by picking up reference to the photograph and, without using the word “pause”, catches the calligrapher in a moment of inactivity—

What’s the character for ‘man under arch’?
Stood there swaying, brush in hand.

Scene v is a rather vague reference to, perhaps, escape from some kind of danger — “That was a close one” and “You were so close to the exit” . . . turning back to the photograph as a sign that afterwards “people carry on” and return to normality, hang around in streets, etc.

Scene vi arrives with a crash. It is a quotation from Geert Mak’s In Europe concerning the gunning down of 200 French cavalrymen near Amiens during the 1914-1918 war. This obviously has nothing to do with moments of contemplative pause, and is set where it is as a shock to the whole system of the poem, which I read as the poet’s recoil into a moment of shocked silence (itself a kind of pause perhaps), for there is no comment and the poems goes into its ending—

Put the cup down on the saucer.
Looking up — remote but close —
you see the afternoon sun catch
a row of jars and bottles on a shelf.

Thankful for this moment.

Yeats was aware of himself as a ‘public man’, as were other poets of his generation, and the collapse of that claim has left poetry disconnected from the larger concept, except by subterfuge.

WE ARE OBVIOUSLY not a great distance here from Yeats’ “Long-legged Fly”. But the scale is different. The instances are not so momentous, and the still moments are not preludes to major public acts. Yeats was aware of himself as a “public man”, as were other poets of his generation, and the collapse of that claim has left poetry disconnected from the larger concept, except by subterfuge. Harwood is a private poet, and his only public venture is to be willing to share experiences and their ramifications through poetry. The “pause” or “moment” he uncovers so many times in such diverse places is produced directly from his own experience and reading, worked through the compositional process into a sequence. That is why he can, as he so often does, bring the sequence to a close inconsequentially, since the importance of its episodes always cohabits with a privacy — even the quotation about the war is, in its context, a personal shock to the poet as much as a public declaration. “Ben’s Photo” runs through five “scenes” in no purposeful order other than successions of contrast and distance, as extensions of the “paused” condition of the man in the photograph and showing only towards the end an augmenting scale of reference, to some unspecified disaster and an instance of military massacre (there is increasing reference to memory of the effects of warfare in the later pages of the book) but there is no disquisition on the subject, while nether can it be said that he dismisses such wrongs as if unconcerned. His mode doesn’t oblige him to know the answers, that’s not what the poetry is for. What it does at the end is to refer back to singular personal perception momentarily distracted from public pressure, as something to be thankful for given the terms and accidents of our existence. I think that probably all of his poems spring from and return to moments of authentic pleasure, and that awareness of the forces massed against this has increased through his career.

The ending is vital. Without it (or the refrain) “Ben’s Photo” would be a string of “moments” leading nowhere. Things have to be wrapped up, and it is this which mainly gives the “classical” feeling, the poem as a completed thing, its questions answered. Modernity permits the answers to be subliminal, and one of his most endearing ways of doing this is to end a serious or problematic poem with a sudden dismissal of the whole thing, self-deflating and even flippant. There is a poem called “Palaeontology” which deals eloquently with personal fears, guilt and disappointment — “A daily haunting, a nightly haunting. / Heavy with memories” and you begin to wonder where the fossils come into it, and then in the last four lines he locates a peaceful moment and sweeps the whole thing away—

looking up at the night sky — that simplicity.
A street light seen through the branches.

Here comes Mrs Trilobite, fresh from the shale.
She’ll shake the nonsense out of us.

“New Zealand Playback” is a poem of similar drift, climaxing at “Lying in bed at night thinking about when I’ll die, how I’ll die, in the middle of the night or some early afternoon . . . ” This receives its casual dismissal before the actual ending as someone advises the poet, “You should get out more” and the poem closes the matter with a stroke of sheer irrelevance:

A fine rain closes in as I hunker down in the shelter of a rock fall.
And in North East India the Khasi people still sing some hymns in Welsh.

EXACTLY HOW A fossil trilobite relieves the burden of memory, or a linguistic survival from a 19th Century missionary in a remote corner of India calms night terrors, is beyond anyone to say. There could be answers, but to find them you might have to go beyond criticism into psychology, a dangerous thing to do. 2

The “classical” feeling is not only structural. The writing intends eloquence through a calm and contemplative view of things which is stretched to comprehend both private and public instances of harm. He won’t allow a line of poetry to pass until it is satisfying in its rhythmic and sonic tension. One poem, “Childish”, seems to be a series of representations of a positive and liberating force which would include the possibilities of poetry, beginning with the release of an angel-like being into the air—

From the top balcony of a pagoda
in the royal Botanic Gardens
you step
_________________out into the air

(that “step down” I find an endearing survival of a 1960s vogue for graphically spaced poetry) of which the fourth image is

Words like that shower of sparks
as welders hunch over their job
cutting and joining beams.

So much hope in such moments
wherever they may happen
without reason or purpose, but there.

This active image for the act of writing should be set against the title of the next poem, which is not at all an essay on artistic deliverance, but upholds the same sense of hope against mass harm in work and contemplation — “A Steady Light”.

Echoic details connect the poems together and the whole book moves forwards as a constant reviewing of the poet’s condition in his advanced years…

Interviewed in 2008, Harwood said, “I think in your early work you have this drive and confidence, and then later on you’re looking more carefully, possibly, to get the words right, not to allow any foolishness, to make it just right — fine tuned.” 3 This quality is present in the precariousness of his tentative scenes at the same time as the sense of an old and practised hand at work. Echoic details connect the poems together and the whole book moves forwards as a constant reviewing of the poet’s condition in his advanced years, negatives and positives intermingled but “classically” resolved in each poem, whether abruptly or harmoniously. The “fine tuned” quality is a condition of thought subsumed in the act of writing, a carefulness and fidelity in placing words against experience.

THE POEMS GROW in seriousness as the book progresses, culminating in “Sailing Westwards”, which takes on a mode of connected discourse, a steady dignified speech in which shifts of scene are presented and suggested rather than sprung on us. It concerns mountains but like most of the poems it hovers around apprehension of death, skirting it and returning to it in various guises: Chinese sages walking up the “ivory mountain” centuries ago . . .  , reference to Paul Evans, a friend of Harwood’s who died in a climbing accident on Snowdon . . . , the unknown stories of an “old woman’s curios cabinet” which seems to represent the fragments we leave behind —

Ivory carvings, plates, cups, and a blue glass sugar-shaker.
We just don’t know the full story.

coming to the presiding image of setting out on the sea in a boat or just standing on the shore facing illimitable distance—

and the flat silk sea spreads out in front of me,
over and far beyond the horizon.

The progress of the book is consummated in a final delightful poem of welcome to a new grandchild.

I could go on about the classical poise of the two lines just quoted (achieved by alliteration, sonic balance, and inner rhyme) and indeed there is a lot more could be said about the qualities and scope of these captivating poems in general. But it is worth while pausing at two words.

The word “just” in the penultimate quotation is a typical Harwood intervention, of a kind found in his earliest work as in his latest. It is of course, a meaningless intensifier donating perhaps a sense of helplessness, but its typical force in the poetry is to secure a mode of address to the reader which is important. By such moves the poetry is almost constantly held to a sense of intimacy, as if forming one half of a private conversation, and absorbs the qualities of modesty and indeed politeness which a civilised conversation demands. His qualities as a “modernist” poet (if he is one) are essentially deferential, while determined to maintain attention to the operative realities.

In the second quotation the word “silk” is more than a descriptive term. It connects to “ivory” in the first line of the poem (“the sages plod up the ivory mountain”) to confirm a sense of artifice which is the counter-move to the realism of intimate address. The natural world to which the aesthetic appeal is so often made is recognised as having been carved or woven by someone, and as a construction of the writing. Attention to such details should clear Harwood of the accusation of being a naïve poet of unexamined sensation. He knows perfectly well that his objectivity operates on a stage of his own making painted to resemble the world. So many poets think they are serving up the world itself in the guise of their own identity.

WE HAVE ONLY A SMALL sample of John James’s poetry before us. Since his Collected Poems of 2002 he has published only an Oystercatcher Press pamphlet and In Romsey Town (Equipage 2011) which is half-way to a book at 40 pages. The sample in question is not altogether typical, being in a particular mode labelled “song” — short lines in pairs tending towards the cryptic. In Romsey Town shows a more expansive version of his writing.

His poetry raises some of the same questions as Lee Harwood’s, and his reputation is similar, in that both poets, in their contexts, tend to be viewed as a welcome relief from the difficulty and intellectuality of “Cambridgian” or “innovative” poetry in general. There is justification for this as he is always likely to say something like (Song 10) —

Calva tonight while
drowsing over Cavalcanti

turn the page
await the slow

left over faux-filet
done in a little ragout

with rice or
macaroni

and we know where we are and what we are offered — glimpses of the life.

It is a poetry which both opens and closes the door, and this is essential to it: it is the very foundation of James’s practice, and every detail, such as the total absence of punctuation, arises from this double aesthetic.

That is what we get in these twelve songs, and most of James’s poetry. But a lot of the writing is in fact quite hard when you get down to it, partly because of a highly clipped and condensed manner of writing, but mainly because of an insistent idiolectism (to coin a word). That is, an exclusive adhesion to the terms of his living as he knows them and a concomitant refusal ever to explain or clarify as a gesture towards an outsider such as a reader. This operates in a very straightforward way in, for instance, the dropping in of French words now and then without translation, since the sequence is set in France, but the textuality is also made more opaque by the folding in of what read like inner thoughts (or rather reference to inner thoughts) and, I think, a lot about the act of writing and creating, all without prior signals. It is a poetry which both opens and closes the door, and this is essential to it: it is the very foundation of his practice, and every detail, such as the total absence of punctuation, arises from this double aesthetic. Thoughts and experiences retain their inwardness, the notation of which is as it were moulded into a verbal object which is bowled onto the page. The very concept of poetry seems to be that it begins in personal experience and stays there, cast out to the world as a sonic and rhythmic construct, addressed basically to the self, usually as a kind of memory capture. Thus it does not become that explication and vaunting of the self through its percepts which is so popular these days, but the self remains closed.

A typical knot occurs near the beginning of Song 5 after a transparent opening—

bar the door
eat sleep arise at dawn

& now allow
the cachet to appear

by the way of
forgotten papers

the hiss of miniature
technology . . .

I have no idea what the “cachet” may be4 or what is happening here, though I suspect that it concerns writing or artistic creation, or alternatively the turning of attention to the world outside through the news. But a few lines later the poet seems to challenge anybody’s frustration with his formulations — “in a word / apparent as a song” and goes on into a birdsong and flight section clearly related to human creativity or poetry itself. The word is “apparent” rather than “accessible” and it is so “as a song” and if it is unyielding that is after all what songs are like — from nursery rhymes to The Doors they intermittently produce inconsequential or incomprehensible formulations which worry nobody because they are carried on the music. To enjoy James’s songs you have to agree to a transportation by the rhythmic and sonic play of the little couplets.

In fact I think I have a clear picture of what Songs in Midwinter for Franco is about, but I’m not sure whether I get it entirely from the text or partly from my knowledge of the poet’s circumstances. I know that some years ago his partner died unexpectedly, and that before that he bought a house in a hamlet in the south of France which he still uses and where the Songs were written in January 2013. The songs are about age and being alone in a foreign place through the winter (though not entirely alone: there are hints of social gatherings). It is difficult to know the tone when the writing is so clipped, but I read it as mainly sad, and there are moments that seem to justify this, especially concerning the night and the cold, reference to insomnia and generalised worry. The pronoun “I” is never used; actions are given in the infinitive or an imperative-like impersonal mode or verbs are avoided, but the impossibility of “we” can be felt. The ending of Song 10:

to know how
to continue

in remembrance or not at all
smiling in slow motion

nothing special
in this fleeting

January day
worst month of the year

The persistently singular and specific nature of the writing throughout seems to me to make that last line a very different proposition from “April is the cruellest month . . . ”.

Probably I should not insist on this reading for it could violate the poetical process of the set. These personal conditions, along with a lot of others including radio reports of the siege of Timbuktu in 2012, a historical “martyrdom” of resistance fighters nearby in 1944, memory of Bristol in the poet’s youth, plus vegetables, aperitifs and all sorts of good reasons for being happy in the south of France, are in themselves distant from the perceptual movement of the text, which takes them and moulds them into poetical artefacts, thus removing them to somewhere which is not exactly the world. It is all an ecstatic song-making process that creates its own space. But the veiled anecdotal remains my favourite way of reading this booklet, as I find it does not actually damage the poetical texture but gives an edge of recognition, and reinforces the answering confidence of such calm and lilting songs as the shortest, number 4 —

a small canto
for a travelling show

would be a
neat display

& definitely no
banana in the frigo

now not so fierce the air
this peaceful samedi

STEPHEN WATTS IS not interested in complicating the issue. He prefers to give it all out direct —

_________this is what I came here for,
these words, the stone sleepers, language
that matters, language that can say “yes”.
And the swell of real time against shores
_____________of inhabitable space.

ancient sunlightHe has several different ways of doing this, all first-person declarations and most commonly what I might call a “decorative” poetry: clear strong emotion bedecked with rich figuration, often with an archaic or Oriental touch to it. I’m sometimes reminded of the translations of Mahmoud Darwich, sometimes of Ginsberg’s intensity and candour, occasionally of Dylan Thomas’s wild imagery. What I am mainly aware of is a constant pressure, a constant “lifting” of the discourse onto a poetical plane which is conceived as an intensification, and elevation of the discourse to a chant-like condition. But he also has a plain deadpan style which stays very much on the ground and which he uses for narrative and anecdotal purposes, mostly in poems arising from his local environment in Whitechapel.

David Silver came round again today
Early, after a gap of five or six years

His Irish woman from Coventry’s gone
He’s back on the fags but off the booze . . .

These manners, the richly poetical and the dry prosaic, interplay with each other as two versions of his condition: international in his culture, local in his daily life, and few poems are confined to one or the other. They also coincide as properties of his chosen locality, Whitechapel and Brick Lane, with its unsmart population bearing names from all over the globe, especially the eastern side, who to him are familiars.5 There he is at home as a foreigner among foreigners, their lives clad in exotic colours while having to deal with low income and the entailed confrontations with English bureaucracy.

Most of his poems are long and one of his ways of sustaining them is by permutation: to have a tag which begins every paragraph of the poem, — “What keeps me going is . . . ”, “I never . . . ”, “I sit here listening to . . . ”, “I should have worked . . . ”, each repeated many times with a different continuation, so you get an accumulation and a ringing of changes. This may be a comparatively easy way to build a poem and these are not all among his best work, but the structure is not necessarily maintained and whether it is or not it can lead to quite remote metaphorical zones. In fact it is a feature of his style in these and other pieces to begin in the prosaic and obvious mode and to let the writing be led on as if beyond his control into far more complex and highly charged areas.

HIS FLAIR FOR wry humour in the contrast of mundane information with poetical afflatus, the one growing out of the other, or the circumstantial anecdotal growing into various forms of seriousness, is clear in the poem beginning —

My grandfather worked in Pizza Express in Greek Street in 1904

Except it wasn’t Pizza Express then, it was Crameri
_____& Caruso’s Italian Coffee Parlour

And my grandfather was second-head waiter and my

Mother was not far off being born in Phoenix Street in
___the tenements opposite the theatre, the tenements
_____that were there until the seventies, until that is

They were pulled down & something else was put up
___in their place, because it was regeneration time . . .

This may be all informational but the way the false-naivety is underlined by the enjambments is expert. The poem follows the Italian London thread gathering seriousness with its momentum until by the 13th verse it has arrived at—

And the Italian anarchists of Dean St. & Clerkenwell
___glistened as they waited under dewy moon
_______with greased daggers drawn

Hoping with surety that what would happen could be
___swayed and vectored out of sync so that their
_________century might not have been

What, of course, it had to be. But no: it couldn’t, it
_______couldn’t, it simply couldn’t be!

And the poem ends in a quite apocalyptic exhortation, addressed to a waitress in Frith Street (“the noise of the heart is a furtive claw”  . . . “the colours of blood are war-flags unfurled”).

At his most excited Watts is liable to issue condemnation of the modern world in no uncertain terms — “duplicity is become the ordinary nature of our breath” . . . “I live on a sorrowful planet” . . . “this world of bruised minds” . . . etc. And most of his realistic sketches of friends and others are of those who fell victim to a disregardful and misunderstanding society. His integrity is assured by the way these different scales of complaint grow out of each other and refuse to forget each other.

If not all of his poems reach the same level of achievement I think this is a perhaps inevitable result of his approach, where he allows himself to be led on by the driving rhythms of the poem into outbursts which can sometimes be histrionic or banal (“laughter / gifts us / life / & / so / let’s live!”).

AT THE CENTRE of the book are three lengthy poems, one of which is certainly the finest thing of his I have seen. It is an elegy on the death of his mother in 43 stanzas, a poem not dominated by repeated structures but maintaining his high-flown incantatory mode throughout, remarkably sustained, resourceful in its richness of imagery, and perfectly controlled. The exotic chant is permeated as always by notations of the real, momentary or extended, and each five-line stanza grasps its particular purpose and reaches, 43 times, a conclusion I can only call accurate —

I cupped the shaman’s cup in my hand &
_________tossed it to and fro,
your body has become these rancid flowers
that in the night-time glow, but where now
_____________are you?

Birds came to me in that garden — swallows
__________turning their high bellies —
they spoke to my fingers with their tongues,
they filled the air, inside my head and out,
_____________but where are you?

Car of death that moves off at the speed of
_________the living,
car of death that moves off at walking pace,
unendured pain of peace, sun wrapped
__________in its own linen.

But I am hardly less struck by the next item, “Praha Poem” a set of 18 short poems in a very different manner concerning a solitary period in Prague, lamenting desperate love-loss. It is full of lonely bars and self-accusations, largely avoiding the big statement about the world, but rather locating the world’s duplicity in our reading of its particulars. —

What a superb rainstorm
Over the mushroom fields of Bohemia

What an atrocious downpour
Across the lonely railyards of Europe

“Romantic” might be a good term for Stephen Watts’ poetry, if the word were understood as not a period in cultural history but a lyrical recourse and a way of approaching the fullness of the experience, available to those who will take the risk— a risk of shrillness and over-emphasis which I think he rarely lapses into. His particular way of interlocking direct delineation of condition, and richly robed ceremony, is unique. You get the classic song and the social worker’s report at the same time.

BOOKS RECEIVED

IT’S ALL VERY well holding the belief, which I do, that if anything is worth writing about it’s worth writing about exhaustively, but when poetry publications accumulate the way they do here it has to be set aside or we’d never get anywhere.

Tim Allen
© 6
Debtpress (Eccles) 2013 | 108pp A4 paperback |

Tattered by Magnets
Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2014 | 172pp | £12.00

Bulky celebrations of the disarticulate. Words and phrases, listed or floating, with or without unknowable codes. But it’s good to see an avant-garde writing which embraces humour because the poet maintains contact with the inherent wit of the colloquial word (especially in ©)

Seán Carey
Free Range
Spectacular Diseases7 2009 | 14pp A4 stapled | £3.00. Signed copies £7.50

Long poem of committed avant-garde writing in which sentences break up and scatter under a pressure of New York-ish urgency in a world where the details are mashed together great and small. Why do the British academic avant-gardists make such a fuss of the late work of the American John Weiners and know nothing of the Irishman who wrote—

Maiden village green polka slides
Tipper Gore marrying Mike Tyson in
Palm Springs one step ahead of the
paparazzi trailing Al’s Mary Bono
sonny’s widow McClure reading “Rant
Block” pursued Joanne in art classes…
—?

John Wedgwood Clarke
Ghost Pot
Valley Press | 72pp | £6.60  $5.99

Andy Brown
Exurbia
Worple Press 2014 | 78pp | £10.00

I found these two books to be quite close to each other, though they come from different directions. Poems about (or subject-bound poems as some people rather sneeringly call them). Both poets state clearly what they’re writing about and then press onwards into something else.

A ghost pot is a lobster pot that breaks its mooring and floats away but continues to catch lobsters. Clarke writes about the North Yorkshire coast and extends his “about” into serious meditational substance, even to confront the inertia of matter—

Beside the tank of diesel,
the ice house and heaps of chain, the stacked boards
say nothing they’ve seen, material
silence, gathering rust at the harbour mouth.

Andy Brown’s “about” concerns his own living and the edges of things including the “urban fringe” which people calling themselves psycho-geographers so delight in these days. But he is explicit about the experiences which launched the poems, and wins through, I think, by mastering the calmness of a poetical line which bears the past lightly in its arms.

Leslie Bell
Archipelagos
Mica Press (Colchester) 2012 | 84pp | £8.00 $6.99

I was drawn to this by a blurb which defined the author as “a lost poet of the classic Cambridge school”, but really there is nothing to be frightened of. I found it a collection of various kinds of fairly ordinary poems, the texture sometimes getting quite dense in the shorter lyrical pieces.

Kelvin Corcoran
Radio Archilochus
Maquette Press 2014 | 16pp booklet | £4

Another of Corcoran’s lyrical essays on Greek stories, taking on the persona of the officially “first lyric poet” or (in his words) “the first poet to use ‘I’”. Monologues using poem fragments (which are all that survive of Archilochus) navigating a poet-image between ecstatic song and bad behaviour.

She held a flag of myrtle and the rose
and stepped softly from the shadows

Do you know me? I said, and stared,
I’m the first person to write in the first person.

Really? Well, the price is still the same
for you and your friend, Exarchos or not.

Corcoran’s “After Argos…” appeared in The Fortnightly last June.

Anthony Costello
The Mask
Lapwing Publications (Belfast) 2014 | 80pp | £10.00

Three poems by Anthony Costello can be found in The Fortnightly Review, along with three translations of Alain-Fournier. The book confirms the virtuosic, lively manner: serious/comical, explicit/enigmatic, direct/ironical, streetwise/scholarly, sometimes all of these at the same time and above all, unpredictable. I thought the title should be in the plural, for the book is full of names and voices, but they are not persona poems, and there is only one mask, that of poet.

Peter Dent,
Retrieval Systems
Knife Fork and Spoon Press 2014 | 16pp booklet. | £5.00

Badlands of the Real
Red Ceilings Press 2014 | 28pp A6 booklet, edition of 40 | £6.00

Merryweather
Hole-and-Corner Press 2014 | 16pp booklet |

See Harry Guest in The Fortnightly Review for an accurate introduction to this prolific and consistent poet, whose lines commonly read as commentary on events and discourses which are not told, making a careful earthly abstract out of the faculty of comprehension itself, shaped to the demands of the poem (or the prose-poem) as an act of eloquence. I think I see a vagary between “badlands” and “merryweather” kinds of writing.

Rod Mengham
The Understory
Corrupt Press 2014 | 20pp booklet.

Paris by Helen
Oystercatcher Press 2014 | 24pp booklet | £5.00

This really should be “classic Cambridge school poetry”. A senior mover in those quarters who writes with intensity and care, especially in the narrative-like Paris by Helen though some of the prose poems relax and lighten out more. It belongs in its category by the inversion of values and the pessimism emerging as bathos in a literary theatre at every mention of the modern world (“They dream continually of enriched uranium”).

Lisa Robertson
The Men
Enitharmon Press 2014 | 72pp, paperback | £8.99  $13.89

I hardly feel qualified to write about this book. Is it possible to write a poetical disquisition (or narration) on a major social question — “gender” — working on the assumption (I believe) of gender duality as a problematic, while striving (I believe) to be as positive as possible in acknowledging or demanding points of cross-gender harmony and (I believe) love, and to do this passionately, while operating within a commitment to principals of language-use in poetry which forbid explicit declaration and insist (intermittently) that disarticulation and displacement will themselves carry the message, while declarations do and must burst out of the texture which are totally clear and passionately framed? I’ve no idea, but the strong emotion involved seems to me to be everywhere evident and not to be negative.


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. The Collected Poems 1964-2004 (Shearsman 2004) runs to over 500 pages.
  2. Both are instances of earthly distance in time and space as a sheer and distinct substance which has nothing to do with the poet’s worries and which acts rather like an awakening from the poems’ nightmares into the world at large. In the first instance “fresh from the shale” is the key phrase, as it unites immense age with newness. There is maybe reference to the last page of the book, which is a welcome to a girl baby.
  3. Lee Harwood, Not the Full Story: six interviews by Kelvin Corcoran. Shearsman 2008.
  4. If it is a French word, as it may well be, it could mean seal, postmark, signet, fee, chic (clothes) etc., but not the personal qualities (such as prestige) which the English word carries.
  5. Whitechapel is an area of east London which was always known for its dire poverty, said to be the worst in London, and, since the 19th Century, its immigrant population, mainly Jewish and Bangladeshi. Brick Lane is the thoroughfare of Whitechapel that outsiders usually head for, a cluster of exotic but practical shops and Indian restaurants. Smartness has in fact been encroaching for some time in the form of artists’ studios, fashion boutiques etc., which he chooses not to mention.
  6. The title is a copyright symbol.
  7. 83b London Road, Peterborough, Cambs PE2 9BS
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