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The poetry of Autumn.


barbed rule

By Peter Riley.

barbed rule
Anthony Barnett
Allardyce Book ABP 2017 | 206pp paperback. | £27.39 | $36.00

SNOW lit rev
Edited by Anthony Barnett and Ian Brinton, No.5, fall 2017.
Allardyce, Barnett, Publishers | 192pp paperback. | $25.00

Simon Jarvis
Night Office.
Enitharmon Press 2013. 228pp paperback. | £9.99 | $15.99

Simon Jarvis
Jerusalem Deleted.
Enitharmon Press 2015. 244pp paperback. | £9.99 | $3.74

Colin Simms
Goshawk Poems.
Shearsman Books 2017. 144pp paperback. | £12.95 | $19.78

Keston Sutherland
Whither Russia.
Barque 2017 | 40pp pamphlet | £5.00

SNOW HAS ALWAYS seemed to me to revolve around Anthony Barnett’s particular version of artistic authenticity, and still does, even with a co-editor. Barnett seeks a kind of meticulousness in a writing which transgresses discursive norms without indulging the wild self and in some way attaches a “mystique of the word”. What I particularly notice now, in both the periodical and the book, is how central prose has become to the enterprise. I don’t mean the mere fact of prose; I mean the prosaic presence in the language, the avoidance of “poetical” figures and sonority, while the mechanics of indication and comment lurk even in the most fragmented or disjointed writing.

With Lithos this is to some extent to be expected, since the book is a collection of mostly small pieces described by the author as “being nothing more than drafts and fragments that, not which, are not enough” (the “which” phrase concerns correct English usage.) As such, many of the texts are, or look like, prose accounts which are liable to “go wrong” or be curtailed or turn out to be nothing of the sort. Probably they are viewed by the author as poems achieved by various acts of withdrawal, excision, disconnection, truncation and so forth, withdrawn from sense in favour of something else, something not defined, the absence of what would make them “enough”. Poetry might be defined, though not consistently, as founded on direct notation but which looses its traction and becomes open to original and penetrative figuration. Its “sense” may more or less survive but subject to an instability which is in fact the result of being more exact and far-reaching than language as (common) sense can reach to—exact, that is, true to the fragmented occasion and the conditions concealed from us. What there is not, except for a few distinctly light pieces, is the act of verse, not meaning necessarily versification, but the signs remaining of the measured verse line, the sense of verse movement facing the poetical past.

The word and meaning “stone” is a kind of motto to the book.

The word and meaning “stone” is a kind of motto to the book. Many, but not all, of the texts finally bring whatever can be grasped of the occasion and its import, to a solid and impermeable object, a unit of language, a non-communication or a mystique at which the action passes completely beyond telling. A stone. It is then, you could say, something which also represents the world’s refusal, nursed to the self or offered to the reader as the ultimate but entirely closed poetical condition.

The Stone Has No Accents

Some things that were disturbing in the past are either added to or re-placed by new things. Just as things are. Buried deep beside my head is your name. I thought I might have found it.

Averting the gaze a frightening loss.

“The stone has no accents.” I no longer know who said this. If it was I why is it in quotes in my BLOC RHODIA?
(page 96)

The penultimate word, if related to “block” signifies the final reductive process of this poetic. (“actually” it is a brand of stationary, but how reliable is that ”actually” in this kind of writing?) But it is a big collection which includes totally enigmatic pieces, and pieces which because of their obviously prosaic stance should be transmissive but are blocked, in the quest for something beyond transmission. You have to keep a constant look-out for puns or concealed meanings and there are also plain anecdotes, and ditties—

At the point at which you are old

At the point at which you are old
At the point at which you are a wild flower
At the point at which you no longer have a book to read
At the point at which your anxiety has many feathers
(page 24)

The pleasure and play offered here are of course entirely serious and extremely resourceful in a direct relationship to shared experience.

Snow 5 is mostly prose, little of which could be described as prose-poetry, that is to say quite ordinary prose, spoken prose, giving accounts of this that and the other, competently but liable to reach further than anticipated. The poetry of Ralph Hawkins has become a series of prose “Notes” about Stalin. The poems of Nick Totton tread the prose/poetry border. There are some illuminating notes on being a volunteer following the Grenfell Tower disaster, and a long London narrative by James Wilson which hovers hypnotically between autobiography and fiction. Ian Brinton’s translation of Jaccottet’s notes on Ponge reminds us of how much that whole constellation of French poets devoted itself to a finely crafted prose directly transmitting their thoughts and experience. The only strong confrontation with poetry I recognised was in Anthony Barnett’s own translation of Zanzotto

O such sweet snows rosepink-petal colour
petal of glacial daybreak
rosepink colour of easter egg
and which in motionless circuit served as stairs
to a more distant, but imminent, comet…HALE BOPP

where we are picked up and moved to somewhere else, somewhere known only to poetry but emanating from the human earth. How important is it to know that Hale-Bopp is the name of a comet when the entire mode of the poetry steers you away from such rationality? As with Bloc Rhoda the capitalisation stands the words before us as illegible inscriptions on stone.

Snow has musical, visual arts, film and documentary content as well as literary and is well worth a subscription.

BOTH OF THE books by Simon Jarvis are single poems without sectioning. Night Office consists of 875 eight-line stanzas in ottava rima: ABABABCC (with some licence). The linear metric seems less clear, but is basically iambic pentameter with a lot of enjambment including cross-stanza.

This is quite a remarkable thing in itself. We may at once think of “epic scale” e.g. Milton, but tone and substance are a kind of grim Byronic, which is not to say unserious but is to say self-confidently virtuosic. Don Juan was of course in ottava rima. The sense of the extended writing is as much mischievous as purposeful: it is as if the poet constantly defies the reader to believe he can continue to fulfil all the exigencies of rhyme and form, which he does by subterfuges as well as virtuosity.

We probably think of such performances as rare, but there is surely a tradition of turning to Byronic narrative for purposes of satire and political complaint. Noel by Gilbert Cannan (published in 1922 in an edition of 500), subtitled “An Epic in Seven Cantos”, amounts to approximately 1400 stanzas in ottava rima, rather more strictly adhered to. It too is distinctly Byronic. It begins:

What purpose has the singer in a land
When he must dwell with men who cannot hear,
And would not if they could, but in their bland
Self-righteousness assume that their own fear
Is Heaven’s law, and will not understand
That life is more than Bibles, bounce, and beer?

Night Office begins:

Every last person in this book is dead,–
including me. I’m talking to you, yes,
thanks to my poet: he, thanks to me; my head
shakes and reverberates, while, less and less,
the waves of sound diminish, and, instead,
a lasting silence fills me, and I rest.
Now in this blackness I begin to sing.
Invisible is every little thing

These are obviously miles apart: a brash demand to be heard as against a a solo monologue, a sub-song removed from world and seeing. But in both cases the voice is in the wilderness, exhorting lamenting or turning its back on a society which has lost its grip on the possible. It’s interesting that both refer to what they do as singing.

It is a pleasure to witness the skills involved, to recognise that the discourse is complex, highly figured, serious, learned, philosophical/ religious/fanciful/anecdotal and what-have-you, and emerges as exactly what the author needs to say, indeed as a true thing, and yet by some literary sleight-of-hand the rhymes and the metrics all fall into place just where they should (or almost). I don’t know many contemporary texts which offer this kind of entertainment (which is what it is). There is the possibility (no more) of a playfulness in the ingenuity of the writing which is at odds with the literal gloom of the messages.

It is not an easy text: an “I” narrative full of figurations and entities whose signification is elusive. Everything is haunted by its opposite.

As to the actual content, I prefer not to intervene. It is not an easy text: an “I” narrative full of figurations and entities whose signification is elusive. Everything is haunted by its opposite. Those conversant with modern European philosophy (Jarvis is an expert on Adorno) and, indeed, Christian doctrine, neither of which is my cup of tea, might have an advantage. There is something very “Cambridge” (and possibly also “Wyndham Lewis”) in this shadow-play, and at times a characteristic disdain in the refusal to yield to the possibility of daylight. Compared with some of the products of from the same camp, Night Office does have the distinction of actually saying, and saying eloquently in dark dialogues among glimpses of darker landscapes. I think it is an extended act of pleading for a belief, but exactly what the belief is and whether there is or is not a resolution, I leave to the readers it deserves to have.

I quote instead the unauthored epigram in French which I think serves as the traditional “Argument” to the canto, and which I translate thus:

“During all of this period it was necessary to dissimulate what you thought and, even more so, what you did. Thanks to this permanent hypocrisy, the essence of life was revealed to me, which was that it is invisible.”

This is really the whole thing. It is the basis of the intellectual avant-garde, the land turned against its inhabitants and the voice thus negated. It is both Beckett and Larkin. It is war poetry without war but in a permanent condition of warfare: occupied, silenced, corrupted, violently alienated. (“this period” is the German occupation of France 1943-1945). So the only recourse is to cloak truth in an articulate silence, which is, really, a privilege, to have recourse to this sullen, ingenious feigning script which is the only sighting of the world open to us. It is a sort of ultimate self-cancelling proposition, an advance towards the real at the same time as a total renunciation of it.

Not surprisingly since the subject cannot be addressed at all a subterfuge maintains the text in its long course: a dramatic pretence in which the poet (or his ventriloquist) isolate from all humanity sits in the darkness of his “night office” and speaks the whole thing, ottava rima and all, as a catalogue of what the world-night (the only perceptible entity at the end of this darkness) contains and does. I suspect but will not attempt to justify the suspicion, (and here I tread carefully) that its conception represents a despair, or at least a weariness, in the face of the world as experienced, a face which has a black veil drawn over it. Insofar as it posits permanent total crisis which negates common usage (which perhaps it does not) it cannot be anything else, whether it takes that negation as an asset or an obstacle. This immensely inhabited night reaches its morning only in the last three lines of the book, without the slightest trace of gladness or relief. But the author sees it as working for a freedom within an aesthetic and arcane condition.

Jerusalem Deleted consists of 1,400 five-line stanzas rhymed in various ways, commonly ABABC or ABBAC but it seems almost any scheme will serve, and there are disorderly cross-stanza end-rhymes. The lines are basically iambic pentameter again, and there is a system of indentation which is not related to line length. The comparatively casual formal adhesion here produces a sense that the substance of the address flows under the form, and to a large extent takes no notice of it, like Marianne Moore’s constructions. I think it might be some kind of post-apocalypse novel concerning the world’s use of terror as claim and counter-claim, or an accumulation of threats self-created out of instinctive fear, like The Sea The Sea. The author thinks it wishes the eradication of all forms of civilisation as an act of despair.

GOSHAWK POEMS IS Colin Simms’ third single-species collection of bird poems. He has spent his life observing these creatures and the approximately 300 short poems are from notes on goshawks in some 500 (he says) notebooks as well as letters and diaries. Thus they are factual, and were originally (probably) in prose. Howsoever they are made into poems (and not all are), it is not by “making poems” from the material, or by recasting the facts in poetical vocabulary and form. They still read as notes but as notes indistinguishable from poems. Some of them rhyme, usually quatrain structures in wholes or parts of poems, or rough couplets. Perhaps they always did. Some are cast in “awkward” formulations which disturb sense’s partnership with syntax. Again perhaps they always did, and a lot of such passages are more easily understood when you realise he is using more a spoken English than a literary one.

Several things result from this which you would not expect in “The Penguin Book of Goshawk Poems” if there were such a thing. Such as that these goshawks are all individual goshawks. What they do on a particular occasion is told without taxonomic intrusion, which only obtains accumulatively. And what they do is told whatever they do, blood, guts, staling and all. I don’t think adjectives like “beautiful”, “graceful”’ “elegant”’ occur: the falcon’s beauty is not denied or ignored but rather it is understood. It is there in the obsession itself, the excited scribbling of the bird’s behaviour, the familiar nickname “gos”, the recognition of a bird first met long ago.

Occasionally there is a polemic against the modern spectacularisation of his subject. He speaks as the expert with the pride of objectivity in alliance with the poet as literally seer, the one who penetrates fully into the experience:

Nation of dogwalkers and drivers-around
within only the accepted sight and sound
of screens, gadgets, constant ‘communication’
of the bland and commercial “self expression”;
this self-effacing hawk stalks imagination
for very few – or his extermination!
(by commerce, game industry, the blind surround) (page 121)

The tone here owes a lot to Pound as transmitted by Basil Bunting, whom Simms knew well. As also perhaps do episodes of wild syntax which can be read as plain statements somehow disrupted as if the writing were mistranscribed, but which must be deliberate—

she stands the riverbanks not as a heron.
Cecil, mending, wall, led by what can this mean,
“too big for a sparrowhawk, must be foreign?” …   (page 66)

This can be at least partly clarified if heard as speech. But there are also episodes where poetry takes the lead—

Brick-red cock crossbill as something ‘comes over’ the sun
a moment that great circle’s light meets the will
expressed as they gyre ascending alone
slow enough and solid enough just to fill
the eye of the sun, the other lens once stone
then sand: by glacier’s then glassmaker’s skill.
Only at this moment I’ve remotely known
the (gos) hawk’s presence above, his opening bill
towards me; then turning away and he’s flown
and the sun warms my face; its relative (thin) chill
calms the pulse, ignites crossbills., a day has grown. (page 61)

This is surely fine writing beyond the demands of ecological pastoral, but fiercely insistent on the sovereignty of the earthen platform from which it speaks. It is not the dominant manner of the book but the freedom to navigate at will into and out of the notational mode means that a shift into this extent of vision is always possible.

I JUST WANT to note some interesting features about Keston Sutherland’s Whither Russia. Those familiar with Sutherland’s work will be quite at home with the two prose sections which begin and end this pamphlet. Anger and disgust at “the way things are” super-heated into a Mephistophelian discourse in which every positive embraces its negative. A symbolic dream narrative which cannot either signify or drift, a prose-poetry which must not become either poetry or prose. Body fluids as challenges to the false inhuman, congealed into curses whose fangs bite back at the familiars. It is all particularly clear in the second piece, a diatribe against Trump in the fury of which everything becomes Trump including the poet (because they feed on each other) and his audience (because everybody is guilty: “this is your fault, you who know how to read this”) and so a verbal action of double contradiction which destroys meaning. But the meaning is simple, a kind of howl.

There is also writing such as “…you who grease the Turks to round up the exoplanets from PSR125 7 + 12 B to μ Arae to fuckup Russia…” which there was bound to be, but there is not a lot of it. I guess you either run to the University Library or take it as a form of howl.

Between these prose pieces Sutherland places seven translations of European nineteenth-century poems. I’m not sure what he’s up to here; I feel there are ulterior motivations in this unprecedented departure from the present tense, albeit the departure is deliberately flawed. He is more faithful to the metrics (which is unusual these days) than the content, but his version of Hölderin’s “Dichtermuth (erste Fassung)” is perfectly balanced and elegant. Elsewhere the recognisable Sutherland peers out through cracks with his trade-mark word-icons (“fuck”, “shit” etc.). Goethe’s “Nachtgedanken” becomes characteristically inflected with anger and the verbal action is turned onto the self and darkened—

Euch bedaur ich, unglückselge Sterne,
Die ich schön und so herrlich scheinet

I look down on you, stars of my depression,
Since your shining is so domineering

And particularly when Goethe’s “Schiffer” (sailor, ship’s captain) becomes “the drowning”, attention has shifted to a more urgent and shameful kind of harm: desperate refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean.

Toulet’s biting figures remain items of fancy which Sutherland turns to physical pangs…

It is good to see the probably forgotten P.J.Toulet appearing (1867-1920, known for short poems of light texture and bitter conclusion) comparatively moderately sinisterised by turning the figures into actualities, and the disappointed swoon into a death/copulation gasp. Toulet’s biting figures remain items of fancy which Sutherland turns to physical pangs; “I feel {as if} the rope is on my throat” becomes “[I] choke myself to death.” I know only one other place where Toulet has been taken seriously in English, from a far greater distance—

Serve the rouged fruits in early snow.
They resemble a page of Toulet
Read in the ruins of a new society,
Furtively, by candle, and out of need.

— Wallace Stevens, “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery”, xv.


Note: Inclusion here does not preclude future review.

Iain Britton, The Intaglio Poems.
Hesterglock Press 2017. 80pp paperback. | £9.00 | $10.69

A section of this book and some earlier poems can be read in The Fortnightly Review. Gripping and comprehensive poems.

Kelvin Corcoran and Emma Collins, not much to say really.
Medicine Unboxed and Shearsman Books 2017. 66pp paperback. | £8.95 | $14.30

Accounts of extended conversations with four elderly patients in hospital, extending into poems, and quoted in the work of the textile artist Emma Collins. A touching book, particularly in demonstrating the candour and resource of common speech when people sum up their lives, freed from aspiration.

Ian Davidson, On the Way to Work.
Shearsman Books 2017. 30pp pamphlet. | £6.50 | $9.95

The third part of a trilogy. Ten poems with a diurnal sequentiality to them (walking to work from Gateshead to Newcastle), in short unpunctuated lines, speech-like (talking to oneself) and as such plain sailing but self-disrupted by the metrics (words broken across lines and stanzas for instance) and the often oblique shifts of sense. A monologue of being trapped and at liberty in one, conducted at speed, encountering fear (a “void” in front of you for instance, which answers back) and objects of hope, somewhat ironic. Sometimes I don’t know why the bitter ending, but the drive and assurance are admirable.

Alan Halsey, Selected Poems 1988-2016.
Shearsman Books 2017. 258pp paperback. | £12.95

Future review is anticipated on the subject “What exactly is it about Alan Halsey’s poetry?”

Billy Mills, The City Itself.
Hesterglock Press 2017. 98pp paperback. | £9.00 | $10.60

This is quite a strange book, and a very carefully organised one. Two prose sections at the start and near the end set the topography and the zone of concern (a slum street in Dublin and poor quality council housing in Limerick). Between these are some 40 short poems in short lines, unpunctuated, which record individual perception of earthly detail. But so short (e.g. 14 syllables in five lines) that some can hardly establish a presence, and above all seeming curtailed, denying any consequence to the percept, which is left floating there, like an unanswered “So what?” 40 short refusals to proceed further. I’m reminded of the radical poetry inspired by Buddhist beliefs quite a long time ago, which likewise halted at presence itself, though I don’t know if Mills was so engaged. But the prose passages too deny consequence: they tell or observe their subject and stop.

After this, in the last 30 pages, a more substantial writing appears, to which the first 60 pages feel like an introduction. There is particularly a poem in 6-line stanzas, a meditation on the presence of the city, which shows how Mills can write a sustained and content-rich poetry when he wants to, and a set of prose-poems concerning a bridge, a stream, and a heron, thoughtfully articulated, which seems to bring the book at its end to a hesitant involvement with symbolism.

Anthony Rudolf, European Hours: Collected poems.
Carcanet 2017. 194pp paperback. | £12.99 | $16.60

The gathered works of someone who has been an extremely busy advocate for wide swathes of modern poetry, as well as publisher, essayist, translator and editor. A future Fortnightly review is anticipated on the subject of the aesthetic as a whole-life content.

Peter Riley, Pennine Tales.
Calder Valley Poetry 2016. 32pp pamphlet. | £4.50 |

A progressive sequence of 24 twelve-line poems. An excerpt is here.

Peter Riley, Hushings.
Calder Valley Poetry 2017. 26pp pamphlet. | £5.00 |

A further set of the above in 18 twelve-line poems. An excerpt is here.

Peter Riley, Dawn Songs.
Shearsman 2017. 192pp paperback. | £12.95 | $20.00

Three essays on remote musical practices. An excerpt is here.

John Seed, Brandon Pithouse: recollections of the Durham Coalfield.
Smokestack Books 2016. 120pp paperback. | £5.76 | $12.76

Poetical renderings (perhaps “versification” would actually be the best term, as long as the verse is free) of documentary material of various kinds concerning one pit, with some detached meditational and personal pieces. Seed is highly adept at this practice whereby source material is brought into a form of singing, our uptake is slowed, and it finally remains as a completed and thus inescapable product of history. As a Marxist exercise it seeks the worst, as you’d expect (I’m reminded of Engels trawling around Manchester in search of the worst living conditions he could find) but the call is not for revolution but for acknowledgement, reflection, and, actually, literature.

Ruby Turock-Squire, The Phantom Fundamental.
Lapwing Publications 2016. 54pp paperback, £10.00.
American edition under the title silence coming up for air, Finishing Line Press (Georgetown, Kentucky) 2017. | $14.99

Poems “about” music. Careful attention wrought into poetical skill. A sequence from this book, and two other poems, can be read in The Fortnightly Review.

Pierre Chapuis, Like Bits of Wind: selected poetry and poetic prose 1974-2014. translated by John Taylor.
Seagull Books 2016. 372pp hardback. | £20.50 | $21.89.

Pierre Voélin, To Each Unfolding Leaf: selected poems 1976-2015, translated by John Taylor.
Bitter Oleander Press (New York) Bilingual text. 330pp paperback. | £19.04 | $24.64 | $25.00

Two further French monuments from the indefatigable John Taylor. In fact both are francophone Swiss, which is perhaps why we don’t get to hear about them in Britain (not that we hear much about French poetry now). They are both serious writers heavily involved in the tangles of earthly perception and human hurt. They both belong to the class of poet who attracts the word “phenomenological”. The difference may be that Voélin retains a belief in the poetical line, whereas Chappuis writes in two formal extremes: prose-pieces or very small poems in short lines.


Fortnightly ReviewsPeter 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 (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

Peter Riley’s latest books are Pennine Tales and Hushings (both from Calder Valley Poetry) and Dawn Songs (Shearsman, 2017). His Due North (Shearsman), a book-length poem, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, 2015. A collection of his ‘Poetry Notes’ columns has been collected in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, and published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint. An archive of his Fortnightly columns is here.

Note: A minor change to this article was made on the day of publication to correct an editing error.

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Peter Riley
Peter Riley
6 years ago

Note that the two books by Simon Jarvis reviewed above have been withdrawn from sale by their publisher, as have almost all Jarvis’s other books, because he has been found guilty of certain crimes unconnected with the contents of any of his books.

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