By PETER RILEY.
BELOW ARE REVIEWS of (at the last count) eight British poets, all of whom I’d say without hesitation are good poets. They were not picked out for me by the poetry-prize industry; they have not all been approved by poetry experts; they do not all get such words as “leading” or “acclaimed” attached to their names; they are not all covered in badges and medals; they have not all taken up prestigious appointments. Neither have they been thrust forward from academic enclaves. The region in which their work circulates varies from international to local. They are here because someone recommended them to me or I heard them at a poetry reading which I attended because of somebody else, or the book came through the letter-box. I think these methods of locating worth-while poets are as good as any other. I’m not saying that the system is completely inverted. The big show-biz style promotions do often enough bestow their blessings on good poets and one of these poets did take that course. But they cannot be relied on, and the applause echoing round the Royal Festival Hall means no more than that at some pub open-mike series in the far counties. Indeed the latter has the advantage of not being a surrender of poetry to the commercialist spectacle: you are not expected to offer yourself as a commodity.
I ASSUMED AT first, since it didn’t say, that Hannah Sullivan was American. The prosody invokes Ginsberg and Whitman, and maybe a touch of Longfellow. But Ginzy is clumsier and Whitman is more positive. A lot of it takes place in New York and it’s crammed with local detail as if a familiarity. Then I noticed most of the first two poems are in rhyming couplets or quatrains, but not in any way strictly measured. This touch of formality didn’t seem American, not because it was there but because it felt as if it was fulfilling an ancestral obligation.
Sullivan is always speaking for somebody else, a “you” or a “we”, and even when intently “I” there is a feeling of fictive staging, a feeling of a monologue with designs on you. Massed detail of life as it is here and now is not authenticated by intimacy, but is there to show or even prove something, something quite large-scale which transcends or delegates the detail.
Three poems. One: A long monologue telling a younger “you”, possibly a daughter, what you are doing, what kind of life you lead. It is in the present tense, ambiguously a continuous present or an immediate one, descriptive or narrative. If we opt for narrative, the poet is a puppet-master directing your actions, making you do these things as it speaks. It invokes O’Hara (without the art) as depiction of a hedonistic but unfulfilling urban life-style, all sex and drugs (but not rock ‘n roll). It is not a portrait of a great city but a tour of one niveau, conditioned by money and an evidently weary and hungry temperament, and who knows what else, with merely a trace of culture in the form of a few writers’ names. The detail of the writing is very lively within a framing sense of futility. It starts from “But nothing seems to happen. You stand around / On the same street corners […] waiting to get older.” and ends with post-coital depression tolerated, “as one unlit cab follows / Another down Fifth and, through tears, you are laughing.”
The second poem is a set of variations on Heraclitus, “No-one enters the same river twice,” which is read basically as, “Time like an ever-rolling stream…” Seventeen poems in four sections, with casual formalities, and favouring an unmeasured long line. Her versatility and sharp eye serve her well in what is really a series of expositions of the futility of trying to create repetition or to establish a permanence out of ever shifting experience. The pleasure of San Francisco coming to life at dawn (repeatable), cancelled by the death of an intrusive sparrow-hawk (unique), a meaningless crash death is set against automotive insincerity of the official speech of regret (repeatable). Many more endeavours and ventures towards permanence and a basis, with curious involvement of Henry James, Shakespeare, Hugh Kenner and others, whose accumulating works all come to a dead end, swept by Heraclitus’ river into defeat and nullity, several times figured as the death or abuse of a young person – human aberrations not contained in their literary visions. It all comes to “Golden girls and lads all must, As chimney sweepers, come to dust.” An ad hominem attack on Shelley, “another dubious rhyming poet” (this English referent in strict couplets), makes it clear that no idealism is tolerated, no sense of experience as sharable, no hippie love-ins. It is all opportunistic solipsism, repetition of a lost gesture—
No, none of these things that meant so much survive,
Untarnished, hearing the same things multiplied.
The river sweeps past, the river sweeps everything away. I don’t think it’s anger or resignation, I think it’s more like cynicism. Poetry itself is the attempted replication of old lost voices dimly heard.
With the third poem, “The Sandpit After Rain”, rhyming ceases, which I think is good in eliminating an almost constant back-reference, and this is the strongest part of the book, partly because it is also first-person narrative. To cut a long story short (and to slide over a lot of expertly moulded and resourceful lyrical and discursive writing) this poem is about birth and death as personally experienced — herself giving birth, and the death of her father. Two supremely repeatable acts, because necessary to human existence, it would seem. But each birth or death is unique and she emphasises this dramatically by showing birth and death in extreme cases. These events are denied universal status, which they have merely in name. Both are in these instances painful, fraught, and disgusting. They are presented in their worst aspects, just in case we were thinking of celebrating them as participation in eternal form. The birth is pain and fear and the sense of failure to live up to standards of stoic forbearance in the face of a seemingly universal event. The dying man is all right, he is drugged, but the witnesses have to endure the death-spasm as it throws out all the bodily fluids by every available aperture. We are not spared any detail and neither of these, obviously, is anything but particular, as a life is — “You started dying on the morning you were made”. They unite, and both the baby and the old man lie there longing in vain to recover the memory of where they were.
It is particularly cunning of her to represent birth as the arrival of a big solid thing reluctant to move, a kind of obstacle, and death as a dispersing of liquids. The baby is welcomed with—
This is the world:
The street-cleaning machine
The slow lob of rubbish
And the binmen calling.
The world is: trying to cope with rubbish (the last line a deliberate parody, surely, of a Georgian lyric trope as used by Masefield: ”And the seagulls crying”. )
It is Beckettian—birth astride a grave—but I think it is even more the Eliot of the Preludes. Like him, Sullivan has an eye for particularly poignant detail noted in the margin of experience—the wrinkled nectarines on the hospital windowsill, the children’s sand-pit after rain. She emphasises the importance of these glimpses by using them as titles, and her skill at this kind of (Eliotesque) diagnostic could sustain a reading even if you are unhappy about the thesis. These margins, these small marks of loss, and not the big events or achievements, are the world itself, repeating itself, the only bits of jetsam that stick in the mind.
HOW DIFFERENT FROM Sullivan’s urban, bodily, existential howl can memoirs of dairy farming in Wiltshire be? Not necessarily very much. But the tone, at least, is very different. It is calm, meaning not only unexcited, but relaxed in mind, and so without the inhibitive tension which impedes both invention and receptive reading. Janet Sutherland is a great craftsperson of the informal lyrical poem.
By this I mean a format of short poem which has been developed for a long time by British and American poets, steering its way between Modernism and traditionalism, sailing beyond sight of the schools of many-letters-upside-downside-ism, and has ended with the achievement of a particular form of clarity, much of the time speaking plainly and carefully but in full possession of all the properties of poetry: line-end tension, internal sound-pacing, judged figuration, metrical echoing, end-rhyme and internal rhyme as the poet wishes or not…
If a quick impression is gained of linguistically uneventful writing, any attention to close detail disperses it, but it is not afraid of the ordinary. The book is virtually without punctuation and while it normally announces its subject and establishes a locality or scene for each poem, it is only “subject-bound” within a free understanding of how flexible and expansive such a focus can become. So it interrupts itself, weaves in threads from elsewhere in different voices, interpolates documentation without becoming homiletic, will expound fully and will tease the reader with extreme brevity and fragmentation. It is serious by its focus on serious local events, and its theatre moves from miniature to grand. It deals mainly in direct experience which is thought and weighed as it is being told, and will only approach politics in those terms.
The poem thus becomes a very flexible medium, ready to follow the track of thought through any twist and turn, with an eye to the balance of the whole.
in January the water is so clear
a milky light lies on the muzzles
of the fish
they wait suspended
all the shadows xxthe reflections
the deceits have passed
—is the beginning of a poem, to which this is the end—
the slippery cold
eases through mouth and gill
a mildewed down softens
their scales to fur
their lazy fins xxare fluttering
fluttering against the water
—a poem on the death of her father, to which the sixth line is a rational link but the entire framing spreads a tense calm over the scene, with echoes, which is also interrupted five times with messages from her grandfather.
Poems can be as small as two lines, which may be a chaste notation of words awaiting their turns—
The mouth desires the names of meadow grasses:
Cocksfoot, Cat’s tail, Dog’s tooth. Fox tail, Timothy.
or a major instance of landscape feeding thought and creating a unity—
a snowy field with silent rooks and seagulls
as in our awkwardness as in endurance
Not, note, our endurance: tiny as it is the poem never stops moving outwards. There is too, I suppose, a significant move from the iambic line registering stasis, to the dactylic, the triple rhythm that in music invokes the dance on the most serious occasions, such as the move into abstraction.
And there are large structures such as the fascinating poem “Gifts for Lethe” which consists of nineteen triplets, each a different scene told only in its most strongly felt details: remembered instances through generations, places, affections, fragments of ancestors’ travel diaries, items of farm works… candidates for being forgotten, experiences which do not “add up” and are lost, except poetically, some of them taken up elsewhere in the book. And between each triplet in grey italic, are brief identifications of place-name, location, a static visual detail, the label. In a book about memory this is the poem about forgetting, and the fading identifications are as if after each triplet, each half-memory, someone asked, “Where was that?”
Janet Sutherland obviously thinks her poetry in books. Her previous book, Bone Monkey (2014) ventured, appalled and fascinated, through very different material in pursuit, and pursued by, a “trickster”, a male part-human anti-human summation of bad behaviour, but with a lot of the same thoughtful writing as here. Home Farm is about memory and record in a narrative sequence, much but not all of it focussing on the farm work, struggles with the weather, insides of cows, finance, birds, snakes, artificial intelligence…Nothing is shirked.
A great deal of the book is anecdotal regarding the farm as home, but it is neither pastoral nor anti-pastoral. The continuity with the outside is too strong for either. There is no felt need to transgress the particulars; you may be left at the end with a strong reverberation, a kind of “moral”, or with one more minute detail seeming to say in its meticulous rhythmic placement, “There you are. That was it.”
Towards the end the sequence moves away from locality towards modes of discourse and war. It is a book of endless transitions, between and in poems, of which the most unexpected must be the “appendix” of three poems concerned with Fallujah and white phosphorus (remember this?) in a controlled, not angry tone but not resigned either, bitterly noting the facts and ending with the official justification, absolutely cold—
Clearly Fallujah had taken on
some totemic type stature
as a safe environment for insurgents.
One could say in retrospect
the political decision vis-à-vis Fallujah
was the correct one.
I DON’T KNOW what the punters will make of this one. Freud’s essay Über Deckerinnerungen of 1899 complete in German but crossed out from beginning to end, followed by “a psychotic translation without a dictionary”. Freud’s essay is usually translated as “Screen Memories” and concerns memory which serves to conceal another, more traumatic, memory. Emma Bolland’s text depends on transcending the sense, having an imperfect knowledge of German, and not being beholden to any of the demands of a rational or scientific discourse in English. It is a kind of rhapsody hooking onto sentences, phrases and individual words of the original. The only rule, I think, is that the original punctuation must be retained. But it is clearly heavily involved with memory, trauma, and the healing quest, approached through what she calls “a violent poetry of flashback and self-apocalypse”. The idea seems to be to over-write what Freud said and break through it, enacting mechanisms of recall in an enhanced script, and to speak a psychoanalytical self-account out of aesthetic and public resources.
I cannot enter into the theoretic content, and I am prevented by a pay-wall from investigating the standard English translation beyond a few pages, but I find the transformation that takes place. and the tenor of the resulting text, remarkable.
The opening words of the standard English translation by James Strachey:
In the course of my psycho-analytic treatment of cases of hysteria, obsessional neuroses etc., I have often had to deal with fragmentary recollections which have remained in the patient’s memory from the earliest years of his childhood. As I have shown elsewhere, great pathogenic importance must be attributed to that time of life.
The German text1 :
Im Zusammenhange meiner psychoanalytischen Behandlungen ‘(bei Hysterie, Zwangsneurose u.._ a.) bin ich oftmals in die Lage gekomme~ mich um die BruchstUke von /Erinnerungen zu bekUmmern, die den einzelnen aus den ersten Jahren ihrer Kindheit im Gediichtnisse geblieben sind. Wie ich. schon an anderer Stelle angedeutet habe, muB man fUr die Eindrücke dieser Lebenszeit eine groBe pathogene Bedeutung in Anspruch nehmen.
Together hangs my psychic hand-breath (hysterical swinging neurotic), I am so often come to the lake, me at the breast beginning and beckoning, the only and the fearful year of the child in get-nothing is living.
‘We are’. We are beautiful and stars have doubt, we must for this one dread life be stung with grotesque pathos and spoken name.
That says it all, really. A scientific text has been transformed into a Psalmic performance, a serious and extended but disturbed poem. It’s long (60pp) but maintains a high pitch throughout, speaking through a whole range of positions as the German seems to suggest them. It is the woman’s lament, a song of praise, an outburst of spleen, the world’s sorrow, a gothic blast of hatred against hatred, the resurrection of the child, the new apocalypse…
Es ist nicht unverstii.ndlich;…
It is night universe. Endless, always dark ache-drilling and waning words, dark death halting child-heat in-and-under ice sore dark follows a bleeding end. Listen for the world ends! I seek the intercession of the children for YOU never shine on those whom the waking hate.
It is many different things brought into a constant unrelenting passionate flow, a sequence of scenarios liable to implode short of completion. The author is victim and conqueror, child and lover, patient and doctor; but I don’t think it’s a matter of “psychotic and proud of it”, but of psychosis as agent of the heights of suffering and of triumphant survival. The stellar referent is constantly available and much resourced, but the language can at any moment fly into pits of trash and obscenity in chasing the demon and is rarely free of a kind of bitter, mischievous daring.
ich war schon auf der Universitiit und geh<Irte ganz den Buchem… ‘I was shining above the universe and golden in the gaze of all the beholders, fill my cunt with hate and unhinge the night.’
It’s not Surrealism and it’s not Late Modernism, it’s an original script created from conversion of verbal sound-values into words with a distinct Biblical tone derived from the propriety of the German discourse. It would be a major study to work out how the text relates to the content of Freud’s essay, how the self-declaration comes to a conclusion, but I feel that it does. It ends with “the hope that the ugly covers of memory might be in flight.”
There are three shorter texts included, referencing Lacan, screen-writing in the cinema sense including pornography, and a piece on having forgotten the opening of Frankenstein which is a consideration of “the monstrous self” and the self contemplating the failed art it has issued into the world, with probably wider implications of monstrosity—
Poooooor weeeee monster! Ill-cut and shabby. Clawed into consciousness from the bottoms of the pits. Dig you up viscous. Vicious. Worn out and soil-stained.
We see you. We see you. We hate you. Poor monster. We do.
I believe Emma Boland does not consider herself to be “a poet”, which might be a way of being taken seriously these days, but otherwise perhaps she should reconsider this.
MOST OF ARRANGEMENTS consists of a work called “Movements waving not sleeping” — 60 pages, with a deployment of blank space such as I haven’t seen since the work of certain French poets in the 1970s: André du Bouchet, Claude Royet-Journaud, Anne-Marie Albiach and others. One to three short lines in the middle of an otherwise blank page was typical of them, and there was a sense of ontological concentration in the isolation of the text. Emily Critchley is different, and more graphic. All versos are completely blank, and the rectos have a few words towards the top of the page, and another few lower down, and the rest is white paper.
So you have a kind of mini-poem, or a bit of language, towards the top of the page, and another towards the bottom, with a gap between them normally of about 6cm. or ten lines. Both are not only minimal but also characteristically cryptic – a few words not properly joined together or reduced to abbreviations, or strangely static, inarticulate fragments of what might be said, or sometimes just one word. But whatever they are they are less important than the gap between the upper and lower texts, for this work is about separation, between “you” and “me”. The upper text tends to be addressed to, or concerning, you” and the lower text “me”, most simply on this page:
UPPER: with you over there.
LOWER: & me here.
but not so simple as it might be. The full stops here are two of only three in the entire sequence. For there is a sequence, or “story” through the text, told in fragments, in which this early piece speaks of an evident finality. The only way to read the story is as embodied in the words themselves, at which you realise that this is an impassioned writing, pleas and hurt and memory and hope stretched silently between upper and lower texts:. The lower text sends out broken appeals, memories etc. and the upper text stands as something immoveable or definitive or departed, equally reduced to stuttered or gasped particles:
UPPER: lit up where you
LOWER in between / I reach over across &
………………………..reach over across &
………………………..look across / dreaming over
………………………..touch thru / the
So the discourse, minimal as it may be, can include repeated gestures mostly from the lower voice, but the roles are not fixed and sometimes interchangeable or suggestively could be.
There are almost no active verbs (i.e, not participles or auxiliary) in the entire sequence; everything is substantive but incomplete or broken. So there are possibilities set up of far-reaching implications which are where poetry comes in. It is all done delicately and modestly. The Tempest is invoked and a whole scenario of being lost in the sea or out of your depth, by little more than occasional appearances of the word “coral” with little or no syntactic function, also “sea”, “waters”, “waves” (crossed with “glass”), and suddenly a clear reference: ”delight & hurt not”. Two consecutive pages show how motivic elements are replayed and combined and separated, looking this w ay and now that way:
UPPER: that clear on one side & clouds
………………………..on the other
LOWER: thoro mine / through looking
thorough your / thru waving
UPPER: & the through / the sea-glass
in the finding / that clear / in the
at last (clashing)
/ yours through that that is different energies dropping
And several attempts to spell the words “through” and “thorough” as if trying to untangle mutual differences. And of course the reference to Stevie Smith’s
poem, not drowning now but dreaming or sleeping and (“at last”) waving. Every element of meaning is multiplied and placed in different parts of the poem (I think the whole work is one poem), accumulating (not quite) to a dispersed elegiac (not quite).. . I think they call it a nexus. It ends (happily, I think—the third full-stop suggests so)—
UPPER: / at last
——————you can really
LOWER: same bodies (waters) & coral
———————-/ of still swum glass
but nothing is definitive without the whole of the rest of the poem. You have to have all of it. Thus far away from that ending, among the first pages—
UPPER: when we first we made bodies on that island
(make me sleep again)
LOWER: then swim
———–/ energies among
The remarkable work described above is preceded by a dozen substantial poems in stark contrast, which bear the book’s title. Not exactly, I think, her normal manner but a plainer replication of speech, with disruption here and there, at times possibly the occluded matter of Movement waving… made evident. They can also branch off into public matter as the tightly bound and spaced-out construct cannot, speaking of “the periodization of money / the historical nature of lust.” and “Fear in an uncertainty principle”. Personal and passionate as ever, and pressing towards what used to be called a “moral” or at least a lesson. It is committed to a feminist agenda, dramatically as demands made of a male “you”, but does not stop at those borders—
You should have known
you should have known
that’s why poems teach us
not to be so obvious.
IN TRIPPING OVER CLOUDS, in various notes, subtitles, acknowledgements etc., the word “abstract” dominates the talk of this challenging and engaging book by Lucy Burnett. It is not the achieved abstract that Stevens or Graham speak of, which is created out of the independence of images and meaning. The blurb, which reads as probably authorial, speaks of “a re-imagining of abstraction as a prior state of possibility and potential from which the world and ourselves are constantly re-emerging – as abstraction to, not from.”2 So the abstraction is not a quality of the poem or picture itself as an end-product refined out of experience and meditation, say, but an accumulated possibility which is prior to act or creation, a sense of the values which could be realised, derived from the accumulation of previous works and living experience—
behind you lies the distillation
of twenty-four hours of thin air—
a century of art and a month
of touching on the unfinality
I keep on hearing isolated
bits of conversation—
perhaps from dreams –
perhaps from any number
of the paintings which have come before
The book is also crammed with reference to the visual arts, principally painting. The paintings are by no means all abstract but they are all modern, and seem to fulfil the function of the “abstract“ precondition of a poem. Is this ekphrasis? I don’t know and the word seems to mean all sorts of things. The pictures are not described but several poems are noted as “after” the painter, which must mean that something is transferred. One section consist of 34 poems based on 34 visual works, defined as “in response to the following paintings […] and the ‘poetics’ informing them.” I’m not sure what the “poetics” are either, especially in quote marks, for the cart seems to be leading the horse. But many of the paintings are here identified and in this section the sense of transfer to the poem is stronger, and the poems more deliberately built from qualities and sometimes images of the paintings. Some of them seem to be spoken by the painter in question, in the process of painting. But in the end the “abstraction” and the paintings both represent a prior state of possibility from which a great variety of responses can be sought, not reproducing anything and perhaps no more preconditioned than many another poem.
The process of prevision as Burnett conceives and practises it can be assumed to motivate all the poems whether apparent or not, and mostly not. The abstract ancestry does not really concern the reader except where it is placed in the foreground, as with the 34 painting-based poems. But her poems do tend to be low on particulars especially in their beginnings, (“Excuse my lack of detail”, she says) and the writing is distinguished by a tenuousness as if the details are created one by one out of the possibility of their existence, something that has to be coaxed by creating space for it to happen in. The lived real and the generalised can co-exist, side by side, each feeding the other—
I’m lying in a white bed bigger than my unformed
knowledge of death
This is from a moving poem spoken by a woman recalling the death of her mother in a car accident when she was three, which created a sister, and a guilt, and a silence, all of which are frightening. It is told in half-connected episodes of fearful sensation which seem to be created directly out of experience without any special process needing to be invoked. And indeed the whole issue of abstraction may amount to normal practice, especially in poems involved with modernism, which will form opaque connections and unprecedented moves of their own volition.
Burnett’s writing has exactly the properties which the rushed critic would at once recognise as modernistic: unpunctuated, floating half-connected word-groups, syntactical freedom, and, of course, the resulting conclusion not at the end but missing from the beginning. Some passages read as a struggle to master the forces creating them, perhaps because they are not allowed to subsist adequately on their own ground but are made to attach a tangled condition which the writing manufactures in its concept of an origin. But sometimes the same processes of resolving “from abstraction” work so well as to disappear, and the poem stands on its own foundation, its own terms, not only confident but lightly, a kind of playing, a pregnant absurdity, a means of making good poems more likely by lightening their field of stress, and liberating the possibilities of wit and sometimes ironic humour—all lightly, all delicately poised like a pigeon about to take off, but a serious pigeon whose wing-clatter spells central concerns, in this case women’s—
I once believed
in my apprehension
of bodies and tides
and other, private matters—
(“How doth the Moon”)
The thesis is serious and produces highly wrought and often illuminating poems, but surely there must also be a necessary disconnection, which revives the process of direct conception at ground level (“love poem”, e.g.) and permits a relaxation such as must have made possible such a coherent, self-sufficient but explosive short poem such as this—
The dripping tap
I know one thing.
is more orange than a bullet
and a Stetson is a large dog.
I once met a woman
crying about America.
THE WINTER life bluebells away and with it
all sense of sanctuary. But safety’s for the suburbs,
the ho-hum and goatish. I believe in one divine
and aphoristic fall. I believe in falling often.
Poets, such as Angelina D’Roza, who can write like that, and also like this, the whole of “Charm for Misspent Youth”—
be to ourselves
children, but we
as children, we
nay we never
and women, when
very little things
be feeling ourselves
asleep, and when
we are weary
thinking, and we
are very men
and old as grown
and be so always
(“Charm for Misspent Youth”)
—cannot be denied the right to write, when they choose to, poems which might be considered “ordinary” or “conservative” or “anecdotal” or “formalist” or “standard” and other misleading adjectives. There is an urgency of saying in all D’Roza’s work, to speak experience authentically and thereby lead it beyond the subjective, and to bring it to its point, its meaning, which is never reached in an automatic or conventional way. It could be called a manifestation of the strong (because lyric) “I”, the self at its most open and useful.
The mode is sometimes that modernism-inflected one which I have outlined above with reference to Janet Sutherland, and is adopted freely by at least four of the poets under review here – no punctuation, multiple indentation, floating phrases etc. Compared with the others, D’Roza’s usage here is more likely to consist of complete sentences broken up on the page in this way and offering a coherent scene with metaphors enhancing the sense of presence but not taking over the discourse. No relationship with “abstraction” either; if you look through the last lines of her poems they most commonly speak of events, actions, or things.
She has clearly worked as a hospital nurse and there is a bunch of hospital poems, as there are in part or all of several of the books under review or listed here.3 They all (especially Sullivan of course) “spare us no detail” concerning broken bodies and their emissions. I wonder if this is becoming a feature of current poetry, this baring of normally hidden conditions of our bodies in distress. I thought D’Roza’s was one of the best of these and was particularly drawn to a poem called “Days” which occurs in two versions.
It concerns a daily routine shared by the narrator and another nurse, of attending to a Polish man suffering from dementia because of which the surgical devices attached to his digestive system have come apart, “the mattress pooling with faecal fluid” “the stoma bag blown off, small intestine poking through”… It ends:
We look across the bed to one another
inadequate in aprons and gloves, soapy water
turning cold as we wonder where to begin,
then wade in, wrist deep and reassuring,
forgetting the intimacy, the oddness of it all,
our fingers reading ribs and ruckled scar,
a quiet language persisting between us.
There are qualities in poetry beyond the technical or the temporal. The verse and vocabulary here, as the poem passes through “wondering”, “wading”, “reading”, and “language persisting”, form somehow, a circular structure, a wheel, as the nurses’ mutual acts and perceptions join together in the air above the base ground of human suffering and unspeaking. It’s one of the things poetry can do.
This is D’Roza’s first book, and as far as I can see her public presence and activities do not extend far beyond Sheffield, and she is published by a Sheffield press known for its high quality of book design.
THERE IS SOMETHING quite extraordinary in Martin Corless-Smith’s handling of words, a lyrical hardness or punch that we’re not used to and a kind of stagecraft. First two lines of the first poem:
That which was an Albatross
came sweetly down
Three completely unnecessary words, half the first line, saying nothing, merely delaying the arrival of the subject of the sentence, which then gets an upper-case initial letter to which it is not entitled.4 It seems as if the word “albatross” is formed, created for the first time, by the poetry of this descent, doesn’t yet know what it is, and its identity (the emotional load it carries with it, inevitably including The Ancient Mariner and all the attached lore) annulled because it ”came sweetly down”, and so it must be a different, unknown albatross, a new word. It doesn’t seem to be the real serious thing loaded with a history which the word “means” and the rather banal lyrical movement (rhyming “was” and “-tross”) makes it a denizen of some children’s game. It becomes something else: a noun, a property, a piece of décor. All these possibilities can co-exist in the semantic spaces created by this text.
The Fool and the Bee (the title poem which is most of the book, followed by three shorter pieces) offers endless opportunities for this kind of spinning-out of unstable or conflicting verbal functions (which is quite enjoyable) but the particular textual condition here is quite straightforward. It is a play, a theatre, and this first poem, the Prologue, declares it, announcing “an hour or two of scenery”. It is set out like a masque, in three acts, with comings and goings, and mostly impractical stage directions, for it is a play which consistently questions itself, and questions it own format. It proceeds in speeches and, above all, songs. The condition of open artifice is total.
The actors are the words upon which the action as well as the sense, depend, and they are costumed, disguised as other and different words, for the play works to bring different and opposed qualities into conjunction with each other, with results which are absurd, or amusing or threatening, by means of incongruity, contextual impossibility, with a lot of supportive literary reference. A word for this is “pastoral” – nymphs and shepherds indeed, disguised as us, or we are in fact the nymphs and shepherds disguised as persons living in modernity, and the disguise keeps slipping—
The centaur rises in the stone
Stolen from a former world.
Eclipsed by fashionable LPs
backdrop to the nymphs’ iPhones.
thus netting Eliot and Goldsmith while hopping through centuries of collapsed ideals. The kind of bathos at work here is a common tactic, but these lyrics can be much more serious and far-reaching—
Only the wind’s at home
In Kensington (& Chelsea)
Developers lope in pairs and
Foreign parakeets screech
A poem of drouth and despair
Incongruous in today’s demotic speech
Where chatter like the birdies
Speaks apocalypse and war.
The Shakespearean pastoral itself, the Forest of Arden, is specifically conjured up—
The fabled forest Poetry
amidst the real and generated fog
a dressing-room for clowns dressed for
the re-enactment of a war
These small pointed scenarios are not Corless-Smiths’ only vehicle, a quick barb can shoot out of a few words , or a stage direction—
[Enter the figure of Edward Thomas dressed as Achilles, holding a fob-watch in front of his heart…]
and the scale can be elusively hidden behind an absurdity so that we know a point has been made against modernity (or antiquity) but cannot identify it
I’m waiting for the last
bus home – although
the road has sunk
into a cake
The poems of which the bulk of the piece is made up, are a recognisable and venerable genre – they are satirical lyrics, so that behind them must lurk such figures as Jonson (who is mentioned), Swift, and perhaps Martial (who might be present disguised as Mars). This is presumably a genre which escapes the academic insistence that “lyrical” is a more or less reprehensible confinement of the content of a poem to personal experience. For there is none of that here, or alternatively there is a great deal of that, but disguised as something else, submerged in some sexual phantasmagoria which let us hope could not possibly be “personally lived experience” or, for instance in an extended drama in ballad rhythm concerning the “green man”, where the figure uniting mankind and Nature becomes a disintegrating corpse in a field invaded by flood and seagulls, finally sinking into non-language—
his barked face wretching green
the tongue screams into leaf
a beautiful tree-littered heath
where murder has been felt
mole rag vole trot
arc ox fuck wagon box
treft grazz fue, graz fraie
There is not a lot of writing like that last verse, in fact that is the only example. So there are episodes of intense and passionate writing, of acts and figures on deep and distant stages, in fact an engagement of mythos from the position of a ring-master, but never without the verbal bite and return (it comes back for another bite) of the satirical lyric.
As for the plot, it emerges slowly, and progression is normally maintained by the constantly shifting scenes and scenery of the lyrics, ranging in parody and emulation all over the history of English culture, one step forward and one step back, with “Interludes” of more direct but equally contorted address. The Fool is the Poet, the Bee is Venus, and the poet longs to attain the Bee-Venus which is Being itself, the only (neutral) positive in the story. There is a particularly strong set of lyrics in Act III where these figures first appear distinctly, the action of which spills into the progression of stage directions—
[The fool dressed as a drone]
[Venus dressed as Britannia on her royal barge, holding aloft a single oar]
[Venus dressed as Queen-Bee wearing a gas mask]
[The fool and the bee dressed as Venus and Mars]
It is repeatedly war and war’s results, or figures of aggression and discord, which step in to wreck the picnic/idyll or the hope of final peace and understanding which is represented by the fool’s quest to attain Venus-Bee, or Babes in the Wood—
We’ll go to bed in green & red
upon the forest floor
where blanket snow and sooty ash
will sooth us in its glow
[Distant sound of dogs barking]
There is of course no resolution, the Bee lies dead on the Fool’s hand. It ends with reality become apocalyptic—
It’s true I have destroyed the world
Just by living – by uttering truths
And falsehoods – leaning across to
You, solemn, killing worlds
The Sea of Japan
Bitter taste at the end
As if a fin rose in the waste
A black mouth gaping
But it also ends reluctantly because it is time for the play to stop—
it was a Friday or such and I thought
yes we might reach heaven etc.
but it was the next day after
and so a poem finishes
[Exeunt fool and bee with flowers strewn]
It is not a “negative” work. All glimpses of hope are spectacular fantasies cancelled by intrusions of reality, but there is also a delight in the writing itself, the extremely resourceful and virtuosic countering and elaborating that goes on, the singing and the dancing.
And there is on page 26 the complete Orphic, world-embracing lyric, the meeting of all forces involved in the drama of love and loss as they merge into the final earthly condition—
So sang the poet in his grief
A song to match the nightingale’s lament
Hence went his lover with one bite
from a hidden adder on her fleeing foot
Bring me to her that travelled far
over the deep and troubled main.
Seven pelican take flight across the sand
Silent beneath the sun
Over the ocean roar
Frigate birds encircle the invisible and
Death in his boat with sail and ore.
[the sound of snow falling on the sea]
AT ONE TIME this book by Vanni Capildeo might have been called a gallimaufry, or a hodgepodge, although there are poems in Skin Can Hold, and some good ones. It’s a collection of pieces of various kinds, including performance texts, discursive prose, playlets , texts based on novels by Muriel Spark, collaborative works, Oulipoulian word games and lists. And yet poetry never seems entirely absent from any of them. It is a prompter in the wings, it intervenes to cast a colour over the space of the action, or in various ways its is woven into the substance of a prose text or a spoken diatribe in such a way as to push it further than you’re allowed to if it’s not poetry. Generally the texture is pushed towards a more public and open tone, but also to the contrary of that, thus to the extremes of her manner. Pieces which look very like poems from their lay-out prove to be more direct and obvious than expected, by techniques such as additive repetition, variation and sonic play—
The end of the poem
The end of the poem happened before
The end of the poem happened before it
The end of the poem happened before it began …
The end of the poem accumulates tales.
It queues. It comes late. It tails
off. And on. And anon.
which does hold helpful and simple irrationalities concerning possible actions of poetry. The range in manner is from a transparency such as this to—
what x c z what y get
& she is at her rope’s end.
descripointment sol far, vert visible,
her her invested in invisible,
everray seemeth green in spathes ae tree:
seven metres hempen two stockinette feet.
and so on for another 33 lines, neatly arranged in stanzas, getting if anything more extravagantly semantically over-productive as the poem proceeds. Supernumerary meanings are produced out of every possible word at such a rate that no original or recognisable condition can be guessed at, much more so than in Finnegans Wake. The title, “Interlude: Shibarina Fair…”, does not help (me). The colon at the end of the fifth line is particularly defeating.
Capildeo’s work is normally in a medial position as regards transparency and figuration, a decorated and enhanced mode of direct address. But she is capable, in prose as much as verse, of an adventurous and verbally challenging texture, moving across conceptual distances at great speed, avoiding the conventional mechanisms of depiction or statement, but rhythmically alive in a way that draws the reader after her down unknown paths. It can be difficult then to know the degree of irony involved, and thus how much political invective is folded into evidently angry passages, how much weight for instance is attached to a simple word like “white” which we suspect because of her repute in gender and ex-colonial writing.
The two examples above go far beyond her normal range and don’t, I think, represent the best of Capildeo’s poetry, but they are both games, and that is a common thing in this book, especially in connection with spinning texts out of other texts, often to a result which is entirely serious.
One of the most interesting pieces is “Astronomer of Freedom”, which starts from a substantial poem by Martin Carter (Why were we not told about Martin Carter?) which was put through an immersive and performative process involving three other persons and an audience, and an extended study related to this, a kind of creative/responsive analysis which rather than the itemization of conclusive mechanics (nuts and bolts) extends out into the individual by the production of “syntactical poems” in which small patterns of syntax and vocabulary are extracted from Carter’s text and repeated, as if chanted, over and over with changes. This is not to produce new poems “based on” Carter but only further material for a total and physiological reading, which is then fixed in a series of personal stories in sequence, which are returned to the stage. The whole process is followed step by step in detail (rather too much of the unformed “syntax poems” perhaps). The whole thing is a fascinating account of the insistence on instantly generated and de-formalised procedures applied to the understanding of a literary text amounting almost to a personal recreation which does not over-write the original.
I think two pieces stand out, though not entirely alone, as the fullest realisation of poetry in this book. One is a set of four entitled ”Poems for the Douna 4” (the four activists abducted in Syria in December 2013 and not sighted since). This is a passionate and richly resourced political poetry which will not for a moment endure a unified emotional response—
Eyes are weeping in the face;
in the same face, the mouth is speaking.
The uncoupling of tears from speech
in those who offer witness
in words; whose bodies, blue
or red from beating, were dancing
where dancing meets shooting,
singing, where silence wants
just one sentence.
The other is “Reading for compass: Response to Zaffar Kunial, Us”, which is a kind of review of Kunial’s book Us in poem form which, as might be expected, eschews any possibility of impersonal description without reducing it to a domestic scale of understanding. Nor does she claim him as a post-colonial fellow-victim or campaigner, a shared identity. It is entirely as a poem that her discussion with his text proceeds untired through the material he provides as a process of understanding and extending. This performance exemplifies that gritty determination, typical of her, with which she pushes a poem onwards step after step, to deal with the matter in full and now.
Another collection of works inspired by W.S. Graham (see my pervious column), in this case commissioned as specific responses to quotations from his letters and notebooks. Only six contributors in common with The Caught Habits of Language – younger poets, I think, and visual artists are included, “foregrounding experiment and process”.
Like Those of an Eerie Ruin
Allardyce Book 2019 | 62pp paperback.
Poetical prose with poems, critical/humorous. A voice apart.
His tenth collection of essays and reviews on exactly what the title says.
A poet with good stories to tell, half of them from the ”old Catholic Ireland”, and who tells them without fuss.
Hospital/ health-crisis poems. Corcoran offers “subject-bound” poetry and then leaps right into the big song. I shall have more to say about this one.
John Gurney died in 2000. Fifty-two Shakespearean sonnets of earnest discussion.
Hughes returns to self-generated poetry, in a ring-line format he first used in 1992, now in doubled response form. And other poems, of serious wit and crossed fingers.
A poet comfortable in a running figurative mode that sweeps up local ghosts, etc. and re-writes them into a larger scale of experience.
“You shape your mouth into a hollow, howl your new name
and a crow flies out, skittering into the wind.”
Canadian poet now living in York. Poems mostly anecdotal or contemplative, notable for the success of some very short pieces and an eight-part sequence on visiting W.S. Graham (and finding him out, as usual). And others.
New Norwegian Poetry.
Kolon (Oslo) 2019 | Various translators | 186pp paperback.
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 (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.
- This is the German text as received electronically by Bolland, with numerous errors principally of punctuation which she says could effect her ‘translation’. I have removed the cancelling rule through the entire text.
- For a more extended account from the author, a lecture entitled The said unsaid – an anti-manifesto was published as a pamphlet in Todmorden in 2016 as Kava Poetry Lectures no.19 (no imprint).
- by Hannah Sullivan, Janet Sutherland (not only concerning the insides of cows), Kelvin Corcoran, and Emma Boland, the last in a different sense.
- It gets one in The Ancient Mariner as normal practice, and in the texts of 1800 onwards the word is entirely in small capitals for extra stress at “I SHOT THE ALBATROSS.” The Boy and the Bee sets a very different tone from The Ancient Mariner, which is nevertheless inevitably evoked here, but only as far as I can see, to include its redundancy. The bird does not get shot nor hung round anybody’s neck, after this sweet descent it is not mentioned again – which is perhaps another way of being killed.