With SHORT REVIEWS and BOOKS LISTED.
By Peter Riley.
In Nearby Bushes.
Carcanet 2019 | 80pp paperback | £7.19, $14.99
Peepal Tree Press 2018 | 140pp paperback | £9.99 $15.79
illustrations by A.H | 84pp paperback | Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2019 | £14.00 $18.00
Telescope: selected poems.
New York Review Books 2019 | 292pp paperback | £9.35 $13.86
The Revisionist and The Astropastorals: collected poems.
Introduction by Mark Ford | Carcanet 2019 | 128pp paperback | £12.99 $23.51
IN HIS NEW book Kei Miller realizes out of poetry and hard fact an entire elsewhere, a zone which lies beyond familiarity and order, beyond ownership, a dangerous zone, a fear-zone, a zone of licence and crime where “our deaths blossom like roses in the dark garden behind the house.” All his notations of this territory embrace contradiction. But the principal location which becomes more and more distinct and focussed as the book progresses towards its end, is the area of bushes on either side of Jamaican country roads at night and the murders and rapes they facilitate. The “nearby bushes” are the edge of another island, an anti-Jamaica, or the real one to which normality is a negative.
It is here that the male predator lurks ready to leap out to accomplish his crime, and pulls his victim through the roadside bushes into the dark zone to be raped and/or killed, and where he can dispose of the body in a shallow grave. The victims are mostly women (“Cause women is disposable as that, / and this thing that has happened is common, /common as stone and leaf and breadfruit tree.”) But this is also the place where the homosexual boy goes out to encounter “married men [who] roam at night their trousers unzipped” and where, “ordered to leave his community”, he must go through the bushes because “if mi did take the road dem woulda kill me!” It is also a place for the dumping of rubbish, dead cows and derelict cars, and the growing of flowers both wild and cultivated. It is unmapped and unnamed, a place “where language dissolves”, a “placeless place”.
The whole course of the book slowly homes in on one murder which is the matter of the last of its three sections. The multiple significance of the zone-beyond, of which the above are just some of the pickings, is established in the first section, entitled “Here”, and consisting of twelve poems, of which nine begin with the word “Here…” The elsewhere is defined in relation to a concept of place as geographical and behavioural, emotionally as a place in which to feel estranged, where natural process is in charge, where we feel separated from reliable understanding of process, and shadowed by death (“Here that is not holy ground / but just a hole in the ground”). He is not yet willing to call it a non-place. But these lyrical and often ironical pieces are preceded by ten short newspaper reports of the crimes, all ending with reference to “the nearby bushes”, quoted all over the front cover, and a list of 24 of them by victims’ names and ages, dated from 2007 to 2019, but only the first four predating 2016, “and this is just some of them”. So they are indeed common, and apparently on the increase. These cold facts preface the whole work; they lurk behind the entire scope of the poetry and colour its implications, like crimes waiting to happen. Whatever meditations or accounts enlarge the sense of that outside-world towards the ubiquitous, it remains local and it remains deadly.
The “here” which these poems define is anywhere between the roadside bushes and Jamaica itself, and anywhere else that qualifies, all under the aspect of the ambiguous exterior: the threatening zone which is also the “place that was here before” which is prior to all the enclosures and all the estate and all the concrete. It is also “the place where blossoms the night”, offering escape from the reciprocal dangers of a rationally conceived and visible landscape. Each poem sights a significant objective which is woven in an emotionally ambiguous contemplation into the pattern of the whole, a mutual focussing between large and small, a tremor of fear in the far hills, and the island country permanently disturbed by its history of appropriation. The deer, for example, flourish, from six introduced in 1988 to about 6,000 now and they flourish because they broke through the nearby bushes and fled to the hills. The crocodiles, on the other hand, were trapped in the interior darkness and decimated. The poem pleads to the development-defying deer that emerge to feed at night and are only recognised by their sounds, their domain delicately abrading against the criminal bushes—
It is easier to hear the deer whose sounds are like doors on old hinges. At nights, listen, the landscape is creaking as if these bushes open themselves to drunk men just now stumbling home […] … we do not see well, but we sense you are here, with us in this strange, strange land. Will you come now to the river? Will you teach us King Alpha’s1 song, & how to survive Babylon – how to belong where we do not belong.
For all the local particularities of the book, the “we” here is surely not restricted historically or racially. The terms of the plea are in the end too open, their tension manifestly accessible to whoever acknowledges it.
This first section is the only one to consist almost entirely of lineated poetry. The next two are dominantly prose, with some occasional ambiguity between unjustified prose and verse. The poems become more concerned with things felt personally, I think, and more elemental – night, pre-settlement landscape, deer, flowers, stories, world… And a sense of loss is felt and confronted, more than a judicial complaint.
THE SECOND SECTION, “Sometimes I Consider the Names of Places”, subtitled ”10-Micro-Essays” is the most “Post-Colonial” section, dealing meticulously with appropriation of the land and people, and the smart left behind, in interventions which have attempted to replicate places on the other side of the earth through language and names (“New England, as if one England were not enough…”), thus erasing what was there before, but replacing it only with a simulacrum, creating nameless places, non-places, negative distances between places that are recognised, necessary or important: the melancholy of empty motorways at night, haunted places.2 The ghosts include Ian Fleming. This section is a lament for what is destroyed in modernity, but without cultural nostalgia. It is a considered complaint, citing its agents and its victims, coolly delineated, as a process too late and too vast to be countered. And as often with Miller there is a discernible if thin stratum of gladness in the most critical writing
Because isn’t place always a violence – the decimation of trees, the genocide of bees, the dislocation of birds, the cutting, the clearing, the paving, the smoothing, the raising up of cement like giant tombstones over the grave of all that was before.
The roadside bushes don’t come into this section at all, except by implication, which is made specific in the last piece. To consider the roadside bushes and what lies behind them is to consider all these larger instances in one, “the nonspecific ‘here’ – a here that could be everywhere, or maybe nowhere.” This quite simple and familiar (in any code) wish to conceive of greatest and smallest, absent and present, close and distant, in one, leads us into the final section and its one victim.
Part 3, “In Nearby Bushes” begins with the most extraordinary and original device. A short newspaper item (about 150 words) concerning the discovery of the decomposing body of a missing 20-year-old woman “in nearby bushes” is printed normally, then repeated four times printed in grey, with some words and letters picked out in black, successively fewer of them. As you read the black print out of the grey you get firstly a brief summary of the report in 34 words, secondly a kind of faltering memory of the report lacking in detail, in 29 words. The third piece offers only some twelve letters and the two final words, giving, “Here where is the nearby bushes”. What is happening is that the woman is being forgotten, her body sinking into the earth and dissolving, her whole being distanced in time, until only the bushes remain, and this is felt in the increasing difficulty the reader has in interpreting this remnant script, searching for darker letters that spell something in this unreadable papyrus. Finally in the fourth printing only isolated letters are black, from which I get, “Here, where blossoms the n ght” which is (amended)3 the title and last line of the fourth poem in the book, which speaks of the fecundity of the area of bushes in producing wild flowers, herbs and spices, and other things both harmful and beneficial, “the landscape like a wreath laid against itself”.
The rest of the last section is a particularly rich set of prose-poems concerning the Jamaican experience, with the human experience always hovering behind it, always riven by the vast elsewhere pressing against its structure, in which the death and the body of that one unnamed woman are never forgotten. Cars dumped in the bushes, American-style thugs, earthquakes… The corpse, or what is left of it, is addressed as if it were sensate – “This is the coming of the johncrow, the johncrow that lands on your broken head just so. / These are her pink feet against your cheek. A soft, weak thing like the head of a child. It surprises you….” (That “just so” is the kind of seemingly casual sensate realisation that Miller is so good at; two words appended which add nothing to the sense but engage the reader’s participation fully as well as gently.) All the conditions are referred back to the murdered woman and gently explained to her, and the entire sense of place confronted with its negation rests on this one death. It is like singing a requiem mass over her.
A “POETIC STORY-teller” as the blurb says: life, crimes, deaths, festivities, hurricanes, love and prostitution in Puerto Rico and some other places; a few fictive but mostly ringing with authenticity — a true contemporary narrative verse. A lot could be said about Loretta Collins Klobah’s collection of intelligent and substantial poems in terms of content, stance, imaginative realisation… But what primarily grabbed me was, in various contexts, her ability to stage a sustained rhythmic impetus with a great resource of vocabulary, sometimes like a waterfall of excited images tumbling down the page —
brittle shingles of emerald-ice waterglass —
lime-green, blue-green, mossy teal-green,
wispy iridescent shards of the virgin’s leaf bonnet –
each chip filled with lantern-light
that frames her milky oval face, glazed red lips,
turquoise-shadowed eyelids, obsidian eyes
of la gitana, outlined with black Egyptian kohl
like one of Ziegfeld’s dancing girls.
What this describes will be revealed to those who buy the book.
COLLABORATIVELY WRITTEN POETRY in the modern tradition is normally an occasional indulgence, issued from a socially intact grouping of poets (they all know each other), able to feel that they command a distinctive common technique and a language use separated from the normal, not only by unorthodoxy but also by a ludic freedom. So it was practised by the French Surrealists but rather more by the Dadaists, and by the so-called “New York School” but rather more by the “Second New York School”, where poets such as Ted Berrigan. Ron Padgett, Joe Brainard, Anne Waldman, Tom Clark and others, under license from their New York predecessors, collaborated left, right and centre, facilitated by a shared aesthetic by which poetry could be anything except poetry and, it could be said, quite aggressively stuck out its tongue at any trace of formal, subjective or politically aroused writing, or any kind of intensity. Poetry was declared mainly fun.
Winterreisen, by Alan Halsey and Kelvin Corcoran, is in many ways the contrary to this and relates to the history of collaborative verse-making only by its abundance of humour, but it is a verbal humour serving a serious satirical purpose. Like most collaborative writing it belongs with the more genial side of the “experimental” (normally “innovative” now) and reveals how the best of this category offers both a serious engagement with the conditions, and entertainment value, and I begin to think that in some way these go together, that a lot of the much bemoaned “difficulty” and “inaccessibility” is meant as, or can be taken as, comedy. Alan Halsey is a poet to consider in this way, as is his partner Geraldine Monk, who was not, I believe, entirely unknown at one time to the stand-up stage, and whose perfectly engaged poetry has been known, in performance, to have audiences in fits. Another, whose contra-sensical lines are often strongly involved with humour is Tim Allen4. There is also Michael Haslam, who is not an experimentalist, but is known for a musical, sound-led poetry with deep perception of the complexities of person, place and the spoken dialect, which can be tough going at times in the quest for “sense” until you recognise the principal of enjoyment which informs almost every move. He has been known to say5 “I’m happy for my poetry to be nonsense, as long as it is enjoyable nonsense”. What all this amounts to, is a sense of delight in the freedom of verbal manoeuvring across terrain which is otherwise saddening, constricting, threatening or downright shameful, i.e., the world as we inhabit it here, tackled by contradiction, non-sequitur, punning and all the verbal techniques of the humourist.
In Winterreisen the individual contributions are clearly attributed, as they are often not, the sections headed “K” or “A” and the whole thing reads as a discussion between them (or sometimes a shared narration) which progresses through the whole book, getting more and more pointed and urgent as it goes on. Disagreements sometimes occur and towards the end of the book possibly shouting. The topic of the discussion is hardly to be expected to declare itself straightforwardly— this is after all “innovative” writing — or is it? In fact the inference most strongly made is that if this script is in any way challenging that is not because it is experimental, but because it is poetry. And it does have a subject, however much this subject floats in and out of sight or hides behind exotic or fantastic scenarios. What it is aimed at is the despoliation of public perception and language in the here and now, and the disappointment of those who have experienced the optimistic brightness which seems to emanate from pre-modern writing. On the very second page, after some baroque play with the possibility of speaking at all and the central condition of the speaker as “comedian”, the point is made directly and forcibly, by Halsey—
Here in MediaCity often
misread as Mendacity
Question Time’s in
the studio next door.
A responding verse by Corcoran shows how this sardonic dialogue is sustained by being spread out through unannounced figurations which lead into extendable theatres drawn especially from the pre-modern world—
In the ditch next door the liars
we let run our business go oink
and the woman was shouting lustre
or lecher and no one blushed
under a 5-star sky Dante was appalled.
and we are then into proposing suitable inhabitants for Dante’s infernal ditches, principally Iain Duncan Smith (aka Chief Guy Forked Tongue) in a poetical elaboration which ends on a very strong tone—
the dust of fallen capitals rises over our heads and shows how even Jerusalem fell [upon itself, Jerusalem the Golden made dumb with a mouthful of ash.
The progression of the argument is governed by current events in the three sections of the book, with a sense of mounting disaster and augmenting focus. The first is headed “2015-16” and they address each other in quite substantial poems, the second “2016-17” and they exchange six-line stanzas, and the third “2017-18”, where the exchange is in four-line stanzas and there is an increased sense of urgency, and more clarity.
NO ONE CAN expect to grasp everything in this remarkable gallimaufry. It is hard to keep up with Corcoran’s extended knowledge of the ancient world, and Halsey’s extended knowledge of — well, almost anything you can think of, especially if bibliographical, and the immersion of both of them in cultural documentation and visionary literature of all kinds. There are false trails, like the title’s announcement of Schubert, who does not in fact appear, nor any signs of Wilhelm Muller’s narrative. There are also Halsey’s labyrinthine full-colour images which seem to enact a dispersal and repossession of focus, and which interestingly cease after the end of the second section.
It remains an “innovative” text only up to a certain point, one which allows the authors to introduce names and references from the most remote zones on the instant, and allows discussion to become masked behind extravagant pyrotechnics. But there are rewards, one of which lies in the rich verbal humour which effects much of the continuity, and, in the long run, the sense of positive hope gained through all the biting satire. Two stanzas from near the end, by KC and AH respectively, show the scale of aspiration reached by, I dare say, an entirely secular shared “faith” which wins out in the ideal brainwork of poetry—
For all that we inherited numerical zero
we began with nothing and kept most of it;
across Madinat as-Salam earthly lights flicker
a thousand thoughts, the work of delight, of seeing.
The perfect circle of a city signifying peace.
Cf. Plato’s Atlantis in the recent translation.
Cf. the map of the eye with crystalline lens dead centre.
Cf. the Ingenious Instrument which Sounds by Itself.
Next, Michael Heller and Douglas Crase, two Americans who have done a lot of thinking—
WHITMAN MUST LIE behind the ambitions of so many American poets to be world-changers, or at least world-describers, and to tackle the challenge of existence by various kinds of shifted scale, working in detail or at large, from the minimised word-play of Zukofsky to the expansive aestheticist techniques of Charles Olson. Michael Heller belongs, by intent and association, with the so-called “objectivist school” (why are all the shared moves in modern poetry except the conservative labelled as schools?) of George Oppen, who was Heller’s principal launching agent. He has produced a large amount of poetry over sixty years or so, with a Collected Poems of nearly 600 pages, so a large Selected Poems is what was needed. There is no chance of summarising the great range of his work which engages individual encounters with places and ideas from everywhere. But however much modernity is on display in syntactical compression, chopped-up lineation, refusal of traditional forms, etcetera, so that he belongs clearly on the “raw” side of the spectrum, Heller speaks directly, from the mouth, with an open and painstakingly honest account of his concerned or jubilant reactions, including some elegant meditation through the lens of the Jewish experience.
On Douglas Crase the jury is still out. His “collected poems” is strangely limited to one book from 1981 and one pamphlet from 2017, and contains substantial poems very much addressed to a listening ear, sometimes identified as a loved-one, and spoken very correctly in a language of description and abstraction with distinct and logical use of figuration. There is talk of a “civil meter” which I can’t see. The lines are all of about pentameter length but without iambic structure, and the speech is very poised, even mannered. “Civil metre” seems to mean an adoption of the rhythms and extended periods of the public language engaged with individual experience. It is a surprise, not having seen his name previously, to find that he is considered a member of the “New York School” and a friend of James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara, for there is none of that perky and seeming casual dealing with the everyday, and the main formative influence might well be the late Auden. I haven’t searched thoroughly but I very much doubt if there is any room in this poetry for things like shampoo or asparagus or personal first-names or abstract expressionism. It is really quite rarefied. But there is certainly some fine and thoughtful lyrical writing.
(A future review is intended for several of the books listed below.)
Two pamphlets by D’Roza and Kunial were recently reviewed in The Fortnightly Review—
Free, modernised versions, many of them based on fragments. Colloquially impolite.
I thought these were serious, careful, formally-aware poems not shackled to single vision, but verging on the metaphysical.
Unpublished notebook written in 1927. Mss pages photographically reproduced facing transcriptions.
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 Collected Poems, containing work from 1962 to 2017, was published in two volumes by Shearsman in 2018, followed by Truth, Justice, and the Companionship of Owls from Longbarrow Press in 2019. An earlier book, Due North, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize in 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.
- “King Alpha” is a substitute term for “the Lord” in a well-known Rastafarian reggae song.
- It is not only here that Miller seems to touch on widespread, possibly global terms of society and narration. The bush-land beyond the plotted spaces creates its own ghosts — “Do you know Sally of the Woods, or another story like it? The murdered girl that roams the forest – this useless energy of ghosts.” (p.68). Another story like it is, or was, to be found in peasant societies all over Europe, and perhaps everywhere, concerning the dangerous beings who haunt the vast forests, which must always be entered with caution and protection. Babes in the Wood. In Transylvania it is the “green girl” who walks backwards. I once met an old man who claimed to have seen her. And in a note by an associate of Miller, “Douen: Eastern Caribbean folkloric character, the spirit of an unbaptized child, who has backwards feet and lives in the forest or near rivers. Douens lure children away to be their playmate.” (Loretta Collins Klobah. Ricantations (2018) endnote on page 129).
- One would expect “night” here and there are two lower-case I’s available between the N and the G of the original text, but scrutiny through a magnifying glass confirms that both remain grey. Interestingly, it is difficult to know whether this is a printer’s error or a sign of the final fragmentation and loss of the women’s body and all memory of her person.
- See his contribution to The Fortnightly Review here.
- in the Hare and Hounds, Wadsworth, West Yorkshire, one Saturday lunch time. Haslam ’s next book, will appear in January from Shearsman.