By PETER RILEY.
Birds of the Sherborne Missal
by Elisabeth Bletsoe.
by J.H.Prynne, John James, and Andrew Crozier.
The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold
by Richard Price.
The European Eel
by Steve Ely.
A Time of Eels
by Carol Watts.
by Khaled Hakim.
by Emily Critchley.
THE ONLY PREPARATION you get for the text of Birds of the Sherborne Missal is that it is a set of twenty prose poems (with text printed on alternate rectos only, for reasons of presentation) headed by twenty birds depicted in the margins of a missal of c.1400 from Sherborne Abbey in Dorset. The whole book focuses on Sherborne; in fact, the localism is so concentrated and unyielding that its doors begin to close on the inquiring eye of the reader while at the same time, through the techniques of unintroduced and unexplained substantives and excerpts, the focus can leap at any point into a very different poetical site while anchored permanently in Sherborne.
The Seagull (Mew) —
Moving into the more solemn part of the Mass: gold foil running through the hedge, buffed by a wolf’s tooth, Clifton Maubank, Cliftune, concealed by dark flickerings of holly-oak; the storm horizon. Walled about with a batteled wall & “sette with all sorts”. With naked foot stalking in my chamber. Legendary ash plantings, the once ever-open door. The writhe of negotiations and giftings…
There is no connection given among seagull, mass, and all the other things or events—they just appear. If there is an underlay by which the whole book follows the sequence of the mass, this is the only hint of it. It’s more as if every verbal move enters into the most solemn part of the mass. The Tudor mansion, Clifton Maybank , mentioned here, is not mentioned again and was demolished in the eighteenth century. The messages of the text rely on the friction between entities set against each other without declared cause. Social virtue (the ever-open door) is dispersed into forgotten fragments. But there are also subtle adjustments, such as the decision not to give the famous Wyatt quotation its original orthography (with “fote”and “chambre”) so that, placed against “sette”, it seems to take place in modernity. I don’t think this happens in this way anywhere else in the book.
The Sparrow (Sparwe)—
Faces that open & close. Things half buried, annealed by frost. The inn a former mortuary, museum of autoptic secrets; no random event the disclosure of a statue of the risen Christ hidden within its walls. Sparrows gather, conductors of souls; only one human pair of eyes witnesses the child riding her trike across the flagstones. Back & forth, back & forth.
There is clearly the tone here of conducting a discourse, which at times such as this opens into traces of an actual discourse, and for a moment the sparrow bears a weight of possible significance which is immediately denied any development into narrative.
What is happening here, and does throughout, is that we don’t get the connections, we get the results, and the results are the rewards, of reading as of writing. Among all the ecclesiastical and monastic properties there is hardly anything amounting to a statement of belief, only at the most a sense of there having been one.
“Thistle-tweaker”, a conflation of thorns with the scarlet forehead becomes the iconography of crucifixion myth, ousting earlier goddess affinities. Its nest a vaginal metaphor ; a labyrinth of tender intricacies. Lucina caged by the fingers of holy infants.
— “becomes” where? Only here, in this text with this author and her undisclosed research. The text is then an accumulation or treasury of the materials of a discourse, including the passion of it, which insists on avoiding signification or process, creating often a quite dry and undisclosed sense of import which makes the self, the author, the only possible goal or product of all this discovery (possibly an Olsonian movement, though there is none of the self-proclamation of Maximus) but can also enter into small sections of meditative and figurative coherence bound by intensity and sometimes strong enough to be described as “apocalyptic”. But still we do not get the connections – we get the results. The final result could be the sense of an author, in whose presence and nowhere else all these things belong together and this text proclaims that space, and her right to it. The presiding presence, the calm collector, emerges as meditative but not without moments of protest and anger, or the results of them.
And what about these birds?1Sometimes they are merely there as titles, their fifteenth-century portraits opposite, always looking alert and sometimes maybe singing. You may feel that to a greater or lesser extent each bird guides the course of its poem by occasional intervention, but it is never symbolised, and in many cases its presence is elusive. “The Starling (Stare)” begins “Ring-angels on the radar testament to starling diaspora” and ends, “That petrol iridescence. A breast, ‘crowded with lustrous stars.”’ This is not so much a progression as a repeatedly refound possession. The bird is there, but any systematic role for it is precluded by modernities (“radar”, “petrol”) suggesting that what coheres this harvest of found rewards and extends it into a syntax, is principally image, sight, brightness, recognition, authorship. The text for the male Blackbird (Throstil cok) is full of music and darkness, leaning on neither John Dowland nor Paul McCartney, maintained in suspension rather than allowed to sink into an explanatory account. There is always a moment of surprise at each shift of the writing: “A saint opens a hand to find in his palm a small blue-green egg.”
by J.H.Prynne, John James, and Andrew Crozier.
Shearsman Books 2021 | Introduction by Ian Brinton | 90pp paperback | £10.95
(reprints respectively High Pink on Chrome 1975, Striking the Pavilion of Zero 1975, High Zero 1978.)
I TAKE THIS collection of three reprints to be a bid to enhance the reputations of Crozier and James, both seemingly in danger of being forgotten, by allying them with JH Prynne, who among the “Cambridge” 1960s/70s grouping has kept a more secure hold on the market. This is a worthy intent and the connections are historically established, but I wonder if this was the best way to go about it. Prynne’s readership is indeed secure but the extent to which it is academy-centred is questionable, thus whether it is maintained by pressure of secondary attention rather than a particular kind of pressure the texts exert towards the cultivation of the barely legible. My doubts here are reinforced by the observation that although the works of Crozier and James do in the late 1970s repeatedly declare a homage to Prynne, Prynne’s own texts remain starkly distinct in manner, and the direction they represent might not have been the best one for these purposes, pushing both poets into various kinds of obduracy when their instincts were in both cases generally lyrical and open, and sometimes postural.
Prynne had just emerged from what I call his “great lines” period (“the unpastured sea hungering for calm”) and was fiercely determined to exclude any hint of romance. The poem was to be an admonition directed straight at the centre of harm in language, a kind of forensic analysis in which scientific terms, especially toxicological, are referred to a human abstract. High Pink on Chrome writes itself though the previous half dozen books, pushing out towards a more and more radical and less and less articulated mode, or, as some saw it, to get rid at last of all this poetry cluttering everything up.
Striking the Pavilion of Zero was what James was doing at the time, which was a high point of his achievement of a spoken idiom rich in sincere warnings but also in extravagance–
Watch out for further exfoliations in
our casual blasé mean & cocky
attitude. It comes naturally to us,
what with our history of navigation and our
national service in the Polish cavalry ….
The claim on history is tongue-in-cheek, thus nothing like Prynne, and when there is a glance in that direction it is towards the presumably superseded “great lines” mode (“What to those fabulous flying creatures carved & white”).
James and Crozier had in fact published a volume of collaborative poems in 1970, In One Side & Out the Other (with the artist Tom Phillips), emphasising their version of a “New York” manner – playful with a bite and addicted to the impedimenta of modern urban living. By 1975 this was still very strong in James, captured in Crozier’s High Zero by friendly echoes of phrases from James which are the most noticeable bid for a possible sense of group. Prynne was the unincorporated factor, and remained so.
Neither did Crozier, for all his thoughtful and fervent risk-taking, transgress into Prynne’s territory. High Zero remains a mixed and confusing collection in which the precise and resonant capture of earthly presence which he was already capable of —
A cloudy night
………………lit from beneath
for this is earth-shine
and whatever comes between us
is permeable to our will
clashes with a determined awkwardness, fracturing the carefully sustained syntax, making the poem hard to follow. I don’t think this was “the influence of Prynne” exactly, for Prynne’s awkwardness was of a different and more extreme order, and its effect on other Cambridge poets was by 1975 mainly transgressive. Rather than offering exempla it pushed poets towards the extreme of their own version of the art.
What does unite all three, or at least two of them, can only be recognised in the most general terms and does not necessarily involve wilful reader-torment, but is a constant re-assertion and diversification of opposition to the miniaturized ironical basis of the poetry which established itself in the period between the two great wars as the national poetry. With this, perhaps in fear of impending defeat and delegation to a “special interest” status rather than a central position in the British poetry world, went an increasing hardness, especially in offering difficulty or complexity as a “manly” challenge to the reader. The punch in the nose was offered repeatedly, to fellow-poets and to readers who got too close. The careers of all three poets after the 1970s were tangled up in ambiguous or hostile attitudes towards the reader, a self-obscuring fog through which is discernible some of the finest British poetry to be written through a long period of establishment consolidation.
I DON’T SUPPOSE many followers of current poetry have registered that this year two very capable British poets have produced work related to the culture of the north polar Inuit. This is to place Richard Price up against Tom Lowenstein’s The Structure of Days Out (2021)2, which is a very different project, mostly in prose and the last of a series of four books. Most of Lowenstein’s “translations” are in the first two books, 1992-3.
To put the contrast baldly, Price derives his texts from published sources and represents them as poetry by manipulating them into a plain modern idiom capable of irony and suspension, crafted to meet the requirements of recognisable informal contemporary poetry. (The “stories” are made up of sequences of short poems and were so originally). Lowenstein’s’ method on the other hand, was to go there, live there in one locality, learn the language, sit by the bedside of “the last shaman” and record everything he says. His book is an entire representation of the locality currently and historically, taking in all the problems of cultural intervention by missionaries and others, and the many vicissitudes of living there including the climate. He even took part in a whale-hunt on the sea ice.
Lowenstein’s work stands as a referent, should we need it, of the Inuit world viewed from within, or at least on its edges. If the goal is something more than well-written poetry, if we want to ask major questions about the Inuit world, a “retelling”, which amounts to a modernisation, is not enough. I’m not saying that you have to go there, but that the cultural gap between us and those denizens of the frozen north is wide and deep, the confrontation with them is daunting and the attempt to subsume their culture into ours is doomed. Price’s is perhaps the nearest you could get to an understanding without telling much larger stories or a more severe commitment of the self.
There is nothing missing. The stories inhabit a world compounded of the continuing subsistence hunting economy and centuries of shamanistic magic in which animals, especially hunted animals, will speak to you, seduce you, trick you, help you, murder you… as indeed the humans do to each other. They are full of sexual and scatological obscenities, acts of cruelty, dishonour and betrayal not to mention cannibalism, and it’s all there; nothing is toned down. One can freely feel that the Inuit imaginative sphere is faithfully and fearlessly represented. But if you were to ask of Price, “What are they like, then, the Inuit?” the answer, it seems to me, is basically “They’re just like us.” and this sense is delivered mainly in the poetical language, the lineation and diction, the “little songs” bearing their seriousness and threat on the edge of entertainment and curiosity.
The quest for a common humanity is, in other words, peculiarly difficult when dealing with forms of extreme living, using techniques of translation and adaptation and I don’t see how you can avoid the levelling. It is there in the transfer itself, the familiarity of the tropes and rhythms in spite of their content, but above all in the poetical concept itself, which somehow almost constantly speaks of a warm modern interior.3 Price includes himself in the picture he creates of the Inuit, bearing his own messages, and there are items obviously deliberately inserted for this purpose, including, as he admits in the introduction, moments of feminist discourse, and a tone of self-deprecation, a sense that the wild landscapes of the stories cannot be taken seriously, but have become items of interest.
Entertainment is part of any poet’s duty, and emerges coherently from the Inuit world with its dilemmas and contradictions, though we feel behind us testimonies that the Inuit world is fundamentally one of pain and despair.
by Steve Ely.
ELY’S WAY OF writing is thick with challenges to the average understanding, but it is quite unlike the “experimental” mode which fractures language by omission, distortion, replacement and so forth. Rather it operates by manipulation of vocabulary, typically pushing quite standard terms to their most remote technological, local, personal, and psychotic depths. This is most clear in The European Eel, which is a single long poem rather magnificently recounting the entire life cycle of the animal, and suggesting an ancestry involving Erasmus Darwin more than Ted Hughes — the vocabulary remains defiantly literal.
I tested this by taking a ten-line section from The European Eel, where I identified five words which would need looking up if I hoped to know what they said (deliberately ignoring Steve Ely’s extremely helpful notes). I found that four of them were scientific terms that could occur in any full account of the eel, especially of the depth and transparency of oceanic water. But one was not: pleroma— “the special plenitude of God’s universe.” Ely can here maintain his factual and technological discourse but lurch sideways into theology when he needs to.
The poems of Lectio Violant come in four groups each headed with a biblical citation.4 The process here is more intuitive and occult, but I think that typically (as in the fourth section, the descent of God or Satan to earth ) moments of revelation may be pressured into narratives which remain revelation, but what they ultimately reveal (through the “profane reading” of the title) is the extent and depth of the most shocking and squalid cruelty and murder of which humankind is capable. The third section shows the process more clearly in the extension of the narrative from the Gadarene Swine into grotesque lyric and modern workings of exorcism.
CAROL WATTS’ EELS are not Steve Ely’s eels. Their parts float away, including parts of speech. It is one work in fifteen sections with only remote traces of having been a narrative, and is now from line to line like a series of excerpts from lost stories, and metaphors detached from their referents. About half-way through the name of Marsyas occurs and continues to in connection with eels, which are identified mainly in the form of the book title recurring through the text, this gaining an emphasis. I wasn’t aware of any connection between Marsyas and eels, and still am not; if there was one it is now reduced to metaphorical fragments, and a kind of scenic or expressive pot-pourri has become the point of the text. It is at times intriguingly expressive, but of what? And what or when is this iterated “time of eels”. Is it a term for now in general, or a specific result of experience?
by Khaled Hakim.
TEXTS, INTERFERED WITH, of his earliest “routines” as a stand-up performer, 1983-2000. His unschooled orthography5 is only mildly adhered to here. Difficult to hear them as spoken when deletions and alternative word-choices abound, many of them supplied by the audience at the time, but the politico-social agility is proud and as he finally says, “Hi. I’m Benny Hill. So anyway…”
EMILY CRITCHLEY IS impelled to speak. It shows in the syntax, the rhythmic drive and the whole sense of legitimate address in the writing. There is a dominant moral drive concerning “home” — that is, pairing, giving birth, establishing a place of safety, and the difficulties and enemies of that intent. A lot of the text is drawn from direct experience and addressed to the actors, but also on other occasions takes a distanced narrated prospect. This means that the language to which she is impelled may be the plainest and most direct medium, or an enactment of (“experimental”?) confusion and figurative daring, or any proportion of these in one, but always passionately. There are also poems not addressed to participants in the drama either specifically or by transfer, but concerned with the poetical process itself. The blurb, presumably by the author, lists the wrongs with which the writing is involved, which looks like the start of the list of more-or-less compulsory subjects any “young” poetry is obliged to take on these days: “…child abuse, wrongful imprisonment, #MeToo, Brexit, global warming…” But it does not seem to me that this programme was so mechanically ordained, but that such as there is of that content (I haven’t spotted Brexit yet) rose quite impetuously from the central engagement with “home” both locally and out in the world – an entity that unlike many young poets she does recognise as existing and entitled to recognition.
The book has just arrived and these are notes on a slow survey. Rather than offer a collection of little bits of poems, I’ll quote the first ten lines of the first poem, “Tonight”, one of the most engaging invitations to a strongly poetical discourse I have seen in a long time—
Everything is a part of everything that is a part of everything else.
And any decision is like a huge moon
tossed from the top of a great hill. It gathers speed
in direct proportion to height,
taking each prisoner down with it.
It & the tides.
And when we were younger things dropped
were as stones into that ocean. But now,
just as the moon gapes, we have run out
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.
- A selection of these poems was published in the Fortnightly in 2018. It may be found here.
- A version was serialised complete in The Fortnightly Review under the title After the Snowbird Comes the Whale in 2018, beginning here.
- Lowenstein attempted this kind of representation a long time ago, in his Eskimo Poems (1973), a book which I think he now disowns. In the tetralogy he tackles the problem by vastly transgressing the concept “poetry’ or setting it completely aside, and by, when he does have recourse to it, making it as large a mode as possible (e.g. Whitmanesque or possibly “late modernistic”) which is always open to whatever the account throws at it.
- A selection has appeared in the Fortnightly Review here.
- See, for example, “Three gardens and a dead man” in the Fortnightly.