Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Here Come The Sixties

The media is anniversary mad, as we know.  This is the 5th anniversary of Eyewear.  2010 is also the 50th anniversary of 1960 - so get ready for a half-century reappraisal, this decade, of everything Sixties related. In terms of literature, here are some classics (well, they are now if we are still talking about them and reading them) whose 50th anniversary 2010 is: Green Eggs and Ham; The Violent Bear It Away; The Country Girls; To Kill A Mockingbird; A Canticle for Leibowitz; and my favourite children's book, after The Wind in the Willows, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, a work of genius.  It is also the 50th anniversary of the death of Camus.

In terms of poetry, it is now 50 years since some of these major publications: Curnow's The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse; AJM Smith's Oxford Book of Canadian Verse; The New American Poetry 1945-1960 edited by Donald M Allen (perhaps the most influential anthology of the last half-century); Shapiro's In Defense of Ignorance; and major collections such as Heart's Needle; the Collected poems of Yvor Winters; Olson's The Maximus Poems; Life Studies; The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees; Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note by LeRoi Jones; The Woman at the Washington Zoo ("change me! change me!"); Duncan's The Opening of the Field; Hine's The Devil's Picture Book; and the Collected of e.e. cummings.  Also, The Colossus by Plath; Seeing Is Believing by Tomlinson; and Come Dance With Kitty Stobling by Patrick Kavanagh.  And Margaret Avison's The Winter Sun.  Not a bad year.

The summer will see the 50th anniversary of de-colonisation of many African nations; the first gigs of The Beatles, the U2 Spy Plane incident, the start of the Sputnik dog shots; the autumn the gold medal at the Olympics for Cassius Clay; the founding of OPEC; the Nixon-Kennedy debates; Kruschev's UN shoe-pounding ("we will bur you!"); the Chatterley ban is lifted against Penguin; and, after Kennedy's election, we get the first episode of Coronation Street.

This has also been the 50th anniversary of films: Psycho; Elmer Gantry (one of my favourites); Spartacus and The Apartment.  Also, Beat Girl; College Confidential; The Magnificent Seven; Where The Boys Are; and Peeping Tom (another Eyewear fave).

In music, this is the 50th anniversary of songs such as "Walk Don't Run"; "The Twist"; "Cathy's Clown"; "Tell Laura I Love Her"; "Beyond The Sea" and "Are You Lonesome Tonight".

It is, in short, half a century since the era of post-war American dominance became complicated by the shifts about to erupt, in the Cold War, in the continuing decline of Britain, in culture, computing, sexuality- with an increasing darkness and licentiousness - "camp" and confessional urges emerging.  The Age of Anxiety had become The Psycho Age, the Age of Twist and Shout.  Born in 1966, I can still recall these films, these songs, these political and cultural currents, gleaned from the styles, and talk, of my parents, and from the Mad Magazines of my beloved Aunt Bev.  Here come the Sixties!  Within this coming decade, hopefully, I too will turn 50.

New Poetry Award

Perhaps nothing can make someone cringe more than the phrase "new poetry award" - there are so many awards these days, it sometimes seem there aren't enough days in the week to respond to them all.  However, poetry needs some awards, if only to stir interest, and overcome the obstacles that many smaller presses have in competing with the overwhelming extra authority and clout a few of the largest imprints and houses seem to possess, as if by right.  So it is good news to see that Coffee-House Poetry at The Troubadour has launched a prize for debut collections.  Out of 77 submitted, 15 have been shortlisted - see below.  Congratulations to all, especially Abi Curtis, Carrie Etter, Tom Chivers, and Katrina Naomi, since I have read those collections and appreciated them; but the others no doubt hold promise too.  I am sorry to see that b/w was not selected, or, for that matter, Cinammon Press books seem not to have been submitted - surely, Sheila Hillier's debut collection is extraordinary.  Anyway - good to see these listed :

  • Unexpected Weather — Abi Curtis (Salt)
  • Snow Calling — Agnieszka Studzinska (Salt)
  • Inroads — Carolyn Jess-Cooke (Seren Books)
  • The Tethers — Carrie Etter (Seren Books)
  • The Method Men — David Briggs (Salt)
  • Breath — Ellen Phethean (Flambard Press)
  • When God Has Been Called Away to Greater Things — Grace Wells (Dedalus Press)
  • Berg — Hilary Menos (Seren Books)
  • King of Country — Howard Wright (Blackstaff Press)
  • The Girl with the Cactus Handshake — Katrina Naomi (Templar Poetry)
  • Insensible Heart — Maureen Jivani (Mulfran Press)
  • A Republic of Linen — Patrick Brandon (Bloodaxe Books)
  • New Light for the Old Dark — Sam Willetts (Cape Poetry)
  • How to Build a City — Tom Chivers (Salt)
  • Even the Sea — Eleanor Livingstone (Red Squirrel Press)

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Guest Review: Stewart On Dallat and Molloy

Anne Stewart reviews
The Year of Not Dancing by CL Dallat
& Long-distance Swimmer by Dorothy Molloy

The Year of Not Dancing is in hardback with 63 pages of very engaging and memorable poetry and a rather elegant and sophisticated dust jacket which gives an added incentive to keep the book to hand at all times.

Dallat’s dedication of this, his second collection, is in memoriam to his mother, who died when he was eleven. The dust-cover tells us that ‘Her death becomes the focus for a poignant but unsentimental exploration of family relationships and legacies across three generations...’

There is an extensive cast-list. Some are identified as family or extended family members, others are unidentified but clearly significant ‘you’s, ‘he’s and ‘she’s:   “including those second cousins / – teenagers with fringes and EPs – ”, 'Dance Lessons'; “to the farm of my once-removed – / source of our one personalised / season’s greeting”, 'County Down'; “First he taught us to step off / the back of a moving CIÉ bus,” 'Lido Café'.

Apparently un-family-associated poems are also well-represented, as are love poems – I particularly like 'South', in which “Once, he took the wheel and she was / deep beside him under a jacket /... / ‘Mullingar’, she whispered...”, and, in the next and final stanza

And once, in a broad, unhurried street
when she pinpointed a second-floor sash
he could see a ribboned child look down
/... /
and behind, her young father in soft shirtsleeves
telling her not to lean against the glass.

Dallat’s poetry brings together several strands of ideas and weaves them until they are what I can only describe as emotionally infectious.  His poems are soft-spoken, tender and insightful, complex and intriguing.  They are delicate without being overly fragile or sentimental.  'Love on a Rock', for example, begins

Who could tell them now – out in the world,
its plethorae of arc-lights, halogens, discos –
those lighthouse children with listening eyes

offers up their childhood entertainments – “sucked HB stubs at poise to take down / wireless PO boxes” – and tells us that we’ll know them because

                             they’ll have preset
the Xerox’s counter right up to the thousand,
lid-up and nothing on the glass, eyelids
numb on the margin of sleep as the phasings
of light take them home to the beam-room again.

The poems directly to or about his mother and father and those who cared for him after his mother’s death are particularly touching. 'Sentence': “but I knew there was no plea bargain / for remission the day / the same men in uniforms / came up our staircase / and into my mother’s room”; and this, about a well-wishing neighbour, is from 'After Days in Blind-Drawn Rooms': “... you saw her ...  / ... / kneeling at home by the brother who died / ... / a brother she’d never stopped thinking of since but / hadn’t had much cause to mention, no need until now.”

I did occasionally find some of the more densely-constructed parts of poems quite difficult to unravel – none of these sections are quoted from here but, as an example, in a poem called 'Pavlova’s Dogs', which I like very much and I think I’ve identified the important emotive message in, I couldn’t connect the metaphoric activity with the ‘other person’ referred to but not identified in the poem. It is however, the complexity, the bringing together of several streams of idea or activity, that makes Dallat’s poetry so powerful and so compelling to return to.

Molloy’s Long-distance Swimmer, a paperback with 46 pages of poetry and, again, a rather nice wrap-around cover illustration, is a second and final posthumous collection compiled by Andrew Carpenter, the first posthumous collection having been published by Faber & Faber in 2006.

Carpenter tells us in his preface that her papers contained many poems that were ‘complete or nearly complete’ but there is no indication of whether, or to what extent, he has made editorial changes, so it must be borne in mind that we cannot know whether the poet herself would have approved every element of these final versions.

We are told that ‘this is a strange and moving book inspired by the experiences of Dorothy’s life in Spain and Ireland’ and that the collection contains ‘many remarkable and passionate poems’.

Molloy is not a soft-spoken poet. Her voice is strong and assertive, admirably demonstrated in the title poem, 'Long-distance Swimmer':

Hungry for water she lowers herself
into lakes.
She stares at her face in the mere.

Bare but for Speedos and membrane-like cap,
she divines
where to go by a trembling of hands,

.../ / She hangs Holy Marys on bushes,

she wades through the slobs, descends the dank steps
to the well.
Cheered on by St. Gobnait and nine grazing

deer, a badger, an otter, a fox and a

In 'Mother’s kitchen', there is a line “the Aga throbs with heat”. This is the way I would describe Molloy’s poetry. I defy anyone to read these poems and not feel their sap rise.

The emotional urgency in the poems is not, however, at the expense of lyricism. In 'Fledgling', which begins with the metaphor of a caged bird for a woman of 80:

She gives them a peek at her treasures,
gold sovereigns, carbuncles and rings;
the knick-knacks he gave her, the way
he enslaved her, the rubies

he slung round her neck. What the heck.
She kohls her frail eyelids...

Rhyme, less restrained in these lines to give the necessary defiant lift to the character’s behaviour, is skilfully handled in this poem. There are poems where rhyme is used to more Lear-like effect, as in 'Carlitos González Martínez makes / a desperate bid for freedom', in which ‘led him away to the sea’ is the basis of an end-of-stanza repeat line:

His three-year-old face was yoghurt and milk.
His little heart beat
like a drum in my fist when he took his first steps
from Tamarit Street. Not a minute too soon
I led him away to the sea.

This poet is not averse to a full-on subversive ‘telling it like it is’: “Lurching on the see-saw of marriage, / the hard plank under your bottom, / you gasp at the repeated jolts / that shiver your timbers.”  ('The see-saw'), nor to demonstrating what I suspect was a wicked sense of humour:  “... Gargoyles / monkey about. Troglodyte / angels clank by.” ('Sipping vodka'), nor to sexual reference: “Terrified of sex and sin, the swelling purple / aubergine...” ('Forbidden fruit, part 3') and in 'Quadruped with my quadruped's, where, after “waiting for you to come home”,

I tighten my claws
on your nape, nip
at your ear.

You prise me off gently,
unfurl me in the long grass.

Soon we are out of sight:
she-cat in season, howling,
receiving her mate.

There are also some poems using the style of myth or fantasy. One definitely to be looked at, and which should probably be anthologised, is the final poem in the collection, 'The crossing', in which what turns out to be the Christ child has tricked an unidentified carrier into taking him ‘across the flood’ on their shoulders. He begins ‘feather light’, takes on ‘sudden monstrous weight’, is pitched into the water when the carrier stumbles, pulled out by a ‘gilly-dog’ and given the kiss of life (by the carrier, not the dog), and finishes (as I now do) with:

...                    My gilly-dog bowed low
before his lord. I barely bent my knee

till I looked up and saw the child
nailed to a bloody tree.

Eliot The Dunderhead?

As seen at the blog Harriet - a link to news that the great(est) American poet of the last century, Mr TS Eliot, had trouble at Harvard with his studies - in short, he got far fewer As and Bs than we might have expected.  Instead, the no doubt day-dreaming, perhaps anxious, maybe even sleepy, Mr Eliot, missed classes, got a D, and seemed to be on academic probation.  Mr Eliot, unique in being both a charlatan and a genius, often in the same essay, or sentence, was a master of verbal erudition that displayed more than it actually said - the reverse of subtext - he was the lord of the overtext.  He also abandoned his PhD work, and, famously, went on to work in a bank, edit books at Faber, pen essays, plays, and the most famous difficult poem of the last two centuries in English, and, win the Nobel Prize.  I too was a piss-poor undergrad student who got through on a wing and a prayer, as were (I would guess) several other poets.  Poets have a habit of missing deadlines, over-writing or under-writing essays, and crumpling up bits of paper in their pockets.  They sometimes drop out, or become professors.  Or not.  But it is charming to know that, 100 years ago this month, Old Possum was just a young dolt.

Potts and pans

What's with it with book reviews?  Either they are timid, or puffery, or daggers drawn, or umbrellas tipped with poison, or - well. they are rarely subtle, complex, and objective, that's for darn sure.  Anyway, a few have been making the news, or been in the air, these last weeks.  Robert Potts, the critic, scholar and editor, reviewed Don Paterson's Rain, from Faber, with rigorous glee, in the TLS.  It was a carefully researched rethink that showed the Scotsman obsessed with doppelgangers, twins and the shadow self (a long tradition started by RL Stevenson) was basically like a member of Spinal Tap.  Perhaps reviewers should drop Spinal Tap references - they have become a little tired.  They tend to turn reviews up to 11 a little too easily.  Still, this Pottsian revisionism was noteworthy for being an openly dissenting view - most sentient reviewers kow-tow to Paterson as if he were a little god fallen from the heavens onto Gilligan's Island.

So, refreshing.  And then comes along Terry Eagleton, who seems to revel in a slippery tone that can veer from humour to smarts in seconds flat - which is ironic, because essentially he critiques Craig Raine's new novel, in the LRB, for being humorous and over-intelligent in a way that emphasized Martian-style simile, mouths, and intellectual tosh; he also complained of an over-attention paid to female nether parts, especially of the anal kind.  In general he felt the novel was soulless, and lacking in a moral vision, instead, focused on amoral faithless sex fiends.  One wonders how Eagleton would have reviewed Lolita, another sexually nihilistic satire; or indeed Lucky Jim, also filled with empty blockheads mouthing literary jargon.  Marxists tend not to appreciate style for its own sake.

Does Eagleton like Tarr by Wyndham Lewis?  That being said, Raine - a major British poet of the 80s - may not be a great novelist, lord knows.  But does a godless Marxist constitute a lord? I like a lot of TG's writing, but sometimes it gets too popularist, and the jokes jar.  What seems notable here is the thrill of seeing big beasts tracked to their lairs.  It speaks of daring, and of an establishment willing to be shaken a bit. Or to have some of its bushes beaten.  To mix a metaphor.

Gunned Down

Free at last!
In England, people may be bemoaning the 4-1 loss.  But in America, liberals are faced with a more serious 5-4 decision.  The Supreme Court's conservative decision to throw out all state and local laws aimed at gun control as unconstitutional hands the NRA and gun makers an almost unlimited victory over those who have sought to keep gun violence at bay in the States.  Sadly, according to some estimates, 30,000 (!) people die by gun every year in America - a health risk that is almost totally preventable.  Of course, far fewer people would also die if cars, alcohol, and tobacco were limited or banned.  Is the price of freedom the risk of a bullet?  One thing is for sure, there's never likely to be an army that takes total control of the US.  Or, for that matter, a police force.  Some would want to say, or a government.

Nicolas Hayek Has Died

Sad news.  Nicolas Hayek, the founder of Swatch, has died suddenly at work.  Swatch is Eyewear's favourite timepiece manufacturer.  I currently alternate between one that is all red, and one with an orange band.  However, my Swatch collection numbers four or five.  Not vast, but respectfully growing, with love.  One of the great pleasures in life is buying a Swatch watch in an airport.  Well, it has passed the time.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Guest Review: Chingonyi On Phethean

Kayo Chingonyi reviews
by Ellen Phethean

The blurb on the back cover says that the poems in this collection ‘chart the course’ of the years following major bereavement. As a result of this I came to the book with some assumptions. I expected poems of lament exploring the theme of loss and expressing pain. While such poems are represented in the collection there is also work ranging from musings on childhood, the importance of geographical location, the disparities between the past and present as well as a number of poems on parenthood.

To Phethean’s credit, the elegies do attempt to avoid sentimentality and convey something other than the sadness of loss. The poem ‘An Ancient Calling’, for example, functions as a praise song for those who ‘move us on’ when we are faced with the death of a loved one. This provides a surprising take on the elegy since it serves both to describe the helplessness of grief but also the process by which people rebuild their lives after losing a loved one. This makes for an evocative reading experience and stands out among the highlights of
the book.

Unfortunately, not all the poems are as convincing as the one quoted above. ‘Eating Her Children’, which takes as its conceit the striking image of a mother consuming her offspring, ultimately fails to achieve the promise of its central idea. The poem begins with the children as ‘milky puddings, /delicate as junket’ and ends with the mother having to spit out her eldest child who has become ‘sharp as anchovies’. On the face of it, this is an imaginative way into the subject but the extended metaphor doesn’t hold up because the descriptions of literal eating do not adequately represent what the poem is trying to say about parenthood. ‘Eating Her Lover’ is far more convincing as its conceit is handled in subtler fashion:

She plucked at his glasses,
broken winged,
opened his wardrobe,
touched his cottons,

Here the act of ‘eating’ becomes the process by which the bereaved find solace in objects that belonged to the dead. This invites the reader to assess how the concept of eating links with the healing process Phetean is describing and thereby achieves the effect aimed for in ‘Eating Her Children’.

Some of the best poems in the collection are those that explore loss in the wider context of social change and cultural history. A particular success is the poem ‘The West End’ which charts the cultural history of an area of Newcastle with an admirable lightness of touch:

Thin women pushing buggies
roll their eyes at families
up ahead who speak too loud
                        a language they can’t comprehend;
                        May sells mooli, bottle gourds,
                        English apples in dwindling varieties.

This poem shows that Phethean has a keen eye for detail and an ability to write with economy. That last line in particular captures in five words what might take a paragraph to explain in an essay on the subject. This mix of descriptive flair and linguistic concision is also shown in the impressive ‘Sorrow’, which figures sadness as a
quiet figure biding its time, as well as a number of poems throughout the book.

I should dwell briefly on the structure of the collection. It is split into three parts each linked thematically to the central ideas of life, death and taking stock. This structure serves the poems well as it establishes and maintains a through line which makes the collection feel like a cohesive whole. Whilst this does make for a coherent reading experience, certain strategies (like ending a poem with an epiphany) do start to feel repetitive. This is particularly clear in poems such as ‘Tulse Hill, 1968’ where the closing lines overstate
what could have been left unsaid: ‘looking back it was obvious/I would betray you – now it’s too late for redress.’

There are two Ellen Phethean’s at work in ‘Breath’. There is one attempting to express the significance of personal grief and there is the poet looking out from the personal into wider territory. I think the poems in the latter category are, in the main, more successful though there are some genuinely evocative poems exploring bereavement directly. The poems themselves rarely offer consolation but there is a universality to them which is likely to engage readers who have suffered a recent bereavement as well as those taking stock of their
lives. Carrying off such a book is a difficult thing. Phethean does well to make the book about more than just what the reader expects.

Though there were some poems that misfired this collection is worth a look for its sharply observed descriptions, typically economical diction and sometimes surprising takes on perennial subject matter.

Kayo Chingonyi is a British poet.

Guest Review: Curtis On Price

Abi Curtis reviews

Last year a talented poet friend of mine was short-listed for the Michael Marks pamphlet award and I went along to hear her and the other contenders read. Richard Price gave a wonderful speech about the importance of the pamphlet as a form for poetry, its great tradition of showcasing a poet’s work, the fact that the pamphlet has a sense of limitation, distilment, condensation that makes it quite distinctive. Price is a champion of the form and some of the nine sections in Rays began their lives as limited edition pamphlets. Though the sections have subtle, echoing relationships between one another, there is a sense of each as a particular poetic space. This is a particular strength of the collection, allowing it to feel startlingly fresh and alive, but also because the reader gets the sense of a poet that is interested in poetry as a collaborative endeavour. Pamphlets are lovingly created and this is a collective process, they are often the result of more than one artist getting together to explore an idea, they are attentive to the materiality of reading and of language itself.

All of this is apparent in Price’s work. The section Wake Up and Sleep explores the treatment of sleep disorders, cleverly combining technical and medical language with the emotional and philosophical implications of sleeplessness. For example, in ‘The thought keeps counting’ the burden of the sleepless body is evoked:

            The weight of my own eyes.
            I  have a forehead. A mouth,
            dry. The thought –

            the thought   the thought   the thought

This poem is presented in short, disjointed fragments, where the insomniac’s voice is undercut by the voice of a specialist:

With primary insomnia the data suggests
there’s decreased regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF)
to the frontal medial, occipital and parietal cortices,
and to the basal ganglia. I’ll explain these things later.

The effect of this juxtaposition is powerful; the reader feels the personal import of this alien scientific information. In the poem ‘Wake up and sleep’ Price employs his characteristic use of repetition and rhyme, turning the language on the page into a song or chant:

            Wake up outside your ache, your late luscious just-what-it-seems,
            wake up and sleep.
            Wake up to the what-happened, wake up to the casehardened,
            wake up between look and leap.
            Wake up in the shatter and decade-seep,
            wake up and sleep.

This is a powerful poem in its witty introduction of little philosophical twists and turns. You realise by the end of this poem (which closes the section) how mysterious and important sleep really is. This is the work of a sensitive, empathetic poet, willing to delve into new ideas and engage with other disciplines.

This sense of collaboration continues with the section Lute Variations where Price ‘improvises’ around the works of Louise Labé, a rather remarkable French Renaissance poet. These are love lyrics of a kind, evoking the agonies of desire unsatisfied. But they are also about the love of language and the strangeness of the act of translation itself. The reader is never quite sure if the lover is, not a person, but the poetry itself or the implied author Labé, her mysterious figure called out to over language and time:

            Your eyes translate me. You look – away.
            Sighs. Close to tears. Crush. ‘The first signs of rain.’
            The night is my master, in thrall in vain.
            Dawn breaks? Lush nothing again, just the day.
                                                            (from ‘Your eyes translate me’)

As the collection moves on, it seems to me that love becomes its real focus. Not a simply understood or clichéd version of love, but love in all it’s quirky, witty and infuriating guises. The poems become spare, beautiful distillations and the reader feels as though they are walking into an apothecary’s shop, sniffing and tasting tiny bottles of essences of thought, idea, feeling. One of the most striking pieces is ‘Shells’:

            Ache to know –
            or just hold.

            How much
            is there?

            It’s what you think.

            Shells mock the ear.
            Shallows? The swell?

            New / Just healed. Howls
            mock the air. Howls
            mock the scar.

            Look – that was you,
            I think.

An enigmatic piece, where one is compelled to meditate on each image, to unlock and unwrap its importance. At the same time, the language here is dynamic and deceptively forceful.

Price’s wit and humour are also strong throughout the collection, particularly in the precision and play with which he creates his images; ‘Dippers’ are ‘skinnymalinks’, a wren ‘spot-checks the garden’ in an ‘apron’. In ‘Parkway’ Price’s deft use of rhyme spins us through the poem, ‘The West’s attractive/mermaids in nets. Credit card pagans/crabster bets.’

The section ‘little but often’ presents tiny, distilled verses which take the alphabet as their structure. The piece reminded me of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse in its fragmentary combinations of joy and lament. This form felt absolutely right for its subject – one that can only ever be unique and personal, one which you can only present to others in a half-glimpsed, beautifully modest way. Two examples:

            snack wrappers and receipts
            clog the garden by the cars

            jonquils -       
            their quiet citrus stars


            lips to lips,
            lips on supersensitive skin

            a kiss is a conclusive start –
            where do I begin?

Price demonstrates a great confidence in his range of forms, knowing when to distil as he does here, and when to expand, as he does in the section Darkness and Dazzle. Here the lines are longer, more expansive. In ‘Questions’ love is again the subject, but a very different vision of love, in a different voice, ‘Love starts life where memory is already living/It makes the most of its generous host: strikes it dead.’ Price has a voice of his own, which comes through in all the work, but his generosity and lack of ego as a poet allow him to speak through and with others, to translate, to empathise. Price is a poet who listens, and this makes his work sing.

Dr Abi Curtis is a British poet and university lecturer with an interest in creative writing.  She won the Crashaw Prize, and has a debut collection from Salt, Unexpected Weather.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Guest Review: Side On Kaye

Jeffrey Side reviews
What Hands Can Hold

What Hands Can Hold is a collection of poems, many of which are narratives, yet not mired in the intense descriptiveness that such a form has usually comprised. They leave room (as all good poetry should) for the reader’s interaction with the text. For instance, the poem ‘Diya’ (“Diya” is a Hindi word meaning “votive”) recounts a Hindu ritual whereby a wick made of cotton and oil is placed in an earthenware dish, lit, then put in (usually) the river Ganges to mark purity during a religious ceremony, but the poem has a resonance which belies its effortless account of this ritual:

In the gold light of dusk
she cupped her hands
holding flame in a leaf-boat

she set it afloat on the
pond next to a water-lily
breathing magic

then she followed suit
first the sandals
then the silk

then the wind
loosened long hair
she had

so carefully tied back
with a ribbon torn
from the sky

In the first stanza, we see how the candle in its container becomes a boat in the woman’s hands and, by inference and extension, how her hands become the river, in that they hold this boat. The woman and the river, therefore, have become the same. This extension is apt for the female subject, as she is, indeed, a river to the extent that her menstrual cycles, as do the sea’s tides, follow a natural pattern induced by nature. This “melding” of the woman with material phenomena, alludes to one of the many philosophical beliefs held within the myriad belief systems comprised within Hinduism, namely monism: the non-dualist belief that the universe comprises of one thing, despite the appearance of diversity.

In the second stanza, we see that the water lily is able to breath magic. The use of the word ‘breathing’ is also apt in relation to Hindu beliefs. Hinduism holds with the concept of “yugas”, which refers to the names of various cyclical eras, the reoccurring regularity of which are likened metaphorically by Hindus to the inward and outward breathing of human breath: the outward breath creates one yuga, the inward breath relinquishes it, the outward breath creates another yuga, the inward breath relinquishes that, and so forth. The water lily is a widespread symbol for enlightenment and resurrection within Hindu and Buddhist cultures, and because of this, it could be said to hold “mysterious” qualities. One natural quality it has is that, when looked at very closely, it appears to “die” at night, being “born” again in the morning, with the advent of sunlight. This natural ability for it to appear to die and be reborn can appear “magical” to most observing this. The poem’s second stanza alludes to this by describing the water lily as ‘breathing magic’.

With the third stanza, we seem to be observing an “outward” alchemical change in the woman’s physical status, which reflects the metaphorical allusion to this in the first stanza, namely, that she is a unity with the river. In stanza three, after placing the lighted candle into the river she undresses (‘first the sandals / then the silk’) and enters the river. We now have a physical unification of the woman and the river, paralleling the metaphorical amalgamation alluded to in the first stanza. This entering of the river physically, also has resonance regarding various religious rituals involving spiritual rebirth, the most obvious one being that of Christian baptism, which, in the evangelical tradition, involves a full-emersion of the believer into water, traditionally a river. In eastern cultures, silk is a symbol for luxury, therefore, the woman, by disrobing of her silk attire, can be said to be renouncing her former connectedness to the material world, similar to the renunciation that monks and nuns experience when relinquishing their personal possessions before joining their particular religious order.

In stanzas four and five, we see how the wind, which is a symbol for enlightenment or spiritual rebirth in many cultures, loosens the woman’s hair that she had ‘so carefully’ tied back. This “loosening” can be likened to the almost involuntary changes in the former modes of behaviour and attitudes that any sort of spiritual awakening seems to have on a person experiencing it. Such changes are said to be gradual but certain, once the path to enlightenment has reached an assured stage. Here, the woman’s hair, once tied with a ‘ribbon torn / from the sky’ (“sky”, here, being contrasted with the river) is no longer captive to that sky (or the worldly realm) but is now conjoined with the river, which in itself is conjoined to phenomena and the universe in a non-dualistic monism.

This connectivity is also reflected in ‘Nexus’, which concerns the emotional attachment of a mother towards her offspring:

I thought they cut
the umbilical cord,

but no matter how
hard I try,

it will not let me
untangle myself

from its
invisible pull.

Even when you
are far away

I feel it pulse.

Every time
you hurt

—I bleed.

Here we see, as in ‘Diya’, how notions of unity are viewed as almost inexorable, and beyond the wilful control of the participant:

but no matter how
hard I try,

it will not let me
untangle myself

In the poem, phrases such as ‘umbilical cord’, ‘invisible pull’ and ‘far away’ suggest an otherworldly aspect that extends the poem towards a platonic ideal; for these phrases connote an extra-sensual domain that is accessible via the human body. For instance, to those familiar with the concept of the “etheric body” (in some spiritual beliefs said to be an exact immaterial replica of the physical body, and joined to it by a “silver cord”) the poem’s ‘umbilical cord’ will have a resonance, not least because the “silver cord” of the etheric body is envisaged by many as being a non-physical parallel to the physical umbilical cord. The poem expresses the inevitable frustrations, yet overwhelming joys of this connectedness between mother and child, so much so that the experiences of the child can be intimately felt by the mother:

Every time
you hurt

—I bleed.

This seems, to some extent, to convey a sense of the interconnectedness of the repercussions of our actions, and it would not be unfitting to see it as similar in essence to the idea known as The Butterfly Effect in Chaos Theory, whereby, according to Wikipedia, the metaphor of a butterfly flapping its wings,

encapsulates the concept of sensitive dependence on initial conditions in chaos theory; namely that small differences in the initial condition of a dynamical system may produce large variations in the long term behaviour of the system. […] for example, a ball placed at the crest of a hill might roll into any of several valleys depending on slight differences in initial position.

In ‘Pen’, this connectedness is rendered more localised and intimate, where the physical, and, in a particular sense, the “non-physical” become symbiotic. There can be no denying the force of this poem to render almost palpable to consciousness certain tenets of British philosopher David Hartley’s theory of “associationism”. This theory posited an explanation for the physiological basis of the human ability to establish mental associations; as such, it is now an established part of medical and psychological theory. As is well known, Wordsworth’s early poetic output was largely influenced by this theory, as were most of Coleridge’s early poetical ideas.

In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth refers on several occasions to mental associations, and it is possible to see how Hartley’s theory is the source of his interest in bodily sensation that is evident in passages such as ‘our bodies feel, where’er they be / Against or with our will’ (in ‘Expostulation and Reply’) and ‘sensations sweet, /  Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; / And passing even into my purer mind’ (in ‘Tintern Abbey’). Similarly, in Coleridge’s verse we can see references to Hartley’s notion of a physiological process causally linking mind and matter, as the following lines dedicated to him in Religious Musings illustrate:

             he of mortal kind
Wisest, he first who marked the ideal tribes
Up the fine fibres through the sentient brain.

We see something of an echo of the last line of this Coleridge quote in ‘Pen’:

Inside this bone
burns marrow fire
it cannot
be extinguished,
only spent

a shadow
dizzied by
“tabula rasa”

Here, the physical marrow within the physical bone is rendered as ‘fire’ or energy (or “life force”)—if we extend its scope to include one of the classical elements of ancient Greek thought. Because of this, the marrow is no longer envisaged as being physical; it becomes a force, or power, that travels through the conduit of the physical bone to the thinking centre, the brain; here alluded to by ‘tabula rasa’, which, although contingent on an absence of consciousness, nevertheless, has connotations of the thinking process and the physical brain, which facilitates this. In light of this, we can see how Coleridge’s ‘Up the fine fibres through the sentient brain’ finds echoes in this poem.
Indeed, a further echo of Wordsworth can be seen in ‘Intimations of Mortality’, which despite its title being an antonym to the one Wordsworth gave his poem ‘Intimations of Immortality’, shares some of the latter’s concerns. Both poems deal neo-platonically with the concept of an immortal soul: Wordsworth’s from the position of pre-birth, Kaye’s from that of after death:

Sing, my friend, exult,
soar beyond where angels gather
to scatter feathers from their broken wings.

Tears mingle with rain to nourish earth
in clear voice, pure fountain of the soul,
framed in pulsing silhouette
as songs bleed into the hungry air.

Where do souls flee when death
absorbs their radiance?
When time shrinks on itself
blooming like a treacherous flower,
so innocently cruel?

Whereas Wordsworth deals with the matter philosophically, Kaye does so from a more emotional standpoint, in a register that is knowingly archaic and redolent of William Blake. The poem ends with a fittingly moving stanza, which is readily relatable to by everyone (a yardstick of effective poetry):

Sometimes the fallen enter memories
of those who live on wings,
like when you visit me, and my dreams,
which you inhabit fully.

Perhaps my favourite poem in this collection is ‘Heart of a Dragon’, which is rich in connotation and allusion. In the first two lines of the poem,

During the darkest hours of night,
the heart can no longer hold out.

we see that the use of the word “heart” is redolent of that in Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘Heart, We Will Forget Him’. In that poem, Dickinson personifies and externalises her heart, or more accurately her “passion”, to form a dichotomy between it and herself, in order to project her individuality onto it, as can be seen in the opening stanza of Dickinson’s poem:

Heart, we will forget him,
You and I, tonight!

Similarly, in the opening of Kaye’s poem the heart becomes a separate entity, which, unlike in Dickinson, is referred to in the third person (‘the heart’). Both poems in their opening refer to night. In Kaye, the night becomes the period when ‘the heart can no longer hold out’; in Dickinson the same period is the time ‘we will forget him’ (presumably a reference to a loved one). This “forgetting”, which is apparent in Dickinson, is only alluded to in Kaye: ‘the heart can no longer hold out’.
In the next lines of the poem,

Dark as the hunter’s dragon
in some enchanted weyr hidden
as I stand on the edge of night.

the heart is described as “dark”; a word already alluded to in the two opening lines of the poem, in the context of ‘the darkest hours of night’. This time, the heart’s darkness (redolent of Joseph Conrad’s title for his book, ‘Heart of Darkness’) is compared to that of a hunter’s dragon. Again “night” is mentioned, yet it is not quite night, as there is some ambivalence at play, as suggested by the ‘the edge of’.  Could this stand for a feeling of indecisiveness, or perhaps one whereby the poem’s speaker feels pulled in different directions simultaneously, producing some sort of aroused tension? Could it be that the heart/passion well hidden in the ‘enchanted weyr’ is, in some sense, at odds with the speaker position of only being at the edge of night, or less hidden? Of course, who can tell? Yet, this sort of ambivalence is what makes poetry, poetry.

In other parts of the poem, it is possible to hear faint echoes of imagery from other poems. The following lines, for instance, almost chime in concordance to Blake’s dystopian view of London, in his poem of that name, ‘London:

Pungent, acrid flames emerge
to blow my heart upon the hearse
floating in the silent black lake.

The phrase ‘Pungent, acrid flames emerge’, and the words ‘hearse’, ‘black’ and ‘lake’ have something of a shared register with these lines from Blake’s poem:

How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning Church appalls; […]

Blasts the new born Infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse. […]

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow, […]

These lines by Blake could almost be the responsive notes to the call of Kaye’s, if it were not for historical chronology.

In a review such as this, it is not possible to fully convey the entire delights this collection holds. I have merely skimmed the surface. No one who delves further into this collection will be disappointed, I can assure you.

Jeffrey Side is an English poet, editor, publisher, and critic.

Abject England

The BBC commentary said it all - abject.  Hammered.  Individuals not a team.  What went wrong?  Top English players went out to the worst English result in a World Cup.  Ever.  Yes, the second England goal was stolen.  That was an outrage.  But there was no defence.  Precious little offence.  Germany outclassed England when it mattered in South Africa.  In four years time, hopefully, lessons will have been learned.  This great nation deserves players worthy of the world-class heart of its fans.  Germany, meanwhile, could go all the way.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Experimental Sex Hospital

I am glad to alert Eyewear readers to the (to me) exciting fact that I have a new collection out, a full-length ebook of poems about desire and devotion, from the new Argotist series run by poet-editor Jeffrey Side, titled Experimental Sex Hospital.  As such, it is a companion, or sequel, to 2009's Mainstream Love Hotel.  It is free to download so do take a peek. The cover is a treat, so I won't use its image here but keep it a surprise.

Ronald Neame Has Died

I have always enjoyed genre movies, and B-movies, and disaster movies.  Ronald Neame directed the greatest of these, The Poseidon Adventure, a classic Hollywood kitsch-fest that has made the idea of a fat lady swimming underwater en route to "The Holy Land" both deeply moving and faintly comic.  Nor can we forget the pathos of the tough NYC cop played by Borgnine losing his wife to a sudden jolt, fall and fireball ("Linda!!!"), or Gene Hackman's tormented Vatican II priest dying to save his unlikely comrades on the cross of an inverted door-wheel.  Remakes have done much to prove the commercial genius of the original, whose humour, humanity and sense of adventure (indeed) have yet to be recaptured in any such flick since.  Neame made other films, but my other 70s favourite by him is The Odessa File, which manages to capture the gritty feel of the period, with a superb performance by a young Jon Voight.  The scene where he avoids being crushed by a Berlin metro car is exciting, and one of my favourites, as is the shoot-out in a disused factory. A master has died.

Tom Phillips on Violent Femmes

“I forget what eight was for...”

Like a dusty snapshot of 1986, I’ve still got the shoebox of cassettes that I brought home from university. All the usual suspects are there: The Smiths, The Cure, Orange Juice, Talking Heads, Tom Waits, The Fall. This was the era of ‘Rain Dogs’, ‘Stop Making Sense’ and ‘Meat is Murder’, after all, the kind of literate pop that was obligatory listening for students who surfed the tail-end of punk at school, made self-conscious forays into poetry and lay down on pavements to protest against grant cuts, cruise missiles and sundry other Thatcherite atrocities.

In the same shoebox, though, are three albums by another band who, despite having been likened to leftfield icons like the Velvet Underground and Jonathan Richman at the time, rarely seem to get mentioned nowadays. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because they came from Milwaukee. Or admitted to busking. Or eschewed an overproduced 1980s sheen in favour of songs which pieced country, punk, jazz, blues and rock’n’roll together in ways that sounded both obvious and unlikely – squalls of Zorn-esque noise bursting in on frantic rockabilly, T Rex played as funk. Or maybe it was simply because they sang about infanticide, sexual frustration, suicide, predation, obesity and, most discomfiting of all, religion. Either way, it’s probably fair to say that Violent Femmes won’t be cropping up on many 80s-related TV list shows in the near future – as least not in the UK.

To be honest, that’s almost a good thing. The obsession with pigeonholing reduced the majority of music criticism to the level of a clerical exercise several decades ago, and so what if most people go to their graves assuming that 1980s pop extended only so far as the corporately endorsed ‘rebellion’ of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Culture Club and U2? Or that Morrissey and David Byrne were the most articulate (if not always entirely comprehensible) voices of a frustrated generation? Better in a way that category-defying bands like Violent Femmes remain under the radar and not yet written into the anodyne ‘history of pop’.
Not that they’ve disappeared completely, of course. It’s not as if the three cassettes in my shoebox are the only surviving recordings. There are CD reissues on sale at Amazon and video clips on YouTube, even a fairly recent download of a peculiar version of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’. In fact, it was stumbling across a decidedly unnerving online film that used the Violent Femmes’ even more decidedly unnerving ‘Add It Up’ as a soundtrack which reminded me I hadn’t listened to them for a very long time. So that’s why I dusted down the cassettes and played those first three albums back-to-back.

And what do they sound like now? Well, maybe not the works of unalloyed genius they seemed to be at the time. There’s the odd moment that grates, and you could probably argue that the law of diminishing returns had started kicking in as early as the third, Gerry Harrison-produced record: ‘The Blind Leading The Naked’ might well be the sound of a band being stifled by someone else’s idea of how their creativity works, much like a publisher stifling the work of a young but paradigm-staggering poet. Perhaps the title unwittingly reveals the relationship between producer and musicians.

Before this smoothing-out process began, however, there still remains something uniquely disquieting about this band. Put on second album ‘Hallowed Ground’, for instance, and it starts with a pedestrian two-note bass line and what sounds like it’s going to be a cheery country & western singalong. Except that frontman Gordon Gano’s voice sounds strangely strained, on edge – as well it might: ‘Country Death Song’ soon has its anguished porch-dwelling protagonist confessing to killing his lovely daughter by pushing her down a well. Why? It’s never really clear – possibly because of some deranged belief that this is only the way he can guarantee she’ll get to heaven. Even now, when I know what’s coming, it’s as dysfunctional, painful and compelling a lyric as any more obviously melodramatic murder ballads.

Dysfunction, though, is something of a Violent Femmes speciality. Love is haunted by lust, obsession or just plain old incomprehension (‘Why can’t I get just one screw?’ asks Gano in a tone that hovers uncomfortably between a teenager desperate to lose his virginity and a prowler looking for a victim), while angst is shaded by the threat of violence as a sexually frustrated son begs his father to let him use the car or a would-be suicide counts out his pills, tallying off the reasons for his imminent self-destruction, both of them descending into a semi-articulate rage.

It’s a volatile world of skewed emotions, and listening in on it again, I can see why, in the dismal days of the 1980s, when the world was still defined by Thatcher, Reagan, the Berlin Wall and mutually assured destruction, and when political correctness was first making its baleful influence felt, it exerted a fascination which, paradoxically enough, bordered on reassurance – not just the simple reassurance that there seemed to be people out there who were as confused as we were, but that there were Americans who were as confused as we were and that you could write about these things without worrying about the ideological implications. Curiously, even though they hardly ever mentioned politics directly (unless you read ‘Old Mother Reagan’ as a parable damning the then president), seemed to veer dangerously close to misogyny and racism at times, and occasionally threw in references to god, they appealed to the bunch of Marxists, Trotskyites, Gramscians, atheists, feminists and one-sort-of-lefties-or-another that we thought we were far more readily than bands who wore Lenin badges and little red wedges in their lapels. Maybe that was because they expressed what it felt like to be live in bad times rather than simply shouting about how awful they were. Either way, I’m not putting the shoebox back in the cupboard just yet. 

Tom Phillips is a Bristol-based poet and journalist, and regular contributor to Eyewear.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Featured Poet: Don Share

Eyewear is very glad to welcome American poet Don Share (pictured) this exceptionally warm Friday in London, and to feature a new poem by him.  Share grew up in Memphis, Tennessee.  He is Senior Editor of Poetry in Chicago. He was previously Curator of the Poetry Room at Harvard University, and Poetry Editor of Harvard Review and Partisan Review. Squandermania is his most recent book of poems, three poems from which were nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His earlier book, Union, was a finalist for the Boston Globe/PEN New England Winship Award for outstanding book.

His other books include Seneca in English and I Have Lots of Heart, translations of Miguel Hernandez which received the Times Literary Supplement Translation Prize. His critical edition of the poems of Basil Bunting is forthcoming from Faber and Faber.

Looking Over My Shoulder

I went to Heaven once, sadly
leaving my push-mower and orange snow
shovel behind, like uneaten food
pushed aside on a stark china plate.

The man upstairs was not happy.
He liked a sharp blade and a clear
driveway.  His strictures were

stringent enough to shrive a cactus.
Yet it was I who blindly insisted
on formalities, and stood

on what I thought was ceremony.
I could scarcely taste the beer he poured,
or eat my ham sandwich.

When our visit was over,
he shook my hand and sent me
somersaulting back to my village, where

I was filled, thank God, with genuine salt.

poem by Don Share


A WORK IN PROGRESS... I am writing this first part on the eve of New Year's Eve day - and as new remembrances come to me, I may well...