Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Leah Fritz At 80

Leah Fritz, British-based, American-born, Poet and Writer, is 80 today!  That's wonderful news.  Fritz has been an active, popular presence on the London poetry scene for long before I arrived here in 2003 - and was one of the first to welcome me when I arrived.  She is funny, acerbic, brilliant, and an excellent judge of what makes a good poem.  Her poetry collections include From Cookie to Witch Is an Old Story (1987) and Going, Going... (2007).  Her works on feminism included Thinking Like A Woman (1975) and Dreamers & Dealers: An Intimate Appraisal of the Women's Movement (1980).  Andrea Dworkin's classic, Intercourse, is dedicated to Leah.  Her New and Selected Poems is out from Salmon, in Ireland, in 2012, which is more cause for celebration.  I offer the following poem of hers, below, as a gift to Eyewear's readers (with thanks to poetry pf).

Whatever Sends the Music Into Time

Whatever sends the music into time,
not just in metre but through centuries,
Mozart years of sound, the flat stone skipped
across the glassy surface of that fourth
transparency; whatever it may be,
code as tight as DNA or heavenly gift,
perhaps a curse, but if a curse a gift
for some poor devil in the mind of time –
what I am getting at, it cannot be
within one’s sole control – the centuries
roll back, old ground uncovered, a fourth
of history returns, the rest is skipped
to be revealed again when more is skipped
under the stone where earth’s most treasured gift
lies buried waiting the tiller’s bringing forth
each truth in its appointed (random) time.
And so the influence of centuries
gone by foreshadows what is yet to be.
But here I am concerned with what will be
when my pen, across the pages skipped,
auditions for its place in centuries.
How does a poet hint for such a gift
and to whom? Mother of future time, 
where do I seek you? In Einstein’s fourth
dimension? Or in myself, which can give forth
such music as I have? Let it be 
enough for me and mine in our own time.
About that time – about the days I skipped
through city leaves, thinking the sun a gift
immeasurable, no thought of centuries,
no knowledge then of years (of centuries
and histories, less intimation): if forth
from infancy comes all there is of gift,
struggle though I may; if it should be
my name in that long heritage is skipped
for one less happy in her own true time,
I think the music that I hear must be
enough, the other vanity well skipped.
Sufficient beauty is there in my time.

Monday, 30 May 2011

New Poem by Todd Swift

Moments In The Life Of

Considerably later, having fallen from the train.

The water cooler ran like a river of ice.

Dancing among ourselves, how jolly.

Passing judgment on the elevator man.

Brushing rain from our lapels we snorted.

Once, a passing thought fixed itself in your eye.

Several packages went missing, duly missed.

There was that altercation over a pay rise.

Hat stands may need to be adjusted occasionally.

Filter tip does not mean tipping out on the carpet.

She stayed long enough to leave an impression.

The favourite air conditioning unit broke.

Time passed in such a way it was barely noticed.

Over the weekend we all did our own thing.

Dancing on that occasion left her breathless.

He looked a bit like that fellow in the pictures.

Dashing back and forth on the avenue.

Buzzing him in she forgot to mention Christmas.

Snow came across a little ham-fisted just this once.

After all was said and done it had been a lark.

Rain in lashings and a steady line of mourners.

There was a flash like a memory only it was a bird.

poem by Todd Swift

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Gil Scott-Heron Has Died

Sad news.  The great American poet-musician, Gil Scott-Heron has died, at the age of 62.  Scott-Heron was a ground-breaking artist who pioneered spoken word and rap, and achieved world fame with his 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised', perhaps the most influential spoken word/rap performance.  After years of challenge and addiction, he returned brilliantly the last few years with several albums created with a new generation of musicians.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Featured Poet: Zoë Skoulding

Eyewear is very pleased to welcome poet Zoë Skoulding (pictured) this sunny London morning (after a day of thundershowers).  Skoulding’s most recent collection is Remains of a Future City (Seren, 2008), following The Mirror Trade in 2004. Dark Wires, a collaboration with Ian Davidson, was published by West House Books in 2007. She is a member of the group Parking Non-Stop, whose album Species Corridor was released in 2008, and also performs her poetry in various cross-artform contexts. She is one of the best experimental poets writing in the UK today.  She is the Editor of Poetry Wales.  As a poet born in Montreal, I can't help but be pleased by the subject matter of the poem below!

From Mont Royal

They call the surface of the landscape a skin (the hugeness of that organ).
But it is a lung. 25 times the surface of the skin, 500 million passageways
into the blood. 
                                                                                    Erín Moure

Take a walk down
a deep breath where

fractal branches crumple air
ways divide and multiply

in street plan sections
deep in the creases

of lungs an interior
surface like raised hands

with eyes looks back
at wet air exhaled

in clouds as gas
exchange latticed under fog

or honeycombed in lights
in steps of respiration

I follow my nose
down pharynx larynx windpipe

bronchi bronchioles and into
the tips of terminal

branches further in and
farther out it’s winter

and it should be
snowing but it’s too

warm for a coat
a line I dreamed

escapes me slides between
inverted streets that suck

in cash expel it
through glittering halls or

was that maws or
malls the underground unfolds

at each step in
blood transport as doors

open to respiratory trees
starred with blue lights

through darkness a face
travels as time grows

out of itself and
antique domes jut against

sheer glass or brick
scuffed where painted ads

peel off and underfoot
the sandy mud exposes

pipes and drains with
planks laid over while

mist presses down on
arched ribs of trees

and oxygen crosses alveoli

poem by Zoe Skoulding.  Published online with permission of the author.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

New Poem by Jason Monios


On the labour strikes against foreign workers in the UK, February 2009.

Rain drives down, a perfect tilt diagonal,
forty-five degrees. Snow heaves itself
across, a spirit-level’s eerie grasp
of fluids and forces on the horizontal.

Rain and snow in simulcast, refusing to mix
until impact shatters their self-belief, the illusion
of selfhood, the repressed bigotry latent beneath
histrionic claims of nationality.

Outside Sellafield the rain and snow still fall
separately. Workers strike, refuse the right
of other men to work along with them.
A working man will stop another working,

throw his pottery chip into the urn
alongside his countrymen, any and all countrymen
as though he has more in common with his boss
who is English, than with his colleagues who aren’t.

How many pawns bedeck a standard chess board
and how many kings? How many pawns are tricked
into laying themselves down, numbly creating
paths with their coats for queens to walk upon?

Fight your war, shoot each other in the streets,
strike against each other, never blaming
your superiors, your generals, your bishops, rooks and kings.
Blame those who reveal your self-defeating
fratricides, not caring whose hands are on the strings.

Jason Monios lives in Edinburgh. His poetry has appeared in Acumen, Magma, Poetry Scotland, New Writing Scotland, Horizon, nthposition, Umbrella and The Guardian.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Dylan At 70

I am trying to compare Bob Dylan to anyone else.  As a poet, he is not more memorably gifted than Leonard Cohen, Yeats, John Berryman, or indeed Dylan Thomas.  As a singer, he is no match for Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, or Pavarotti.  As a songwriter, he is equalled by, perhaps, John Lennon, Kurt Weill, Kurt Cobain, Bob Marley, and Elvis Costello.  Why is it then that he is singled out as the paramount genius of popular music?  The answer, my friends, is 50 years.  Dylan, that enigmatic, sexy, sly trickster figure has been in constant transformation for fifty years of unequalled song composition and performance, or reperformance, his interpretations and variations creating Borgesian complications.  His personal journey has had more make-overs than Lady Gaga.  He has been a Christian, a cowboy, a peacenik, a fierce Zionist, and a praiser of Scotland.  He is, arguably, the Shakespeare of song - an uncanny talent of unlimited potential.  At 20, at 40, and at 70, he amazed and amazes.  I do not think he is the presiding genius of our age - our age seems too multiple to have just one.  But he is one of the greats.  It is good to be able to wish him a happy 70th.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Rapturous Applause

The end of the world did not come yesterday, as the blogosphere, and Facebook etc delighted in reporting.  A tsunami of anti-Christian jibes and jokes spewed forth.  The Rapture is a beautiful if troubling idea.  It is a miraculous end to the world, and beginning of judgement, that is harsh, punitive, and, obviously, unwelcoming to non-Christians.  One of the most troubling of aspects of fundamentalist religions is that they are predicated on the idea that those who are not signed up will be damned.  This tends to go down badly among enlightened, secular, broad-minded people who are clearly doomed to hellfire.  So of course, a certain amount of mockery is to be expected when such predictions sputter out.  However, the age of enchantment is over when the world assumes that such hopes or fears as a catastrophic, God-driven teleology are just silly.  Yeats was silly.  But great poetry can derive from seemingly mad or implausible spiritual expectations.  The tissue of reason that seems to keep the world sober is torn when we imagine ghosts, or whispers of immortality, angels and werewolves; bad luck; good luck; prayer; and telepathy.  We laugh in an arid space when we laugh at what is impossible, miraculous, terrible, and potentially inspired.  Some day, something truly magical is going to happen.  Or wouldn't it be nice, at least, to think so?

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Six For The Best

Eyewear will be six in June, the six month. Send new unpublished poems in English to toddswift at clara dot co uk marked Eyewear Poetry as word docs. One poem per poet. Poems should be no longer than 36 lines long, and use the word six in the poem. The competition will be judged by Irish poet Barbara Smith, a regular contributor to Eyewear. First prize will be £6 and publication online at Eyewear. Open to everyone in the world. Submissions must be received no later than the last day in June by midnight.

Friday, 20 May 2011

JCS reviews Lady Gaga's New Album Born This Way

James Christopher Sheppard reviews Born This Way by Lady Gaga; and recants his earlier opinion...

At last, after months of ultra-hype, Born This Way, the brand new Lady Gaga album, has arrived. Let’s see if it lives up to the expectations.

‘Marry The Night’
Straight into a haunting melodic club track, Gaga sets the pace for the album in style. This is a great song to bridge the gap between The Fame Monster to Born This Way, showing evolution in sound, but playing to Gaga’s strengths. ‘Marry the Night’ eases you into the new album with a soft start, but that quickly turns into those hammering beats Gaga has been promising for months.

‘Born This Way’
The title track and first single, which went on to become Gaga’s biggest hit in the USA, was met with controversial comparisons to Madonna’s ‘Express Yourself’. While it is less edgy to her previous headline grabbing singles, ‘Born This Way’ seems to have established itself as THE guilty pleasure. You shouldn’t love it, but eventually, with every listen, you crank it up and dance like the empowered little freak you really are.

‘Government Hooker’
Beginning like a track made for the cult film ‘Repo: The Genetic Opera’, the dirty bass and futuristic messy industrial distortion establishes Lady Gaga’s progression as an artist. This sounds like nothing she has ever done before, yet it somehow seems to be a natural fit. ‘Government Hooker’ quickly dispels the feeling of guilty pleasure from the album.

Second single, which at first received only a luke-warm reception and disappointing sales, now seems to be building momentum. It just proves that it doesn’t matter how big you are, you still need to promote to sell. Gaga performed ‘Judas’ on Graham Norton last week, which was her first UK performance of the song. It definitely gets better with each listen and logs itself into your brain, particularly the ‘Juda Judaas Juda Judaas’ part. Still, an odd choice for second single, but not bad as an album track.

Five tracks in and the tempo shows no sign of slowing down or altering. The hammering beat is still present, but this time has a Mexican flamenco touch to it. Possibly aspiring to be this album’s ‘Alejandro’… it’s not bad, but it’s the least most striking yet.

Released already as a promotional song on Itunes, ‘Hair’ has received generally positive reviews from fans all over the Internet. Lady Gaga has said in interviews that it is some people’s favourite track from the album, but I personally just don’t really connect with a song that’s chorus is passionately singing ‘I am my hair’. The song sounds great however, with punchy ultra-electro elements that thump along next to a piano and a saxophone.

Oh my goodness. German language, german accented speaking, bass heavy hammering industrial beats that smack against a 90s techno beat with synths that Felix’s ‘Don’t You Want Me’ would be proud of. This is the most dance that Gaga has ever sounded. Kind of addictive and kind of bonkers. ‘I don’t speak Germa, but I can if you like’…

‘Bloody Mary’
The tempo slows down momentarily for ‘Bloody Mary’. Religion returns as the main theme, but is far softer than ‘Judas’. While this is mid-tempo, it is dark, synth-orientated and very dance-friendly.

‘Bad Kids’
Sounding the most like Gaga’s earlier tracks, ‘Dirty Ice Cream’ anybody? Perfectly listenable, fun and danceable, ‘Bad Kids’ is just not a stand out track from the rest of this collection. Still, considering the quality of this song and it not being a standout, that is something quite admirable.

‘Highway Unicorn (Highway to Love)’
Sounding inspired by Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’, ‘Highway Unicorn’ is industrial orientated and bass-heavy euphoria. There is so much going on here that it is easy to get a little overwhelmed and lost in it. This one will definitely take a few listens, but after those listens, it could well be a fan favourite.

‘Heavy Metal Lover’
An understated song, this is not what you would expect from the ‘Heavy Metal Lover’ title, resembling more ‘So Happy I Could Die’ from The Fame Monster or a brilliant Goldfrapp track. Without those hammering beats, this is softer and entwines its way into your mind. There is potential for some awesome remixes of this track, and there’s a lot to play with here in a live setting.

‘Electric Chapel’
‘If you want me, meet me at electric chapel’ Gaga sings over this stomping euro-synth number. Similarly understated, like ‘Heavy Metal Lover’, but with thumping beats and some unexpected electric guitar solos. ‘Electric Chapel’ probably sounds the least like the Gaga we are already familiar with. It’s pretty damn good though, despite the rather sudden ending.

‘You and I’
Performed several times on ‘The Monster Ball’ tour, we can finally hear the final version of ‘You and I’. Fans may be surprised that this usual soft ballad has been given full on production, with 80s tinged backing vocals and slow, but heavy beats throughout. I take back my previous statement; THIS is the least Gaga we have ever heard. A piano led ballad would have been less surprising. The production completely changes this song from the version they are familiar with, it could almost be a Shania Twain track from her Come on Over album.

‘The Edge of Glory’
Recently released as a promotional single for the album, ‘The Edge of Glory’ will be known to many as it unexpectedly shot to #1 all over the world, including the UK Itunes charts. It’s easy to see why the song is so loved, following an incredibly emotional and powerful performance of it at Radio 1’s Big Weekend last weekend. This is one of Lady Gaga’s most uplifting songs ever, with no gimmicks, just solid production, beautiful lyrics and a powerful vocal. The saxophone brings a new dimension to the track, which has elements of Patrick Wolf’s latest single, ‘The City’. ‘The Edge of Glory’ really demonstrates Lady Gaga’s ability to write a brilliant song without any controversy or shock factor.

So, despite the few cheesy moments, what would a pop record that is celebrating being different or an outsider be without them? Born This Way is going to send Lady Gaga’s devoted following of monsters into a frenzy when they first hear this collection of sledgehammering beats and quirkiness that could only be one woman. For everyone else, if you enjoyed The Fame and The Fame Monster, you will undoubtedly love Born This Way. For those concerned that the first few singles were not to their taste, do not fear as they most certainly do not represent the best of what is here. Well done, Gaga. Not bad at all.

JCS is the music critic for Eyewear.  He is currently based in Hull.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Guest Review: Bailey on Capildeo

Andrew Bailey reviews
Undraining Sea

When Undraining Sea fell out of the envelope I was already delighted; Capildeo's Person Animal Figure was one of my highlights of 2005 when it appeared as a Landfill pamphlet, and it was a further joy to find that it makes up a big chunk of this second full collection.

That poem is a remarkable sequence in which post-office queues share space with oneiric creatures, laughter with darkness, beauty with anger, through the interaction of three strands: the animals that make up a dreamlike bestiary, the stream-of-consciousness voice of the person, and a whisper of dark in the form of the shadowy figure.  Running over 13 pages in its new hard covers, it's impossible to do justice to its effects with fair use length quotations, but not to try would be unforgiveable, so:

The animal who kisses persistently is much to be avoided.  The more it is avoided, the more it comes back.  It will seek out its prey in the middle of dreams of castles in nowhere, and make its catch before the staircase in the upper servants' hall. [...]

Being the person who buys stamps I am the person who stands up among the special offers why is the queue so long does that girl at the cash desk not know how to pack things or is it that she can't well you know [...]

This dark figure moves from peripheral vision when the nest of the body has sprung apart.

Opening a review like this sounds like I'm leading up to disappointment;  but no.  The book's first section (of three) consists of two sequences that both confirm my initial glee.  The first, 'A Book of Hours: from Adonais to Zeus' stretches its imagery of darkness in light, light in darkness, over a long day in prose rhythms; the second, 'Winter to Winter', uses a long year (from January through to a second February, making summer the aberration it felt like in this year’s chilly winter) to explore love and language and their place in a frequently cold world.  "The cold / draws ropes through the fingers; the cold / calls for thermal pulses, makes / the hand aware of how it is made," writes Capildeo in 'Cherries Out of Season', the fifth part of 'February: Winter' in the latter (constituent parts of her sequences may also be sequences), but in the "frost / frost frost / frost" notes that "kisses are cherries out of season". 

Later sections introduce breathing space with shorter poems, although a fondness for the longer forms persists.  Over at Black Box Manifold, Adam Piette also focuses on these, praising ‘Disappearing People’ from the second section for its handling of the intermingling dreams of the genders, in a review that describes this book as an “urgent, shapely, generous and serious collection”, which I won’t be disagreeing with.

If the work is shapely, incidentally, so is the hardback form Eggbox have provided for it.  And before the endpapers, we are given notes; among these is a guide to reading the collage of found text, 'Hazardous Shelves, Deep Waters', that explains - spoiler! - "the poem is means to show how one 'sea' of voices rolls from an actual set of shelves or in memory, including the quality of echo and muttering of translation or imperfect transmission."  It's unusual to flag authorial intent so openly, but I found it entirely fitting, particularly in memory of the query "is it fair to write anything an intelligent twelve year old could not understand ... yes twelve is the yardstick" (from 'Person Animal Figure' again).  So it's fair for the poet to remark on what might have been missed, whether that's the pun on bookshelves and coastal shelves, the sources of the quotations, or the statement of intent.  It's also fair to keep these at the back so as to avoid narrowing interpretations, hence earlier spoiler warning. The inner flap lets on that Capildeo’s CV includes contributing to the work of the OED; should it be tempting to speculate on the relationship between these different ways of opening up the meanings of words?  Whether or no, it’s almost certainly linked to the pleasures of ‘Found Song’, assembling a narrative of sorts of love and violence from a seventeenth-century “Caribbian-Vocabulary”.

If there must be a cavil , it would be that the trouble with offering several of the larger canvases of longer poems is that shorter lyrics can appear throwaway in comparison.  The temptingly-titled 'From First To Last His Books, That Started Thin, Grew Less, And I'd Put Myself in Debt to Buy All Four or Five of Them', for example, seems merely illustrative of its title.  Gathering most of the shorter pieces into the third section of the book may exaggerate this feeling.  However, giving in to that sensation means ignoring that 'Which Way Up?' manages the technical feat of parallel cancrizans within a larger one, and that the mistimed empathy of 'Kitchen Business' for a bird hitting a window is sketched economically in seven brief lines whose syntax provokes a pleasurable blurring as to the owner of the "blinking pain / perched outside my head."  It's possible, then, that the arrangement within the book is overshadowing the shorter ones - and it's also possible that my own interest in longer forms, or expectation of them from the pamphlet joy, is more responsible for that than Capildeo is.  What she is responsible for, what I'm grateful for, is a wholly recommendable collection that justifies the praise on its back.

Andrew Bailey is a writer based in Sussex.  A first collection, Zeal, is forthcoming from Enitharmon.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Strauss-Kahn Test

According to the latest polls, a majority of the French think Mr. Strauss-Kahn is innocent, stitched up by some sort of elaborate conspiracy.  That's ironic, since under French law, the arrested do not get the assumption of innocence.  However, and noting that this is still only an alleged series of crimes, it doesn't look good for someone once one of the ten most powerful men in the world.  As more emerges about his victim, a widowed mother apparently with AIDS or HIV, an immigrant to America from Africa without any sense of who her attacker was, a brave but scared woman, it is hard not to side with her David to his Goliath.

It is true that the crimes are not those usually associated with busy serious people on the verge of running for office - though politicians are known to have large sexual appetites from time to time - but the accused has, unfortunately, a track record of allegedly aggressive dealings with numerous women previously.  The term sexual predator comes to mind.  It is likely that what happened in the luxury hotel room was either a) the breaking of a dam, the cracking of a barely-controlled sexual mania, and hence a crime of insanity; or b) more chillingly, a calculated expression of a ruthless, perhaps even casual (and regular) disregard for others except as a means to an end, not an end in themselves; it may be that Mr. Strauss-Kahn practiced the satanic injunction to do what he willed, as the whole of the law.

The law is bigger than the individual penis or ego of any rapist, however, and seems to be bearing down with sure and brutal directness on this most abruptly revelatory of cases.  France may have been saved from having a deranged and evil president.  The other possibilities, that c) this was a romantic misunderstanding, are not supported by the facts; and d) that it is a set-up, again, seems hard to work out.  If so, why did he flee?

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Guest Review: Hirschhorn On Adonis

Focus on Adonis
by Norbert Hirschhorn

Selected Poems. Translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa.

If Only the Sea Could Sleep: Love Poems. Translated from the Arabic by Kamal Boullata, Susan Einbinder, Miréne Ghossein

The Pages of Day and Night. Translated from the Arabic by Samuel Hazo

An Introduction to Arab Poetics. Translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham.

Adonis, known as the T.S. Eliot of Arab literature, was born Ali Ahmad Sa’id Esber in 1930, in Syria to a family from the disadvantaged religious minority of Alawites (who now run the country).  After being jailed in 1955 as a member of the irredentist Syrian Social Nationalist Party, on release he fled to neighbouring Beirut where he established the ground-breaking Majallat Shi’r (‘Poetry Magazine’) devoted to experimental poetry. During the Lebanese Civil War, he left for Paris where he now lives.  Twenty volumes of poetry and thirteen of criticism later he is a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize.  The Swedish Academy, however, seldom awards the prize to authors whose oeuvre they cannot read in a European language (Naguib Mahfouz was well-translated to English by the time his award was given).  Adonis has been poorly served in this regard, that is until last year with Khaled Mattawa’s sterling translations of Adonis’ work completed between 1957 and 2008.

Adonis spent a quarter century immersed in Arabic poetry and literary criticism ranging from pre-Islamic days up through the 20th century.  His findings were marvelously outlined in the four lectures given at the Collège de France in 1984 and published in 1990.  Arabic poetry before Islam was oral, metered and rhymed, thus easy to understand and deeply felt, evoking emotion through the poet’s performance. When the beautiful verses of the Qur’ān were put to writing two decades after the Prophet’s death, however, it was determined that no poetry could now deviate from what was intended as God’s final message to humanity. Rules were set down to protect the incorruptible language, and poetry was meant to serve explication of the Qur’ān.  But, as Adonis explained in the afterword to Hazo’s translations, codification subverts the nature of poetic language, ‘for this language, since it is man’s expression of his explosive moods, his impetuousness, his difference, is incandescent, constantly renewing itself, heterogeneous, kinetic and explosive, always a disrupter of codes and systems.’

Remarkably, Arab poets of the 8th to 10th centuries (Abu Nawas, Al-Niffari, Al Maari, Abu Tamman, and Al-Mutanabbi, among others) invented what we would recognize today, even in English, as ‘modern’ poetry, which Adonis emulates.  They wrote poems embracing multiplicity of meaning, evoking ambiguity, sedition, eroticism, the illicit, the mystical, things open-ended, even nightmarish; poetry as questioning and prophetic, where every word is assigned multiple meanings, Adonis further remarked in the Hazo afterword that ‘[The reader] no longer enters the poem as he would a garden whose fruits are within easy reach of his hand, but rather as he would an abyss or an epic…. Opening doors to the unsayable, [the poem] insists on the absence of any correspondence between things and words.’ As a further indication of these poets’ modernity was the development of extreme metaphor, the relation made between two disparate subjects (tenor and vehicle): the further the distance, the better. ‘Extreme convergence in extreme divergence’ said one critic of the time.  (‘Esemplastic’, Coleridge called it.)

Predictably, these poets were attacked by the religious establishment, some even murdered. The destruction of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols ended the Islamic Golden Age, while the rise of the Caliphate and Ottoman Empire promoted a tyranny of poetic form, one dominating until just the last century.

In the West we also have experimental poetry – imagist, surrealist, ‘language’ poetry. But compared to Adonis, there is a certain poverty to it.  I think this is because the Arab poet can draw on centuries of oral tradition and metaphor rooted in the physical and cultural landscapes of urban, desert and village life.  For instance, Adonis (and Mahmoud Darwish) uses the evocative tropes of sand, sea, sky, oases, water, fire, earth, stars, wind., horizon, palms, forest, wounds, destruction and creation, and the madness of the lover for the absent beloved,   The ecstasy and positivism of the Sufis  infuses much of his poetry.  His poetry is not linear – that is, one can begin to read anywhere within a long sequence of poems, and even dip into the middle of a poem; the experience for the reader will be as creatively rich.  If Adonis’s divergent metaphor is sometimes extreme, provocatively so – as in the lines, ‘a breast dressed in buttocks/ I saw an elephant emerging from the horn of a snail’ (‘Transformations of the Lover’, Part VI, in the Green Integer edition) – one need only to admire the evocative ‘If only the sea could sleep I would make its bed beside me’ (Part VII).

It is a pity that Mattawa, an accomplished poet in English and Arabic, didn’t take his hand to ‘Transformations of the Lover’ whose erotic cadences and imagery remind me of the Song of Songs.  Nonetheless, it is Mattawa, who worked directly with Adonis, to whom we will now turn for a deep appreciation of the poet.  Hazo, also a fine poet, worked from literal translations provided by Arab speakers and thus lost all the white space and lineation that force the reader to move over the text as slowly as in the best lovemaking; while the Green Integer translators sometimes reveal a tin ear.  Compare this excerpt from ‘A Mirror for Khalida’ (the poet’s wife):

GI: Beneath the Water.  We slept in a cloth woven/ From the crimson of night – a night of nebula and guts/ A cheering of blood, a beat of cymbals/ A lightening of suns beneath the water./ The night was pregnant.

KM: Under Water.  We slept in sheets woven/ out of night shade – night was oblivion/ and our insides sang their blood/ to the rhythm of castanets and cymbals/ to suns shining under water./ Night became pregnant then.

Adonis also wrote explicit ‘poetry of witness’, having lived through years of the Lebanese Civil War at its worst.  Even here, however, the reader must be immersed in the delirium of words, but by concentrated reading and re-reading may attain a mystical revelation.  Consider ‘A Mirror for Beirut’, as translated by Mattawa:

1. The street is a woman
who reads Al –Fatiha when sad,
or draws a cross.
Night under her breast
is a strange hunchback
who fills his sack
with silver howling dogs
and extinguished stars.

The street is a woman
who bites any who go past,
and the camel asleep by her breast
to petroleum (each passerby singing past),
and the street a woman
in whose bed fall
days and vermin
and even man.

Flowers painted on shoes
and the earth and sky
a box of colors –
and in cellars
history lies like a coffin.
In the moans of a star or a dying slave girl
men, women and children lie
without blankets
or clothes.

A cemetery:
a navel above a belt
made of gold,
and a poppy-like woman sleeps –
a prince and a dagger
doze on her breast.

A lesser poet could not regularly accomplish such fusion of the explicit and the mystical.  Eighteen life members of the Swedish Academy please do take note.

Note: I am grateful to Dr. Assaad Khairallah, Professor of Arabic & Near Eastern Languages, American University of Beirut, for additional insights.

Norbert Hirschhorn, a poet, is also physician specializing in the public health of women, children and communities in the USA and the Third World.  In 1993 he was commended by President Bill Clinton as an “American Health Hero.”  His work has been recognized by awards from the Dana and Pollin Foundations.  He currently lives in London and Beirut.  In 1994 Hirschhorn received a Master in Fine Arts degree from Vermont College. 

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Hitchcock Mosaics

I was in Leytonstone, in London's far East End, out past where the Olympics will be held next year, in 2012 (Eyewear readers may recall that one of my first ever posts, in 2005, was about the announcement that London had won the bid).  I was reading out there today with John Stiles, and with a band, Public Speech (worth checking out for their online hit, 'The Queen's Speech').  Anyway, the Leytonstone tube station features 17 mosaics honoring Alfred Hitchcock, the greatest British film director of all time, who was born there in 1899.  There are some lovely buildings in Leytonstone, but trying to locate the house where Hitch was born was sad, because 517 High Road is now a petrol station (it must have been an area bombed in the war).  Anyway, the mosaics are brilliant, and really should be on every visitor's radar.  Above is the one for 'North by North-West' with the famous crop-duster scene.

Ira Cohen Has Died

Sad news.  The Beat artist, editor, musicologist, and poet, Ira Cohen, has died this month.  I was friends with his son, Raphael, in Budapest, in the late 1990s, and met his father at an event there.

Guest Review: Loveday on The Best American Poetry 2010

Mike Loveday reviews
The Best American Poetry 2010
edited by Amy Gerstler

“Anthology” – the word is derived from ancient Greek: flower-gathering (anthos-logia). Since 1988 David Lehman has carried armfuls of the very best flowers to readers each year, carefully nabbing them from American poetry fields like a passionate, wise, maverick botanist. The annual Best American Poetry anthology (BAP hereafter) is a now classic series, the format freshened each year with a new guest editor (Lehman remaining the constant, behind the scenes). Since John Ashbery in 1988, the roll call of editors reads as a who’s who of great American poets – here are five particular years selected to give you a sense of the variety of poets who have been involved: Louise Glück (’93), A.R. Ammons (’94), Richard Howard (‘95), Adrienne Rich (’96), James Tate (’97). And here’s a reviewer’s confession – Richard Howard is a poet whose name I didn’t know before. Howard has written eleven volumes of poems, is a Pulitzer poetry prize winner and ex- U.S. poet laureate, so slap me if need be. But this kind of thing happens time and again for a British reader properly peering into the landscape of American poetry, especially via the BAP anthology.

Maybe it’s the equivalent of an American reader landing at Heathrow and suddenly discovering Selima Hill, Philip Gross or Alice Oswald for the first time – only they’ve been waiting patiently for you at the airport all along with a bucketful of great books in each hand, all set to drive you to your destination of choice. So there is a sense of poetry flourishing in an unfamiliar way in these pages – an unexpected, dazzling variety of writing. You would have to be an extraordinarily well-read British reader to be familiar with all the wonderful poets in this anthology, and you end up reading the book with a kind of shame-faced awe and delight.

BAP 2010 is guest edited by Amy Gerstler, whose collections include Bitter Angel (a 1991 National Book Critic’s Circle Award winner, full of conviction, tenderness, wit and a sense of controlled exploration). Gerstler states in her fascinating introduction that she wanted poems in the anthology which reminded her “to act as though I have a soul, despite the fact that it sometimes goes missing”. She continues: “Lose touch with wonderment and… [you] start to wizen like a prune.”

The writers in BAP most familiar to British readers – poets with transatlantic appeal such as W.S. Merwin, Billy Collins, Derek Walcott, Louise Glück, Anne Carson, Adrienne Rich – I would argue do all share some level of elegant understatement, which appeals to mainstream British tastes, whatever the darker or more rebellious undercurrents in their work. A deliberate exception to this style may be Sharon Olds, much loved and celebrated here also, most especially for poems speaking in new ways about female experience.
And yet, as might be inevitable in an anthology of individual poems (not poets) - which changes the reading process - it was generally poems from unfamiliar writers which struck me. Here are five of them (in alphabetical order, as in BAP).

Sandra Beasley“Unit of Measure” – a list poem in the manner of Koch’s “One Train” which quirkily refreshes that form. It opens “All can be measured by the standard of the capybara” and proceeds with a series of comparisons e.g. “Everyone is more or less alarmed | than a capybara”, or “Everything is mistaken for a Brazilian dance craze | more or less frequently than the capybara”. The absurd humour and affectionate detail deliberately risks irrelevancy before resolving into something more profound – a statement about human inclusion, exclusion and individual difference: schools of fish speak to the capybara: “One of us, they say, one of us, | but they will not say it to you”.

Amy Glynn Greacen – “Namaskar” – A poem whose tight formal rhyme scheme initially provokes resistance, but is sustained so playfully it becomes liberating. In a poem describing yoga, the balance between moods of control and of expression feels apt:
“…Here we are all
Posers, and maybe posturing is part
And parcel of a process we don’t call
By its right name anyway. But if we fall
Flat on our asanas, that’s all right: the art

Of falling’s still an art.”

Jeffery McDaniel  – “The Grudge” – “I watered my grudge” McDaniels writes, and in tightly-packed, engagingly acerbic free verse describes the grudge as flowering plant:
“I watered it,
went out there at midnight,
with a can of spittle, moon dangling
like a lightbulb from its frail cord.”

The poem ends with poisonous delight “as the venomous petals bloomed”. A guilty pleasure.
Catherine Wing“The Darker Sooner” – a wonderful mix of lyricism and language games, in a poem about time and loss in the context of a stumbling relationship: “Then came the darker sooner, | came the later lower… We were after ever”. A gently persistent rhyme is worked right through to the tender close of the poem: “Instead of leader we had louder, | instead of lover, never. And over this river | broke the winter’s black weather”.
Matthew Yeager“From ‘A Jar of Balloons, or the Uncooked Rice’ ” – perhaps the strangest poem in BAP 2010 – a twelve-page long single stanza of nothing more / less than a series of mundane questions, broken into free verse of roughly equal line length. The questions are about preferences and choices in routine daily life:
“Are you punctual? Is your signature
legible? Have you ever had a birthday go
uncelebrated? What’s the largest TV set
you’ve ever lived with? Showers or baths?
How much cash do you like to carry?
Ever been knocked unconscious?”

The questions flow with apparent randomness, yet there are themes which surface and re-surface,  whether suddenly or in phases  – food, travel, consumerism, relationships. Over twelve pages, the intimacy of the poem’s questions becomes at once gently familiar and a strange form of psychological interrogation. The reading experience brings home to us that our thousands of daily choices, whether unwitting or not, announce our identities.

Among the writers more familiar to British readers, poems by Carson, Collins, Hicok, Merwin and Walcott I found especially memorable. But the poem which struck me most in the entire anthology is by Louise Glück  - “At the River”. Its meditative, wide-ranging reminiscence is profound yet unpretentious, playful yet ultimately tragic.

Of course there will be poems in BAP that as a reader you either dislike or don’t connect with. That’s part of the point of this kind of anthology – like picking through a chocolate box, everyone has their personal coffee crème.  A first version of this review blithely attempted a comparison of mainstream British and US poetry, using BAP as a model. It’s dangerous to generalise, especially on an unsettled topic. Two issues in particular seem important to highlight nevertheless.

An idea circulates that American poetry may be less concerned with form than its British counterpart (see the debate in New British Poetry, ed. Simic & Paterson, Graywolf Press, Minnesota, 2004, pp. xxi & xxiii). I would suggest that in the context of BAP this observation isn’t entirely true, unless there’s a tacit understanding that “form” is defined only in its narrowest sense of fixed, “traditional” forms (ones that perhaps use regular rhyme and metre). I’d suggest BAP is deeply concerned with form in its most long-standing sense – pattern, repetition / variation, shape – in ways that would be very familiar to readers of mainstream British poetry. Perhaps the difference is that the various poems presented in BAP 2010 are more formally wide-ranging and bold than we often find side by side in mainstream British poetry (without being unapproachable - only two or three poems in BAP are extremely “avant-garde”).

Similarly the point has been made that American poets are less likely to be “voluptuaries of words” than British poets (see Simic & Paterson, p. xxi). A reader of BAP 2010, I would suggest, would resist agreeing with this idea.

So BAP can be seen to coincide with British readers’ tastes in many ways, while still pushing poetry’s boundaries. It offers a good, alternative model for adventure within the mainstream, while accessible and entertaining, and not simply in terms of quantity and range of poems. What we are given in BAP time and again, is the poem as attentive botanist and the poem as pioneer, travelling fearlessly Into the Wild.
There are 173 pages of poems here, plus a 45 page appendix of fascinating short commentaries by the poets (as well as useful introductory biographies). Add to this two good-length essays by Lehman and Gerstler which examine the poetry agenda. Rumour has it a British equivalent of BAP is on the cards, and by all accounts it will be a very welcome addition to the annual poetry calendar this side of the pond.

With each annual anthology of this kind, it is surely more than a purely competitive “Best Of” element which seduces us. It is the sense of comprehensiveness, that this process has required exhaustive research. When I read through a newspaper’s end of year “Best gadgets of 2010” I want someone else to have put some hours in, enduring the hard labour, so I can put my feet up for the weekend, lounge back like a true Poetry Royal and enjoy the pick of the poetry-caviar being spooned ceaselessly into my mouth.

The lasting impression of this book is a sense of sheer generosity and scope within its pages - each year BAP offers a welcome introduction to a new, or simply different, world.

Mike Loveday is a British poet.  He is editor of Fourteen Magazine, and completing his MA at Kingston University in Creative Writing.


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...