Friday, 31 May 2013
Friday, 24 May 2013
ON THE JOYS AND SORROWS
They say that blessings pour down on your head
when they do. Blessings, I’ve had a few. I feel
thrilled with being less than dead, which is here-I-am
collaborating with the physical agents on the wild
run of things, slip-sliding away. Days go, sunrise.
This is the document in which I will nailgun your heart
to my heart and together we’ll slide like yippies
all the way into toy town, rioting in joyousness.
This is the loudest testament I can afford to jolt
you with using script. Now twist and shout too –
you’re embroiled in my love, as the poem relies
on your recognition. Canonise me, love, glorify
the shiver of decoration overcoming my soul qua soul,
and all the raw feels that decipher themselves as codes.
Break, dash, dot and squall – fling off your nakedness
and dress like a dashing guard in a prison of Godliness,
perhaps a naval officer with a handlebar, a hat.
The university where I work does not value me, boo-hoo,
as much as the rain, the dew, the petals, the lapwings do.
Ecology is a madhouse of intentions exploring itself
forever for no reason but decaying exploits, the planet
is a nut’s cage we celebrate at our own peril, best to fled.
Fleeing is what I seek, who came to live among yobs
and loons, and the flesh of adorable girls named Eunice,
Theodora and Miss Coq au Vin. I was Jesus back then,
rise as Barabbas, hairy and pledged to guilt as a badge
of stapled disgrace. I grow sex like a prank on my face.
This is a big splash on the poetry scene, it makes a call
for you to confront your imago and go berserk for art,
which is all we have of Arvo Part, and of season Seven.
So go Coastal, boast and strum your mandolins, rejoice!
The corner with the hapless poet is clear, take your place.
Angels and dreamers ignore all that you have done, why
should they appreciate a jotting of their own monologues?
No, you are lustrous ephemera, a hacking cough, phlegm
on the sleeve of a commandant who holds bitter reigns;
judges, critics, deans, inquisitors, and those who run archives
have better lives than do those who bolt past bounds;
merely immortal, you wait, love-delayed, for old fate
to overtake you; the direct train to Waterloo blasting its drive.
Only then, once dead, will you be read – if even then.
Mostly, rise and sing, strip down to your tremulous knees
and knock on the door marked Forget About It.
The sheer delight is to know your detractors also rot
and when they do, they do so without Beauty’s tit
suckling them in the tomb. Grass grows across my lips
which makes me spit. I stick my fist out of the loam and shout
to the guy with the shovel to come running like Hercules.
Together, we shall dance upon the opening that was my loss,
the berth that was my death. Stood up again I am not lonely
now. I have in tow an ill-bred witness to how nothing ends
that begins in verse and hurtles out on its own ceaseless lust.
May 24, Maida Vale, 2013
copyright Todd Swift
Tuesday, 21 May 2013
The growing realisation that the key figures of our Online-Digital Age - Google, Amazon, and Apple - have made hundreds of billions of dollars in profit from us little people - and not bothered to pay more than a tiny fraction of that back in taxes to help our societies reminds all of us, I think, of the unsustainable nature of commercial greed, when unfettered. Beyond all the talk of ethics, and regulation, lies the humanity of the issue - are we or are we not all in the same boat? Apparently, according to top bankers and CEOs, not. I do not know where these people live - in havens? - but if they enjoy the safety of the public roads, the security of the armed forces - then they should pay their income tax like everyone else. As a small businessman trying to make ends meet, I am not in favour of very high taxation for companies at a time of a sagging economy - 20% or so seems about right to me - but surely, .05% or .005%, is criminally absurd. In the meantime, what do we do about these tax avoiders and evaders? How does one boycott Google, and keep informed? Like the craftiest of drug dealers, the worst offenders are those that peddle to us the most addictive brands.
Andrew McMillan reviews
by Alicia Stubbersfield
It’s a rare pleasure to settle down with a book that cuts the crap, cuts the pretention and is smart enough to wear its learning lightly. With Alicia Stubbersfield’s fourth collection you feel immediately in the presence of someone at the top of their game; someone who understands the true power of poetry lies within the confident layering of poetic image with plain, direct, arresting statement. The first poem in the collection, ‘Stone’ ends with the stanza
Stone- not shell. No faraway tide sound,
no ocean-memory or lost sea creature.
Basalt, smooth as someone’s skin.
The opening of the collection underlining that it is a collection concerned with reality rather than fantasy, the realistic rather than the overly-romantic and the human rather than the blatheringly academic. ‘Stone’ appears in the first of the book’s three sections, ‘More Musicians’; which is followed by ‘Marking’ and ‘Influenced’. Undercurrents of medicine, surgery and mortality run under a lot of the poems, in ‘Lazarus’ (“I know that place, waking/ from anaesthetic, still in a dream”) and ‘Frozen’ (“Under the ice/grief’s small creature still quivers its fins”) and one of the most interesting conversations which emerges from the book is the dialogue between such fear and the spirit of ‘freshness’ and of new starts which appears in poems like: ‘Just changing the car’ (“now I’m sitting here, doing a deal/on my own”) although the resolute independent statement is destabilized slightly by the ending: “Sat Nav/ so I know where I’m going”. Such is the strength of this collection, it isn’t a monophonic tract on death or on new starts, it embraces the human condition of having to deal with both at the same time- and everything is honest- a new direction might be embarked upon but the Sat Nav, a machine not a human, might have to be relied upon for navigation.
On a personal level, I’ve always been fascinated by the parts of poems which reach beyond themselves, reach through Poetry (in the proper noun sense of the word) into an arresting plainness which seems to be as honest as it’s possible to be, the most truthful to a reader. Stubbersfield gives us such moments; in ‘My Ex-Mother-in-Law’ (“Home became the smell of old lard”), in ‘The Prescription’ (“Stanley leaps to meet me, his whole body pleased”) , in ‘March’ (“I still think about March 1998/when I lay on the sofa, waiting,/ while the final chemo raced through my veins”). The power in the last quote gaining its strength from its honesty, from its plainness.
Another thing which interests me in poetry is the power of the negative, the depths that the word “not” opens up when considered against what something is. Stubbersfield uses this technique to great effect, particularly in ‘Sunday Morning’ (“One magpie tearing at roadkill/is not necessarily an omen”) and in ‘November’ (“not looking as it melts back to mud”). The latter quote also showing Stubbersfield’s strength of craft- any other poet might have simply ended with a twee “not looking back” but here it is the snow that is melting back to mud; a much subtler metaphor is achieved. Another example of deft handling of metaphor comes at the very end of ‘Yorkshire’ where the line “males showing off what they can do” in relation to the mating calls of Curlews opens out into a statement on war and love- the biggest subjects of all, handled minutely and delicately by Stubbersfield.
The poem ‘Miles Away’ is illuminating into the craft of Stubbersfield; in a witty poem about the pitfalls of internet dating profiles, the poet recalls a moment when a friend “suggests I write poems about them./ A sequence perhaps” but this idea is firmly rejected with the act of swiftly removing the profile. There will be no cheap tricks in the collection, nothing extended beyond its necessary borders, no sequence on internet dating which would have felt false to the true experience. Whilst on the subject of craft it seems pertinent to consider one of the overall abilities of poetry- that of contraction, of distillation. During the book’s second sequence, based around Stubbersfield’s time as an English teacher at secondary schools, the opening of ‘Marking’:
Piles of exercise books next to my chair,
the oily smell of them, the stickiness
of Year 9 pages
captures everything of the angst, the turmoil (both biological and emotional) and the physical manifestations of adolescence. What some poets would labour over suggesting through the journey of an entire poem, Stubbersfield is able to contract and distil into three accomplished lines. The ‘Marking’ section of the book contains some intensely powerful endings to poems, which are built up to perfectly and would be spoilt by quotation (but read ‘Year 7, Period 1, Wednesday’ and ‘Keeping it Back’ to see what I mean). What strikes you on reading this collection is how so much of contemporary poetry uses the end line of a poem to tie itself neatly off in a bow, to close in on itself; these endings seem to do the opposite, they open the poem out further, pull the reader into the white space below and add depth; in the poem ‘Over’, where Stubbersfield recounts having her contraceptive coil removed, the poem ends with the haunting:
[…] it looks fresh,
he says and I feel obscurely pleased
as though I’d kept it nice on purpose.
Rather than closing off the poem that opens it out into other considerations, other thoughts and feels somehow more satisfying than an ending which mutes itself and sews itself up.
What this review hasn’t mentioned yet is the heart of this book, it’s ability to break it, it’s ability to mend it- it’s ability to move it. ‘The Game’ and the poems dealing with familial alcoholism are profoundly moving as is ‘In Need of Some Updating’ which deals with maternal and paternal loss. Such heartbreak is foiled by the celebratory, such as in ‘Valentines Day’ where Stubbersfield is seen “doing something/different with my heart/holding it in my own cupped hands/watching it swell again”. Once again we get not just one or the other, not just heart swell or heartbreak, we get the very human honesty of having to live with both. The titular poem of the collection, which appears in the third section ‘Influence’, could perhaps be read as a summation of the project and craft of Stubbersfield as a poet. The yellow table which was ‘mother’s defiance of post-war monochrome’ is dismantled at the end of the poem
I unscrew four pale-oak legs, the extending flaps
from each end and place the top along the skip side,
yellow Formica facing outwards, still gaudy, still doing it’s best
stripped of all its extras, the legs and the flaps, the table still retains its characteristics, it is still “gaudy, still doing its best”. This collection is offering us poetry with all pretention, all artifice, anything unnecessary stripped away but the poems still retain the qualities which make great poems; human honesty, human frailty, heart-breaking and heart-mending love, deftly handled metaphors and tightly controlled distillation. “This one’s in the story” writes Stubbersfield at the end of ‘Change the buttons…’: this collection is in the human stories it tells, both the poets’ and those people she encountered, stories which might otherwise have been lost, stories which needed to be told, stories which we needed to hear.
‘Above the Roof Terrace’ closes the collection, it returns partly to the concerns of the collection’s first poem, ‘Stone’, considering mortality and an afterlife whilst beginning to slightly embrace a spirituality which the opening poem of the book rejects. The poet has moved during the book. The poet has moved the reader during the book. . This is the kind of honest, direct and beautiful poetry which should come to “inhabit the emptiness of air” puffed out by poets who wear their learning heavily. They would do well to look to these poems, “soaring”, they would do well to “transform into their human selves”; they would do well to learn from Stubbersfield, that it’s “in the story” that true poetry can be found.
Andrew McMillan was born in South Yorkshire in 1988. His most recent pamphlets are the moon is a supporting player (2011, Red Squirrel Press) and a new pamphlet-length poem protest of the physical will be published by Red Squirrel Press at the end of 2013. He is a lecturer in Creative Writing and will be teaching two Poetry School courses in Manchester during the summer. He is working on a first collection.
Steve Van-Hagen reviews
by Meirion Jordan
Meirion Jordan, shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection for Regeneration’s preceding volume, Moonrise, is from an intellectually eclectic background – he won the Newdigate Prize while studying for his first degree in Mathematics at Somerville College, Oxford, before moving to UEA to complete a Masters, and then a PhD, in Creative Writing. It is unsurprising, therefore, that he has produced an eclectic, undeniably unusual and rewarding second collection of poetry.
Regeneration (2012) is immediately striking for its material appearance and organisation. As one reviewer (Jacqui Kenton at New Welsh Review – see http://www.newwelshreview.com/article.php?id=292) has already observed, Regeneration is ‘tête-bêche, with the White Book and Red Book at each end and upside down.’ These two-collections-in-one which meet in the middle reference two medieval (fourteenth-century) manuscripts, Llyfr Coch Hergest (The Red Book of Hergest) and Llyfr Gwynn Rhydderch (The White Book of Rhydderch), important sources for the tales of the Mabinogion. As Jordan argues in suggestive prefaces to both Books, the collection aims not at retelling the tales of the fourteenth century, but at exploring how they establish a dialogue with our own culture. The collection seeks, therefore, to address the ways in which the (sometimes distant) past continues to erupt problematically and polemically into our present. As Jordan argues in the preface to The Red Book, he does not ‘seek to unravel the difficulties of [the eleven stories of the Mabinogi’s] composition, transmission and literary context’ but rather contends that:
Poetry is concerned most fundamentally with meaning and interpretation, and that implies in turn that this book is in some way turned towards those present in this imprecise, difficult dialogue: you, reading, and myself, shepherding this writing to your senses as best I can … These poems are an attempt to strike up a personal conversation with those worlds, whose vitality remains tangible … just as the tales themselves were an attempt to find conversation with other people and their perplexing, marvellous lives. The Red and White Books themselves have come to rest, in archives, well guarded and away from the mainstream of culture; these poems are nonetheless a reminder that their presence is still felt, and that like all other secondhand or discarded books they were once participatory acts.’ (p.8)
The prefaces are lengthy, and one wonders if they do not risk contradiction; by insisting so explicitly that the text seeks to avoid imprisoning us in meaning, we are inevitably left wondering why we are not allowed just to read the poems and so establish this for ourselves. Nonetheless, The Red Book tells us – invites us to participate in – tales of Arawn, the God of the Underworld (in the poem ‘Arawn, lord of Annwn’); Rhiannon, daughter of Hefaidd Hen, Lord of the Underworld, who was cruelly tricked into thinking that she had killed and eaten her only son Pryderi (in ‘Rhiannon’s gossips’, ‘Rhiannon in old age’ and ‘The birds of Rhiannon’); Branwen (in ‘Branwen’s Starling’), daughter of Llyr / Lear, sister of Bran and half-sister of Efnis(s)ien, who was married to Matholwch, King of Ireland, and tamed a starling to send a message to Bran in Britain to come and fetch her when she was struck by the cook while serving in Matholwch’s kitchens as a punishment for insulting the Irish people; Efnis(s)ien the Unpeaceful, Branwen’s afore-mentioned half brother, who mutilated the Irish horses in retaliation for not being consulted about Branwen’s marriage, causing Bran to offer the cauldron of rebirth to the Irish in compensation (in the poem ‘Efnisien’); Heilyn, the son of the Lord of the Dead, Gwynn ap Nudd (in ‘Heilyn, son of Gwynn’); Manawyddan, Rhiannon’s second husband (in ‘Manawydan in Lloegr’); Olwen, daughter of Yspaddaden the Giant, and Culhwch, her suitor (the son of Celydodon Wledia, and nephew of Arthur), whose completion of the thirty nine impossible tasks necessary to win Olwen will cause the death of Yspaddaden (in ‘Olwen’ and ‘Culhwch’ respectively); Gereint, who refuses to listen to his wife Enid’s warnings because he wrongly thinks she weeps for the loss of another lover (in Gereint ac Enid’); and Blodeuwedd, the flower bride of Llew, who falls in love with the hunter Granw Pebr and plots her husband’s death, for which she is turned into an owl (in ‘Blodeudd’).
As even this brief introduction suggests, much of The Red Book is concerned with sadness, mourning, longing and regret, with the passing of time and the processes of memory and reflection, and yet with the paradoxically life-affirming effects of reading about this subject matter. Appropriately enough for a collection about the recurrence of myths and their continuing ability to speak, even centuries – millennia – after their inception, the penultimate poem of The Red Book, ‘The birds of Rhiannon’, refers to the harbingers of otherworldly bliss who render their dead auditors unaware of the passing of time. ‘For the myth moves in cycles’, we are told at the start of the second stanza,
But you will not. Your lungs
echo the forward motion
of time, shaking the heart’s seconds
beat upon beat. If the small space
that is forever this now,
or this, or this, in the god’s eye
is precious; how more so
in yours. You will not return
unless they call, to take and give.
For the living, however, time does pass. Unlike the beheaded Bran and others who hear the birds of Rhiannon beyond death, outside time, as we hear the myths we make and remake their meanings anew, signalling that we, and the stories, continue to move chronologically forwards. As the final poem of the Book, ‘Blodeuedd’, tells us:
But after the story
the loose ends
must spill, flapping
into the dark:
the legend stands
white as a hornbeam
under the moon,
the fields and shadows
thickening with voices.
The spillage of loose ends continues, ceaselessly; by reading these poems and remaking the legends for ourselves we too take our places as part of this spillage, as part of the clamouring throng of voices.
The White Book deals with the Arthurian legends which may be more familiar for many readers than the legends in The Red Book. Jordan’s Preface this time links the themes of Mallory’s version of the Arthurian legend with those of the Mabinogi from which the material of The Red Book derives. They are linked, Jordan argues, by ‘the same concerns of issue and generation’ (p.7). In The White Book, however, Jordan hits on a personal and (for the reader) challenging means of entering into modern dialogue with his source material. A textual conversation is struck up by means of footnotes between the tales of Arthurian legend of The White Book of Rhydderch and the biographies of Jordan’s own family, the events of the life of Jordan’s recently-deceased grandfather (re)read through Arthurian precedents.
Like its Red twin, therefore, the White Book deals with the elegiac, although here we have the Arthurian story related by each in turn of the surviving actors in Arthur’s drama. Each defines the departed Arthur, thereby defining and positioning themselves in relation to his fall in ways that compel us to think about the possibilities and the limitations of the perspectival. Part I begins with the first dramatic monologue, an elegy / lament for the dead Arthur, from Merlin. Next up is Cei (also known as Kay or Cai), Arthur’s foster brother, who is eager to justify himself: ‘I tell you, I was the first, / and gave my all for Arthur.’ He speaks of Arthur’s childhood and, famously irascible, makes repeated requests for forgiveness. Bedwyr (also known as Bedivere), Arthur’s butler, comes next, eager to speak of Arthur’s ‘years of ... great triumph’, and yet concluding with discussion of the ‘Poor child. Poor Arthur’, who ‘return[s] and yet do[es] not return’.
Another knight, Owain (son of Urien Far and brother of Gwalchmei and Gaheris) is next, who ‘had my part / in Arthur’s ruin.’ Confession is the keynote here:
was our lord, and true,
in our quarrels, our timely murders;
we who loved Arthur
were his end and ruin.
The final confession of the monologue is one of betrayal. Owain’s brother, Gwalchmei / Gawain delivers the next monologue.
One of the two most eagerly awaited perspectives for any reader already familiar with the Arthurian narrative, is Gwenhwyfar / Guinevere’s (her name translates as ‘the White One’). She delivers an anguished, tortured tale of adultery:
was the one man
I couldn’t bear to hurt, and whose deep
cauldron of a body
I could not love.
Hence, for any reader already familiar with the narratives of The Red Book, we are reminded of the cauldron of rebirth gifted to the Irish by Bran (which Efnis(s)ien eventually sacrificed his life to break). Arthur’s body therefore becomes the means by which those dead (Arthurian tales?) might be revivified anew.
Further monologues follow, from Drystan (also known as Tristan, the nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, who was second only to Lancelot for strength), Dinadan, Esyllt (also known as Isolt, the daughter of the King of Ireland who died of a broken heart because she was too late to save Drystan / Tristan from a poisoned wound), Elen (also known as Elaine, who rivalled Guinevere for Lancelot’s affections), Galaad / Galahad (i.e. the son of Lancelot, who eventually found the grail that his father could not) and Melwas (the other-world King who abducted Guinevere). Only then, in ‘Le chevalier mal fet’ – ‘the knight ill-made’, a pseudonym later adopted by Lancelot – do we finally hear from the latter:
was that knight, the ugly,
the ill-made. It is hard
that I was there, wearing his skin. Hard
to admit I loved my king
and Guinevere both, and in my love
I ruined Britain, man and realm.
Jordan captures poignantly Lancelot’s conflict, his continuing wish, even as he feels guilt and remorse for what he has done, that there might be an alternative, if only in his dreams, to a life of social constraints in which he and Guinevere can never be together:
Arthur, I will not ask;
nor could you give.
But if there is
some make-believe country –
maybe named Logris –
where two people
who are older
than they dare recall
can live, outside of love
or fellowship, or time,
close only to each other
and the sea:
let them be there,
she turning her head
to a fair wind,
he holding her hand.
Let them go, Arthur,
as cleanly as Adam through Eden.
The final poems – the speakers are Medraut (i.e. Mordred) and, in an epilogue, Morgana – carry the story to its inevitable conclusion, narrating the battle of Camlan(n) and Mordred’s slaying by Arthur as the former nonetheless deals an equally fatal blow to the latter. Finally, Arthur makes his final boat journey to Avalon, tended by Morgana.
Poignant as Jordan’s reinterpretation of the Arthurian legend is, the tale will be familiar enough to many. It is invariably the intriguing, enigmatic relation to the modern double narrative that particularly fascinates. The links between the Arthurian narrative and Jordan’s personal / family tale are not always easy to decipher, arguably necessarily so given the positions he adopts in his prefaces. He claims,
These links between the overlapping worlds of the text – the personal margin and the entangling ground of literary tradition – are vital in the process of interrogation ... and although by refusing to make the precise nature of this contact apparent I have left some of this interrogation to the reader, I suspect that too much precision would risk obscuring the reader’s relation to Arthur in favour of my own. (p.8)
The ‘second’ narrative (co-narrative?) of Jordan’s grandparents is so personal that one often feels as if one’s intrusion upon it is voyeuristic and illicit. The footnotes divide broadly into two kinds, the (reasonably) factual, and the reflective. Linking his deceased grandfather with Arthur straight away by positioning a first footnote after the word ‘Arthur’ in the ‘Prologue: Merlin’, this first footnote reads:
1. My grandfather died on the 18th of February, 2008, not quite 96 years old. It was not a sudden or an unexpected death; he had been seriously ill for some time before that, and by the end he was entirely bedridden. His brother had dies a few years before – who, with the possible exception of my grandmother – was closer to him than anyone. By the end he had suffered several strokes and his recollection of most things was poor. The only conversation he could make during the last years of his life mostly concerned his early life at Pant, above Merthyr, in what must have been (by my reckoning) the 1920s. (p.13)
The footnotes slowly disclose more information about Douglas Jones’ life and the narrator’s relation to him and his legacy. They seemingly become more ponderous, more cryptic and enigmatic, the tone more discursive; hence, in the final poem, ‘Medraut’, footnote 54 begins, ‘Sometimes the noise deafens us. Our memories become a small flicker against the white noise that is thousands of years of wishful, brilliant, heartbroken people straining to make themselves heard’ (p.76). Footnote 55 begins: ‘Sometimes, though, we are lucky, and the small voice that is the very real world finds us’ (p.79). Finally, as Arthur is conveyed off to Avalon in Morgana’s ‘Epilogue’, the final footnote has the final word on the author’s grandfather also:
56. As I say, my grandfather died on the 18th of February, 2008; but he was born in April, 1914, on the very edge of the First World War – by which I mean, the root that grows through him to me there meets other roots, which meet other roots beyond – by which I mean too, that he still flourishes forwards, into the newest instant of time. Requiescat in Pace, old boy, you father, grandfather. And be thou with me. (p.84)
Despite this, the text is not nearly so crude as to suggest that Douglas Jones was a latter-day Arthur reborn – or at least not in any literal, clumsy way (at one point, for instance, we learn that Douglas was a conscientious objector). The two co-narratives flicker into greater significance as a result of their intertwining, sometimes illuminating one another in a way that seems overt, sometimes leaving us none the wiser as to their enigmatic relation. What is repeatedly suggested to us, however, is that the roots of the narrative of Douglas Jones’ life were indeed found in Arthur’s. The text’s unusual and inventive revelation of this discloses surely its greatest aim, which is to prompt us to reflect in a wider sense on our own cultural roots and on the ways we enter into continual dialogue with them, endlessly making and remaking the meaning of our own narratives.
Steve Van-Hagen is the editor of James Woodhouse’s The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus: A Selection (Cheltenham: The Cyder Press, 2005) and the author of The Poetry of Mary Leapor and The Poetry of Jonathan Swift (both London: Greenwich Exchange, 2011). His pamphlet collection Echoes, Ghosts and Others with Futures Ahead of Them (2012) is available from holdfire press.
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