The Kindly Interrogator – the poems of Alireza Abiz

‘I always write that which is not’ says one of Alireza Abiz’s poems, because ‘[t]hat which is is too terrifying / to wear the garment of the word’. To understand what Abiz means here – how can / why should a poet avoid writing of what is real? – we have to understand his historical and political contexts.

Abiz belongs to the 1990s generation of Iranian writers. The unattributed Introduction to The Kindly Interrogator (Shearsman Books, 2021) provides help for those of us who don’t know much about the development of modern Iranian poetry. It was Nima Yushij who, at the opening of the twentieth century, felt the then-current forms of Persian poetry had become too abstract, subjective and metaphysical. He advocated a more modern, objective approach, a more natural diction and the use of forms closer to what we would regard as blank verse. By the 1960s such freshness and freedom had yielded some of the best modern Persian poets, writing diversely, mostly in free verse. But both before and after the 1979 Revolution (which replaced a millennia old monarchical system with the Islamic Republic), poets continued to engage in political struggles and were often prosecuted by the authorities for their writings. Following 1979, and during the 8 years of war with Iraq, the artistic atmosphere continued to be both difficult and repressive.

The political reforms of the 1990s – Abiz’s period – saw a new optimism and revival in the arts, yet still prosecution and censorship remained a fact of life. Many artists left Iran and – especially after the 2009 uprising – there was a considerable migration into exile. Though currently resident in the UK (he lives in London and has a Creative Writing doctorate from Newcastle University) Abiz does not consider himself an exile as such, though inevitably his perspective has an ex patria quality, looking both dispassionately at Iran’s nature and continuing development, as well as harking back to an affective homeland.

Alireza Abiz

In these translations by the author and WN Herbert, Abiz’s free verse poems are not always reluctant to address realities, but they do tend to deploy (what the Introduction calls) a kind of ‘dialled-down or even buttoned up surrealism’. ‘The Tired Soldier’ is brief and universal. His weariness is symptomatic of a lengthy war, as well as his disillusionment with it. Jackals wail, bugles “cough” like roosters – the real and figurative creatures here close to anthropomorphic portraits of societal/political elements, close to the derangement of the surreal which is also signaled in the soldier’s action which (besides the obvious disrespect for his military service) involves an overturning, a literal inversion (feet to head, head to feet) of the norm:

The tired soldier

hangs his boots around his neck

and pisses in his helmet.

The surreal is inevitably emergent when we cease to trust our senses, or our interpretation of what we think we witness (think of Rene Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe). A black cat watches the narrator from the veranda. Given a political context in which persecution (even elimination) has become common currency, the narrator seems to fear for his own life:

It’s been a long time since I was a sparrow,

since I was a dove,

even since I was a backyard hen.

The sense of danger and paranoia here is obvious, but perhaps vague enough, quirkily surreal enough, to elude the censors. The Introduction suggests parallels with the Menglong Shi or so-called ‘Misty Poetry’ generation of writers in China in the 1980s. Then, the ‘Misty’ handle was initially a disparaging one given by officially sanctioned reviewers, suggesting these writers were creating ‘obscure, vague, incomprehensible work’ (for a good account of these issues see Yang Lian’s introductory essay to Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry (Bloodaxe, 2012) edited by WN Herbert and Yang Lian). But their obscurity was only really in comparison to official Chinese poetry of the period full of banal (but never obscure) sloganizing about the virtues of Socialism and the evils of Capitalism. Yang argues the mistiness of the new 1980s Chinese poets was really a return to ‘Sun, Moon, Earth, River, Life, Death, Dream’ – to the territory of Classical Chinese poetry (Li Bai and Du Fu), though often encoded within it were observations about contemporary political life. So also with Abiz’s poetry in which images of ‘doves, rabbits, ghouls, lemons, feasting, wine’ develop and imply their own slant or misty significances.

Inevitably, death and the threat of it is a preoccupation of many of these poems. The mundane incident of a fly buzzing in a kitchen leads to a meditation on conflict, guilt and futility. Looking through a window into ‘The Anatomy Hall’, the narrator sees a surgeon? a mortician? a torturer? leaning over a body on a table. He senses the man’s fear; he glimpses the flash of a knife. Then:

He bends over my head and smiles,

looking at me like a butcher looks at a carcass.

X

On the table in the middle of the hall,

relaxed, I sleep.

The relaxation of the victim comes as an additional surprise, but it gestures towards the sense of complicity that is another of Abiz’s concerns. A lengthy quotation in the Introduction, which I take to be in Abiz’s own words, argues: ‘the corrupting influence of dogmas is so insidious that no-one remains entirely innocent, or, if carried along by the paranoias of ideological purity, should be considered completely guilty’.

W N Herbert

So in ‘The Informer’ the narrator (in a Kafkaesque sort of world) has been invited to attend a ceremony to select the ‘finest informer’. There appears to be a confident pride in the way he dresses up for the occasion. In the hall, the candidates (those you expect to be on the ‘inside’) are in fact excluded. It turns out, in a detail suggestive of the elusive nature of truth and the levels on levels of surveillance in such a repressive society, that all the seats are to be taken ‘by the officers responsible for informing on the ceremony’. There is a calculated bewilderment to all this as is also revealed in the oxymoronic title of the eponymous poem, ‘The Kindly Interrogator’. Nothing so simple as a caricatured ‘bad cop’ here:

He’s interested in philosophy and free verse.

He admires Churchill and drinks green tea.

He is delicate and bespectacled.

He employs no violence, demands no confession, simply urging the narrator to ‘write the truth’. The narrator’s reply to this epitomises the uncertainties a whole society may come to labour under. He cries, ‘on my life!’. Is this the ‘I will obey’ of capitulation or the ‘kill me first’ of continued resistance? Is this the repressed and persecuted ‘life’ of what is, of what is the case, or an expression of the inalienable freedom of the inner ‘life’? Abiz is very good at exploring such complex moral quandaries and boldly warns those of us, proud and self-satisfied in our liberal democracies, not to imagine ourselves ‘immune from [the] temptation towards unequivocality’. Fenced round with doubt, with a recognition of the need for continual watchfulness, with a suspicion of the surface of things, perhaps these poems never really take off into the kind of liberated insightfulness or expression of freedom gained that the Introduction suggests a reader might find here. Abiz – the ‘melancholic scribbler of these lines’ – is the voice of a haunted and anxious conscience, a thorn in the side of repressive authorities, as much as a monitory voice for those of us easily tempted to take our eye off the ball of moral and political life nearer home.

Charlie Louth’s Rilke + new Rilke translations

As I mentioned in my last blog post, much of my time through lockdown and in the last few months has been taken up with translation. One of these projects is as daunting as it is exciting. Pushkin Press have commissioned me to complete a new selection and translation of the work of Rainer Maria Rilke to appear in 2023. Some of you will be aware of my earlier published versions of the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus (both available from Enitharmon Press). The new project will contain selections from those sequences and a good selection of earlier poems, including from the New Poems. As well as trying out a few of my new translations in this post (and the following one), the body of it is an uncut version of my recent review of Charlie Louth’s excellent book on Rilke, Rilke: the Life of the Work (OUP, 2020). A shorter version of this review appeared in the latest Agenda magazine, ‘Altered Distances’ (Vol 54, Nos. 1/2). Many thanks to the editor, Patricia McCarthy for asking me to write it.

Part I

Rilke has long suffered from two types of criticism. Among his enthusiasts, some declare his work close to sacred and therefore hardly open to ‘normal’ practices of critical analysis, at risk of spoiling the ‘bloom’ of mystery they find there. Others, of a more negative inclination, accuse him of an aloof aestheticism, a likely fatal distance from ‘real’ life. One such was Thomas Mann who can be found, Charlie Louth notes, “(rather richly) calling him an ‘arch aesthete’”. Both viewpoints risk downplaying the skilled crafting of Rilke’s work (he thought long and hard about poems as artefacts, things consciously and intricately made) but also risk mistaking the particular power of his poetry. Rilke: the Life of the Work is comprehensive, erudite, always clear and – most importantly – keeps returning us to the poetry to which Louth enthusiastically responds: “When we read Rilke, the poems do not feel aloof, and they do not feel merely aesthetic in their claims. They press upon us and make us examine ourselves, and they help us experience our life in the world with greater clarity and depth”. Most readers will recognise this as an allusion to the ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ (from New Poems) which concludes “You must change your life”. Louth again: “It is unusual for Rilke to be so direct, but as I see it a similar spirit animates most if not all of his poems”.

This book aims to bridge the gulf between enthusiastic, non-specialist readers of poetry (Louth translates his foreign language quotations himself) and the German lang/lit academic and student. The balance between engaged readability and academic thoroughness is very well judged. I particularly value Louth’s close readings of ‘the work’, viewed as objectively as possible (Louth declares early on that he has no “overarching thesis”). There are other readily available biographical and critical works, but the strength of Rilke: the Life of the Work is that, with its discussion of the formal choices, wording and syntax of so many poems, it is a comprehensive attempt at ‘Reading Rilke’. The structure of the book’s 600 pages is primarily chronological, from the poet’s earliest publication, Lives and Songs (1894) through to Vergers (1926). Louth only departs from this chronological survey twice. Early on, he looks at several poems that open Rilke’s published books, then, in Chapter 6, he discusses the four poems Rilke wrote as requiems.

Lou Andreas Salome

So Louth’s Rilke is a craftsman and moralist who urges us to live better. The kind of closed system of a purely aesthetic art was the poet’s abhorrence. In a lecture he gave early in his career, Rilke is already sure that “‘art is only a path, not a destination’. In a letter to Lou Andreas-Salomé in 1903 he confirms: ‘I do not want to tear art and life apart; I know that in the end they are one and the same’. As so often, Louth articulates his subject’s attitude with great clarity: “for Rilke, there can be no question of shutting oneself away from life, of retreating into the work, and the desk, if it is to be the place of necessary writing, must be a ‘vitale Mitte’, a site right in the middle of life and exposed to all its risks and promises. To write is not to withdraw but precisely to engage”.

Rilke’s poetry pays particular attention to the processes of change associated with being human. Poems record such moments of change but also act, in the process of being read and openly experienced, as opportunities where change in an individual might take place. For those with faith in literature, Louth articulates the exciting prospect: “to read at all is to pause, is to take your time in times when an anxious haste pervades much of what we do. In some sense it is to live better whether poetry makes anything happen or not”. Writing to Thankmar von Münchhausen in 1915, Rilke asks, “What is our job if not, purely and freely, to provide occasions for change?” Louth finds these ideas in ‘Eingang’ / ‘Entrance’, one of the poems Rilke placed at the start of The Book of Images (1902/06). The furniture of this poem – the self, a house, a tree – is a grouping that recurs throughout Rilke’s work and what interests him is the suggestion that, as we leave the familiarity of our house, “the house of our habits, we enter the imaginary space of another building [. . .] coming from life into the poem, and passing through the poem into life”. Here is my new translation of this poem:

Whoever you are: in the evening, step out

of your living room, from all that’s familiar;

in the distance, the last thing, your house:

no matter who you are.

And although your eyes have grown so weary

you can barely lift them from the worn threshold,

slowly, with them, you still raise a black tree

and set it before the sky: lean and alone.

And you have made a world. And it is immense,

like a word, in silence, it continues to grow.

And as your will grasps its significance,

so your eyes, tenderly, let it go . . .

Portrait of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1928, by Leonid Pasternak

For Rilke’s own life and work, the key meeting was with Lou Andreas-Salomé in May 1897. Lou changed his handwriting and his name (from René to Rainer), but it was the confidence and groundedness in the world that she brought to his life that pushed his art “closer to the details of lived experience”. Rilke himself wrote: “The world lost its cloudiness [. . .] I learnt a simplicity, learnt slowly and laboriously how simple everything is, and I gained the maturity to talk of simple things”. Lou’s influence can be seen in the lecture he gave in Prague in 1898, where he distances himself from Symbolism and aestheticism (the dominant strands of ‘modern poetry’ at the turn of the century) to argue that the artist must not be “shut out of the great channel of life”, but must evoke the constant dialogue between the individual and things, “the strange coincidences between inner and outer out of which experience is made”. As Louth says, this is an early statement of the theme which will occupy his whole life.

Here is a brief poem – actually naming Lou and indicating her influence in persuading Rilke of the sacredness of the ordinary. It went unpublished for years, but was part of Rilke’s sequence called To Celebrate You (Dir zur Feier):

The rain runs its chilly fingers

down our windows, unseeing;                             

we lean back in deep armchairs

and listen, as if the quiet hours

dripped from a weary mill all evening.

x

And then Lou speaks. Our souls incline

one to another. Even cut flowers

at the window nod their topmost bloom

and we are completely at home,

here in this tranquil, white house.

For Rilke, the successful poem is a space in which the mysteries of things and personal confession are both explored, or revealed, simultaneously. Louth argues that, from the outset, Rilke’s view of this was always positive: “there is no unnerving consciousness of the self ’s arbitrary dependence on chance encounters with the outside world”, but equally, there is “no doubt about the existence of an underlying unity to which the poet has access”. What he feared was ‘the interpreted world’ (‘der gedeuteten Welt’), a world view shorn of all mystery, a perspective that perhaps most of us inhabit, a view in which language has become dominantly instrumental, “narrowing our vision so that life appears cut and dried without any possibility of the unknown and the unknowable”. Louth explains what readers of Rilke value in his work: “poetic language, as he understands it, is precisely a way of talking that avoids directness and allows the mutability of experience and the mystery of the world to be expressed. It releases rather than limits possibility”. Beyond this stands what Rilke might have meant by the term ‘God’. ‘He’ is “an experience of totality, life felt as a whole, in which self and other are not distinct or momentarily lose their distinctness”.

Here is my new translation of an early poem from The Book of Hours (Das Stundenbuch) in which Rilke is developing these ideas:

You, the darkness from which I came,

I love you more than the flame

scoring the world’s edge

with a glimmer

upon some sphere,

beyond which no-one has more knowledge.

x

Yet the darkness binds everything into itself:

all forms, flames, creatures, myself,

it seizes on them,

all powers, everything human . . .

x

And it may be: there is an immense might

stirring nearby –

x

I believe in the night.

It is in part because the enemy of mystery is language (too casually used) that poetry (constructed from language more carefully used) has an advantage over other art forms like painting. There’s an irony here, of course, because Rilke learned so much from other workers in the fine arts. Most know about the debt he owed to Rodin and Cezanne, but Louth argues Rilke’s journey towards the poetics of the New Poems began in the period he resided in the artists’ community in Germany at Worpswede. A lot of his thinking there concerned images of man and landscape. For the majority of the time, humans and nature live “side-by-side with hardly any knowledge of one another” and it is in the ‘as if’ of the work of art that they can be brought closer, into a more conscious relation. But because a poem works through time, such a correspondence is acknowledged as “something one traverses and gains knowledge of but cannot hold onto”.

Part 2 of this review coming next week…..

We’ll Meet Again/Well Met Again: my first public reading since lockdown

It has been a long time since I last posted anything substantial on my blog. In the great scheme of things pandemic, this will not have been remarked upon; though for anybody out there who has noticed, I send my apologies. A particular disappointment is that I have not been able to review this year’s shortlisted Forward First Collections (and the announcement of the winner is almost upon us). For what it’s worth, I think Caleb Femi will win with his Penguin collection, Poor. I still hope to review some of the shortlist, in the near future.

Though I have managed a couple of book reviews (on Pia Tafdrup’s new Bloodaxe collection, on Charlie Louth’s excellent book about Rilke) to be published elsewhere, alongside this blogging drought there has been a more significant one (for me at least): I have hardly managed to write any poetry of my own for well over nine months now. Even the few things I managed to draft (especially at the height of the Covid second wave (last January)), I have signally failed to return to and they may all now fall by the wayside. In moments, it is as if I have forgotten HOW to write a poem; a questioning of the importance of this solitary business; a simple lack of external stimulation perhaps. The one thing I have been able to do during this awful period is more translation. I have (happily) been commissioned to complete exciting projects for two publishers (publication dates off into 2023 in both cases) and I hope to say more about these in later blogs. Yes, my intention is to get back to blogging more regularly.

It has also been a long time since I gave anything resembling a public reading. But last Sunday afternoon I travelled with poet, Hilary Davies, out of London to Kimbolton School, north of Bedford for an actual in person book launch! The book was the sumptuous new anthology, Hollow Palaces, published by Liverpool University press and edited by John Greening and Kevin Gardner from Baylor University in the USA. The book is the first complete anthology of modern country house poems, including over 160 poets from Yeats and Betjeman to Heaney, Boland, Armitage and Evaristo.

Kimbolton Castle

The venue was fittingly grand. Kimbolton Castle is a country house in the little town of Kimbolton, Huntingdonshire and it was the final home of King Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Originally a medieval castle, it was later converted into a stately palace and was the family seat of the Dukes of Manchester from 1615 until 1950. It now houses Kimbolton School and this is where John Greening taught for a number of years (alongside Stuart Henson, another poet represented in the anthology).

With the declining sun streaming in through the opened French windows, looking out across the school playing fields, after an introduction from Kevin Gardner, we each read a couple of poems from the anthology. So – amongst others – John Greening read ‘A Huntingdonshire Nocturne’ about the very room we were assembled in, a subtle take on English history and education, Ulster and Drogheda. Hilary Davies’s poem rooted in Old Gwernyfed Manor in Wales, was a fantasy of lust, sacrifice, murder and hauntings. Stuart Henson’s compressed novelistic piece mysteriously described the murder or suicide of a Fourteenth Earl. Anne Berkeley remembered childhood isolation and bullying at a dilapidated Revesby Abbey. Rory Waterman re-visited the ruins of an old, tied lodge-house his grandmother once lived in. Lisa Kelly’s chewy foregrounded language (‘O drear, o dreary dreary dirge for this deer’) shaped itself into a sonnet. Rebecca Watts looked slant and briefly at Ickworth House, a glimpse of bees in lavender. Robert Selby was at Chevening, considering the clash of perspectives between the tourist’s casual gaze and the realities of tombs, time and history.

I chose to read Louis MacNeice’s brilliant, late poem ‘Soap Suds’. Written in 1961, he is remembering the grand house called Seapark which overlooks Belfast Lough. Jon Stallworthy has called the poem a ‘Proustian daydream’, the simple act of washing one’s hands acting as the trigger for remembrance of time past. What appeals to me about the poems is its subtle handling of several times periods: the ageing man washing his hands, looking back to idyllic occasional visits to the house, as well as later, less happy times there (the house belonged to Thomas Macgregor Greer, only brother of MacNeice’s step-mother), the imagery beginning to verge on the nightmarish. (For another blog on MacNeice’s work click here.)

Chateau at Villandry

My own poem in the book, as yet unpublished elsewhere, is called ‘Our Weird Regiment’. The poems remembers a compilation of country house visits over the years. One was a visit to the French chateau at Villandry where the formal gardens, I remember, were not conventionally planted with flowers but with vegetables and herbs. I’m posting the text to MacNeice’s as well as my own poem, alongside the phone video (made by Jane Greening) of the 5/6 minute reading I gave at Kimbolton.

Soap Suds by Louis MacNeice

This brand of soap has the same smell as once in the big
House he visited when he was eight: the walls of the bathroom open
To reveal a lawn where a great yellow ball rolls back through a hoop
To rest at the head of a mallet held in the hands of a child.

And these were the joys of that house: a tower with a telescope;
Two great faded globes, one of the earth, one of the stars;
A stuffed black dog in the hall; a walled garden with bees;
A rabbit warren; a rockery; a vine under glass; the sea.

To which he has now returned. The day of course is fine
And a grown-up voice, cries Play! The mallet slowly swings,
Then crack, a great gong booms from the dog-dark hall and the ball
Skims forward through the hoop and then through the next and then

Through hoops where no hoops were and each dissolves in turn
And the grass has grown head-high and an angry voice cries Play!
But the ball is lost and the mallet slipped long since from the hands
Under the running tap that are not the hands of a child.

x

Our weird regiment by Martyn Crucefix

How the rich impress us

with what they own

displaying family photos

on the piano lid

as if no different

x

to those of us who shuffle

through elaborate rooms

or glance aside

through leaded glass

x

into formal gardens

where cabbage

potato and mint perhaps

chive and marjoram

x

are elegantly deployed

to be admired

not cooked or eaten

our guide explains

x

the farmlands purchased

to the churchyard wall

and then beyond it

every mound ploughed

x

and levelled in accord

with his lordship’s

goose-feathered whim

yet a scattering of bones

x

has assembled itself

in a heap at the gate

now beyond the gate

x

our weird regiment

lurches into the road

a swaying of skulls

and whitened knucklebones

2020 Forward First Collections reviewed: #4 Martha Sprackland’s ‘Citadel’

As in the previous five years, I am posting – over the summer – my reviews of the 5 collections chosen for the Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. This year’s £5000 prize will be decided on Sunday 25th October 2020. Click here to see my reviews of all the 2019 shortlisted books (eventual winner Stephen Sexton); here for my reviews of the 2018 shortlisted books (eventual winner Phoebe Power), here for my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The full 2020 shortlist is:

Ella Frears – Shine, Darling (Offord Road Books) – reviewed here.

Will Harris – RENDANG (Granta Books) – reviewed here.

Rachel Long – My Darling from the Lions (Picador)

Nina Mingya Powles – Magnolia 木蘭 (Nine Arches Press) – reviewed here.

Martha Sprackland – Citadel (Pavilion Poetry)

After her Gregory Award in 2014 and two chapbook publications since, Martha Sprackland has long been pondering those decisions about constructing a first full collection. (She talks briefly about that process here). Ought it to be a Rattle Bag of the best poems to date, or a more coherently shaped and organised ‘concept album’? Citadel is evidently being presented to readers as the latter – but with equivocal results. The first reference of the book’s blurb is to Juana of Castile, commonly referred to as Juana la Loca (Joanna the Mad), a 16th century Queen of Spain. She was daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, instigators of the Spanish Inquisition, but was conspired against, declared mad, imprisoned and tortured by her father, husband and her son, leaving almost no written record of her own. Sprackland – having studied Spanish and spent time in Madrid – presents herself as becoming  fixated on this earlier woman, engaged in conversations with her to such a degree that (according to the blurb again) the poems in Citadel are written by a “composite ‘I’ – part Reformation-era monarch, part twenty-first century poet”.

While happy to accept the desire of the poet to maintain a distance between the lyric/dramatic ‘I’ and her autobiographical self, I find the idea, the ‘as if’, of this composite authorship hard to take. There is even something disproportionate about the claim of identity between the two women, given the extremity of Juana’s life-long suffering. I’m reminded of Caroline Maldonado’s 2019 book, Isabella (Smokestack Books) in which she translates and writes poems to Isabella Morra, an Italian aristocrat of the 16th century who also suffered appalling hardship (and likely murder) at the hands of her male relations. But Maldonado’s interest in the historical figure is never claimed as an identity. (I reviewed this book here).

The awkwardness of the leap of faith in this alignment between Sprackland and Juana gives rise to several of the opening poems which seem to want to ‘explain’ empirically the (perfectly legitimately) imagined connection. ‘Beautiful Game’ is a family-holiday-in-Spain poem, in which the Martha figure (the collection does use its author’s name on several occasions) is hit on the head with a pool ball. The next but one poem takes this up. ‘A Blow to the Head’ takes the injury as a moment of profound psychological importance. The narrator is “cracked open” and in the same moment retreats into a psychological “citadel”. The protection this offers her becomes “habit-forming, I was fortified”. The latter pun is good and the poem suggests that it is in this state of defensive retreat, perhaps of ‘imprisonment’, that she passes through a portal, making first contact with “her”, Juana. One of the tortures that Juana faced, for her religious unorthodoxy, was la cuerda, being strung up with cord/rope, weights attached to her feet. In this poem, Martha loosens “the cord from her wrists”.

It’s the poem placed between these two that perhaps provides a further clue to the undoubtedly powerful link felt by Sprackland to Juana, the link between the personal and the historical. Much is left unsaid in ‘A Room in London’; the reluctance to reveal is part of the fortified ‘citadel’. In a vaguely defined medical environment there are several young women, one of them being given misoprostol (a drug used to induce abortion). Such a moment of profound emotional, physical and psychological experience must be the origins of the identification between two individuals so remote in time and Sprackland catches the paralleled shift of innocence to pained maturity in the brilliant final line: “Our little beds, bars of autumnal light falling through the curtains”.

The fact is that this identification of the two women does then give rise to several excellent (I’d describe them as uncanny) poems – though their existence does not need anything more by way of justification than a belief in language and the poetic imagination. In ‘They Admit Each Other to the Inquisitor’, the two women are bound together by the first-person plural pronouns: “We were eighteen and pregnant and mad”. The force and flow of the poem takes the reader quickly beyond questions of likelihood:

When we undid the cord that tied our wrists

it bound us; something in that blow

knocked through the city walls

and through it we are talking, still.

We can’t explain this.

‘La Demencia de Dona Juana’ by Lorenzo Valles (Prado)

The same device is used in ‘Juana and Martha in Therapy’; this time it’s the third person plural. They are as one and yet at the same time they are communicating down a cup-and-string telephone, made from a cord and two tins of cocido (chick-pea and meat stew). There is great humour here besides the serious experiment in imaginative identification: “Time is complicated, especially at these distances”. But also, Time can be collapsed into magically anachronistic moments of intimacy: “They are in the bland room / above the Pret in Bishopsgate, trying to understand. / The walls of the mind are deep and moated”. The final poem in Citadel is ‘Transcript’ which is a verbatim record of a conversation between the two women:

  • i’ll sing you something, and you’ll sleep, tomorrow I will go falconing –
  • and I will go to work and try to hold the yolk of myself together, try not to spill –

I wish there were more poems in the book in which this sort of unashamed, ludicrous, heartfelt and imaginatively suggestive communication was portrayed. There are a few other occasions where poems approach it, but the leap of faith required seems even too much for the poet and the results feel more willed than wholly convinced. Juana alone (though in the third person) appears to good effect in ‘Falconry’, an excellent poem that hovers, alongside the hunting bird, over the landscape of the Alhambra. The bird’s searching out of its prey represents the young Queen’s curiosity, her challenge to authority (that will soon get her into so much trouble), and its tearing up of a lark seems to foreshadow Juana’s own suffering.

Otherwise, Citadel contains plenty of poems more directly connected to what we might tactfully designate the author’s biography, poems which might have constituted a Rattle-Bag-style first collection. The five sections of ‘Melr’ read very autobiographically, a childhood in a village north of Liverpool: “I grew up coastal with the land to my back”. It’s portrayed as a place of shifting sands and, as teenage years advance, that sense of novelty-seeking (like Juana and deploying similar bird imagery) grows: “villagers heard / the clatter of the entire migratory flock / lifting off under cover of darkness”. Youthful experimentation, unpredictability and the allure of travel are all expressed in the excellent ‘Pimientos de Padron’. One imagines language students in Madrid, “lovesick, shamed or fleeing / or brisant and in shock”, then heading to the airport for “the first flight anywhere but home”.

There is a motif in the book of those brought up on sand finding it hard to settle. ‘Anti-metre’ suggest this even reaches the menstrual cycle which shifts, “mutable as a dune” and one recalls the clinical environment of ‘A Room in London’ when ‘Hunterian Triptych’ concludes with the narrator and her boyfriend running out in alarm at the sight of preserved foetuses in a museum, “ranged by month and weight”. I sense the Catholicism of Spain in general (and Juana’s wrestling with it, in particular) haunting Citadel. So a visit to an orthognathic surgeon is portrayed in terms of the confessional and a poem like ‘Charca’ is underscored by a baptismal or redemptive sense. A charka is a pool, here a natural bathing pool in a valley. The narrator and her friends go there and, beyond the hedonism and holiday pleasures, she finds something more profound shifting, beginning to lift and heal into freedom:

                                                Something frozen

and distant starts to thaw in me

and to carve these deeper channels

into which we jump, again and again,

looked over by nothing but the mountains,

the overhanging leaves,

the lifted winter lived through and unbound.

This might suggest ‘Martha’ already outgrowing the need to speak to Juana. Another poem like ‘Still Life Moving’ – for me one of the best in the book – suggests the poet’s concern for Time as a theme, that “complicated” thing, here matched with Art (a still life, perhaps in the Prado) and, as time the destroyer creeps into the frame, rotting the lilies and spilling the apples, she utters a cry for some form of redemptive salvation, whether from God or Juana or elsewhere:

Are there hands, just out of the frame,

that might dart forward in time to catch them?

2020 Forward First Collections reviewed: #1 Ella Frears’ ‘Shine, Darling’

As in the previous five years, I am posting – over the summer – my reviews of the 5 collections chosen for the Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. This year’s £5000 prize will be decided on Sunday 25th October 2020. Click here to see my reviews of all the 2019 shortlisted books (eventual winner Stephen Sexton); here for my reviews of the 2018 shortlisted books (eventual winner Phoebe Power), here for my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

 The full 2020 shortlist is:

Ella Frears – Shine, Darling (Offord Road Books)

Will Harris – RENDANG (Granta Books)

Rachel Long – My Darling from the Lions (Picador)

Nina Mingya Powles – Magnolia 木蘭 (Nine Arches Press)

Martha Sprackland – Citadel (Pavilion Poetry)

 

41QV8J+9foLElla Frears’ Shine, Darling is brimming with youthful exuberance and despair, yet not a jot lacking in thoughtful sophistication. Her subjects are boredom, sex, a woman’s body and the harassment that rushes to fill the void left by uncertain selfhood. A key poem is ‘The (Little) Death of the Author’, about a 13-year-old girl texting/sexting boys in her class, though the title is, of course, one Roland Barthes would have enjoyed. The narrator – looking back to her teen self – remembers pretending to be texting in the bath. The “triumph” is to make the boys think of herself naked (when she’s really eating dinner or doing homework). Hence “Text / and context are different things”. Her texts are careful constructions, evocative, alluring, full of tempting ellipses. On both sides, there is a filmic fictionalising going on (in the absence of any real sexual experience). The poem (which is a cleverly achieved irregularly lined sestina) ends with the authorial voice breaking cover: the poem itself is “a text I continue to send: Reader, I’m in the bath . . . / Nothing more to say than that. And if you like / you can join me”. The flirtation is a bit overdone (but other poems show Frears is wholly conscious of that) and the poem indicates one of this book’s chief concerns is with the difference between the truth of what happens and the truth of a poem.

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Rubens’ St Sebastian

But Frears’ balance between biographical revelation and fiction-making artistry is a subtle one. The book’s frankness is to be praised. Apart from on-line flirtation, poems allude to masturbation, oral sex, teen sex/petting, periods, prostitution, a pregnancy scare, urination (thank you Andrew McMillan!), a couple of disembodied penises, but also domestic violence and suicide. Many of the poems seem to reflect Frears’ own upbringing in Cornwall. ‘The Overwhelming Urge’ evokes a restless teenage boredom suffered in St Ives. The lines jitter across the page, starting and restarting little narrative moments, opening with images of (either) bullying or self-harm. The narrative voice mocks herself as “Saint Sebastian” as well as her attempts at the role of seductress, of a Marilyn Monroe. The reality is more sordid: a man exposing himself. Her remoteness from the moment is neatly caught in the choice of language, the mocking art-speak: “She [. . . ] files it under: / penis, moonlit”. But erotic experimentation remains an available distraction as ‘Fucking in Cornwall’ makes knowingly, hilariously clear: “The rain is thick and there’s half a rainbow / over the damp beach; just put your hand up my top”. There’s an uncharacteristic confidence to this narrator who knows what she wants, but there are many more female narrators in this collection who are troubled and confused about what they want, indeed who they are.

300px-Shell_Hayle_2020The obvious risk of such sexual adventuring is the subject of ‘Hayle Services (grease impregnated)’. The parenthetical allusion here is to Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Filling Station’ where everything is “oil-soaked, oil-permeated [. . .] grease / impregnated”, a poem which concludes, against the odds of its grimy context, that “Somebody loves us all”. In contrast, Frears’ crappy, retail-dominated English motorway service station is (ironically) the stage for a pregnancy scare, a desperate search for a test kit in Boots and an anxious, “[p]issy” fumbling in the M&S toilet cubicle, then waiting for the “pink voila”. The headlong, impossible-to-focus, sordid anxiety here is brilliantly captured in the short, run-on lines. Frears also catches the young woman’s multiplicity of streams of consciousness, the scattershot: the potential father is present but soon forgotten, his reassurances dismissed, the pushy sales staff avoided in anger and embarrassment, the difficulty of urinating, the cringingly inappropriate joke-against-self in “et tu uterus”, the conventional moral judgement (“soiled / ruined spoiled”) and the final phone call to “Mamma, can you come pick me up?”

Elizabeth-Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop

Frears shows her female narrators bringing about many of their own difficulties, but the pressures of their social, sexual, cultural contexts are sketched in too. This is especially so in the 16-page long poem, ‘Passivity, Electricity, Acclivity’, in which Frears represents, diagnoses, resents and warns in equal measure. The material here might have made a novel, but it is assembled from fragmentary texts (verse and prose), not particularly chronologically arranged, the latter decision bringing out more clearly the recurrent traits – both the weaknesses and the harassment – of the central female figure. At the age of 10, she experienced a near-abduction by a predatory man in a hotel. She seems to have run off just in time but then failed to identify the man later (this isn’t wholly clear) and the man went on to abduct another girl (again not wholly clear). So the near-abduction of the girl is a moment of danger (heavily gendered), of guilt at her passivity and fear, but also a moment when she sensed “something new in me”, an adult self, perhaps as a sexual being.

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Ella Frears

The concern for male aggression also surfaces in later relationships with two pushy boys and (later still) with a manipulative man she meets in a pub. All three male figures impose on her (on her uncertainty and lack of confidence) their own interpretative narratives. They persuade her to believe things she suspects are not true and thence they also impose on her sexually. The man in the pub is especially, pathetically dangerous: “He apologises, tells me he has just separated / from his wife. She moved out today”. Frears also adds into the mix two relationships with young women. Lucy is one of six in a shared house with the narrator. But Lucy makes up stories about a gay relationship between them and later attempts suicide. Even so, the narrator finds it hard to hold on to the truth: “When I think back on Lucy, / I see myself doing the things she said I did”. A similar pattern emerges in her (not much developed) relationship with Millie who does suddenly kill herself. The narrator is then cast, almost cajoled, into the role of best friend by Millie’s father and twin sister and, again, she seems to shrug and accept another person’s truth: “Who am I to say no to this?”. This uncertainty about herself (“Who am I”) is once more compounded with a guilty passivity (she does not defend Millie against their driving instructor’s criticisms).

The poem ends with the narrator adopting the role given her by Millie’s sister – it’s shocking but Frears would surely argue not so uncommon and more so for women in our society. This overriding and underlying mystery about “[w]ho am I” perhaps accounts for the book’s frequent engagement with the image of the moon. Juliet warns Romeo, “O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, / That monthly changes in her circled orb”. ‘Moon Myth’ seems to want to reject the sun = male (strong, constant) and moon = female (changeable, uncertain) tropes. “[W]e have been assigned the moon” it complains and we know the patriarchy has done the assigning. Yet – in a good example of another Frears’ trait, switching the language register – we hear “58% of women say ‘take what you’re given, lest they assign us an even smaller celestial body”.

imagesAnd yet, poems in Shine, Darling do regularly turn to the moon for possible explanations of actions (‘Phases of the Moon / Things I Have Done’), for a witness if not for protection (‘Walking Home One Night’) and for directions (‘I Knew Which Direction’). The latter poem is a beautiful lyric opener to the book but is rather misleading. The repetition of the word “moonlight” seems to give an almost visionary access: “no longer a word but a colour and then a feeling / and then the thing itself”. It is curious that a poet asserts the transparency of language in this way (Frears is not much concerned with the nature, limits and impositions of language, unlike Nina Mingya Powles’ shortlisted Magnolia 木蘭), but also the idea of such an untrammelled access to “the thing itself” is countered by every poem that follows. Frears’ world view may not be too much troubled by words but the very idea of a unitary truth to be beheld with clarity is profoundly doubted.

The moon’s final appearance and the collection’s title appears in the concluding poem. Men have been feared, ignored, desired, condemned and occasionally manipulated in some of these poems. Here a mischievous female narrator decides to maroon her boyfriend on the roof of their house while a dinner party goes on below. It’s at once a funny, tender, awkward image of emasculation and this ambiguity of tone is captured in the book title’s appearance – a little sarcastic, a little affectionate, rather camp and performative:

 

As the guests left I looked up and realised that there

was no moon. Shine, darling. I whispered.

 

And from behind the chimney rose his little head.

 

Such a finely judged ambiguity of impact is all of a part with this intriguing, shape-shifting, uneasy and often very funny first collection.

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Shine, Darling

Judging Poetry Competitions: some notes on the process

I am half way through the process of judging this year’s Segora Poetry Competition. I’ve been lucky enough to judge several such competitions in recent years and in 2015 I published a version of what follows on my blog as a compilation of my thoughts on the judging process. I’m tweaking and re-blogging it here in response to my experience of judging this new competition in 2020. As I have always found, the initial sifting of so many poems can be a slog, but the latter stages are unfailingly fascinating as the best poems – those that set little hooks in you from first reading – gradually rise to the top, their internal coherence emerging, alongside their skills with language, tone and form. So what follows is inevitably a personal take on the business – becoming more so, perhaps, as the process unfolds – but I hope it may cast some light on it for those (of us) tempted to spend hard-earned cash on entering the numerous competitions now running. Follow this link to see more upcoming competitions.

MV5BNzMyZDhiZDUtYWUyMi00ZDQxLWE4NDQtMWFlMjI1YjVjMjZiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjU0OTQ0OTY@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Some films stick in the mind for reasons beyond the cinematic, don’t they? In the 2003 comedy Bruce Almighty, Jim Carey plays the character of God and, along with more obviously useful powers, he has to respond to the prayers of the world. But people are always praying! He rapidly approaches a kind of madness as voices swim around him, clamouring for attention. He takes to reading the prayers in the form of e-mails. He tries to answer them individually but is receiving them faster than he can possibly respond. He decides to set his e-mail account to automatically answer “yes” to all, assuming that this will make everybody happy. Of course, it does not.

Now – a poetry competition judge comparing himself to a character playing God lays him/herself open to some obvious criticism – but I have indeed found the initial phases of judging poetry competitions rather like Jim Carey’s experience. There are so many and such a variety of voices clamouring to be heard and every one of them is heart-felt, recording significant moments in people’s lives. There is a similar sense of responsibility too – the raw nature of much of the writing submitted is impossible to deny. There are moments when I’d like to set my response mechanism to say ‘yes’ to everybody, but the judge’s task has to be how to distinguish submissions as poetry.

What does that mean? The numbers involved are always a bit daunting. Many hundreds of poems have been submitted. Perhaps only 10% of these will demand a further reading after the brutal first sifting. Poems face an early, red stoplight from most judges because the basic poetic elements are not competently done. Here are some of the obvious failings:

  • Competitions are full of pieces where a particular verse form or rhyme pattern tyrannises the sentiment and/or sense. The writer’s submission to this tyranny becomes clear quickly through the contortions imposed on the language to achieve a rhyme.
  • The writer’s choice of language can be devastating to the life of the poem. It just isn’t right to opt for forms of language or abbreviations that died out early in the nineteenth century. Thankfully, this problem seems to be fading as more and more people actually read contemporary poetry books.
  • Choice of diction can also derail an entry if it is doggedly abstract. Sure, there remains much debate about whether it is the narrow English tradition that insists on things rather than ideas – but poems about Fear, Ignorance, Poverty, Eternity and Love which refuse to dip a toe into anything resembling a real life situation are going to find progress hard.
  • A fourth error is using language without being fully conscious of its likely resonance with a reader. A poem using the verb ‘gaslight’ without knowing its current slang meaning or another called ‘Mother’s Pride’ which seems unaware of the loaf of bread, well, they are going to have unanticipated clutter to climb over in any reader’s mind. Louis MacNeice wanted the poet not to be an ivory tower type, but rather “able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics . . . actively interested in politics”. All a bit Boys Own perhaps, but if this means the poet stays bang up to date with the way words live then he’s right.

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Rainer Maria Rilke

If you are still thinking of submitting to a competition, it’s worth recalling Wordsworth’s formulation – familiar though it will feel to most – that poetry is built from “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. Poems forged in the heat of the moment (and not revised or reviewed) are seldom without their flaws. And this is the kind of distinction Rainer Maria Rilke makes when he denies poetry is composed of feelings. Its constituents (he says) are rather “experiences” which he clarifies as “memories” though even with these, we “must be able to forget them when they are many and one must have the immense patience to wait until they come again . . . Only when they have turned to blood within us, to glance and gesture, nameless and no longer distinguished from ourselves – only then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them”. On the other hand, such recollection can sometimes create an intellectualised distance that may do harm to a good poem. Who said writing a poem was easy?

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Stephen Spender

Stephen Spender argued that a poet should try to acquire skill and virtuosity through the study and interpretation of other poetic works in the way Mozart and Beethoven did in playing the music of their predecessors. Spender suggests translating poetry is the best possible exercise in interpretation. But the really important lessons (Spender says) are those of the eye, the ear, the athletic/poetic muscles. A poet can go a long way without a developed heart, but, he says, can get nowhere at all without these skills. The poet must ask continually of his lines: ‘Do they make the reader see, or hear, or feel, this experience which I am trying to re-create?’

Reaching the final stages, the judge will be focusing more on positives and hence more precisely on the sense, the story, the thought and feeling of a poem. Personally, I like poems that focus on small things and, in effect, make arguments for the ways in which they communicate the bigger issues that concern us all. I’m with Thomas Hardy in believing that “he used to notice such things” is one of the greatest of compliments. Edward Thomas’ poem about Spring, ‘But these things also’, likewise echoes this focus on what most people tend to overlook:

The shell of a little snail bleached
In the grass; chip of flint, and mite
Of chalk; and the small birds’ dung
In splashes of purest white . . .

download (1)Perhaps one explanation of why the question ‘what is poetry?’ is so difficult to answer is because it is, to a large extent, an art of the negative, of avoidance. The Daodejing says what is rigid and inflexible is a companion of death; what is flexible is a companion of life. I’d guess there would be general agreement that poetry is an art on the side of life. So poetry must eschew the inflexible; we must avoid the posture. And that’s very hard. In judging a competition, one comes across the Wordsworth-posture, the Ginsberg-posture, alongside those of Hughes, Plath, Duffy, Oswald . . . But we also posture like mad in ‘real life’. We may take up the pose of grief, melancholy, love, liberalism, environmentalism . . . For me, the mark of the absence of posturing is an instability, an openness, an awareness of time (which posture tries to deny) and this is something I look for in a good poem. If a poem strikes an attitude my attention diminishes (even if the attitude is one that wants to show a rejection of attitudinising through the hall of mirrors of ironic distancing). When the poem unearths a pulsing, shifting, live relationship between the self and the other, then I am captivated, recognising something that is both commonly human and uniquely personal.

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Philip Pullman

But having said all this, I’d assure potential competition entrants that anything resembling a rule is there to be broken. Philip Pullman has said, “We don’t need a list of rights and wrongs, tables of dos and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.” So any poem in any form can work its magic. It will haunt its reader for days; it will make me change the way I think and feel; make me see the world differently. Ultimately, a poem contributes to who the reader is becoming. That is an exciting prospect for the writer. It is an even more exciting one for the judge who settles down to read.

Quickdraw Review – Eoghan Walls’ ‘Pigeon Songs’

Dear Readers,

As I said in my last blog – before we were all locked down – I’ve always enjoyed using this space as an experimental play area, a sand pit in which I can think through ideas about poetry, teaching and translation. In the last couple of years, a lot of this thinking aloud has been done through reviews of new poetry collections. And I have always wanted to give myself (and the book) enough space (usually over 1000 words). But several recent conversations with other writers about how very few poetry books get critical notice these days has persuaded me there is also a place here for shorter reviews – quick drawing in the sense of a rapid sketch of a book, a shooting from the hip. Here’s my second go at this sort of thing.

Eoghan Walls, Pigeon Songs (Seren Books, 2019).

Eoghan Walls’ second collection from Seren Books will make you think hard about how poets use rhyme. As in his earlier The Salt Harvest (2011), Walls reaches as it were by default-setting for rhymes, full, half and oblique, in pretty much every poem. Though the overt forms vary – couplets, triplets, quatrains – he favours longish, driven, consonant-heavy lines and the rhythms of the poems are more about the arrival of the rhyme words than anything else. The overall effect for me is rather double-edged. The achieved musicality is more about a sustained ground bass, a pedal note, or drone (I think sometimes of MacNeice’s 1937 poem ‘Bagpipe Music’) than subtle variations in the reader’s anticipation of harmony, counterpoint or disharmony, of the kind of dynamism and flight that rhyme can evoke.

There is instead a sort of digging-in, a very deliberate gaining of traction which is also reflected in a lot of the subject matters. This may be also reflected in Walls’ bird of choice: the humble pigeon, at once capable of flight (and often rapid flight too) but also the ‘rat of the air’, the urban dweller and scavenger. In a parody of Christopher Smart’s eighteenth-century paean to his cat Jeoffrey, Walls’ ‘Jubilate Columbidae’ praises the pigeon’s flight, shit, panic and feeding habits. The subject matter of Pigeon Songs likewise ranges from touching and gentle poems about the poet’s children to far more brutalist pieces on sex and death, a range matched by a characteristic shifting of perspectives from up-close details to observations on a more cosmic scale. ‘The Principles of Collision’ probably suggests what lies behind these techniques in Walls’ mind: “Once there is a collision you can have an event. / Two things bumping is the way change happens”.

Many of the child-focused poems are excellent: father and daughter fascinated and appalled at the relics in a church; the trials (for both parents and child – I remember it well) of swimming lessons in the local pool; the father carrying the child on his shoulders. ‘To Half-Inchling’ is startling in addressing a miscarried child, imagining a world where she might have grown to “[her] full potential”, a world in which it would have been more “legitimate to mourn”. The use of the rhymed sonnet form here feels very apt, the whole carrying a powerful emotional thrust that is often absent elsewhere. And such dark emotions are never far distant. On holiday in Sardinia, father and daughter cook calamari but later the child wakes “screaming about the dead squid, / whether it hurts to be dead, and if she really has to die”. Part of the father’s response is to point to the stars: “I tell her life is massive”. I don’t know how effective a parenting manoeuvre this proved to be, but it reflects a great deal about this collection: the massive scope and range of life is always present and the shifting of perspectives is an instrument used to try to make sense of what happens.

Which also means that thoughts of death are seldom far away. In ‘De Pneuma’, routine jogging leads to thoughts of car accidents or heart failure, the body, damaged irrevocably is brutally evoked: “the whole meat could be cast like a coat in the ditch”. Walls is drawn to such high dramatic stakes. ‘The Law of the Galapagos’ sees the culling of goats on the island from the poor goat’s perspective, bullets whizzing and splintering until the creature’s “jelled electrics go clinically dead”.

There are strong poems about the poet’s mother and father too. The book is interspersed with right-justified ‘pigeon’ poems and other birds and creatures make regular appearances. But – a bit like Wall’s insistence on rhyme which can dull the ear through a collection of over 60 pages – there is something rather willed about the connections this creates as in ‘The Early Days’ which records a relationship’s beginnings in half-rhyming couplets, each of which includes some allusion to bees. So raindrops falling on a shirt are shoe-horned in by being described as “bee-large”. Despite the blunt factuality of a lot of Wall’s lines, there is often also a poetical effortfulness which I do find distracting.

Quickdraw Review – Damian Walford Davies, ‘Docklands’ (Seren)

Dears Readers,

I’ve always enjoyed using this blog as my own experimental play area, a sand pit in which I can think through ideas about poetry, teaching and translation. In the last couple of years, a lot of this thinking aloud has been done through reviews of new poetry collections. And I have always wanted to give myself (and the book) enough space (usually over 1000 words). But several recent conversations with other writers about the very few poetry books that get critical notice these days has persuaded me there is also a place here for shorter reviews – quick drawing in the sense of a rapid sketch of a book, a shooting from the hip. Here’s my first try at this sort of thing.

Damian Walford Davies, Docklands: A Ghost Story (Seren Books, 2019).

Docklands-–-Damian-Walford-Davies-1This is Walford Davies’ fourth book from Seren and it is an ambitious project, combining narrative and lyric form (every poem is 16 lines long, in unrhymed couplets, most in four beat lines). It’s also a dramatic monologue, in effect, as the speaker is a thoroughly unpleasant, arrogant, but haunted architect engaged in several large urban projects in Cardiff between the years 1890 and 1982. Talk about the male gaze, this man epitomizes it. He and his wife have recently buried a child lost in stillbirth (“they wrapped it in a pall // not bigger than my handkerchief”) and while she mourns the loss, he gets on with his work and frequents bars and prostitutes in Cardiff’s docklands. The sympathetic reader is probably going to try to read this man’s cruel and dismissive treatment of his wife (and his exploitative relationships with other women) as his own rather twisted way of dealing with grief. But it’s hard to maintain that view, as Walford Davies is often shockingly good at catching his loathsome attitudes, especially towards women: “This quarter grows on me. / In shabby rooms in Stuart Street // my new friend swears // she’ll tackle anything for oranges”.

 The ghost story element arises when the architect starts to see a young girl on the streets of Cardiff. She is initially a haunting – but probably real – presence (perhaps somehow also related to the lost child?) but it eventually emerges that she is “Dead Em Foley”, an abused girl, murdered by her father a few years before. This narrative device yields up brief thrills for the reader, inexplicable sightings, eventually moments of dialogue between the two (it’s not clear if he tries to take the relationship any further). But through the five sections of the book, the architect’s wife seems to surface from her grief, returning to polite society (“Ah, Eleanor! So good to see you // out”) and there are signs of a warming of the marital relationship too. These indications seem to parallel the disappearance of Em Foley’s ghost too, though the architect memorialises her in a statue for a municipal fountain. The man sounds pleased that the local people “came out / to recognise a dead girl risen” when the statue is unveiled though it’s not clear if Walford Davies intends this as a more profound recognition of those marginalised by bourgeois Cardiff or whether it is a more personal and erotic tribute to the girl by the architect.

thWalford Davies, in an end note, talks of the ambiguity of the female figures – wife, prostitutes, dead girl – who do tend to float without clear identity, disembodied, through the text. It adds something to the ghost-like quality of the book, but the loss is any more powerful evocation of them. Also, the choice of brief lyrics to develop what could well have been a novel, gives the reader some powerful moments but few prolonged engagements with any of the characters. And the nature of the central male figure is problematic because of his downright unpleasantness (though, I suppose, Browning managed it in ‘My Last Duchess’) and in 2020 there will be plenty of readers who find such a portrayal an absolute bar to reading. I don’t think Walford Davies ironises and critiques his male figure enough, or clearly enough.

Everything Moving: Tamar Yoseloff’s ‘The Black Place’

Last week I attended the launch of Tamar Yoseloff’s new collection, published by Seren Books. Tammy and I have known each other for a long while, are both published by Seren and, in her role at Hercules Editions, she has just published my own recent chapbook, Cargo of Limbs. So – in the small world of British poetry – I’m hardly an unconnected critic, but I have the benefit of having followed her work over the years, reviewing her most recent New and Selected, A Formula for Night (2015) here.

In an earlier blog post, I spoke – in rather tabloid-y terms – of the tension in Yoseloff’s poems between the “sassy and the sepulchral”. In 2007’s Fetch (Salt), there were “racy, blunt narratives” which in their exploration of female freedom, restraint and taboo made for vivid, exciting reading. The other side of her gift inclines to an “apocalyptic darkness”, a preoccupation with time, loss, the inability to hold the moment. In A Formula for Night, the poem ‘Ruin’ invented a form in which a text was gradually shot to pieces as phrases, even letters, were gradually edited out, displaying the very process of ruination. Interestingly, The Black Place develops this technique in 3 ‘redaction’ poems in which most of a text has been blacked out (cut out – see Yoko Ono later), leaving only a few telling words. A note indicates the source text in all three cases was the booklet Understanding Kidney Cancer and the author’s recent experience of illness is an important element in this new collection.

But unlike, for example, Lieke Marsman’s recent The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes (Pavilion Poetry, 2019 – discussed here), Yoseloff’s book is not dominated by the experience of illness (and one feels this is a deliberated choice). The book opens with ‘The C Word’ which considers the phonetic parts of the word ‘cancer’, as well as its appearance: “looks like carer but isn’t”. But – within its 12 lines – Yoseloff also considers the other C word, “detonated in hate / murmured in love”. The poem is really about how an individual can contain such divergent elements, “sites of birth / and death”. So unanticipated personal experience is here being filtered through the matrix of this writer’s naturally ambivalent gift.

Illness re-emerges explicitly later in the collection, but for much of it there is a business as usual quality and I, for one, am inclined to admire this:

I refuse the confessional splurge,

the Facebook post, the hospital selfie.

I’m just another body, a statistic,

nothing special. Everyone dies –

get over yourself.

So Yoseloff gives us a marvellous send-up of Edward Thomas’ ‘Adlestrop’ in ‘Sheeple’, a central place on the darker side of Yoseloff-country: “The heartland. Lower Slaughter”. There is urbanite humour in ‘Holiday Cottage’ with its “stygian kitchen”, bad weather, boredom and kitsch:

We stare at the knock-off Hay Wain

hung crooked over the hearth

and dream of England: the shire bells,

the box set, the M&S biscuit tin

‘The Wayfarer’ is one of many ekphrastic poems here – this one based on a Bosch painting – but the “sunless land” is patently an England on which “God looked down / and spat”. These are poems written in the last 3 years or so and, inevitably, Brexit impinges, most obviously in ‘Islanders’ (“We put seas between ourselves, / we won’t be rescued”) but the cityscape equally offers little in the way of hope. There is a caricaturing quality to the life lived there: everything “pixilates, disneyfies” (‘Emoji’) and gender relationships seem warped by inequitable power, by self-destructive urges and illness: “I’d super-shrink my dimensions, / wasting is a form of perfection” (‘Walk All Over Me’).

Perhaps ‘Girl’ shows us the figure of a survivor in such a hostile environment, her energy reflecting those female figures in Fetch – “a slip, a trick, a single polka dot” – but the darkness seems thicker now, the lack of lyricism, the impossibility of a happy ending more resolved:

She’s good for nothing because nothing’s

good: sirens drown out violins

and crows swoop to carnage in the street.

As the blurb says, the book boldly eschews the sentimental sop, the capitalist hype, for truths that are hard, not to say brutal. ‘Little Black Dress’ takes both the archetypal ‘girl’ and the author herself from teen years to widowhood in a dizzyingly rapid sonnet-length poem:

drunk and disorderly, dropping off bar stools one

by one, until the time arrives for widow’s weeds

and weeping veils, Ray-Bans darkening the sun.

And it is – unsurprisingly – mortality (the sepulchral) that eventually comes to the fore. A notable absence is the author’s mother, who has often been a powerful presence in previous books. Here she re-appears briefly in ‘Jade’. The stone is reputed to be efficacious in curing ailments of the kidneys and a jade necklace inherited from Yoseloff’s mother leads her to wonder about the inheritance of disease too: “a slow / release in her body, passed down, // down”. Both parents put in a fleeting appearance in the powerful sequence ‘Darklight’, the third part of which opens with the narrator standing in a pool of streetlight, “holding the dark / at bay”. She supposes, rather hopelessly, that “this must be what it’s like to have a god”. Not an option available to her; the dark holds monsters both within and without and not just for the child:

                                                Back then

my parents would sing me to sleep;

now they’re ash and bone. Our lives are brief

like the banks of candles in cathedrals,

each a flame for someone loved;

It’s these thoughts that further the careful structuring of this collection and return it to the experience of a life-threatening illness. ‘Nephritic Sonnet’ is an interrupted or cut off – 13 line – sonnet that takes us to the hospital ward, the I.V. tubes and – as she once said of the city – the poet finds “no poetry in the hospital gown”. Except, of course, that’s exactly what we get. The determination or need to write about even the bleakest of experiences is the defiant light being held up. Yoseloff does not rage; her style is quieter and involves a steady, undeceived gaze and also – in the sequence ‘Cuts’ – the powerful sense that (as quoted above) “I’m just another body, a statistic, / nothing special. Everyone dies”.

It’s this sense of being “nothing special” that enables ‘Cuts’ dispassionately to record very personal experiences of hospital procedures alongside the contemporaneous facts of the Grenfell Tower fire and (another ekphrastic element) a 1960s performance piece by Yoko Ono called ‘Cut Piece’. These elements are ‘leaned’ against each other in a series of 13 dismembered sonnets, each broken up into sections of 6/3/4/1 lines. The fragmentary, diaristic style works well though there are risks in equating personal illness with the catastrophic accident and vital political questions surrounding Grenfell. Ono’s performance piece offers a further example of victimhood, one more chosen and controllable perhaps. What’s impressive is how Yoseloff avoids the magnetic pull of the ego, displaying – if anything – a salutary empathy for others in the midst of her own fears.

The book is titled after a Georgia O’Keefe picture, reproduced on the cover. O’Keefe’s steady gaze into the darkness created by the jagged relief of the Navajo country is something to which Yoseloff aspires, though it “chills me / just to think it into being”. It is the ultimate reality – a nothing, le néant – though like the ultimate presence of other writers (Yves Bonnefoy’s le presence, for example), can at best only be gestured towards:

We’ll never find it; as soon as we arrive,

the distance shifts to somewhere else,

we remain in foreground, everything moving

around us, even when we’re still.

Along such a difficult path, Yoseloff insists, O’Keefe’s art found “the bellow in a skull, / the swagger in a flower”. And, even in the most frightening brush with her own mortality, the poet will follow and does so in a way that is consistent with her own nature and work over many years.

‘Cargo of Limbs’ launches Thurs 21st November

Apologies for the relative silence from my blog. I have been busy preparing and working to propel into the world two new books of poetry. The first out has been These Numbered Days, my new translations of the GDR poet, Peter Huchel, published by Shearsman Books.

The second book will be published by Hercules Editions, It’s called Cargo of Limbs more details of it can be found here. I’ll also post the launch event details below – it’s an open and free event and I would be delighted to see you there.