I have been invited to give a 10 minute reading – on Zoom – this coming Friday 25th November @ 1pm alongside Hilary Watson and Sudeep Sen. The event is free to all but you will need to register for a ‘ticket’ (and Zoom link) here. I hope you can make it.
Details about the other two readers are as follows:
Poet, translator, artist, and editor Sudeep Sen studied English literature at the University of Delhi and was an Inlaks Scholar at Columbia University. Sen has published more than a dozen collections of poetry, including The Lunar Visitations (1990), Postmarked India: New and Selected Poems (1997), Lines of Desire (2000), Distracted Geographies (2003), Rain (2005), and Aria (2011), winner of the A.K. Ramanujan Translation Award. Two volumes of new and selected poems and translations were published as Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1978-2013 (2013) and Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1980-2015 (2015). Recent collections of poetry include Incarnat | Incarnadine (2017) and, with Setsuko Klossowska de Rola and Homa Arzhangi, Path to Inspiration (2017). The Government of India Ministry of Culture’s awarded him the senior fellowship for “outstanding persons in the field of culture.” Sen divides his time between New Delhi, London, and New York.
Hilary Watson grew up in and around Cardiff. She graduated from the University of Warwick Writers’ Programme with a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing and an MA in Writing. She was a Jerwood/Arvon Mentee 2015/16 with mentor Caroline Bird alongside fellow poets Rachel Long and Emma Simon. She was shortlisted for the Troubadour International Poetry Prize 2019 and the Live Canon Prize in 2015, and has recently been published in a number of UK and Irish magazine such as the Butcher’s Dog, Interpreter’s House, and Impossible Archetype. She works in the third sector and is currently writing her first collection.
I have not quite finalised what I will be reading but probably a couple of poems from my last full collection, The Lovely Disciplines and some more recent poems. No doubt I will plug the recent Christmas poetry anthology that I have co-edited with Michael Glover – also plugged in a recent blog post here. You might be interested to hear that we are planning a London launch for the anthology on Sunday December 4th @ 7pm at the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham. More details (and booking) can be found here. Readers will include Rowan Williams, Nancy Campbell, Hilary Davies and Denise Saul – and there will be plenty of music of a festive variety too.
If I have time in the Live Canon reading, I’ll read this poem included in the Christmas anthology which I wrote in repsonse to Breughel’s fascinating painting of the same name (see above). It might be worth knowing that I imagine the voice of the poem to be that of the (blind? short-sighted?) man in the upper right corner of the image. He’s the one wearing the large blue-tinted spectacles:
On any criteria, it is a poor photograph. The primary subject – the three young boys in the foreground – are out of focus. The youngest one’s head is just too low for the dated camera’s pre-set focus to find it. Instead, there in the background, but far more sharply defined, is a woman’s bicycle, the chain ring and two slanting elements of the metal frame reflecting the sun brightly. I know the orientation of this house. If the sun is falling this way, the time must be nearing mid-afternoon, the sun is falling on the garden and over back of the house, over the photographer’s right shoulder, into the eyes of the children, each of whom is squinting slightly. Look beneath the large pram under the window, to the left: the shadows of its four spoked wheels and their pale tyres confirm the angle. The black bulk of the pram and the mass of shadow behind and beneath it almost take over the image. It too is in sharper focus than the children.
Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida suggests our viewing of a photographic image has two aspects. What he termed the studium is associated with any viewer’s knowledge and cultural experience, with a body of information and a general interest: ‘a very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste’ (tr. Richard Howard, Vintage Books). It is a mere question of liking, not liking. Here, the studium of the image is open to anyone with a decent knowledge of England in the mid-20th century. The corner of a recently built house (the garden as yet untended, only wire fencing between this and the next house on what looks like a raw housing estate) and the style of bicycle and pram, the clothes the three boys are wearing (what look like home-knitted jumpers – the youngest wrapped up with a knitted hat, buttoning under the chin – so the weather is not warm) are all suggestive of the late 1950s or early 1960s. The youngest boy is also sat in a toy pedal vehicle – the long-nosed bonnet indicative of a racing car – the sun’s angle perhaps catching brightly again what might be headlights at the very bottom of the image.
The outline of this lawn in the back garden remained unchanged throughout my childhood. Its corner – in the image, its apex – falls neatly behind the youngest boy’s head. Perhaps there is some composition here? I’d guess it was my father pressing the white button on the black plastic box of a Kodak camera. Taking such a picture was more the father’s job in those days. His clumsiness in framing the image ought not to be judged too harshly (these were still relatively early days for mass photography) but it stirs in me the thought that he was always a man more at home with objects than words or people. I wish he’d taken the picture again, a little lower, filling the chosen frame with his three children. Forty years later, setting the scene behind the large window in the image, sat around the dining table that (for fully 50 years) looked out onto the back garden, I wrote of him when forgetfulness and confusion troubled him more and more:
Past ninety and still no books to read
your knuckles rap the laid table
gestures beside a stumble of words
so much aware of their inadequacy
it hurts us both in different ways
since a man without language is no man
finding too late the absence of words
builds a prison you’re no longer able
to dominate objects as once you did
the world turns in your loosening grip
So, it may be the general studium of this image stirs some mild interest in you – the period, the clothes, the main objects a little like museum pieces. Barthes’ second element in a viewer’s response to a photo, he termed the punctum, some detail (usually only one) that pierces the viewer, that wounds us, a powerful emotional response. The punctum is often not intended by the photographer – some random detail that for a particular viewer has a disproportionate and very personal impact. It is what moves us.
The fact that this is an image from my own past means there are a number of candidates here for a punctum. Most likely surely is the face of the boy on the left. Under a thick head of hair, a rough-cut fringe, he squints more than the others. His eyes cannot be seen, hidden away in the dark slits beneath the eyebrows. The firm lines on his face slant down from nose to half-opened mouth in a grin that lifts his cheekbones, that might even be the shaping of a word. The long vowel in the word ‘cheese’ perhaps? A version of that face greets me in the mirror even now. In these infant and junior years, my jumpers were knitted by my mother. I seem to be wearing a girlish collar beneath. My right hand is lost beyond the lower edge of the image. My right rests on the racing car, not quite clasping my younger brother’s hand which looks set back a little on the edge of the car. I am the middle child. My younger brother must be little more than a year or two old (born in 1959). My older brother is the one full of animation: right arm around the car, around his little brother, he seems to be exploding into a fit of giggles. But oddly, none of these details quite wounds me…
The bicycle? My mother’s of course. A large wicker basket on the front. Look closely and there on the back is the folding child’s seat I remember sitting in as she pedaled the 2 or 3 miles into town. The vast contraption of the black pram? I don’t have memories of it – even of my brother in it. It remains part of the studium – I remember later discussions about the way pram and child would be left outside for hours on end (sometimes in the front garden of the house where the sun’s absence kept it cool in summer). I think a general thought: such a thing would never be countenanced these days. Even far older children are seldom let out of their parents’ sight.
The house itself? A little tugging of nostalgia here (we eventually sold the house after my parents’ deaths just a few years ago) but mostly I sense information welling up. An estate of 40 such houses on the edge of a Wiltshire town. One of the first ever post-war self-build projects – the 40 men built them with their own hands over 3-4 years in the mid- to late-50s. I have other photos of the house being built. Each dwelling had a little outhouse (ours is middle top of the image; next door’s filling the top right corner). There’s a non-standard coal bunker: it’s what Mum’s bike is propped against. If I remember rightly my paternal grandfather helped build it. I have a vague physical memory of being held by him (over the bunker?). Nothing more, since he died suddenly, I think, before this image was taken.
Oddly – and this is in the nature of the Barthsian punctum – the detail that has particular poignancy (like a dagger, Barthes says) is the shapeless peg bag hanging (where it always hung, it hung there forever) on the bracket attaching the guttering downpipe to the wall. The camera simply records what lies before it. After 100 pages of discussion, Barthes arrives at, what even he confesses is, a less-than-earth-shattering conclusion that a photo’s potency lies in its declaration of ‘this-has-been’, its evidential power. Yet it’s also the case that an image’s power can be contained in what is absent from it or is implied by small details within it. I am pierced by the peg bag because it represents (more than that – it is, it manifests, the touch of) my mother. The only member of the family nowhere here (neither behind nor in front of the lens), she is there in her bicycle, there in the pram (possibly there in the waste bin beside the coal bunker – has it just been washed out? there is a darkening patch of water running on the path?). But most of all in the peg bag. Almost certainly she made it herself. A coat hanger. A few lengths of spare cloth. Some wooden pegs. The washing line ran down the length of the back garden path. There was a long wooden prop with a V cut in the top. In a very early poem, I would see her ‘struggling / to peg out snapping shirtfuls of wind’.
In Susan Sontag’s On Photography, she writes ‘[w]hen we are afraid, we shoot’. She means when we fear losing what-is-here we preserve it in the museum of the recorded image. Did my father fear losing this moment? He preserved it badly. But he managed to preserve the children (though the ones in this image are now passed on into something quite other; Barthes would say they have died). Nowadays, a father would turn his camera and include himself in it too. What does that say about fear? The peg bag would still be hanging there though. In the image. On my desk here. Scanned to the screen. In my mind, the peg bag continues to hang in its place on the downpipe though other people’s children play on the lawn, other parents sit gazing out of (what we always called) the dining room’s picture window.
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.
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:
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:
Nina Mingya Powles’ collection, Magnolia 木蘭, is an uneven book of great energy, of striking originality, but also of a great deal of borrowing. This is what good debut collections used to be like! I’m reminded of Glyn Maxwell’s disarming observation in On Poetry (Oberon Books, 2012) that he “had absolutely nothing to say till [he] was about thirty-four”. The originality of Magnolia 木蘭 is largely derived from Powles’ background and brief biographical journey. She is of mixed Malaysian-Chinese heritage, born and raised in New Zealand, spending a couple of years as a student in Shanghai and now living in the UK. Her subjects are language/s, exile and displacement, cultural loss/assimilation and identity. Shanghai is the setting for most of the poems here and behind them all loiter the shadows and models of Ocean Vuong, Sarah Howe and, especially, Anne Carson. Powles refers to the impact of reading Carson’s Sappho versions but a much earlier book like Plainwater (1995) with its extraordinary inventiveness of form, gives an idea of what Magnolia 木蘭 contains. (See also Carson’s lecture, ‘Stammering, Stops, Silence: on the Methods and Uses of Untranslation’ (2008), revised for Poetry Review (2013)).
Powles has said that the opening poem is the oldest. Called ‘Girl Warrior, or: watching Mulan (1998) in Chinese with English subtitles’, it is written sections of prose (though divided by / every so often as if to suggest line breaks). The Disney animation – about a young Chinese girl who pretends to be a man in order to fight and prove herself – turns out to be an important reference point for the whole collection. The Mulan figure is recognised as idealised (disneyfied) compared to the narrator who laments her “thick legs / and too much hair that doesn’t stay”. Mulan cuts her hair short; the narrator’s mother trims hers. The issue of the subtitles raises the language question (“I understand only some of the words” of the spoken Chinese). There are suggestions of early encounters with boys, her mother dressing her up as Mulan and (later, presumably) what sounds like a writing workshop comment: “Why don’t you ever write about yourself”. All this works well as a cryptic, cut up sort of a bildungsroman, though the ending fades away less effectively and the earlier hair-cutting episode ends with a disproportionately hyperbolic image of the trimmed hair falling out of place, “ungracefully caught / in the wind of some perpetual / hurricane”.
I don’t think the intriguing glimpses of an individual young woman in this first poem are much developed in later ones. The Mulan figure makes a couple of other appearances in the book and is reprised in the concluding poem, ‘Magnolia, jade orchid, she-wolf’. This consists of even shorter prose observations. In Chinese, ‘mulan’ means magnolia so the fragments here cover the plant family Magnoliaceae, the film again, the Chinese characters for mulan, Shanghai moments, school days back in New Zealand and Adeline Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella. It’s hard not to think you are reading much the same poem, using similar techniques, though this one ends more strongly: “My mouth a river in full bloom”.
Unlike Carson’s use of fragmentary texts, Powles is less convincing and often gives the impression of casting around for links. This is intended to reflect a sense of rootlessness (cultural, racial, personal) but there is a willed quality to the composition. One of the things Powles does have to say (thinking again of Maxwell’s observation) is the doubting of what is dream and what is real. The prose piece, ‘Miyazaki bloom’, opens with this idea and the narrator’s sense of belonging “nowhere” is repeated. This is undoubtedly heartfelt – though students living in strange cities have often felt the same way. Powles also casts around for role models (beyond Mulan) and writes about the New Zealand poet, Robin Hyde and the great Chinese author Eileen Chang, both of whom resided in Shanghai for a time. ‘Falling City’ is a rather exhausting 32 section prose exploration of Chang’s residence, mixing academic observations, personal reminiscence and moments of fantasy to end (bathetically) with inspiration for Powles: “I sit down at one of the café tables and begin to write. It is the first day of spring”.
But there’s no doubting the range of reference in Magnolia 木蘭 is refreshing and bringing something new to UK poetry. Poems allude to writers like Hyde and Chang, filmmakers like Miyazaki, the actor Maggie Cheung, Princess Mononoke (a Japanese spirit figure) as well as images from her New Zealand home. Powles’ enthusiasm is also infectious when it comes to formal experimentation. There is little conventional ‘verse’ to be found here. Prose in various guises is frequent, lists and fragments predominate. There are instructional texts, quiz and QandA forms, text and footnote, quoting and re-purposing of other texts, two-column poems (read two ways) and (very frequently) a jotting or journalistic form. This latter gives rise to the best sequence in the collection, ‘Field Notes on a Downpour’. Its 8 short sections return to the question of what is real, expressing a fear of things/words slipping away: “There are so many things I am trying to hold together”. Powles’ time studying Mandarin is contributory here as each section explores the homophonic/polysemic nature of Chinese characters. The first character of her mother’s name, for example, also suggests rain, language, warm, lips and lines/veins. Such moments are fascinating and often poetically suggestive. Another character, ‘zong’, encompasses assemble, trace and the uneven flight of a bird; all aspects of Powles’ technique as a writer. The sequence ends with a sense of language having been lost, though the image of a dropped jar of honey perhaps suggests something holds, something remains: “The glass broke but the honey held its shards together, collapsing softly”.
Indeed, another of the pleasures of Powles’ poems is her vivid writing about food. She has said the book is a love poem to Shanghai and it certainly does justice to its culinary offerings. There are four options for ‘Breakfast in Shanghai’, egg noodles crisping in a wok, dumplings, white cabbage and pork and a whole dishful of pink-hearted pomelo fruit. She also has a heightened sense of colour (reflected in Nine Arches’ cover perhaps) and there are ekphrastic responses to Agnes Martin, Lisa Reihana and Werner’s ‘Nomenclature of Colours’ (1814).
Mark Rothko’s ‘Saffron’ (1957) makes an appearance in ‘Colour fragments’ and, after a vivid evocation of the original image, Powles’ response is too unremarkable in that she imagines climbing into the painting, “and you are floating or drowning or both at the same time”. This is not original (or originally expressed) and has something of an undergraduate feel to it. That’s harsh – but what Powles has to say at the moment does not live up to the impressive technical and referential aspects of her writing. I don’t think listing ‘Some titles for my childhood memoir’ (none of them very striking, all dealt with in other poems) or ‘Faraway Love’, a re-purposing of Tate gallery notes on a piece by Agnes Martin, should have made the cut to this first book. The book Nine Arches Press presents here is quite a feast – unselfconsciously delighting in colour, taste and a strong sense of place – but it’s also too self-conscious about its nature as poetry and hence I’m left with the less pleasing taste of a poet in hiding or at least one often arrayed in other writers’ clothes.
This is how reviews are supposed to work. I recently read James Harpur’s comments on Bonjour Mr Inshaw, published by Two Rivers Press (poems by Peter Robinson, paintings by David Inshaw) in the Spring 2020 issue of Agenda, ‘Pound Reconsidered’. I went out and bought the book.
I’ve long thought of writing poems about David Inshaw’s paintings, drawn to what Harpur calls his ability to “invest landscapes with spiritual light and energy, balancing realism with a sense of the mythic, of penetrating a noumenal sphere”. The other personal draw to his work has been that Inshaw’s home (and home ground as an artist) is that part of Wiltshire to the west of where I grew up. Inshaw’s home is in Devizes and many of his paintings are of the landscape just a bit further west, of Silbury Hill, Avebury, the barrows and downs of that area. The drive from the M4 turn-off at Hungerford, on the Bath Road, through Marlborough and the A361 to Devizes has long figured in my personal list of favourite drives (not wholly because it was for years the route to my childhood home in Hilperton, Wiltshire). And now Peter Robinson has beaten me to it with this beautiful book of full colour images and 19 poems, though his approach is not simply ekphrastic (merely descriptive of the images) but often launches out from the pictures into concerns shared by the two artists.
Robinson and Inshaw in fact met at Cambridge in the 1970s. That moment is uncertainly recalled in the poem ‘In the Seventies’ (a title borrowed from Thomas Hardy’s poem in Moments of Vision – a sub-theme of this whole book is how both poet and artist respond to Hardy’s work). Various chance meetings over 50 years then occurred including a visit to Devizes in January 2019 during which the project of this book was agreed upon.
The word ‘haunted’ seems to have been designed to be applied to Inshaw’s landscapes. There is a hyper-real quality to the painting which makes the viewer re-see our own surroundings but also takes us through the surface. Harpur’s Agenda review suggested a “Platonic vision” but I’d object to losing the surface of the real so readily. Inshaw was a member of the Brotherhood of Ruralists (here is an old BBC documentary on them – a brilliant example of ‘slow’ TV before it had been thought of) and his landscapes are usually peopled and the trees and downs and ancient memorials are therefore always ‘seen’. Inshaw’s work is about time and memory (Hardy again) and the way moments of vision or perception can feel heightened. The poem ‘Haunting Landscapes’ alludes to Inshaw’s ‘Our days were a joy and our paths through flowers’ (another quote from Hardy, his poem ‘After a Journey’). A woman in black stands in a graveyard but has turned as if being called to from beyond the frame (by a memory, a ghost).
As in so many memories, there is a heightened particularity to Inshaw’s paintings. There is a Rilkean focus on what ‘The Kennet’ calls “being here”. Look at Inshaw’s ‘Tree and Moon’, for example, and Robinson’s accompanying poem, ‘At Slader’s Yard’, associates the two artists (and their art forms) in the quality of their ‘noticing’: “I’m a counter of clouds / come over the hills like this one / ‘salmoning’ in a ‘deepening blue’”. Hardy’s poem ‘Afterwards’ describes himself as a “man who . . . noticed things”. Robinson’s concluding poem, ‘After a Visit’, suggests how Inshaw’s precision of observation (“the starkness of those winter branches’ / black against a glowing skyline”) manages to inculcate a sense of something other than mere perception of colour and shape: “it brings back the sense of some design, / and a meaning to this scene”. The root and pattern of design is unclear. The value of such a comprehending vision is heightened by the precise historical context in which many of these poems were written. The divisions and confusions of Brexit and the world of Covid infection and lockdowns keeps breaking through the surface of this book. The parliamentary “palaver”, hypocritically urging us to “come together as a nation” and a certain politician, “pre-disgraced”, indicate that neither poet nor painter look upon the landscape of southern England with their heads in the clouds, nor with any narrowly nostalgic gaze.
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:
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.
My earlier postings on ekphrastic poetry – poems inspired by visual art – have proved astonishingly popular and, when Agenda magazine asked me to review two collections with exclusively ekphrastic intentions, I leaped at the chance. I’m posting this now because the reviews have just appeared in the latest Agenda, a journal well-worth subscribing to. As will become clear, in what follows I am more persuaded by Seamus Cashman’s book, The Sistine Gaze (Salmon Poetry, 2015) than David Pollard’s Three Artists (Lapwing Publications, 2017). But both provide much food for thought on the relationship between poetry and the visual arts and evidently there are a lot of us fascinated by this sort of writing.
David Pollard’s book is divided into three sections, one each on Parmigianino, Rembrandt and Caravaggio. Initially, Pollard presents a set of 15 self-declared “meditations” on a single work of art – Parmigianino’s ‘Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ (c. 1524). This is a bold move, given that John Ashbery did the same thing in 1974 and Pollard does explore ideas also found in Ashbery’s poem. Both writers are intrigued by a self-portrait painted onto a half-spherical, contoured surface to simulate a mirror such as was once used by barbers. The viewer gazes at an image of a mirror in which is reflected an image of the artist’s youthful and girlish face. It’s this sense of doubling images – an obvious questioning of what is real – that Pollard begins with. “You are a double-dealer” he declares, addressing the artist directly, though the language is quickly thickened and abstracted into a less than easy, philosophical, meditative style. It is the paradoxes that draw the poet: “you allow the doublings / inherent in your task to hide themselves / in open show, display art that / understands itself too well”. Indeed, this seems to be something of a definition of art for Pollard. “Let us be clear”, he says definitively, though the irony lies in the fact that such art asks questions about clarity precisely to destabilise it.
The 15 meditations are in free verse, the line endings often destabilising the sense, and they are lightly punctuated when I could have done with more conventional punctuation given the complex, involuted style. Pollard also likes to double up phrases, his second attempt often shifting ground or seeming propelled more by sound than sense. This is what the blurb calls Pollard’s “dense and febrile language” and it is fully self-conscious. In meditation 15, he observes that the artist’s paint is really “composed of almost nothing like words / that in their vanishings leave somewhat / of their meaning” – a ‘somewhat’ that falls well short of anything definitive. Of course, this again echoes Ashbery and appeals to our (post-)modern sensibility. Pollard images such a sense of loss with “a rustle of leaves among the winds / of autumn blowing in circles / back into seasons of the turning world”. He does not possess Ashbery’s originality of image, as here deploying the cliched autumnal leaves and then echoing Eliot’s “still point of the turning world”. Indeed, many poems are frequently allusive (particularly of Shakespearean phrases, Keats coming a close second) and for me this does not really work, the phrases striking as undigested shorthand for things that ought to be more freshly said.
The Rembrandt poems have a similar tone and style, not surprisingly when most of the focus is again on the mirroring and self-reflection of his self-portraits: “Skin and paint are different stuffs / as he was a different species from himself / reflected”. Perhaps there is less playfulness here than in Parmigianino’s trompe l’oeuil image, more of an obvious darkness in the dusky, obscure backgrounds: “These images were born in thoughts of his departing / and in the horror of identity, of selves, of ruins”. Yet there is more variety of tone to be found in these poems as Pollard develops Rembrandt’s social context, his painting of pictures to please Amsterdam’s wealthy burghers and corporations, images of their self-importance for which they “paid him well”. Yet the artist himself was more interested in other, more liminal figures:
And just beyond the door, always ajar,
there in the street canal side,
in a swift moment are his old hags
and poverty and Christ, the Jews
in fur and black passed down the ages,
too many beggars and those copulating dogs
and then again wives and washerwomen
The final Caravaggio section of this book makes different ekphrastic choices. Pollard allows the ageing artist a direct voice in one poem, then considers 7 individual images in separate poems, then concludes again with something close to a ‘meditation’. Hearing Caravaggio speak (in ‘Porto Ercole’) is a refreshing change to Pollard’s own rather too-consistent, sometimes haranguing voice. The artist is sailing to Rome, hoping to escape a death sentence, fretting about what he has achieved: “I am only spine and marrow of regret / and last prayers flail along my throat / and my weak blood is darker / than those holy tenebrae I drew art from”. Elsewhere we hear of the artist’s earlier life, hawking more conventional images on Rome’s street corners. Those familiar with Caravaggio will know what to expect: the play of light out of thick slabs of shadow and “[p]lain speech not mannered rhetoric”. Such a visual ‘plain speech’ is well described in ‘The Entombment’ with Christ’s “liminal grey flesh / full of the pure weight of the physicality of loss”. Also, in ‘The Rising of Lazarus’, it is suggested that Caravaggio employed grave robbers to “drag a grave” for a real, decaying corpse since “he only painted from grit and real”. The language here has some energy, but I doubt its precision in such choices as “drag” and “grit” – the former tries too hard, the latter not hard enough. Pollard’s liking for abstraction can also be harmful as in these final lines on Caravaggio, which leave me puzzling, though not in any good way:
Thus it can show only how
the insignificance of objects
waits for it, accepts it,
and then drowns in its almost too late a dusk
and ochre of our being
hewn out of nothing more than the liquidity
that holds invisibility at bay against oblivion.
In contrast to Pollard, Seamus Cashman lets us partake of the very moment when his single long poem began. Re-visiting the Sistine Chapel, we are told his eyes fall on a painted figure in a white, pseudo-architectural, triangular frame – a woman in a green jacket. He goes on: “Her eyes hold mine, and the word ‘gaze’ slips into my mind. As I stare she seems to invite me to converse”. The resulting ‘conversation’ is the extraordinarily ambitious poem that follows, drawing on Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling of the Chapel (completed in 1512) and the altar wall (completed 1541). This admittedly touristic, but originating moment is poetically recast in Cashman’s Prologue as an epiphanic encounter: “This face centres a still point, draws me up and in. She is waiting. I attend”.
In fact, the woman is hardly given a voice and the substance of the sequence is dominated by the (male) artist’s reflections on his years-long task. He’s most often found “between this scaffold floor and ceiling”, complaining about his “craned neck”, pouring plaster, crushing pigments, enumerating at great length the qualities and shades of the paint he employs (Cashman risking an odd parody of a Dulux colour chart at times – “Variety is my clarity, / purity my colour power”). Later, we hear him complaining the plaster will not dry in the cold winter months. We even hear the artist reflecting on his own features, the famous “long white beard and beak-like nose”. These period and technical details work well, but Cashman’s Michelangelo sometimes also shades interestingly into a more future-aware voice, melding – I think – with the poet’s own voice. So he remarks: “Getting lost is not a condition men like me endure or venture on today. / All GPS and mobile interlinks enmesh our every step”. Later, a list of “everything there is” sweepingly includes “chair, man, woman; laptop or confession box”.
At one point, Michelangelo recalls working on a great marble block that fell and shattered, “bartering monumentalities / that break backs”. And I do worry that the sheer ambition of this project has led to awkward monumentalities in the texture of Cashman’s verse. He surrounds his poems with thickets of rubric. So on page 31, the reader is told that she is about to begin Book 1, called ‘Creation’, this being Part II, called ‘In the Mirror of Creation’s Dust’ and that this book consists of Verses 65-117 and that, firstly, comes Movement 9 (which runs from verses 65-67) and that the opening passage has been given the title ‘Convinced we are awake’. This gives the whole thing a clunky, pseudo-scriptural quality which (on my reading) doesn’t really fit with Cashman’s overall purpose and its enumerative, even obsessive titling and sub-titling certainly and frequently derailed this reader’s imaginative and emotional engagement with the poems. I suspect this decision arose as a response to the sheer fecundity, the multifarious nature, of Michelangelo’s Sistine work. It may also account for Cashman’s frequently rather grandiose register, his occasional drifts into archaism, the ubiquity of rhetorical gestures like lists of three (or even four) and the self-conscious habit of using nouns as verbs (thigh, sex, tray, story).
But as a result, Cashman’s verse has a Whitmanesque quality (the long lines) and can bring to mind Blake’s Prophetic Books; it has dashes of Hopkins’ alliterative energy. At one point the voice wants “to sing. I want to sing the body tune, / the rhythms of blood, the living heart” but I found myself wishing for a little less such effortful transcendence and a more Traherne-like, child-like, simplicity of diction which is still capable of conveying what Michelangelo declares, at a late stage, that “our instinct is infinity”. This might also sit more comfortably with Cashman’s Michelangelo’s intentions which seem to be to give “hope to some pilgrim searching my cabinet for direction and new ritual”. I think we are meant to see Cashman himself as this “pilgrim”, a latter-man, having lost his Catholic beliefs, but visiting the Chapel in search of a new vision.
Certainly, the Michelangelo-voice does not seem to be speaking of his works in a confined 16th century fashion as art in praise of God. More like a modern poet, he says “all we need / are words of admiration drafted with compassion for the flesh and bone we are”. Later, reflecting on the nature of the human self, he describes it as a “mobile installation, unfixed and indeterminate [. . .] emotion in the making”. Many verses in the poem celebrate the sexuality of “Eve ‘n Adam—penetration – vulva open to erection; risen nipples; hanging scrotum; nosing cheeks / all the open flesh and pleasured nerve-ends”. And alongside this, the poem works towards a modern – or perhaps it’s a Blakean – godless vision of human life where “heaven is adoration of knowledge, and god is who we know ourselves to be”.
Curious and bold then, that Cashman ekphrastically takes on the Sistine Chapel and then writes God out of the picture. Nor does he shrink from the shelf-clearing consequences for our conventional spiritual understanding. The idea of the “Soul” is now little more than a “word. It frightens children and old painter sculptors weakened by the weight of brush and mallet. Soul. / Nothing knows its place”. Likewise, The Sistine Gaze concludes its frequent lauding of human sexuality with a recognition of the plain fact of its opposite, death: “this finality, expired into a nothingness we each possess. Dead is dead”. Even the genius-artist himself is finally and ironically “absorbed in the great womb of chaos he created / leaving us to falter, wonder, and pass on / for we know nothing”. These lines are some of the concluding moments of the book and they possess a lighter touch than the majority of it. Cashman here allows the white space around his printed words to work its magic more effectively, creating a rhythm and a chain-link of tensions which add to the reader’s experience. For all its intended monumentality and dizzying ambition (which has led the poet to erect too much scaffolding around his poems), this quiet end-piece is for me the most affecting moment of the whole book: “our end is an endless breath / to fill – to vitalise / and imperceptibly / to let go— / never to know”.
In the summer of 2018, John Greening spent 2 weeks as artist-in-residence at the Heinrich Boll cottage in Dugort, Achill Island. The resulting Achill Island Tagebuch is a sequence of 24 Shakespearean sonnets, in the mode of Boll’s own Irisches Tagebuch – a journal, day book, or diary – and is an elegant, yet often roundly colloquial record of Greening’s communings with self, landscape and literary influences. As he says, there is as much of “what I dreamt as what I did” and there is a finely judged cocktail here of the island’s life of countryside, tourism and local bars, plus the artistic presence of Boll himself, but also Yeats, Heaney, John. F. Deane, Dennis O’Driscoll, Lady Gregory and Dermot O’Byrne (the latter being composer Arnold Bax in his poetic mode).
Greening’s long-established deftness with poetic form is on full display here but it is the (seeming) ease of encompassing that is so impressive. The hedgerows of “trickling fuschia” and the “decayed tooth” of Slievemore are conjoined with be-helmeted cycling jaunts, ill-informed tourists and European research students, while the writer frets about whether the Muses are going to turn up or the disturbing nature of his own dreams – all this alongside more newsworthy items like forest fires on the Greek mainland, Brexit (of course), the discovery of water on Mars and the release of the new Mission Impossible film.
The opening sonnet warns us to keep our wits about us with a possibly ghostly visitation by Boll himself which transmutes – on the edge of sleep perhaps, on the radio maybe – into the voice of Seamus Heaney recalling his school days. The beauty of the landscape seems charged with much symbolism and significance and we seem to be shown the narrator poetically dashing off in search of a “signal”, some objective correlative perhaps, or a more direct communication from a higher sphere. In fact, the “signal” he’s after is just a WIFI one – the Boll cottage has no internet connection – and he bathetically tracks one down finally at the local bar where the password is buyadrink. Perhaps this tension between the expectations of arcane Romantic symbolism and a more down-to-earth enjoyment of minute particulars can be traced back to the two key presences in this pleasurable sequence of poems: Yeats and the German, Nobel-prize-winning Boll himself, who in one poem is felt to cast his “dry, benign inspection” over the poet’s own words.
‘Blue Flag’ opens with Yeats fully in evidence: “On Golden Strand sounds Yeatsian enough”. But the landscape is so “penny-perfect” one’s first thought is to take a photo and post it on Facebook’s “show- / and-tell, the hell that’s other people’s holidays”. Yet the narrator sticks with his Yeatsian model and, in alluding to that poet’s 1914 collection Responsibilities, he tries to get himself back on track: “I’m here to write, / and waves break into words”. And words linked to landscape – in ways characteristic of Greening, a poet so attuned to the power of music – are found to turn to the musical notes of a poem draft: “On Golden Strand / I touch a silent fingerboard of sand”.
Yeats also provides the title for the tenth sonnet, ‘A Vision’ and, though the view of Slievemore seems appropriate, the poem’s opening lines set about debunking anything too aspirational. The fit and healthy young may be keen to “climb / and conquer” such heights but the narrator/poet suffers with his “medieval knees” and is mercifully free of the desire to try the ascent. I can hear Boll being channelled in these lines:
Let it be there
because it’s there. Pain will be no less real
among bandaging clouds.
Greening’s sonnet forms are presented in 14 line blocks and he often runs through quatrain divisions to achieve a fluidity of thought, reflecting the mind’s energy, moving and connecting one thing to another. He also tends to play fast and loose with the traditional volta. So there are few moments of mannered pausing and this again gives the sense of the pressure of things needing to be recorded in a diaristic fashion. The shift in ‘A Vision’ comes halfway through line 8 as the narrator grudgingly admits to feeling something of the allure of misty mountain uplands, particularly when they are “theatrically lit”:
I can be driven
to dress up, drawn towards their footlit dream
like a painted hero, as if I’d been given
a walk-on through the dense mythologies
in one of Lady Gregory’s short plays.
In contrast, Boll’s dry, attentive, inspector’s gaze seems more evident in a poem like ‘Eine Familie’. Here Greening’s 14 lines combine outer observations, inner thoughts, awkward dialogue and self-deprecating humour as the preoccupied artist-in-residence (he’s just been to the grocery store) meets a family of bike-riding tourists. The opening line treats them to the single poetic figure in the whole poem, while the rest of the quatrain establishes the wry, stilted quality of the encounter:
Like bright, caged birds they’re perching on their bikes
beside the plaque. I manage to sound jolly.
‘A fan of Heinrich Boll?’ The father speaks
with a certain awkwardness. ‘Not really.’
Dialogue is also vividly presented in ‘Dooagh’, though on this occasion the talk is fragmented, full of lacunae, because of the racket of a wake taking place in the bar where the narrator attempts conversation with two people, both called Kevin.
Another line comes through,
from a second Kevin, a Vietnamese
translator. I grasp at it, and try to say
how once . . . Boat people . . . refugees . . . but the seas
of song and sentiment must have their way.
A contrastingly more quiet and creative kind of music is in evidence in ‘Accompaniment’. As in ‘Blue Flag’, this is again the music of the ocean that plays constantly “at [his] left hand” as the narrator sits and writes with his right. The kind of artistic success this facilitates is clear in the best poem in the book, ‘Cuchulain’. The title alludes to one of Yeats’ favourite mythological figures, as in the early poem ‘Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea’ in which he wrestles against “the invulnerable tide”. After earthing the sonnet in particularity – a brief dip in the ocean at Keel Beach – Greening’s thoughts turn to his father’s love of swimming, this particular family’s memory/mythology preserved on old cine film. The fluidity and ease of the handling of these sonnets pays dividends here. Crossing a belated volta, the poem begins deeper reflections on the father-son relationship: “I never fought with him. Should we have done?” Within a couple of lines, we seem to have a portrait of unspoken tensions, perhaps a taciturn son and a stoical father who was not inclined to “rave as infirmities kept coming on / in wave upon wave.” As old age took its toll, it seems the option of a heroic struggle a la Cuchulain (or as urged in Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into that Goodnight’) was not taken up. The son is pained by his father’s choice of resignation (if choice it was) and it is the irredeemable nature of time and personal extinction that strikes the deepest note in this superbly intelligent, delightfully readable and lovingly produced limited edition from Red Fox Press.
The gateway to Richard Scott’s carefully structured first book is one of the most conventional poems in it. It’s a carefully punctuated, unrhymed sonnet. It is carefully placed (Public Library) and dated (1998). It’s the kind of poem and confinement Scott has fought to escape from and perhaps records the moment when that escape began: “In the library [. . .] there is not one gay poem, / not even Cavafy eyeing his grappa-sozzled lads”. The young Scott (I’ll come back to the biographical/authenticity question in a moment) takes an old copy of the Golden Treasury of Verse and writes COCK in the margin, then further obscene scrawls and doodles including, ironically a “biro-boy [who] rubs his hard-on against the body of a // sonnet”. Yet his literary vandalism leads to a new way of reading as – echoing the ideas of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick – the narrator suddenly sees the “queer subtext” beneath many of the ‘straight’ poems till he is picking up a highlighter pen and “rimming each delicate / stanza in cerulean, illuminating the readers-to-come . . .”
It’s a moment of personal as well as lit/crit revelation, a funny poem and the flood-gates open in accordance with the Whitman epigraph to section 1 of the book: “loose the stop from your throat”. From here on, punctuation and capitalisation become rare breeds in Scott’s exploration of gay love, shame, trauma and history. It’s only 3 years since Andrew McMillan’s Physical graced the Felix Dennis shortlist but Scott’s parallel collection is far darker, more explicit and brutal (but not always at the same time) and with a fierce sense of obscured queer history and its literary canon.
It’s an exhilarating, uneasy, accessible, relentless read. Section 1 goes some way in the bildungsroman direction. ‘le jardin secret’ declares “boys were my saplings / my whiff of green my sprouts” while ‘Fishmonger’ perhaps is set even earlier as a young boy is taken into a man’s “capable arms” in the back of his Transit van. A more aggressive and unpleasant encounter is evoked in ‘Childhood’ in which a seedy children’s entertainer (in a “caterpillar-green silk jumpsuit”) half-bullies a young boy to take him home for sex. But the poem’s perspective also suggests the child is an agent, making the decision himself: “I nodded and gingerly led him home / by the path that winds through the cemetery”. This is difficult territory (“makes for uncomfortable reading” Scott disarmingly mimics in a later poem) but erotic desire is powerfully acknowledged and (with a more caring partner) is later more satisfyingly experienced and expressed in ‘plug’ which, tenderly and very explicitly, records the moment of the loss of virginity (in fact, to a dildo).
Interestingly, the child takes the clown “through the cemetery”. Scott won the 2017 Poetry London Competition with ‘crocodile’ which also elides, blurs, even equates sex and death. The extended simile of the crocodile dragging a young man to his death is really “that man / who held me from behind / when I didn’t know sex”. The violence and destructiveness in this case is very evident but so again is the young man’s desire: “I have these moments when I / know I wanted it asked for it”. It’s in this way such poems can make for uncomfortable reading. Scott does not simplify either the allure or the destructiveness of the erotic.
In two poems, Scott himself raises questions of authenticity. ‘Permissions’ reports, in choppy prose paragraphs, reports observations from a poetry audience, at first in admiration (“how daring how dark”), then more uneasily (“surely not this writer wasn’t”). This fragmentation evokes fleeting comments, half-finished thoughts but also an awkwardness because one of the burning questions seems to be “is the I you”. It’s as if the audience want to know if these are poems of witness, meaning of authentic biographical experience. Poems of witness also in the sense of the often traumatic nature of much of the material. ‘Admission’ is even more clear: “he asks if my poems are authentic [. . .] and by this he means have I been a victim”. In neither poem do we get a direct record of what the poet’s replies might have been and surely it hardly matters. One of the unassailable liberties of the poet is to make things up. But whether fiction or fact the resulting poem has to possess the feel of the truth and Scott’s work has this in spades.
As I’ve already implied, many of the truths these poems convey are dark and shameful ones. The third section of the book is titled ‘Shame’, again quoting Sedgwick: “Shame, too, makes identity”. Here are untitled poems which make the queer pastoral of ‘le jardin secret’ rather more complex; another boy’s look or look away prompts “the hot-face / trauma the instant rash-jam” of embarrassed blush, made even more painful by a father’s verbal abuse. Elsewhere the father says, “don’t tell anyone you’re my son” and the narrator himself bitterly opposes any easy sloganizing with “the opposite of shame is not pride”. There is some support to be found in reading books by “leo / paul / mark / jean / eve / michel” and source quotes and allusions are noted in Scott’s margins here.
It’s this very self-conscious sense of these poems appearing within a canon of queer literature and experience that jet-propels ‘Oh My Soho!’, the long concluding sequence to the book. Whitman again presides in the epigraph and in the free-wheeling, long-lined, detail-listing paean to the present, past and future of Soho itself. The narrative voice becomes a self-appointed “homo-historian” and Scott’s love of word play (which elsewhere can feel too self-conscious) here finds a suitable form and tone. The historical element takes in a discussion of the Warren Cup (in the British Museum) but is never far from subjective and exclamatory moments too. The vigorous, secretive, once-unlawful, now legal, still persecuted, lives of “homos” is noisily and slangily celebrated:
We, too, are not immune to this shameful progress; us homos are no longer revolting!
Too busy sending dick pics and I saw Saint Peter Tatchel shirtless [. . . ]
We are a long way from that library in 1998, but “normativity” remains the enemy against which Scott takes up weapons (one of which is his own body). ‘museum’ is a superbly sensual poem, expressive of a man’s desire for the damaged male body of a Classical statue. Here normativity re-appears in the “giggling pointing prodding” of a family also viewing the statue; their ridicule is self-transferred to the gay man who stands observing in silence. The persecutions pursued in the name of normativity are also disturbingly clear in ‘Reportage’, the reports being of the immolation of a gay man somewhere in Europe. And Scott’s own revolutionary and erotic zeal are unforgettably conveyed in the poem opening “even if you fuck me all vanilla”, going on with characteristically explicit descriptions of the ironically, self-consciously, unprovocatively, vanilla-ish act, he still declares at the climactic finish, “napalm revolution fuck- / ing anarchy we are still dangerous faggots”.
Its publisher, Carcanet, describes Phoebe Power’s debut collection like this: “Wandering in central Europe, a traveller observes and records a landscape”. I guess this is meant to conjure the rootlessness and identity-angst of a modern Euro-existentialist but, for me, Shrines of Upper Austria, too often reads like the jottings of a year-abroad student. The posture is almost always of the naif – impressed, even a bit bewildered by the strangeness she finds, yet she tries hard to absorb and/or be absorbed into the foreign culture yet manages little more than a tourist’s view (if one with a striking ability to ventriloquise and a remote familial backstory in that country).
Power raises the humble note or jotting to an ars poetica, often collaging together such “brief records of points, usually used as an aide memoire” into disjointed sequences which don’t gather much cumulatively or possess much divinable direction. One of these has a protagonist in a café, his right hand on the “open pages of an empty notepad”. It’s not the author, of course, but the distanced observation this image implies is what the book mostly offers. Simply because what is being described has a European setting does not make ‘fasching’, for example, very interesting: “at Elli’s schmankerlstube it’s all / drinking and bosners” (End notes translate for us where required: here, a carnival before Lent; a snack bar; a type of sausage). The poem begins with these two lines of verse then resorts to prose for a couple of short paragraphs. There’s drinking, dancing, children, teachers, music and a “multicoloured snake or train of people tooting its bells and flute, curving down the road beneath the green banks and a big sky, the mountains”. I can see such a passage in many a poet’s notebook but the clichés and obvious word choices surely need more working up? And if the improvisatory quality is the point, then I wish the brief apercu had a good deal more striking ‘apercevoir’ about it. Likewise, an ekphrastic poem, ‘children’, baldly describes an Egon Schiele painting while trying to get a bit more emotional leverage with frequent exclamation marks.
The note-taker in the café, appears in the poem sequence, ‘Austrian Murder Case’, which reads like a series of (prose) screenplay notes for an all-too familiar Scandi-noir that the director has torn the best bits out of: a dull quotidian town, a moody disengaged observer, lumpen exposition from the pension owner, a woman’s dismembered body in suitcases in a lake, her husband, the murderer, does himself in at the same time. The note-taking protagonist walks away having gained some “insight into one dramatic story” and for that I’m a bit envious. The best bit of all this is the lake (“the See”) which is personified and perceiving in ways beyond the limitedly human, the humans being left at the end trying to fit bits of the story together. It’s all a bit obvious.
You will have gathered that one of Power’s things is to mix English and Austrian German. This happens several times in ‘A Tour of Shrines of Upper Austria’ (though in this book we only get 7 parts of the full sequence). An observer stops at various shrine sites, jotting down some thoughts and taking a picture or two. Nothing is developed though Power’s poems do show an interest in religion on several other occasions. ‘The Moving Swan’ opens with a centre-justified prose description of candles flickering in a cathedral and another poem is drawn to the grave of two goats, observing: “two heaps of ivy/straw / one unlit red tealight”. And ‘Epiphany Night’ is a more extended series of notes recording a local celebration with bells, dressing-up, boats, lanterns. This is all observed in loosely irregular lines by the narrator from her “wohnung” (apartment). To wring all engagement or emotional or imaginative response from such a text is, I suppose, quite an achievement but to spend 70-odd pages in such company really is wearisome.
Power’s playing with her two languages is unusual and there are occasions when her poems read as poor, incomplete translations into English. This draws attention to the poet’s materials – language/s – as in ‘Epiphany’ again: “step down drei konige / in fancy robe and blackface paint”. In ‘Installation for a New Baby’ the effect is more comical and perhaps reflects the muddled perceptions of such an occasion: “We save soup cans, bean and veg tins / to clatter where they trail the grass, / pin a spray of rubber dummies and a / pillow, sagging rain”. And ‘8th May’ has a Google Translate feel to it: “bells are ringing, there’s a fire / sailboats calmly over the lake”. Perhaps the problem with these experiments is that we never know who the “protagonist”, the speaker, is. When Power ventriloquises more explicitly the effects are startling as in ‘Isis and Marija’. Again, mixing verse and prose, this short poem conveys Isis’ concerns about her own name (she’s from Columbia and speaks Spanish) and Marija’s more dominating personality and immigrant background: “My mother come first from Croatia for one year. Then we all come. I live in a hotel, five minutes”. Here, the buckle and twist of the language is effective in illuminating the two girls’ uneasy residence in Austria. For an older Italian woman, ‘Georgiana’ does the same in the same way: “she sets up, gets the car, / takes German class and speaks / fast with a curly accent she won’t change”.
Power’s ‘doing different voices’ also occurs in the longer sequence which circles around events in which her grandmother, whose name was Chris or Christl, was found abandoned as a baby in Austria, taken in by a family (but not properly adopted) then came to Britain after WW2. Other sections suggest that the author/protagonist has later returned to Austria in search of her origins., and/or is living for a while near Gmunden in Austria. There’s a fair bit of historical and biographical exposition needed and this gives Power’s style of notation room to switch from verse to prose and back again. It’s the pieces in Christl’s demotic voice that stand out: “now I’m a bit mad at me mam, never adopted me properly, why not?” Elsewhere, her ignorance of the existence of concentration camps is stunning as is her clumsily expressed and moving sense of the fragility of her own survival: “It’s funny life when you think you get born, you weren’t here before, then you die and it’s just, you’re not there anymore”. It’s this sequence (pp. 41–52) that you should start from when you read this book.
Unfortunately, the collection trails away towards the end because, like any GCSE Modern Languages project worth its salt, there has to be section addressing Climate Change. I’m not sure what Julie Andrews would make of ‘silver white winters that melt into springs’ but its two prose passages do little more than portray a before and after climate change. Also ‘notes on climate change’ is pretty much what it says in the title and, strangely, Christl’s voice begins to recur here too: “When I came to England first the weather was really / warm and I thought it’s warm in England nice here not so cold”. ‘Milk’ is an amusing, enjoyable prose piece detailing familiar anxieties about products like milk which adversely affect the environment though the irony that our avoidance strategies usually give rise to further problems is a bit obvious.
The closing poem is one of several in which Power interleaves two differing voices on alternate lines. I hear Christl’s voice here again, seeming to lament leaving Austria and perhaps the second voice is her granddaughter’s who might have been Austrian in another version of history. The result is a poignant sense of not quite belonging “here” but also of not really belonging “somewhere else”. It is this rootlessness that lies behind all of Powers’ poems. Not being at home in the world is an important and contemporary topic and, when she earths this in voices of specific characters, this works well. But too many of these poems record fragments without meaning without any attitude to those fragments without meaning. To end positively, ‘In and Out of Europe’ is a very good poem where the disjointed lives of grandmother and granddaughter are again aligned. But, on this occasion, it is during the June 2016 Brexit vote and the shared history of the family’s international link here has a much more profound significance and Power’s notes and jottings leap off the page with a purpose.