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.
Surely we all have one or two Faber anthologies edited by Geoffrey Grigson on our shelves? Love Poems, Popular Verse, Reflective Verse, Nonsense Verse, Poems and Places, Epigrams and Epitaphs . . . As a critic he often wielded a savage power through his magazine New Verse. And as a big beast on the literary scene of the early 1980s, Hermione Lee interviewed him on Channel 4.But since his death in 1985, he’s better known merely as the husband of Jane Grigson, the celebrated cookery writer. His own poetry has been wholly neglected which makes John Greening’s new Selected Poems from Greenwich Exchange a welcome opportunity to re-consider it. I think Grigson’s contrasting themes were established early on. The influence of two great poets (not Eliot, not Yeats) is clear from the start and it may be that the limits of Grigson’s poetic achievement and the absence of much development in his style, are because he never chose one path or fully escaped either.
The influence of Auden is very clear in Grigson’s first collection, Several Observations (1939). ‘Meeting by the Gjulika Meadow’ presents an enigmatic narrative in a “frontier” landscape; a meeting between two men whose conversation is in large part concerned with “the thunder / about Europe”. There are sketched fragments of personal dependencies and guilts but the whole reads as a slice of narrative that has been carefully shorn of its explicatory elements. A poem from 1946 shows Grigson using similar methods but on matters much closer to home; ‘In a Dark Passage’ draws material from the deaths of two of Grigson’s brothers in WW1 and the early death of his first wife, Frances. The situations are still relatively distanced by being told in the third person and the timings of the incidents are compressed to form a litany of heartfelt if rhetorical griefs: “O floes of ice, you float downstream / But do not disappear”.
There is certainly a very dark river running through Grigson’s work. ‘Two A.M.’, from the 1970s, records a wakefulness at night filled – as so often – by nothing but questions: “all emptiness, all gravity, / Ultimacy, nothingness”. He captures vividly the way this kind of mood, at such an hour, insists on expanding exponentially, racing to fill the world’s “Sierras, monadnocks, lakes, prairies, taiga, ice”. On this occasion, there is the possibility of an erotic reply: “At least now, with our bodies close, / Be comforted”. But even that response is absent from ‘Again Discard the Night’ from the 1980 collection, History of Him. Written as a first person narrative this time, the poem pulls no punches in its flinty and unforgiving portrait of old age waking:
… you call, the kettle gathers
And talks, and Are you all right? comes your
Usual cry, and my habit insists, without sound, Reply,
Be bright, wash, shave, dress, and this once,
Again discard the night.
Of course, Grigson’s sense of an ungoverned and likely meaningless universe matched with his frequent backward glances also calls to mind Hardy’s work. One of Grigson’s earliest poems, ‘The Children’, has an 11-line stanza of complex rhyme patterning that Hardy would have been proud of. The children are portrayed as playing in a natural environment and in a state of temporal innocence: “They looked for no clocks, noticed no hours”. But ending each stanza, the triple rhyme words with “hours” are (ambiguously) “sours” and “flowers”. Between the third and fourth stanza, there is the kind leap in time often found in folk songs. We have instantaneously passed many years: “The rooms were pulled down, but they always abide / In the minds of the children born in them”. These are the best lines in the poem with the much cooler closing lines for me falling flat:
They see the clocks and notice the hour
And aware that restriction of love turns sour,
They feel the cold wind and consider the flower.
It is certainly Hardy that Grigson is thinking of in ‘In View of the Fleet’. The Fleet is the lagoon behind Chesil Beach in Dorset and the poem borrows phrases from Hardy, empathetically suggesting that each poet’s vision has the same sequential locus: “Things not as firstly well, a sparkling day, and / tolling of a bell”.
John Greening suggests in his very helpful Introduction that Grigson is also capable of an “extraordinary lyricism” and these are moments when he captures this “sparkling” quality of the natural world. In ‘A New Tree’, helped by the holding up of a child to a window, the narrator sees again with a newly cleansed perception, “a sun / being fiercely / let loose again”. Delight in the natural world recurs in a key poem, ‘Note on Grunewald’. In it, Grigson also expresses the scepticism about literary achievements which must have driven much of his own, often acerbic, critical comments on the work of others. In a man who devoted a lifetime to literary endeavours, it’s hard to take wholly seriously the poem’s assertion that he’d rather live to sniff the “scent of the flowers of lime” than to create lasting “poems”. But the scent is praised in contrast to the art of “Grunewald’s spotted green-rotted Christ”. Grigson sides with (“I join”) Cowper in deciding that death holds no attraction and that he too would choose to “leave this world never”. The perceived dichotomy between a vivid inhabiting of the world of the senses and the ‘rotten’ achievement of artists is by no means Grigson’s final comment on these issues, but the poem certainly expresses unresolved tensions.
As Greening reminds us, Grigson as a critic was a feared and fearsome creature, liable to “dismissiveness and intolerance of shoddy work”. Perhaps, in his own mind, he never quite settled his assessment of his own poems. A lovely translation from Tu Fu was perhaps chosen because it laments lack of achievement, or at least of recognition: “Writing gives me no name”.* More vigorously, ‘Lecture Note: Elizabethan period’ is an hilarious and outrageous account of a poet’s final work. While the ink was still wet on the page, he dropped dead. The poem fell to the floor only for the maid to drop it in “the jakes”. The final lines laugh cynically, sarcastically, as if this illustrates the fate of most artistic endeavours: “Now irretrievably beshitten, it was, dear sirs, / The one immortal poem he had written”. Yet this is delicate stuff compared to Grigson taking aim with both barrels in ‘Perhaps So’. The premise is that too much is being written:
Too much is told. Banish polymath Steiners
And seventy-seven other British Shiners,
Naturalists, archaeologists, publishers
Of publications in parts,
And all long-winded farts . . .
It’s hard to reconcile this voice with that of ‘A New Tree’. Interestingly, Grigson’s address to an ancestor whose name was ‘Nazareth Pitcher’ is critical on the surface, disparaging of Nazareth’s “pride”, suggesting his “lips were too thin”, that he might “be pleased” if he was to witness the parlous state of the world now (1960s). But it’s also difficult to dismiss the feeling that Grigson chose to address Nazareth because he sensed a kinship with this judgemental, sceptical and meanly satirical man.
But Grigson did admire, if very judiciously. Greening draws attention to an Eliotesque belief in tradition, that the best poems are made by “members of a long narrow community through time”. The word “narrow” here indicates Grigson felt that much of what was truly best was not appreciated by many. In one word perhaps, we see here his motivation to be harsh with what he felt not good enough and his hard work in anthologising what was. There are two tribute poems in Greening’s selection which show Grigson at his complimenting best. ‘A Painter of Our Day’ is about Ben Nicholson and has the feel of a Coleridgean conversation poem about it. Its tone is confiding, admiring, ranging from observations about playing with children, shared days out, discussions of Nicholson’s work, ageing and the nature of art. Nicholson seems to teach an appreciation of “what is” and an avoidance of nostalgia. But at the same time, he recognises the value of the “reiterated wisdom of perceiving”. That both poet and artist set the bar of achievement very high indeed is suggested by Grigson’s admission that, of their chosen role models, “most have been / Long dead”. I find it hard to pin down a more precisely articulated aesthetic, but these lines are revealing of any artist’s relation to his/her elders:
Suddenly when young or in our first ability
We find them, slowly we find the reasons
For our love, finding ourselves, and what we lack
As well or need the most
Finally, ‘To Wystan Auden’ records the moment Grigson learned of Auden’s death in the “English September” of 1973. His admiration for the younger poet is fulsome. With the appearance of his early work, Auden became “living’s healer, loving’s / Magician”. From the other end of the temporal telescope, now we can see what the young Grigson gleaned from Auden’s poetry:
You were our fixture, our rhythm,
Speaker, bestower, of love for us all
And forgiving, not condemning, extending
To all who would read or would hear
Your endowment of words.
For all Auden’s own protesting about poetry making nothing happen, for Grigson, “time, after you, by you / Is different by your defiance”. One might ungratefully gripe that these are rather vague compliments from one poet to another. But Greening quotes Grigson suggesting that Auden’s achievement was in destroying “a too familiar, too settled monotony in manner and subject”. This is undeniable and this selection shows Grigson following Auden’s lead, yet at the same time, through his life, also being drawn back to a different, more traditional poetic style in the model of Hardy. Here, for example, in his last years, he recalls his childhood in Cornwall:
Staring down from that broken, one-arched bridge,
In that vale of water-mint, saint, lead-mine and midge,
I was amazed by that fat black-and-white water bird
Hunting under the current, not at all disturbed.
How could I tell that what I saw then and there
Would live for me still in my eightieth year?
*As a labouring translator myself, I have long remembered Grigson’s brilliant put-down in his Introduction to the Faber Book of Love Poems (1973). Explaining why he has not included any translations at all, he declares that their “unmeasured, thin-rolled short crust” would prove detrimental to the health of the nation’s poetic taste. Times have changed, thank goodness.
They come from conversations overheard or taken part in, sights, sounds and the other senses, recall, reading, when alone or in company. Poems drop into the growing matrix of all we’ve felt and known. For those who write, it goes on all day long. But only a few land propitiously and work their way into what lies beneath to root and grow. The best of them find earth particularly suited to the nature of the seed and Jacqueline Saphra’s introduction to the highly ekphrastic A Bargain with the Light (Hercules Press, 2017) records just such a moment.
This exquisitely produced little book also contains a discussion of the model and photographer, Lee Miller, by the academic, Patricia Allmer. Miller emerges from this as a multitude; as object, agent, speaker, spoken of, product and producer – in Allmer’s words a “key female icon of the twentieth century”. And so, in 2016, visiting the Imperial War Museum’s exhibition, ‘Lee Miller: A Woman’s War’, Saphra was stopped “in her tracks” by a nude photograph of Miller, taken by her father. Saphra explains: “How could I not be drawn to this extraordinary, wounded woman [. . .] with her huge capacity for creativity, her beauty, her restlessness?” It can take only a moment for both the drawer and the drawn to discover in each other a mutual compatibility.
The poems that arose from Saphra’s fascination with Lee Miller take the form of an heroic crown of sonnets. The form incorporates repeats and revisitings as well as replicating, in its constituent short forms, the brief instantaneous moment of the taken photograph. By coincidence, I’ve used a less strict form of the crown of sonnets recently and, in search of a propulsive, forward movement within the sequence opted not to repeat lines verbatim and also to cut the fifteenth sonnet which repeats many lines once more. But Saphra adheres to the form pretty tightly and in doing so reflects the remarkable recurrences in Miller’s life. Though she finds some evidence of maturation and progress, her chosen form argues against this. The penultimate sonnet declares: “you’re still the same girl who trembled / in the snow wearing only silence”.
This reference is to one of the earliest images of Miller, taken by her father – as a stark naked 7 year old, standing in 2 feet of snow in her home town, Poughkeepsie. It’s an appalling image, but Saphra’s verse derives from it two elements that will recur: the (definitely creepy) power of the father and the fact that Miller is hiding in full (full frontal) sight. ‘Darkroom Lessons’ addresses another naked image of Miller, again taken by her father. But now she is a 20 year old woman. She turns her head aside as if she’s just been struck. For Saphra:
You turn and strike a pose.
Once more, you look beyond. This time your face
in profile signals absence. Your skin glows [. . .]
Miller’s nakedness demands she hide herself and the gaze from which she hides . . .
again: the father, tucked behind the lens
sharing his expertise. This is how it starts:
with naked lines and curves; it ends
with lessons in the darkroom. This is art.
The euphemistic “lessons in the darkroom” allude to the fact that Miller was sexually abused in childhood – though by a neighbour, rather than her father.
By the 1930s Miller had reached Paris, her naked body now proving an inspiration to artists like Man Ray. But Saphra’s poems indicate that while still an object, Miller is becoming more of an agent too: “This is your chance / to know his secrets, so you play his game”. In her compliance, Miller learned much from Man Ray. ‘The Art of Control’ responds to a watershed moment, a self-portrait image from around 1930: “You steal his eye and take both sides: / In front, behind: the seer and the seen”. The poem concludes (quietly, plainly as ever) marking Miller’s bid for an independence and freedom (as woman and artist) that perhaps seemed unlikely:
No deal to cut, no tacit threat, no flesh:
Sweetly, you make your bargain with the light,
The only safe transaction. You took this.
Here is your face. Simple. Nothing amiss.
The sonnet crown demands that this concluding line is repeated as the first line of the subsequent poem. The risk that we might read the line too simplistically and optimistically is reduced when we hear much the same words re-applied to Miller’s 1944 photograph of a French woman accused of collaboration with the Nazis – her head shaved: “Here is your face, simple, nothing amiss”. As in this instance, as the sequence unfolds, more of the sonnets are in the voice of Miller herself. This technical shift marks the artist’s growing self confidence and one of Saphra’s suggestions is evidently that, having suffered much in her youth, she is able to confront head-on the suffering of others. And hence take a great photograph.
So Miller’s image, ‘The Burgermeister’s daughter’ is of a Nazi woman who has poisoned herself. To take the image, Miller must have got very close. So too with the frightening ‘Beaten SS prison guard’, his goggling eyes and smashed, bloodstained face filling the frame. Miller took it on a visit to the Buchenwald Camp. Saphra makes Miller speak of it:
I learned how to escape. How well I hid,
how close I dared to stand. I fix my focus
inches from his face, his eyes clear, the blood
congealing on his skin. If there’s disgust,
I channel it, and if there’s fear, I know
how to burn it, use it for fuel.
The sonnet sequence does not unfold strictly chronologically. In the midst of Miller’s war years, there’s a poem in response to an image of a 6 year old Miller with her mother; then there’s another of the whole Miller family in 1911. The strategy here maybe be (reflecting the repetition of the crown form) to suggest how much of the little (abused) girl remained within the confident, female war photographer. But it does give rise to some arid repetition. In one poem Miller tells us “I’ll learn to play both naked and concealed” and in the other we are again reminded, “You learned how to escape. How well you hid”.
But how far Miller must have come is suggested by one of the strangest of the images here, the 1943 ‘US Army nurse drying sterilised rubber gloves’. The white uniformed, virginal nurse stands comically surrounded by grasping rubber gloves arrayed on sort of hat-stands to dry. Her figure is grotesquely dwarfed by the grasping and groping that goes on around her. Miller speaks in Saphra’s poem, reflecting on her own inner turmoil:
Where are the doctors? When will they begin
to make it better? I watch and wait
as if they’ll find a cure for this malaise,
as if the storm inside can be erased.
Though elsewhere, Miller’s voice rings out much more defiantly (“I’ll crash in, braced / to win, dig for mercy, shoot for grace”) it’s the still-troubled “girl who trembled / in the snow” we are left with in sonnet 14. If Miller truly is Allmer’s “female icon” then she is – in Saphra’s treatment of her – one achieving only a pyrrhic victory in the twentieth century gender battles: “You square your shoulders, soldier on”. Yet the poems are all the more moving because of this. The poet’s profound identification with Miller, her deployment of ekphrastic techniques and her clever use of the crown form make for a very satisfying read. It goes without saying that Hercules Press’ production and design is stunning. This is a little book to treasure or – as it’s getting close to Christmas – to give.
Last Saturday I packed my bags for a brief stopover in Devon. The train from Paddington retraced my steps (no – that’s not right; what do you say?) – re-rolled its wheels along the same route I’d travelled a couple of weeks ago to the Torbay Poetry Festival. But instead of changing at Newton Abbot, I stayed on board and we swerved inland and skirted the southern edge of Dartmoor to Plymouth, then further west to Bodmin. I was met at Bodmin Parkway by Luke Thompson who runs the Guillemot Press. Guillemot is barely a couple of years old but is already building a great reputation for the outstanding quality of its books. Luke and his partner Sarah are the driving forces behind the press and it is based in Cornwall with strong links to Falmouth University. We drove across an already dark Bodmin moor to the village of Altarnun where Luke was launching three new Guillemot titles at the Terre Verte Gallery, run by Richard Sharland.
Besides my own O. at the Edge of the Gorge, the books being launched were Nic Stringer’s first, A Day That You Happen to Know, and Andrew McNeillie’s new collection, Making Ends Meet. Both my own and Nic’s book are examples of Guillemot’s interest in combining poetry and illustration (if that’s the right word for images which respond to and add to the text rather than being merely illustrative). The two artists were at the event as well and it was wonderful to meet up and chat with Phyllida Bluemel who created the images to accompany my crown of sonnets. Her delicate, analytical yet natural images – produced only from a reading of the poems, no input from me – seem to me extraordinarily apt and, having learned of her background in philosophy as much as fine art, I’m not surprised. She and I have discussed the shaping of the whole book on the Guillemot blog.
Nic read first. Her poem, ‘Laocoon in the Vatican’, describes an image of human agony as a father defends himself and his sons from attack by serpents:
Chest curving towards his gods,
he speaks of what lies beneath devotion, where wrestler
is the same as family. But in the end he is a man
petrified [. . .]
‘Icebergs in Ilulissat’ is more of an Arctic landscape poem: “In Disko Bay the growlers and the bergy bits / crack their knuckles”. ‘Sisters’ is a fascinating 10 part sequence of poems dedicated to three Medieval Christian female mystics, ending with this exquisite lyric:
Like the Earth
I have given up
everything but God
will find a hole
to fall towards
turning without a body
Nic’s work is various and intriguing – her Guillemot image-maker is Lucy Kerr, whose enigmatic, colourful images are almost visual riddles – and I’m looking forward to reading the whole book more slowly.
Before I read my sequence straight through without additional comments, I explained its form: a crown of 14 sonnets – the final line of each poem repeated as the opening line of the next; the opening and closing lines of the whole sequence also meant to be the same. I wanted the connectivity this creates – though the connections in this case are approximate – deliberately so, as I wanted to suggest a forward movement or progression of understanding. Much of the detail of the poem is of landscape – the Marche region of Italy – bees, buzzards, hunting dogs, trees, thistles, Classical ruins put to more modern use, hilltop villages, church towers, rocky hillsides, deep gorges. The O. of the title is an Orpheus figure, the singer, or poet. There is no narrative to the sequence, but it does allude to Orpheus’ journey to the underworld in search of Eurydice and his loss of her when he looks back. That sense of loss also explains allusions to Dante’s Paradiso, Book 16, where he refers to the ancient towns of Luni and Urbesaglia, for him, vivid images of transience.
After the interval, Andrew McNeillie read from his collection. Andrew is both a poet and an editor at OUP, Archipelago magazine and he runs Clutag Press. Making Ends Meet is a full collection of almost 100 pages, including a new version of the Anglo-Saxon poem, The Battle of Maldon. At the other end of the scale, Andrew threw us an opening, squiby couplet titled ‘A Poet: 21st century: “A redundant lighthouse-keeper / striking a match in a storm”. One such match illuminating the darkness is his sonnet ‘I see Orion’, moving from a vivid evocation of star-gazing on a cold night in March to reflections on natural beauty and the passage of time. That same sense of summation, or the counting of blessings, was evident in the title poem too, which evokes an earlier time of easy creativity:
The early worm
already turning in a bird’s gut
like the one thought in my head
of lines to set and bait to put
a poem on my plate by evening.
And you could feel the whole audience warm to Andrew’s ‘Lunch with Seamus’, recording a meeting between the poet and Clutag editor, both “uncertain how lunch might pass”. But it passes well, the poem portraying a warmth and closeness, a shared love of poetry, the intimacy drawing from Heaney something of a confession:
‘I got the Nobel Prize too soon,’ he said.
‘It nearly did for me, you know, the fame.
It stops the clock and steals your time’
The poem is full of delicate allusions to Heaney’s work, the final lines affirming a real meeting of minds as well as echoing Heaney’s own parting from the ghost of James Joyce at the end of ‘Station Island’:
We parted and I watched him disappear
As if I’d dreamt the whole affair
But knowing I hadn’t. I’d seen the man.
This three-book launch was a marvellously affirmative evening about the power of poetry too. Our heads full of images, and words, natural landscape, the material, the spiritual, distant Italian sunshine and rocky Irish coastlines, I drove with friends through the November rainy darkness back to the town of Tavistock, perched on the edge of Dartmoor itself. And there was still time enough to eat and raise a glass of wine.
Do poets owe their readers explanatory notes? The pro-accessibility reply is ‘On principle, no!’ The googlers reply is ‘Not necessary – let your fingers do the walking’. Others might concede, ‘On occasions, maybe, for clarity’s sake or to take the piss out of critics and academe (see T.S. Eliot). But reading Eric Langley’s debut collection – if it’s proving hard to hang on to his erudite coat-tails – perhaps you cry ‘Yes, yes, for goodness sake!’ In fact, such pleas have already been answered by a curious, anonymous website that has sprung up to explicate many of these poems. Talk about poetry moving from the writer’s desk to the academic lecture hall without passing through an ordinary reader’s hands! It’s because Langley scrupulously offers us no help at all in positioning ourselves to read about the Chinese tradition of walnut gambling, Ancient Greek painter Zeuxis, Picasso’s father, Stephen Grosson’s 1579 book Schoole of Abuse, Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, Derrida on postcards, Argus, Eurydice, Zeno, Edgar Allen Poe and (twice) the art historical term pentimenti. And that’s mostly from the opening 50 pages of this 128 page book (I think it’s about 40 pages too long).
On the other hand, Langley often writes with a vigour and robust rhythmical quality to perform (all these poems are very performative) a sort of Elizabethan riffing to scatter-shot effect. He has a slightly annoying, almost reflex habit of sampling bits of Shakespeare mid-poem (especially from Hamlet) but Ted Hughes wrote of Shakespeare’s language that it was “an inspired signalling and hinting of verbal heads and tails both above and below precision, [a] weirdly expressive underswell of musical neargibberish” (‘The Great Theme: Notes on Shakespeare’ (1971)) and at his very best Langley catches some of this. Literally born into the Cambridge school (Langley’s father, R. F. Langley, with his son, would often holiday with J. H. Prynne), Langley junior invigorates that difficult style with a 1590s fizz and gristle (his day job at UCL is studying the bard and more obscure Elizabethan texts) in poems whose image field is most often ekphrastic, whose emotional stance is often surprisingly sentimental and whose dominant atmosphere is one of loss.
The loss is key. Fundamentally this is about language (Cambridge School again) as the poor relation to ultimate reality. Our every living moment is a catalogue of loss; certainly our every communication is a clumsy moon-shot at a too-fast moving target, a shot also plagued by the drag of our words’ etymologies. But this is also (like the Forward short-listed books by Nick Makoha and Ocean Vuong) a book about lost fathers (Langley talks about this and other things and reads a poem in this interview). In addition, Langley’s sense of loss is elsewhere associated with the recall of a romantic attachment, what he refers to at one point, transmuting Anthony Burgess, as “memory’s ultraviolence”. This stirring of long-buried materials is what the book’s title alludes to. Raking light is used in art historical investigations to reveal the artist’s false starts and abandoned intentions – a sort of alternative historical version of the final painting. In fact, it’s that often over-done, old poetical favourite, the palimpsest, in art historical terms.
So ‘In raking light’ the narrative voice explains “in the beam’s fetch / the urgent silt sits up”. Perhaps my ‘explain’ is not the right word here – there is a sort of querulous (lover’s?) complaint going on in the tone as if the voice resents this uncovering of the past.
Once, there was life here –
residual and errant –
hushed since, shucked under
the thick skin, the tough slough.
The vowel music in these few lines illustrates one of the pleasures of Langley’s work, but the “thick skin” is a gift to those who might accuse him of tending to bury hurt and loss under an avalanche of erudition rather than bringing it to the light. Indeed, it’s debatable whether this poem (in 8 sections), as it continues to offer multiples of synonymous formulations of this buried/hidden trope, manages to express a humanly complex emotional state or simply obscure it in a playful, bravura performance. The poem to read alongside this one is ‘Eurydice in Euston Square’ which – once it has got past its tacked-on allusions to Orpheus’ lost wife and Proserpina – proceeds much more nakedly and accessibly:
Come back up stairs
if you read me
up in the subway
missing the tube travel,
missing the coach trips,
all the seaside rides,
the telephones, the postcards,
telegrams on spun wire;
come back up stairs,
and I’m hanging on
subjunctives, hanging on
superlatives, hanging on
the sound of someone
long gone to static
(apologies for some loss of formatting here – blame WordPress)
The more linguistic and epistemological losses that preoccupy Langley are clear in the opening line of the opening poem, ‘Glanced’: ‘You lovely looker on and by and by and.” The interruptive full stop is (ahem) the point (Langley’s love of puns can be infectious). The idea is then played out (again in a riffing, repetitive style) via another old favourite, Zeno’s arrow, though this time the target is Zeuxis’ painting of grapes which (in legend) was so realistic that birds swooped down to peck them. Art imagined to be closing on the real – of course, it proves a delusion. The arrow does strike the canvas but penetrates what is really nothing, then slams into a “wall”. The final section of the poem, in fact, does suggest some possible success (see Hughes’ comment on Shakespeare’s ultimate expressive achievement through signals and hints). The concluding lines display Langley’s vigorous use of anaphora, rhyme, punning and Shakespearean allusion:
So glancing blown by,
so palpably hit away, so
keep so lovely looking still
keep lovely looking till
until each hungry bird
has flown and had his fill.
The sequence, ‘Albada: Pigeons on pink’, starts (once we’ve done the googling to find out) with Picasso’s painter father, Don Jose Ruiz y Blasco. He liked to paint pigeons and for a few sections he sounds pleased with the results. But then young Pablo asks for a pencil and his father is astonished at the boy’s skill, or the degree to which his art seems to approach reality: “all these real these / really real pigeons”. Via another allusion to Hamlet, Langley then morphs the poem into an address to his own father (who wrote a poem called ‘Jack’s Pigeon’) though the two sons – Pablo and Eric – are blurred together, avoiding filial arrogance in a burst of filial piety: “it’s all still yours, still yours to say, Jose”. An albada is a Spanish love poem – this one has been re-geared into a piece about the son’s love of a father.
The two poems called ‘Pentimenti’ return to the ideas linked with raking light. The Italian word means ‘regrets’ and in art history it refers to changes an artist makes and covers over in the process of creation. The first of the poems is shorter and mixes images of painting with those of telephoning and it’s the latter that suggests this is really driven by a broken relationship in the modern world: “lost out here – dialling, dialling”. Such loss of contact and communication trips all Langley’s switches. A similar instinctive, welling up, or inundation, of potent material can be seen in the over-long, repetitive sequence in the middle of the book. This springs from a detail recounted by Galen of Pergamon that Ptolomaeus, King of Egypt, in assembling his great library, would take books from any ship that sailed into port, have them copied, then give back the copies, retaining the originals for his own book shelves. So language, knowledge, forgery, copies, signs, semiotics, morse code, the Dewey system of classification, plus Hamlet on the pirate ship and the final Alexandrian conflagration – Langley throws it all into the mix and gives it a good stir.
For me, the second ‘Pentimenti’ is a much greater success, presenting itself as a literal palimpsest of the earlier poem – the thoughts, drafts and revisions that might have led to it. The performance here is not the dazzling, often impossible to follow footwork of other poems in the book, but rather one of hesitations, lines of thought taken up, then dropped, crossings out and (literal) fadings out. For me this expresses the difficulties of expression more effectively than many other poems, especially in the revisions we witness which involve a switch of verb tense from present to past. Most of these observations seem (again) to be focused on a romantic relationship so that what is the case (first draft) is being transformed into what was before our very eyes. I think (actually, I’m not sure) the sequence drifts latterly towards the relationship with the father again but even the obscurities here play an affecting role and the collection’s final lines remind me of the tragic, closing moments of Brian Friel’s play, Translations, in which the Gaelic language, culture and memory seems to be fraying and withering to nothing even as we watch and the lights dim.
Langley’s book will infuriate many and please the few. There is an impressive peculiarity here, a performative jouissance concerning language and learning which the Forward short-listing committee must be responding to. But I do wish he’d had a tougher editorial voice to cut the length of the book which – especially in the mid-sections – indulgently outstays its welcome.