2019 Forward First Collections Reviewed #4 – Jay Bernard’s ‘Surge’

As in the previous four years, I am posting – over the summer – my reviews of the 5 collections chosen for the Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. This year’s £5000 prize will be decided on Sunday 20th October 2019. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2018 shortlisted books (eventual winner Phoebe Power), here for my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

 

The full 2019 shortlist is:

Raymond Antrobus – The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins) – reviewed here.

Jay Bernard – Surge (Chatto & Windus)

David Cain – Truth Street (Smokestack Books) – reviewed here.

Isabel Galleymore – Significant Other (Carcanet) – reviewed here.

Stephen Sexton – If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin Books)

Jay Bernard’s Surge is a slim volume carrying with it a great deal of political as well as publishing history. Its early stirrings seem to have been Bernard’s residency at the George Padmore Institute in north London where they explored documents relating to the New Cross Fire in January 1981. Often dubbed the ‘New Cross Massacre’, thirteen young people died in a fire at a birthday party. The fire may have been racially motivated arson and certainly the authorities’ response to the incident was unconvincing, possibly obstructive. There is a direct line from this incident, through the imposition of SUS laws and ‘stop and search’ in South London and the SWAMP 81 police crackdown and the subsequent, so-called Brixton Riots of April 1981. The Scarman Report in November of that year laid the blame for the riots squarely on the police action. In our contemporary landscape, and especially after the Grenfell Tower fire and the still-unresolved shameful treatment of the Windrush Generation, it’s easy to see why Bernard wanted to write about New Cross.

new-cross-fire-houseBut Surge itself has since gone through various forms. There were 10 original poems written quickly in 2016. There was a performance piece (at London’s Roundhouse) in the summer of 2017 (it was this version that won the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in poetry in 2017). But it has taken 3 years for this Chatto book to be finalised. In an interview just last year, Bernard observed that they were still unclear what the “final structure” of the material would be. I’m possessed of no insider knowledge on this, but it looks as if this “final” version took some considerable effort – reading it makes me conscious of the strait-jacket that a conventional slim volume of poetry imposes – and I’m not sure the finalised 50-odd pages of the collection really act as the best foil for what are, without doubt, a series of stunningly powerful poems. The blurb and publicity present the book (as publishers so often do) as wholly focused on the New Cross and Grenfell fires but this isn’t really true and something is lost in including the more miscellaneous pieces, particularly towards the end of the book.

Bernard writes of events in the past by deploying a multiplicity of voices which are given the power to haunt backwards and forwards through historical time. Unusually, their own voice is heard in ‘Ark’. They are here searching through an archive of documents of “flaking Letraset and amber glue” that also (punningly) acts as an ‘ark’ to bring the dead back to the present. What preoccupies the narrator is how and where to “file / the damp smoke and young bones” of the New Cross victims. The conclusion seems to be they cannot be securely and finally located anywhere while the country still experiences “the burning house, the child made ash, the brick in the back / of the neck, the shit in the letter box and piss up the side of it”.

memorial2Bernard’s poetic voice is at its best when making full use of the licence of free forms, broken grammar, infrequent punctuation, the colloquial voice and often incantatory patois. So a voice in ‘Harbour’ wanders across the page, hesitantly, uncertainly, till images of heat, choking and breaking glass make it clear this is someone caught in the New Cross Fire. Another voice in ‘Clearing’ watches, in the aftermath of the blaze, as an officer collect body parts (including the voice’s own body): “from the bag I watch his face turn away”. The cryptically titled ‘+’ and ‘–’ shift to broken, dialogic prose as a father is asked to identify his dead son through the clothes he was wearing. Then the son’s voice cries out for and watches his father come to the morgue to identify his body. This skilful voice throwing is a vivid way of portraying a variety of individuals and their grief. ‘Kitchen’ offers a calmer voice re-visiting her mother’s house, the details and familiarity evoking simple things that have been lost in the death of the child:

I have held this house

in my arms and let it sob

on the bathroom floor, heard it in

the background of a call,

heard it speak a kind of love –

A vigorously rhythmic patois voice is used in ‘Songbook’, recycling the horrific narrative again as a young boy and girl dance happily until:

Me seh di heat ah di night ah come up thru di floor

Black smoke ah rise tho dem nevah did know

[. . .]

Gyal fall back inside an we no see her no more

No bright green dress up pon di third floor

Bernard acknowledges their debt here to Linton Kwesi Johnson’s earlier poem about the New Cross Fire; you must listen to Bernard give a mesmerising performance of their own great poem here.

linton-kwesi-johnson-golden-penI’m guessing most of the poems I have referred to so far come from the early work of 2016. Other really strong pieces focus on events after the Fire itself. ‘Duppy’ is a sustained description – information slowly drip-fed – of a funeral or memorial meeting and it again becomes clear that the narrative voice is one of the dead: “No-one will tell me      what happened to my body”. The title of the poem is a Jamaican word of African origin meaning spirit or ghost. ‘Stone’ is perhaps a rare recurrence of the author’s more autobiographical voice and in its scattered form and absence of punctuation reveals a tactful and beautiful lyrical gift as the narrator visits Fordham Park to sit beside the New Cross Fire’s memorial stone. ‘Songbook II’ is another chanted, hypnotic tribute to one of the mothers of the dead and is probably one of the poems Ali Smith is thinking of when she associates Bernard’s work with that of W.H. Auden.

104-artontheunderground-14jan14But when the device of haunting and haunted voices is abandoned, Bernard’s work drifts quickly towards the literal and succumbs to the pressure to record events and places (the downside of the archival instinct). A tribute to Naomi Hersi, a black trans-woman found murdered in 2018, sadly doesn’t get much beyond plain location, a kind of reportage and admission that it is difficult to articulate feelings (‘Pem-People’). There are interesting pieces which read as autobiography – a childhood holiday in Jamaica, joining a Pride march, a sexual encounter in Camberwell, but on their own behalf Bernard seems curiously to have lost their eagle eye for the selection of telling details and tone and tension flatten out:

The bus heaves past Loughborough, to Camberwell,

to the green, buzzing with students drunk on Friday,

drunk on art and trendy and young: wine bottle young,

rollie-young, tight, flat-chested young. I follow you down,

I follow you up to the stairs of your flat [. . .]

grenfell-the-sunThe mirroring architectonic of the collection emerges with the poems written about the Grenfell Tower fire. So we have ‘Ark II’, two pools of prose broken by slashes which seem to be fed by too many tributary streams: the silent marches in Ladbroke grove, the Michael Smithyman murder and abandoned investigation, Smithyman’s transition to Michelle, and the burning of the Grenfell Tower effigy, the video of which emerged in 2018.

In an earlier blog post I was thinking about “the (in)adequacy of a certain English poetic voice to confront the scale of ecological issues, or as a vehicle for expressing certain cultural differences, or as a way of exploring the kind of tragic and grievous event represented by the Grenfell fire and its aftermath”. I think Bernard offers answers to this sort of question in their New Cross Fire poems but the challenge of Grenfell (is it the lack of historical distance?) does not yield the same sort of success. The final poem in the book, ‘Flowers’ is a case in point. Each quatrain carries a rhetorical question, creating a formal rather than urgent or passionate impression, and the valid question is will “anybody speak of” the kinds of issues raised elsewhere in the book. Yet the canonic imagery invokes the speech of flowers, the transition from summer into winter (done much more effectively in ‘Stone’). In the context of a live reading, in the context of the horror, the grief, the injustices, the historical perspectives raised so very successfully elsewhere in Surge, I’m sure this sort of poem has an impact. But in the cold light of day, Bernard’s voice here sounds confined by expectations they ought to be ignoring and ends by giving a rather awkward performance – especially when it’s compared to the fluid, passionate, skilful, clever, eloquence of something like ‘Songbook’.

‘Sis, you gotta let go’: on Mona Arshi’s ‘Dear Big Gods’

9781786942159In a recent launch reading for her second collection, Dear Big Gods (Pavilion Poetry/Liverpool University Press, 2019), Mona Arshi suggested it was a book she wrote only reluctantly. Her first book, Small Hands (2015), had at its centre a number of poems in memory of her brother, Deepak, who died unexpectedly in 2012. On her own admission, these new poems continue to be imbued with this grief and – though poets surely always write the book that needs to be written – there is a sense that the development of the new work has been stalled by such powerful feelings. My 2015 review of Small Hands saw Arshi as “an intriguing writer, potentially a unique voice if she can achieve the right distance between herself and her powerful formative influences”. The influences I had in mind then were literary rather than personal, but I find the lack of distance travelled between the earlier and this more recent work rather disappointing.

In fact, Deepak’s death is the explicit subject on only a few occasions. The poem ‘When your Brother Steps into your Piccadilly, West Bound Train Carriage’ isn’t much longer than its own title but it evokes that familiar sense of (mis-)seeing our dead in a public place. The emotions remain raw, from the accusatory “how-the-fuck-could-you?” to the final “I am sorry, I’m so sorry”. A dream or daydream meeting is also the basis for ‘A Pear from the Afterlife’ in which the brother’s affectionate tone advises, “Sis, you gotta let go / of this idea of definitive knowledge”. ‘Five Year Update’ is by far the most extended of these reflections on the brother’s passing, written in very long raking lines (rotated 45 degrees to stretch vertically on the page). “I hope it’s fine to contact you”, it opens and goes on to recall the moment the news of his death was received (see also ‘Phone Call on a Train Journey’ from Small Hands), remembers their childhood together and the sister’s continuing life: “I’ve gone down one lump not two, I still don’t swim and yes I still can’t / take a photograph”.

how-to-grow-arum-lilyAs the blurb suggests, these poems are indeed “lyrical and exact exploration[s] of the aftershocks of grief”. But ‘Everywhere’ adopts a little more distance and develops the kind of floating and delicate lyricism that Arshi does so well. The absent brother/uncle is still alluded to: “We tell the children, we should not / look for him. He is everywhere”. As that final phrase suggests, the rawness of the grief is being transmuted into a sense of otherness, beyond the quotidian and material. It’s when Arshi takes her brother’s advice and lets go of “definitive knowledge” that her poems promise so much. ‘Little Prayer’ might be spoken by the dead or the living, left abandoned, but either way it argues a stoical resistance: “I am still here // hunkered down”. In a more conventional mode, ‘The Lilies’ develops the objective correlative of the flowers suffering from blight as an image of a spoliation that hurts and reminds, yet is allowed to persist: “I let them live on / beauty-drained / in their altar beds”.

Like so many first books, Small Hands experimented with various poetical forms. This book also – a bit wilfully – tries out tanka, poems in two columns, right justification, centre justification, ghazals, inter-cut texts, prose poems, a sestina, an Emily Dickinson parody and responses to Lorca and The Mahabharata. They don’t all work equally well and Arshi perhaps senses this in lines like these:

 

My little bastard verses

tiny polyglot faces

how light you are

how virtually weightless

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The irony may be that this sort of form and reach actually does show Arshi at her best. The sequence of tiny poems modelled on Lorca’s ‘Mirror Suite’ (1921-1923) is fascinating. Jerome Rothenburg, discussing Lorca’s poems, describes them as possessing “a coolness & (sometimes) quirkiness, a playfulness of mind & music that I found instantly attractive”. These same qualities – as with Lorca, a version of surrealism, a firm but gentle turning aside from “definitive knowledge” – I enjoy in Arshi’s work as she explores states of the heart and realms of knowledge not ordinarily encountered or encompassed. Dear Big Gods contains other such Lorca-esque sequences such as ‘Autumn Epistles’, ‘Grief Holds a Cup of Tea’ and ‘Let the Parts of the Flower Speak’ and these are far more interesting than the poems drawn from The Mahabharata or the experiments in prose.

31BzXZVhekL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_Arshi’s continuing love affair with ghazals also seems to me to be an aspect of this same search for a form that holds both the connected and the stand-alone in a creative tension. ‘Ghazal: Darkness’ is very successful with the second line of each couplet returning to the refrain word, “darkness”, while the connective tissue of the poem allows a roaming through woods, soil, mushrooms and a mother’s praise of her daughters. Poems based on – or at least with the qualities of – dreams also stand out. The doctor in ‘Delivery Room’ asks the mother in the midst of her contractions, “Do you prefer the geometric or lyrical approach?” In ‘The Sisters’ the narrator dreams of “all the sisters I never had” and within 10 lines Arshi has expressed complex yearnings about loneliness and protectiveness in relation to siblings and self.

Given the traumatic disruption of her own, it’s no surprise that Arshi’s most frequently visited subject area is family relationships. I’ve referred to several of these poems already and ‘Gloaming’ floats freely through the fears of losing a child, the care of an ageing father, a mother “entering/leaving through a narrow lintel” and the recall of the “thick soup of our childhood”. The soup works well both as literal food stuff and as metaphor for the nourishing, warming milieu of an up-bringing, though the girl who looks up at the end of the poem is already exploring questions of identity. She asks, “where are you from, what country are we in?” Given Arshi’s own background – born to Punjabi Sikh parents in West London – such questions have obvious autobiographical and political relevance, though I sense Arshi herself is also asking questions of a more spiritual nature.

220px-Shiva_Musée_Guimet_22971So, in ‘My Third Eye’, the narrator is “more perplexed than annoyed” that her own third eye – the mystical and esoteric belief in a speculative, spiritual perception – has not yet “opened”. The poem’s mode and tone is comic for the most part; there is a childish impatience in the voice, asking “Am I not as worthy as the buffalo, the ferryman, / the cook and the Dalit?”. But in the final lines, the holy man she visits is given more gravitas. He touches the narrator’s head “and with that my eyes suddenly watered, widened and / he sent me on my way as I was forever open open open”. The book also closes with the title poem, ‘Dear Big Gods’, which takes the form of a prayer: “all you have to do / is show yourself”, it pleads. The delicate probing of Arshi’s best poems, their stretching of perception and openness to unusual states of emotion are driven by this sort of spiritual quest. Personal tragedy has no doubt fed this creative drive but – as the poet seems to be aware – such grief is only an aspect of her vision and not the whole of it.
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Nightcries: Liz Berry’s Motherhood Poems

 

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One of my very first reviews here – in August 2014 – was of Liz Berry’s Black Country. I was so impressed with the ways in which she exerted “pressure to counter the hegemonies of language, gender, locality, even of perception”. Most obviously she was doing this through the use of her own Black Country dialect, but I thought a more profound aspect of this was how “so many poems unfold[ed] as processes of self-transformation”; transgressive energies were being released through language, the erotic, myth-making and the surreal. The earlier book concluded with poems anticipating the birth of a child and – at the time – I felt these were less startlingly good, inclined to fall into ways of saying that the rest of the collection so triumphantly avoided.

tumblr_inline_ozdhmnTB2W1vr6098_1280It’s interesting then – in The Republic of Motherhood (Chatto, 2018) – to read more of Berry’s poems written since then, since the birth of her two sons and after a period of relative creative silence (more of that later). I nominated six stand-out poems from Black Country that I felt would establish her reputation – and the title poem of this pamphlet must be added to that list. It’s the most political of the fifteen poems and is propelled by the tensions located between motherhood as social norm or expectation and the personal/social grain of that particular experience. The paradox of the opening lines is that entering into the republic of motherhood (shades of Seamus Heaney’s 1987 The Haw Lantern, with its ‘From the Republic of Conscience’), the mother also discovers a monarchy, a “queendom, a wild queendom”. Much of the poem lists the realities of early motherhood – the night feeds, the smelly clothes, the exhaustion, the clinics and queues – a great democracy of women taking up a particular role. But there are signs too of an external compulsion, a set of expectations to be lived up to. The mother is expected to play the queen too as she pushes her pram down “the wide boulevards of Motherhood / where poplars ben[d] their branches to stroke my brow”. The public role of motherhood comes with demands: “As required, I stood beneath the flag of Motherhood / and opened my mouth although I did not know the anthem”. As much as any new parent feels woefully inadequate and ignorant of the needs of their young child, the young mother is faced with additional social expectations about instinct, affection, abilities and fulfilment which are quite impossible to realise. And on this point, there remains a conspiracy of silence: “[I] wrote letters of complaint / to the department of Motherhood but received no response”.

D19WzebWoAMAN5cThe mother in the poem also suffers postpartum depression and Berry seems here to allude to experiences of First World war soldiers, wounded, repaired and sent back out to fight again, without fundamental issues being addressed: “when I was well they gave me my pram again / so I could stare at the daffodils in the parks of Motherhood”. She ends up haunting cemeteries, both real and symbolic, and it is here she finds even more tragic victims of motherhood, of birth trauma and of psychosis. The final response of the poem is to pray – though it is a prayer that has scant sense of religion but combines empathy with other women with a great anger expressed in the phrase “the whole wild fucking queendom [of Motherhood]”. The paradoxically inextricable sorrow and beauty of motherhood becomes the subject of the rest of the pamphlet, but this poem ends with the mother echoing a baby’s “nightcry” and erasing her own self, “sunlight pixellating my face”. The poem’s rawness is unresolved. Having crossed the border into motherhood (that decision is never questioned here), the contradictory pulls of Motherhood (capital M) and the stresses of mothering (small m) have a devastating impact. In a recent poem called ‘The Suburbs’ – Berry’s contribution to the National Poetry Competition 40th Anniversary Anthology – she records the effect of mothering even more starkly: “my world miniaturised”. Listen to Liz Berry talk about and read this poem here.

After the tour de force of ‘The Republic of Motherhood’, the pamphlet takes a more chronological track. ‘Connemara’ seems to mark the moment of conception as a moment of self-abandonment (“I threw the skin to the wind, / sweet sack”) which, in the light of the preceding poem, takes on greater ironies of naivety: “Let them come, / I thought, / I am ready.” One of the joys of Berry’s work is her sense of the animal-physicality of the human body (revel in ‘Sow’ from Black Country) and ‘Horse Heart’ figures a ward of expectant mothers as a farmyard stable: “the sodden hay of broken waters, / each of us private and lowing in our stalls”. She captures the high anticipation and potentially brutal arrival of the all-demanding babies as a herd of horses; “the endless running / of the herd, fear of hoof / upon my chest”.  These two poems can be read here.

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Birth itself, in ‘Transition’, is to be feared (“I wanted to crawl into that lake at Kejimakujik”) and gotten through in part by absenting oneself into the past in ‘The Visitation’. The latter is addressed to Eloise, a figure who appeared in a Black Country poem, ‘Christmas Eve’. Here, a schoolgirl memory of a loving encounter with Eloise takes the narrator away from the pains of contractions, “as my body clenched and unfurled”. ‘Sky Birth’ is the one poem that challenges the brilliance of ‘The Republic of Motherhood’. It takes the image of climbing a mountain to evoke the physical pain and endurance required (Berry welcomes all those traditional associations with spiritual climb and progress), yet the poem never loses its sense of the real situation. The breathlessness of the climb suddenly flips back to the mother howling “over the voice of the midwife, the beeping monitors”. It is the figurative climb as much as the literal pain of giving birth that makes her “retch with the heights” and in the final moments, the mountaineer is “knelt on all fours” as most likely was the mother-to-be. The height is reached in a moving conceit:

 

when it came it came fast, a shining crown

through the slap of the storm,

for a second we were alone on that highest place

and love, oh love,

I would have gladly left my body

on that lit ledge for birds to pick clean

for my heart was in yours now

and your small body would be the one to carry us.

 

That final plural personal pronoun reminds me of a comment made by Jonathan Edwards in reviewing this pamphlet. Edwards wonders briefly about the absence of the father figure. Is the ‘us’ here the mother and child? Or is this one of the few references in the pamphlet to both parents?

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I hope this is not just a male reviewer’s concern. It may be an artistic or political decision on Berry’s part. Or a personal one. But given the thrust of much of the work – that mothering is an utterly taxing and even deranging experience – I’m troubled by the father figure’s absence, if only in that it risks representing the idea (the toxic flip-side to the expectations laid on the mother) that fathers need have little part to play. The father does appear in the final poem, ‘The Steps’, though the questioning tone and syntax casts doubt over what of the parents’ relationship will survive the experience of the child’s arrival: “Will we still touch each other’s faces / in the darkness”. I also wonder if the father figure is implied in the image of a boy riding his bike up Beacon Hill in ‘Bobowler’. This is a beautiful poem on the image of a moth (‘bobowler’ is the Black Country word for a moth). The moth is a messenger, coming to all “night birds”. The boy on the bike is one such, his heart “thundering / like a strange summer storm” which perhaps echoes those thundering hooves of the approaching young child. Perhaps there is some recognition here that the father’s world too will be turned upside down. And the message the bobowler brings may also relate to the parental relationship: “I am waiting. / The love that lit the darkness between us / has not been lost”.

41zU1eXgU-LBut such optimism is not a frequent note. Most of the remaining poems deal with the experience of depression in motherhood. ‘Early’ is almost as happy as it gets with mother and child now like “new sweethearts, / awake through the shining hours, close as spoons in the polishing cloth of dawn” (what a glorious image that is). But even here there are demands from the child that will need “forgiving” by the mother. One of these concerns her role as writer, particularly the difficulty of writing in the maelstrom of mothering: “every line I wanted to write for you / seems already written, read / and forgotten”. And this is why Berry chooses to co-opt lines from Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s terrifying story, The Yellow Wallpaper in ‘The Yellow Curtains’. Both texts can be read as studies of postpartum depression, but the despair has as much to do with the women as writers, confined, and – as in Gillman – the husband voices the demands and expectations of convention, of queendom: “He said [. . .] I must / take care of myself. For his sake.”

‘So Tenderly It Wounds Them’ is a more public account of the trials of young motherhood, of women who “are lonely/ though never alone”, women who find themselves “changed / beyond all knowing”, waking each morning only to feel “punched out by love”. The more recent poem ‘The Suburbs’ also contains the same paradox that motherhood is a state of “tenderness and fury”. ‘Marie’ seems to record a debt to a supportive female friend and it is only through the ministering (that seems the apt word) of “women in darkness, / women with babies” in ‘The Spiritualist Church’ that the young mother’s despair has any hope of being redeemed. Redeemed, not solved, of course: what the women argue is that “love can take this shape” and perhaps it Berry’s sense of art, or her personal experience, or a recognition of human resilience, or a final succumbing to a traditional narrative, that makes her place ‘Lullaby’ as the penultimate poem. It ends sweetly though the final poem sends us back to the start of it all – the dash to the hospital. So Berry book-ends this little gem of a collection with time shifts that argue motherhood’s simultaneous complexity of animal and human love as well as its pain and awful boredom and personal diminishment.

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Important Notice

To my regular subscribers and followers:

From 1st March 2019, I am planning to post a series of new poems on my blog on a daily basis and, if you are in the habit of getting notifications via email, I would like to apologise in advance for cluttering up your in-box much more frequently than usual.

On the other hand, these new poems have been written to respond to the historical moment in this most disunited of kingdoms and, dear reader, if you like what you find, I would be most grateful if you could share them as widely as you can, in whatever format you wish. I am waiving any copyright concerns because the underlying belief I am expressing in these poems is that bridges need building.

Virtual-Office-Threadneedle-StreetThe working title for the sequence is Works and Days of Division – it opens somewhere near Threadneedle Street, not far from a child’s brightly coloured picture book, and roams the UK, talking, shopping, walking, driving, through earth and air, water and fire, in sickness and in health, to end with a death of sorts on a certain lake shore in the northwest of England.

The two main sources of inspiration for the sequence of poems have already been the subjects of a couple of recent posts. Hesiod’s Works and Days – probably the oldest poem in the Western canon – is a poem driven by a dispute between brothers. The so-called vacana poems originate in the bhakti religious protest movements in 10-12th century India. Through plain language, repetition and refrain, they offer praise to the god, Siva, though they also express a great deal of personal anger, puzzlement, even despair.

The central, pivotal poem has already been kindly posted/published by New Boots and Pantisocracies and can be read by following this link. The poem is an abecedary, wishing to encompass everything from a-z, but wondering why nothing connects anymore. If you like, please share.

nijole-miliauskaite-skaidres1_bigAlso, as regular readers will know, I have always regarded translation optimistically as one of the key bridge-building activities in the literary world. And I am delighted to provide a link also to Modern Poetry in Translation‘s just published digital pamphlet of Lithuanian Poetry which includes my own translation (and a recording) of an untitled poem by Nijole Miliauskaite. I was pleased that the translation was selected as the best from all those submitted to the MPT Lithuanian Translation Workshop.

So – Works and Days of Division will begin posting on Friday 1st March and will reach its conclusion on Friday 29th March by which time – well, no, we don’t know where we’ll be by then, do we? 

 

In Memory of Tony Hoagland

The sad news of American poet Tony Hoagland’s death yesterday (23.10.2018), prompts me to post this brief review of one of his more recent books, Application for Release from the Dream (Bloodaxe Books, 2015). My review was originally written to appear in Poetry London a couple of years ago. Hoagland’s work punctures personal, poetical and political pretensions and I would highly recommend it to anybody who has yet to discover its great pleasures and profundities. His most recent collection – likely to be his last – will appear in the UK next year and be called Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God (Bloodaxe Books, 2019).

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The metaphorical dream Tony Hoagland’s book titles is applying for release from is the alchemical one: the search for gold from lead. Though Hoagland’s world is definitely leaden, quotidian, often spoiled, there are compensatory moments when the disappointed prospective alchemist recalls “the lute hidden in his closet”. And though Hoagland is always keen to ask big questions (this collection opens with “What is a human being? What does it mean?” (‘The Edge of the Frame’)), his poems travel through thickets of irony because language interferes and shit happens and our harking after absurd, abstract, definitive answers is wholly mistaken.

Many of these poems are laugh-out-loud funny and there are occasions when Hoagland reminds me of the Ted Hughes of Crow with its gallows humour spliced with admiration for a sometimes thuggish survival against the odds: “Underneath the smile is bitterness, and underneath the bitterness is grief, / and underneath the grief the desire to survive” (‘Airport’).

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But, Antaeus-like, Hoagland always keeps his feet firmly on the ground. His language is accordingly direct, chatty, engaging, man to man (not afraid to be masculine), eschewing the hyper-economy of certain poetries. His verse forms are very free. He’s good company (and will remind you of Billy Collins); he’s drawn to the common man (and will remind you of Philip Levine). In ‘The Hero’s Journey’ the sight of a marble floor in a hotel lobby impresses on him that “someone had waxed and polished it all”. This, he characteristically tells us, “tempered my enthusiasm for The Collected Letters of Henry James, Volume II”.

The fact is, Hoagland’s heroes are cleaners, bakers, prisoners and the nurse “wiping off the soft heroic buttocks of Odysseus”. His ‘Little Champion’ is a butterfly that lives on the urine of a particular animal, its lifetime spent in slavish pursuit of it. Likewise, “Human beings are tough” declares a poem set in a hospital, “with their obesity, their chemo and their scars” (‘December, with Antlers’).

st_manholeNevertheless, some uncertain light can be cast on the human condition by ‘The Neglected Art of Description’. A man descending into a man-hole can remind us of “the world // right underneath this one” though Hoagland treats this idea with three doses of ironic distancing. He’s even more confident that the pleasures of perceptual surprise can “help me on my way” (even this, an equivocal sort of progress and destination; no golden goal).

This book’s title poem is as definitive and epigrammatic as it gets: “If you aren’t learning, you have not been paying attention. / If you have nothing to say, it is because your heart is closed”. But the disturbing truth, according to ‘Crazy Motherfucker Weather’, is that our precious selves are no more than “a burning coal // one carries around in one’s mouth for sixty years, / for delivery / to whom, exactly; to where?” Another poem suggests there is a place balanced “between irony and hope” where we might live (‘Western’).

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The humour of Hoagland’s poems punctures both personal and political pretension, targets the poet himself as much as others, makes for very enjoyable poems and ensures those few moments of pleasure or beauty that do emerge are all the more convincing. In ‘Because It Is Houston’, for example, there is no one “better qualified around”, so the narrator derives surprise and pleasure from the “little ivory trumpets” knocked from a honeysuckle bush by a brief shower of rain.

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What better way to spend 20 minutes than to listen to this recent reading given by Tony Hoagland at Ledbury Poetry Festival:

 

2018 Forward First Collections Reviewed #3 – Richard Scott

This is the third in the series of reviews I am posting over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2018 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 18th September 2018. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The full 2018 shortlist is:

Kaveh Akbar – Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Penguin UK)
Abigail Parry – Jinx (Bloodaxe Books) – click here for my review of this book.
Phoebe Power – Shrines of Upper Austria (Carcanet) – click here for my review of this book.
Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press)
Richard Scott – Soho (Faber & Faber)

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311zpyQouQL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_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 . . .”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

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.

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Detail from the Warren Cup (BM)

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”.

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Richard-Scott

Sounds Like What?: a Review of Helen Mort’s ‘The Singing Glacier’

The new book from the innovative and enterprising Hercules Editions – launched at the LRB Bookshop in London’s Bloomsbury last week – contains poetry by Helen Mort, images by Emma Stibbon, a conversation with composer William Carslake and an essay from Manchester Met academic David Cooper. What holds these diverse components together (within 40 pages) is a trip Mort, Carslake and film-maker Richard Jones made to south-eastern Greenland in 2016. You can see the original Kickstarter post here.

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So The Singing Glacier project is truly inter-disciplinary and the Hercules book is making available Mort’s poetic contributions to it. Mort’s conversation with Carslake serves to introduce the origins of the project in 2012 when the composer looked down from a plane to see Greenland’s regressing glaciers “like a hand with fingers”. More evocatively, and much closer, he talks of standing beside crevasses and moulins and listening to the sounds emanating from them, “like hearing a Welsh male voice choir singing from this great big hole in the ice!” The Hercules book has photos of Carslake’s notebook, clusters of notes and a few words jotted on the spot. Mort disarmingly says how she envied this seeming directness of acoustic transcription as her role was to come up with words and inevitably much of what she initially wrote down “was just cliché”. She wonders whether cliché is a reasonable response to the vast and alien landscapes they were moving through, sights before which “linguistic originality can almost seem a little arbitrary”. This is not her final conclusion, but her comment does raise one of the fascinating issues in this beautiful little book – what a poet does with the tensions between speech and silence, more abstractly between sound and its absence.

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In a review of Mort’s first book, Division Street, I thought her “love of landscape [was] profound and, like Wordsworth, her hills and skies remain a locus for, as well as an image of, the process of self-exploration”. On that basis she would be a good poet to send to Greenland but – she confesses – she was sometimes reduced to wanting simply to cry and – this hesitantly expressed – it felt “like being in the presence of a god”. These are unmistakable encounters with the sublime and the urge to anthropomorphise such a vast alien landscape is quick to arise, so any efforts at self-exploration might seem worse than arbitrary, positively disrespectful. But how then to engage? ‘In Defence of Cliché’ takes off from Mort’s honestly expressed concerns about inadequate linguistic responses to this landscape:

 

I write: ice in the fjord as pale as thought

then hear the calving face crash through my language

with a sound (like what?) like cannon fire

 

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Similarly, the moon fails to be adequately captured by images of “petal, snowball, sleeping moth”. She quotes Hopkins on the way observations of nature can correct our “preoccupation” with the world – again walking the fringes of the divine here – becoming a way in which we learn humility. Mort ends the poem cleverly. Our best word for this sort of experience is “awe” but the word baldly used would not possess enough freshness or fire (thank you Gerard Manley) to carry the weight of feeling. So Mort goes for a down-to-earth metaphor followed by a phrase that manages both to say and not-say it simultaneously:

 

… we stand like nothing, shaken

from the pockets of our lives, our mouths

stuck on the silent word for awe.
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The poem, ‘Arctic Fox, August’, is more reminiscent of Mort’s favourite poet, Norman MacCaig. The creature is acutely observed in its colours and hesitant movements around the campsite but the poem ends with a series of rather coercive, descriptive metaphors: “a hunger-striker . . . a gathering memory . . . the habit you thought / you’d kicked”. For me these images circle and knot ever more tightly onto the observing human consciousness, almost doing violence to the creature so well observed at the start. The poem ‘Polynya’ – the word signifies an area of open water surrounded by sea ice – reverses this tendency to humanise the natural by naturalising the human:

 

Surely the heart

must have polynya

places where it’s never

hardened into ice.

 

The image of the partially melted heart turns easily into a love poem. Another method Mort adopts to try to respond to the Greenland landscape is through found language. So ‘And Noah’ arose from a conversation with an inhabitant of Kulusuk (though I think Mort said at the LRB launch that much of the detail came from the little museum in that town). The result manages to suggest something of the way of life in this landscape, a work place – the found nature of the phrases enabling the poet to avoid too strong a sense that neither she nor her work are an “imposition”.

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David Cooper’s essay on acoustic geographies and poetry of place takes a more academic look at the multi-media project, suggesting that it –  like a lot of recent geographical creative writing – sets out to challenge the easy domination of the visual sense by accentuating the acoustic or aural. This is partly because sound “reminds us of our own embodied situatedness and inextricable embeddedness within the world”. The eye puts us at the controlling centre; the ear is more often passively assailed from all sides. The eye easily steps back and away; the ear is within the sensed world (I’ve discussed similar ideas of within/without or within/above in relation to Holderlin’s novel Hyperion in another blog post). Mort’s best work in this little book is done when she listens in to these sounds and silences. ‘The Glacier Speaks’ does succumb to the kind of anthropomorphism Mort says she was wary of. But it works well since the voice of the glacier is such a challenging, even taunting, one: “Go on then / says the glacier – / how are you going to score my silences?” The glacier reminds the poet of its silence through noting the kind of sounds which book-end it or by comparing its absence of sound with more familiar moments of silence such as that between lovers, between a mother and a daughter. Here the comparisons work not through similitude but dissimilitude – my silence, the glacier says, is nothing like these. I thought an odd note was struck at the end of this poem when the humans are described as impressed by such silence (“more like a vigil”) yet the glacier suggests they are each “trying / to get back to me”. This is intended, I presume, to evoke human puniness, a Lawrentian “pettiness”, but it also smacks a little of the glacier’s over-anthropomorphised self-regard.

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But the poem ‘Glacier Song’ is magnificent. Not the right word I’m sure, but it approaches the Greenland landscape – the Knud Rasmussen glacier in particular – with a right sense of decorum. Silent is what the glacier is again – a “library of absences” – and this is conveyed partly by suggesting that the nearby fjord is more talkative, more full of songs. But Mort then cunningly withdraws this idea: even the chatty fjord is really silent – how much more silent then is the glacier! Later, the Arctic light – remember Cooper’s discussion of the predominance of sight – interrogates the glacier like an airport security check, quizzing and questioning because light always knows better, light always wants the last word. But “The glacier carries on / rehearsing privately”. The final section of this longer poem alights on the distant figure of a woman (the poet?) who, herself, wants to be singing. Here, we feature as the little, forked animal, stuffed full of language bursting to get out, trying to communicate something about glacier climbing, about ptarmigans, the Northern Lights, even about the glacier itself. But the ice remains mum to the last:

 

The glacier has not slept

for centuries.

 

The glacier is restless, lithe,

insomniac

 

articulate

 

and doesn’t need

a word for itself.

 

Knud Rasmussen Glacier Greenland