How We Created ‘O. at the Edge of the Gorge’ (Guillemot Press)

These two pieces on the writing and illustrating of my new chapbook, O. at the Edge of the Gorge, first appeared on the Guillemot Press website. Thanks to the Press and Phyllida Bluemel for permission to re-post them here.

The making of O. at the Edge of the Gorge
PART ONE by Martyn Crucefix

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The scraps and scribbles that eventually became O. at the Edge of the Gorge are contained in a notebook dating from March 2014. The first words that made it into the finished sequence record my sighting of “6 white doves / on the boundary wall / looking away”. I’m pretty sure I spotted the birds on the drive to one of the airports north of London as, on the same page, sits a note recording a tannoy announcement calling a customer back to one of the shops in the Duty Free zone: “please return /  to Glorious Britain / for a forgotten item”. These are the sorts of strange happenstances that get thrown down in a writer’s notebook; happily, it was the dove image that stayed with me.

The landscape of the poem is the destination of my flight that day, the Marche in central, eastern Italy. I was staying in a house close to the edge of a deep gorge, looking out to distant hillsides, several hilltop villages, their church spires, clumps of dark trees. The roots of the poems – any poem, of course – spread much deeper than is immediately visible. So earlier in the same notebook, I find I had noted a quotation from Schopenhauer (itself quoted by Dannie Abse in the May 2014 issue of the magazine Acumen): “Envy builds the wall between Thee and Me thicker and stronger; sympathy makes it slight and transparent – nay, sometimes it pulls down the wall altogether and then the distinction between self and not-self vanishes”.

A little earlier, there was another note. This was from a piece by Ed Hirsch in the magazine The Dark Horse. Hirsch quoted Simone Weil’s observation that “absolutely unmixed attention is prayer”. He went on to urge our attention ought be paid to the earth, not looking for something atemporal and divine. We need to cherish the fleeting and the transient, even in its disappearance. This is the particular project of poetry, he argued, and these are recognisably Rilkean ideas that were always likely to attract my interest. I have spent many years translating Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. The Orpheus link took a while to re-surface in my mind in relation to the new poems.

One other notebook entry stands out. I seem to have been reading Bruce Bawer’s book, Prophets and Professors (Storyline Press, 1995), and in a chapter on Wallace Stevens he quotes Mallarme: “To name an object is largely to destroy poetic enjoyment, which comes from gradual divination. The ideal is to suggest the object”. It’s not necessary for a writer to fully grasp such scattered sources; they tend to be ripped out of context and appropriated for use. In retrospect, I seemed to be thinking, over a period of weeks, about the relation between self and other, the paying of attention to the transient world and the difficulty of maintaining such attention through the medium of language. All of this re-appears in the poems that make up O. at the Edge of the Gorge.

Also by this time – probably July 2014 – there were two strong poetic voices chanting in my head. One was from poems I was trying to translate by Peter Huchel, poems written in the highly censored context of the GDR in the mid 20th century. I find I’d scribbled down “his vision is up-rooted, deracinated in the extreme – a world where meaning has withdrawn (the jugglers have long gone) what’s left is iron, winter, suspicion – spies, the Stasi, meaninglessness – but the natural world persists”. The other voice was from the Ancient Chinese texts of the Daodejing which I had also been versioning for quite a few months previously and were eventually to be published in 2016 by Enitharmon Press.

In complete contrast to Huchel, the Daodejing’s vision is one of ultimate unity and wholeness achieved through such an intense attentiveness as to extinguish the self and all barriers. These two extremes seem to form a key part of the sequence of poems that emerged in the next few weeks, my narrative voice moving from a Huchel-like sense of division and isolation to a more Dao-like sense of potential oneness.

Besides all this, I was playing in the notebook with the idea of ‘off’’. The point was, rather than focusing where the ‘frame’ directs us, we gain more from attending to what lies beyond it; the peripheral, I suppose, in a kind of revolt. I was muttering to myself “locus not focus”. I was thinking of the lovely word ‘pleroma’, a word associated with the Gnostics and referring to the aggregation of all Divine powers – though, as with Ed Hirsch, I was not so much interested in the Divine. Pleroma is the totality of all things; something like the Daoist’s intuition of the One. I think such ideas gave rise – quite unconsciously – to the several swarms, and flocks, the “snufflings the squeals and scratchings” that recur in the poems. These represent the fecund variousness of the (natural) world to which we might be paying more attention.

The hilly landscape and the plunging gorge itself also seem to suggest (at first) a divided vision. The carpenter bees act as intermediaries – at first alien, later to be emulated. As the first rapid drafts of individual poems came, there was a plain lyric voice – an ‘I’ – in a sort of reportage, revelling in the landscape, its creatures, colours and sounds till eventually I had 12 sonnet-like pieces. One of the poems seemed already to allude to the Orpheus myth, the moment when he looks back to Eurydice and she is returned forever to the underworld. His mistake, in this version, was that he was seeking an over-determined, “comprehending grip on earth” as opposed to a more passive openness to the phenomena of the world (which Eurydice seemed now to represent).

At some stage, the narrating ‘I’ was switched to a ‘he’ and the ‘he’ began to feel more and more like a version of Orpheus himself (hence O. at the Edge of the Gorge). The change from first to third person also gave me more distance from the materials. It was on a later visit to read my own work at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival in the Spring of the following year that I heard Angela France reading a crown of sonnets. I blogged about it at the time and coming home it struck me that my sequence ought to take the same highly interconnected form. The 10th of my sonnets – precisely that moment where the Orpheus/Eurydice separation occurred – was expanded into two poems, absorbing some details about a parked car on a hill and others, also focused on transience, from Dante’s Paradiso Book 16. The final sonnet to appear picked up on some notes I’d made long before about seeing a hunting hawk rise up from the roadside clutching a mouse or rat in its talons. By this stage, the gorge, in its representation of the Other, had also come to be associated with life’s most apparent Other, death. The whim, or wish, or risky flight of my narrator to include or encompass the gorge itself became the poems’ hoped for goal.

The making of O. at the Edge of the Gorge
PART TWO by designer and illustrator Phyllida Bluemel

I have a print-out of O at the Edge of the Gorge covered in pencil scribbles and tiny indecipherable thumbnails of visual ideas. Putting images to poetry can be daunting. I find that, armed with a pencil, a close reading of the text and lots of doodling is a good place to start. I thought a lot about the point of illustrating poetry – what the images can bring. I want the illustrations to be in conversation with the poem, rather than just replicating images already present in the words. Starting with an intuitive visual response is a nice way to get the conversation started.image1

For me the poems read like an unforced train of thought – a notebook in the pocket of a traveller, a sun-drenched jotting of linked observations and associations and memories – the kind of meandering thoughts that are particular to a slow and hot afternoon. They are very evocative of place.

I was taken with the formal playfulness of the poems – the crown of sonnets – where emphasis repeats and changes and each poem flows effortlessly into the next. An enacting of Martyn Crucefix’s line “he snaps them sketches then revises again”. It seemed appropriate to echo that in the imagery. The folded and interrupted illustrations bind each poem to the next. I wanted to give myself some of the constraints that the poet had set himself – and nearly every image contains an element of the one before, re-appropriated and carried forward – a visual game of Chinese whispers.

22071074_225079284691665_7698907406985592832_nThe poems move from one image to the next but there are the same preoccupations – the specks and the flocks and movements alongside monuments and geology – contrasting contexts of time, and the sense (especially given the form) of something trying to be ordered or sorted out, but not quite complying – “dicing segments of counted time…” The diagrammatic, map-like – but not-quite scrutable imagery is a response to this – an attempt to make sense of forms and information, or grasp a particular memory and note it down. Not quite successfully. We are left with a string of related thoughts and a measuring or structuring impulse.

The imagery itself takes its leave from the words – an outlined lavender stem becomes a cross-section, a contoured landscape, which in turn ends up as the outline of a branch, twisting into the form of the river at the bottom of the gorge. I had a lot of fun playing with scale and the way in which lines taken from nature mimic each other. This felt right because of the shifts in perspective in the poetry – from the raptor’s eye view, to the ‘snufflings’ and ‘scratchings’ of detail. The buzzard’s diving and ‘zooming-in’ of the landscape. 22158675_355445834881295_4436376972506955776_n(1)

The use of newsprint for the folded pages is as much an act of ‘illustration’ for me as the lines. Maps and diagrams and lines interrupted by folds and the edge of the pages make it feel as if they are part of something else – ephemera or a dog-eared map folded, or a napkin sketch ­ – tucked between the pages of a notebook. I also think it’s OK to want to make a beautiful object for the sake of a beautiful object – the tactility of different paper stocks, the small and pocketable size of the book – all I hope lend themselves to a thoughtful reading of the poem.

Edward Thomas and Two of His Friends

Last weekend I was asked to talk briefly about Edward Thomas at an event at the Palmers Green Library in north London. This year is the centenary of his death and I looked at one of my favourite poems, ‘The Sun Used to Shine’. I have written in close detail about it in an earlier blog so I have excised most of my comments about the poem itself from this current post. I hoped to take the audience’s attention to the poem, to Thomas’ life in 1914/17 and then bring them to more contemporary poetry with a couple of my own poems which are thoroughly imbued with Thomas tropes – inspired by his work and life. 

 

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Edward Thomas and Helen Thomas

Edward Thomas died at the Battle of Arras on the 9th April 1917. One hundred years and 5 months ago. It has long been thought that he died from a nearby shell blast stopping his heart and his watch, on that Easter Monday. But a couple of years ago, the discovery of a letter from his commanding officer suggested he had been actually ‘shot clean through the chest’. It was perhaps a sanitised version of his death delivered to his wife, Helen, that gave rise to the attractively poetic myth of his ‘clean’ death.

But so much about Thomas has a similar mist of uncertainty about it. He shares with his great friend and poet, Robert Frost, a liking for the word ‘something’ – a thing that is unspecified or unknown, a description or amount being stated but not exactly. This is partly what makes him a modern writer (though his main subject material – the natural world – might make him seem otherwise).

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But he’s also modernist in that he can be emotionally reticent, guarded, suspicious. In a letter to his wife a few days before he was killed he wrote: “I know that you must say much because you feel much. But I, you see, must not feel anything. I am just, as it were, tunnelling underground and something (that word again!) sensible in my subconsciousness directs me not to think of the sun [. . .] If I could respond to you as you would like me to [. . . ] I should be unable to go on with this job”. You might think such guardedness was just a war-time effect. But a poem like ‘No one so much as you’ – written in 1916, surely to his wife – says: “My eyes scarce dare meet you”.

His difficulties with loving were certainly related to his bouts of depression. He suffered dark, suicidal periods, infamously taking a revolver with him into the woods intending not to reappear. In the poem ‘Beauty’ he writes:

 

What does it mean? Tired, angry, and ill at ease,

No man, woman, or child alive could please

Me now. And yet I almost dare to laugh

Because I sit and frame an epitaph –

‘Here lies all that no one loved of him

And that loved no one.’

 

The poem eventually finds some sense of relief in the natural world. Note here the uncertainty in both what it is in him that seeks happiness and what it is that seems lost to him:

 

This heart, some fraction of me, happily

Floats through the window even now to a tree

Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale,

Not like a pewit that returns to wail

For something it has lost, but like a dove

That slants unswerving to its home and love.

 

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Thomas and Frost

 

Because it’s one of his best, I’m going to look at Thomas’ poem ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ written in May 1916. There is no straining between subject and technique. Its moods shift continually from companionship, to thoughts of war, to an historical sense, to an almost cosmic sense of time. So it travels great distances without departing far from the English countryside that provided Thomas with its beginnings. Nor does it depart far from ordinary language – it has a surface accessibility. It’s held together by a human voice – quiet, questing, informed about nature as well as history, one willing to contemplate existential questions.

[. . .]

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By the time the poem was being written, it was more than a year after the Frosts had sailed for New York. Thomas is mourning a lost era as much as a lost friend. Perhaps no surprise that he had Tennyson in mind as he wrote. In Memoriam is Tennyson’s tribute to his lost friend, Arthur Hugh Hallam. In section 89, Thomas found a model and images of friendship, the English landscape, ripe fruit, running water, long walks, long talks – a kind of lost Paradise:

 

The landscape winking thro’ the heat:

 

O sound to rout the brood of cares,

The sweep of scythe in morning dew,

The gust that round the garden flew,

And tumbled half the mellowing pears!

[. . .]

Nor less it pleased in livelier moods,

Beyond the bounding hill to stray,

And break the livelong summer day

With banquet in the distant woods;

 

Whereat we glanced from theme to theme,

Discuss’d the books to love or hate,

Or touch’d the changes of the state,

Or threaded some Socratic dream;

[. . .]

We talk’d: the stream beneath us ran,

The wine-flask lying couch’d in moss,

[. . .]

And brushing ankle-deep in flowers,

We heard behind the woodbine veil

The milk that bubbled in the pail,

And buzzings of the honied hours.

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Such similar quiet acknowledgements of landscape, of time present and past, of friendship are some of the themes which draw me to Thomas’ work. Another of his friends was Jesse Berridge. The depth of this friendship is revealed when Berridge writes – this in the Spring of 1947 (fully 30 years after Thomas’ death at Arras) – of dreaming of the poet:

In my dream he was coming down a road, in loose dark clothes, to meet me, with his long purposeful stride and his face alight with pleasure and gaiety. Well I knew that look on his face, and here and now I would give testimony that I did know very many hours in his company, and in by far the greater part of them he was happy, sometimes with an almost bewildering intensity.

Here (if I may) is a poem of my own, drawing on material from Berridge’s memoir of Thomas which I hope captures some of the pleasures the poet shared with Berridge and before that with Frost. The opening detail about the church at Kilve in Somerset, is referred to in Wordsworth’s poem ‘Anecdote for Fathers’ (1798) included in Lyrical Ballads, obviously a favourite with Thomas and Berridge:

 

These things I remember                               

after Jesse Berridge

 

That afternoon on the beach at Kilve

we had ascertained

there was no weather-cock on the church

and we were resting in peace

almost in silence when he turned

and told me to listen

to the little melodious twittering

of a tiny bird that swooped and dipped

between where we sat and the roiling ocean—

a meadow pipit he said

the moment was unforgettable then

as he so often made such things

calling attention to this or that aspect

of what I call his vision

as one morning he cut a walking-stick

from the woods then carved

until it had a character of its own

or the knife I’ve owned almost sixty years

its bone handle chafed

and worn by my touch

until the white has begun to show through

for him held a peculiar fascination

till obscurely I began to feel

it possessed of a soul

that nothing but his observation of it

had created and I remember my children

always delighted in his occasional visit

(from The Lovely Disciplines, Seren 2017)

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Thomas and Berridge would often cycle the English countryside together and if you are interested in his extraordinary responses to the landscape I’d recommend In Pursuit of Spring, published in 1914. It was this book that Frost seized on in the summer of 1914 as evidence that Thomas ought to start writing poetry.

There are also personal reasons why I like this book so much – Thomas cycles from the outskirts of London, heading westwards, to the Quantocks. On his way he descends from Salisbury Plain into the Wiltshire where I grew up. Indeed he traces a particular ride along roads I know well. Here he is describing the almost visionary impact of the English countryside:

Motion was extraordinarily easy that afternoon, and I had no doubts that I did well to bicycle instead of walking. [. . .] At the same time I was a great deal nearer to being a disembodied spirit than I can often be. I was not at all tired, so far as I knew. No people or thoughts embarrassed me. I fed through the senses directly, but very temperately, through the eyes chiefly, and was happier than is explicable or seems reasonable. This pleasure of my disembodied spirit (so to call it) was an inhuman and diffused one, such as may be attained by whatever dregs of this our life survive after death. In fact, had I to describe the adventure of this remnant of a man, I should express it [. . .] with no need of help from Dante [. . .] Supposing I were persuaded to provide the afterworld with some of the usual furniture, I could borrow several visible things from that ride through Semington, Melksham, and Staverton.

Later, Thomas takes a detour to another place I know well, the village of Tellisford, its ruined water-mill and bridge by the River Frome. There he meets the Other Man, a figure who pops up in the book and who represents Thomas’ alter ego. I’d like to finish with another of my poems which I hope captures a good deal of the spirit of Edward Thomas in its love of English landscape, its sense of history, its longing for companionship, its loneliness and, in its conclusion, its sense, as ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ says, that “Everything / To faintness like those rumours fades”. The old man is a version of Thomas perhaps, or a version of the Other Man, or a version of myself – or all three at once. You might say one of my projects is to convince you that clarity is a chimera.

 

Rebuilding Tellisford weir

turn aside to see Tellisford  – Edward Thomas

                                               

He refuses shade in midday heat

the old man walking

in his honey-brimmed hat

along the drained weir-shelf

 

that looks today like stacked loaves

its pallid smooth ranks

of Victorian stones

mapping precisely the Domesday line

 

where he patrols to and fro

proudly surveying the place he owns

this stretch of England

his plan to restore the workings

 

of the old watermill

to feed the Grid—and it is for this

he has ordered tons of sludge

to be dredged above the drop

 

and dozens of loosened stones

to be replaced to give

the mill-race its full head

and today he walks the slippery length

 

of the dammed weir-shelf

hallooing picnickers

who pull corks from fizzy wines

he cries what marvellous weather

 

then falls to conversation with a couple

who are celebrating sixty years

in their self-built house

with their three good boys

 

raised and schooled to distant homes

though today they recline

on trashy garden chairs

on this riverbank as if to watch

 

the old man in an antique yellow hat

who walks noting progress

on the weir and how could they know

he’s something on his mind

 

for the next hundred years

how could they know more and more

these days he struggles to endure

the roaring of the fish-shoot

 

with its silted water

and these stilted conversations

with such ordinary people

their Diet Coke and egg mayonnaise

 

their crisps for the grandchildren

their Sunday newspapers

let blow and tumble across the meadow

reminding him of himself

 

how his mind often strays

up the ditch-line to the old drovers’ road

where for fifty years

their cars have pinked and purred

 

especially at night as they mount

slowly the gravel verge—

O so many love-cars for so many years

drawn to his father’s land

 

each in pursuit of what the river gives

of moonlight and chance

of the ticking of an engine

as it cools of blonde hair spilling

 

across dark seats in disarray

he knows the windows rolled to the dusk

the sickly smell of water

the murmur within and talk

 

when it’s over though he knows well

it is never really over—

and it’s because of this

he will not turn them away

 

although they holler and soil and litter

still he’d grant them every wish

it’s for this his feet edge now across

the weir-shelf this afternoon

 

for this he takes his uneasy stand

hands thrust in his pockets

their cars pulling in to the dark hiss

of white gravel everywhere loosening

(from The Lovely Disciplines, Seren 2017)

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How to Answer the Poetic Influence Question #2

With my new collection just out from Seren Books, I’m happy to have a number of promotional events and readings coming up over the next couple of months. As I discussed in an earlier blog, though I love the business of giving a reading, there’s often a moment that arises that I’m always uneasy about. It’s the question of influence. In that previous blog I followed through, chronologically, those poets who have had a powerful influence over the style and direction of my work. That provides one possible answer to the question ‘what other poets do you consider to have been an influence on your poems?’ Another reply might be to look closely at very recent work to see which poets are present in it as ghosts. This is what I’m doing here.

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In preparing a new book for public reading, I tend to work through every poem making notes on the kind of thing an audience might need/like to know before hearing it (once and once only, in performance). I will often draw attention to the presence of a powerful poet figure that I’m aware of in the vicinity of the poem. So in The Lovely Disciplines, I can see influential roles of substance for Robert Hass (with Czeslaw Milosz), Ivan Lalic, Mary Oliver (with Emerson), Whitman and Edward Thomas.

Before looking at those in a little more detail, there are also two translations/versions from other poets in the collection. One is a version of Boris Pasternak’s poem from the 1950s called ‘In Hospital’. In the process of my versioning, the gender of the main protagonist was switched to female, more in line with most of the poems from the middle section of my book which forms a composite portrait of the passing of my parents’ generation.

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Abbaye de Valsainte

I also include a loose translation of (plus a poem alluding to) the work of the French poet, Yves Bonnefoy, who I referred to in my earlier post on Poetic Influence. My poem ‘Valsaintes’ is named after the rural retreat in Haute-Provence where Bonnefoy lived in the 1960s. In many ways an idyllic place, in the end the renovation and up-keep of what was little more than an ancient ruin proved too much for him and the property was sold. For years afterwards, he harked back to it as a favoured, lost place. Bonnefoy’s ideas about what he calls ‘presence’ continue to fascinate me. My version, called ‘After Bonnefoy’, ends:

 

let’s bring ourselves one to another

 

as if each was at last all creatures

and all things all empty ways

all stones all metals and all streams

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Sir Michael Tippett

Sir Michael Tippett’s 1944 secular oratorio, A Child of Our Time, is explicitly relevant to my poem ‘Listening to Tippett twice’. Tippett also wrote the libretto, inspired by the assassination in 1938 of a German diplomat by a young Jewish refugee and the Nazi government’s reaction to it. This took the form of a violent pogrom against its Jewish population – the infamous Kristallnacht, so called because of the broken glass which littered the streets the following morning. Tippett’s text and music deals with these incidents in the context of the experience of oppressed people more generally and the whole work carries a strongly pacifist message of understanding and the need for reconciliation.

I’m certainly aware of echoes of Wordsworth on a couple of occasions. In ‘The Toll Cottage’ – a dream-poem in which I am being driven by my father – there’s a mangled remembrance of a phrase Wordsworth uses in ‘Tintern Abbey’ – “Once again I see / These hedgerows, hardly hedgerows, little lines / Of sportive wood run wild”. Also ‘The girl who returned to Aix’, a sequence of three sonnets, includes the awkward fact that I cried on first seeing Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was that moment when the huge alien spaceship finally appears, rising up from behind a mountain – just as Wordsworth’s mountain, Black Crag, rises up in the boat-stealing episode of The Prelude Book 1.

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Enough to make a grown man weep

In my poem ‘Nocturne’, I was partly thinking of Whistler’s painting, ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold’ (c. 1875) but I like to think my (love) poem has more light in it than that, set as it is in the same Tuscan landscape as another poem called ‘The renovation near Sansepolcro’. ‘Nocturne’ also makes reference to ‘the poet’s kelson’ and this is Walt Whitman who, in the fifth part of ‘Song of Myself’, refers to love as a kelson of creation. A kelson (or keelson) is the structure running the length of a ship and fastening the timbers or plates of the floor to its keel giving stability and strength.

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In his book, Time and Materials (2007), introducing the sequence ‘Czeslaw Milosz: In Memoriam’, Robert Hass recounts a discussion he had with Milosz (as his translator) about the different connotations in English of Oh! and O! As it turned out, the one Milosz intended in his poems was the second and this is the one that most interests me too. My poem opens:

 

Oh! is longer drawn already

beginning the button-down

of understanding

that well-I-never

with its freighting

of verb tense and identity

whereas O! is more sudden

more urgent surely

of the moment rapt

when we are prised open

by desire [. . .]

 

I wanted the title of my poem, ‘The lovely disciplines’, to feel paradoxical and in my mind it was related to the Serbo-Croat poet, Ivan Lalic. I remember reading his 1981 collection, translated by Francis R. Jones as The Passionate Measure. I remember Lalic explaining he hoped to suggest the fluidity or fluency of emotion as well as the orderliness or measured nature of a dance or verse. I hoped my title would suggest something of the same – a balanced response to experience, both our taking pleasure in it and searching it for order. My poem takes place on a women’s hospital ward.

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Mary Oliver’s book, Swan, is not her best but I bought it in a secondhand bookshop once and inside discovered an ATM receipt with some cryptic notes on it. This provided the start of ‘As we live’, a poem which takes up Oliver’s sensitivity to nature (which she often gazes at with such precision of feeling as to achieve a visionary intensity) as well as her epigraphs from Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay ‘Beauty’ in The Conduct of Life: “’Tis curious that we only believe as deep as we live”.

Finally, Edward Thomas (Ted Hughes’ “father of us all”) appears explicitly in relation to two poems in my book. Not a million miles from Oliver’s example, it’s his directness and love of what lies before him that I like. I like his sense that, in Robert Frost’s words, this world is the right place for love, combined with his intuitions about the human need to look beyond, perhaps into an inexpressible obscurity. ‘These things I remember’ is almost a found poem on these issues – taking phrases from a memoir written by Thomas’ friend Jesse Berridge (published with letters by Enitharmon Press).

And ‘Rebuilding Tellisford weir’ has an epigraph from Thomas’ 1914 prose book, In Pursuit of Spring. His book recounts his 1913 journey – by bicycle – across southern England from London to the Quantock Hills. I was delighted to discover him passing through the landscape of my childhood: cycling down off Salisbury Plain, through Erlestoke and Edington, Steeple Ashton, North Bradley to stay with friends at Dillybrook Farm just outside Trowbridge, where I lived for 18 years. He writes about waking at night to the sound of falling water. The next day he is persuaded to visit Tellisford and its weir by the mysterious Other Man (a kind of alter ego for Thomas). My poem mixes some of these details with my own memories of visits to Tellisford. I like to think the poem has a lot of Thomas in it: a sense of history, the beauty of nature, strange encounters with others, a sad loneliness, the transience of all things.

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The weir at Tellisford, Wiltshire

How to Answer the Poetic Influence Question #1

A Boat..._quicksand cover

With my new collection just out from Seren Books, I’m happy to have a number of promotional events and readings coming up over the next couple of months. I love the business of giving a reading, but there’s often a moment that arises that makes me uneasy as to how to how to respond. It’s the question of influence; the hand going up to ask: what other poets do you consider to have been an influence on your own poems?

It’s my problem I’m sure, but I’ve always had two ludicrously extreme responses spring to mind on hearing the question. Firstly, to list pretty much every single poet I’ve read in the last 40 years because the truth is every single one has added a grain, a pebble (for better or worse) to the path I walk to write a poem. Alternatively, since I can’t think of one, or even two, clear contenders for powerful influence when I sit down at a blank page or screen, it must be that I have emerged ex nihilo, a peculiar original. The first would be a lengthy reply of little use or interest; the second would seem positively dripping with arrogance (and equally of little use or interest).

Actually, I can think of a third answer: it’s not for the poet to identify influences; it’s a job for a reader. But I wanted to use the next two posts to kick the idea of influence around, to sort out my own ideas and to answer it in two ways. Early in a writing career, the revelation of, or encounter with, a new voice, style, or even subject area can lead to great lurching changes of direction in a poet’s own work. The lurch or swerve becomes progressively less marked the older a poet gets. Put that down to a more confident self belief perhaps, or to a growing inertia, or a more sophisticated process of absorption of such novelty, or sheer bloody mindedness . . .

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For me, I started in the business convinced that I was composing song lyrics because poetry as such was not a familiar thing – except in occasional English classes at school and I dropped that subject at the age of 16. As I’ve said elsewhere, science was what I did through most of my teens. With too much time on my hands and too little joy to be found elsewhere, in the mid 1970s I began to turn to other sorts of books. From Foyle’s in London, I stole a copy of Everyman’s Selected Poems of Wordsworth. They seemed a bit dull and plodding but reminded me of rural Wiltshire where I grew up. For a few months I copied Wordsworth. Perhaps a year later, after a good dose of Sartre, I was finding my way back to the academic study of literature. It was the poetry (and drama) of T S Eliot that I fell in love with (not Dylan Thomas – the other poet on the curriculum). I still have those early Eliotesque poems somewhere, mostly Prufrock period style, though also a horrifyingly pretentious sequence of poems like a clumsy, anaphora-laden Waste Land.

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Re-starting my Higher Education took me to Lancaster University, studying Literature and Philosophy (and a few sessions of Creative Writing with poet, David Craig) and Hughes and Larkin were served up and readily ingested. At first, I swerved to the latter’s urban details and personal gloom; later it was the Hughes of Gaudete (recently published, 1977) that I copied, writing a long, quasi-mythic, magic-real, psychodrama about sex and power that I eventually self-published in Oxford. As a post-graduate among the dreaming spires, it was Percy Byshe Shelley who I was working on for several years and, though not a model for poems as such, his ideas about the role of the Imagination and poetry as an “Orphic language” have been important to me ever since.

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Among contemporary poets, I’d discovered Heaney (not the rural Ireland stuff so much as his wrestling with private and public responsibilities – Station Island, for example), Peter Redgrove’s fluid take on mind’s encounter with the natural world (The Apple Broadcast) and Ken Smith’s urban-political Americana (oh how I wanted to have written Fox Running). I wrote individual poems modelled on all these writers while absorbing much more deeply the work of the Romantic period – only now did I really find Keats, his poems and letters, Wordsworth still, Coleridge’s Conversation poems especially. What might have been expected – Hardy, Auden, Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Lowell, Bishop, Plath, Dickinson – were all missing or they missed me.

 

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Ken Smith

 

A decade of writing, reading, plus some reviewing too. A couple of my own books published and I’d stumbled my way to Rilke’s New Poems, Elegies and Sonnets, the second and third of which I began to translate and (whether visible on the surface or not) were a great influence on me – the Duino Elegies  for their thoughtful drive from existential mourning to praise, the Sonnets to Orpheus for that same thought (more of the praise) and their use of form. From Whitman I found my way to W S Merwin’s marvellous fluidity (something I was comparing to Paul Eluard’s work too) and from Rilke it seemed a logical (not the right word at all) step towards the 81 texts of the Daodejing which again I felt I had to try to English because it both rhymed with what I already knew and I knew it would develop further what I needed to know.

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A few years back, an article in PN Review sent me to the work of Yves Bonnefoy. A heart-rate raising sense of another writer who had fought the two-faced dragon of language and seen enough to conclude that at the bottom of its filthy lair gleamed the concept and the concept promises a “strange immortality” but only if we can “forget brutal reality”. One reason (I’m now quoting an earlier blog post on a 1953 essay by Bonnefoy) we do this is that there are “general truths in conceptual thinking and a particular kind of power derived from it. It ‘allows thinking’ of a certain kind; it is linked with ‘the vast power of words’. But any gain is predicated on a significant loss, the abandonment of the actually existing ‘world of things’. Conceptual thinking is ‘systematized’, generalizing, categorizing; it’s in this that its ‘flight’ from the real is found. The only sort of thing that can be held up to counter the concept are specific particularities of human experience: Bonnefoy asks ‘Is there a concept for footsteps in the night, for a cry, for a stone rolling in the brushwood? For the feeling evoked by an empty house? No [. . . ]’”

 

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Yves Bonnefoy

 

Reading Bonnefoy did not send me lurching to right or left but rather nudged, re-calibrated, re-assured me that my own direction of travel was not a wholly isolated one. I don’t write like Bonnefoy – there can be a dull abstraction to his poems which seems to me to contradict his ideas about real presence expressed as specific particularities – but I know what thought underlies my own work has close parallels to his (as far as I understand him). That’s influence, I’d say.

In my next blog, I’ll look at the question of influence from a different angle – what ghosts of other writers can be seen in more recent work?

2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #5 – Eric Langley

My work here is almost done . . .  This is the fifth and last in the series of reviews I have been posting over the summer months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2017 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 21st September 2017. Click on these links to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique)  and all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2017 shortlist is:

Maria Apichella – Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing) – reviewed here

Richard Georges – Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books) – reviewed here

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet) –  reviewed below

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press) – reviewed here

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry) – reviewed here

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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).

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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This Must Be All: Robert Frost’s ‘Two Look at Two’

I have recently posted about Robert Frost’s brief essay ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’ as well as on one of his lesser known poems, ‘A Soldier’. The latter is one of the poems I’ll be teaching this coming academic year as set by the Cambridge International Exam Board: see page 47. Student essays are supposed to offer a close analysis of one (or two poems) while also exploring a wider understanding of what the poet is doing in terms of methods and concerns (techniques and themes). Another of the set poems is discussed in what follows: ‘Two Look at Two’. I read the poem here:

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In The Dyer’s Hand (1963), Auden’s essay on Frost opens by observing that, if asked who said ‘Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty’, most people would reply ‘John Keats’. Auden differs, arguing the famous phrase is really something Keats makes the Grecian urn say so the author maintains some dramatic distance between himself and the poem’s questionable statement. This is also a very Frostian device – though not one that Auden probes in his subsequent discussion of the poems. Whenever we read Frost, it’s important to be alert to such ironic distancing from the (simply understood) lyric voice or ‘I’. In fact, ‘Two Look at Two’ is a poem which does not obviously lend itself to this ‘dramatic’ sort of interpretation as its narrative voice seems more reliably omniscient, or at least impersonal. And yet the obvious meaning of the poem is not characteristic of a poet whose work can be dark and pessimistic, indeed labelled “terrifying” by Lionel Trilling in 1959. In the poem, a couple of lovers, walking up a mountain, encounter a corresponding pair of deer – a doe and buck. At the end of the brief, uneventful encounter the narrator reports that the human couple sense a “wave” of reciprocated love emanating from the “earth”. At the conclusion of this discussion, I’ll look again at whether the narrator’s confident assertion of this should be taken at face value.

The first and last words in the poem are the same: “love”. The opening 3 lines are full of qualifying equivocations with the choice of verb form “might” and the vague but limiting phrases about how far up the mountain side the couple will go: “A little further up” and “not much further up”. It is the twin forces of “love and forgetting” which have the potential to drive them higher up the mountain. The two are probably linked in that, absorbed in their mutual love, they may become forgetful, neglectful of the potential dangers in the landscape. The risk of self-absorption (even in the cause of romantic love) is raised here by Frost, a risk encountered by other narrators in poems like ‘An Encounter’, ‘The Wood-Pile’ and most clearly in ‘Stopping by Woods…’ In the latter, the allure of the snowy woods is strongly felt by the narrator (“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep”) but his work and social responsibilities probably prevent him from abandoning the road and risking/welcoming death by exposure.

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In many cases, the chief risk is a neglect of the boundaries that in Frost’s world it seems wiser to acknowledge and adhere to. In ‘Two Look at Two’ this is clear in the forceful verbs used in the following few lines (“They must have halted” and “they must not go”) and it may explain the optimistic nature of this poem that we see the lovers in fact do adhere to the limits set. Lines 5/6 suggest they have thoughts not of over-reaching or dizzying aspiration but rather of the dangers present to them: “With thoughts of the path back, how rough it was / With rock and washout, and unsafe in darkness”. Frost’s music here is suitably rough and threatening with its harsh consonants and internal rhyme (path/back), the growling ‘r’ sounds followed by a swilling of sibilance (washout /unsafe /darkness) suggestive of the water-eroded path on the hillside. When they encounter the actual physical barrier of a wall, Frost bulks it up (despite its ruined state) in the reader’s ear with heavy plosive ‘b’ sounds: “they were halted by a tumbled wall / With barbed-wire binding”.

This is not a barrier to be passed easily – and the lovers do not even try. They possess a sort of Frostian piety or reverence most clearly seen also in ‘Mending Wall with its repeated maxim: “Good fences make good neighbours”. ‘Two Look at Two’ does allow its lovers a residual “onward impulse” which they spend, or expend, simply by gazing up along the path “they must not” now follow. The dangers that lie there are again described with a telling adjective (it is a “failing path”) and a haunting moment of hypothetical personification: “if a stone / Or earthslide moved at night, it moved itself”. It is at this point that we hear some words spoken by the lovers. Their words are brief and (effectively) firmly monosyllabic – “This is all [. . . ] Good-night to woods”. But they are accompanied by a sighing of regret that the walk has reached its limit. Frost here is accepting the reality of human desire – that “limitless trait of ‘There Are Roughly Zones’ –but he and the lovers see the risks of its limitless pursuit.

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The lovers’ clipped statements are answered in kind by the narrative voice: “But not so; there was more.” The clipped, heavily punctuated nature of lines 13/14 make them a clear, early turning point in the poem, a moment of stasis and some tension. The unpunctuated and enjambed line 15 then sets the narrative flowing again as it records the sudden presence of the doe, staring back across the wall at the lovers. The mirroring effect is most important and presented through the plain language of lines 16/7: the doe is looking at them “Across the wall, as near the wall as they. / She saw them in their field, they her in hers”.  In each line the caesura acts as the wall, dividing and join the two halves of the lines. The repetitions of ‘wall’, ‘they’, ‘their’ and ‘her’ slow and focus the reader on what the title suggests is the mutual regard occurring on either side of the wall.

Frost’s narrative slides seamlessly into the doe’s perspective, imagining her difficulty in seeing the couple. Though watched carefully, their alien appearance is conveyed in a simile: they are “like some up-ended boulder split in two”. But the couple perceive no “fear” in the creature and Frost’s formulation – “they saw no fear there” – also suggests they feel no fear on their part either. In fact, lines 21-24 rather suggest the couple, “though strange”, do not possess much interest for the doe:

She could not trouble her mind with [them] too long,

She sighed and passed unscared along the wall.

Notably, she also shares the ‘sigh’ with the couple and in this way the shared mutuality of the encounter is emphasised, preparing us for the final affirmative moments of the poem.

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The couple’s speech (line 25) suggests – through italicisation, short phrases and the rhetorical question – that they are breathlessly impressed. They think this is “all” but there is more to come. Frost’s poem ‘The Most of It’ comes to mind, recording as it does the appearance of another creature (“As a great buck”), its advent perhaps a response to a man’s demand for “counter-love, original response”. There, the creature seems brutish, indifferent, unaware, alien and incomprehensible as it stumbles off into the underbrush. ‘The Most of It’ (bafflingly not a poem included in CIE’s set poem list) is a key poem to contrast with ‘Two Look at Two’. In the latter, a buck also appears and, despite its more challenging even arrogant tone, it is never as frighteningly remote as the creature in ‘The Most of It’.

The buck of ‘Two Look at Two’ announces itself with a “snort” and is a more stereotypically masculine presence with its antlers, “lusty nostril”, its jerking head and its (imagined) arrogantly dismissive questioning of the couple. But his difference from the doe is minor as we recognise a whole line repeated: the buck also stands looking at the couple, “Across the wall, as near the wall as they”. It’s perhaps not clear who is interpreting the shaking of the buck’s head as questions. It’s either the narrative voice itself or that voice reporting (omnisciently) on the thoughts of the couple. His questions verge on the belligerent:

Why don’t you make some motion?

Or give some sign of life? Because you can’t.

I doubt if you’re as living as you look.

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If we are going to find disharmony in this seemingly mutual encounter, this is where it might lie. The buck’s questions portray the couple as standing respectfully, perhaps in awe, certainly in silence. The impact of the (imagined) questions is to make the human couple “almost” feel “dared / to stretch a proffering hand – and a spell-breaking one”. So the buck’s obstreperous attitude strikes the couple as a dare to reach out across the divide. Such an action would be to proffer, “to hold out or put forward (something) to someone for its acceptance”, hence a gesture of friendship. But Frost also makes it clear such a reaching across the divide would break the spell of mutual regard which has been the subject of the whole poem. In fact, the moment of choice – a topic of so many other Frost poems, most famously ‘The Road Not Taken’ – is passed over as the buck, just like the doe, moves away, “unscared along the wall”.

The final 5 lines deal with the impact on the lovers. Again, they briefly speak: “This must be all”. And on this occasion, the narrative voice agrees: “It was all”. The final phrase in ‘The Most of It’ is “and that was all”. Is this the cry or half-question of the disappointed man asking, ‘Is there no more than this’? Or is it a rapt, stunned whispering in the face of a vision of a unitary world declaring, ‘So this is all and all’s connected’? You could ask the same questions about the end of ‘Two Look at Two’ though the couple’s italicised emphasis in line 39 and the fact they continue to stand, as if rapt and wrapped still in the experience they have just had, surely does not suggest disappointment. Frost uses the metaphor of the “wave” sweeping over them, suggesting an irresistible inundation, a largeness of feeling derived from this minor incident. It is “As if the earth in one unlooked-for favour / Had made them certain earth returned their love”.

But the “As if” that opens line 41 cannot be ignored. This is how it felt – for the lovers. I don’t think Frost wants to deny them their experience. But perhaps they are still too absorbed in their own “Love and forgetting”. This is where the sense of the poem as a dramatic performance perhaps is relevant, in this case the incident rosily-coloured by the perceptions of the lovers. We ought to hesitate before we conclude that Frost himself sees the earth as in fact mutually responding with love. This would be exactly the “counter-love, original response” that so signally does not occur in ‘The Most of It’. The optimism of ‘Two Look at Two’ cannot be dismissed – but nor can it be taken in any simple way as the real and final ‘message’ of its author.

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2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #4 – Ocean Vuong

This is the fourth in the series of reviews I have been posting over the summer months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2017 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 21st September 2017. Click on these links to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique)  and all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2017 shortlist is:

Maria Apichella – Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing) – reviewed here

Richard Georges – Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books) – reviewed here

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet) – reviewed here

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press) – reviewed here

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry)

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In living with Ocean Vuong’s book over the last week or two I have on occasions mistaken its title for Night Sky with Exile Wounds. It will become obvious why. But it has also been hard to ‘see’ this collection because of the accumulated material – interviews, awards, perhaps hype – that already surrounds it in a way that affects none of the other Forward First Collections this year. Vuong has already appeared on the cover of Poetry London and been interviewed by The New Yorker. He has been nominated as one of Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers. Such recognition is even more extraordinary given that Vinh Quoc Vuong was born in 1988 on a rice farm outside Saigon and, at the age of two, he and six relatives emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut, where they lived together in a one-bedroom apartment. On learning that ‘ocean’ (in American English) is a body of water that touches many countries – including Vietnam and the United States – his mother renamed her son.

Ocean Vuong is also gay. Hence his exile – the word that kept coming into my mind – is one not only from his birth country and culture but also from the mainstreams of his adopted country. It’s no surprise there are several Ocean Vuongs in this book in terms of subject matter as well as in its use of a variety of poetic forms. This might – reflecting his given name – be an essential, protean, shape-shifting style or it might reveal the kind of casting around in the sea of form and content one might expect from a first collection. I think it is more the latter than the former, though the thrashing and contortion involved in such self creation (we used to refer to ‘self discovery’ – the book title has ‘self portrait’) is now a topic of such ubiquity in Western culture that Vuong’s personal struggles may come to be considered as representative in themselves.

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Saigon 1975

Though 13 years before his birth, ‘Aubade with Burning City’ portrays the American withdrawal from Saigon in 1975. Apparently, Armed Forces Radio played ‘White Christmas’ as a sign to commence the withdrawal and the poem assembles a montage of the song lyric, events on the streets of Saigon and a sinister, coercive-sounding male/female dialogue. The result reflects the chaos of such a moment of violent transition (though the ironies of the sentimental song are a bit obvious) and introduces a recurrent thread in Vuong’s work, the uneasy alliance between power and sex. ‘A Little Closer to the Edge’ seems a reminiscence, perhaps of his own conception (Cape’s cover image of the young poet encourages this biographical approach). Among bomb craters and anticipated domestic violence, a young Vietnamese couple are at first “hand in hand”. Then:

 

 

He lifts her white cotton skirt, revealing

another hour. His hand. His hands. The syllables

 

inside them. O father, O foreshadow, press

into her –

 

For his mother’s part, the narrative voice asks her to show “how ruin makes a home / out of hip bones” and also to “teach me / how to hold a man”.

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Vuong with his mother and aunt -refugee camp Philippines, c.1989.

Once in the USA, there are poems that treat both parents with some tenderness. In ‘The Gift’, the son teaches his mother the alphabet. She can hardly get beyond the third letter, the fourth, gone astray, appearing only as

 

a strand of black hair – unravelled

from the alphabet

& written

on her cheek

 

Several portrayals of Vuong’s father suggest violence and drinking but in ‘In Newport I Watch my Father Lay his Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back’ he is seen to express concern for the creature, “the wet refugee”, though the poem is fractured by bullets, Huey helicopters, shrapnel and snipers as if to suggest the root of the father’s violence and his inability to express affection for his own family.

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Ernest Hemingway and his son (plus guns)

Or perhaps such things innate to a man? Another major theme in the book is masculinity itself as expressed through father figures and a young gay man growing up. The former is seen in two poems involving guns. ‘The Smallest Measure’ has the father instructing the boy on how to handle a Winchester rifle (it reminds me of a photograph of Hemingway and his son). ‘Always and Forever’ (Vuong’s note tells us this is his father’s favourite Luther Vandross song) has the father substituting himself with a Colt.45 in a shoe box: “Open this when you need me most”, he says. The boy seems to wonder if the gun might deliver a liberation of sorts: “[I] wonder if an entry wound in the night // would make a hole wide as morning”. This image of an aperture being made in darkness – most often through an act of violence – to let in light recurs in these poems. I can’t quite see what is intended here but there are again links to the erotic/violence motif. Later, the gun barrel must “tighten” around the bullet “to make it speak”, making further obscure, but interesting, links to violence and the ability to speak (or write).

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What it is to be a (young, gay) man is explored in the second part of the collection. Andrew McMillan’s physical comes to mind in reading these poems (McMillan interviewed Vuong for Poetry London recently). ‘Because It’s Summer’ is a more conventionally lineated poem in the second person singular (some distancing there) of slipping away from a mother’s control (and expectations) to meet a boy “waiting / in the baseball field behind the dugout”. It’s particularly good at conveying the exciement (on both sides) of a desire, previously played out alone, being mutually gratified: “the boy [. . .] finds you / beautiful because you’re not / a mirror”. ‘Homewrecker’ evokes the energy of erotic discovery as well as the ‘wreckage’ it threatens (to some) in the “father’s tantrum” as much as the “mothers’ / white dresses spilling from our feet”. ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ is particularly inventive in its form. The poem – set as prose, but with line break slashes included (a baggy, hybrid form Vuong uses elsewhere) – appears as a series of footnotes. The footnote numbers appear scattered across a blank page. The poem deals with the murder, by immolation, of two gay men in Dallas in 2011. The mainstream silence is cleverly played against the passionate love poem only recorded as footnotes.

Elsewhere, Vuong hits less successful notes and styles. There are some dream poems – like ‘Queen under the Hill’ – which don’t always escape the hermetic seal around an individual’s dream world. On other occasions, he wants to use mythic stories to scaffold his own. ‘Telemachus’ is probably the most successful of these (the materials again feeling dream-like to me) as the son pulls his dead (shot dead) father from the ocean. Elsewhere we find allusions to Orpheus and Eurydice (and to Lorca’s ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’ and Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’). Certainly, Vuong is not fearful of taking on big subjects such as JFK’s assassination (‘Of Thee I Sing’), the murders of Jeffrey Dahmer (‘Into the Breach’) and 9/11 (‘Untitled’).

 

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Archaic Torso of Apollo

 

But actually I think ‘ordinariness’ and those poems which show the influence of O’Hara and the New York School prove a more fertile direction. In an interview, Vuong has discussed the Rilkean imperative to look, what the young poet calls the “inexhaustibility in gazing”, something with which we might “resist the capitalist mythos of an expendable gaze”. So ‘On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous’ (I do hope Vuong thinks, as I do, of Jay Gatsby whenever he uses that last word) the fragments of vivid perception amount to more than the sum of its parts. ‘Notebook Fragments’ – which appears to be precisely what the title says – works better than some more crafted poems in the collection. And ‘Devotion’ – with its concluding placement suggesting Vuong knows how good it is – rises out of the sometimes conflicting biographical currents that by his own admission have buffeted him. It’s a beautiful lyric (the form, tripping, delicate, this time not drawing attention to itself) about oral sex; its debatable claims made with utter conviction:

 

there’s nothing

more holy than holding

a man’s heartbeat between

your teeth, sharpened

with too much

air

 

The lilting lineation, the brush-strokes of punctuation, work better here than in some of Vuong’s more Whitman-esque streamings of consciousness. The enviable, insouciance of youth – “& so what” – is thrillingly conveyed. Yet, it turns out,  this is not really about the provocative challenges of a variety of states of exile and  ‘otherness’, but about the need to feel anything “fully”, however transient it may prove to be:

 

Only to feel

this fully, this

entire, the way snow

touches bare skin – & is,

suddenly, snow

no longer.