The Outlaw Beyond the Wall: the poetry of Peter Huchel

To mark the shortlisting – for the Society of Authors’ Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize 2020 – of my Peter Huchel translations, published by Shearsman Books, I’m posting here a piece I wrote about Huchel’s poetry which first appeared in Acumen 98 (September 2020). Peter Huchel’s work has its place in the tradition of the greats of twentieth-century German poetry – Rilke, Trakl, Brecht, Benn and Celan – but he is also, as Karen Leeder has argued, a “one off”.[i] Iain Galbraith also lists Huchel among a “handful of essential post-war poets” in German, but his poetry is far less well known than it deserves to be. His presence in English at all is thanks to Michael Hamburger’s 1983 translations published by Anvil[ii]. I came across isolated examples of his work a few years ago and was immediately drawn to his startling observations of the natural world which function often as “metaphors [to] take us deep into the social and historical landscape” of his era (Galbraith again). I believe he is a poet with important things to say to us in our own conflicted times and my translation of Huchel’s best collection, These Numbered Days (1972), was published last year by Shearsman Books. Here, I put Huchel’s work into the context of the great events in Europe in the twentieth century.

 

Huchel’s description of Pe-Lo-Thien, the poet, social critic and sometime exile from the Tang Dynasty, is intended also as a portrait of the poet himself – a dissident figure, an “outlaw, / who lives beyond the wall / with his cranes and cats” (‘Pe-Lo-Thien’). It’s no surprise that the spare, impersonal, often lapidary quality of the poems in These Numbered Days was remarked on by Karl Alfred Wolken as offering the reader something of a Chinese book in German.[iii] The poet himself, carefully scrutinising the natural world – the perception of which constitutes the substance of so many of his poems – tries to descry “Signs, / written by the hand / of a Mandarin” (‘No Answer’). If such allusions suggest a minimalist and tight-lipped quality to Huchel’s poems, this is precisely what might be expected from an artist forced to play, as he did for so many years, the role of inner émigré.

For readers of British and Irish poetry, the term ‘inner émigré’ will be familiar from Seamus Heaney’s use of it in his 1975 poem ‘Exposure’. Discussing the idea, Heaney acknowledged the term’s specific meaning in the 1920/30s in Soviet Russia as referring to a dissident who had not actually gone into exile but remained at home, disaffected from and under the surveillance of the authorities. Heaney saw himself in this light in relation to Northern Ireland. He also associated the idea with the position of George Seferis, concluding that “poetry secures some final place in your being, some little redoubt in your consciousness that will not be taken over by history or the world or disaster”.[iv] This same sense of confinement, wrestling with conscience and the frequent resort to codification which results from such a compromised position is the best way into Huchel’s work as a writer whose life and historical circumstances astonishingly led him to play the role of inner émigré twice over.

He was born Hellmut Huchel in 1903 in Lichterfelde, now part of Berlin. Due to his mother’s chronic illness, the boy was taken from the city to be raised on his grandfather’s farm at Alt-Langewisch, in the Brandenburg countryside near Potsdam. As an adult, Huchel was fond of quoting St. Augustine on the importance of memory as a “great field or a spacious palace, a storehouse for countless images of all kinds”.[v] Huchel argued that it is “the experiences of childhood, roughly between the ages of five and ten, that exercise a decisive influence in later years”.[vi] But if this period seems to have had something of the idyll about it for the 11 year old boy, it was dramatically shattered by the death of his beloved grandfather and the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914.

After his country’s defeat, the 17 year old Huchel took part in the conservative Kapp-Putsch against the Weimar Republic in 1920 which was fuelled by a resentment of the German government’s agreeing to the punishing conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. Huchel was wounded in the fighting associated with this failed coup but it was during his recovery in hospital that his sympathies for socialism and Marxism fully developed. His very early poems can be linked to the sort of art fostered by the League of Proletarian Revolutionary Writers. He has said: “What did I care about in those days? I wanted to make visible in the poem a deliberately ignored, suppressed class, the class of the people, the maidservants and coachmen”.[vii]

By 1932 he was working as an editorial assistant for Die Literarische Welt. His first collection of poems was accepted for publication under the title Der Knabenteich (‘The Boy’s Pond’). But with the rise of Hitler, Die Literarische Welt had to cease publication and it is at this moment that Huchel developed the strategy of the ‘inner émigré’. He published very little, eventually deciding to withhold Der Knabenteich. He was deeply troubled that the Nazis liked his work, reading into it as they did a version of the blood and soil nationalism they hoped to foster. So, by 1936 he was refusing permission for any publication and he did not publish any new poems during the rest of Hitler’s rule. Rather, he withdrew to the Brandenburg countryside. His response to tyranny was silence and non-cooperation, though he was eventually drafted in 1941 and ended the war in a Russian prisoner of war camp.

With the fall of the Third Reich, Huchel enthusiastically shared the democratic and socialist optimism of many of his compatriots for the reconstruction of East Germany. His short-lived faith in land reform in the immediate Soviet-Occupied post-war years is consistent with his earlier social concerns. He now began working for East German radio and in 1948 at last published his first collection, Gedichte (‘Poems’). In 1949 he became editor of the influential literary magazine Sind und Form (‘Sense and Form’). Though Huchel’s poems were applauded both for their craft and socialist undercurrents, they did not satisfy those who were soon demanding much more explicit support for the German Democratic experiment. Huchel’s dark rural landscapes offered equivocal support at best for the governing regime and his instinctively conservative harking back to childhood and the natural world (rather than a modern revolutionary transformation of human society) were judged to fall short of the expected unquestioning celebration of the GDR’s project.

With the poet’s increasing sense of disaffection from the direction of GDR society, Huchel was once more forced to adopt the role of ‘inner émigré’. The tone of his work becomes increasingly sombre and melancholy, his poetic diction grows more clipped and cryptic, his palette narrowing. In his work at the journal Sind und Form, he was determined to maintain editorial freedom and the publication flaunted an international outlook with contributions from Aragon, Bloch, Brecht (two special issues), Camus, Eluard, Langston Hughes, Thomas Mann, Neruda, Sartre, Yevtushenko and Zweig. Increasingly, he came into conflict with the authorities and was put under immense pressure to conform. He resisted for 13 years – in large part because of the determined support of Brecht. Brecht’s death in 1956 left Huchel exposed and he was asked to resign his editorship. He refused and so compelled the East German government publicly to force his resignation.

The Huchel house, Wilhelmshorst

A year after the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, Huchel was banished at the age of 59 to effective house arrest in Wilhelmshorst. It was at this moment that his second collection of poems, Chausseen, Chausseen (‘Roads, Roads’), appeared. He published it – in bold defiance of the GDR authorities – in the West. It was much praised in the author’s absence. Henry Beissel describes the leanness and density of these new free verse poems: “images are more insistent on turning concreteness into a code; sadness emanates from a sense of the inevitability of loss and from a world bent on self-destruction”.[viii] Huchel’s images from nature are left to speak for themselves; his is often an impersonal poetry of a particularly haunted and pessimistic kind. Yet there is stoical survival too; the poems remain marvellous acts of observation.

The poem ‘Hubertusweg’ vividly portrays this period of his life, from 1962 to 1971, living in isolation, under Stasi surveillance. Gezählte Tage (‘These Numbered Days’) appeared in 1972, the title suggesting the counted days of Huchel’s time under house arrest, his poems recording them, marking them, but also a residual sense of them actually counting towards something, his legacy as a poet, his hoped-for release. Huchel repeatedly applied for an exit visa for himself, his wife and son and in this he was supported by PEN in an internationally orchestrated campaign.

Eventually, in 1971, the Ulbricht government granted his release and he lived first in Rome, then in a borrowed house near Freiburg in West Germany. But like many GDR artists who moved to the West, Huchel was equivocal – to put it mildly – about what he found here. Because the GDR had failed to bring about a truly democratic and socialist society did not mean that he had given up his ideals and the West’s materialism, egotism and faithless profiteering were repellent to him. There is a spiritual emptiness everywhere as in ‘Subiaco’, set in Italy, where Pilate’s bowl stands emptied of water so the taint of guilt cannot be washed away. Huchel’s gloom is partly determined by his own nature, partly by his background, by political persecution and by his divorce from his Brandenburg homeland. The poet bears witness to the inadequate present.

In Huchel’s few remaining years he was lauded in the West but perhaps this was just another form of exile, though one in which he was able to speak and publish. Even so, his final collection, Die Neunte Stunde (‘The Ninth Hour’) which appeared in 1979, is a book almost exclusively of elegy and lament. The ninth hour is the hour of despair, the hour in which Christ died on the Cross, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Huchel himself died in 1981, aged 78. Contemporary readers can hear something of his more personal voice – so finely attuned to the natural world, but gifted only a tragically powerless place in history, yet driven to labour and bear witness against the odds – in the words of the unnamed peasant who narrates ‘Middleham Castle’, one of Huchel’s more explicit and terrifying portraits of tyranny:

Familiar with the ways of great forests –

the year streaked with the jays’ colours,

painful brightness of frosted boughs,

the winter hair of deer stuck to bark,

fawns huddled together at evening,

warming themselves in the cloud of their breathing –

up the gorse-clad hill with rope and horses

I haul tree trunks to Middleham Castle.

Martyn Crucefix

London July 2020


[i] Karen Leeder, Introduction to These Numbered Days, Peter Huchel, tr. Martyn Crucefix (Shearsman, 2019).

[ii] The Garden of Theophrastus and other poems, tr. Michael Hamburger (Anvil Press, 2004).

[iii] Karl Alfred Wolken, in a review of Gezählte Tage (Rias Berlin, 1972), see http://www.planetlyrik.de/peter-huchel-gezahlte-tage/2011/10/

[iv] George Morgan, ‘Interview with Seamus Heaney’, Cycnos, Volume 15 No. 2, July, 2008: http://revel.unice.fr/cycnos/index.html?id=1594.

[v] Saint Augustine, Confessions, Book X, viii (Penguin, tr. R.S. Pine-Coffin).

[vi] Huchel’s acceptance speech for the 1974 Literature Prize of the Free Masons, quoted by Henry Beissel, A Thistle in His Mouth: Poems by Peter Huchel (1987), p. 10.

[vii] Quoted and translated by John Flores, Poetry in East Germany (1971), from Eduard Zak, Der Dichter Peter Huchel (1951), p. 124.

[viii] Beissel, p. 16.

Not Yet Born – Louis MacNeice’s ‘Prayer Before Birth’

(Apologies for any formatting errors in what follows – this poem’s many indents make it hard to represent accurately in WordPress – this link has the full layout)

This poem demonstrates, in obvious ways, what Louis MacNeice called the “dramatic” nature of lyric poetry. In ‘Experiences with Images’ (1949), he says that “all lyric poems . . . in varying degrees, are dramatic”. Firstly, he argues this in relation to a poem’s voice and mood: “though they may pretend to be spontaneous, [they] are in even the most ‘personal’ of poets . . . a chosen voice and mood”. He also says “even in what is said (apart from the important things unsaid) all poems . . . contain an internal conflict, cross-talk, backwash, comeback, pay off . . . often conveyed by sleight of hand – the slightest change of tone, a heightening or lowering of diction, a rhythmical shift or a jump in ideas. Hence all poems …  are ironic”.

In ‘Prayer before Birth’, (hear the poem read) the chosen, dramatic situation is obvious as the poem is spoken by an unborn foetus in the womb. And one of the ironies here is to what or whom this ‘prayer’ is directed: “O hear me”. Besides the increasingly desperate tone of the repeated statements which open each stanza, except the last (“I am not yet born”), MacNeice’s foetus cries out, pleading, hear me, console me, provide me, forgive me, rehearse me, hear me (again), fill me, kill me. Though there may be religious allusions in the poem, the evidence does not suggest this is a plea for any divine intervention. In fact, though the “human race” features largely as what is feared by the unborn child, the poem contains the kind of “cross-talk, backwash” that MacNeice finds in much lyric poetry, in that it is also to “humanity” that the poem appeals for protection and rescue. We are therefore present in the poem as both aggressor towards and potential saviour of the unborn child. MacNeice is dramatising the idea of ‘choice’.

This poet’s early work can be read as journalistic, reports on ‘chunks of life’, as suggested by titles such as ‘Belfast’, ‘Birmingham’, ‘Train to Dublin’ and ‘Carrickfergus’. This conception of poetry, consciously contrasted to the Ivory Towers of etiolated Romanticism and fin de siècle Aestheticism, is firmly rooted in MacNeice’s vital political concerns. It produced his (now fatally compromised) description of the ideal poet: “I would have a poet able-bodied [sic], fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women [sic], involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions”. The epitome of this approach in MacNeice’s work is the great achievement of Autumn Journal, published in 1939 (read here by Colin Morgan for the BBC). But the poems published in Plant and Phantom (1941) are already asking to be read more as ‘parables’ in that they combine more nakedly emblematic and moral elements and, as Edna Longley argues, they mark the beginnings of MacNeice’s dissatisfaction with his journalistic verse, with societal panoramas, with ‘chunks of life’. ‘Prayer before Birth’ (published in Springboard in 1944) is also to be read as parabolic, its liturgical use of anaphora/repetition one obvious sign of this shift in style:

I am not yet born; O hear me.
Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the

xxxxxxclub-footed ghoul come near me.

The ‘this is’ of MacNeice’s earlier poetry has here been replaced by the parabolic, ‘as if’: in this case the imaginative conceit of a conscious, passionate, forward-looking, articulate foetus. MacNeice always liked to exploit the sounds of words and the clattering of the consonants in these opening lines, the internal rhymes and half rhymes, evoke the voice’s fear of brutal treatment.

I am not yet born, console me.
I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,

xxxxxwith strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,

            xxxxon black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.

In contrast to the soft sounds of “born” and “console”, internal rhyming and alliteration work in the same ‘brutalist’ way in this next stanza. The thumping, thickly clotted monosyllables (tall wall wall / strong drugs dope / black racks rack / blood-baths roll) also achieve an impressive level of evoked threat and consequent fear.

I am not yet born; provide me
With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk

            to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light
                        in the back of my mind to guide me.

The tone here changes as this stanza provides indications of the kinds of consolation mentioned in stanza 2. Comforts are largely pastoral in nature – water, grass, trees, sky, birds – which, given MacNeice’s previous achievements in portraying the realities of mid-20th century life in Britain and Ireland, is rather disappointing. The choice of ‘dandle’ pushes irony to the point of sarcasm. He reaches for an easy option of traditional, Classical imagery here. The vague “white light” is also not altogether convincing or clear. Is this a religious image? Or a more humanistic one – the guiding light of rationality? Or of innate morality? Compassion?

I am not yet born; forgive me
For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words
            when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me,
                        my treason engendered by traitors beyond me,
                                    my life when they murder by means of my
                                                hands, my death when they live me.

Stanza 4 complicates the moral position of the foetus’ future life because it recognises that s/he will not only suffer but commit sins. The lines suggest a compulsion to commit such acts, a compulsion originating in “the world”, interestingly operating via language and thought control, beyond these standing shadowy “traitors” and other figures unnamed. Probably such figures are developed more precisely in the following lines:

I am not yet born; rehearse me
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when
            old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains
                        frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white
                                    waves call me to folly and the desert calls
                                                me to doom and the beggar refuses
                                                            my gift and my children curse me.

A compulsion again is prominent (I must play / I must take), here derived from “old men” and “bureaucrats”. This rings more true to the left-leaning, politically radical MacNeice, though the sense of a parable unfolding reasserts itself in the anthropomorphising of the mountains, waves and desert. The beggar’s refusal and the children’s curses are harder to interpret but seem also to derive from actions performed in bad faith – under compulsion.

I am not yet born; O hear me,
Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God
            come near me.

Gun emplacement on Primrose Hill, London in WW2 – MacNeice lived close by.

My favourite line from the poem appears here in the way MacNeice identifies the roots of evil at opposing ends of a spectrum: men who are bestial, men who believe they are God-like. I’d argue it’s particularly the latter who are the focus of the final lines of the poem , “those” who deny or denigrate the individual’s humanity, turn her/him into an automaton/cog/thing, whose disregard for the individual human life results in (a very effective return of the water image from stanza 3) the spilling of the individual’s worth.

I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my
            humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,
                        would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with
                                    one face, a thing, and against all those
                                                who would dissipate my entirety, would
                                                            blow me like thistledown hither and
                                                                        thither or hither and thither
                                                                                    like water held in the
                                                                                                hands would spill me.

Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.

The last phrase is dramatic but perhaps over-dependent on its rhyme and savage brevity for effect. The foetus’ call for abortion is full of complex issues but perhaps less so if we keep reading the poem as parable (stepping away from more literal interpretation). The parable suggests the dangers, compromises and complicities that any individual coming into the world has to face. A natural response to the poem would be to hope – indeed take action – to alleviate such fears. There is a choice implied. In this, MacNeice is remaining consistent with his earlier political activism and associated journalistic style of poetry. In a 1941 essay, he argued that “the ‘message’ of a work of art may appear to be defeatist, negative, nihilist; the work of art itself is always positive. A poem in praise of suicide is an act of homage to life”. This is how we ought to try to read the poem’s final dramatic utterance.

In the same essay (‘Broken Windows or Thinking Aloud’), MacNeice looked around in 1941 and observed “we are all being dragooned by outside conditions, we look like shuttlecocks of War”. Yet he also concludes, “it is therefore all the more necessary to think of ourselves as free agents”. This is the path of resilience taken by the pragmatic empiricist as MacNeice sees her/him: “someone who follows an ideal that is always developing, implicit rather than explicit” – no room here for God-like, fundamentalist convictions. Freedom, justice and the happiness of the individual may be under threat – as ‘Prayer Before Birth’ makes all too clear – but the poet’s belief remains in line yet with the optimistic, pragmatic, humanistic credo he expressed so elegantly towards the end of section II of Autumn Journal:

I must go out tomorrow as the others do

xxxxxxAnd build the falling castle;

Which never has fallen, thanks

xxxxxxNot to any formula, red tape or institution,

Not to any creeds or banks,

xxxxxxBut to the human animal’s endless courage.

On the Side of Hope: Heidi Williamson’s ‘Return By Minor Road’

(Thanks to Bloodaxe Books for a review copy of this collection)

The return alluded to in Heidi Williamson’s Return by Minor Road (Bloodaxe Books, 2020) is partly physical, but predominantly one of memory and yet, the book argues, it is an almost redundant journey in that we carry important events with us anyway. In confronting a particular tragic event from the past, these poems strike me as offering routes through our current experiences – of pandemic, grief, lockdown – in particular an appreciation of the ‘minor roads’ along which we might recover a sense and shapeliness in what now strikes us as chaotic and closer to a deletion of meaning.

The event at the centre of this collection occurred at Dunblane Primary School, north of Stirling, Scotland, on 13 March 1996, when Thomas Hamilton shot 16 children and one teacher dead, injuring 15 others, before killing himself. It remains the deadliest mass shooting in British history. What Williamson is not doing here is exploring the nature of evil, the damaged personality of the perpetrator, or the wider political/social fallout of such terrible events. She was living in the area at the time (I think as a student) and this retrospective collection is divided into three parts: the haunting of memories (but Williamson has more powerful ways of articulating this than the ‘ghostly’ metaphor), the re-examining of the actual event, and a physical re-visiting of the location.

Teacher, Gwen Mayor, with her class of children.

The personal nature of the response offered by these poems is flagged in an epigraph from Jane Hirshfield: “our fleeting lives do not simply ‘happen’ and vanish – they take place. She means that events do not slip away into the past, but take or carve out a place in our historical and present selves and it is this geographical/topographical idea  that Williamson pursues so effectively in many of the poems. The particular, the creaturely and the personal predominate. A mother settles her child back to sleep at night – the troubled sleep patterns of the innocent in this context have immediate resonance – and returning to her own bed she finds how awkwardly the bedspread rucks up, “how hard it is to settle”. Uneasiness at night recurs in ‘Thrawn’, images of Allan Water (the river running through Dunblane) surfacing years after the event. ‘Loch Occasional’ again uses a local geographical reference to suggest the sudden flooding of memories, when “the silt of what happened rises” and – echoing Hirshfield’s comment – the “occasional”, which one might expect to have its moment and vanish, is said to “endure”. The rise and fall of Allan Water is the primary image for the persistence of memory in so many of these poems. Rain falling, “insistently / with its own unnameable scent”, is an image chosen elsewhere and (rather more conventionally, à la Henry James) ‘Fugitive dust’ is literally haunted by the figure of a child.

Allan Water, near Dunblane

What such resurfacings mean in personal, day-to-day terms is clear in the prose poem, ‘It’s twenty-two years ago and it’s today’. Besides the form, this is a different style of writing: shorthand, a journalese of plain statement, brief jottings of a day spent with husband and child. The ordinary is tilted out of true by unwanted remembrance, manifesting as unusual quietude, the papers left unread, the phone disconnected: “Neither of us says why”. Halfway through this poem, the narrator manages to write, she says, “[s]mall hard coughs on the page”. Perhaps this alludes to the (again) quite different style of verse in ‘Cold Spring #1’ which is the key section recounting the events of the 13 March 1996, though the massacre itself is reduced to a single word, “incident”. Covering 4 pages in total, we are given dislocated fragments only – speech, visual images – as an ordinary day turns into an historical event. This works really well and, without pause, the poems move off again to explore the aftermath: phone calls from worried relatives and friends, hesitant visits to the local pub, encounters with news journalists, memorial flowers already beginning to fade.

What the book offers as healing counterweight to the massacre – and there’s no doubt that Williamson wants to offer something despite the troubled days and nights, despite quoting from Hopkins’ ‘terrible sonnet’, ‘No worst there is none, pitched past pitch of grief’, despite allusions to the “uncontrollable heart” – what the poems offer is the natural world’s existence and persistence and the innocence of the child. Williamson’s response to nature is always powerful and detailed, carrying a lode of emotional implications. As has become a commonplace idea in these ‘lockdown’ times, the loss or expansion of our narrow selves in the world of nature is redemptive. ‘Dumyat’ opens:

Some days we cried ourselves out,

packed our coats and climbed

the soggy rock to its small summit.

 

There was something about stepping

one by one, beside each other

without speaking, without the need.

Elsewhere, striding up into the nearby Ochil Hills was a way to “clear us of ourselves”. Another poem celebrates the “Reliability of rain. / Durability of rain” and in another the (relative) unchanging nature of the nearby Trossachs offers a consolation of sorts; I guess a longer perspective in which even such human-scale horrors must be found to shrink.

View of the Ochil Hills

It is also the presence of – and the need to provide for and protect – her own child that offers a path beyond tragedy. The title poem offers a straightforward account of Williamson’s return to the landscape of Dunblane, but she and her husband visit with their child who carries nothing of what the place means to his parents, hence he is innocent, complaining, distracted, playful … The poem ends with the child playing a horse racing game, taken down from the hotel bookshelf, in a wonderful image of the onward propulsion of youthfulness, its greed for the future, the as-yet unburdened nature of its vitality: “He gallops his horses forwards, forwards”.

I don’t mean to give the impression that Williamson’s book offers anything like an ‘easy’ response to the horrors of Dunblane. The ‘minor roads’ by which people mostly manage to pick up their old lives – here nature and family – remain shadowed and troubled in two late poems. ‘Self’ offers a liturgical series of questions to which the poet can only ever answer “I don’t know” and the concluding poem also makes use of repetition, recording the landscapes around Dunblane once again with the repeats playing variations on the idea that all this was left behind when the poet moved away and yet all this was also carried away too. It’s the paradox of the book as expressed to perfection in the poem ‘Culvert’. More typically in this poem, Williamson observes her “unassuming heart” and the water images recur with the heart becoming a valley collecting waters and debris after a downfall (the traumatising event). But the event does not merely pass through the heart:

it was the heart,

 

rent in the same way

a clearing is made

by great and incremental

 

incidents.

Experiences make the heart what it is, carving our selves, finding a permanent place within them, shaping them for the future, always flowing through them, even if unseen for the most part:

its pulse ebbs in culverts

 

below neat estates,

a furtive love trickling

deeper and deeper.

Love of the natural world and love of family – especially youth – resonates through this quietly convincing collection which manages to take on its daunting subject matter and emerge, not victorious of course, but having argued on behalf of resilience, on the side of hope.

 

 

Louise Gluck’s Poetry: Whole But Not Final

Lots of hits in the last 24 hours on my earlier blog post about Louise Gluck. Being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature tends to have that effect… She’s a fascinating writer, always experimenting, but Anne Carson or Claudia Rankine would have come before her on my list. But given the obvious interest in her work, I’m posting here the text of the review I wrote for Poetry London in 2014 of Gluck’s last (ie. latest, though 6 years old now) book, Faithful and Virtuous Night (Carcanet). The review was paired with Michael Longley’s The Stairwell (Cape, 2014).

Louise Gluck’s comments on George Oppen remain one of the best ways into her own poetry. In praising Oppen, she declares her own hand: “I love white space, love the telling omission [. . .] find oddly depressing that which seems to have left out nothing. Such poetry seems to love completion too much, and like a thoroughly cleaned room, it paralyses activity” (Proofs and Theories, Carcanet, 1994). The homely metaphor here is also characteristic. She shares with Oppen (and surprisingly with Longley) a preference for what is singular, common, small, for “solid nouns”, a language restored “to natural health [. . .] for common use”, rather than a Stevensian “hermetic patois” (‘On George Oppen’ ). So her style has been variously called spare, stripped down, deflated, thinned (especially so since Ararat (1990)). Yet the miraculous paradox her poems evoke is suggested by a further observation from 1994, that “precision is not the opposite of mystery”. Gluck’s dreamlike, enigmatic narratives are all the more powerful – convincing one might say – precisely because of the directness, plainness of her language.

It’s appropriate then that in her new book one of the protagonists paints canvases which are “immense and entirely white” (‘The White Series’). There is mystery enough in this new collection which (as often with Gluck) gestures towards a narrative but whose narrators switch gender, are much concerned with parents (who have perhaps died in a car crash), a caring aunt, a brother (perhaps a sister). These are scenes from (at least one) life. The dominant voice is that of a male artist who, after a career interruption, begins to paint white on a visit to America. He takes on a nephew as a companion as he approaches death. In ‘A Summer Garden’, he discovers a photo of his mother slipped into a translation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) and a studied, fin de siècle fastidiousness over language surfaces in many poems. Gluck’s novelistic skills in drawing a world in a few strokes and character in even fewer are evident, though once again action is missing; Gluck’s characters, whether male or female, are passive.

Like Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach, Gluck’s figures contemplate mortality while turning over their past. Though less obviously personal and less contented, as with Longley, the term nunc dimittis seems appropriate. The loss of parental figures is a recurrent trope and in ‘An Adventure’ love too is stripped away in a vain hope of “profound discoveries”. Poetry is lost too, again anticipating “the vast territory / opening to us with each valediction”. In A Village Life (2009), such a via negativa was doubted as “illumination / of the kind [that] destroys / creatures who depend on things” (‘Bats’) and here too it seems ineffectual. The quasi-Victorian cosiness evoked by the book’s title is exposed as false as remembered days “become unstable”, time leaps to and fro, seemingly at random and, if the soul travels at all, the puzzle remains that it always returns “empty-handed”:

[. . .] there is no perfect ending.

Indeed, there are infinite endings.

Or perhaps, once one begins,

there are only endings.

                                                                        ‘Faithful and Virtuous Night’

This is a bleak world not unfamiliar to readers of Gluck. In 1985 she asked, “Why love what you will lose?” only to answer, “There is nothing else to love” (From the Japanese’). Here, her real subject is the way we create our own meanings. ‘Afterword’ reflects on an earlier poem in the collection, suspicious of the “instinct / [to] discern a shape, the artist in me / intervening to stop traffic, as it were”. A meeting with an old woman yields the anticipation “that some important secret / was about to be entrusted” but on reflection her words are “pointless” (‘A Sharply Worded Silence’). Gluck (again like Longley) has used Homeric and Greek mythic material to ironise her more contemporary subjects. Faithful and Virtuous Night instead makes reference to T H White’s The Sword in the Stone to evoke the same kind of focused, watershed moment, indubitably saturated with meaning that the events of her narrator’s lives lack. Even the analyst’s couch offers nothing more than “my ingenuity versus / his evasiveness: our little game” (’The Sword in the Stone’).

In recent years, the Italian settings of Averno (2006) and A Village Life have seemed to warm Gluck’s empathy, developing a more dramatic quality to her work in portraits less obviously autobiographical. This new collection perhaps reverts, but still she engages and moves her readers and there do seem to be eventual gains along this apparently bleak road. These lie in the poems’ openness, the way they seem capable of encompassing such varieties of experience, of saying ‘yes’. Of Oppen, she wrote that his work had the power to seem “simultaneously, whole and not final, the power to generate, not annul, energy”. As in sitting before a Samuel Beckett drama, the paradox is we are not drained of energy by the apparently fruitless search for meaning, but are thrown back onto the road all the more attuned to the clues, to the activity demanded of us. In his last days, Gluck’s artist has his nephew sing Jacques Brel’s ‘The Old Folks’ (“The little cat is dead and no more do they sing“) as well as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘The Hills are Alive’. The insight is that “we do not, in the main, need to choose between them” (‘The White Series’).

To end at the beginning, Faithful and Virtuous Night opens with ‘Parable’ in which, “as St. Francis teaches”, a group of people divest themselves of worldly goods, better to focus on their goals, better to move unencumbered towards them. But the direction of travel is unclear, as is their purpose. Much debate ensues; time passes. In the background, perhaps we hear Brel’s “old silver clock” ticking. The group grows old in debate and their ageing (some believe) is their true purpose, while others believe the passage of time is the truth they hoped to be revealed. Both seem satisfied and perhaps we need not choose between them, only admire Gluck’s precise evocation of the mystery.

How Poems Slowly Get Written – from haiku to abecedary

Bloodaxe poet, editor and tutor, Chrissy Williams, set up and edits PERVERSE poetry. Her site’s strap-line for publication is that she’s looking for “deliberate, obstinate, unreasonable or unacceptable poems, contrary to the accepted or expected standard or practice”. A willful outlier, in other words, looking for experiments and/or orphans. Some of you – if you subscribe to her site or keep an eye on social media – may have seen three pieces I’ve written which PERVERSE published last week. These were the opening three poems from a sequence of twelve and the Note published with them by PERVERSE explains a good deal (I’ll put the poems themselves at the end of this post).

Note: these poems are from a sequence in the form of an abecedary, a calendar of 12 pieces. Carolyn Forche’s ‘On Earth’ first interested me in this form. She associates its inclusiveness (from A-Z) with the pleroma, the fullness of God’s creation, the One. The fullness I have aimed at in this case was the difficult last years of my parents’ lives. Drawing on notes I made between 2016 – 2018, the disjointed nature of this particular totality reflects their growing illness and confusion; but I hope the whole exudes what it was written with, love.

On the theme of ‘how poems come to be written’, today I’m posting images of a couple of the pages from my notebook of the time. You’ll see phrases and images which made it through to the final poems. As can perhaps be seen from the scribbles, what I had originally in mind was something close to the form of haiku. I’d been reading and admiring Masaya Saito’s book of haiku called Snow Bones. This had just been published in 2016 by Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press (I think maybe I’d bought the book at the Poetry Book Fair that year). Snow Bones consist of four narrative haiku sequences, spoken by several different voices. Saito writes in both English and Japanese (these poems are all in English). Two of these sequences focus on the death and funerals of parents and what I admired was the way in which the compression of the form allowed the poet to express the powerful emotions of love and grief. Between 2016-18, my mother and father were going through a decline in both mental and physical health, eventually moving into a care home, sadly both dying within 18 months of each other. So I had my own powerful feelings to deal with and one of the ways of coping was to try to write about these experiences.

Here’s a couple of pages from Saito’s book. You’ll see he does not approach the haiku form in the rather rigid syllabic way that we often think of it. Also I liked the way in which – of the 3 lines – he always sets one off, either opening or closing. This creates drama and tension even within such a short space.

So then here’s a page from my notebook of the time – the crossings out indicate that I have used the text going forward. Initially I tried to maintain my hopes of a haiku sequence. I can see here phrases that made it into the final poem (in such a different form): the box of Quality Street chocolates, the days passing as at a level crossing, the introduction of a new care plan while they were still living at home. I remember taking a dozen or so of these haiku pieces to a writing workshop. The response was polite, even some enthusiasm, but I felt this was in part a response to the personal nature of the subject matter as much as to the success of the choices I’d made as a poet. (These are always very difficult moments in a workshop – depth of involvement on the writer’s part often makes more cool, critical observations hard to bring forward).So I wasn’t sure. The texts stayed in another notebook. This is what happens (for me at least). I’d then often be browsing back through the notebook at those bits of text not yet crossed through as having been advanced to the next stage. I’m re-reading to see if there remains any life in these fragments left in limbo. I kept reading these haiku and thinking there was a lot of good writing, but they had certainly not found their right form.

Here’s another image of an original page.

The fourth haiku here I still like:

The phone’s numerals are very big

the size of Scrabble pieces

a language you once knew

In the final poems, the image of a “language” re-emerges rather changed. The sixth haiku poem here has an image of “a shrew its paw caught in a trap” which is itself an echo of a line from the previous page (“The scratching of a mouse trapped”) – the relevance of these recurring images of entrapment is obvious given my parents were pretty well confined to their house by physical weakness and mental uncertainties. Such images surface in the final poems, in the first poem’s opening quatrain, as “a mouse’s paw caught in the trap”.

I don’t remember when the final choice about these poems was made – the one that decided an abecedary form would be appropriate. Those who have followed this blog for a few years will have heard me ruminating on this form before and on my discovery of it via Carolyn Forche. In rational terms, I felt the systematic coherence imposed on phrases by the alphabetical sequence would be effective in an ironic way because most of the fragmented material I had assembled spoke to an incoherence rooted in the way my parents were now living. Is it too much to say that I was hoping to piece things together for Mum and Dad in a way that they were unable to themselves? There are other (more conventional) poems about my parents in my most recent full collection, The Lovely Disciplines.

The re-shaping of the text worked (to my mind). Assembling something like this is a thrilling balance of chance (the sequence of the alphabet) and choice (the poet retains the right to trim and edit phrases). The title I’ve given the sequence comes from the last haiku in the first image above:

A large print calendar

days crossed off behind

ahead no footprints in the snow

I remember buying them a large print calendar so they could follow the days passing more easily. Often – but not always – they’d cross through the days passed. When we cleared the house eventually, the calendar was still hanging up, the crossed off days having stopped at a certain point; the future days left blank and pristine. The walls of the house have not been literally demolished. But it has been sold on to another family and so for me and my brothers the walls might as well have been demolished. The lives lived out there are gone, except for what we can remember (some of which can be written down).

Here are the three poems in the sequence (from A to I) that have so far been published:

from Notes on a calendar (hung on a demolished wall)

Angele Paoli – Opening song trans. Martyn Crucefix

My translation of a poem by Corsican/French poet and novelist Angele Paoli. Many thanks to Abegail Morley and Poetry Shed for publishing this.

The Poetry Shed

Opening song

a translation of ‘Chant d’ouverture’ by Angele Paoli 

Death             your bit clicking my bones
you brush close you huff
your rotten song up my nostrils

you dance under leafy trees skulk
in cracks of rocks you rasp
your black laugh in the hinges of my hips

– who are you

to scrape barren soil then broadcast
in passing the foul stink
of your winds

who dance dancing with your bones
skiffing and jumping around me
your scythe scores earth

and you swell sky with your cunning
spine flesh gone gulped
skeleton gnawed

– what do you want now

so many corpses don’t they fill you
keep you fat –

I see them sneering
gap-toothed mouth dismantled chin
flung back to earth
still you champ at the bit

you filth!

.

Angèle Paoli is a Corsican poet, novelist and translator. She runs the on-line feminist review Terres de femmes

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Quickdraw Review of Robert Selby’s ‘The Coming-Down Time’

41kqq0VBdRLRobert Selby’s debut collection is fronted by a wood cut engraving by Clare Leighton, titled ‘Planting Trees’. Two flat-capped workmen labour to bed in a sapling. A wind-bent tree stands nearby; on the gusty skyline, at the top of a hill, a dark copse. It’s like something out of a Thomas Hardy poem, or an Edward Thomas one, and it’s well-chosen as these are the forebears The Coming-Down Time often explicitly acknowledges. Launched into a poetry world dominated by so many books addressing environmental, gender, race and identity issues, this collection (depending on your viewpoint) is either timeless or behind the times. Selby’s careful organisation of the poems makes it clear he knows what he’s doing and he will do it his way.

His main subjects are historical time, England and romantic love. The first of three sections, ‘East of Ipswich’, is a tribute to his grandparents, George and Lea Gissing. George “came from a long line of men who worked / now-extinct equine trades”. These are true ‘salt of the earth’ Englishmen. Enquiries as to who they were (questions of identity, we might now say) are answered with confidence, if not belligerence: “We’re Orford men, and that’s enough”. But time passes even on the edges of Suffolk. The concluding lines of ‘The End of the Horse Age’ catch a glimpse of encroaching change in the shape of a tractor:

 

. . . he sees an unblinkered beast

braying smoke in the top field, light

from its side-lamps shining off makers’ plates

cast from melted down horse brasses.

 

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Robert Selby

If this is sounding like a man’s world, well, it was and Selby rolls with that. In marriage, Lea sheds her given, christian name for Doll and her maiden name also, “was gone”. There is no obvious meta-comment; Selby’s poem is more intent on celebrating the marriage of his grandparents than exploring Lea’s thoughts on these matters of gender and nomenclature. Perhaps they were not questioned at the time, but I’m uneasy at the silence surrounding such moments, given the poem is a contemporary one. Selby has perhaps inherited the “Suffolk reserve” of his grandfather, for whom “words are weeds that don’t fall to the hoe”. The wish not to (over-)dramatize seems very strong; the end of the Second World War is marked by the grandfather in terms of the cigarettes, chocolate and tea cakes at the NAAFI more than its global import.

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The Brig o’Turk sycamore – handlebars embedded!

Indeed, like Edward Thomas’ work, these are poems about small things. The evocation of the (seldom used) front room at his grandparents’ house is vivid and (for those of us of a certain vintage) very familiar. The sequence takes us to the funerals of the older generation via the understanding that their children (Selby’s father specifically) have already moved away from traditional lives. The father is “one of the suited men / who’ll step off the evening train”. The tone is mostly one of gentle regret at the passing of a way of life (part of which was a closeness to the environment). “How easily people forget things”, opens ‘The Winter Wood’. That same poem ends as a sort of “testament to the losing habit”. The sycamore at Brig o’Turk, in the Trossachs, which has grown around a bicycle once leant against it, is a good image for Selby’s concerns: the past remains but is inevitably absorbed and changed.

graffiti-on-shop-shuttersSelby’s use of language and form is likewise pretty traditional. It’s not just a result of the subject matter that the book is frequented by words such as smithy, shire, lambkin, deer-stalker, and lush-toned phrases such as “blossom-moted”. The flip side of this is that details of 2020 UK are often treated with a distaste, an alienated distance. Later in the book, a friend returns from the dust and pollen of the English countryside into London: “its tagged shutters and sick-flecked stops, / its scaffolding like the lies / propping up your peeling hopes”. The friend is female and (I think) Canadian. Another poem’s narrator tries to persuade her that “[t]his is the real England [. . .] It’s a place of trees; of apple, pear, cherry and plum”. There is more to be said here about the meaning of ‘real’ and it’s hard to tell if the narrator’s invitation is meant to have a deathly ring to it. He asks, “Do you want to reset your watch to the toll of here?”

brain-compass-e1552934724594The import of this question forms the emotional and dramatic context of the later poems in the collection which trace an on/off relationship. The narrator is left wondering: “I must wait for the needle / of your heart’s compass to unspin, / and see where it stops”. In reading that I’m reminded of Lea and – what seemed to be – her relative lack of choice in the earlier years of the twentieth century. There is a good deal of unalloyed nostalgia in The Coming-Down Time for an England of the mind, if it was ever part of any actual century. I find the female figures in the book suffer because of this: most of them do not achieve a specific, particular life in the poems. I’d like Selby to go on to explore the irony in two images: the masculine arms in “rolled up sleeves” that may or may not be “strong enough” and the closing lines just quoted, in which the desired woman bides her time, knowingly possessed of strength, of the agency of decision.

2020 Forward First Collections reviewed: #5 Rachel Long’s ‘ My Darling from the Lions’

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

The full 2020 shortlist is:

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

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

Rachel Long – My Darling from the Lions (Picador) – reviewed below.

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

Martha Sprackland – Citadel (Pavilion Poetry) – reviewed here.

There is such ease and (apparent) directness of communication between the voices in Rachel Long’s poems and their readers/listeners that they could easily be misjudged. Darling from the Lions is filled with chatty, slangy storylines, some close to sentimental, others genuinely shocking, but the book’s title is instructive. In Psalm 35, David pleads with his God to protect him from those that strive against him, the mockers and false witnesses. He cries out: “rescue my soul from their destructions, my darling from the lions” (KJV). The preservation of the self intact, or at least relatively unharmed, against the multitudinous, multivarious threats of a modern adult female life is Long’s real concern.

Given this focus, the number of child’s eye view poems in the collection is not surprising. Readers will be reminded of Jeanette Winterson’s account of growing up in a Christian evangelical household in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and similarly here, religion proves more threatening than a source of safety. A young girl’s enthusiasm about staying up past midnight in ‘Night Vigil’ is clear: “How the minute and the hour stood to attention!” But the “smiling eyes” of the evangelist in the pulpit turn to “teeth” as he leads her, ominously, down and “incensed corridor, // and [she] followed”. The same threat seems more explicitly taken up in ‘8’ with its quotation from Psalm 51 as epigraph: “Purge me [. . . ] I shall be whiter than snow”. Long’s choices about form usually lead her to very free verse, controlled only by the colloquial voice and breath, but on this occasion the urgency and breathlessness of the 8 year-old child is reflected in unpunctuated, headlong, slippingly-enjambed, short-lined verse. What the child wishes to be cleansed of is an abusive sexual encounter, “that sunday / that school”, an incident in which she became “instantly older”.

Elsewhere, a child’s bicycle ride is likewise hedged around with vague threats of the “abbatoir” and startled invocations to “Run!” The inculcation of childhood religious belief again works as ironic backdrop:

Have you ever fled uphill –

hill of concrete,

acres of balconies identical

unanswerable doors –

reciting Psalm 23.

And in the extraordinary ‘Helena’ – the age of the speaker increasing still further here – we get a brilliant piece of ventriloquism as a young woman, who works in a seedy gentleman’s club, tells two women friends how she was all-but kidnapped by the bouncer, then raped, the man “acting out / some horror-porn shit” (Long’s unusual choice here of long, prosy lines of verse add to the almost unbearable intensity of the storytelling). These are some of the ‘lions’ by which the ‘darling’ is threatened. But ‘Hotel Art, Barcelona’, as the title suggests, indicates such threats come in all shapes and sizes and social/cultural guises. A young woman, in a relationship with a much older man, is staying in an expensive hotel. He’s concerned with their age gap; she with the fact she’s pregnant and he seems reluctant to acknowledge it. The power/wealth balance is unequal and, later, she allows him to fuck her on their balcony, her unconvincing/unconvinced question (“is love not this?”) left hanging in the air.

The Barcelona woman later throws up her expensively-bought dinner in the bathroom and there are other examples of purgative vomiting in Darling from the Lions. I’m not sure whether ‘The Clean’ is caused by morning sickness (as it is in ‘The Garden’) or an eating disorder, but the woman leans over the toilet bowl, insisting to herself, “Girl, you can be new, / surrender it all / into one bowl”. Often, the isolation of these female figures is relieved by examples of companionship with other women. ‘Sandwiches’ winds the clock back to school days again, as the narrator and her friend Tiff begin to experiment with their sexual attractiveness by stuffing unbuttered bread down their bras, because “the boys have clocked the difference between / a tissue and a tit, a sock and a tit, but not quite yet / a tit and a slice of bread”. This is a great example of Long’s brilliant control of timing, register and colloquial rhythm.

Rachel Long

Funny though ‘Sandwiches’ is (and the poem is destined for many anthologies, I’m sure, where it’ll be taken out of context), the poem needs to be read alongside ‘The Yearner’, in which the woman deliberately sleeps on her own arm so that she can later re-acquaint herself with it, touching her numbed fingers like “strangers”, because her yearning is a dissatisfaction with how life has turned out, a wishing to be “another”. The opening section of the book is punctuated with 5 short poems, all called ‘Open’. They are about the seen and unseen. Watching a woman sleep, several people suggest she seems carelessly abandoned, surprised, working things out. Read the poems again and you see what the woman herself feels: it’s like she’s screaming, in hiding, or bracing for impact. She is beset by lions but it’s not always obvious to others.

The Psalmist’s cry was for protection by God, but it is Mum who affords most help in Darling from the Lions. The poems in the middle of the book are a hymn to the maternal figure, though the extent of her powers has already been shown to be compromised. ‘Referring to the House as the Whole Street’ is more plainly descriptive than most of Long’s poems, the mother returning after her night shift as a midwife, consoling herself as day breaks with sugared almonds, “in various shades of dawn”. Her care for her daughter is immediate, simple, physical: a cut finger is taken up and sucked. The mother spends all day Saturday plaiting her daughter’s hair into cornrows so she looks as “beautiful as Winnie Mandela!” It’s through the mother figure and several aunties that the religious element enters the household, the Christian evangelical beliefs shading rapidly into something more like of shamanism (‘Mum’s Snake’ and ‘Divine Healing’). It may be superstition that prevents the mother wanting to be photographed but her absence from the family album is a good metaphor for her selfless devotion to her family’s wellbeing, perhaps to the unseen presence of black women in society more generally.

Though the recurring father figure is said to be not “of our land”, it’s hard to identify any explicitly white voice in this collection; the black or mixed-race voices are so by implication. Long sees no need to labour the point. The one explicitly white voice I can find is that of a Barbie doll. This poem (‘Interview with B. tape II’) and its companion piece ‘steve’, mark a shift in perspective to a voice that does read the world in black and white. Long puts her ventriloquism to disturbing effect as she makes white-skinned Barbie talk about her stereotypical love/submissiveness to Ken and the way the arrival of a black-skinned doll, Steve, upsets things:

Steve wore bright red swim shorts. Too bright.

Everything about those people is so . . .

You know?

The racism is casually thrown off; crime in the area goes up with Steve’s arrival. Ken takes on the vigilante role, beating Steve up in the back of his army jeep. This is a clever and skilful poem – the racist attitudes in the child’s doll’s mouth are very disturbing. ‘steve’ uses the child’s narrative voice we’ve become familiar with throughout the book but the racist, hatred of the steve doll is now internalised and comes from the child herself; “ken would beat steve up / for fun”. The violence of the earlier poem is now played out in toyland (but no less real for that) so that, one day, the father finds his lawnmower jammed: “on closer inspection / a tiny pair of shorts     charred / torso”. In this year of the death of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake, Rachel Long finds unexpectedly effective ways to address the issues of racial discrimination alongside her main concerns in this never less than accessible collection.

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

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

The full 2020 shortlist is:

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

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

Rachel Long – My Darling from the Lions (Picador)

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

Martha Sprackland – Citadel (Pavilion Poetry)

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

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

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

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

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

When we undid the cord that tied our wrists

it bound us; something in that blow

knocked through the city walls

and through it we are talking, still.

We can’t explain this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                Something frozen

and distant starts to thaw in me

and to carve these deeper channels

into which we jump, again and again,

looked over by nothing but the mountains,

the overhanging leaves,

the lifted winter lived through and unbound.

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

Are there hands, just out of the frame,

that might dart forward in time to catch them?

2020 Forward First Collections reviewed: #3 Nina Mingya Powles’ ‘Magnolia 木蘭’

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

The full 2020 shortlist is:

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

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

Rachel Long – My Darling from the Lions (Picador)

Nina Mingya Powles – Magnolia 木蘭 (Nine Arches Press)

Martha Sprackland – Citadel (Pavilion Poetry)

 

EaFGv9OWkAE6KuFNina Mingya Powles’ collection, Magnolia 木蘭, is an uneven book of great energy, of striking originality, but also of a great deal of borrowing. This is what good debut collections used to be like! I’m reminded of Glyn Maxwell’s disarming observation in On Poetry (Oberon Books, 2012) that he “had absolutely nothing to say till [he] was about thirty-four”. The originality of Magnolia 木蘭 is largely derived from Powles’ background and brief biographical journey. She is of mixed Malaysian-Chinese heritage, born and raised in New Zealand, spending a couple of years as a student in Shanghai and now living in the UK. Her subjects are language/s, exile and displacement, cultural loss/assimilation and identity. Shanghai is the setting for most of the poems here and behind them all loiter the shadows and models of Ocean Vuong, Sarah Howe and, especially, Anne Carson. Powles refers to the impact of reading Carson’s Sappho versions but a much earlier book like Plainwater (1995) with its extraordinary inventiveness of form, gives an idea of what Magnolia 木蘭 contains. (See also Carson’s lecture, ‘Stammering, Stops, Silence: on the Methods and Uses of Untranslation’ (2008), revised for Poetry Review (2013)).

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Powles has said that the opening poem is the oldest. Called ‘Girl Warrior, or: watching Mulan (1998) in Chinese with English subtitles’, it is written sections of prose (though divided by / every so often as if to suggest line breaks). The Disney animation – about a young Chinese girl who pretends to be a man in order to fight and prove herself – turns out to be an important reference point for the whole collection. The Mulan figure is recognised as idealised (disneyfied) compared to the narrator who laments her “thick legs / and too much hair that doesn’t stay”. Mulan cuts her hair short; the narrator’s mother trims hers. The issue of the subtitles raises the language question (“I understand only some of the words” of the spoken Chinese). There are suggestions of early encounters with boys, her mother dressing her up as Mulan and (later, presumably) what sounds like a writing workshop comment: “Why don’t you ever write about yourself”. All this works well as a cryptic, cut up sort of a bildungsroman, though the ending fades away less effectively and the earlier hair-cutting episode ends with a disproportionately hyperbolic image of the trimmed hair falling out of place, “ungracefully caught / in the wind of some perpetual / hurricane”.

Nina-Headshot-credit-Sophie-Davidson-1-scaled-e1591794392875I don’t think the intriguing glimpses of an individual young woman in this first poem are much developed in later ones. The Mulan figure makes a couple of other appearances in the book and is reprised in the concluding poem, ‘Magnolia, jade orchid, she-wolf’. This consists of even shorter prose observations. In Chinese, ‘mulan’ means magnolia so the fragments here cover the plant family Magnoliaceae, the film again, the Chinese characters for mulan, Shanghai moments, school days back in New Zealand and Adeline Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella. It’s hard not to think you are reading much the same poem, using similar techniques, though this one ends more strongly: “My mouth a river in full bloom”.

71W8RjV7VrLUnlike Carson’s use of fragmentary texts, Powles is less convincing and often gives the impression of casting around for links. This is intended to reflect a sense of rootlessness (cultural, racial, personal) but there is a willed quality to the composition. One of the things Powles does have to say (thinking again of Maxwell’s observation) is the doubting of what is dream and what is real. The prose piece, ‘Miyazaki bloom’, opens with this idea and the narrator’s sense of belonging “nowhere” is repeated. This is undoubtedly heartfelt – though students living in strange cities have often felt the same way. Powles also casts around for role models (beyond Mulan) and writes about the New Zealand poet, Robin Hyde and the great Chinese author Eileen Chang, both of whom resided in Shanghai for a time. ‘Falling City’ is a rather exhausting 32 section prose exploration of Chang’s residence, mixing academic observations, personal reminiscence and moments of fantasy to end (bathetically) with inspiration for Powles: “I sit down at one of the café tables and begin to write. It is the first day of spring”.

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Eileen Chang

But there’s no doubting the range of reference in Magnolia 木蘭 is refreshing and bringing something new to UK poetry. Poems allude to writers like Hyde and Chang, filmmakers like Miyazaki, the actor Maggie Cheung, Princess Mononoke (a Japanese spirit figure) as well as images from her New Zealand home. Powles’ enthusiasm is also infectious when it comes to formal experimentation. There is little conventional ‘verse’ to be found here. Prose in various guises is frequent, lists and fragments predominate. There are instructional texts, quiz and QandA forms, text and footnote, quoting and re-purposing of other texts, two-column poems (read two ways) and (very frequently) a jotting or journalistic form. This latter gives rise to the best sequence in the collection, ‘Field Notes on a Downpour’. Its 8 short sections return to the question of what is real, expressing a fear of things/words slipping away: “There are so many things I am trying to hold together”. Powles’ time studying Mandarin is contributory here as each section explores the homophonic/polysemic nature of Chinese characters. The first character of her mother’s name, for example, also suggests rain, language, warm, lips and lines/veins. Such moments are fascinating and often poetically suggestive. Another character, ‘zong’, encompasses assemble, trace and the uneven flight of a bird; all aspects of Powles’ technique as a writer. The sequence ends with a sense of language having been lost, though the image of a dropped jar of honey perhaps suggests something holds, something remains: “The glass broke but the honey held its shards together, collapsing softly”.

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‘Nomenclature of Colours’

Indeed, another of the pleasures of Powles’ poems is her vivid writing about food. She has said the book is a love poem to Shanghai and it certainly does justice to its culinary offerings. There are four options for ‘Breakfast in Shanghai’, egg noodles crisping in a wok, dumplings, white cabbage and pork and a whole dishful of pink-hearted pomelo fruit. She also has a heightened sense of colour (reflected in Nine Arches’ cover perhaps) and there are ekphrastic responses to Agnes Martin, Lisa Reihana and Werner’s ‘Nomenclature of Colours’ (1814).

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Rothko’s ‘Saffron’

Mark Rothko’s ‘Saffron’ (1957) makes an appearance in ‘Colour fragments’ and, after a vivid evocation of the original image, Powles’ response is too unremarkable in that she  imagines climbing into the painting, “and you are floating or drowning or both at the same time”. This is not original (or originally expressed) and has something of an undergraduate feel to it. That’s harsh – but what Powles has to say at the moment does not live up to the impressive technical and referential aspects of her writing. I don’t think listing ‘Some titles for my childhood memoir’ (none of them very striking, all dealt with in other poems) or ‘Faraway Love’, a re-purposing of Tate gallery notes on a piece by Agnes Martin, should have made the cut to this first book. The book Nine Arches Press presents here is quite a feast – unselfconsciously delighting in colour, taste and a strong sense of place – but it’s also too self-conscious about its nature as poetry and hence I’m left with the less pleasing taste of a poet in hiding or at least one often arrayed in other writers’ clothes.