Everything Burning: Review of Maitreyabandhu’s ‘Yarn’

I love to follow the development of a poet’s work. This is often imaged as the finding of a voice but is really a process in which the poet brings into focus what centrally concerns them and sheds what is extraneous. A recognisable voice may be a secondary consequence of this but it is achieved through technical advances and deep thought about poetic predecessors and possible role models. Maitreyabandhu’s second collection, Yarn (Bloodaxe, 2015) is fascinating from this perspective.

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Born Ian Johnson in Warwickshire, Maitreyabandhu was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 1990. I once started a review of James Harpur’s  Angels and Harvesters (Anvil, 2012) by saying that I wanted contemporary poetry to address spiritual matters, so I was obviously excited to get hold of Maitreyabandhu’s first book, The Crumb Road, when it appeared in 2013. Given my rather narrow line of expectation, I suppose was a bit disappointed. But the book is full of vivid colloquial detail, many poems about childhood and a moving account of a homoerotic relationship between two young boys which ends with the death of one of them. The crumb road of the title is the Hansel and Gretel trail back to the past rather than a trail of stations towards spiritual enlightenment, though ‘Visitation’ is an awed encounter with something like that: “I saw you, in the mess of things, / [. . .] as a slant of grey”. The book was a PBS Recommendation, rightly praised for its melancholy modesty, quiet expression, its alert and attentive qualities, its models evidently Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy.

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Yarn develops similar materials. Maitreyabandhu’s poetic technique is even more evident in the range of forms – free verse, rhyme, prose poem, blank verse – employed to great effect. The Warwickshire childhood features again in a section called ‘The yard’ with the father’s wine-making – damson, raison and berry – and his war service, the mother’s involvement in the coach driving business, school, various distant relations. The first book’s portrayal of young love cut tragically short is echoed here in an elegiac sequence to a Buddhist friend, Mahananda. This man’s longer life (his mother’s flight from the Gestapo, his conversion to Buddhism, living in Primrose Hill, his friendships) is touchingly evoked and it is a thoroughly grief-stricken sequence: “what can I conclude on your departure? / that nothing came of it, with everything, / everything undone” (‘Souls’).

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Ryokan

There is a curious echo of this latter phrase in a poem about the Zen Buddhist monk/poet Ryokan for whom the temple bell and old books seem to say “how everything is burning”. Such a sense of the ultimate insignificance of earthly things arises elsewhere in this book and Maitreyabandhu explores such spiritual issues more explicitly here than in The Crumb Road. Though there is often a strong response and pleasure in the natural world, ‘These Days’ suggests “our human calculus precedes / the given world” to negative effect. There is a fearful recognition that what we contribute amounts to no more than “error bred in the bone, the daily rancour / of the mind, / our clever ways to be unkind”. But the erasure of those things that we cling too can be almost as frightening. Nietzsche’s ‘The Parable of the Madman’ (1882) is alluded to, a sponge wiping away the “entire horizon”, yet the consolation (as in the death of a valued friend) can be hard to access: “I strained to see Vajra Guru’s face”. Perhaps the character in ‘The Postulant’ has “closed his eyes on this world” more successfully:

 

When night fell, the space between two worlds

Was all the shape he made, an empty dark [. . . ]

What he thought to be himself he didn’t know:

His pain was all that stopped the worlds unite.

 

But inevitably, what is ultimately not graspable in words is hard to write about and Maitreyabandhu’s often chosen model (the rhyming, song-like lyric voice) can lead to a mellifluousness that over-sweetens a poem, especially when trying to evoke more successful intuitions of “the Lotus Born” and the “illumined image” (‘The World of Senses’).

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But Yarn contains three long yarns or stories in which the voice of the teller plays at least as much part as the narrative of events. This is what is new and particularly exciting in this book and reveals the influence of Robert Frost (not Edward Thomas who tried this early on with ‘Up in the Wind’ (1914) and then dropped it as not fit for his own purposes). Frost’s eclogues (especially in North of Boston (1914)) manage to convey a bleak, anti-pastoral, godless, modern world of death and often inexplicable suffering. One similarity is that ‘The Cattle Farmer’s Tale’ is spoken by a proprietorial, rather self-satisfied farmer (read Maitreyabandhu on the influence of Frost here). Like Frost, Maitreyabandhu immediately catches character and voice brilliantly. He encounters a mysterious figure: “his not pretending / to be meek or grateful to set me at my ease / and, funny thing, it stopped me in my tracks / so for a moment I stumbled on my words”. This is so like Frost’s ‘Death of the Hired Man’ – the enigmatic visitor, the farmer and his wife, the carefully sketched context, the skilful handling of dialogue in blank verse. Maitreyabandhu adds a few songs too but this is in no way a pastiche but a development of a neglected form for different purposes. The visitor is in fact Buddha and though he talks in cryptic terms, the farmer’s rootedness in the land, his evident pride in his worldly achievements, his bossiness followed by regret in dealing with his wife serve to make the Buddha’s pronouncements palatable in the poem’s world:

 

There are two thoughts, Dhaniya [. . .]

one leads to suffering, the other to joy.

The first is yoked to yearning like a calf,

a suckling calf that’s yoked unto it’s mother,

the other’s like a shadow that never parts.

 

So this really is the cattle farmer’s tale – his response to his encounter with a wholly different set of values (he and his wife are in fact deeply impressed by the visitor who stays for a month). The form of the poem allows the reader room to be sceptical in our modern fashion but also to be moved by the insights and wisdom (old fashioned word) being offered.

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The second yarn, ‘The Travellers from Orissa’, is even more ambitious. Bhallika (the narrator) and Tapussa are again farmers, cattle men, who encounter Buddha in their younger days. Bhallika is again a sceptical voice (“I’m not a fool”) but is nevertheless impressed by the Master, who “spoke in a funny way with gaps / between the words as if he’d just been woken [. . .] his smile, / I shan’t forget, was like gazing at the sea”. But this is not an experience he can easily share with others and he resolves to “keep it to myself”. Tapussa’s response is quite different. The poem makes it clear Tapussa’s character inclines him to “yarns” and in the telling they grow “more fantastical each time”. His response to the meeting with Buddha is to cast himself as the rather attention-seeking disciple, who succeeds in becoming something of a cult figure: “his nodding head, how he held his finger up / each time he spoke to emphasise each word”.

But Tapussa dies, as does Bhallika’s wife and the widower lives on quietly, distantly aware of the Master’s growing fame and influence. At last he meets him again: “I said ‘Master’ before I knew I spoke”. Only now does Bhallika share the details of the original meeting with his son. In fact Tapussa had failed to understand, turning “the whole thing upside-down” to make it all “about himself”. What is moving in this yarn is the fact that Bhallika evidently understood the Buddha’s message (“There is a thorn buried / in the heart of man”) but with his commitment to wife and family and land he “walked back into [his] own life and tried to take it up”. Even years later, he understands “I’d betrayed my life” on that day and with that decision.

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Coleridge’s Mariner and Wedding Guest

Such false and true followers feature in the third yarn too though the human situation is even more finely drawn and prevents any simplistic response to the questions it raises. In a still sketchy but more Westernised context (Sunday morning church) it is ‘Aaron’s Brother’ who narrates. Like Tapussa, it is Aaron who is the more overtly spiritual figure, famously suffering visitations and visions. But there is again a self-regarding quality in the way he readies himself for church before the mirror, “combing his hair”. The story is told to an unnamed guest – there’s much of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner here – who is eager to speak to Aaron and not much interested in his brother. But the brother is in fact adopted and has further secrets to disclose of a homoerotic love between himself and Aaron and (he implies) this partly fuels Aaron’s interest in his young male acolytes.

The treatment of these ingredients of a far grander and dramatic tale than Maitreyabandhu wants to develop suggests a powerfully imaginative act by the poet, the kind of thing Keats admired in Shakespeare. In this third yarn in particular, there is no irritable reaching after facts and clarity; it is a poem which explores the perhaps irresolvable tensions  between the spiritual and the sensual life, the spiritual and materialism and fame, the spiritual and our mundane earthly loves and commitments. I’m interested that Maitreyabandhu has not yet attempted such renovations of the Frostian form in a more overtly contemporary setting. His skills with form and his brilliant capture of colloquial speech, his obviously profound engagement with Buddhist thought and his commitment to poetry as a form of expression make him a unique figure in the UK literary landscape and I really look forward to discovering the direction and innovations of his next collection.

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Maitreyabanhu

The Abecedary Form / Carolyn Forche

The Form: I wanted to share here some thoughts on my experiments with the form of the abecedary. An abecedarium (or abecedary) is originally an inscription consisting of the letters of an alphabet, listed in order. Abecedaries were often practice exercises, teaching aids, but also developed as an ancient poetic form guided by strict alphabetical order. The earliest examples are Semitic, found in religious Hebrew poetry and the form has been used in various cultures for prayers, hymns, and psalms. Psalm 118 (or 119 by King James numbering) consists of twenty-two eight-line stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chaucer’s An ABC is a medieval example of the form. Some abecedaries found in the Athenian Agora appear to have been left deliberately incomplete and the imperfection of these examples may have had a magical or ritual significance.

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For those who have come across this form in contemporary poetry at all, it was probably (as in my case) through the poem called ‘On Earth’ in Carolyn Forche’s Blue Hour (Bloodaxe, 2003). I reviewed the book in some bewilderment at the time (see below) but have since come to see it more favourably. Forche herself says: “Gnostic abecedarian hymns date from the 3rd century AD. Along with Christian and Buddhist texts, they were recovered from small towns on the northern fringe of the Taklamakan Desert, early in the 20th century”. She also links the form with the idea of the pleroma, defined as the totality or fullness of God’s creation, the One. Over the 46 pages of ‘On Earth’, she adheres rigorously to the form in which alphabetical order guides not only the stanzas, but also the words opening every single line:

languid at the edge of the sea
lays itself open to immensity
leaf-cutter ants bearing yellow trumpet flowers along the road
left everything left all usual worlds behind
library, lilac, linens, litany

Poets.org says that abecedaries are now more commonly used as mnemonic devices and word games for children such as those written by Dr. Seuss and Edward Gorey. A derivative form is the much more familiar acrostic.

From my 2003 ReviewThe book contains 11 pieces in 65 pages, 46 of which are taken up with the long poem ‘On Earth’ and phrases do echo throughout the poems so there is a sense of unity to the whole. For the most part, Forche writes by assembling fragments and images, often without clear syntactical or narrative connections to surrounding lines. The reader experiences the verse as successive waves (lines stretch across the page and usually come in twos or threes), or as threads floating disconnectedly, but creating a striking impression of beauty. Forche’s obscurity comes more from an unshakeable confidence in her project, in her voice, in her idiosyncratic style and in her subject, largely concerned with the significance or recovery of the past in the present moment.

My difficulty with what Forche does is that all kinds of experience seem to be subjected to the same treatment, so that in the end the reader swims through an undeniably glittering, but rather gloopy, phenomenological soup in which “a city a thousand years” has the same weight as “a field of birds roasted by the heavens”, which has an equivalence to “a sudden reticence that seizes the heart”. All of the material – several deaths, the madness of a grandmother, a mother’s life, early years with a child, Chernobyl, some war-torn territories – is recorded with a swooning sensitivity, a recurring softness of diction and a penchant for grammatical inversion which seems to strain after the poetic: “In the blue silo of dawn, in earth-smoke and birch copse, / where the river of hands meets the Elbe.”

These doubts are brought to a head in the ambitious ‘On Earth’ which is (to quote the blurb) “a transcription of mind passing from life into death, in the form of an abecedary, modelled on ancient gnostic hymns”. The form is an alphabetical sequence and this additional random factor only increases this reader’s sense of a steamrollering of experience to ensure a smooth poetic passage. There is no doubt that Forche can produce some stunning images and when she strings them together in more conventional ways and the reader can hold on to her coat-tails, you can see why her reputation is so high in the U.S.

My interest in abecedaries: Has grown with my interest in looser forms of verse (I have given up on punctuation in most of my own poems these days) alongside a more-than-philosophical sense of the truth of the wholeness of being, reflecting Forche’s idea of the pleroma. This – see Rilke, see the Daodejing – is a condition impossible to be caught in the net of more conventional language and poetic form. Abecedaries encompass the whole alphabet (at least in theory – though I like the idea of the deliberate imperfection; perfection belonging only to God). An abecedary can therefore be seen as an appropriate poetic gesture (futile for sure) towards a unified field, an encompassing of everything, the only true state.

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The Material: But the unified field, for an individual human being, must be regarded with some perspective; if this was not the case we would indeed be seeing with the eye of God, with his/her distance and utter impersonality. I wanted to write affective texts. I wanted my abecedary to be (paradoxically) limited. I wanted people in it; even a narrative of events. But all still subject to the demands of the form. I realised I did indeed have some suitable materials to hand. I had been asked by Professor Lidia Vianu, of University of Bucharest, to assist with the translation into English of several short stories by the relatively unknown Modernist Romanian author, Mihail C Vladescu. He published a collection of eight stories, In Retreat, almost 100 years ago. These are stories written in war-torn Eastern Europe but more significantly, Vladescu forensically portrays the sense of corruption in his society, with materialistic motives and adulterous behaviour most prominent. It seemed to me, and not merely because the centenary of the First World War is still in process around us, that this was material worth working on. I thought Vladescu’s relative obscurity to an English-speaking readership was also an advantage in such an experiment.

The Process: I selected phrases as far as possible randomly from the prose translation. These were then ordered alphabetically (via Excel spreadsheets) and subjected to as little editing as possible, though I have sectioned and created stanzas where it seemed best. Not surprisingly, my abecedaries are incomplete (x and z are more often than not the Persian flaws in the poetic carpet).

The results? Over the next 6 days I will post up the full 7 sections of my abecedary ‘Bathing in the Olt’ (from Vladescu’s original story called ‘Bathing’) and any observations would be welcomed. The text has already appeared in full in Shearsman magazine, 103/4, April 2015.

Click here to see each section posted: #1 / #2 and #3 / #4 / #5 / #6

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Translating Transtromer: Fulton v Robertson

With his death a few weeks ago, I have been re-reading Tomas Transtromer’s work and the first place to go (after the poet’s own website and video) is, of course, Robin Fulton’s comprehensive collection from Bloodaxe. But I have been comparing Fulton’s translations, which seem very faithful if a bit unexciting, to several done by Robin Robertson as published by Enitharmon in 2006.

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Robertson bills his 14 pieces (presented usefully as a parallel text with the original Swedish) as ‘versions’ or, in the acknowledgements as “imitations”. There seems to me a good deal more vigour and poetic heft to Robertson’s versions, but it’s not immediately clear how many liberties he is taking with the originals and it’s interesting that Fiona Sampson suggests the Swedish writer has been an important influence on Robertson. In what follows I’m looking closely at just one  poem from both translators (by the way, I don’t have any Swedish except what a dictionary can give me; nor have I ever made any academic study of Transtromer’s work).

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Tomas Transtromer, an early photograph

‘The Couple’ first appeared in Transtromer’s collection The Half-Finished Heaven (1962). It’s a distanced study of love (over three quatrains) as a couple turn out the light in a hotel room and, after making love, they sleep. In the third quatrain, darkness and unilluminated houses gather about them as if to watch or bear witness or threaten. Fulton’s opening is very plain and factual: ‘They switch off the light and its white shade / glimmers’. Robertson’s version feels more vivid though it does have a stagey-ness about it, the light becoming the slightly archaic ‘lamplight’ and the plain shade elevated to a ‘globe’. This theatricality is developed in Robertson’s version and is to some degree justified by the final image of the poem where the outer night transmutes to watchers, almost to an audience. But as far as I can tell, this trope is not made much of in the original until that last image.

Transtromer develops the fading of the extinguished light in a striking image of it as a dissolving pill or ‘tablet in a glass of darkness’ (Fulton). In the original, the simile is clearly marked and plainly given but Robertson adds a colon and allows the metaphor a good deal more space: ‘an aspirin rising and falling / then dissolving in a glass of darkness’. This is again vivid, visual, though perhaps the dissolving pill image takes over too much from the idea of the fading out of the electric lamp. The original has nothing of this energetic dissolving of the pill with its up and down movement (and does Transtromer’s tablet carry more weight of darkness than Robertson’s headache-curing ‘aspirin’?). The rising and falling image may have come from Transtromer’s next phrase: ‘Then up’ (Fulton). Turning the line ending, this becomes clearly linked with the rising up of the hotel walls (presumably in the couple’s perception, as the light fades and darkness asserts itself). This brief, even curt phrase is isolated between full stops and Fulton follows this and seems to be responding to the signals of the original in terms of the couple’s alienated, isolated experience, with language itself fragmenting to reflect that. Robertson differs again, lengthening and making more elegant the end to quatrain 1. He also introduces another theatrical reference not present in Transtromer’s original: ‘Around them, / the hotel walls slide like a back-drop up into the night sky’. Against Transtromer/Fulton’s jagged, uncomfortable process, Robertson’s walls rise more smoothly, the logic of his image suggesting they more fully establish a scene, rather than imprison. Again Robertson’s version is visually more pleasurable but on second or third thought, how many back-drops have you seen rise from the floor, going upwards?

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Quatrain 2 opens apparently after the couple have made love. Fulton again seems to follow the plainness of the original with ‘The movements of love have settled’. ‘Subsided’ might have been a better word but it’s hard to judge whether the strangeness of this is in the translation or the original which does seem to want to describe  the couple’s intimacy from a frightening distance. Robertson’s theatrical imagery recurs with ‘Love’s drama has died down’ which also distances the intimacy, though in a different way, gesturing towards the hollowness of romantic cliché rather than Fulton’s ‘movements’ which suggests a more completely meaningless activity. There’s not a lot to choose between the two versions in the remainder of quatrain 2 as the couple’s ‘dreams’ (Robertson) or ‘most secret thoughts’ (Fulton – this is pretty literal) are said to meet (Transtromer repeats the word ‘meets’ here) like colours blurring in a child’s painting. For Robertson, the colours ‘meet and bleed’ whereas for Fulton they ‘meet and flow’. ‘Bleed’ is a powerful word choice of Robertson’s here but again I wonder how right it is as the evocation of a wound in this middle quatrain where (if anywhere in this tough little poem) there seems to be some suggestion of communion, some sort of meeting of human lives.

The end of the poem is fascinating. Transtromer’s original has 5 brief, buttoned-down sentences, again reflecting the fragmentation I spoke of earlier. All is dark. The city draws close. Windows are unlit. The houses approach. They crowd in close, waiting, expressionless. Fulton – as we have come to expect, follows this faithfully but at the expense (for me) of some sensitivity to the ebb and flow of line endings, to the sonic dimensions of a poem (which in being brought over into English from Swedish have to be re-made, re-heard):

It is dark and silent. But the town has pulled closer

tonight. With quenched windows. The houses have approached.

‘Quenched’ windows? In contrast, Robertson, again smoothes and unroughens, but like a good jazz band, his words are listening to each other better than Fulton’s are:

All around is dark, and silent. The city has drawn in,

extinguishing its windows. The houses have approached.

Robertson’s vivid animation of the city-scape is more thorough and convincing at this point and, in the poem, that is important.

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The final lines bring the houses even closer to the couple with faces expressionless (Transtromer’s word here is ‘uttryckslösa’ = expressionless or deadpan) and in an attitude of waiting (‘vantan’ = to wait or anticipate). Fulton again conveys the meaning well enough, though there is some sense of redundancy with both ‘throng’ and ‘crowd’. The problem for me is that it is hard to catch the significance of the ‘expressionless’ faces here:

They stand close up in a throng, waiting,

a crowd whose faces have no expressions.

To ‘have no expression’ is a profoundly neutral way of saying ‘expressionless’ and Fulton often goes for something like this, not quite daring to leap towards a more focused (I suppose I mean interpretative) word choice. This is not something Robertson ever seems reluctant to do – perhaps behind the defence of his poems as ‘versions’, gifting him greater freedom (a little less responsibility?) than if he’d declared the full ‘t’ word, translation. Robertson goes:

They crowd in close, attentive:

this audience of cancelled faces.

This is wonderfully economical, with a good play of vowel and consonant music, although ‘attentive’ is more neutral than waiting or anticipatory. Both ‘audience’ and ‘cancelled faces’ are dramatic choices. In one sense they complete the decision Robertson makes to bring the theatrical imagery far higher in the mix than in Transtromer’s original; the couple’s lives are performances though the only audience they have is the featureless and expressionless city about them. But ‘cancelled’ is also a surely over-dramatic in suggesting the faces have suffered (see ‘bleed earlier’) some mysterious trauma whereas in Fulton (and I think in Transtromer) the waiting a faces are merely empty, indeed, perhaps waiting to be filled.

Transtromer’s poem has a poignancy derived from the fact that the couple’s love-making, though distanced and close to meaningless in the great scheme of things, is perhaps the only possible source of meaning/expression in a largely unresponsive world. Robertson’s version manages to turn the dramatic volume several notches but in doing so pushes out to the extremes. His poem suggests an even bleaker diagnosis in which human activity is nothing but theatricality, stage sets, drama, while any potential audience or act of witness that might be possible involves only those whose faces and identities have already been wiped.

The Verdict: actually I set out preferring Robertson’s version because it garnered a more immediate response from me with its obvious sense of drama. On reflection – and looking more closely (as far as I’m able) at the original Swedish – I think Fulton is closer to the source (and therefore his poem reads more strangely, less easily, than Robertson’s). It’s this kind of frustratingly equivocal conclusion that makes those who fancy themselves as translators think it’s worth having yet another go at bringing a poem across into English. Just to throw a curved ball in right here at the end, here is Robert Bly’s translation of the same poem . . . declare your preference!!

They turn the light off, and its white globe glows
an instant and then dissolves, like a tablet
in a glass of darkness. Then arising.
The hotel walls shoot up into heaven’s darkness.

Their movements have grown softer, and they sleep,
but their most secret thoughts begin to meet
like two colors that meet and run together
on the wet paper in a schoolboy’s painting.

It is dark and silent. The city however has come nearer
tonight. With its windows turned off. Houses have come.
They stand packed and waiting very near,
a mob of people with blank faces.

The Death of Philip Levine

The death of Philip Levine, one of the greats of modern American poetry, was announced yesterday. Bloodaxe published his selected poems, Stranger to Nothing, in 2006: http://www.bloodaxebooks.com/titlepage.asp?isbn=1852247371. Astonishingly, this was his first UK publication since Secker produced an earlier Selected Poems in 1984. Not as well known as he should have been in this country, there has been a good deal more attention given to him in very recent years.

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I’m ashamed to say I only came across him when Poetry London asked me to review Stranger to Nothing alongside Dan Chiasson’s Natural History and Other Poems (Bloodaxe, 2006). It was on the strength of the review that Anne-Marie Fyfe asked me to contribute to a Troubadour Poetry event in London celebrating Levine’s work. Sadly Levine was unable to attend on the evening due to illness and I had the honour of reading some of his work in his stead. For what they are worth, I’ll append the notes I made to myself on the poems I selected to read that evening at the end of this blog. Happily, I think I remember Anne-Marie later reporting back that Levine approved of my brief selection.

Some time later, Naomi Jaffa discussed his life and work with him at Aldeburgh in 2009. The Poetry Channel’s blurb for the recording of that conversation gives a flavour of Levine as follows: A giant of American poetry and now the newly appointed US Poet Laureate, Philip Levine memorably appeared at Aldeburgh in 2009 where he enjoyed a 45-minute conversation with Naomi Jaffa, The Poetry Trust director. In this absorbing, funny and wide-ranging interview, Levine covers growing up as a Jew in anti-semitic Detroit, working for General Motors, finding his voice as a poet, life at college with teachers Lowell and Berryman, his fascination with Lorca and Spain, his love of jazz (and loathing of Wagner), and which four writers he could bear to be stuck in a lift with: listen to that here: http://thepoetrytrust.libsyn.com/philip-levine-s-journeys

And as tribute to a truly great poet here is my September 2006 review of Stranger to Nothing:

On the face of it, the contrast between Dan Chiasson and Philip Levine could hardly be more striking. Bloodaxe have produced a fascinating selection from a poet whose relative absence from discussions of US poetry on this side of the Atlantic is a huge loss. Born in 1928 in Detroit, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, the first poems included here were not published until 1963. Like Raymond Carver, to whom he bears some resemblance, Levine spent many years labouring in industry  and much of his later poetry recalls these experiences and the people with whom he worked. Whereas Chiasson is urbane and metropolitan, Levine is urban and industrial. Though encompassing a long writing career, this is not a selection that reveals very much in the way of artistic development; Levine’s characteristic style and tone seems to have come to him fully formed and he has seen little need to alter it. One reason must be the premium he clearly places upon being true to his materials – and in particular the experience of the American working people he portrays.

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Accordingly, there are poems in which Levine doubts the value of the imagination in its tendency to romanticise real experience. ‘Salt and Oils’ from the mid-eighties moves rapidly through moments in a life, but then concludes:

“These were not

the labours of Hercules, these were not

of meat or moment to anyone but me

or destined for story or to learn from

or to make me fit to take the hand

of a toad or a toad princess”

With very different results this might be seen as another attempt to achieve the “transparent eyeball” that Chiasson refers to. Things are what they are and it is in this sense that the collection title works. The phrase comes from an early poem in which a visit to a graveyard leads the narrator to contemplate the realities of life so that “in time one comes / to be a stranger to nothing”. This is also typical of Levine’s style – a loosely constructed, colloquial blank verse, driven along powerfully by the syntax across lengthy sentences that work by slow accumulation rather than the local explosions of linguistic surprises.

But if the fantasies of imagination are dismissed, Levine holds firmly to its role in the re-creation of the past. Often precisely dated, he vividly and lovingly portrays scenes and people from his past. A truck-driving uncle from “black Detroit” is sketched through telling detail – his “two hands kneading / each other at the sink” – and this summoning up into a type of art remote from the original life is, Levine seems to suggest, a kind of redemption or dignifying, so that the Uncle can at last “rise / above Belle Isle and the Straits, / your clear eye / rid of our rooms forever”. Throughout this book, lives are invoked in this fashion in finely-judged poems that neither underplay the poverty and misery within them, nor uncomfortably rose-tint the strength and humour such individuals need to survive.

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Perhaps for some, there will be something too fatalistic in these portraits of working-class America. Ought there not to have been more overt political agitation? But Levine works the vein of the individual, the idiosyncratically human and, I’m sure, for him that represents political position enough. In the very recent poem ‘Our Reds’, he again memorialises three characters from school days (1930s/40s?) and their promotion of Communist doctrine. Though the poem indeed acknowledges that what the future brought was “an America no one wanted” it is to “bless” the three that the poem intends: “bless / their certainties, their fiery voices / we so easily resisted . . . their faith in us, especially / that faith, that hideous innocence”. It is perhaps only in moments that working lives are felt redeemed as in the stunning ‘An Ordinary Morning’ with its plain recounting of workers arriving in the city on a bus. The driver and a passenger strike up a song – “O heavy hangs the head” – and as dawn breaks the other passengers wake, momentarily allowed the nobility that their exterior lives seem to deny:

“the brakes

gasp and take hold, and we are

the living, newly arrived

in Detroit, city of dreams,

each on his black throne”

Levine has said that the tradition of poetry he inherited in the 1940s was “utterly lacking” in the kind of people and experiences he had grown up with. His intention was to add to US poetry “what wasn’t there” before. To have done this so consistently – to record the plight and resilience of the poor and inarticulate in America without breaking into the angry simplicities of blame or party politics or caricature is a monumental achievement. This is a collection that deserves to become a significant feature in the twenty-first century landscape of UK poetry.

And here are my notes from the Troubadour event (page numbers here refer to the Bloodaxe edition of Stranger to Nothing):

Reading Philip Levine’s poetry I was immediately put in mind of Carver’s admiration for Chekhov – he quotes Chekhov’s letter again and again in which he says “you don’t have to write about extraordinary people who accomplish extraordinary and memorable deeds”. Also like Carver, Levine worked in industry for many years – born in 1928, his first book didn’t appear till 1963. Both seem fully paid up members of the working classes – Carver said he could never write down to his own people. ‘Saturday Sweeping’ – p 26

I like the way Levine’s poems seem to meander organically from one thing to another – without a hint of irrelevance. He also plays great tricks with chronology – memory of his working years often playing such a large part in his current thinking and writing. ‘Sweet Will’ – p 84

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Levine – like Carver – would sign up to Pound’s dictum that the only worthwhile morality in writing is “fundamental accuracy of statement”. But there is another current in Levine which can take him towards the surreal. This poem reminds me of Ken Smith’s ‘Fox Running’ (both 1981). ‘The Fox’ – p 68

In later Levine, the political anger is often transmuted into a kind of less deceived tenderness – an amazed sense of good fortune. ‘Philosophy Lesson’ – p 150

Levine often writes of visits to Europe – particularly Spain – and the Civil War clearly stimulated his imagination. Here though – I take it – he is also commenting on one of the great American poets who came to Europe – one I guess temperamentally very contrasting to Levine and I think this has to be intended partly as literary critical comment. ‘The Trade’ – p 127

Levine is also unfashionably willing to walk naked – emotionally. Some will think he sails the wrong side of sentimentality but I’d disagree.’Starlight’ – p 55

Working on Rilke for so long in recent years – I see him everywhere. In the Elegies he claims that even the street girls – prostitutes – are momentarily aware of the visionary possibilities his poems are concerned with. But here – lastly – is Levine working from a position of a good deal of factual knowledge and communicating the same thing – moments of vision without the religious baggage. ‘An Ordinary Morning’ – p 86

The Poetry of Tom Rawling

In the early 1980s I arrived in Oxford as a self-absorbed post-graduate and promptly sought out student poets wherever I could find them. The group I joined was then (I think) meeting in rooms in Hertford College, opposite the Bodleian Library (and happily very close to the Kings Arms). Bill (W N) Herbert was there, as was Keith Jebb and Paul Mountain. The group, with changing personnel – I remember Elise Paschen was a member for a while – continued to meet throughout my 4 year stint among the dribbling spires, but we would supplement it by decamping to the Old Fire Station on George Street where Tom Rawling was running a public workshop. Tom had taken over when Anne Stevenson moved north. As a retired headmaster, Tom ran us all as a well organised and disciplined class. Elizabeth Garret joined later and I think Peter Forbes was already a member, as was Helen Kidd. Jeremy Round, who was soon to achieve short-lived fame for his cookery writing, was also a regular. My poem ‘In Memory of Jeremy Round’ (eventually published in Beneath Tremendous Rain (Enitharmon, 1990) https://martyncrucefix.com/publications/beneath-tremendous-rain-1990/) is a lament for his tragic early death, but also tries to paint a vivid picture of the workshop and its members:

We’d wrangle inconclusively

between the beers and crossfire from Tom,

elder statesman who’d slip quietly glittering

poems from his tackle bag like fish; from Helen,

whose pages always seemed typed under earthquake

conditions, whose baggy poems had more passion

than most of us could muster; from Peter’s

exactitude, schooled on a diet of science, he held

each piece like a prism till it shed eloquent

rainbows; from Bill and Keith, the ferocious

tyros, the university wits, who minced nothing

but their language into strange sweet things;

from Paul whose poems were amazed not to find

themselves loosed into a more graceful age

than the one we live in.

There were others writers, of course, to whom I apologise for not recalling them clearly. Bill has also written about these few years with great eloquence and insight: http://tracearchive.ntu.ac.uk/poets/herbert/dec_2.htm.

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But rather than his aspiring students, it’s Tom Rawling’s own poetry that I want to highlight. A pamphlet called A Sort of Killing appeared in 1978 (an historical event now as this was one of the first publications by a young Neil Astley). OUP published Ghosts at My Back (1982). Two other books followed: The Old Showfield (Taxus, 1984) and The Names of the Sea-Trout (Littlewood Arc, 1993).

Grevel Lindop has long been a fan of Tom’s work (http://grevel.co.uk/poetry/tom-rawling-rediscovering-ennerdales-poet/). There is an audio recording of Tom reading many of his best poems (you can listen to one of them here: http://listenupnorth.typepad.com/listenupnorth/tom-rawling-poet.html). Listening to him again, what what comes over is his modesty, his sharp intelligence, his confidence in his own work and the vivid recall he had of his formative years, growing up in Ennerdale, Cumbria. Tom’s poems, in their accessibility, boldness with language, natural and ecological themes are (as my review concludes) ideal for the classroom and it is still a cherished hope of mine that they might be taken up by a mainstream publisher and presented to a new generation (a Rosemary Tonks of the western valleys of Cumbria, wielding his fly-fishing rod). Perhaps the best way to sing my praise of Tom’s work is to post up a review I wrote of his posthumous collection How Hall (2009).

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I recommend you search out more of his work (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Rawling). Here is my review:

Tom Rawling, How Hall: Poems and Memories, a passion for Ennerdale (Lamplugh and District Heritage Society, 2009), £7.50, ISBN 978-0-9547482-1-0

Tom Rawling, How Hall: selected poems of Ennerdale poet Tom Rawling, read by the author (Lamplugh and District Heritage Society, 2009), £5, CD audio recording

As a child in the 1920s, Tom Rawling grew up in the Ennerdale valley in what was then called Cumberland. It was not until his retirement in the shallow decades of the 1970s and ‘80s that he began to write poetry as a man “haunted . . . even bullied by his memories” as Anne Stevenson’s insightful introduction to this new selection explains. A marvellous collection was published by OUP in 1982 and two further publications from smaller presses resulted, but at his death in 1996 Rawling had not attracted the kind of attention he had hoped for and certainly deserved.

How Hall is a new edition of more than 70 poems, three pieces of autobiographical prose and some wonderfully evocative photographs. The accompanying CD is an audio recording of an extended reading given in 1983 and the passion and precision of his voice and his humble and insightful comments add further invaluable dimensions to any appreciation of his work. Rawling shares with Heaney the kind of vivid recall of childhood that yielded the title of his first book, Ghosts at My Back. An early poem has the young Rawling playing “squire” to the village blacksmith who also introduced him to his life-long passion, fishing – both are described as “tying knots / That didn’t slip” (‘Johnny’). Yet home life was not always so easy and there are poems that bitterly lament the repressed and repressive life of his mother (‘Hands’), his father’s drinking (‘Honour thy Father and thy Mother’) and the son’s rebellious, divisive “radical words” (‘Clipping Day’).

His rebellion took him away from home, but ironically it is for the authenticity of Rawling’s responses to the farm life and countryside of the Ennerdale of his youth that we should continue to read him. Perhaps it has taken us 25 years to understand what he felt intuitively, the importance of our relationships with the natural world and the kind of folklore that once bound man and nature together. Even in the 1920s, it was only Rawling’s grandmother who “glimpsed beyond the byre” to the atavistic fertility beliefs that lay behind “ritual no longer understood” (‘Grandmother’); it was she who knew the spell to complete a whistle carved from hedgerow sycamore (‘Sap-Whistle’). ‘The Barn’ vividly evokes the thrill of the hay harvest: “Bright prongs pierced and unpicked, ash handles / bent, they launched the bundles we embraced” and as the barn filled it was only when “heads bumped the slates / we came down the ladder in triumph”.

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Anne Stevenson – who met Rawling in Oxford in the late 1970s – rightly directs us not to dismiss his work as “romantic retrospection” because he really “wrote poems to tell the truth and in them rehearsed the daily rituals of life and death”. ‘Rumbutter’ characteristically revels in that recipe’s “sweet beginning” as well as, “not quite hidden, the cinnamon / of the coming funeral feast”.  There is certainly no room for sentimentality in Rawling’s view of nature: a pig is to be cared for only till the “pole-axe fell” (‘Hooks in the Ceiling’) and chickens are nurtured carefully, but in their “due season, each neck pulled / . . . the admired knack of killing” (‘Feathers’). Rawling also shares with Heaney a fascination with the insights embedded in idiom and dialect. ‘Hearthwords’ addresses the younger Irish poet with their shared belief that “the naming spell / gives the thing itself / into our hands” And then, as his own poetry began to flow, he swiftly developed a precise, lean, direct form of free verse, capable of moving from the joyous observations of “cloud and sun pursu[ing] / Their steeplechase across the land (‘I Am What I Was’) to the shockingly frank recording of the realities of the cow shed: “ a column of piss / cascades to the cobbles . . . a face gurning, whistling and whispering soft farts” (‘Privy’).

But Rawling’s reach is not confined to the material. Perhaps his most distinctive poems are those that deal with angling, especially fly-fishing for salmon and sea-trout which his poems transform into an almost religious questing and testing of the individual’s devotion, skill and subterfuge. His own first encounter with the power of the sea-trout he recalled as a moment when he had “waded / into mystery, tampered with Leviathan” (‘Leviathan’). One function of any poem is to offer us profound if vicarious experiences and these poems succeed so well in this evocation, taking us to the riverside at night, “to the dub / where sea-trout rest” where we might “hear an old ewe’s husky cough, / the water slopping, slapping” (‘Night Fisherman’).

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Poem after poem makes it clear that to fish in this way is to engage differently, intimately with the world and to embark on the difficult process of laying aside our humanity’s hobbling self-consciousness, to cast off the accretions of civilisation until we allow “the body [to] flow into the rod” (‘Torridge Salmon’), achieving a different form of consciousness as we “wade in deeper, / Share with the fish / Its lateral line / The current’s push” (‘Only the Body’). It’s easy to understand why Ted Hughes came to admire these poems as Rawling triumphantly celebrates the efforts and occasions when we encounter the Other in what becomes a frankly spiritual communion. So in ‘A Shared Rod’, a kingfisher perches on the “bamboo rod-tip” as the angler waits in the reed bed:

His great eye turns, a moment’s stare,

then, blue-green whirr,

the arrow skims downstream,

leaving an emptied space,

a shared rod quivering.

It is really this kind of encounter – with all that is not bounded by ourselves – that Rawling is conjuring in ‘The Names of the Sea-Trout’, a spell for fishermen that revises and revivifies his grandmother’s superstitious connections with the natural world:

Bender of steel, the breaker, the smasher,

The strong wench, the cartwheeler,

The curve of the world,

She who doesn’t want to surrender,

The desired, the sweet one.

Profound, vivid, honest, accessible – these are poems that at once connect us to a lost past and prepare us for a world in which the environment must again become our close companion. Rawling’s work would be wonderful to teach in schools if it were more easily available and a mainstream publisher would do well to bring him nearer centre stage. For the time being we must thank Michael Baron, Stan Buck and the Lamplugh and District Heritage Society for the very many pleasures of this marvellous book.

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Ecology and Poetry: Review of Michael McKimm’s ‘Fossil Sunshine’

I met Michael McKimm earlier this year – at the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in September 2014. His chapbook, Fossil Sunshine (Worple Press, 2013) interested me because much has been said in the last few years about how poetry has embraced science. This is one plank of the argument that also declares poetry has embraced popular culture, or the world and language of IT, the law, or maybe banking. Yes, poetry is keen to annex what it can. And I would happily sign up to the general principle that poetry’s health can feasibly be measured by the range of experience it can encompass. In times of feebleness poems are stuntedly concerned with poetic subjects, poetic diction; in periods of strength, there is a great sense of traction and encompassment, that anything will give itself to the poet.

Perhaps we are on the cusp of one of these latter moments; reading Nathan Hamilton’s 2013 Bloodaxe anthology (note the wide embrace of the title) Dear World & Everyone In It you might get that feeling. And guess what: Michael McKimm appears on page 90 and Fossil Sunshine really is differently-angled to most of the collections you’ll have read recently. These poems are the result of a year-long collaboration with earth scientists, in a project funded by Arts Council England. Drawing on fieldwork with geologists, the poems explore the relationships between geology, the oil industry and climate change, and (Worple’s blurb says) they ask what the evidence held in the geological record can teach us. The blurb goes on: “From ice ages to landslides, oil spills to geo-engineering, Fossil Sunshine captures the language of geology, as well as the energy and drive of exploration and discovery”.

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Given its subject, the book inevitably has an admonitory tone. But one of the problems with poetry’s annexing more and still more was noted by Keats and his response was to loathe anything poetic that has a palpable, didactic design upon us. Indeed, the poetic and didactic are mutually exclusive for him. Poetry is a realm (perhaps unique) where life’s genuine truth and beauty (simply that it is full of shades and ambiguity) can be expressed and relished without any irritable reaching after clarity and fact. What I like so much about McKimm’s poems is that they would also have pleased Keats on this count. They are vigorous, ambiguous and even visionary. In them we see mankind’s power as much as our malign influence, the frailty of nature as much as its resilience. They want us to think about these issues, but will not do the thinking for us.

‘Tertiary Basalts’ describes its igneous subject as “Crow black, slick as onions, or walk-on-nails / tough”. It’s in part a child’s eye view (“A thick burnt red / running through like a layer of jam”) and the narrator admits that rock like this would give his earlier self “more pictures than the clouds”. But McKimm does not ironise the child’s vision but combines it with an adult understanding of the rock’s creation to make a more rounded celebration of the natural world. ‘Holderness Boulder Clay’ does something similar as it vigorously describes the sea’s biting away at the friable coastal reaches till “a fencepost hang[s] from a whip / of wire, and plastic drainage pipes / [are] like pillarbox guns”. Whatever warnings are here they are buried in the figurative language – the whip, the gun. The poem is a tour de force of minute particulars; I’ve never felt so close to the ebb and flow, the nibbling of erosion, the swirl of “gobstoppers of granite, sandstone, / Norwegian porphyry, carnelian”. Elsewhere (in prose this time), someone called Stuart takes a little hammer to a chunk of Yorkshire chalk and skilfully unearths a fossil sea sponge: “Laosciadia Planus. I weighed it in my hand.” And like a time machine, suddenly Bridlington with its Pitch and Putt course vanishes to be replaced by a vision of the past: “Sea conifers, angiosperms. The whole place electric with reptiles”.

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Only someone much concerned with the environment could bring the natural world – both present and past – so vividly into poetry. Someone like that could not fail to express concern at our interventions in the world. A scattered sequence of poems, each called ‘Abstract from a Conference’, expresses this concern. The first explains that coal, oil, gas are anciently stored sunshine that we have since “sought with our intelligence / and drive”. Our brilliance has long been to our benefit but . . . “Is it possible, a soft // landing for civilisation? We were smart. / How smart do we now want to be?” The ‘Abstract’ in the title to these poems perhaps permits more didacticism than elsewhere: abstract as summary, abstract as form of language. Yet even here there is an awed sense of ourselves: “Survivalists, stewards of the biosphere, / from nothing we grew”. Where did we go wrong? We “thought of ourselves”. Perhaps little else. And for a while, “where was the harm in that? – / as the mighty river’s arteries flowed past.” ‘Pipeline’ is another sustained performance, a description of the route of a North American oil pipeline. Detail is put to use to suggest both the varieties of landscape it passes through as well as the ingenuity of its builders: “without even a pit stop it’s pierced Manitoba, / steady trajectory, knows where it’s going”.

So McKimm’s images are often carefully laid down, alive, at the borders of ambiguity. Yet the descriptive drive of the book pulls no punches when it comes to the mess we have made of things. Here are “the basics: deforestation, fallow lands, / tilling, terracing, irrigation systems, subsurface // water extraction, mining, transportation systems, / waterway re-plumbing, reservoir interception, // groynes, jetties, seawalls, breakwaters, harbours, / warfare”. Even a small scale ‘Oil Field’, apparently landscaped into a natural environment, is regarded, or rather listened to, with suspicion: “the beam pump’s / gentle purr, like an antique Singer threaded / through with jet, working with a rhythm / you would never think so peaceful or so clean”. At the living room table, my mother would propel an old Singer like this, an image perhaps of technology taken so far, only to be wrenched further still (the thread through this machine not homely cotton, but the more sinister thread of an oil jet).

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Andrew McCulloch’s review in the TLS concluded: “Read these poems!” Penelope Shuttle has written: “The language employed by this poet is powerfully tactile.  These are strong and in every sense grounded poems”. ‘Grounded’ is a worthy pun, of course, as much about McKimm’s language and tone as about his rocky, muddy, sandy subject matter. I’d recommend these poems, for their grit and grain as much as their environmental concerns, for their humble belief in human ingenuity as much as their clear-eyed warning about where it seems to be taking us.

Dan O’Brien’s ‘War Reporter’ and new poems

I sometimes think poets are of two kinds: those drawn to dramatic subjects which explicitly dramatise the writer’s concerns and those drawn to more everyday topics which come to reflect the writer’s concerns in the course of the poem. I think of Hardy and Edward Thomas in the latter camp, alongside Heaney’s reference to Katherine Mansfield in North (1975): “I will tell / How the laundry basket squeaked”. In the former camp, for sure, stands the American writer, Dan O’Brien, who is everywhere at the moment.

O’Brien sees himself as “a playwright who moonlights as a poet” and he has just won the Troubadour International Poetry prize and been shortlisted for the Evening Standard theatre awards (for his play The Body of an American). He also has poems included in the recent Magma issue discussed in my last blog (https://martyncrucefix.com/2014/12/01/the-launch-of-magma-60-at-lrb-bookshop/). O’Brien’s first book of poems, War Reporter, was published by Charles Boyle’s excellent CB Editions just a year ago and I reviewed it for Poetry London. The book went on to be shortlisted for the Forward First Collection Prize and to win the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection prize (http://www.thepoetrytrust.org/news/fenton-aldeburgh-first-collection-prize-2013-winner-announced/)

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In discussion at Aldeburgh, O’Brien said War Reporter had been described as “docu-poetry” and that “sounds fair.” The war reporter in the book’s title is Canadian journalist, Paul Watson, and for seven years O’Brien has been in communication with him, “obsessively” recording and working on email conversations, as well as Watson’s recordings from conflict zones around the world. The two poems in Magma are part of new work in progress. ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Has the Time’ is a good example of the complex webs of guilt and complicity that O’Brien poems weave at their best. The narrator has helped an “interpreter” escape from Kandahar and vengeance is taken against the interpreter’s extended family through an IED: “A bump in the road and / the usual denouement”. The poems never flinch from explicitness about physical harm (“his father, leg like broken / bricks in a bag”) or psychological damage (“a pistol for protection, against all / sense and provocation, only to suck it in his mouth and – blackout”). ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Knows’ returns in part to the moral quandaries surrounding Watson’s 1994 Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of Staff Sgt. William Cleveland’s body being dragged from the wreck of a Black Hawk and through the streets of Mogadishu. It also alludes to Watson’s more recent eyewitness accounts from the conflict in Syria: “The West engaged / in self-soothing debates while mercenaries / penetrate the borders, tilting the board / in Assad’s favour”.

The Troubadour winning poem likewise derives from the Syrian conflict. Co-judging with Seren’s Amy Wack, Neil Astley said O’Brien submitted three poems, any one of which could have won first prize: “All three were so compelling that I found myself measuring all the other poems I read against them . . . I had no hesitation in putting forward one of them for first prize.” The eventual winner was ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson and the Barrel Bombs’: “basically pieces-of-shit / IEDs of TNT, nitrogen / -rich fertilizer, diesel, anything / likely to kindle after exploding”. This is a more brutal, less multi-dimensional poem than some of O’Brien’s but it possesses an undeniable power to shock: “A foot in a sock / sticks out of the mountain. They tickle her / to see if they should dig”.

O’Brien has just published a second collection of more personal poems with CB Editions: http://www.cbeditions.com/obrien2.html

And here is my review of War Reporter from last year:

Dan O’Brien’s book is big, brave, important and challenging even in its imperfections. It is an act of ventriloquism, hitching a desperate and often horrifying ride on the work and experiences of Canadian war reporter, Paul Watson. Watson took the 1994 Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of Staff Sgt. William Cleveland’s body being dragged from the wreck of a Black Hawk through the streets of Mogadishu. Without doubt, his work tapped something important for America; as well as Watson’s original book, Where War Lives, and these poems, there is also a play and an opera in preparation.

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The poems abound in speaking voices, dominated by Watson himself, but including the “Poet”. Each piece comes at the reader as a slab of blank, largely decasyllabic verse. Voices bleed into one another, partly under the pressure of war zone experiences but also because of an explicit similitude between author and reporter: “You’re like the writer / I’ve always wished I were [. . . ] your constant / returning to an underworld we can’t / look at” (‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Describes the Ghost’). Both men admit to the allure of war and death. Watson’s voice, telling of his Mogadishu photo, confesses “When / you take a picture the camera covers / your face, you shut the rest of the world out” (‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Hears the Voice’). The quieter, more reflective stretches of the sequence explore this idea and allude to Camus’ claim to have solved the mystery of where war lives; the answer is in each of us, in our loneliness and humiliation. Watson’s book pursues this and O’Brien does the same here, taking the idea to justify excursions into both men’s personal and family backgrounds. I’m not sure how effective this is (OK, both are drawn to war’s horror, but neither are warriors) and these episodes do sap the quite astonishing power of the more direct reportage.

The book has Watson recalling scenes from Somalia, Rwanda, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and it is art’s ability to contemplate such horrors that makes the book an important one. Tony Harrison (who always refers to himself as the man who reads the metre) insists that his formal artistry is vital to bring the poet through the fire he is intent on penetrating. O’Brien chooses to speak of man’s brutality by telling it slant, through another’s voice. Watson witnesses the stoning of a married rapist, but the initial possessive modifier ensures we cannot push the scene into the distance: “our audience cheers an elderly man / lifting a perfect cinder block above / his head, then smashing it down where a gash / jack knifes the rapist’s neck” (‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Attends a Stoning’). War lives in all of us and the collection is a hard read partly because of our reluctance to face this. The rigid consistency of form perhaps also adds some monotony, but I’d agree with Jay Parini, that O’Brien’s success is in finding words “sufficient” for our time, a form of speech adequate to the evil that persists.

W S Merwin – The Moon Before Morning

This review by Fiona Sampson says all I’d want to say about Merwin’s brilliant new book.

I was delighted when Bloodaxe wanted to excerpt from a review I wrote for ‘Poetry London’ about his last – The Shadow of Sirius (2009) – for the blurb of the new collection.

Here’s what I wrote then:

The Shadow of Sirius won its author a second Pulitzer in 2009 and this UK edition from Bloodaxe is a PBS Recommendation so Merwin hardly needs a plug from me. Yet his original poetry (as opposed to his wide-ranging translation work) remains relatively little known here and this book is so good that I am delighted to be able to add to the praise it has already garnered. These poems are lyrical, majestic, sceptical and tenderly gorgeous meditations on time and the nature of perception. They are also technically thought provoking. Since 1970 Merwin has abandoned punctuation and the resulting texts are thrilling processes in which syntax drifts in and out of focus, never a word out of place, and technique is made to carry metaphysical and psychological weight. Merwin intends the poem – because it must reflect human consciousness – to re-present a unified field of experience, especially of the temporal.

Early poems here are autobiographical and the shadow of Sirius is mortality and time for a writer in his eighties. It “appears now that there is only one / age and it knows / nothing of age as the flying birds know / nothing of the air” (‘Still Morning’). Later, age itself “seems to be without substance” since “the bird lies still while the light goes on flying” (‘Unknown Age’). Many of these sinuous, seamless poems appear to be enacted in a present tense that is re-focused on a remembered past which then contains anticipations of the future. So in ‘Accompaniment’, a child is washing his hands on a train journey, hearing his mother’s instructions about what they will do next, but the journey is long:

I will

wake up far away

we are going south

where I know that my father

is going to die

but I will grow up before he does that

the hands go on washing themselves

‘Photographer’ reads like a little myth of this process. The artist’s death goes unremembered by most but “someone who understood” rescues hundreds of glass plates and from them come “apple trees flowering in another century / lilies open in sunlight against former house walls”.

Though ‘A Likeness’ ends by declaring “I have only what I remember”, there is such generosity, breadth and richness to memory beyond any roseate nostalgia or cheap remorse that Merwin enacts Eliot’s observation that “all time is eternally present (‘Burnt Norton’). In doing so he accesses a redemptive quality yet does not underestimate the epistemological complexities. Many pieces are in search of deeper meaning and can be regarded as versions of ‘A Note From the Cimmerians’ who dwell “in utter darkness”. Towards the end of this marvellous book, landscapes recur which might be Merwin’s childhood USA, or the Pacific island of Maui where he know lives, but most often suggest the France where he once lived (a squabbling Plath and Hughes stayed with Merwin and his first wife in 1961) and seems now to be revisiting. ‘Cold Spring Morning’ notes “At times it has seemed that when / I first came here it was an old self / I recognized in the silent walls”. ‘Youth of Grass’ opens with what reads like straight landscape description but concludes (only 15 lines later) having gathered all the tenses together: “so the youth of this spring all at once is over / it has come upon us again taking us / once more by surprise just as we began / to believe that those fields would always be green”.

“The trouble with pleasure is the timing” declares ‘One of the Butterflies’ and the extent to which Merwin wrests pleasure from the passage of time is extraordinary; and extraordinarily Keatsian since these poems do not reach for fixity or facts, their fluidly unpointed forms unfolding with a marvellous aptness. It is not merely that pleasure is “gone before I know it is here” but more importantly “if I could make it stay / as I want to it would turn into pain” (‘One of the Butterflies’). These are unashamedly late poems and Merwin argues the mark of such work is that they employ “words / that have come the whole way / they have been there” (‘Worn Words’). Just listen to the settled human voice singing in this final poem: “yes this is the place and the one time / in the whole of before and after / with all of memory waking into it” (‘The Laughing Thrush’).