What Have I Been Reading: July – September 2015

Up-dated September 2015

Don Paterson’s 101 Sonnets is certainly a varied selection of the form (it strikes me it would be a good, coherent text for students to study). The editor is never short of an opinion, ranging from the good sense of “Academics, in particular, have talked an awful lot of rubbish on the subject of rhyme” to the much more questionable “the whole point of [a] poem – that it should lodge itself permanently in our brains”

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That the novelist Ursula K Le Guin should be a fan and translator of Lao Tzu’s 81 ancient poems/chapters known as the Tao Te Ching is perhaps less surprising than the fact that her translation is one of the most enjoyable around (and I’ve been reading plenty of them in preparation for my version’s appearance next Spring).

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Two chunky collecteds have been pre-occupying me in the last month or so. Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems is – by the nature of his aesthetic perhaps – uneven, but almost every page turns up new ways of writing and reading poetry: an invigorating pleasure.

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I have blogged on Bertolt Brecht’s Poems 1913-1956 before – in more recent weeks I have been tracking him out of Germany, to Denmark and hence to the USA. Extraordinary how contemporary most of these poems feel, though already 60 plus years old.

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Updated August 2015

John Greening’s anthology of poems about music, Accompanied Voices (Boydell & Brewer),  is a lovely thing, full of variety, full of poems to be re-acquainted with from Hill, Hughes, Longley and Porter and brand new contemporary work including Stainer, Allnutt, O’Donoghue, Reid, Rumens, Shuttle and Greening’s own little gem on John Field (being walked all over by Chopin).

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I tweeted a couple of weeks ago that I found Carolyn Forche’s second collection, The Country Between Us (HarperPerennial, 1982) in a Highgate secondhand bookshop and having raced through the poems before going away I’m now keen to get back to them for a more reflective read.

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Tim Liardet’s poem-sequence of self-portraits, The World before Snow (Carcanet) is actually motivated and (to some degree evokes) an illicit trans-Atlantic affair. The poems have the density and intensity of Liardet’s previous work with an even greater fertility and fluency of imagination.

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On Narrowness, Claire Crowther’s third collection from Shearsman is a chewy, twisting, sometimes vertiginous read; that’s another way of saying I don’t know what’s going on half the time. But the poems are confident in themselves and leap boldly from one image to another.

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Up-dated July 2015

I find Yves Bonnefoy’s writing unfailingly nutritious though sometimes wonder if his ideas are at least as exciting as the classically restrained lexis of his verse. Beverley Bie Brahic’s 2013 translation of The Present Hour (2011) has Bonnefoy in sonnet-shaped Wordsworthian mood recalling his childhood, writing enigmatic prose pieces and a thought-provoking (because not always easy to follow) essay, ‘In a Piece of Broken Mirror’, once again discussing image, dream, reality and language.

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Perhaps is Alan Murray’s Acumen chapbook from 2013 and it quotes Nietzsche’s observation that the word ‘I’ is the point at which our ignorance begins and several poems do press at the boundaries and mysteries of the self. Murray is a philosopher as well as poet and his colloquial, skilfully turned verse sounds Larkinesque in its precision and equivocations. Great to read poems unafraid of complex ideas.

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Sheenagh Pugh’s 12th book leaves Cardiff and Wales for the Shetland Islands. Wide skies, rough oceans, bright stars. But I share her obsession with the passage of time and there are some powerful poems here, though I find her historical delvings less enjoyable.

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Collette Bryce’s ultra-brief outing (from 2014) into her childhood growing up in Derry during the Troubles is an object lesson in how to focus a collection (just 30 poems). She writes plain, rather withdrawn poems, but this seems right for the material which is therefore allowed to speak for itself.

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Two Gas Attack Poems: Wilfred Owen and Choman Hardi

Ian Duhig has recently written for Poetry London about the genre of ‘poetry of witness’ (Poetry London). In 2014, Carolyn Forche and Duncan Wu edited The Poetry of Witness: The English Tradition, 1500–2001 (Norton) and the genre was there described as a tradition that runs through English-language poetry: “composed at an extreme of human endurance – while their authors awaited execution, endured imprisonment, fought on the battlefield, or labored on the brink of breakdown or death”. Though Duhig’s discussion raises doubts about both the genre itself, this definition, and its ethical stance, the two poems I discuss here are surely examples of it.

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I’ve recently been reading Choman Hardi’s new collection and the link with Owen’s very well-known (well-studied) poem is obvious. Choman Hardi’s poem ‘Gas Attack’ comes from the ‘Anfal’ sequence in her recent book, Considering the Women (Bloodaxe, 2015). The narrator is a woman whose community is bombed by the Iraqi state in the notorious attacks on the Kurdish people in 1988. Wilfred Owen’s famous poem (‘Dulce et Decorum Est’) draws on his experiences of trench warfare on the Western Front in World War One. Owen’s title is a reference to Horace’s Odes (III, ii l. 13), the full phrase translating as “Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country”. It is this sort of ardent, patriotic jingoism that Owen looks to counter in the poem as it is the world’s blindness to real events in Kurdish-Iraq that Hardi wishes to correct.

Structurally both poems are similar in that they open by setting a scene of relative calm even suggesting the ordinariness of what, to most readers, must seem extraordinary. It is into these already difficult situations that the gas attacks fall and both poems (Owen’s at greater length) detail the nature of the attack and some of its immediate effects. Both poems have a third and final part in which they focus on specific victims. In Hardi’s poem this is the son of the mother narrator; in Owen’s case it is one of the gas-affected soldiers, flung onto a “wagon”, and suffering the agonizing effects of the gas. So both poems open, in effect, making use of a wide-angled lens but proceed to focus on individuals and this reflects the shared intention of both authors to elicit understanding and sympathy from their readers. It is Owen who makes this purpose more explicit in the final, bitter address to “My friend” (possibly the jingoistic writer, Jessie Pope, the original dedicatee of the poem).

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Choman Hardi

The scene set in ‘Gas Attack’ is of the routine persecution of the Kurdish people under Saddam Hussein. The deliberate plainness of the opening line (“Bombs could fall anywhere, any time of the day”) with its repetition around the caesura suggests this – as does the unruffled sense given by the line’s end-stopping. The statement that such events are to be regarded as a mere “nuisance” that can be “got used to” wrenches the reader away from the more usual evaluation of such events into a world where these things are everyday incidents. There is however something proleptic about the awkwardly enjambed breaking of line 2, the reference to “shelters” and the unease implied by words like “haunting” and “muffled”. This is confirmed (after 2 more run-on lines) by the deliberate puzzle that the explosions “deceived us”. The faint personification here and the idea that explosions (surely pretty straightforward things) might have the capacity for deception alerts the reader, creating tension: in what way are these explosions unlike other explosions?

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Owen’s opening 8 lines are immediately more harsh and noisy though even here there is some sense of routine in that the retreating men “marched asleep” (from fatigue and perhaps on ‘automatic pilot’). The fact they are heading for “distant rest” invites the reader to some mistaken sense of ease (no doubt reflecting the feelings of the men themselves as they march away from the Front Line). But through figurative language and physical positioning, Owen’s men are more distressed than Hardi’s Kurdish woman: “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge”. Like Hardi, Owen also uses the word “haunting” but here for distant flares falling and the brief, stumbling phrases of lines 5-8 reflect the men’s difficult progress. Such devices elevate the reader’s anticipation of drama to come though again, on the surface, the men have “outstripped” shells (Five-Nines) that are dropping “behind” them. Their deafness to the sound of these shells on one side suggests their (safe) distance from them, on the other, “deaf even” (my italics) implies potential danger to come from this source.

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Owen’s lines on the attack itself are a nightmare of panic initiated by the exclamatory, capitalized shouts of the men: “Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!” This is an “ecstasy” in that their consciousness is so agitated and extra-ordinary that they feel to be watching themselves as in an out of body experience (ex-stasis). Their flurry to don gas masks is suggested by 6 present participle verbs in as many lines though most of these are equally descriptive of the poor individual who fails to get his mask on fast enough. Figurative language conveys his agonising plight as he is “like a man in fire or lime” and he moves “As under a green sea [. . . ] drowning”. By contrast, the impact of the attack in Hardi’s poem is at first a strange calm, once again related to the deceiving nature of these Iraqi bombs (thought to be conventional; in reality chemical weapons). Owen’s men are familiar with these chemical weapons; Hardi’s Kurdish community is not – yet.

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There is still no shift to the level tone of Hardi’s poem, even as the mother narrator observes how “a chalky-yellow powder settled // on our skin”. These lines seem to extend time agonisingly for the reader who, aware of the topic from the plainly informative poem title, waits for the narrator to comprehend events. In contrast to Owen’s figurative language of pain by fire and water, Hardi’s narrator’s ignorance (and therefore her innocence) is caught in her image of the powder “smelling of sweet apples at first” and it “seemed safe”. It’s the caesura of line 8 that marks the transition from ignorance to knowledge as the impact of the gas is evoked (again through a series of active present participles (going, laughing, buckling, twisting running, bumping)). The people’s erratic, tortured behavior has a black comedic, or surreal, quality which probably suggests the few shreds of the observer’s naivety (something Owen’s more experienced narrator never expresses).

In a notable contrast between the two poems, lines 15/16 of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ break from the retrospective narrative into the present tense (“I saw him [. . .] He plunges”). The lines provide another image of sight, perhaps launched partially by the heightened visual quality of the glimpse of the man “through the misty panes” of the narrator’s own mask. But in these lines the “helpless sight” is one derived instead from dream-vision and memory. The fact that, at an undefined moment after these events, they still haunt the narrator gives additional weight to the horrors unfolding in the past tense narrative.

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This is not something Hardi’s poem does and to this extent Owen’s narration is more complex, implying an attitude towards the events which emerges most obviously in the long single sentence of lines 17-25. The third section of Hardi’s poem continues with the level-toned witnessing: “Villages from the region came to our aid”. At first it seems curious that they are the ones to draw attention to the narrator’s son who “looked strange”. At this point it is almost as if the mother does not want to refer to her son’s injuries, a kind of denial, though eventually it emerges that it is her own blindness (as a result of the chemical weapon) that has actually prevented her even seeing its effects on her son. The boy’s strangeness is conveyed in the plain statement that “his face was blistered, blackened” but also through the strange phrase (difficult to visualize) that it was “as if his eye-colour had spilt // out”. This probably refers to the “blackened” image but also suggests the physically horrific melting of eye-balls not unlike Owen’s “white eyes writhing” and the dissolving of “froth-corrupted lungs”.

Hardi continues to hold back the fact of the mother’s blindness which accounts for the recourse to the aural image of the boy’s groan “like a calf faced with the knife”. This in turn conjures up Owen’s opening to ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” I don’t see influence here other than the fact that both writers are wanting to evoke sympathy by drawing attention to the dehumanising impact of warfare’s mass slaughter. Hardi’s narrator finally reveals her own injury (“I was still blind”) and after another run of destabilizing enjambment (ll. 11-14) the last line is more heavily punctuated, slowing and emphasizing and again keeping the tone level and factual: “he / died, [I] could not see him, did not say goodbye”. The mother’s passivity is very prominent; her hopelessness is what expresses her grief. It is as though the continual persecution and horror has left her drained even of the energy to mourn with passion.

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This is obviously very different to the passionately angry conclusion of Owen’s poem. Owen’s focus on the dying soldier begins at line 17 but its vivid descriptions of the man’s death are already contained within a hypothetical syntax – a point is evidently being made with the surprising appearance for the first time of the second person pronoun (“you”). Far more assertively than Hardi’s poem, Owen demands his readers, those who knew too little of the realities of warfare in 1918, put themselves in a position of greater insight: “pace / Behind the wagon that we flung him in, / And watch”. Likewise Owen does not pull punches in terms of the gruesome description of the soldier’s suffering with his “writhing” eyes, his “hanging” face (upside down, hanging off the wagon?), his “gargling” lungs. The two similes he introduces achieve the same levels of hyper-intensity with the suffering “as cancer” (obscurely or – in another draft – obscenely) and the blood in his throat like a “cud”, yet another livestock allusion to match Hardi’s doomed “calf”. The cud on this occasion is itself developed metaphorically into “vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues”, further emphasizing the appalling injustice of this slaughter.

It’s at line 25 that the “you” is addressed more directly with the ironically amicable “My friend”. The “zest” and “arden[cy]” of those eager for patriotic glory is mocked (“glory” rhyming with “mori”) but the potentially ‘hedging’ effect of these ironies is vigorously and fiercely pushed aside by the plainly monosyllabic description of the Horatian tag as “The old Lie”. Owen’s poem takes the reader into the trenches, to the post-traumatic world of nightmares, but also manages to encompass this declarative, even propagandist, point. Likewise, Hardi’s poem plunges us into the gas attack and its aftermath but never ventures into the same argumentative, passionate point-making. Her decision to allow the details of this poem to speak for itself is a brave one (of tone and manner) given the horrors of which it speaks and the author’s evident commitment to bringing them to notice.

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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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