#WADOD – Day 17: March 17th 2019

Works and Days of Division – 29 poems by Martyn Crucefix

Drawing on two disparate sources, this sequence of mongrel-bred poems has been written to respond to the historical moment in this most disunited kingdom. Hesiod’s Works and Days – probably the oldest poem in the Western canon – is a poem driven by a dispute between brothers. The so-called vacana poems originate in the bhakti religious protest movements in 10-12th century India. Through plain language, repetition and refrain, they offer praise to the god, Siva, though they also express personal anger, puzzlement, even despair. Dear reader – if you like what you find here, please share the poems as widely as you can (no copyright restrictions). Or follow this blog for future postings. Bridges need building.

14489923-afbeelding-van-patiënt-hand-met-een-intraveneus-infuus

Sunday 17.03.2019

‘at my mother’s high bleached bedside’

 

at my mother’s high bleached bedside

a couple of transparent drips

the monitors bleeping

and across the ward a woman mostly of skin and bone

cries out is that your daughter

and though I have a grown-up daughter

she’s not here so can I laugh it off

as so much senile rapture

though it’s not easy

is that your daughter now she is repeating

and I wonder what it is she thinks she sees

and would it be acceptable

to question her about what it is

who do you believe is standing beside me

though you see nothing

I’m sure she sees nothing of what’s actually here

and she proves it with her wide-eyed gazing

into the white-scrubbed air

repeating look at the bees swarming

O look at the bees

swarming where the bridges are down

 

Read next poem

Read previous poem

#WADOD – Day 4: March 4th 2019

Works and Days of Division – 29 poems by Martyn Crucefix

Drawing on two disparate sources, this sequence of mongrel-bred poems has been written to respond to the historical moment in this most disunited kingdom. Hesiod’s Works and Days – probably the oldest poem in the Western canon – is a poem driven by a dispute between brothers. The so-called vacana poems originate in the bhakti religious protest movements in 10-12th century India. Through plain language, repetition and refrain, they offer praise to the god, Siva, though they also express personal anger, puzzlement, even despair. Dear reader – if you like what you find here, please share the poems as widely as you can (no copyright restrictions). Or follow this blog for future postings. Bridges need building.

 

Gjen glass recycle bins20

Monday 4.03.2019

‘how you order’

 

how you order then sip your flat white with care

or diesel with care or cling film

 

or eat responsibly sourced seafood with care

red meat or bottled carbonated water

 

you dispose of in the bins provided with care

with care what you have locked away

 

what you have stowed in the understairs cupboard

how you travel by land sea and air with care

 

then insist on being used by the language with care

with care discoursing with friends

 

when touching friends and your extended family

with care your actions

 

have a care and your reactions with care

with a passionate care where possible your politics

 

how you govern or set out to work

or choose how and who you play with tomorrow

 

with care I mean take care not forgetting

all the bridges are down

 

Read next poem

Read previous poem

2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #5 – Eric Langley

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

The 2017 shortlist is:

Maria Apichella – Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing) – reviewed here

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

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet) –  reviewed below

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

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

download

Do poets owe their readers explanatory notes? The pro-accessibility reply is ‘On principle, no!’ The googlers reply is ‘Not necessary – let your fingers do the walking’. Others might concede, ‘On occasions, maybe, for clarity’s sake or to take the piss out of critics and academe (see T.S. Eliot). But reading Eric Langley’s debut collection – if it’s proving hard to hang on to his erudite coat-tails – perhaps you cry ‘Yes, yes, for goodness sake!’ In fact, such pleas have already been answered by a curious, anonymous website that has sprung up to explicate many of these poems. Talk about poetry moving from the writer’s desk to the academic lecture hall without passing through an ordinary reader’s hands! It’s because Langley scrupulously offers us no help at all in positioning ourselves to read about the Chinese tradition of walnut gambling, Ancient Greek painter Zeuxis, Picasso’s father, Stephen Grosson’s 1579 book Schoole of Abuse, Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, Derrida on postcards, Argus, Eurydice, Zeno, Edgar Allen Poe and (twice) the art historical term pentimenti. And that’s mostly from the opening 50 pages of this 128 page book (I think it’s about 40 pages too long).

41y6M-ulhlL._SX304_BO1,204,203,200_

On the other hand, Langley often writes with a vigour and robust rhythmical quality to perform (all these poems are very performative) a sort of Elizabethan riffing to scatter-shot effect. He has a slightly annoying, almost reflex habit of sampling bits of Shakespeare mid-poem (especially from Hamlet) but Ted Hughes wrote of Shakespeare’s language that it was “an inspired signalling and hinting of verbal heads and tails both above and below precision, [a] weirdly expressive underswell of musical neargibberish” (‘The Great Theme: Notes on Shakespeare’ (1971)) and at his very best Langley catches some of this. Literally born into the Cambridge school (Langley’s father, R. F. Langley, with his son, would often holiday with J. H. Prynne), Langley junior invigorates that difficult style with a 1590s fizz and gristle (his day job at UCL is studying the bard and more obscure Elizabethan texts) in poems whose image field is most often ekphrastic, whose emotional stance is often surprisingly sentimental and whose dominant atmosphere is one of loss.

The loss is key. Fundamentally this is about language (Cambridge School again) as the poor relation to ultimate reality. Our every living moment is a catalogue of loss; certainly our every communication is a clumsy moon-shot at a too-fast moving target, a shot also plagued by the drag of our words’ etymologies. But this is also (like the Forward short-listed books by Nick Makoha and Ocean Vuong) a book about lost fathers (Langley talks about this and other things and reads a poem in this interview). In addition, Langley’s sense of loss is elsewhere associated with the recall of a romantic attachment, what he refers to at one point, transmuting Anthony Burgess, as “memory’s ultraviolence”. This stirring of long-buried materials is what the book’s title alludes to. Raking light is used in art historical investigations to reveal the artist’s false starts and abandoned intentions – a sort of alternative historical version of the final painting. In fact, it’s that often over-done, old poetical favourite, the palimpsest, in art historical terms.

So ‘In raking light’ the narrative voice explains “in the beam’s fetch / the urgent silt sits up”. Perhaps my ‘explain’ is not the right word here – there is a sort of querulous (lover’s?) complaint going on in the tone as if the voice resents this uncovering of the past.

 

Once, there was life here –

residual and errant –

hushed since, shucked under

the thick skin, the tough slough.

eusq2

The vowel music in these few lines illustrates one of the pleasures of Langley’s work, but the “thick skin” is a gift to those who might accuse him of tending to bury hurt and loss under an avalanche of erudition rather than bringing it to the light. Indeed, it’s debatable whether this poem (in 8 sections), as it continues to offer multiples of synonymous formulations of this buried/hidden trope, manages to express a humanly complex emotional state or simply obscure it in a playful, bravura performance. The poem to read alongside this one is ‘Eurydice in Euston Square’ which – once it has got past its tacked-on allusions to Orpheus’ lost wife and Proserpina – proceeds much more nakedly and accessibly:

 

Come back up stairs

if you read me

 

up in the subway

missing the tube travel,

 

missing the coach trips,

all the seaside rides,

 

the telephones, the postcards,

telegrams on spun wire;

 

come back up stairs,

and I’m hanging on

 

subjunctives, hanging on

superlatives, hanging on

 

the sound of someone

long gone to static

(apologies for some loss of formatting here – blame WordPress)

slide003

The more linguistic and epistemological losses that preoccupy Langley are clear in the opening line of the opening poem, ‘Glanced’: ‘You lovely looker on and by and by and.” The interruptive full stop is (ahem) the point (Langley’s love of puns can be infectious). The idea is then played out (again in a riffing, repetitive style) via another old favourite, Zeno’s arrow, though this time the target is Zeuxis’ painting of grapes which (in legend) was so realistic that birds swooped down to peck them. Art imagined to be closing on the real – of course, it proves a delusion. The arrow does strike the canvas but penetrates what is really nothing, then slams into a “wall”. The final section of the poem, in fact, does suggest some possible success (see Hughes’ comment on Shakespeare’s ultimate expressive achievement through signals and hints). The concluding lines display Langley’s vigorous use of anaphora, rhyme, punning and Shakespearean allusion:

 

So glancing blown by,

so palpably hit away, so

 

keep so lovely looking still

keep lovely looking till

 

until each hungry bird

has flown and had his fill.

MMP123510

The sequence, ‘Albada: Pigeons on pink’, starts (once we’ve done the googling to find out) with Picasso’s painter father, Don Jose Ruiz y Blasco. He liked to paint pigeons and for a few sections he sounds pleased with the results. But then young Pablo asks for a pencil and his father is astonished at the boy’s skill, or the degree to which his art seems to approach reality: “all these real these / really real pigeons”. Via another allusion to Hamlet, Langley then morphs the poem into an address to his own father (who wrote a poem called ‘Jack’s Pigeon’) though the two sons – Pablo and Eric – are blurred together, avoiding filial arrogance in a burst of filial piety: “it’s all still yours, still yours to say, Jose”. An albada is a Spanish love poem – this one has been re-geared into a piece about the son’s love of a father.

The two poems called ‘Pentimenti’ return to the ideas linked with raking light. The Italian word means ‘regrets’ and in art history it refers to changes an artist makes and covers over in the process of creation. The first of the poems is shorter and mixes images of painting with those of telephoning and it’s the latter that suggests this is really driven by a broken relationship in the modern world: “lost out here – dialling, dialling”. Such loss of contact and communication trips all Langley’s switches. A similar instinctive, welling up, or inundation, of potent material can be seen in the over-long, repetitive sequence in the middle of the book. This springs from a detail recounted by Galen of Pergamon that Ptolomaeus, King of Egypt, in assembling his great library, would take books from any ship that sailed into port, have them copied, then give back the copies, retaining the originals for his own book shelves. So language, knowledge, forgery, copies, signs, semiotics, morse code, the Dewey system of classification, plus Hamlet on the pirate ship and the final Alexandrian conflagration – Langley throws it all into the mix  and gives it a good stir.

124251-004-BDCAF293

For me, the second ‘Pentimenti’ is a much greater success, presenting itself as a literal palimpsest of the earlier poem – the thoughts, drafts and revisions that might have led to it. The performance here is not the dazzling, often impossible to follow footwork of other poems in the book, but rather one of hesitations, lines of thought taken up, then dropped, crossings out and (literal) fadings out. For me this expresses the difficulties of expression more effectively than many other poems, especially in the revisions we witness which involve a switch of verb tense from present to past. Most of these observations seem (again) to be focused on a romantic relationship so that what is the case (first draft) is being transformed into what was before our very eyes. I think (actually, I’m not sure) the sequence drifts latterly towards the relationship with the father again but even the obscurities here play an affecting role and the collection’s final lines remind me of the tragic, closing moments of Brian Friel’s play, Translations, in which the Gaelic language, culture and memory seems to be fraying and withering to nothing even as we watch and the lights dim.

Langley’s book will infuriate many and please the few. There is an impressive peculiarity here, a performative jouissance concerning language and learning which the Forward short-listing committee must be responding to. But I do wish he’d had a tougher editorial voice to cut the length of the book which – especially in the mid-sections – indulgently outstays its welcome.

eric-langley-

Workshopping With Will Shakespeare

Last weekend – what with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death just gone by and seeing an advertisement on Facebook I think it was – I signed up to be a participant in a Shakespeare and writing poetry workshop. Being an English teacher, love of Shakespeare rather comes with the territory but I’m sure I’m not the only teacher who enjoys being a participant in classes. So much of my time is spent initiating, organising, timing carefully and concluding that it’s a wonderful holiday-feeling to be initiated, organised, timed carefully and concluded by somebody else. (In what follows I am able to quote the work of nobody else but myself – for which apologies).

shakespeare-first-folio-title-page-introduction

The workshop was part of a series organised through the South Bank Poetry magazine, co-edited by Peter Ebsworth (its founder) and Katherine Lockton. They were both present for the workshop – upstairs, above the Poetry Society’s Cafe in Betterton Street, Covent Garden – but it was Katherine who ran the session. We gathered about 10.45 for 11am, most of us arriving clutching the mandatory take-out coffee from the cafe or elsewhere on our walks from the Tube. A big table, a plate of biscuits, greetings, sign in (whose name do I know here?). Upstairs at the PS is a strange mix of store room, kitchen, second hand bookshop, classroom. I thought it could do with a tidy-up myself – then tried to curb my flicker of nerves, that need for control. Actually, I’ve not taken part in a public workshop like this for ages. We were probably all feeling the same: what if I write total crap and Katherine asks me to read it out. Maybe a biscuit . . .

images

We started with free writing for 5 minutes or so – “to loosen up”. Katherine wanted us to set off from “My Shakespeare is . . .” What sprang vividly to mind was an occasion teaching not Shakespeare, in fact, but Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. A student read the “face that launched a thousand ships” speech so very badly that it achieved a weird sort of beauty in her inarticulacy. A bit like those ruins of classical statues (not far from where we were, in the British Museum) that seem to have acquired an added poignancy in not remaining whole. I rather like free writing (it’s how most of my own poems begin, a sudden splurge of material that then gets worked on) and as I wrote I ended up (from that halting reading of Marlowe) to love in a life or its opportunity missed:

 

Those encounters where you don’t have the words

Just stops pauses some musical sense

Of the word order but no –not the words themselves

And she turns away dips her head

Laughs at something somebody across the room has just said

eb296389fb62a4e2e059249bf0021f0e

Katherine then dished out the text of Sonnet 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” On the Tube in I had been wondering how I’d tackle Shakespeare in such a setting and I thought I’d not go for the more familiar moments. Katherine did and I have to say she was probably right. I’d have ended up explaining too much perhaps (too teacherly) when the point was to respond creatively to the poems. So most of us were familiar enough with this poem in which the narrator does compare his love to a summer’s day and the summer’s day turns out to be liable to be windy, over too soon, too hot, over too soon . . . The lover apparently suffers from none of these things not even death itself – because the poet has preserved her in “this” poem: “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee”. We wondered, among others things, at the manly arrogance of this.

We picked a phrase or even just a word to respond to from the poem and set off for 30 minutes or so. On this first occasion, many of us seemed to get sucked into the vortex of the sonnet form and rhyme especially. But the quality of the group that day was extraordinary. Several produced sonnets which worked well (in 30 minutes!) and all the pieces eventually read out were interesting responses. I chose the phrase “By chance, or nature” and was exploring (again) the chance or fate of meetings with the one’s you love. I was imagining the alternative worlds we jettison or turn our back on with every choice we make:

 

So that in one of those plural worlds

We might have met before, or later, even not

At all – through pram and playground, into school

To college, old flames, chance turn, random plot.

 

You can see what I mean about getting locked into a formal mode. It may be that most of us realised this as when Katherine then tried us with Sonnet 130, more of the group struck out – away from formality, probably into something more like our natural mode. This was also probably encouraged by the fact that Katherine was showing us contemporary responses to these poems as we went. Several of these were quite encouraging in that they were pretty poor as poems – there are a number of anthologies where contemporary poets respond to Shakespeare (especially this year) but so many of the poets try too hard to up-date originals into some hip idiom; embarrassing like Dad-dancing). I guess that at least gave us permission to try something more adventurous of our own.

daodejing

I found myself interested in the way the Sonnet 130 tries to define the lover through a kind of via negativa, what she is not. It’s a kind of anti-poetic in that the poet dismisses the ability of comparison (one of the poet’s main tools) to capture her in truth. This was reminding me of repeated occasions in the Daodejing poems I have been working on for 3/4 years (just published now – so fully on my mind last weekend) in which the text also argues the elusiveness of the One. The latter is often given female characteristics so it was an easy step to my scribble:

 

She lives in the live darkness between

The opening and shutting of my eye-lids

 

Between ascender and descender

Of this pen this white expanse

 

This Microsoft space not knowing what to do

With itself not being busy

 

In the moment when instructions cease

And what opens is that snow-field

 

Beneath the first or second chair-lift not yet

Inscribed [. . . ]

tumblr_m4v3ij8TgU1r2tbuso1_500

The third piece Katherine gave us were extracts from Romeo and Juliet (the balcony scene, the “what’s in a name” speech” and Juliet’s “O serpent heart”). We discussed these and annotated them to pick out certain patterns and concerns. We then compiled a small list of words of our own and set off with the aim of writing in the voice of a character from Shakespeare. I’ve always had a soft spot for Horatio and especially Hamlet’s gentle, though firm, put-down: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. I had Horatio realising the truth of this, a bit Prufrock-like realising that he was not meant to play the Prince, but be an observer, something of a by-stander at the big events:

 

O but it’s enviousness I breed

Here listening to you roar

And glitter you go on to the very point

Or way off kilter

And patronise me yet even this you do

With such grace with warmth making me love you.

images

The rhythm of this particular workshop was a lot of time for individual writing. We shared all we wrote (no one objected – and absolutely none of it was “crap”), and Katherine introduced the extracts quite briskly while still allowing plenty of time for people’s reactions to them. The time was now about 4pm. The final piece was stimulated with small bits of cloth from Katherine’s Mum’s sewing box but also with a story she told (no details – it’s her story) which we could incorporate if we wanted to.  My final piece was the strangest I’d produced so far. My cloth was a rich red – a bit sexy – and the encounter was on a staircase, I was coming down to meet someone. Perhaps by this time I was more Juliet than myself, or I’d carved myself into two:

 

Everything possessed

Of that clarity

And the weight

Of heraldry—

 

So the long dress

I wear is gules

Its blood-red

Slit to the thigh

 

Its plunging neck

A sunlight wedge

At the foot

Of the shallow stair

 

I lift my chin

As if called for [. . . ]

 

I don’t know if the 4 pieces I produced will come to anything further but I can honestly say they would not have been written otherwise. In running my own workshops, I always say the simple thing they achieve is to take your writing to places you’d not have got to alone. That certainly happened the other day and I’m grateful to South Bank Poetry for the chance to participate: now back to the front of the class.

DR FAUSTUS
DR FAUSTUS  – Elizabeth Taylor Richard Burton