Nightcries: Liz Berry’s Motherhood Poems

 

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One of my very first reviews here – in August 2014 – was of Liz Berry’s Black Country. I was so impressed with the ways in which she exerted “pressure to counter the hegemonies of language, gender, locality, even of perception”. Most obviously she was doing this through the use of her own Black Country dialect, but I thought a more profound aspect of this was how “so many poems unfold[ed] as processes of self-transformation”; transgressive energies were being released through language, the erotic, myth-making and the surreal. The earlier book concluded with poems anticipating the birth of a child and – at the time – I felt these were less startlingly good, inclined to fall into ways of saying that the rest of the collection so triumphantly avoided.

tumblr_inline_ozdhmnTB2W1vr6098_1280It’s interesting then – in The Republic of Motherhood (Chatto, 2018) – to read more of Berry’s poems written since then, since the birth of her two sons and after a period of relative creative silence (more of that later). I nominated six stand-out poems from Black Country that I felt would establish her reputation – and the title poem of this pamphlet must be added to that list. It’s the most political of the fifteen poems and is propelled by the tensions located between motherhood as social norm or expectation and the personal/social grain of that particular experience. The paradox of the opening lines is that entering into the republic of motherhood (shades of Seamus Heaney’s 1987 The Haw Lantern, with its ‘From the Republic of Conscience’), the mother also discovers a monarchy, a “queendom, a wild queendom”. Much of the poem lists the realities of early motherhood – the night feeds, the smelly clothes, the exhaustion, the clinics and queues – a great democracy of women taking up a particular role. But there are signs too of an external compulsion, a set of expectations to be lived up to. The mother is expected to play the queen too as she pushes her pram down “the wide boulevards of Motherhood / where poplars ben[d] their branches to stroke my brow”. The public role of motherhood comes with demands: “As required, I stood beneath the flag of Motherhood / and opened my mouth although I did not know the anthem”. As much as any new parent feels woefully inadequate and ignorant of the needs of their young child, the young mother is faced with additional social expectations about instinct, affection, abilities and fulfilment which are quite impossible to realise. And on this point, there remains a conspiracy of silence: “[I] wrote letters of complaint / to the department of Motherhood but received no response”.

D19WzebWoAMAN5cThe mother in the poem also suffers postpartum depression and Berry seems here to allude to experiences of First World war soldiers, wounded, repaired and sent back out to fight again, without fundamental issues being addressed: “when I was well they gave me my pram again / so I could stare at the daffodils in the parks of Motherhood”. She ends up haunting cemeteries, both real and symbolic, and it is here she finds even more tragic victims of motherhood, of birth trauma and of psychosis. The final response of the poem is to pray – though it is a prayer that has scant sense of religion but combines empathy with other women with a great anger expressed in the phrase “the whole wild fucking queendom [of Motherhood]”. The paradoxically inextricable sorrow and beauty of motherhood becomes the subject of the rest of the pamphlet, but this poem ends with the mother echoing a baby’s “nightcry” and erasing her own self, “sunlight pixellating my face”. The poem’s rawness is unresolved. Having crossed the border into motherhood (that decision is never questioned here), the contradictory pulls of Motherhood (capital M) and the stresses of mothering (small m) have a devastating impact. In a recent poem called ‘The Suburbs’ – Berry’s contribution to the National Poetry Competition 40th Anniversary Anthology – she records the effect of mothering even more starkly: “my world miniaturised”. Listen to Liz Berry talk about and read this poem here.

After the tour de force of ‘The Republic of Motherhood’, the pamphlet takes a more chronological track. ‘Connemara’ seems to mark the moment of conception as a moment of self-abandonment (“I threw the skin to the wind, / sweet sack”) which, in the light of the preceding poem, takes on greater ironies of naivety: “Let them come, / I thought, / I am ready.” One of the joys of Berry’s work is her sense of the animal-physicality of the human body (revel in ‘Sow’ from Black Country) and ‘Horse Heart’ figures a ward of expectant mothers as a farmyard stable: “the sodden hay of broken waters, / each of us private and lowing in our stalls”. She captures the high anticipation and potentially brutal arrival of the all-demanding babies as a herd of horses; “the endless running / of the herd, fear of hoof / upon my chest”.  These two poems can be read here.

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Birth itself, in ‘Transition’, is to be feared (“I wanted to crawl into that lake at Kejimakujik”) and gotten through in part by absenting oneself into the past in ‘The Visitation’. The latter is addressed to Eloise, a figure who appeared in a Black Country poem, ‘Christmas Eve’. Here, a schoolgirl memory of a loving encounter with Eloise takes the narrator away from the pains of contractions, “as my body clenched and unfurled”. ‘Sky Birth’ is the one poem that challenges the brilliance of ‘The Republic of Motherhood’. It takes the image of climbing a mountain to evoke the physical pain and endurance required (Berry welcomes all those traditional associations with spiritual climb and progress), yet the poem never loses its sense of the real situation. The breathlessness of the climb suddenly flips back to the mother howling “over the voice of the midwife, the beeping monitors”. It is the figurative climb as much as the literal pain of giving birth that makes her “retch with the heights” and in the final moments, the mountaineer is “knelt on all fours” as most likely was the mother-to-be. The height is reached in a moving conceit:

 

when it came it came fast, a shining crown

through the slap of the storm,

for a second we were alone on that highest place

and love, oh love,

I would have gladly left my body

on that lit ledge for birds to pick clean

for my heart was in yours now

and your small body would be the one to carry us.

 

That final plural personal pronoun reminds me of a comment made by Jonathan Edwards in reviewing this pamphlet. Edwards wonders briefly about the absence of the father figure. Is the ‘us’ here the mother and child? Or is this one of the few references in the pamphlet to both parents?

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I hope this is not just a male reviewer’s concern. It may be an artistic or political decision on Berry’s part. Or a personal one. But given the thrust of much of the work – that mothering is an utterly taxing and even deranging experience – I’m troubled by the father figure’s absence, if only in that it risks representing the idea (the toxic flip-side to the expectations laid on the mother) that fathers need have little part to play. The father does appear in the final poem, ‘The Steps’, though the questioning tone and syntax casts doubt over what of the parents’ relationship will survive the experience of the child’s arrival: “Will we still touch each other’s faces / in the darkness”. I also wonder if the father figure is implied in the image of a boy riding his bike up Beacon Hill in ‘Bobowler’. This is a beautiful poem on the image of a moth (‘bobowler’ is the Black Country word for a moth). The moth is a messenger, coming to all “night birds”. The boy on the bike is one such, his heart “thundering / like a strange summer storm” which perhaps echoes those thundering hooves of the approaching young child. Perhaps there is some recognition here that the father’s world too will be turned upside down. And the message the bobowler brings may also relate to the parental relationship: “I am waiting. / The love that lit the darkness between us / has not been lost”.

41zU1eXgU-LBut such optimism is not a frequent note. Most of the remaining poems deal with the experience of depression in motherhood. ‘Early’ is almost as happy as it gets with mother and child now like “new sweethearts, / awake through the shining hours, close as spoons in the polishing cloth of dawn” (what a glorious image that is). But even here there are demands from the child that will need “forgiving” by the mother. One of these concerns her role as writer, particularly the difficulty of writing in the maelstrom of mothering: “every line I wanted to write for you / seems already written, read / and forgotten”. And this is why Berry chooses to co-opt lines from Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s terrifying story, The Yellow Wallpaper in ‘The Yellow Curtains’. Both texts can be read as studies of postpartum depression, but the despair has as much to do with the women as writers, confined, and – as in Gillman – the husband voices the demands and expectations of convention, of queendom: “He said [. . .] I must / take care of myself. For his sake.”

‘So Tenderly It Wounds Them’ is a more public account of the trials of young motherhood, of women who “are lonely/ though never alone”, women who find themselves “changed / beyond all knowing”, waking each morning only to feel “punched out by love”. The more recent poem ‘The Suburbs’ also contains the same paradox that motherhood is a state of “tenderness and fury”. ‘Marie’ seems to record a debt to a supportive female friend and it is only through the ministering (that seems the apt word) of “women in darkness, / women with babies” in ‘The Spiritualist Church’ that the young mother’s despair has any hope of being redeemed. Redeemed, not solved, of course: what the women argue is that “love can take this shape” and perhaps it Berry’s sense of art, or her personal experience, or a recognition of human resilience, or a final succumbing to a traditional narrative, that makes her place ‘Lullaby’ as the penultimate poem. It ends sweetly though the final poem sends us back to the start of it all – the dash to the hospital. So Berry book-ends this little gem of a collection with time shifts that argue motherhood’s simultaneous complexity of animal and human love as well as its pain and awful boredom and personal diminishment.

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John Greening’s Achill Island Sonnets

ACH-greeningIn the summer of 2018, John Greening spent 2 weeks as artist-in-residence at the Heinrich Boll cottage in Dugort, Achill Island. The resulting Achill Island Tagebuch is a sequence of 24 Shakespearean sonnets, in the mode of Boll’s own Irisches Tagebuch – a journal, day book, or diary – and is an elegant, yet often roundly colloquial record of Greening’s communings with self, landscape and literary influences. As he says, there is as much of “what I dreamt as what I did” and there is a finely judged cocktail here of the island’s life of countryside, tourism and local bars, plus the artistic presence of Boll himself, but also Yeats, Heaney, John. F. Deane, Dennis O’Driscoll, Lady Gregory and Dermot O’Byrne (the latter being composer Arnold Bax in his poetic mode).

Greening’s long-established deftness with poetic form is on full display here but it is the (seeming) ease of encompassing that is so impressive. The hedgerows of “trickling fuschia” and the “decayed tooth” of Slievemore are conjoined with be-helmeted cycling jaunts, ill-informed tourists and European research students, while the writer frets about whether the Muses are going to turn up or the disturbing nature of his own dreams – all this alongside more newsworthy items like forest fires on the Greek mainland, Brexit (of course), the discovery of water on Mars and the release of the new Mission Impossible film.

The opening sonnet warns us to keep our wits about us with a possibly ghostly visitation by Boll himself which transmutes – on the edge of sleep perhaps, on the radio maybe – into the voice of Seamus Heaney recalling his school days. The beauty of the landscape seems charged with much symbolism and significance and we seem to be shown the narrator poetically dashing off in search of a “signal”, some objective correlative perhaps, or a more direct communication from a higher sphere. In fact, the “signal” he’s after is just a WIFI one – the Boll cottage has no internet connection – and he bathetically tracks one down finally at the local bar where the password is buyadrink. Perhaps this tension between the expectations of arcane Romantic symbolism and a more down-to-earth enjoyment of minute particulars can be traced back to the two key presences in this pleasurable sequence of poems: Yeats and the German, Nobel-prize-winning Boll himself, who in one poem is felt to cast his “dry, benign inspection” over the poet’s own words.

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‘Blue Flag’ opens with Yeats fully in evidence: “On Golden Strand sounds Yeatsian enough”. But the landscape is so “penny-perfect” one’s first thought is to take a photo and post it on Facebook’s “show- / and-tell, the hell that’s other people’s holidays”. Yet the narrator sticks with his Yeatsian model and, in alluding to that poet’s 1914 collection Responsibilities, he tries to get himself back on track: “I’m here to write, / and waves break into words”. And words linked to landscape – in ways characteristic of Greening, a poet so attuned to the power of music – are found to turn to the musical notes of a poem draft: “On Golden Strand / I touch a silent fingerboard of sand”.

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Heinrich Boll on Achill Island

Yeats also provides the title for the tenth sonnet, ‘A Vision’ and, though the view of Slievemore seems appropriate, the poem’s opening lines set about debunking anything too aspirational. The fit and healthy young may be keen to “climb / and conquer” such heights but the narrator/poet suffers with his “medieval knees” and is mercifully free of the desire to try the ascent. I can hear Boll being channelled in these lines:

 

Let it be there

because it’s there. Pain will be no less real

among bandaging clouds.

 

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Greening’s sonnet forms are presented in 14 line blocks and he often runs through quatrain divisions to achieve a fluidity of thought, reflecting the mind’s energy, moving and connecting one thing to another. He also tends to play fast and loose with the traditional volta. So there are few moments of mannered pausing and this again gives the sense of the pressure of things needing to be recorded in a diaristic fashion. The shift in ‘A Vision’ comes halfway through line 8 as the narrator grudgingly admits to feeling something of the allure of misty mountain uplands, particularly when they are “theatrically lit”:

 

I can be driven

to dress up, drawn towards their footlit dream

like a painted hero, as if I’d been given

a walk-on through the dense mythologies

in one of Lady Gregory’s short plays.

 

In contrast, Boll’s dry, attentive, inspector’s gaze seems more evident in a poem like ‘Eine Familie’. Here Greening’s 14 lines combine outer observations, inner thoughts, awkward dialogue and self-deprecating humour as the preoccupied artist-in-residence (he’s just been to the grocery store) meets a family of bike-riding tourists. The opening line treats them to the single poetic figure in the whole poem, while the rest of the quatrain establishes the wry, stilted quality of the encounter:

 

Like bright, caged birds they’re perching on their bikes

beside the plaque. I manage to sound jolly.

‘A fan of Heinrich Boll?’ The father speaks

with a certain awkwardness. ‘Not really.’

 

Dialogue is also vividly presented in ‘Dooagh’, though on this occasion the talk is fragmented, full of lacunae, because of the racket of a wake taking place in the bar where the narrator attempts conversation with two people, both called Kevin.

 

Another line comes through,

from a second Kevin, a Vietnamese

translator. I grasp at it, and try to say

how once . . . Boat people . . . refugees . . . but the seas

of song and sentiment must have their way.

 

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A contrastingly more quiet and creative kind of music is in evidence in ‘Accompaniment’. As in ‘Blue Flag’, this is again the music of the ocean that plays constantly “at [his] left hand” as the narrator sits and writes with his right. The kind of artistic success this facilitates is clear in the best poem in the book, ‘Cuchulain’. The title alludes to one of Yeats’ favourite mythological figures, as in the early poem ‘Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea’ in which he wrestles against “the invulnerable tide”. After earthing the sonnet in particularity – a brief dip in the ocean at Keel Beach – Greening’s thoughts turn to his father’s love of swimming, this particular family’s memory/mythology preserved on old cine film. The fluidity and ease of the handling of these sonnets pays dividends here. Crossing a belated volta, the poem begins deeper reflections on the father-son relationship: “I never fought with him. Should we have done?” Within a couple of lines, we seem to have a portrait of unspoken tensions, perhaps a taciturn son and a stoical father who was not inclined to “rave as infirmities kept coming on / in wave upon wave.” As old age took its toll, it seems the option of a heroic struggle a la Cuchulain (or as urged in Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into that Goodnight’) was not taken up. The son is pained by his father’s choice of resignation (if choice it was) and it is the irredeemable nature of time and personal extinction that strikes the deepest note in this superbly intelligent, delightfully readable and lovingly produced limited edition from Red Fox Press.

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Guillemot Press book launch (November 2017)

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Last Saturday I packed my bags for a brief stopover in Devon. The train from Paddington retraced my steps (no – that’s not right; what do you say?) – re-rolled its wheels along the same route I’d travelled a couple of weeks ago to the Torbay Poetry Festival. But instead of changing at Newton Abbot, I stayed on board and we swerved inland and skirted the southern edge of Dartmoor to Plymouth, then further west to Bodmin. I was met at Bodmin Parkway by Luke Thompson who runs the Guillemot Press. Guillemot is barely a couple of years old but is already building a great reputation for the outstanding quality of its books. Luke and his partner Sarah are the driving forces behind the press and it is based in Cornwall with strong links to Falmouth University. We drove across an already dark Bodmin moor to the village of Altarnun where Luke was launching three new Guillemot titles at the Terre Verte Gallery, run by Richard Sharland.

Besides my own O. at the Edge of the Gorge, the books being launched were Nic Stringer’s first, A Day That You Happen to Know, and Andrew McNeillie’s new collection, Making Ends Meet. Both my own and Nic’s book are examples of Guillemot’s interest in combining poetry and illustration (if that’s the right word for images which respond to and add to the text rather than being merely illustrative). The two artists were at the event as well and it was wonderful to meet up and chat with Phyllida Bluemel who created the images to accompany my crown of sonnets. Her delicate, analytical yet natural images – produced only from a reading of the poems, no input from me – seem to me extraordinarily apt and, having learned of her background in philosophy as much as fine art, I’m not surprised. She and I have discussed the shaping of the whole book on the Guillemot blog.

Nic read first. Her poem, ‘Laocoon in the Vatican’, describes an image of human agony as a father defends himself and his sons from attack by serpents:

 

Chest curving towards his gods,

he speaks of what lies beneath devotion, where wrestler

is the same as family. But in the end he is a man

petrified [. . .]

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‘Icebergs in Ilulissat’ is more of an Arctic landscape poem: “In Disko Bay the growlers and the bergy bits / crack their knuckles”. ‘Sisters’ is a fascinating 10 part sequence of poems dedicated to three Medieval Christian female mystics, ending with this exquisite lyric:

 

Like the Earth

I have given up

everything but God

 

will find a hole

to fall towards

turning without a body

 

to sleep

separating self

from silence

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Nic’s work is various and intriguing – her Guillemot image-maker is Lucy Kerr, whose enigmatic, colourful images are almost visual riddles – and I’m looking forward to reading the whole book more slowly.

Before I read my sequence straight through without additional comments, I explained its form: a crown of 14 sonnets – the final line of each poem repeated as the opening line of the next; the opening and closing lines of the whole sequence also meant to be the same. I wanted the connectivity this creates – though the connections in this case are approximate – deliberately so, as I wanted to suggest a forward movement or progression of understanding. Much of the detail of the poem is of landscape – the Marche region of Italy – bees, buzzards, hunting dogs, trees, thistles, Classical ruins put to more modern use, hilltop villages, church towers, rocky hillsides, deep gorges. The O. of the title is an Orpheus figure, the singer, or poet. There is no narrative to the sequence, but it does allude to Orpheus’ journey to the underworld in search of Eurydice and his loss of her when he looks back. That sense of loss also explains allusions to Dante’s Paradiso, Book 16, where he refers to the ancient towns of Luni and Urbesaglia, for him, vivid images of transience.

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After the interval, Andrew McNeillie read from his collection. Andrew is both a poet and an editor at OUP, Archipelago magazine and he runs Clutag PressMaking Ends Meet is a full collection of almost 100 pages, including a new version of the Anglo-Saxon poem, The Battle of Maldon. At the other end of the scale, Andrew threw us an opening, squiby couplet titled ‘A Poet: 21st century: “A redundant lighthouse-keeper / striking a match in a storm”. One such match illuminating the darkness is his sonnet ‘I see Orion’, moving from a vivid evocation of star-gazing on a cold night in March to reflections on natural beauty and the passage of time. That same sense of summation, or the counting of blessings, was evident in the title poem too, which evokes an earlier time of easy creativity:

 

The early worm

already turning in a bird’s gut

like the one thought in my head

of lines to set and bait to put

a poem on my plate by evening.

 

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And you could feel the whole audience warm to Andrew’s ‘Lunch with Seamus’, recording a meeting between the poet and Clutag editor, both “uncertain how lunch might pass”. But it passes well, the poem portraying a warmth and closeness, a shared love of poetry, the intimacy drawing from Heaney something of a confession:

 

‘I got the Nobel Prize too soon,’ he said.

‘It nearly did for me, you know, the fame.

It stops the clock and steals your time’

 

The poem is full of delicate allusions to Heaney’s work, the final lines affirming a real meeting of minds as well as echoing Heaney’s own parting from the ghost of James Joyce at the end of ‘Station Island’:

 

We parted and I watched him disappear

As if I’d dreamt the whole affair

But knowing I hadn’t. I’d seen the man.

 

This three-book launch was a marvellously affirmative evening about the power of poetry too. Our heads full of images, and words, natural landscape, the material, the spiritual, distant Italian sunshine and rocky Irish coastlines, I drove with friends through the November rainy darkness back to the town of Tavistock, perched on the edge of Dartmoor itself. And there was still time enough to eat and raise a glass of wine.

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How to Answer the Poetic Influence Question #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Ken Smith

 

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

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

 

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Yves Bonnefoy

 

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

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

Two-Headed Calf: Review of Jacob Polley’s ‘Jackself’

Of those people I spoke to, many poetry readers were surprised and delighted that Jacob Polley’s Jackself recently won the 2016 T.S. Eliot Prize against competition from the likes of Capildeo, Duhig, Oswald and Riley among others. Caught between a desire that prizes go only to the very best work and a wish that poetry’s few rewards be more equitably distributed, I was also delighted as this is a book which is bold and inventive, against the grain and successfully ambitious. (Apologies for some loss of formatting of any quotes that follow).

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The book’s novelistic aspects have been noted in reviews – they are easier to discuss than its poetic achievements. Jackself is a boy growing up in the rural north of England, befriended by Jeremy Wren who, within a few years, commits suicide, leaving Jackself to deal with the grief. As ‘novel’ material, both the opening and close of the book refuse to provide what a reader might be looking for but as poetry it delivers what Heaney characterised as the “superfluity of language’s own resources. It’s a kind of overdoing it. Enough is not enough when it comes to poetry” (Giving Their Word, 2002). Polley’s language is charged, improvisatory and colloquial. It is fluid and rhythmic (more modern, less ballad-like than some reviews have suggested). It has a crusted, superfluous quality to it that reminds me of Shakespeare, or what Hughes has described of Shakespeare’s excess, and Jackself is not thinned out by constant ironising, rather it’s thickened by a weight of language, history and imaginative hard work. It’s very impressive – but needs a few reads before it gives itself up.

It’s best to begin with Jackself’s birth poem, ‘Every Creeping Thing’, the second in the collection (I’ll return to the first, ‘The House that Jack Built’ later). The natural world is important to the boy and this book and his arrival “at the door / of the door of the door” is also a journey “by water mite / by the snail on its slick of light”. There’s a Hughesian feel to some of the poems (Crow’s ‘Examination at the Womb-door’ here?) but Jackself enters a childhood freshly and vividly caught in its exploration by mouth and “curatorial spit”, cat-watching, one-piece suits and sleep that ends by “mak[ing] / the world over again” (‘Jack Sprat’). All seems good and safe though by the sixth birthday party with its “six / goody candles” there is a noting of absence: “no wishing it wouldn’t be / or wasn’t or would better be / no wondering how so hard it hurts” (‘The Goodies’). This seems proleptic of darker questions to come and is also a good example of Polley’s vigorously colloquial style, full of dynamic sound patterning.

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It’s never easy to determine Jackself’s age in the book (occasionally I felt he was older than his responses suggested). I think Rimbaud suggests the detachment of self-consciousness kicks in around 7 years old so it’s perhaps at that age that Jackself is “afraid like snow he’ll wane or drift / before he can hold /  the road out front” (‘Jackself’s Quality’). He also explores “the lovely lofts / of Lamanby” – his house – showing a reflective, curiosity which is notably not catered for at school. ‘Lessons’ is great poem about the failures of education (I write as a teacher) with Jackself taken away to a corner, impelled to worship, to eat shit school dinners, to be humiliated before his parents. The thumbnail sketch of the Headmaster, Mr Workbench is worthy of Dickens as he “solemnly inclines / his one-thought- / at-a-time head”. Polley captures Jackself’s alternative headspace beautifully:

 

his mind a corner

of beehives

his fingers a box of matches

his nose the afternoon rain

[. . . ]

his tongue an earwig

before it hatches

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Where Jackself is at home is in the natural world. ‘Applejack’ has strong echoes of Hughes’ ‘Wodwo’ with its instinctual, open-minded, pre-language, exploratory movement:

 

by hedgehog path

and badger path, Jackself

happens with the clouds

into sunlight

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The book lights up differently with the appearance of Jeremy Wren, a more wise-cracking, cynical, entrepreneurial and ultimately more troubled young man than Jackself. The pair strike up a double act – they both respond powerfully to the natural world and their dialogues are both funny and poignant. In ‘Les Symbolistes’, getting drunk on “white cider and Malibu”, Jackself let’s slip for the first time an interest in poetry: “A POEM! Wren roars / you’re creepy as a two-headed calf”. This is also one of the early moments when we see Wren’s troubled side – his father beats him. The jigsaw pieces of the boy’s troubles are carefully placed by Polley. He and Jackself meet in a goose shed, as if both on the run from something; ‘It’ asks “tell us what’s wrong, Jeremy Wren”; in ‘Snow Dad’ Wren insists they make a replacement father snow-man but also recalls when he climbed into a chest freezer. He hangs himself in ‘Pact’. He “hangs thinking fuck I’ve left / no note until he’s fucking dead”. Maitreyabandhu has written of not dissimilar events in his sequence ‘Stephen’ in The Crumb Road (Bloodaxe, 2013).

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Jackself now becomes a study in teenage grief. ‘The Hole’ has Jackself contemplating Wren’s grave (this is one of the poems where the language seems less comfortably matched with the likely age of the boy). One way he tries to deal with the loss is by writing. ‘Jack O’Lantern’ is a deconstructed – or as they say of websites, still in construction – ballad with Jackself trying, then rejecting, lines in a fashion that is both humorous and touching (“no           again . . .  no          again”).

Polley’s achievement is to find a form and voice which can encompass all this . . . stuff. Long and short lines are scattered across the pages, poems often start in media res, often lack an explicit subject, dialogue is unmarked and the reader must sort things out. But this all adds urgency to the telling and a fluidity to the narrative perspectives. Polley’s Jackself often reminded me of David Jones’ protagonist, Private John Ball, from In Parenthesis (1937). The two share a mythic quality, representative but individualised. In ‘The Misery’ Jackself becomes/sees himself as a heroic dragon-slayer and the dragon he wishes to kill is his grief at the death of Wren. The disturbed psychological perspective implied by this is a result of his depression over the suicide of his friend – but the poem manages a marvellous mock-heroic tone:

 

from his weapon chest,

the sheath knife, Eglantine                      from his wardrobe,

his denim jacket, torch, tool belt, tin camping cup,

rucksack, horned hat and Gore-Tex breastplate

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What he kills in the end is just a rabbit but the ritualistic/symbolic nature of his action has an effect. It takes a while, during which he continues his (often hilarious) dialogues with the dead Wren and finds solace in the natural world but ‘Tithe’ indicates through its page lay-out, its vast white spaces, that Wren vanishes eventually, Jackself moves on.

Hard to end such a book and I confess I didn’t find the ballad-like ‘Jack O’Bedlam’ very satisfying, but perhaps I’m falling foul of the novel reader’s desire for narrative closure (though I thought we’d all grown out of that). This is in contrast to the opening poem of the book, ‘The House that Jack Built’, which I found powerful in its own right as a historical survey of the region in which Jackself’s brief story takes place. Polley writes of the trees being felled and used, re-growing through history, interactions with burgeoning human society, the Industrial Revolution, canal building, eventually to the construction of Lamanby itself. Critics will want to debate its relevance to the sequence of personal biography that follows it and concludes with no explicit ‘picking up’ of the opening poem’s themes. It is a problem; but the depth of history this opening poem implies, its focus on the natural world, its foregrounding of (for want of a better word) folk culture surely gains Polley permission for the way in which he tells Jackself’s tale, for it as a poem. Like Jones’ use of mythic, folkloric and Shakespearean materials in In Parenthesis, Polley raises the small-scale biographical to a type without losing anything of the minute particulars which enable its readers to read Jack as themselves.

14 Ways to Write an Ekphrastic Poem

Ekphrastic poems (ie. poems stimulated by visual art) are on my mind a great deal as I have been planning the all-day workshop I have been asked to run at the Holburne Museum in Bath on the 25th February, 2017. This particular exhibition, ‘Breughel: Defining a Dynasty’, opens on the 11th February and was in the news recently as it will include, among many others, a newly-rediscovered painting by Peter Breughel. I’ve been reading a variety of poems derived in some fashion from the poet’s encounter with visual art and I wondered if there was a way of categorising the various approaches. There are probably many – but these 14 ways (in 5 subgroups) are what I have come up with and they might usefully serve as a way to kick-start ekphrastic poems of your own. Try one a day for the next fortnight!

Through Description

  1. Describe – and do no more. This is always the poet’s initial desire, to put into words what has caught our attention visually (and because attention has been visually caught there is something about this image or object that chimes with the writer’s subconscious). In terms of the poet’s intention, the wish to describe may be sufficient (the subconscious may do the rest). Examples might be Michael Longley’s ‘Man Lying on a Wall’ (from Lowry’s paiting of the same name) or William Carlos William’s ‘The Dance’ (from Breughel the Elder’s ‘Peasant Dance’).

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  1. Describe but imagine beyond the frame – Derek Mahon’s ‘Girls on the Bridge’ (after Munch’s painting of the same name) does this, beginning with description of the scene but then wonders where the road leads away to in space, asks what the next day will bring (in time) and concludes with allusions to Munch’s more famous image ‘The Scream’: “bad dreams / You hardly know will scatter / The punctual increment of your lives”.

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  1. Describe but incorporate researched materials – an easy option in the world of Google where the artist’s life or love life, the political context etc are easily accessed. Edward Lucie-Smith does this in ‘On Looking at Stubbs’ ‘Anatomy of the Horse’’, working with the gossip of local people in the Lincolnshire village where Stubbs worked at preparing the horse’s carcass: ‘His calm knife peeling putrid flesh from bone”.

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Through Ventriloquism

  1. Make Main Figure Speak – the most common approach as famously done in Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Standing Female Nude’ (from Georges Braque’s ‘Bather’). Thomas Hardy makes the Elgin Marbles speak in ‘Christmas in the Elgin Room’.

 

  1. Make Minor Figure/s Speak – UA Fanthorpe’s ‘Not my Best Side (Uccello’s ‘St George and the Dragon’) might be considered a hat-trick of the category above but her decision to make all 3 characters in the painting speak, casting side-lights to and fro, means I put it here. Delmore Schwartz’s ‘Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine’ – while more free indirect speech than ventriloquism – has a similar effect, visiting each of the characters in Seurat’s picture and allowing their perspective to be aired.

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  1. Make Objects Speak – this is an obvious category though I’m a bit short on illustrations of it. BC Leale’s ‘Sketch by Constable’ almost does it by concentrating attention on a tiny dog sketched in the corner of an image of Flatford Mill. Ann Ridler also comes close by largely ignoring the foreground figures and focusing on the landscape only in ‘Backgrounds to Italian Paintings’.

 

  1. Make the Artist Speak – writing about Van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Mother’, Robert Fagles makes the artist speak, denouncing photography and preferring the expressive qualities of paint: “Of the life hereafter I know nothing, mother, / but when I paint you what I feel is yellow, / lemon yellow, the halo of rose”.

 

Through Interrogation

  1. Of the Artist – Vicki Feaver’s ‘Oi yoi yoi’ (on Roger Hilton’s image of the same name) starts with description but quickly begins talking directly to Hilton (“You were more interested / in her swinging baroque tits”). Interestingly, ekphrastic poems need not always stand in awe of the work; looking at Francis Bacon’s ‘Study for Portrait on Folding Bed’, Thomas Blackburn has a long one-sided conversation with the artist, charting a growing disenchantment with Bacon’s work, accusing him of “uttering, with superb, pretentious / Platitudes of rut, that you have said and said”.

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  1. Of the Figure/s – I have always admired Gerda Mayer’s poem, ‘Sir Brooke Boothby’ (after Joseph Wright’s image), in which she addresses with Sir Brooke about his languid pose, his copy of Rousseau, his intense scrutiny of the observer. Peter Porter’s many poems about art objects are hard to categorise but ‘Looking at a Melozzo da Forli’ (an image of the Annunciation) interrogates both image and the figure of Mary herself.

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  1. Of Yourself – probably all ekphrasis is a sort of self-interrogation but some poems make this more clear. The address often takes the form of admissions of ignorance or obtuseness in the face of the image or the asking of rhetorical questions. Robert Wallace on ‘Giacometti’s Dog’ once again begins in description but asks questions about the fascination of the image, eventually concluding “We’ll stand in line all day / to see one man / love anything enough”.

 

Through Giving an Account

  1. Of Your Encounter – Wallace’s poem spills across these artificial categories and might be placed here, among poems where the poet explicitly records details of his/her encounter with the work of art. Yeats famously does this in ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’, looking at images of Augusta Gregory and John Synge. David Wright (who lost his hearing at the age of seven) movingly describes his visit to Rome to see Maderno’s sculpture of St Cecilia (patron saint of music) in his poem ‘By the Effigy of St Cecilia’.

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  1. Of Gallery Visitors – poets often comment on the behaviour or experiences (imagined) of gallery visitors (and even the gallery attendants!). Gillian Clarke does this in ‘The Rothko Room’: “In this, / the last room after hours in the gallery, / a mesh diffuses London’s light and sound. / The Indian keeper nods to sleep, marooned / in a trapezium of black on red”.

 

  1. Of Others – admittedly a catch-all category this one, but sometimes (especially when the works of art appear in churches) the poet can be interested in speculating about the responses of more ‘ordinary’ people. Thom Gunn does this toward the end of ‘In Santa Maria del Popolo’ where Caravaggio’s ‘Conversion of St Paul’ is displayed. Having recorded his own response to the image he ends by staring at the old Roman women who come to kneel before it: “each head closeted // In tiny fists holds comfort as it can. / Their poor arms are too tired for more than this / – For the large gesture of solitary man, / Resisting, by embracing, nothingness”.

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Come At a Tangent

  1. Finally, the ekphrastic moment can be presented as if an after-thought, or illustration of a poem already half composed. There are famous examples of this, especially Auden’s ‘ Musee des Beaux Arts’ which spends most of its length contemplating in very general terms the way old paintings present suffering. Only towards the end does Auden refer to Breughel’s ‘Fall of Icarus’ which he describes in some detail to suggest how “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster”. RS Thomas’ ‘Threshold’ does something similar, only concluding with allusions to Michaelangelo’s painting of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. And Seamus Heaney’s ‘Summer 1969’ records a visit to Madrid as the Troubles boiled in Northern Ireland, and only latterly does the poem focus on Goya’s ‘Panic’: “Saturn / Jewelled in the blood of his own children, / Gigantic Chaos turning his brute hips / Over the world.imgres

Inner Emigres – Heaney and Huchel

Googling the term ‘inner émigré’ I come up mostly with links to Seamus Heaney’s use of it in the poem ‘Exposure’, the poem with which he ended North (1975):

I am neither internee nor informer;

An inner émigré, grown long-haired

And thoughtful . . .

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In a 1998 interview, Heaney discussed his use of the term: As far as possible, you try to remain a mystery to yourself. Living in Ireland, not being an exile, living in Ireland as a social creature, as a familiar citizen, I think there is a great danger that one’s social persona might overwhelm one’s daimon — if you’ll permit me such a grand term . . . And so what one is always trying to do is displace oneself to another place or space . . .Wicklow is where I first thought of myself as being an inner émigré. Since 1988 . . . I’ve been able to own the cottage and to think of it as my “place of writing.” When I said “inner émigré,” I meant to suggest a state of poetic stand-off, as it were, a state where you have slipped out of your usual social persona and have entered more creatively and fluently into your inner being. I think it is necessary to shed, at least to some extent, the social profile that you maintain elsewhere.

Heaney’s explanation of the term here is almost wholly personal and uncontroversial. Most of us would agree that we need to slip the moorings of our more socially tied selves in order to find the place of poetry. This is in part simply the required liberation from the way we use language to operate in (utilitarian) society though it’s also a shaking loose from the (again utilitarian) intentions and feelings of the quotidian. Having said that, Heaney does not mean a retreat into some up-dated Celtic Twilight world, soft-focused and fey, an abandonment of MacNeice’s requirement that modern poets are readers of newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions.

This is more clear when Heaney acknowledges the term ‘inner émigré’ once had a specific meaning in the 1920s and 30s in Soviet Russia. It referred to someone “who had not actually gone into exile but who lived at home disaffected from the system. Well, to some extent that was true of myself. Certainly, in relation to Northern Ireland.”

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George Seferis

Heaney goes on to talk of finding in George Seferis’ work a connected idea, developed in The Redress of Poetry (1995): Seferis is reading Greek poetry during the war in the nineteen forties and he’s trying to write an article. There is distress, uncertainty, destruction all round him, with civil war looming. And he’s reading poetry and he’s really testing it. Does this thing have any value? And at one point he says: “Reading X this morning, I found that poetry is a help.” I think that what he means is that poetry secures some final place in your being, some little redoubt in your consciousness that will not be taken over by history or the world or disaster . . . Poetry’s value is established and promulgated by people who have known that feeling or something like it.

The term ‘inner émigré’ is also often used to describe Peter Huchel’s work though he was in the unusual situation of having to develop the strategy twice over.  His very early poems were linked to the sort of art fostered around 1920 by the League of Proletarian Revolutionary Writers. There’s no doubt he was on the side of the proletariat, the servants and exploited farmhands. He once said: “What did I care about in those days? I wanted to make visible in the poem a deliberately ignored, suppressed class, the class of the people, the maidservants and coachmen”. Even at this early stage his work did not include any proposals for a political solution and his concerns over social deprivation (witnessed from childhood days in the Brandenberg countryside) led him not to public proclamation but more inward to articulate a vision of a more fundamental relationship between productive human activity and the natural environment. It’s no surprise that Huchel felt close ties to the work of Robert Frost, though Huchel’s early verse (more than the American poet) is concerned with a representation of harmony and continuity, more fulfilment than frustration of fulfilment.

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Peter Huchel

But with the rise of Hitler in the 1930s, Huchel began to develop the strategy of the ‘inner émigré’, publishing very little, even deciding to withhold an entire collection of poems, fearing it might be associated with the kind of blood-and-soil nature verse approved by National Socialism. His response to political changes was silence and non-cooperation.

It’s best to understand Huchel’s short-lived flash of faith in East German land reform in the immediate Soviet-Occupied post-war years in terms of his earlier social concerns. As John Flores argues, Huchel’s praise of the “law” of land reform is “not to be viewed as a sudden sacrifice in answer to official decrees, an unwilling turn to a theme totally incongruous with all his earlier poetic concerns, but as a logical continuation, in a way the culmination of his sympathy for the unprivileged classes inhabiting the countryside of his origins.” Within a few years, as the poet grew increasingly discouraged by developments in DDR society, his emphasis shifts from the praise of productive human activity in nature and the social order, to a concern for the enduring misery of men, regardless of the structure of society.

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Huchel again had to adopt the role of ‘inner émigré’ being now at odds with East German politics yet still writing (and editing Sinn und Forme). His work becomes characterised “less by sympathy with those denied the privileges and rights due to them, more by meditations on the pain and uncertainty which permeates all human existence” (Flores again). Huchel’s tone becomes sombre and melancholy, poetic diction cryptic, his palette narrows, full of recurrent symbols. Poems from the 1950s are implicit statements of his ‘counterposition’ to the ‘construction of socialism’. Franz Schonauer suggests Huchel’s poems are not the expression of a direct opposition or political protest and express a loss of confidence. These poems are winter psalms. What is at stake is the human intellect and its power of resistance when reason and culture seem brutally damaged, in a frozen motionless state. This is from ‘Exile’, published in 1972:

 

With evening, friends close in,

the shadows of hills.

Slowly they press across the threshold,

darkening the salt,

darkening the bread

and strike up conversation with my silence.

 

Outside in the maple

the wind stirs:

my sister, the rainwater

in the chalky trough,

imprisoned,

gazes up at the clouds.

 

Huchel could still write: “The creative, even eruptive, element in lyric poetry only rarely exists without rules; it needs a container, a form, so as not to disperse. Spring water spilled on the floor has only a dim glow – but when poured into a glass it is full of light”. This is the same little redoubt that Seamus Heaney found in Seferis; each hard-won poem as a receptacle of something that will not be taken over by history or the world or by disaster.

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