A Thief in the House: London Launch of Hjelmgaard’s ‘A Second Whisper’

Last night I was at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden for the launch of two new collections from Seren Books. Lynne Hjelmgaard was reading from A Second Whisper and Mary J. Oliver was launching her debut collection, Jim Neat: the Case of a Young Man Down on His Luck. Oliver’s book is a curious, thought-provoking mix of family research and prose/poetic fictions. But I’ve known Hjelmgaard for a few years now as a workshop colleague and as a friend of Dannie Abse and I wanted to gather some thoughts here on her new poems.

In her playfully titled poem, ‘Ode to a Danish Lamp’, Lynne Hjelmgaard constructs a paean to a piece of electrical equipment which ends rhetorically, “Why do you move me so?” Some clues to the answer are scattered through the poem; they lie in comparisons. The lamp is an example of “Nordic metallic cool”, beside which the speaker – “a mere human” – feels humbled. She and the rest of the room, we are told, arrange themselves about the lamp which hence serves as a focal point and even a source of “answers”. It’s as if the lamp is wired up to a clearer, less divided, perhaps purer world:

[. . . ] the charged interior, a territory,

where no country nationality race

or religion has any significance.

In contrast, the human figure is more embedded in a world of time, place and quotidian specificity while the lamp emerges with its “fine, oh so thin aluminium rim” as a denizen of a less troubled realm. The speaker is moved because excluded from such a realm and the majority of the poems in A Second Whisper focus precisely on our more compromised, familiar world, particularly the ‘merely human’ experiences of time, memory and loss.

Without being a particularly philosophical poet, Hjelmgaard writes as someone who is an “expert at loss”. Another less typical poem describes – in great detail – Brooklyn Bridge and the area around it (the poet was born in New York City). She remembers sailing out under the bridge:

Manhattan is a chain with many links,

some are broken, lost and never repair,

but others can be retrieved even at a distance.

For what can shine so brightly at sea

but a city, once loved, left behind?

Hjelmgaard’s focus on links lost or remembered is probably hard-wired into her constitution (these thematic roots usually are) but it has also been provoked by biographical influences. Her 2011 book, The Ring (Shearsman Books) was dedicated to the memory of her Danish husband, Stig – who died in 2006 – and followed an American woman’s travels around Europe, mourning and negotiating that loss. Dannie Abse, among others, praised those poems: “Widowhood allows them to acquire a poignant universality”. Five years later, A Boat Called ‘Annalise’ (Seren Books), was full of more poems of remembrance, evoking the sea journey the newly married couple made out of New York to Europe, via the Caribbean.

There are further poems written to and about her husband in this new book. In ‘As We Silently Agree’, the husband appears to the widow, “in some kind of afterlife”, and is seen busying with a boat’s anchor chain, searching the ship’s log and weather charts. This is perhaps a dream poem:

Our fingers clasp in recognition

as we silently agree:

what does it matter now

if you don’t keep the course?

And ‘Scorpion Hill’ may be another example of dreamwork, the wife this time revisiting a once-shared house in the Caribbean. Its final image is of many moths clustering round “a single light bulb / left on during the night”. These are fine poems of time and sustaining memory – that bulb still burning – in which the past and those lost within it are shown to revisit the survivor.

Hjelmgaard’s treatment of this traditional theme is neither religious nor consolatory in any facile way. The pain of great loss is heartfelt and yet she manages to persuade the reader – it’s less intellectual than that, maybe she draws her readers in to the actual experience – that what lies in the past still retains is power to evoke pleasure and even that the future’s gifts are to be welcomed, even anticipated. In ‘To a Chestnut Tree’, addressing the tree in its autumnal state, the narrator is sure, “There will always be another one. / And another. // Loss can be moved through like a room”. What a magnificent line that last one is. There is a wisdom in it, however modestly it may be presented.

Time takes – but time also provides. Another poem of trees has a fir leaning eventually into a “beloved palm” – though it may take a century or two of slow growth. A lonely tamarisk on a cliff top also has the capacity to “wait until it can drink / from the bay eighty feet below”. Hjelmgaard finds her themes in the smallest incidents. Unpacking a suitcase after a journey, she finds she has brought two extra items home with her. One is a fossil of a snail which seems to represent a determined persistence through time (60 million years perhaps, in this case). The other – a flighty stowaway – is a spider which she finds “already busy / making yourself at home”. The spider evokes an improvisatory optimism, an adaptability, even an adventurousness, which I see as some of the most distinctive elements in the themes of Hjelmgaard’s work.

It’s these qualities to which Gillian Clarke is responding in her comment on A Second Whisper, where she finds in the book “the story of a special late love after bereavement”. In recent years, the British poet who has written most powerfully and movingly about bereavement and the encroachment of the past into the present is Dannie Abse. This is from his poem ‘The Presence’ about the loss of his wife, Joan:

It’s when I’m most myself, most alone

with all the clamour of my senses dumb,

then, in the confusion of Time’s deletion

by Eternity, I welcome you and you return

improbably close, though of course you cannot come.

The opening 14 poems of A Second Whisper explore the loving relationship that sprung up between Hjelmgaard and Dannie Abse after the deaths of Stig and Joan. Her opening prose piece takes us directly into everyday details. The two bereaved poets meet: “And for a time it was the four of us. Though one day, without ceremony, we noted their absence”. Thus set free, the ones still living proceed, though along no clear path, “wherever poetry and Eros chose to take [them]”

Even at their first meeting – on a train journey back from the Torbay Poetry Festival – the presence and absence of time was notable. Minutes were not to be wasted in the presence of the older poet, says the younger narrator. But mysteriously – this is in late October – the waitress at the station café is seen taking away the clock to change the hour. A photograph of the two poets at a reading shows the younger woman “less sure of herself”, while Abse is more comfortable with the attention. But at 85 years old, Abse begins appearing in these poems as more and more in decline. “Aged and dying you grew more tender”, as ‘A Second Whisper’ puts it. In this poem – as in several others – Hjelmgaard is visiting Abse at home.

I knew just how to open your front door quietly.

Its lock a whisper, a second whisper to shut.

This image – absolutely precise in its remembrance, yet also powerfully suggestive – is like the earlier line about walking through loss as through a room. The first whisper has a respectfulness, concerned with quietude, with the sensitivity of the artist, the closeness of death. The second whisper is full of ambivalence: protective perhaps from the noisy, nosey world, wanting to secure the intimacy, wanting to defend the loved one from the inevitable, yet a foreshadowing of that very inevitability.

‘A Thief Is in the House’ has death portrayed as an invader, breathing heavily, thumping up the stairs to the dying figure whose “eyes [are] prepared // for nothingness”. But these poems are not overwhelmed by grief. As if taking a leaf out of Abse’s own poems of mourning and remembrance, Hjelmgaard’s predominant tone is one of recall and revisiting – even of re-visitation. Walking alone on Hampstead Heath, she hears the lost lover chanting a Lorca poem; because one day they sheltered under an awning on Golders Green Road, every time it rains now, “the rain /stops everything / to think of you”. And in an exquisite lyric, ‘Speak to me Again at Dusk’, Hjelmgaard yearns to resume her conversations with the dead poet, yet her tone – which might have been one of pleading and despair – in fact retains a clear appreciation of the lasting value of what has been and a pleasured openness to the present (hear those noisy roosters in a moment!). Such deep-grained attitudes seem to have been a mutual common ground between these two writers and perhaps was one of the constitutive elements in their late-flowering love:

These lines among many lines

are words just for you

and the roosters that speak them

just before dawn.

2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #1: Richard Georges

This is the first in the series of reviews I will post over the next two 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)

Richard Georges – Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books)

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet)

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press)

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

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Many thanks to Shearsman Books for providing a copy of Richard Georges’ book for review purposes.

The seed if not the full, rich fruit of Richard Georges’ Make Us All Islands can be found in Derek Walcott’s 1979 poem ‘The Sea is History’. The mostly unwritten narrative of the Caribbean slave trade, the colonial and post-colonial experience of the transported peoples is the subject of Walcott’s poem: “Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs? / [. . .] Sirs, / in that grey vault. The sea. The sea / has locked them up. The sea is history”. Born in Trinidad and raised in the British Virgin Islands where he still lives, the sea is also the depository of the brutal struggles and stories of the Caribbean past for Richard Georges, though the ubiquity of the sea in these often painful, often very beautiful poems, means its symbolic burden deepens and broadens to something nigh-existential without losing any of its historical or political power.

To begin with, Georges makes poetry from some of the very few records that have survived. The words of one transported African – known by the name Abednego – lie at the heart of ‘Griot’. The poem title (pronounced gree-oh) is a West African word for a historian, storyteller, praise singer or poet and, placed at the opening of this book, is both a confident declaration of intent by the poet and an erasure of the Western tradition’s Homeric image of the bard. Rather than heroic military exploits or mythical wanderings, the “cross of the griot” is to “speak for the speechless, / to grip the stem of the bone and coral sceptre, / to be mounted, to sing light into the bleakness”. And the words of Abednego that come down to us turn out to be a dismally familiar, devastating precursor of the 2013 Black Lives Matter movement: “Abednego the griot, the spectre / speaks: In slav’ry days, the black man’s life count for nothing”.

 

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A griot

 

Poems like ‘Offering’, ‘Birth’ and ‘In the Moment Freedom Comes’ make some of those black lives count through re-deploying details of Spanish or Portuguese slave-ships wrecked or captured in Virgin Island waters. In the latter poem, the woman Ungobo languishes in the hold of the Atrevido until it is attacked by an English ship. But her sense of a liberation into sunlight and salt air seems brief if we give due weight to the concluding image in which the English sailors pluck the slave-ship’s cargo “from the hold like fishermen / clearing their traps”. Many of the figures focused on by Georges are survivors, the kind of “folk” who built the church for the community of liberated Africans in Tortola, Kingstown. Their dramatic survival from the wrecking of the slave-ships is vividly imagined:

 

Dream them gripping

snarling rocks as black sea claimed the broken hulk

of their prison. Amidst angry sea-spray coral

heads rise in watery light, their minds routeless,

home as far as Babylon

 

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Richard Georges

 

Likewise, George’s post-colonial figures are survivors too, of injustice and straitened economic circumstances. In ‘The Fisherman Measures Life’, the man’s labour and his rickety boat are un-romanticised in the steady-paced, long-lined tercets. This man carries with him a sense of the island’s history, recalling the “griefs” of the slave-ship Donna Paula, but his observations of nature prove no more consoling. Recalling the hunter/hunted imagery of the mid-twentieth century German poet Peter Huchel, the Fisherman watches seabirds chasing fish:

 

“It is much the same on land,” the fisherman thought.

Shark suited men sweat and chase American cash

like fishhooks, mouths transpierced with incandescent lures.

 

And in the end, he is as much a part of this brutal economy of hunter and hunted; as he pulls up his fishing pot, “its wooden frame comes to view / the cloudy depths dissolv[ing] in slippery shadows”.

Interestingly, in his recall of the wreck of the Donna Paula, the fisherman sees both “black and white hands” trying to survive. This is more than just a fleeting image in this book. Elsewhere, George carefully considers both “mariner and cargo”(‘The Heavy Anchor’) and this, alongside his concerns for survivors as much as fatalities, begins to transmute the rolling, destructive, slavering image of the sea in poem after poem into an elemental force (while still representative of historical/political forces), becoming one of the conditions of human life more generally. The opening section from ‘Proverb’ puts this succinctly: “God / fashion man / from mud / and put him / right back / when he / done.” This is a sentiment to make even Beckett’s pessimistic view – that we are born astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more – look sanguine. So the body of rooster lies rotting on a river bank; a stone lies in the water.

 

The stone smoothed by flood or famine if asked

could tell of slave and tsunami, or of when it was

a rough rock perched on the hillside

 

and a radiant rooster crowed

 

In the vivid and fertile Caribbean landscape, time passes and erodes; death dominates. Here are the key words from the tiny lyric ‘Light Sound Land’: deafening, spat, lose, scatter, bending, splinter, lose, bowing, shrinking, din. The sea is usually the agent of these grim conditions and the book’s title – make us all islands – emerges not as a plea, imperative or warning but as a resigned statement of fact, the consequence of the conditions in which we live.

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The title phrase appears in ‘At the Waterside’, a brilliant, sustained, survivor’s meditation in 5 parts, drawing together many of the themes in the collection. The sequence has an unusually clear and stable lyric ‘I’, a man who sits watching ferries arrive on the Virgin Islands. Unlike the “white-capped tourists” (but like the Fisherman), the narrator sees the present day through the lens of history or, to be more precise, the general neglect of the island’s history. The authorities prefer to construct “concrete totems where [the island’s] cedars groan”. But for the narrator:

 

It is here where the Empire unravels, crumbling

in Ozymandian ruin – preserving only

an ancient anger held by hands burnt black in sun.

 

Perhaps it’s the same fisherman here who sails perilously out to Buck Island, to where “sparkling blues betray the reef’s lying rocks”. The narrator twice cryptically insists that “something greater” covers the fisherman. It is partly history (the clouds hang like “ghosts of slaves”) but also (and in a poetic defiance of gravitational logic) it is the ocean itself, the “whipping waters”, an omnipresence in these poems, suggesting that, whether mariner or cargo, all individuals are both authored and erased by the sea.

 

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Buck Island

 

When you buy this book, I suggest you begin by reading the final poem, ‘Oceans’. Here too the sea is “effervescent” with history – “the bones // of slaves, of sailors” – but it also represents a more existential “abyss consuming even light in its depth”. Here is Richard Georges reading from this poem. The narrator demands to know what language might express it, how it may be securely held. The ocean also lies in the lover’s body: “And so we all remain. Divided. / Like the shores of islands”. To counter-balance such division and alienation, the little poem ‘Draining’ suggests one of humanity’s constituent drives is “a life / desperate to drink / the air outside of / us”. The metaphor is quickly switched; what runs through us is a river intent on returning to the sea. In ‘Mural’, a second ‘griot’ figure in a bar directs the poet to watch a turtle rolling and turning in the ocean. The man in the bar is a seer. Like the Fisherman and like the narrator of ‘At the Waterside’ too, what he sees is the “writhing mural / of hope and history / always carrying on”.

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The stoic instinct to hope emerges in these poems as powerfully as the poet’s instinct to speak. Perhaps surprisingly, what remains with me after reading Make Us All Islands is the great beauty of Richard Georges’ language and verse. Battered by the power of his literal and symbolic ocean he humbly suggests the difficulties of articulation, imagining only a “broken book of poems”. But time and time again, he successfully evokes the light and dark of past and present and he takes on the “cross of the griot”. The rightness of each word and line-break in the poem ‘A Place in the Earth’ is a case in point:

 

The dumb bodies

lie like leaves

in the dirt.

 

Death drags

the drying lips back

drawing mouths

into snarls

 

bracing the teeth

against the whistling

flute of the throat.

 

The living

philosophise

over the bones

 

while the yellow love

laughs from the trees

above.

What Have I Been Reading: April – June 2015

Up-dated June 2015

I’ve taken a while getting through the almost 500 pages of Ian Bostridge’s fascinating musical, artistic, poetical, historical, political discussion of Schubert’s Winter Journey.Taking Wilhelm Muller’s poem sequence Die Winterreise, Schubert re-organised it (otherwise changing little) to produce his own Winterreise and, discussing this process and his own performances of the piece over many years, Bostridge touches on Kant, Goethe, Darwin, Friedrich, Alfred Hitchcock, and Aristotle’sMeteorology among others. The Muller text would make an interesting translation project.

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An earlier post about the abecedary form lead several people to ask me whether I’d read Inger Christensen’s 1981 sequence alphabet. Well I have now and it is just stunning. Based on the Fibonacci sequence and moving from A to N in alphabetical sequence too, Christensen writes fluid, Whitmanesque passages, laying aside ‘either/or’ for ‘and’, page after page of which reminds me of Rilke at his most passionate. This is a brilliant translation too by Susanna Nied. Christensen is a writer I need to explore more.

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A few weeks ago I blogged on Lee Harwood’s work which I was also discovering for the first time. Since then I have read Selected Poems published by Shearsman; and I have the Collected Poems waiting for the summer holidays too.

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Sue Boyle is a poet I have followed since working with her as a tutor for the Poetry School. She has now published, Safe Passage, a first collection with Oversteps Books and I recommend it (though I confess to also being one of the blurbists on the back cover, where I quote one of her most interesting lines: “in seizing the unexpected lies the art”).

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Updated May 2015

I’m still working through Robert Crawford’s magnificent biography of young Eliot up to The Waste Land. An almost day by day account of his youth, school and college days, Paris, Laforgue, Pound and Vivien Haigh-Wood. Particularly good on Eliot’s philosophical reading and development which I’m loving.

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Mimi Khalvati’s The Weather Wheel consists wholly of 16-line poems – stretched sonnets or irregular ghazals – which seem able to encompass almost any mood, topic or subject matter. Particularly impressive is her desire to draw from the most ordinary of events lines which often soar to the complexly emotional and the (frankly) spiritual.

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I’m also back re-reading Hughes because it looks like we’ll be teaching this from September onwards – surprisingly not something I have done (except one or two isolated poems). I first read many of these poems at Lancaster University in the late 1970s and nowadays many of these early poems read like objects of nature themselves: fixed as in granite, awe-inspiring, part of the mental landscape I have lived in for years.

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As my most recent blog recounts, I have been also re-reading Transtromer’s work.

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Up-dated April 2015

I’ve been reading two impressive contributions to the growing field of eco-poetics. Frances Presley’s halse for hazel is a visually pleasing book from Shearsman (illustrations by Irma Irsara) and the poems encompass geographical, linguistic, political and environmental issues without strain.

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Jacqueline Gabbitas’ Small Grass gives grass a voice and runs with the idea with charm, cleverness and power: “From where I lie, I see man walking, / his legs sheathed in green, // I strop my edges. Soon, they’ll cut through / fabric, the tissue beneath”.

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I’ve not always been an enthusiastic reader of John Fuller’s work but the recent The Dice Cup is a book of prose poem sequences full of his characteristic erudition, wit and observation.

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Lee Harwood is a poet who I’ve known of for years without really having read him much. I’d had him down as an English Ashbery/O’Hara and maybe I thought I ought to just go straight to the source. But Enitharmon’s The Orchid Boat is wonderful; full of fluid, sensuous, intelligent poems that twist and turn and take the reader by surprise. Not as flip as O’Hara, not as self-regarding as Ashbery.

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I confess to having a contribution in it but, apart from that, Tony Fraser’s new issue of Shearsman (103/4) is full of delightful things from the likes of Zoe Skoulding , James Byrne, Rupert Loydell and Kate Miller, plus translations of Virgil, Ponge and Jansma.

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Templar Poetry Launch: Weir and Onitskansky

On Tuesday evening last week I went to the Keats House Library in Hampstead for a reading which was both part of the on-going Keats House Festival and one of Templar Poetry’s regular slots there. Jeri Onitskansky (who I know a little via a workshop group) was launching her Iota Shot pamphlet, Call them Juneberries, alongside Tom Weir who, having had an Iota Shot last year, is already launching a full collection with Templar, All that Falling.

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Cover image from ‘All that Falling’

Run by Alex McMillen, Templar http://www.templarpoetry.co.uk/about.html is an immensely busy and enterprising press, holding frequent competitions for full collections and Shots (small pamphlets) as well as the Iota magazine. The books all look very good and there was a good crowd at the reading. I was happy to find myself sitting between friends, Mimi Khalvati on one side and Lynne Hjelmgaard on the other. Later, I had a chat with Linda Black about both her writing (fascinating prose poems published by Shearsman) and her work in the visual arts.

All good and fine then? Well – I went away a bit disappointed actually and it was for the good reason that I wanted to hear more from the poets and their publisher, more than the bare poems themselves which I can (I am) reading at my leisure with the printed book. Perhaps there were time restrictions at Keats House but both poets read briefly (with no interval, we were out within the hour) and Weir in particular did not spend enough time introducing his poems. This art of introducing your own work is – I realised all over again – one of the key issues at a live reading (the other reason to go of course is to network and get noticed – quite different to meeting friends – but that’s just miserable). Alex MacMillan spoke economically to start with, just a basic biographical note to each poet. I thought more might be said since both these poets had ‘won’ competitions to get published. I bet there were people in the room who were keen to hear what he liked about these writers, what kind of work Templar published, even where he saw Templar in the twinkling firmament of poetry publishing.

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Jeri Onitskansky

But . . . on with the show. Onitskansky started with several poems drawing on childhood memories of life in the US. ‘Minnows’ is a vivid recall of Summer Camp days though, for this graceless “fifth grader”, catching minnows from a creek was preferable to other more vigorous activities. Plus it provided imagery years later for a poem about wanting to be “filled with grace”. Rather more graceless (though still epiphanic) is ‘Friendship’ where two girls climb up a big rock and then pee down it, “watering a little pee forest” at the foot of it. Onitskansky is very good at innocence, though often a rather tilted, skewed version of it. ‘Girl with Dandelions’ has a child blowing a dandelion clock though she hasn’t yet “learned / they’re the same buttery stars that last / cheered the meadow”. Time passes in many of her poems and there are quite a few creatures too. Adulthood is a place of greater confidence mostly, though also there (in a thoroughly rat-bothered poem) “the long tail / of your mind scurries across the page”. These are interesting poems and Onitskansky is a name to watch.

If Onitskansky’s stage presence is quiet but assured, Tom Weir’s is gauche, jittery, rather apologetic, seeming younger than he really is. Acumen magazine published an interview with Christopher North a while back in which he listed annoying comments, cardinal sins committed by poets at readings. Here are 8 of them:

1) Have I got time to squeeze in a short one?
2) Now let’s see if I can find it…
3) Now if I can just get this thing to work…
4) This is one I wrote on the way here…
5) We were each asked to write a villanelle…
6) I know it’s here somewhere…yes. Oh no, erm, let me see…
7) How long have I got?
8) It’s a load of rubbish, but I’ll read it anyway…

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Christopher North

Unfortunately, brief though the reading was, Weir managed most of these (OK – not 4 or 5). But his opening poem ‘Day Trippin’’ was charming, recounting dealings with a recalcitrant child: “with an ice-cream which you wore // like a glove as it melted over your hand”. That’s a great image but there were fewer of these than I’d expected. Maybe I just missed them. Weir’s delivery did not help his cause being gravelly and short of breath and losing the ends of phrases too often. I had bought the book so I could follow the poems but those listening will have missed phrases for sure. And some of these poems needed a bit more context (‘The Send Off’, for example). I don’t think I’m alone in liking to hear how poems arose, the poet’s thoughts about person, voice, form. A few moments of introduction also allow the auditors’ minds to pause, change gear ready for the next poem.

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Tom Weir

Weir likes to be blunt, direct and there’s an Armitage-y feel to many of the poems, though without the catchy phrase-making and word play. A poem about a dog (apparently intent on suicide by drowning) was a curious choice, especially alongside the more powerful ‘Monsoon’ where men are caught “up to their waists in water, the children held high / above their heads like an offering to a god nobody believes in”. Weir has travelled plenty, particularly in South East Asia, and several of these poems are very interesting (a shame he do not read them on the night). Overall, the book seems a bit hit-and-miss especially as it includes two-line poems on both ‘Muscle Memory’ and seeing a woman dancing through a lit window. There are just 5 lines on ‘Closing Time’ and a 6-liner on a ghost. It’s hard not to see these as fillers and I worry the collection has been rushed out quickly and would have benefitted from editing the weaker pieces.

But it was all over quickly. And, returning to North’s complaints about poet’s reading aloud, I was certainly happy, on this occasion, not to have to suffer anything resembling sins 9 and 10:
9) So all you need to know is that a squawk-bogger is a Tasmanian newt and that ‘ramping in the dolditts’ is an expression used by Romany folk of Upper Silesia referring to their annual bean throwing festival and that Durnstadt-Terminium is a village in Bavaria where they make clay pipes – well, you’ll see what I mean when…
10) (Already 15 minutes over allotted time) …and here‘s one I simply have to read. It came about after my son’s first session in rehab – he’s out now and all seems OK Hooray! Hooray! And it’s an important poem for me because it was like a coming to terms emotionally with..blah, blah, blah.

Thanks Christopher.

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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A bundle of 50 sticks for William and Juliet

Last Saturday I travelled down to Chepstow to read at an event organized by William Ayot who, with his wife Juliet, runs the On the Border series of readings. They tend to bill a Welsh poet with A. N. Other; I was the latter and Richard Gwyn the former. Richard runs the Creative Writing MA at Cardiff University and is a brilliant poet and translator from the Spanish (especially South American poetry). He read some heart-stoppingly powerful new work from three Mexican poets recently published in Poetry Wales and some of his own prose poems from Sad Giraffe Café (Arc Publications). I read from my translations of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and also extracts from The Time We Turned.

Richard Gwyn

On the train down I was again reading Lee Harwood’s work (see my last blog post) and came across ‘Days and Night: Accidental Sightings – a bundle of 50 sticks for Joseph Cornell and others’. I’ve put together my own loose bundle of sticks as a modest thank you to William and Juliet for their hospitality in their extraordinary house, their passion for poetry in its widest sense, and that marvellous coronation chicken!

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A bundle of 50 sticks for William and Juliet

At the track side willow belts always unkempt trunks leaning some broken

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luminous blue sky in early May

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On a diversionary loop the train slows as if to allow the doe standing knee deep in meadow grass to watch us as we pass we watch her

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She wears muddy walking boots and has brought out a flask of something hot

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clipping tickets he is careful to be polite though from those upgrading to First Class he has had money already

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‘why do you do this’ the effect is never quite the same twice

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In a faded green t-shirt a man walking with arms folded across his chest as if he had breasts he hoped to steady

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mud-brown canal waters held eight of nine feet high behind a lock gate

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An upturned wheelbarrow on a long houseboat its purple paint job a statement of optimistic intent

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Words carve out sense as tractor tyres embrown the field’s new growth each year their lines down the hillside conclude at an iron gate

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I feel with each mile nearer home I mean nearing the place I grew up in

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Hills like the scarp edge of Salisbury Plain wait O this is not a likeness this is ‘the actual place’

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a diversion to a chalk white horse full of memories

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the Tory heartlands a tractor slowly turning over the ground

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I ring home and wake my sleeping parents

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‘Let’s make flying fun again’

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a basket of split logs waits for the fire

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On a wooden writing desk three animal skulls

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‘quietude not inquietude’

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Nine owl feathers in a china mug a sort of chalice

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A glazed bowl with an assortment of matte pebbles from the beach

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His son spoke out but the police were in bed with the FARC who saw to it he and his friends were tortured and killed can you believe it

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I like to work I prefer to work with those who want to want to stop

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a tall poplar tree like an exclamation mark he wrote as if to say this is it

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One skull another skull then another skull beside another skull

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rose gardens and orchards

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If they haven’t killed enough by their early 20s they’re losers whose life expectancy is anyway no more than 24

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Down to the underworld but returns if somewhat empty-handed he does return

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mausoleums for themselves a cult of death

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Bluebells in the hedgerows on either side of the road

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left hand short by two digits his wife’s wrist broken by a fall

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shut-eyed Blake above the flat-screen TV seems to offer the room a challenge

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the watercourse way

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Everything is a fiction the novel in your shoulder bag is the bank statement you use as a bookmark inside it that too

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The narrative of the oh-eight crash there are other ways for it to be recounted that’s not a joke

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Oppositional to a large degree I guess we are not pebbles from the same beach but it’s more than just rubbing along

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A chimney balloon

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On-line so many ‘friends’ devastated by the surprise results

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It’s staying in places like this makes me feel a Londoner

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He waves his paddle to let the train go then flips it up inside the back of his orange hi-viz jacket and pushing the handle into his back pocket it’s safely stowed

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A speck of thistledown drifting up the aisle

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attentiveness

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banked blue rectangles squat in meadows to scoop the sunlight

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Dirt is matter out of place but this is not dirt it is marvelously out of place

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Red kite above the monkey puzzle

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on an elevated hillside ahead yellow rape now level with me receding away behind

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In tunnels my ears close as if valved

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either that or everything is a metaphor I see myself turning socks inside out little involved packages

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What will Rose and Richard be doing this morning

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Wishing Iolo courage for his father’s passing

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Lee Harwood’s ‘The Orchid Boat’ reviewed

I’m ashamed to confess I’ve read little of Lee Harwood’s work before, though I’m sure my old friend and poet Keith Jebb has been telling me to do so for years. Since finding this book, I’ve rushed on to the Shearsman Selected Poems with great excitement. Lee Harwood was born in 1939 and grew up in Surrey. He has spent the majority of the past 35 years living in Brighton. In a writing career that began in the early 1960s, he has published over 20 volumes of poetry and prose, as well as translations of Tristan Tzara. His work has been widely anthologised and his Collected Poems (also Shearsman) appeared in 2004.

Exterior shots in The Orchid Boat (published by Enitharmon) are full of sketchy paths, remote horizons, fogs and mists; similarly, interiors sway, hide or semi-reveal with fabrics, curtains, drapes, dresses, veils. Come to think of it, these latter images are exactly right for much of Harwood’s work as the reader seems often to be moving through lucid, well-lit spaces that are partially obscured by hangings, veils impossible to identify with any clarity, suspended above, but from what and to what end is unclear. On the other hand, I don’t want to suggest that your reading of these fantastic poems will be a disembodied or disembodying experience: Harwood is a very sensual writer and I can feel the stones on his paths beneath my feet, the heft of his furniture, the texture of a dress. If veils do fall about me they are always specific, as tactile as they should be, silken, velvet, embroidered, studded with glass and jewels. There is so much to enjoy on the journey.

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One of the more subtle, ironising veils Harwood deploys is his habit of enclosing lines in inverted commas. Here’s the opening of ‘Ornithology’: “A wall of dense fog ahead / – blocked, all knowledge denied. / ‘The flying bird brings the message.’” In some writers, such a device would read as an abstracted and overly-intellectual exercise in confronting one discourse with another, but Harwood’s use of it is always far more human. There is a dialogue implied, a companionship, or at least an internal conversation occurring. The intended effect is achieved but is something as much felt as understood: a destabilising of the objective view and, of course, this is what all the fog and mist is about. World is hard to know. But Harwood’s birds, to take one example, though they may be remote and elusive, are definitely there: “As the mist shifts you see swallows set on a wire, / a wagtail bobbing on a rock”.

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Uncertainties in The Orchid Boat are temporal as well as spatial. In ‘New Zealand Playback’ voices are cross-cutting again: “‘I don’t want to be here’ // stumbling around in and out of history. // No answers to that one. // ‘You should get out more.’” The latter phrase also suggests one of the things I really like about Harwood’s work: it never wanders far from the spoken, colloquial voice, however complexly layered the over-arching arrangement of phrases may be. The poems explore what can be known and what cannot and the resulting movement is to “Zig-zag around, as usual” as ‘Sailing Westwards’ expresses it. The voyage, the far horizon, appears to be one way of putting it; the mountain path with its uncertain fog-shrouded cairns, is another. Either way, the one certainty is that “We just don’t know the full story”.

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The orchid boat itself is brought into view in the beautiful poem ‘Departures’. A summer night, the sound of rain, swaying curtains, a female voice, an implied intimacy between a man and a woman, but perhaps all this was “years ago”. Yet even if a memory, it is vivid as in a mirror. But such reflections are already one step away from the thing itself and there rises the lure of fixing such experiences, our human need to do so. It’s in this context that the orchid boat appears to represent the workings of our desire to protect the provisional nature of what we know and feel. “How to imagine an orchid boat? / It gets harder. But days come and go”. The boat, always boarded without “thinking” over much, carries us “beyond all mirrors”. Though age seems to increase the allure of fixity (we grow more frightened as we grow old), Harwood believes both age and childishness are states of mind rather than temporally-defined cell blocks. So ‘Childish’ presents a free-running phantasmagoria of Wordsworth-worth cleansed perceptions, concluding: “the red handrail of the pagoda / glistens with raindrops”. There goes the ghost of Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow too.

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Indeed, Williams is a better comparison than Wordsworth. Harwood is often associated with the New York School, with Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. Personally, I’ve always found Ashbery’s work hard to like much because (actually more like Wordsworth) there is too much of the egotistical, of the centripetal force, too much pressure from within, too little from without, too much abstraction. I prefer the way Harwood’s poems float more centifugally. They travel outwards spatially, to and fro temporally: “I’ll stamp my foot / and, checking the rear-view mirror, / head for the frontier” (‘The Books’).

There is in Harwood always the desire (and it is partly erotic) to tune in to the fullness of experience, its full presence and contradictoriness: “To stand back from the bare times – alive and alert” (‘Palaeontology’). The adjective “bare” here probably means that slimmed-down, rationalised, processed version of human experience we glide absent-mindedly though every day (a processing done in large part through the magical powers of language). In the same vein, ‘A Steady Light’ evokes the dusty orderliness of a museum with its “robes and rituals and attempts at clarity [. . . ] all copied, copied again, amended, copied again”. In the face of such suffocating restriction, to be “alive and alert” is an aspiration for Harwood, a daily hope, an occasional thrill, an anticipation of the drawing of the veil:

A curtain stirs in the tired room

while the same breeze slowly shifts

the hangings in the nearby hospital.

Distant sounds from the streets below.

Get up from the couch or chair.

Walk across the room to stop by the window.

The air heavy with the heat of summer.

Much more of Harwood’s work is available through Shearman who publish his Selected as well as a Collected 1964-2004.

Another review of The Orchid Boat, by Robert Sheppard, is available here