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

Nostalgia, Spots of Time and Ourselves

My Dad is getting more forgetful. True, he has just made his 95th birthday but like that stain that slowly spreads into “a gigantic ace of hearts” at the murderous climax of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, there is a growing realisation among family members that this is a bit more than a run-of-the-mill absentmindedness.

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Do we vanish with our memories? I’ve been repeatedly reminded, in judging a poetry competition recently, how much poetry depends on remembering, how much any of us depend on memory for a sense of who we are. So perhaps memory is a candidate for what makes us distinctly human – better even than language, the uniqueness of which has been challenged the more we understand of the animal kingdom (See Christine Kenneally’s book, The First Word)? Recalling moments from our own lives – Wordsworth’s “spots of time” that retain, he believes,  a “renovating virtue“ – seems to have something to do with identity, mental health, even our own ethical behaviour: they shall not be forgotten, we have been saying a lot recently.

A few months ago, I read a Guardian piece about nostalgia and have kept a copy of it with me since. Nostalgia as a term was coined by a 17th-century Swiss army physician who traced the fragile mental and physical health of his troops to their longing for home – nostos in Greek means home and algos is the pain they found in such thoughts. So its roots are in mental disorder or depressive illness and for centuries it has been considered unhealthy to dwell in this way on the past, a yearning for something lost, a debilitating rosy-tinted malady.

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But psychologists have started to think of nostalgia as a more profoundly rooting experience, even a stimulant to optimism, to psychic health. At Southampton University, Constantine Sedikides and Tim Wildschut have shown the universality of nostalgia and, among its measurable effects, it is now seen as a driver of empathy and social connectedness, an antidote to loneliness and alienation. Nostalgia, by connecting our past and present, by proving the temporal oneness of being, points optimistically to the future, acts to protect against negative thoughts and situations.

The article quotes Wildschut: “Nostalgia compensates for . . . feelings of meaninglessness or discontinuity between past and present . . . it elevates meaningfulness, connectedness and continuity.” Anecdotal evidence comes from women in concentration camps who “responded to starvation by waxing nostalgic about shared meals with their families and arguing about recipes”. This is a sort of imaginative “as if” loop that writers will readily recognise and evidence suggests it can temporarily affect our body states.  Concentration camp survivors recount: “We used our memories to temporarily alter our perception of the state we were in. It was not a solution, but the temporary change in perception allowed you to persevere.”

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Remembering our past serves to remind us of who we are, what we have been, what intimacy we have achieved, what we are capable of, then and now, in the future. It builds resilience because, though often concerned with trauma and sadness, it is posed in a redemptive sequence: ‘look we have come through’ cries D H Lawrence and even Larkin’s depressed-sounding “first boredom then fear” might be read in this light. As to ethical consequences, apparently, in strongly nostalgic states individuals are more liable to act altruistically; the value of money is weakened; couples and families bond more closely; gratitude and connectedness increase; children grow less selfish.

Meagre comfort when it’s you, or your father, losing the ability to recall; really this makes the loss of memory associated with old age that much more devastating. But at Southampton they are investigating nostalgia-based therapies for illnesses, including clinical depression and perhaps Alzheimer’s. Robert Lowell somewhere talks of the Christian trinity of God, Son and Holy Ghost, being replaced in the 20th century by Dad, Mum and memories of my family. Perhaps now we are gathering scientific evidence (if it was ever needed) that such a shift in focus was as much gain as loss. My poem ‘Four trees fallen’ (from The Time We Turned (Shearsman, 2014)) recollects the observation of trees fallen, the roots up-turned an image intended to evoke the unearthing of past experience:

this tree up-turned

with its metres-wide plate

of spreading roots tipped fully

ninety degrees from the horizontal

so what lay underground

is now exposed to the air [. . .]

I imagine it must have been

this same wind though perhaps

in the tempestuous pitch

of night that blew with such power

to topple a tree like this

to lever its roots up-turned

from almost immemorial dark

into the temporary dark

of one night’s storm—if it was

at night—left exposed at dawn

to new sunlight to noon and sunset

The final section remembers a pair of those fallen trees you sometimes come across where people have hammered coins into the rotting bark – a form of payment perhaps, but what for? A journey we hope always to be able to make.

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Walking on—and with each step

I remember a third fallen tree

this morning this one skirted

some miles back beside a stream

yet this other trunk bristled

weirdly with half-moons of coins

in its papery folds each hammered

by walkers till the coins were bent

and stressed from blows

of rocks needed to sink them deep

and this tree I also remember

was not the first of its kind—what

year was it what walk beside

what stream of whisky-brown waters

did I stand by a fourth fallen trunk

in that same way gleamingly

scaled with hundreds of coins—

some had planted light-hearted

coppers while others had

invested more heavily with silver

or the thick edges of pounds

and even two-pound coins—

I suppose just taking a breather

or something to amuse the kids

while others thought playfully

to placate the spirits of the place

with its damps and shades

and slippery rocks—perhaps to give

a gift that could never be spent

digging deep in their pockets

as I too hammered and thought

I might pay the fare for a journey

yet to be made to find my way

back to dispense with the need

for daylight tempests or storms

in the pitch of night to retrace

my steps to the original place

whether it might be noon or dusk

or rain or shine a decisive taking

back a preternatural reprise

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