In lieu of a new blog post, here is a link to the Hercules Editions webpage on which I have formulated a few thoughts about the current lockdown, photography and the (forgotten?) refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. It is a piece in part related to the Hercules publication of my longer poem, Cargo of Limbs.
The gateway to Richard Scott’s carefully structured first book is one of the most conventional poems in it. It’s a carefully punctuated, unrhymed sonnet. It is carefully placed (Public Library) and dated (1998). It’s the kind of poem and confinement Scott has fought to escape from and perhaps records the moment when that escape began: “In the library [. . .] there is not one gay poem, / not even Cavafy eyeing his grappa-sozzled lads”. The young Scott (I’ll come back to the biographical/authenticity question in a moment) takes an old copy of the Golden Treasury of Verse and writes COCK in the margin, then further obscene scrawls and doodles including, ironically a “biro-boy [who] rubs his hard-on against the body of a // sonnet”. Yet his literary vandalism leads to a new way of reading as – echoing the ideas of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick – the narrator suddenly sees the “queer subtext” beneath many of the ‘straight’ poems till he is picking up a highlighter pen and “rimming each delicate / stanza in cerulean, illuminating the readers-to-come . . .”
It’s a moment of personal as well as lit/crit revelation, a funny poem and the flood-gates open in accordance with the Whitman epigraph to section 1 of the book: “loose the stop from your throat”. From here on, punctuation and capitalisation become rare breeds in Scott’s exploration of gay love, shame, trauma and history. It’s only 3 years since Andrew McMillan’s Physical graced the Felix Dennis shortlist but Scott’s parallel collection is far darker, more explicit and brutal (but not always at the same time) and with a fierce sense of obscured queer history and its literary canon.
It’s an exhilarating, uneasy, accessible, relentless read. Section 1 goes some way in the bildungsroman direction. ‘le jardin secret’ declares “boys were my saplings / my whiff of green my sprouts” while ‘Fishmonger’ perhaps is set even earlier as a young boy is taken into a man’s “capable arms” in the back of his Transit van. A more aggressive and unpleasant encounter is evoked in ‘Childhood’ in which a seedy children’s entertainer (in a “caterpillar-green silk jumpsuit”) half-bullies a young boy to take him home for sex. But the poem’s perspective also suggests the child is an agent, making the decision himself: “I nodded and gingerly led him home / by the path that winds through the cemetery”. This is difficult territory (“makes for uncomfortable reading” Scott disarmingly mimics in a later poem) but erotic desire is powerfully acknowledged and (with a more caring partner) is later more satisfyingly experienced and expressed in ‘plug’ which, tenderly and very explicitly, records the moment of the loss of virginity (in fact, to a dildo).
Interestingly, the child takes the clown “through the cemetery”. Scott won the 2017 Poetry London Competition with ‘crocodile’ which also elides, blurs, even equates sex and death. The extended simile of the crocodile dragging a young man to his death is really “that man / who held me from behind / when I didn’t know sex”. The violence and destructiveness in this case is very evident but so again is the young man’s desire: “I have these moments when I / know I wanted it asked for it”. It’s in this way such poems can make for uncomfortable reading. Scott does not simplify either the allure or the destructiveness of the erotic.
In two poems, Scott himself raises questions of authenticity. ‘Permissions’ reports, in choppy prose paragraphs, reports observations from a poetry audience, at first in admiration (“how daring how dark”), then more uneasily (“surely not this writer wasn’t”). This fragmentation evokes fleeting comments, half-finished thoughts but also an awkwardness because one of the burning questions seems to be “is the I you”. It’s as if the audience want to know if these are poems of witness, meaning of authentic biographical experience. Poems of witness also in the sense of the often traumatic nature of much of the material. ‘Admission’ is even more clear: “he asks if my poems are authentic [. . .] and by this he means have I been a victim”. In neither poem do we get a direct record of what the poet’s replies might have been and surely it hardly matters. One of the unassailable liberties of the poet is to make things up. But whether fiction or fact the resulting poem has to possess the feel of the truth and Scott’s work has this in spades.
As I’ve already implied, many of the truths these poems convey are dark and shameful ones. The third section of the book is titled ‘Shame’, again quoting Sedgwick: “Shame, too, makes identity”. Here are untitled poems which make the queer pastoral of ‘le jardin secret’ rather more complex; another boy’s look or look away prompts “the hot-face / trauma the instant rash-jam” of embarrassed blush, made even more painful by a father’s verbal abuse. Elsewhere the father says, “don’t tell anyone you’re my son” and the narrator himself bitterly opposes any easy sloganizing with “the opposite of shame is not pride”. There is some support to be found in reading books by “leo / paul / mark / jean / eve / michel” and source quotes and allusions are noted in Scott’s margins here.
It’s this very self-conscious sense of these poems appearing within a canon of queer literature and experience that jet-propels ‘Oh My Soho!’, the long concluding sequence to the book. Whitman again presides in the epigraph and in the free-wheeling, long-lined, detail-listing paean to the present, past and future of Soho itself. The narrative voice becomes a self-appointed “homo-historian” and Scott’s love of word play (which elsewhere can feel too self-conscious) here finds a suitable form and tone. The historical element takes in a discussion of the Warren Cup (in the British Museum) but is never far from subjective and exclamatory moments too. The vigorous, secretive, once-unlawful, now legal, still persecuted, lives of “homos” is noisily and slangily celebrated:
We, too, are not immune to this shameful progress; us homos are no longer revolting!
Too busy sending dick pics and I saw Saint Peter Tatchel shirtless [. . . ]
We are a long way from that library in 1998, but “normativity” remains the enemy against which Scott takes up weapons (one of which is his own body). ‘museum’ is a superbly sensual poem, expressive of a man’s desire for the damaged male body of a Classical statue. Here normativity re-appears in the “giggling pointing prodding” of a family also viewing the statue; their ridicule is self-transferred to the gay man who stands observing in silence. The persecutions pursued in the name of normativity are also disturbingly clear in ‘Reportage’, the reports being of the immolation of a gay man somewhere in Europe. And Scott’s own revolutionary and erotic zeal are unforgettably conveyed in the poem opening “even if you fuck me all vanilla”, going on with characteristically explicit descriptions of the ironically, self-consciously, unprovocatively, vanilla-ish act, he still declares at the climactic finish, “napalm revolution fuck- / ing anarchy we are still dangerous faggots”.
With my new collection just out from Seren Books, I’m happy to have a number of promotional events and readings coming up over the next couple of months. As I discussed in an earlier blog, though I love the business of giving a reading, there’s often a moment that arises that I’m always uneasy about. It’s the question of influence. In that previous blog I followed through, chronologically, those poets who have had a powerful influence over the style and direction of my work. That provides one possible answer to the question ‘what other poets do you consider to have been an influence on your poems?’ Another reply might be to look closely at very recent work to see which poets are present in it as ghosts. This is what I’m doing here.
In preparing a new book for public reading, I tend to work through every poem making notes on the kind of thing an audience might need/like to know before hearing it (once and once only, in performance). I will often draw attention to the presence of a powerful poet figure that I’m aware of in the vicinity of the poem. So in The Lovely Disciplines, I can see influential roles of substance for Robert Hass (with Czeslaw Milosz), Ivan Lalic, Mary Oliver (with Emerson), Whitman and Edward Thomas.
Before looking at those in a little more detail, there are also two translations/versions from other poets in the collection. One is a version of Boris Pasternak’s poem from the 1950s called ‘In Hospital’. In the process of my versioning, the gender of the main protagonist was switched to female, more in line with most of the poems from the middle section of my book which forms a composite portrait of the passing of my parents’ generation.
I also include a loose translation of (plus a poem alluding to) the work of the French poet, Yves Bonnefoy, who I referred to in my earlier post on Poetic Influence. My poem ‘Valsaintes’ is named after the rural retreat in Haute-Provence where Bonnefoy lived in the 1960s. In many ways an idyllic place, in the end the renovation and up-keep of what was little more than an ancient ruin proved too much for him and the property was sold. For years afterwards, he harked back to it as a favoured, lost place. Bonnefoy’s ideas about what he calls ‘presence’ continue to fascinate me. My version, called ‘After Bonnefoy’, ends:
let’s bring ourselves one to another
as if each was at last all creatures
and all things all empty ways
all stones all metals and all streams
Sir Michael Tippett’s 1944 secular oratorio, A Child of Our Time, is explicitly relevant to my poem ‘Listening to Tippett twice’. Tippett also wrote the libretto, inspired by the assassination in 1938 of a German diplomat by a young Jewish refugee and the Nazi government’s reaction to it. This took the form of a violent pogrom against its Jewish population – the infamous Kristallnacht, so called because of the broken glass which littered the streets the following morning. Tippett’s text and music deals with these incidents in the context of the experience of oppressed people more generally and the whole work carries a strongly pacifist message of understanding and the need for reconciliation.
I’m certainly aware of echoes of Wordsworth on a couple of occasions. In ‘The Toll Cottage’ – a dream-poem in which I am being driven by my father – there’s a mangled remembrance of a phrase Wordsworth uses in ‘Tintern Abbey’ – “Once again I see / These hedgerows, hardly hedgerows, little lines / Of sportive wood run wild”. Also ‘The girl who returned to Aix’, a sequence of three sonnets, includes the awkward fact that I cried on first seeing Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was that moment when the huge alien spaceship finally appears, rising up from behind a mountain – just as Wordsworth’s mountain, Black Crag, rises up in the boat-stealing episode of The Prelude Book 1.
In my poem ‘Nocturne’, I was partly thinking of Whistler’s painting, ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold’ (c. 1875) but I like to think my (love) poem has more light in it than that, set as it is in the same Tuscan landscape as another poem called ‘The renovation near Sansepolcro’. ‘Nocturne’ also makes reference to ‘the poet’s kelson’ and this is Walt Whitman who, in the fifth part of ‘Song of Myself’, refers to love as a kelson of creation. A kelson (or keelson) is the structure running the length of a ship and fastening the timbers or plates of the floor to its keel giving stability and strength.
In his book, Time and Materials (2007), introducing the sequence ‘Czeslaw Milosz: In Memoriam’, Robert Hass recounts a discussion he had with Milosz (as his translator) about the different connotations in English of Oh! and O! As it turned out, the one Milosz intended in his poems was the second and this is the one that most interests me too. My poem opens:
Oh! is longer drawn already
beginning the button-down
with its freighting
of verb tense and identity
whereas O! is more sudden
more urgent surely
of the moment rapt
when we are prised open
by desire [. . .]
I wanted the title of my poem, ‘The lovely disciplines’, to feel paradoxical and in my mind it was related to the Serbo-Croat poet, Ivan Lalic. I remember reading his 1981 collection, translated by Francis R. Jones as The Passionate Measure. I remember Lalic explaining he hoped to suggest the fluidity or fluency of emotion as well as the orderliness or measured nature of a dance or verse. I hoped my title would suggest something of the same – a balanced response to experience, both our taking pleasure in it and searching it for order. My poem takes place on a women’s hospital ward.
Mary Oliver’s book, Swan, is not her best but I bought it in a secondhand bookshop once and inside discovered an ATM receipt with some cryptic notes on it. This provided the start of ‘As we live’, a poem which takes up Oliver’s sensitivity to nature (which she often gazes at with such precision of feeling as to achieve a visionary intensity) as well as her epigraphs from Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay ‘Beauty’ in The Conduct of Life: “’Tis curious that we only believe as deep as we live”.
Finally, Edward Thomas (Ted Hughes’ “father of us all”) appears explicitly in relation to two poems in my book. Not a million miles from Oliver’s example, it’s his directness and love of what lies before him that I like. I like his sense that, in Robert Frost’s words, this world is the right place for love, combined with his intuitions about the human need to look beyond, perhaps into an inexpressible obscurity. ‘These things I remember’ is almost a found poem on these issues – taking phrases from a memoir written by Thomas’ friend Jesse Berridge (published with letters by Enitharmon Press).
And ‘Rebuilding Tellisford weir’ has an epigraph from Thomas’ 1914 prose book, In Pursuit of Spring. His book recounts his 1913 journey – by bicycle – across southern England from London to the Quantock Hills. I was delighted to discover him passing through the landscape of my childhood: cycling down off Salisbury Plain, through Erlestoke and Edington, Steeple Ashton, North Bradley to stay with friends at Dillybrook Farm just outside Trowbridge, where I lived for 18 years. He writes about waking at night to the sound of falling water. The next day he is persuaded to visit Tellisford and its weir by the mysterious Other Man (a kind of alter ego for Thomas). My poem mixes some of these details with my own memories of visits to Tellisford. I like to think the poem has a lot of Thomas in it: a sense of history, the beauty of nature, strange encounters with others, a sad loneliness, the transience of all things.
Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press) – reviewed here
Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry)
In living with Ocean Vuong’s book over the last week or two I have on occasions mistaken its title for Night Sky with Exile Wounds. It will become obvious why. But it has also been hard to ‘see’ this collection because of the accumulated material – interviews, awards, perhaps hype – that already surrounds it in a way that affects none of the other Forward First Collections this year. Vuong has already appeared on the cover of Poetry London and been interviewed by The New Yorker. He has been nominated as one of Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers. Such recognition is even more extraordinary given that Vinh Quoc Vuong was born in 1988 on a rice farm outside Saigon and, at the age of two, he and six relatives emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut, where they lived together in a one-bedroom apartment. On learning that ‘ocean’ (in American English) is a body of water that touches many countries – including Vietnam and the United States – his mother renamed her son.
Ocean Vuong is also gay. Hence his exile – the word that kept coming into my mind – is one not only from his birth country and culture but also from the mainstreams of his adopted country. It’s no surprise there are several Ocean Vuongs in this book in terms of subject matter as well as in its use of a variety of poetic forms. This might – reflecting his given name – be an essential, protean, shape-shifting style or it might reveal the kind of casting around in the sea of form and content one might expect from a first collection. I think it is more the latter than the former, though the thrashing and contortion involved in such self creation (we used to refer to ‘self discovery’ – the book title has ‘self portrait’) is now a topic of such ubiquity in Western culture that Vuong’s personal struggles may come to be considered as representative in themselves.
Though 13 years before his birth, ‘Aubade with Burning City’ portrays the American withdrawal from Saigon in 1975. Apparently, Armed Forces Radio played ‘White Christmas’ as a sign to commence the withdrawal and the poem assembles a montage of the song lyric, events on the streets of Saigon and a sinister, coercive-sounding male/female dialogue. The result reflects the chaos of such a moment of violent transition (though the ironies of the sentimental song are a bit obvious) and introduces a recurrent thread in Vuong’s work, the uneasy alliance between power and sex. ‘A Little Closer to the Edge’ seems a reminiscence, perhaps of his own conception (Cape’s cover image of the young poet encourages this biographical approach). Among bomb craters and anticipated domestic violence, a young Vietnamese couple are at first “hand in hand”. Then:
He lifts her white cotton skirt, revealing
another hour. His hand. His hands. The syllables
inside them. O father, O foreshadow, press
into her –
For his mother’s part, the narrative voice asks her to show “how ruin makes a home / out of hip bones” and also to “teach me / how to hold a man”.
Once in the USA, there are poems that treat both parents with some tenderness. In ‘The Gift’, the son teaches his mother the alphabet. She can hardly get beyond the third letter, the fourth, gone astray, appearing only as
a strand of black hair – unravelled
from the alphabet
on her cheek
Several portrayals of Vuong’s father suggest violence and drinking but in ‘In Newport I Watch my Father Lay his Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back’ he is seen to express concern for the creature, “the wet refugee”, though the poem is fractured by bullets, Huey helicopters, shrapnel and snipers as if to suggest the root of the father’s violence and his inability to express affection for his own family.
Or perhaps such things innate to a man? Another major theme in the book is masculinity itself as expressed through father figures and a young gay man growing up. The former is seen in two poems involving guns. ‘The Smallest Measure’ has the father instructing the boy on how to handle a Winchester rifle (it reminds me of a photograph of Hemingway and his son). ‘Always and Forever’ (Vuong’s note tells us this is his father’s favourite Luther Vandross song) has the father substituting himself with a Colt.45 in a shoe box: “Open this when you need me most”, he says. The boy seems to wonder if the gun might deliver a liberation of sorts: “[I] wonder if an entry wound in the night // would make a hole wide as morning”. This image of an aperture being made in darkness – most often through an act of violence – to let in light recurs in these poems. I can’t quite see what is intended here but there are again links to the erotic/violence motif. Later, the gun barrel must “tighten” around the bullet “to make it speak”, making further obscure, but interesting, links to violence and the ability to speak (or write).
What it is to be a (young, gay) man is explored in the second part of the collection. Andrew McMillan’s physical comes to mind in reading these poems (McMillan interviewed Vuong for Poetry London recently). ‘Because It’s Summer’ is a more conventionally lineated poem in the second person singular (some distancing there) of slipping away from a mother’s control (and expectations) to meet a boy “waiting / in the baseball field behind the dugout”. It’s particularly good at conveying the exciement (on both sides) of a desire, previously played out alone, being mutually gratified: “the boy [. . .] finds you / beautiful because you’re not / a mirror”. ‘Homewrecker’ evokes the energy of erotic discovery as well as the ‘wreckage’ it threatens (to some) in the “father’s tantrum” as much as the “mothers’ / white dresses spilling from our feet”. ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ is particularly inventive in its form. The poem – set as prose, but with line break slashes included (a baggy, hybrid form Vuong uses elsewhere) – appears as a series of footnotes. The footnote numbers appear scattered across a blank page. The poem deals with the murder, by immolation, of two gay men in Dallas in 2011. The mainstream silence is cleverly played against the passionate love poem only recorded as footnotes.
Elsewhere, Vuong hits less successful notes and styles. There are some dream poems – like ‘Queen under the Hill’ – which don’t always escape the hermetic seal around an individual’s dream world. On other occasions, he wants to use mythic stories to scaffold his own. ‘Telemachus’ is probably the most successful of these (the materials again feeling dream-like to me) as the son pulls his dead (shot dead) father from the ocean. Elsewhere we find allusions to Orpheus and Eurydice (and to Lorca’s ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’ and Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’). Certainly, Vuong is not fearful of taking on big subjects such as JFK’s assassination (‘Of Thee I Sing’), the murders of Jeffrey Dahmer (‘Into the Breach’) and 9/11 (‘Untitled’).
But actually I think ‘ordinariness’ and those poems which show the influence of O’Hara and the New York School prove a more fertile direction. In an interview, Vuong has discussed the Rilkean imperative to look, what the young poet calls the “inexhaustibility in gazing”, something with which we might “resist the capitalist mythos of an expendable gaze”. So ‘On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous’ (I do hope Vuong thinks, as I do, of Jay Gatsby whenever he uses that last word) the fragments of vivid perception amount to more than the sum of its parts. ‘Notebook Fragments’ – which appears to be precisely what the title says – works better than some more crafted poems in the collection. And ‘Devotion’ – with its concluding placement suggesting Vuong knows how good it is – rises out of the sometimes conflicting biographical currents that by his own admission have buffeted him. It’s a beautiful lyric (the form, tripping, delicate, this time not drawing attention to itself) about oral sex; its debatable claims made with utter conviction:
more holy than holding
a man’s heartbeat between
your teeth, sharpened
with too much
The lilting lineation, the brush-strokes of punctuation, work better here than in some of Vuong’s more Whitman-esque streamings of consciousness. The enviable, insouciance of youth – “& so what” – is thrillingly conveyed. Yet, it turns out, this is not really about the provocative challenges of a variety of states of exile and ‘otherness’, but about the need to feel anything “fully”, however transient it may prove to be:
Sheenagh Pugh’s Short Days, Long Shadows strongly bears the mark of her re-location in recent years from Cardiff to the Shetland Islands. There are a couple of leaving-taking pieces here with ‘How to Leave’ re-enacting the slow, even painful, notation of local details and the levels of self-deception often accompanying what looks like a partly reluctant move. ‘Ghosts of Cardiff’ more reflectively argues that it is less the “now” that proves so hard to turn away from, it is “all the thens” which, even walking down St Mary Street or through Victoria Park, remain at least as vivid as any present moment. These hauntings form just one of the many sub-sets of ‘Long Shadows’ in this collection and Pugh’s much-remarked sense of history is a further important manifestation of this too.
But it is the northern landscapes that dominate the book, the Shetlands and Scandinavia. ‘Big Sky’ makes the scenic novelty clear when the gaze from a window meets “no branch, no office block”, but “overflows with sky”. The breadth and variety of cloudscape and the bright night’s “cluster and prickle” of stars are vividly evoked yet the individual’s humility before such a natural scene is undermined by a final line suggesting a yearning for “the way out”. There is something of this reflected in the book’s structuring where, instead of blockish sequences of related poems, individual pieces tend to bounce and ricochet off each other. Pugh’s language risks becoming a little dull but I find this quality of restlessness in her work very engaging. It is a determination not to accept limits as in ‘Living in a Snow Globe’ where a northern blizzard again concludes with a small figure “fixed in a shaking flux and unsure / where here is, or how to get out”.
It must be just such an isolated figure who, in one of the best poems here, talks to the ocean and asks why our figures and metaphors for it – though accurate in some ways – are always inadequate: “you / swallow each likeness, each true word / and spit it out, rejected” (‘Sea’s Answer’). I’m not sure I quite follow the sea’s reply, but it seems to imply that our endless figuring is really driven by our own desire “to be like” the sea, implying perhaps our existential uncertainties, at least when confronted with the sea’s Olympian-seeming, seeming unconditional, independent life, reminding me of Whitman’s 1871 ‘Song of the Exposition’ (as used by Vaughan Williams in ‘A Sea Symphony’) where he declares the sea remains always and only “the sea itself”.
But such metaphysical themes are infrequent in Pugh’s work (or at least they remain well-buried) and she focuses usually on the more common personal experience. She often approaches this through historical time in, for example, a sequence on sixteenth century spies in ‘Walsingham’s Men’ and several later pieces clearly based on encounters with museum exhibits. There are also poems here about the approach (for a father?) of cancer and death, reminisces about wartime experiences and several touching poems about the author’s mother: “I shall look back at her from my seventies // before long, saying this is how it is, / the age you never reached” (‘Catching Up’). As this suggests, Pugh’s over-riding obsession is the passage of time, both in the shadows it casts back and forth and in the sense of transience implied in the phrase ‘Short Days’. ‘Wasting Time’ is a fine poem opening with the narrator watching the sea’s actions of building and destroying along the coastline. Quoting “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me” from Shakespeare’s Richard II, the poem goes beyond this, acknowledging “the one thing / you cannot do is keep it”. Here also, Pugh resists the lure of a neatly tied up conclusion, merely suggesting that the sequential linearity of time must mean that in focusing on – or even in loving and appreciating – one thing, we must be missing out on another or absently on the look-out for something better. That restlessness again.
Since she gave out the hostage to fortune that being judged “too accessible” as a poet was the best sort of compliment, there has been much discussion of Pugh’s plainness, simplicity, even her unchallenging art. It’s true there are poems here that do little more than make a few well-turned observations in plain language in skilfully handled, mostly free verse. But I think – in the face of a pretty bleak view of temporal change – the stoicism which underlies much of her thought manifests itself in lexical and formal choices as the desire to communicate truth as plainly as possible. There is surely something of this in the astutely placed opening poem, ‘Extremophile’. The title refers to those life forms which, against all the odds, manage to carve out a life in extreme conditions around hydrothermal vents, in permanently darkened caves, in Antarctic valleys. It is this determination that Pugh finds inspiring: “There is nowhere / life cannot take hold, nowhere so salt, / so cold, so acid, but some chancer / will be there”. Look at that brilliantly chosen colloquialism “chancer” to suggest the risk-taking, against-the-odds, stubborn resilience of life itself that Pugh’s human subjects more often than not also share.
Even so, it’s a very long way from this Hughesian Crow-like affirmation of life against the odds to another poem later in the collection which confirms that, whatever the questions over accessibility, Pugh remains a poet capable of facing up to the terrifying brevity of life. ‘The Vanishing Bishop’ is one of the museum-inspired pieces, I think, but we are taken to the moment when a coffin is unearthed and opened and news is sent to the archaeologists while the digger/narrator remains waiting, observing the corpse: “face, full lips, firm lines, / furrowed brow”. But suddenly, as the narrator sits in imagined silent dialogue with the dead bishop’s body, the air attacks the long-preserved face:
[as] when a big log
has burned so long, it’s ash
in the shape of wood, nothing
holding it together
but habit. His whole face
suddenly settled, fell in on itself,
letting go its last memory
of who he’d been.
Though uneven, Short Days, Long Shadows is a highly readable collection with perhaps half a dozen of the best poems Pugh has written and these wear their profundity so lightly that you will want to go back and re-read them to find out with what cunning, near-invisible skill they have been composed.
This is the third in the series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2015 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 28th September. The shortlist is:
Mona Arshi – Small Hands (Liverpool University Press, Pavilion Poetry) reviewed here;
Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus); reviewed here;
Andrew McMillan – physical (Cape Poetry); reviewed here;
Matthew Siegel – Blood Work (CB Editions) reviewed here;
Karen McCarthy Woolf – An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet) reviewed here.
Matthew Siegel – Blood Work (CB Editions); Forward Prize webpage on Matthew Siegel: here.
This is a really good first collection because of its remarkable consistency of tone and manner and it possesses what I, perhaps narrow-mindedly think of, as that American quality of confident fluency, indeed fluidity, which seems capable of encompassing so much experience without straining at the seams. In their very different ways, I find this in the work of poets like Billy Collins, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Robert Hass and Larry Levis. I’d trace it back to the big enfolding arms and lines of Whitman who, along with Rilke, are Siegel’s two declared influences. But this ‘all I survey’ quality of the book is rather undermined by the publicity surrounding it which narrowly focuses on the fact that Siegel was diagnosed at the age of sixteen with Crohn’s disease and that his debut collection is all about this. Mark Doty (no less) considers the book “a genuine contribution to the literature of illness”.
It may well be – but like Robert Lowell, Thom Gunn and more recently (Siegel’s CB Editions stable-mate) Dan O’Brien, Blood Work’s focus on a very specific milieu or set of experiences does not prevent the alchemical transformation into an art with which those not brought up in the upper reaches of New England society, in the West Coast gay scene, embroiled in modern war zones can identify. In old money terms, they find the universal in the particular and Siegel does this in poems that move beyond a young American with Crohn’s disease to explore family relations, love relationships, questions of self-definition and the tensions between speech and silence.
The opening poem is important in carving out a certain distance, an ironic space, between the Crohn’s sufferer and the poetic voice (there are a few ekphrastic poems scattered through the book which do the same job). It is one of the few poems narrated in the third person and we are urged to “look” at a hospital attendee, back in what seems familiar territory (the chronic aspect of Crohn’s), the floral prints on the walls, the hospital gown “like an old costume / pulled out of a locked trunk in the attic / of bad dreams”. He feels sexless or desexualised, but is writing a poem “in lowercase”, particularly the first person pronoun. The writing of the poem becomes the subject of the poem but this self-reflectiveness is not rebarbative in the way it often can be (self-regarding, aggrandising, clever-clever) but more modestly self-mocking, an awkward self-consciousness. The patient/poet would rather be drawing a comic book, with himself as a “small mammal”. He sees himself as a fox and in the poem’s final line he changes the title of the poem he is writing which is the title at the head of the first page we have just read: ‘fox goes to the fox hospital’.
The space created by this poem around the very specific medical context gives the remaining book permission to range widely and introduces the idea of “containment”. What can or cannot contain the individual is a recurring idea (picked up by Doty in the cover blurb). The title poem has the narrator’s blood being taken from a vein (already a familiar experience to this young man – the context seems to be earlier in the poet’s life). The nurse allows him to hold the warm filled tubes of his own blood: “I nod, think about condoms, tissues / all the things that contain us but cannot”. Containment here means summation perhaps, but with overtones of imprisonment in the sense that a medical condition (a disability? a gender? a skin colour?) may determine much about the individual, yet ought not be allowed to fully define the person. This too is Siegel’s subject in the book; the spillage, or extension, we can achieve or are permitted beyond what might define us.
So ‘Sometimes I don’t know if I’m having a feeling’ may or may not be closely related to the poet’s own medical condition but it is a familiar experience for most of us. The uncertainty of thoughts and feelings, the sensation of having missed “the entire party”, of being known only as “a strange / version of the person you thought you knew”, the old question, “Who am I?” It’s a sign of the ironic distance maintained by these poems (not at all the same as cool inconsequentiality) that Siegel can answer that question with humour: “A question / for the Lord only to decide as She looks over / my resume”. Elsewhere, such questions are more difficult to answer. ‘Love Parade’ stresses the distance the narrator feels from others (‘I fear my body incapable of loving’) or he plays with the idea that the opportunity of a poem is little more than a late-night phone-in for the lost and lonely. The desire for contact with others (that wish for spillage and extension) can grow to “the size of a building”, taking Siegel down avenues of surrealistic imagery, creating a city-scape from the thoughts of a lover’s body.
These ‘others’ do feature significantly in this book. We meet the heater repair woman, a Vietnamese masseuse, Nancy the dentist, a supermarket flower seller, stall-holders at a Farmer’s Market, a multitude of doctors and nurses, various romantic entanglements. Though all these dip and dance about the central consciousness, they are given individuality (more Whitman here, I think). Thirteen year old Bryan is a sleepy student and the narrator is the teacher who watches him doze at his desk, bored by a literature class. The poem is a lovely act of empathy with the boy, his awkwardness and uncertainties, concluding with the self-discovery that the boy may well become the watching adult who “instead of chastising him / wants to touch his hair”. Not what child protection might want to hear, but true enough for those who teach.
But the book is also concerned with family, in particular a mother-figure who, like Bryan, is observed while sleeping and Siegel asks “What world / contains you”. In this poem, she dozes, exhaling “in little puffs” and perhaps it is her son’s inability to quite define her that means he can “only watch for so long”. She is a mystery, though in poem after poem she is shown crying, smoking dope to forget, mourning an ex-fiance, the son helplessly, left to “wonder if I could reassemble my mother”. In ‘Matthew you’re leaving again so soon’ we hear her reported voice fussing and trying to bestow love and affection through gifts of pens, an umbrella, socks, as he prepares to leave, in an effort to say what seems impossible to be said explicitly. We see her (smoking another joint) listening to the music of Enya (‘it’s in Gaelic’), tearful again, yet smiling “as if hurt is the balm”. For all the lack of specific detail about her life and loves, this mother-figure is a powerful creation we may hear more of in Siegel’s later work.
So the book does not duck difficult experiences, nor distance them defensively. Siegel’s watchwords are openness and a winning tenderness. Despite the questions of illness, he can apply such qualities to himself too and in ‘Overlooking the City’ there is a brief respite which amounts to something like redemption: “No, I am not hurting in this moment”. As the sun sets over the city, “red does not remind me of blood” and the imagined blessing of the sun’s rays reach “even me, surrounded here and alone”.
Even in a poem that gets pretty explicit about his medical condition, some reconciliation seems possible. ‘Rain’ opens:
I thought I knew desperation until I found myself
tightening my asshole like a bolt,
gripping the banister and crossing both legs,
I tried to read a poem on the toilet [. . .]
But still the narrator can elude such a total, imprisoning self-definition to find some pleasure in the view from a window to “see grass // glowing green in rain and streetlight – / so many bright beads of water”.
So a book I really admire for its capacity to encompass such variety without bursting into fragmentary utterances. It doesn’t do anything startling formally or linguistically, but its achievement is more emotional and empathetic, Siegel’s voice engages the reader at all times in just the way he seems to engage and commit to the many people who inhabit these poems with him. Would make a worthy Forward First Collection winner.
I did manage to write about the subsequent war in Iraq but on this occasion I approached it very tangentially, through the Civil War writings of Walt Whitman. The resulting poems were first published in The Long Poem Magazine(Issue 3, Winter 2009/10; sections also appeared in Acumen) with the Introduction I have posted below. There, I discuss several sections of the completed sequence though I will post up only two parts of it. For the sake of those who might be interested in how raw materials get transmuted in such a process, I have added links to the original passages from which #2 ‘The White House’ and #4 ‘I staid a long time to-night’ were derived. The full sequence was eventually published in Hurt (2010: https://martyncrucefix.com/publications/hurt/). Dan O’Brien has more recently used a not dissimilar ventriloquism in his poems about the experiences of war photographer Paul Watson. For a much more direct poetic approach to modern war (born out of direct experience as a soldier in Iraq) see the poetry of Brian Turner.
On 21st March 2003 the “big and little thunderers in chorus began to roar” over Baghdad. During Easter of that year I visited the American Museum, just outside Bath, and while my children scoured the grounds in an Easter egg hunt and my aging parents wandered around an exhibition of American rag rugs, I drifted into the bookshop and picked up a collection of Walt Whitman’s Civil War poetry and prose.
It was childhood innocence and the rag rugs’ recycling of material that were in my mind as I read the words Whitman had written in 1862 in Falmouth, Virginia: “Began my visits among the Camp Hospitals in the Army of the Potomac. Spent a good part of the day in a large brick mansion, on the banks of the Rappahannock.”
With the force of one of those visions that artists are thought to be prone to, it struck me that such a wide-eyed witnessing from an earlier conflict might be a way to write successfully about the then current conflict. Or to be more precise – since what I have just written fails to convey the powerful emotional impact of what I read – I was myself moved by reading Whitman’s observations but my emotion was not retrospective at all but immediate, topical, all about Iraq.
The more I read of Whitman’s prose the more genuine ties with the contemporary war I sensed. Whitman writes in his letters and journals almost as a by-stander, visiting the wounded and dying in hospitals, only occasionally being drawn to wider political observations and his focus on the individual cost of warfare exactly matched my own feelings. I began to imagine a sequence of poems framed by letters to a mother, containing the search for a brother and other references to close family members: “Han’s and George’s and Andrew’s. . . Jeff’s and his little Manahatta’s too”. The sequence came together only very slowly, partly because of my own uncertainties about its status as a partially ‘found’ poem but it eventually separated itself from its original sources and it was only later that I saw what was mine, what Whitman’s.
So the second piece, describing the White House, relies heavily on notes Whitman made in February 1862, but in the light of the deceit and war mongering of the early 21st century such descriptions are redolent with a bitter irony.
‘I dream’d a stockade’ is a more ‘composed’ poem, using Whitman’s familiar listing techniques, which intends to turn the suffering of the Civil War at an angle to reflect the inner conflicts that the Iraq mission quickly created in US society itself. With the inevitable reports of civilian casualties, I had little to add to Whitman’s accounts of comforting the wounded from the opposing sides of the Civil conflict to ensure a powerful contemporary resonance.
‘The President’ is drawn from Whitman’s many observations of Lincoln. He first set eyes on him in 1861 and, as with the White House material, while I was putting the sequence together, the passage of time had already imbued his original admiration with the bitterest of ironies. Of course, after the poems were completed, by January 2009 and the inauguration of Obama, time had ironically turned once more and some have since read this part of the sequence as ‘about’ the new US President.
With ‘To the Mother of one fallen’, the narrator is back at the bedside of an individual dying man whose ravings and sense of undeserved blame, of a corruption in the/his “system”, is intended to reflect warfare’s inevitable brutalisation of even the best of individuals, the results of which even now continue to be uncovered years after the world conjured its first surprised shock at events in Abu Ghraib. (click to see Whitman’s original letter of May 1865: Here )
More than it comes to
seven poems from the American War
ii. The White House
Tonight, I walk out to take a look at the President’s House.
Tonight, the white portico, the brilliant gas-light shining,
The palace-like pediment, the tall round columns, spotless as snow.
Tonight, a tender and soft moonlight flooding the pale marble,
A light that gives rise to peculiar & faint & languishing shades,
That are not shadows, for no such thing as shadow resides at this address.
On this night, a soft transparent haze under the thin moon-lace,
Where it falls amongst the bright and plentiful clusters of gas-lights,
That have been set at intervals around the façade & the columns.
Tonight, I see everything white, a marbly pure white and dazzling,
And even more so, the softest white of the White House of future poems,
And of dramas and dreams here, under the high, the copious moon.
Tonight, the pure and gorgeous front in trees under the night-lights,
The leafless silence and the trunks and myriad angles of branches.
Tonight, I see a White House of the land, a White House of the night,
And of beauty and of silence and sentries at the tall gate,
Sentries pacing in their blue overcoats, stopping me not at all,
But eyeing with their sharp sentries’ eyes whichever way I go.