DISTRUSTFUL NARRATIVES

 

Reuben Woolley: the king is dead, Oneiros Books, £6.95

Simon Perril: Archilochus on the Moon, Shearsman Books, £8.95

Janet Sutherland: Bone Monkey, Shearsman Books, £9.95,

Cathoel Jorss: Comb the Sky with Satellites, It's Still a Wilderness

House of Lovers, Aus $29, ebook Aus $5.99

 

reviewed by James Sutherland-Smith

 

It is difficult to decide whether Reuben Woolley's first book of poems, the king is dead, is a cycle of poems or a long poem with a number of self-contained parts. The poems are related in theme and imagery, and there is an observable progression from an opening salvo of poems, all related in theme, right to the final poem. The poem cycle is written as a series of mostly short lyrics composed in musical phrasing and with unconventional punctuation. There is always a space between the punctuation mark and the end of the word that precedes it. I don't know what this signifies, although I have come across similar punctuation used by a poet at a festival in Serbia. It didn't interfere with my reading, and in fact it allows the eye to flow over the enjambment that Woolley employs. One reason might be that the syntax Woolley uses can often relate back to the previous phrase or forward to the next: give you / safe passage . every year / I try to cross (border counts). It happens too often to be technical carelessness.

The cycle begins with language and its ineradicable presence in human consciousness as Woolley's subject: erased / words in zero / conditions / leave traces elsewhen (ambiguities). A principle of vitality is asserted at the beginning, although the cycle voices more qualifying perceptions as he expresses the contradictions of the desire inherent in individual speech and its frustration due to language's failure to communicate this fully over time: years strip / our hold on tongues (control).

A promising beginning falters a little as the cycle enters the familiar and unrisky territory of poetry as risk with the trope of mountaineering, hold / on to it . your life / de-pends / on the next word, where the metaphor doesn't quite suspend this reader's disbelief in the way that W.S.Graham's Malcolm Mooney's Land manages to do so. The cycle quickly encounters death, and the cycle moves, on alternating between grand guignol and Woolley's considerable metaphysical wit, as in the wholly satisfying lyric we are not dealing, where language clicks into place with deft spacing of line and unexpected collocation:


listen


very high


a chorus of children's voices

reflected

in a spherical mirror


Woolley seems to be writing away from a number of influences, Graham being one of them. The reference to the rose in the king is dead (1) indicates that he has absorbed Eliot's Four Quartets, especially Eliot's despair at working with language as shabby equipment. He seems to reject the moment in the rose garden: but the rose / is still / the rose / & the garden is / curiously normal. The value Eliot places on history is challenged by a Yeatsian image: a leaf which turns into a hawk's head / which turns into an open mouth , which / seeks your open vein.

By the time we reach the poem the king is dead (ii) there is confirmation of the failure of the old symbols and a need to discard them in order to reach towards any relevant meaning: the flowering tree / has been corrupted. Woolley gradually begins to restore meaning and the second part of the cycle balances reductive impulses with the fine poems, dragons, exemplifying this:


I run

to/from disasters

collecting explosions

the words pour out

like bitter honey

I shine in clusters

the king dead is dead is a fascinating debut, tapping into an undercurrent stream of expressionist lyric which surfaced most strongly in the 1940s, albeit in repressed fashion in the work of Eliot, and then most wonderfully in the late work of W.S. Graham. It is good to read a poet whose work is not cupped in the safe pair of pudgy hands which characterize mainstream publishing.

Simon Perril's latest sequence, Archilochus on the Moon, is built around the surviving legends and fragments of Archilochus, the first Greek lyric poet, who is credited with being one of the first to write iambic verse, and as a possible inventor of the elegy. Iambic verse was used for satire and Archilochus was the ur-satirist of Greek poetry. Legend has it that after Lykambes, the father of his betrothed Neobulé, broke off the engagement, Archilochus's poetry about them was so scurrilous that the Lykambe, Neobulé and her sister, hanged themselves.

Perril's fancy has Archilochus sent to the moon to found a colony there on its inhospitable terrain although he has provided the colonists with a modicum of atmosphere. However, the persona that speaks seems extremely isolated, although some of the poems are addressed to his friend Glaucus. If it weren't for the presence of Glaucus, I'd have a strong impression of the ghost of Archilochus exiled to a lunar version of Tartarus and condemned to repeat the surviving fragments of his works. Perril writes early on in the cycle "late locusts / upon a land long-stamped/ by the dead, their dust-life / we swallow." In 28 Archilochus writes as a ghost: "A poet is something / like a ghost; gone / from this word." He makes good use of the fragments that have survived and of the legends which have come down to us from 2,500 years ago in eighty lyrics, which are more straightforward in syntax and less loaded with devices such as paronomasia than his earlier work. However they still occur, and often with stunning effect as in 9: "and the mind/ they favour and fever / riots like a market place."

Perril's Archilochus emerges as a true exile with all of an exile's anger and regret for his lost country of origin, Paros, and the lost love denied to him: "there is no homecoming from the moon". The moon, which "lights the underside of Eros", is an arid place where grain does not grow and where there is no-one "with whom to play / the sinews of my soft horn". It is a "dust-dappled mirror" into which he peers "to catch all my actions / completed, surrounded / by what I've not done: // my life undone." 36 is a more or less straightforward retelling of the legend of how Archilochus came to be a poet, a forerunner of the fairy tale "Jack and the Beanstalk", in which the boy barters his father's cow for a lyre with a group of women who vanish once the deal has been concluded. The randiness of the Greek poet is frequently replicated: "I'd part petals // wet / your other mouth // and we'd talk / till nothing's // left to say" although that is the persona reminiscing, as on the Moon he is reduced to solitary activity: "shaping my spear-hand / to a cup // that spills / coming like an army: / late." This latter image neatly manages to express a double lament, the loss of Neobulé and the absence of anyone to engage in combat as a soldier.

The famous bitterness is muted in Perril's Archilochus. "Pitch this song / midways between yelp / and yearn" he writes and the erotic tristesse of lost love seems to be the stronger thread. What emerges in this interplay of Perril's verbal skills and the fragments of Archilochus's lyric that survive is an entertainment poised between despair and hope with the sense of mortality ever present: "Gods don't leak /are sealed in constant light: / to us is given/ the rhythm / of guttering torches."

Janet Sutherland's third collection has the uncomfortable title Bone Monkey, uncomfortable for me that is bevause it recalls the line "And their monkey's tube tucked inside their pants" from C.H. Sisson's poem The Nature of Man, a poem whose condescension I have always heartily disliked. The use of the word "trickster" in the blurb on the back cover was not encouraging either, reminding me of another pet hate, Ted Hughes's Crow, a hard-cover first edition of which resides in permanent exile in my cabin in the forest. However, once I set aside my capricious prejudices and opened the collection, my reaction changed to an absorbed respect. Like Woolley and Perril, Sutherland usually uses a short line with a minimum of punctuation so that its cadence, taut as a Parthian bowstring, is allowed to vibrate with often a lyrical flight that buries its arrow in the reader's mind:


He's seen the buzzard's


Underwing alight, the feathers traced with gold,

the talons folded, like a woman's, after work.

Post Laborum Gratissimo Quies


The resemblance to the work of Woolley and Perril continues with an unobtrusive narrative line, the Bone Monkey emerging from a Mircea Eliade mythography, as in The Blacksmith made me:


With blazing tongs he clamped my head

And cut it off, sliced up my flesh and jointed me.


In the poem immediately before, Prequel, the Bone Monkey's sensibility is described:

Three strands of darkness and a streak of light

were wound inside his head.


This emerges in the beautiful sequence, His exposition on the art of memory, with darkness weighted against occasional flashes of light, complexity and lyricism. One lyric concludes:


sweetened by sweat

and the stink of fear

and by my breath


which cooling clings

as dew does

to a field of grass


In a second sequence, attention is diverted from the demonic Bone Monkey with two fine poems, the erotic Our Lady of the Feathers, and the grimly ironic Seven for the Seven Stars in the Sky:


Six dolls with six smiles

standing in a row

the biggest met a chat-room mate

he's fourteen and fifty-eight

so she fell down


Bone Monkey returns in the sixth poem of the sequence, Desire lines, whose five lines open with an extraordinary image:


The dark breaks open a long scar

from heart to groin.


Thereafter Bone Monkey becomes an English gentleman in the nineteenth century in Illyria, actually Sutherland's great-great-grandfather whose diary of his travels in the Balkans in 1846 have provided material for three poems, including one based on a site I have visited, the Tower of Skulls outside Niš in Serbia. In the stone of the tower, the flayed skulls of rebels against the Ottoman Empire have been set and can still be seen by visitors. In Vespula Vulgaris, a third sequence, the Bone Monkey tends his partner who is suffering from senile dementia. There is a tenderness of observation:


the trembling

of her upper lip's a draught

crossing a spider's web


but the demon reappears:


He strings her up

with gut or wire or silk

(author's italics)


By the final poem, The pond in summer, the Bone Monkey is suffering the indignities of age:


his urine finds its way by dribs and drabs

from slackened penis to transparent bag


His interior disintegration is set against an idyllic English scene:


fisher boys line the banks

the water is viridian and rose.


Sutherland maintains contrast and tension to the very end of the collection. By the end of several readings Bone Monkey is still an uncomfortable read for males like myself, uncomfortable due to Sutherland's acute perception of the unspoken sadism whose instrument is often tucked inside our pants. This quality of insight, and the brilliant technique that Sutherland brings to the collection, make it a memorable book.

Cathoel Jorss's poetry is a real find. Comb the Sky with Satellites, It's Still a Wilderness is from a publishing venture located in Australia. It has already run through its first edition, and it is into its second edition after just three months. There are 47 poems and 23 photographs by a poet who is also a singer and artist, and whose blog contains some of the most exquisite short prose around. The organisation of the book is singular in the sense of being unique and for the obtuse reader (which includes this reviewer until he asked why) in the sense used of Blake. There are blank pages between poems so that readers can take in poem and image in a double- page spread, and on page 30 the poem Fish Decal is Lord ends mid-syllable as if to enact the moment when we catch the end of the world on an app on our smartphones. After toing and froing I think that this mimesis works, but it can only be done once.

Jorss's poems range from the personal, through social observation, to the public and political. There's something of John Ashbery in the avoidance of framing a poem in a conventional way, and in the unexpected directions her poems take, and something of Walt Whitman when a poem demands a declamatory style. At times she can sound almost like Robert Lowell:


A ship's a hemisphere. The mast, a stolen tree,

an infinitely tall flagpole and cross

combines the heresies of government and god.

Dreadnought


Almost immediately after this poem Jorss employs a startling directness of address in Become Oval:


I am ovulating:

laying an egg.


This couplet is succeeded by an extraordinary image:


Pursemouth yarning its fertile strands

lays glittering trails wherever I sit.

like a princess everything I touch

has turned to silver.


Her opening lines are almost invariably compelling, as in Island Horizon


Semi-vertical, the horizon

sags like washing from one roof

to the next, indicating obscured stars

like a man run down by a gang.


And she has a sharp wit, writing in the same poem: "life is nasty, British and short". And in Reaching for the Remote, the effects of the electronic revolution are neatly satirized in one neologism, logonnorrhea, a wonderful triple pun.

In her political poems Jorss has reinvigorated rhetoric as a valid mode of address. Reaching for the Remote is a powerful long poem, voicing its ecological concerns without pushing a particular party line. At one point she introduces


Over in the World Bank tonight

a solitary cleaner, Lena on her mop

says in her own language slowly,

pale as a scientist


I will …

Allow you time in your comfy clothes and to fuck it all up

again.


Her more intimate poems make the most unpromising sights beautiful, as in Here on Earth where


happiness seeps back in

freeing prisms where each car was parked, and revealing

in the oily rainbow of the departed driver

every colour that makes up light

against the dark


and The Hum has an image, worked out to suggest the recovery of her father from a serious illness, where line structure, punctuation and colour combine with marvellous effect:


I watch, the landscape

of his blue-white sheets

lifting again - like ice - on water

and yes - again

like ice on water breathing in the Spring.


There isn't a dud poem in this collection, and some big publisher should snap up her work although something of the independent spirit that Jorss expresses on her website suggests that she just might not be too bothered.


 

 *

 The Far Reaches

Joanne Ashcroft, Maps and Love Songs for Mina Loy, Seren, £5

Helen Tookey, Missel-Child, Carcanet, £9:95

Dinah Livingstone, The Vision Splendid, Katabasis, £7:95

John Birtwhistle, Eventualities, Anvil, £9:95

reviewed by James Sutherland-Smith

It's recently been observed that women poets are writing the best poetry in English. Certainly in whatever style of Anglophone poetry, the work of women poets is invariably compelling. Three recent collections indicate that women explorers have extended the far reaches of what is possible in English language poetry.

Joanne Ashcroft's prize-winning pamphlet, Maps and Love Songs for Mina Loy, is made up of two sequences. Maps, the first, is a series of lexical arrangements based on a skeletal syntax where ellipsis has been used to preserve a readable terrain of senses. In addition Ashcroft uses fragmentation, parentheses, puns and paronomasia to transform individual words into multiple signs. All these techniques have been available since the Renaissance and readers who enjoy George Herbert, Laurence Sterne and Sir Geoffrey Hill will find a route across Ashcroft's maps even if they are new to the concentrated nature of Ashcroft's language. She seems to be attempting to restore a purely lyrical nature to English language poetry. Narrative and argument are discarded so that each map/poem is an event created by the aural and graphical possibilities of the signs as in Map 3:

weapon scented

foolery

of womb-i-versal-ity

Mina Loy is the presiding spirit of both parts of the pamphlet, and Ashcroft has made poems inspired by Loy's once shocking imagery of the histology of human desire, evident in Map 10:

the head generating mucus

conceals the genital opening to

survive hunt and mate thin + watery

The spacing of Maps reminds us that poetry is not simply an oral art written down, but a written art where visual devices are an important part of the form of a poem. Ashcroft's Maps are beautiful formal structures mostly reading from left to right, but sometimes directing both the reader's eye and ear down the page and occasionally right to left. Map 14, the last in the sequence has a visionary power:

all journeyings

by hand

or eye

reek

speak it down

unbound unbound

rise it out

The second sequence, Love Songs (for Mina Loy) speaks more directly to and out of Loy's poetry. Ashcroft's versification is closer to conventional short stanza forms, but her language is equally closely worked, at the same time thoroughly accessible to attentive reading. Histology seems to hold as a critical metaphor for Ashcroft's work. In I III IV the poem emerges from plant and animal cell structure or the individual brush strokes of a painting:

graft me green a yawning eye sown

in stickier grains heaving me sideways

over charcoal blushes

The erotic impulse underlying the sequence is varied with word play:

too loose my hair en-

raptured you

(XXIV XXV).

Ashcroft even uses straightforward alliteration and internal rhyme:

your ivoried flesh nettles

me ardent I ferment

XXXIII

The two sequences show poetry being made from language that is being handled and moulded to create an experience rather than from language being found to describe an experience implicitly separate from language. Ashcroft's skill with sound and form demonstrate that modernism still has vitality.

Helen Tookey's first collection, Missel-Child, is organised in four attractive sections with first and closing sections drawing their strength largely from the topography of nature, although in two poems in the last section, Hollow Meadows and Persephone in Adiyaman, the natural world becomes a setting for an exploration of locales where children were incarcerated and, in the latter, buried alive. Tookey writes free, unrhymed verse with couplets and triplets a favourite form. There is a frequent use of enjambment which, although Tookey often works consciously in syllabics, sometimes seems the result of counting syllables rather than trying for a suspenseful line break. Elsewhere she has made poems as collages from a wide variety of texts: HMSO pamphlets, dictionaries, a book on Roman roads, an online discussion and Virginia Woolf's diaries. A number of poems have epigraphs from other writers including Hopkins, Rilke and an entry from Joe Orton's diary nine days before his lover murdered him. The collection mingles the lyrical and dramatic in a thoroughly post-modernist manner.

The longer poem or sequence, Hollow Meadows, which includes texts from an online discussion about memories of a former hospital or institution, replicates the technique of Charles Reznikoff's Testimony using verbatim accounts strategically edited. There are different accounts of its purpose, creating a mystery riven with contradictions: "an institution for people with mental and physical disabilities," "a means of discipline for recalcitrant children," "an isolation hospital" and, bizarrely "you could look into a room which contained a huge stock of spare limbs." These are interspersed with lyrical passages of Tookey's own devising, concluding with a powerful prose poem recounting a childhood haunting. The sequence produces a terrifying sense of unease, which Tookey does not attempt to resolve. Katherine is another poem spread over four pages again using texts found in Virginia Woolf's diaries about Katherine Mansfield, whom she loved. The organisation and repetition of snatches of the material create a powerful lament with a compelling rhythm that, at the risk of overstatement, reminds this reader of the repetitions in Paul Celan's Todesfuge. It is a remarkable achievement. Shorter found poems include At the Castle, derived from a department of Environment pamphlet, and the delightful Mono taken from Liddell and Scott's Greek-English lexicon, where the definitions of what comes after the prefix, "mono", provide the content making the poem a set of learnéd riddles.

Tookey's poems of more conventional origin, poems entirely of her own devising, show a concise lyrical gift in short poems, and the ability to produce vivid imagery; "and now the hag mouth / of the seed pod."(Cedar). A long war, and now the returning indicates that Tookey is able to create a disturbing atmosphere in a short poem where the preposition at the end of two lines create a telling suspenseful pause to accentuate the final word of the poem:

In fact the two groups are of no interest to

each other: the ones who wait have long grown accustomed to

waiting and the ones who return are in any case, dead.

I have a few reservations about a collection which, all told, is a highly accomplished debut. Perhaps there are too many literary references? Der Tod in Venedig seems to reproduce only the vulgarity of the Visconti film, and Fox Seers is a homophone of "fox ears" which makes a nonsense of the poem if it is only heard and not read.

Dinah Livingstone is a poet who writes in a far simpler manner than either Ashcroft or Tookey. Her latest collection has neither Ashcroft's intense exploration of the linguistic sign nor Tookey's post-modern smarts. On first reading, her poems might seem to be a little naïve. Yet she is a poet who has been at the hot gates of poetry, translation, religion and socialist politics for a long time. In many ways her work harks back to nineteenth century Christian Socialism and the utopian projects of William Morris. Yet one of the projects in which she is involved, The Sea of Faith, taking its title from a line of Matthew Arnold's, is post-modern in its ambition to bring to together people of various religious and humanist faiths to achieve a collective understanding of the varieties of religious experience. Such experience need not require an assertion of religious truth, but share the processes of faith and, given Livingstone's socialism, the consequences for social action. It would not be too fanciful to link this to the idea of making a poem as a source of radiance for human sensibilities, in this case providing inspiration for action as well as meditation.

In The Vision Splendid Livingstone draws on William Blake, especially, as a model, although both Dante and Milton are strong presences. The collection is prefaced by an extract of quatrains from Blake's Jerusalem. However, Thomas Hardy is the poet that springs to mind in the shorter poems. Like him she has learnt "to notice such things" as in What Do You Mean?, where she writes "pointy-brown plantain / with its creamy halo of stamens." Her close attention to the minutiae of nature mirrors Ashcroft's attention to lexis. Her eye is exact and her ear faultless, so much so that one hardly notices in her immaculate control of line an occasional slight linguistic shock to hold one's attention, for example in the closing lines of What the Welsh Walnut Tree Said, "Up lump. Come, undumb / yourself and me." There are a dozen short poems which are successes of mostly close observations of the natural world, although For Sale by Auction indicates Livingstone's awareness of the mores of contemporary London:

Hopeful couples looking for a home

compete with astute professionals

who snap their tiny cameras like jaws.

The poem continues to meditate on the life of "the anonymous owner" who

left some interesting books,

a good walnut chest of drawers.

Livingstone wonders if the owner's life "was rich with meaning, full of love" and unobtrusively creates an image of an old London which has passed. One cannot help but feel that the last three lines contain more than a touch of irony:

others will meet on the auction day,

the hammer (touch wood)

hard-headed harbinger of resurrection.

In her successful poems Livingstone evokes a oneness with nature, in lines such as "My mind shut tight like twigs / the thin extremities of wintering trees (February Walk) and "I lizard / on a wooden bench" (Longed for Warmth). The poem Colour, written for Milton's 400th Birthday, echoes the rhythms of the youthful L'Allegro, although in the last stanza it invokes Milton's more agonized late poem, Samson Agonistes. In these poems there is a celebration of life. However, her more directly political poems are less successful although the anger is palpable in Toads, which I do not think refers to Larkin's poem, merely to a politics of which he approved. Cancer as a Political Philosophy is laboured as an extended conceit.

Two long poems complete the collection, No Mean City, and Common. The first of these mingles the contemporary world of Livingstone's local London neighbourhood:

Squarely at his door stands Nusrat,

the shopkeeper, having his morning smoke

with historical references to the attempted revolution of 1649 in London when Levellers and Diggers tried to establish an egalitarian society. The mixture of reference and register is deliberately set against those of the The Waste Land:

Not fragments shored against my ruins

but love, builder of cities,

city of communion

The directly political passages in the poem are less successful, weakening the poem's potential power. I have fewer reservations about Common, which is also set in London, alternating four sonnets with four poems in the quatrain and common measure form used by Emily Dickinson. Livingstone's language is so conversational that one might just not notice her formal skill. Each sonnet has a volta from the ninth line onwards, and the alternating poems stick strictly to a pattern of four stresses followed by a three stress line. Livingstone's plain surfaces are deceptive, concealing a lifetime of craftsmanship and a longing for the City on the Hill:

this metaphor, utopia, state of grace

urges change required, the transformation

of unjust structures all that they deface.

The last poet in this review is a male, who makes a welcome return after a long publishing silence. John Birtwhistle's eighth collection of poems, Eventualities, appears twenty-five years after his last collection, a selected poems. His previous individual collection, Our Worst Suspicions (1985), was a Poetry Book Society recommendation in an era when there was still only one recommendation to go with the quarterly Choice. It was an era still dominated by Faber and OUP as publishers of poetry, and the attempt at definition of the post-Movement era of British Poetry by the anthology edited by Sir Andrew Motion (now President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England) and Blake Morrison, which anthology was brusquely repudiated by its presiding genius, Seamus Heaney: "my passport's green." Birtwhistle's poetry was regarded askance by this conservative establishment as it drew on the highly unfashionable French Surrealists, other poets with a history of Communist sympathies, such as Franco Fortini and Yannis Ritsos and, worst of all, versions of Ho Chi Minh's Prison Poems. Our Worst Suspicions seems not to have troubled the critical surveys of the period, perhaps due to Birtwhistle's sparing use of narrative.

Eventualities has remained true to Birtwhistle's style and affinities. It consists of short poems, lyrics and epigrams, with the text of a libretto, The Griffin's Tale, completing the collection. There is a version of a poem by Franco Fortini, and Birtwhistle has indicated a knowledge of ancient Greek lyric poets and the epigrams of Latin poets such Martial. Together with the chinoiserie of the style he established in previous collections, the first part of Eventualities is full of delicate poems where not a word is wasted. A Shadow Leans Against a Tree recalls Ezra Pound's comment about the original of one of his Cathay poems, "especially prized because no direct reproach is uttered." Birtwhistle's poem of two complementary quatrains expresses no direct emotion about a friend undergoing surgery, but the feeling is there just the same:

Hailstones with dog violets

A thing my friend may never see again

Alba, a poem on sunrise, is equally indirect, unfolding how early morning light reveals a beloved presence in fragments and hints:

The down of your shoulder

green veins in your wrist

ways you seem to have

trickling into being

Birtwhistle has a number of short poems or epigrams, including a translation each from Seneca and Martial. But my favourite is an original called Amongst History Dons, written after reading a biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper, which has all the sting of the Roman poets:

Who knows whose reason is the madder

Or can tell the viper from the adder?

There are a number of personal poems to his children where the slightness of occasion conceals a weightier element of time passing and one generation giving way to another. In Off You Go he teaches his daughter or son to ride a bicycle and the poem concludes:

let loose in slow motion

peeling away into time.

In My Son Found a Cow's Pelvis the older generation attempts some advice on hitchhiking familiar to me from university days, concluding:

What's more, you're begging strangers

To let you into their car despite

Wearing the filthy pelvis of a cow.


At which point a tractor drew up

and took my son I knew not where

Spate contemplates the grief of a heart-broken daughter. It seems to be constructed in classical Chinese pattern, with parallel imagery in each line of the three quatrains. So, for example, lines three in each quatrain are respectively:

1. is now in full dark peaty spate

2. breaking out and filling fresh parallels as it cuts itself

             3. fiercely crying herself to sleep 

Political concerns are one of the undercurrents of the collection. 'In England Now Abed' a fancy of comparing rumpled bed sheets to the mountains in Afghanistan quickly becomes a waking nightmare on the continuing conflict. To Live By the Barracks visits a military base on an open day and is full of ironic contrasts, sometimes brutally so, as in a question to an old military prison officer:

I suppose you were as kindly as could be?

Oh no, he said, we broke sticks

across their heads


and tears broke into his enormous eyes

The libretto, The Griffin's Tale, uses more regular forms, and is a kind of medieval romance with three distinctive voices. Imagery is more direct and forceful than in the rest of the collection. The griffin is earthy:

And sizzled and scorched them under my nostrils,

Turning the dripping grease in the dangles of smoke

That bore the squealing smells to my senses.

Alexander uses the language of power and colonization:


And there a continent

I could break with a mile of canal


and the Angel is caustically admonitory


You run the world

You, a glob of spit

That runs about hot iron

And makes a fuss

And, hissing, disappears.

It would be good to hear the music David Blake composed for this libretto.

Eventualities shows no loss of skill after a silence of quarter of a century. Many more fashionable poets write poems whose intellectual and sensuous impact is like those of woodcuts compared with John Birtwhistle's engraver's skill. Readers should buy this book.


                                                        

Varieties of Rhythm

 

Thomas Kinsella, Late Poems, Carcanet Press, £9.95;

James Harpur, Angels and Harvesters, Anvil Press, £8.95;

David Cooke, Work Horses, Ward Wood Publishing, £8.99;

John Welch, Its Halting Measure, Shearsman Books, £8.95

 

reviewed by James Sutherland-Smith


Seamus Heaney is dead (Paul Muldoon composed the eulogy). Sinead Morrissey recently won the T.S. Eliot Award for best collection of the year. But who is now King or Queen of the Cats, as W.B. Yeats enquired on hearing the news of Swinburne's death in 1909? Apart from a dour, white-bearded tomcat now resident in Cambridge, there are no clear candidates.

Following the death of Seamus Heaney, Thomas Kinsella, now in his eighty-seventh year, could justly be considered Ireland's senior poet, with an idiosyncratic record of publishing his work through his own Peppercanister pamphlets. Late Poems collects the five most recent pamphlets, published from 2006 to 2011.

As in the work of two of the other poets reviewed here, varieties of religious experience are never far from the surface of the poems. Kinsella's work might usefully be contrasted with the late poems of R.S. Thomas in its embattled view of the wasteful and destructive practices of mankind, and in his effortful attempts to achieve "a turning away / from regard beyond proper merit, / or reward beyond real need, / toward the essence and the source." (Prayer 1). As in Eliot's later poetry, imagery is often discarded for abstract statement, but unlike Eliot often there is not even the pleasures of rhythm in a cadence balanced against cadence, "there is still an ongoing dynamic / in the parts as they succeed each other" (Songs of Understanding). Hardly song-like!

The first pamphlet, Marginal Economy, is more heterogeneous than the others, although successive poems play against what has gone before. There is a fine poem about a senile pub bore "who had known all the major figures", an equivalent of Pound's Mr. Verog. This is followed by a poem where he meets a literary enemy at a funeral, then the poem, Wedding Service, to be followed by Blood of the Innocent, of which I assume the occasion is Kinsella's daughter becoming a bride of Christ: "Meek and mild, / with body marked, / our dear daughter / steps forward."

A poem on the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius follows, which after an impressive first part lapses into prose in the second, and repetition of the more lurid account of the birth of his deranged son Commodus, conceived in the blood of the empress's murdered gladiator lover. Kinsella has ignored a golden rule with regard to Roman history: when in doubt choose the soberer account. Faustina, it seems, was a Roman matron who had numerous children, and Commodus was one of the few who survived infancy. Marcus Aurelius may have persecuted Christians, but he was also a Stoic philosopher whose life was dictated by what he saw as his duty, and was notably free from maniacal vengefulness.

The second pamphlet, Man of War, is comminatory in intention and dull to read. Its preface contrasts splendid military appearances with the slaughterhouse of actual battle, murderous Crusaders and a paraphrase from the Iliad. We do need to be reminded that war is a destructive and sordid business, but we also need good art to make the reminder compelling. There is little of that here.

The remaining three pamphlets, Belief and Unbelief, Fat Master and Love Joy Peace continue a thread on the wastefulness of human life. All three pamphlets open with strong poems, but these are not supported by the succeeding work. In Fat Master, the first section in Summer Evening: City Centre contains illumination absent from the rest of the book. An image of midges in evening light is lifted into genuine vision: "a system of selves consuming itself, / worrying at its own energies; / the outer boundary self-established; / without a centre."

Elsewhere the Puritan in Kinsella keeps a tight grip on his poems with an ultimately dry didacticism. In the final poem in the book he chooses grafters such as Michelangelo, Ben Jonson and Bach, "I rest my faith in the orders of earthly genius, / the day labourer" over those - Shakespeare, Mozart and Picasso - to whom art came as easily as leaves to the tree. With such preferences Kinsella certainly means business, but it's a business where the returns are limited.

James Harpur has written better poems than the ones in Angels and Harvesters, which is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. He seems to have let his line succumb to a thumping iambic pentameter or tetrameter which seems to surface willy-nilly whatever the rhythmic or discursive circumstances in a poem. If there was a first heave in his career it hasn't been very effective:

 

I open up the stove to clear the grate

And flash! As if a coal has come to life

Reflections on a Baby Crow in the Light of the Venerable Bede's Sparrow

 

Throughout the collection Harpur often seems to be attempting to arouse himself from his somnolent metrics, but the prevailing drone is such that the variation in metre sounds like a wrong note or misplaced stress as in the supposed conversation with a school friend in Senior:

 

'But first I'll bring the croissants, café au lait

And then perhaps a fat, hand-rolled Gauloise'


In The Falcon Carol Harpur uses a tetrameter with a trimeter in the last line of each stanza. It's as if contemporary speech has been repudiated in favour of a traditional meter in an advanced state of decay, especially in

 

Looked up and saw his glittering wings


where the established rhythm shoves us towards pronouncing "glittering" as "glitt'ring". The image of the falcon inevitably suggests the potentially fatal presence of Yeats. The opening lines of Groenendaal are pure Yeatsian pastiche:


He sits against a trunk and bends

His knees, a lectern for his book


except that Yeats would never have ended a line with a verb that is both transitive and intransitive, leading to a confusing double meaning in "bends" - that is, if readers are still in the bit of reading individual lines as individual units of sense. Harpur can be taken to task in the opening lines and the very next line and a bit, "Thoughts fly and land like birds around / The glade." It seems that the last feet of two iambic pentameters have been deferred for no good reason to the following line to make a tetrameter, and it can also be observed in passing that the syntax of the second of them is ambiguous: what is exactly flying around the glade, thoughts or birds?

Occasionally Harpur's word choice is less than contemporary, "emboldening," (Angels and Harvesters), "adrip" (Origen) and the phrase "that queer old morning". Tobacco, Psalms and Bloodletting will raise smiles among those whom the old codger tone doesn't irretrievably irritate.

In a previous collection, Oracle Bones, Harpur wrote a few exquisite short poems based on classical philosophers, but his attempt at a long poem revealed severe limitations in his ability to structure a longer form. This hasn't prevented him from a trying again in Angels and Harvesters with similar disastrous results. The Pram Pusher's Tale lurches along with a mixture of metrical and free verse lines. For some reason, each of its three sections opens with a iambic pentameter, and then varies its line length, with the occasional pentameter recurring now and then. The poem is a meditation as the protagonist pushes his infant daughter in her pram through the countryside. The second section philosophizes about the meaning of life in long sentences where the syntax is maladroit to say the least:


But only stumbled on by accident

Or granted freely, if at all,

But that I cannot know this

Until I've searched until dementia.


The section culminates in a long-winded revelation of thirty-two lines of electrical imagery in one sentence. Yeats managed the same sort of thing in five crisp lines:


While on the shop and street I gazed

My body of a sudden blazed;

And twenty minutes more or less

It seemed, so great my happiness,

That I was blessed and could bless.

Vacillation


Quite simply Harpur needs to begin again. Yeats's example might help.

David Cooke's poems in Work Horses are well-crafted, perhaps having their origin in a vanishing mode of contemporary poetry: well-made poems organised in neat stanzas. This is borne out by the acknowledgements, which credit a number of venerable little magazines and their editors such as Outposts and Agenda, although these little magazines now have different editors from their eponymous founders. The collection is divided into five sections. The odd-numbered sections recall Cooke's childhood and upbringing, and the second and fourth contain travel poems, respectively to Russia and Sri Lanka, to attend the wedding of a daughter.

In contrast to the mysticism of James Harpur, Cooke's poems have a matter-of-fact, down-to-earth tone - so much so that sometimes one wishes for a little less sense and rather more sensibility. Cooke spent much of his life as a secondary school teacher of languages in England, and he indicates that he has long since abandoned the religious faith of his Catholic upbringing. Yet there is just as much of Ireland and religion in this collection as there is in Angels and Harvesters.

The poems in the book mostly observe and comment, giving them a slightly mid-twentieth century feel. When Cooke allows himself to slip the traces of the observer commenting on a subject from which he has distanced himself, the poem becomes more immediate and compelling, as in Mischief. The uncharacteristic couplets combine a childhood memory of a fire that got out of control with religious reference in a poem that is both witty and moving.


To this day my mother can laugh.


She calls me her Antichrist.

God knows how I ever survived.


In the poems from his childhood and family there is a sense of lived rather than observed experience, and in The Pump at Heptonstall an object becomes a centre of vanished usage and a source of historical energies. The first nine lines of the poem are finely observed, but the last nine take the poem into a rare zone of achievement, with the last two bringing poetry back to its necessary duty to language.


Where there is no flow,

There will be no voices.


The two sections of travel poems are by far the least satisfactory sections of the collection. The second, For a Good Intention, takes us on holiday in Russia after perestroika, and addresses us in terms of we went there, saw this and thought this, using language which describes rather than enacts. There is an anxiety that readers might need to be informed, as in Moscow: "Georgy Zhukov, / a hero of the Great Patriotic War," and a lot of details of the casualties of liberalization, as described in Nevsky Prospekt : "amputees on the pavement, / their stumps bound tightly in parcel tape". And a street musician, "playing blues like Hendrix," in For Free,  whose story is unknown to the poet settling for a romantic gesture "where truth / and pain can burn in one held note." Cooke's language becomes more latinate, "adulterous and anachronistic", like Roy Fuller on a bad day, as he defers imagining himself into the lives of the Russians he observes.

In the fourth section, An Island Shaped Like a Tear, he travels to Sri Lanka to attend the wedding of a daughter who has adopted the Muslim faith of her husband. Despite his avowed loss of religious faith, Cooke seems to accept this with equanimity, although his use of the word Moor might be a subconscious echo of the distress of Brabantio in Shakespeare's Othello at the elopement of his daughter Desdemona with the Moor of Venice. Such feelings however could never be guessed from the placid jog-trot of Cooke's lines.

Contrasts are made between poverty and affluence, but they seem no more than the liberal noises one makes in other, similar post-colonial venues, as in The View from Serendip where "we sip ice-cold / sundowners". If there is an intention to be ironic it doesn't come across. In Colombo Cooke even uses an item from Yeats's more rhetorical vocabulary: "Indigence and status: twin poles / of a huckstering world."

Work Horses is an uneven collection. A few poems are evidently the work of a gifted poet, but there are others where there is far too much sententious observation which not even the occasional vivid image redeems.

Shearsman Books are to be congratulated for becoming John Welch's main publisher. After his Collected Poems, the next collection Visiting Exile, although generally excellent, seemed to be marking time by using familiar procedures to explore the fluid and sometimes disconcerting relationship of the self to a landscape or memory or another person. Something seemed to have stabilized in Welch's work, almost into a manner, which might produce more of the same. In short, engaging in all senses of the word, but not unduly energizing.

Fortunately, although Its Halting Measure could only have been written by John Welch, he seems to have found a new source of energy, and this has made for enthralling and absorbing poems. As with considerations of Yeats's work, individual poems could be said to be parts of one lifelong poem, but the comparison ends there. Welch does not draw attention to his re-working of old themes and images with Yeats's sometimes gratingly false modesty, although Four Walks in Voice in a Mirror, the first section, and He Goes Out Walking in His Case, the second, recall Welch's Out Walking, a volume of selected poems published by Anvil in 1984. Four Walks reinforces the impression that Welch's work is energized kinesthetically by physical movement, and the poems continue the interaction of observation, language and consciousness where details are noted and displayed. There is comment in Near Guiting Power - "The Cotswolds? / Its well-behaved children on well-behaved horses. / It's probably the English Tuscany, / Wealth carefully hidden behind the trees", , but the comment is never a summation of the details, but simply one of them. Welch's conclusions always point towards the fact that the poem is discourse, a text, "the substance of our thought", "meticulous graveyard of speech." His poetry is often described as quiet and meditative, but lines such as "But the hedgerow flail has been this way / Leaving twigs like the chopped ends of thumbs" indicate that the understanding of violence is part of Welch's mix.

In the second part of the collection, His Case, Welch has a number of poems which revisit personal themes and motifs: a troubled childhood, dreams, the image of a bird, a sequence on an ancient Greek coin from his collection. The sequence His Certain Song is more directly lyrical and sensuous than usual: "Blameless the air I breathe- / As I walked out into forgiveness of rain." The third section, The Hustle Alarm extends the work emerging from Welch's political awareness. It includes a witty portrait of an aged diplomat "bright as the insect kingdom", and In Riots of Upper Air, dedicated to the Iraqi poet and artist Fawzi Karim, there is a fine poem whose consciousness manages to comprehend the implications of language, exile, nature and politics.

The final part of the book, The Baffler, focuses on visual inspiration, artists, galleries, photography, a heron visiting his garden to feed on the frogs in his pond, and gardens in Hunstanton and Paris. A poem called The Days begins with the irritant of tinnitus, but swiftly moves to the visual, and then on to Welch's lifelong preoccupation with what language actually does. The last four lines summarise the delicate balance he has managed to strike: "As if what the words conceal / Is what I am always moving towards // And I'll try to disturb the surface of things / As little as possible."

Its Halting Measure is a strong collection equal to the best of Welch's work. 

 *

Tall Glasses Clinking With Ice Cubes

 

The Sadness of Animals

Philip Morre

San Marco Press, £9


One has to welcome a poet who prefaces his first full-length collection with "It's only words - Barry Gibb after Mallarmé." It's an acknowledgment of both of the Janus faces of poetry, the need for a singing contemporary line and "the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings", although Morre makes it a matter of fencing with foils rather than sweaty person-on-person grunting. His is a poetry to be read under my apricot trees with "tall glasses clinking / with ice cubes" as he writes in Happy Hour. I wouldn't take the likes of Jorie Graham there.

The Sadness of the Animals is a large collection of ninety pages, although its readability makes it seem shorter, and it is made up of an opening section of uncollected poems, occasional poems resulting from a meeting of writers where texts were written to prescribed themes, translations, and poems from three pamphlets of his work. Despite these divisions, there is a unity of tone over a range of themes ranging from poems about his family, to European adventures either real or made up. The poems have a surface dazzle, but are never frivolous, with moods various as weather, sometimes a scorching satire, often meditative and autumnal, occasionally grief mediated through elegiac forms. And, dammit, the poet lives in Venice.

The first part has a mixture of poems whose occasions are either personal or literary and artistic. The irony directed at Ernest Hemingway posing on a duck shoot "with the grappa / in a dapper holdall" is feline in its precision. The first three poems preceding this are equally elegant in their organisation of language, line and mimesis, as in the sibilance of the fourth stanza of the title poem where a medusa jellyfish floats into Morre's scuba-diving view:


"For that instant though we knew it a

rubbery insensate processor of plankton,

it assumed all the sorrows of the ocean,

in a glassy precipitation of grief."


That fourth line is very fine.

The next poem, Suburban Perseids, a personal favourite of the reviewer's, contrasts the bizarre behaviour of a young neighbouring couple with his own sedate behaviour. They drink miniature liqueurs and throw the empties from their balcony. There is no comment on their behaviour, but the whole poem is built round images of light with the central image of the miniatures as shooting stars. The closing two and half lines clinch a poem which has taken a trivial incident and made it a notable addition to the theme of the contrast between youthful irresponsibility and sober middle-age:


"and a thin sun

illumined our kempt lawn,

iridescent with miniatures."


The Occasional Poems and Translations, Mistranslations sections are all of a piece in tone with Morre's original poems. The Sweet Kingdom and Home is Where I Hang my Hat are respectively equal to James Fenton and Kit Wright at their brilliant witty best:


"Home is where we await the hearse

  • a glass of wine, a book of verse:

many waiting rooms are worse.

Home is where we await the hearse."


Morre's versions of Philippe Jacottet led me to re-read a poet whose translations by Derek Mahon I've found somewhat dour, and in the first of the sections with poems taken from pamphlets, Fond Adieu's dismissive scorn might make the Roman poet Martial envious. The poems hangs on the conditional "would", beginning:


"I would like to tell you the cypresses

Grow a little taller round your plot,"


and going on to list a set of possible agreeable remembrances until the clinching finale


"that you're missed …

only you always set, or said you set,

such store by the truth."


The quality of the poems never falters in this excellent collection, which concludes with an Epicurean postscript in the philosophical, not popular, sense that death is the end of both the soul and the body, and therefore should not be feared:


"Once your crib

nudged theirs from the nursery: they went

with fair grace. Now it's you. Be content."


James Sutherland-Smith