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Archive for the ‘Pamphlets’ Category

Chapters of Age by Peter Riley

In Pamphlets, Poetry on October 14, 2013 at 10:33 am

-Reviewed by Billy Mills

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The heart of Ireland is the great limestone lowland plain that stretches more or less all across the centre of the country and which, in combination with the temperate climate helps make the country so suitable for growing grass. There are areas where a combination of natural processes and human activity have denuded the underlying stone, producing strangely fascinating karst landscapes, the most famous of these areas being the Burren region of West Clare and its offshore extension on the Aran Islands.

It’s a landscape of extensive limestone paving with, in the Burren at least, a unique combination of Mediterranean and Alpine flora growing in the cracks of what, at first glance, appears to be a hostile dry and barren environment. And despite this hostility, the area is full of signs of human habitation over a period of some six thousand years. These range from the dolmens and stone huts of the Burren to the great stone ring forts of the islands.

Peter Riley’s poem Chapters of Age is set in this landscape and formally reflects the semi-regular patterning of the limestone paving in its use of stanzas of three lines of irregular length broken up into sections of anything from three to ten stanzas. As you might expect from Riley, there is a good deal of walking involved (his Alstonfield is one of the great English walking poems). In Chapters, there is more than a hint that age is making the process more painful and difficult than it once was.

‘Use of walking stick to lessen this pain,
Inclined to the side of the road.’

There’s also a good deal of singing. Clare is renowned for its traditional music, but the poet weaves the words of English folk songs into his text, along with bits of Yeats, Tarjei Vesaas, William Carlos Williams, George Simmel and a tourist information noticeboard. Reflections on aging weave their way through references to the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger and to older shadows on the island’s history:

‘Finding the way to the bathroom
In the middle of the night half asleep
Strange shadow, shed door ajar again.

*

……………………………heroes

Who died for a free Ireland
Now
Mortgaged to international finance

*

Unbaptised children set in separate graveyards
Mere bits of walled-off moor’

The poem is typical of Riley’s mature work, the tone is deceptively quiet and unshowy, almost, but not quite, conversational. While he is often associated with the Cambridge poets who formed a key element of the British Poetry Revival, he is neither an experimental nor a mainstream poet, he’s just a poet, albeit one of exceptional intelligence. Chapters of Age is, in the true sense, an ecological poem, a poem about an entire ecosystem in which neither the human nor the non-human element is given primacy. Amongst other things, Chapters of Age explores the possibility of our continued co-existence, and the conclusion is not altogether optimistic, as Riley plays with the twin aspects of fear as verb and noun:

‘…….what is the answer to fear?

For there are answers to fear,
Common or garden,
That singing up the coast.’

Tearing at thoughts by Andy Harrod

In Pamphlets, Poetry on October 8, 2013 at 1:12 pm

-Reviewed by Rosie Breese

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As Andy Harrod’s website bio explains, he writes “not out of a desire to tell stories, but a need to understand, to develop meaning and connect with myself, others and life”. Fittingly then, his latest collection, Tearing at Thoughts from 79 Rat Press, is an unapologetically candid exploration of the workings of a mind – or series of minds – turning over experiences that are rarely talked about in public.

There’s no contents page, no numbering even. This is a book to get lost in, literally. Poems and photographs are collaged with story-fragments and snippets of text juxtaposed at different angles, making use of font and sizing to emphasise and defamiliarise. Perhaps this is why, when first flicking through Tearing at Thoughts, I was reminded of Marie Calloway’s divisive What purpose did I serve in your life. There’s a real openness about the way these collections are put together – a careful DIY layering of a variety of media in order to build a human picture that is as honest as it is unflinching. Both make the reader question their own voyeurism, their desire to keep reading.

However, where Calloway’s writing moves with cool precision between the external and external world, Harrod is concerned with memories, with the internal monologue, the stream of consciousness, as seen here in ‘Strangled by Fear’, a narrative fragment juxtaposing the contents of a letter with the speaker’s memories of a relationship and their own internal mutterings:

‘I had snapped. I had fizzed; I had pushed. I had smeared thick black lines across us. She stood on the doorstep, the tears dripped from her cheeks, in between the droplets she said she still loved me. I closed the door. She is wrong to believe still. I am too poisoned to be healed.’

The bulk of this collection plays with the form of the half-told story, the details given out selectively, the focus on the internal drama that is so difficult to articulate. The experiences of the speakers are overwhelmingly traumatic: a father is separated from his children; a victim of sexual abuse hides out in a wood; a counsellor listens to a client describing the horrific violence of their childhood. These longer episodes are interposed with shorter pieces that are bold in their attempts to articulate the incommunicable, as seen here in the aptly-titled ‘truth’:
truth

A particularly poignant moment is the appearance of three postcards – literally postcards, scanned in – that function as messages from a tortured internal world. The addresses are blacked out, casting doubt on the possibility of a reader, a sympathetic ear, a home for  these thoughts:

postcard

Although Harrod’s experiments with form and medium are refreshing in their variety, the weight of the subject matter and the sheer volume of permutations of human suffering does get a bit much. On top of this, abstract, sometimes vague language is used to grapple with the inexpressible, resulting in phrases like ‘failure assumed’, in the example above, and ‘conflicted and lonely pain shot through my mind’, in opening piece ‘Care to dance?’ In particular, the word ‘black’ crops up so often that it barely seems to mean anything; it becomes a sort of shorthand for pain, to the point where you begin to wonder whether there are other words that could have cut to the chase more effectively.

However, this is a volume that deals with the difficult, the inexpressible. And the reality of these difficult experiences is that they are hard to talk about. Anxiety is nebulous and difficult to pin down; depression is a gradual deadening of the senses and emotions. Our thoughts get out of control; words quite literally fail us. So perhaps it’s as well that Harrod’s treatment of these subjects reflects their difficulty, their numbing effects.

Interestingly, Harrod’s blog is titled ‘decoding static’, and this is just what this collection attempts to do – to forge a path through the noise of a disturbed mind, exploring every diversion and dead end. Googling Harrod threw up a review that described this collection as a ‘perfect summer read’. I’m not sure I’d take it with me for a relaxing day at the beach, but it’s certainly a bold collection, and a passionate one.

Tearing at Thoughts is available to download for free from 79 Rat Press along with 5 other collections by Paul Askew, Sian S. Rathore, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Emily Harrison and Jared Joseph.

Hellsteeth by Jessamine O’Connor

In Pamphlets, Poetry on October 7, 2013 at 9:35 am

 -Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

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Jessamine O’Connor is a relatively recent name to appear in the Irish poetry world, and after winning and being shortlisted in a number of competitions, she’s one to watch. The repertoire in her début chapbook, Hellsteeth is often physical, the poems populated by the elderly, the newborn, and everyone in between, as well as herself. By far the strongest poems for me in this chapbook were the well-placed first and last ones. In the opening poem, ‘Crows feet’, ‘Crow lands / on the blade/ of my shoulder, // Clambers in brambles,/cocks her beak, it’s time’. The pleasing metaphor and the bonding hinted at in ‘our’ almost act as an endorphin: ‘there is all / of our life / for her // to pace / and claw / my bread white skin’. I wish there had been more of this in the chapbook, but the energy displayed here, the wry tone, surfaces elsewhere, too.

Like Sharon Olds, she is not afraid to use the intimate details of her personal life in her poetry. These poems describe simple scenes that turn out not be so simple, a moment sliced open to hint at musculature and skeleton. There’s the ‘alien…spooky’ foetus who turns her bony back on them in an ultrasound scan and ‘I recognise instantly the child of my lover.’ Perhaps it’s the same lover who has onion-breath ‘so strong/ It would knock me down// If I wasn’t already/ On my back’.

You find yourself both wincing and grinning at the comparisons of the three fathers to her labours and the births of her three children in ‘Three new fathers’: the awkward, gotta-get-going first father, the absent, threatening second father, the ‘do as you’re told’ third father who endures her crushing his hand before ‘I roar, and push her out, / Just like that.’ The poems are instantly accessible, so you’d be tempted to read swiftly. But it’s the unsaid that allows mystery to be retained.

In ‘Regular’ the colloquialism of the writing style is appealing: ‘That’s the silver spoon in her mouth / has her talking like that…’ This would be an inconsequential poem if it weren’t for the slight shock of revelation in the final lines that redeems it: ‘Later, ntangling her hair from his hand / He wondered if he’d gone too far.’ This is O’Connor’s strength: the small frisson, the chill that accompanies each personal encounter in these poems.

She also shares something of Rita Ann Higgins’ feisty independence of spirit and clarity. Anything at all might come within her poetic orbit, including ‘Asimo – on Prime Time TV’ which describes a four-foot-three robot: ‘Of course they say you’ll do the jobs we don’t want./ As if a million-dollar-man like you will ever be wasted cleaning loos,/ Or down an aluminum mine,// Or picking over smouldering plastic/ to find pieces of re-useable metal/ Like our children do.’ It’s her politically vehement tone, more than anything else, that identifies O’Connor’s voice.

There’s the sense that she is immersed in the quivering moment of flux, latching on to a brief reflection, as in ‘To Samar Hassan’ after reading about the death of photographer Chris Hondros, who took the iconic photograph of the Iraqi child in a ‘spotlight of grief’ seconds after her parents had been shot in front of her. After seeing the girl’s image in the paper again, O’Connor needs to hold her own baby, ‘weigh that bulk in my arms, and squash/ my dry face against her clammy cheeks’. It’s always a challenge to attempt to write about someone else’s personal grief. Wisely, all O’Connor does is acknowledge what she can express, simply: ‘I see you, and hear that thing people say / How you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone’. It’s a trite cliché, the kind you hear in song lyrics, but she’s holding her own baby in her arms, and well, clichés become clichés for a reason. While the language is prosaic at times, and the content rather straightforward, it is also unaffected.

There’s a refreshing edge to the anecdotes she narrates, which ensures that she doesn’t slip into sentimentalism or self-pity. In ‘We’ve come to see her’ (a title that is oddly unimaginative), she describes a family visit to a hostile great aunt who’s in a care home:

‘The elderly eyeballs have spun
Round, clear and hard,
She’s going to swipe.
The tallest child looms awkwardly,
His sister teeters with pinking eyes,
The box of chocolates going off in her hands.’

What kept me reading was an undeniably voyeuristic curiosity about her revelations. Though there is a sense that these are confessional poems, like a strip tease, they show us enough but not too much. In ‘Fracture’

‘Close your eyes and lie back,
Shut your mouth,
Relax, just picture the money…

…until slowly we’ve coldly unclothed our skin,
Looked away,
And let them in.’

There’s a cold pragmatism here, that nonetheless evokes the hurt and bitterness of being coerced into this situation. I spotted a flash of resemblance between the speaker and the grand-aunt who’s been forced into a care home. This is a poet whose honesty is sometimes raw: When ‘he’ offers sympathy: ‘I snot on his shoulder, and my eyes drain pride/ Down the blue of his waterproof jacket’ (‘Surprise’)

The undeniable earthiness of her work is evident again in ‘Invisible art’ which describes an exhibition of empty canvasses, the audience reading the labels and nodding, while ‘a streaker/ jiggles barefoot/ through the crowd./ No one looks/ at his bouncing balls,/ his conductor’s hands,/ his Rubenesque flesh…’ But O’Connor makes the reader look. Not just fleetingly. In detail.

Yeats once said, ‘I am still of the opinion that only two topics can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mood: sex and the dead.’ In her final poem, ‘Hellsteeth’, (my other favourite), O’Connor’s evocation of her lover is in his physicality, not in the bedroom, but in chores: ‘he was springtime/ Up on rotten ladders’. Now, ‘He isn’t belly-deep in rushes/ Or chasing pigs…No one there/ Since he’s been gone/ Every day of the last ten years.’ It’s the vividness of the imagery and especially the impact of the last line, that makes this portrait, and this poem, so poignant.

While the chapbook is uneven in terms of quality (and editing), you sense that this is a poet who is going to develop. In her strongest poems, Jessamine O’Connor makes the reader stop and think. Read again.

Poems of Yves Bonnefoy 2 (trans. Ian Brinton & Michael Grant)

In Pamphlets on October 4, 2013 at 9:02 am

 

-Reviewed by Hayden Westfield Bell

Poems of Yves Bonnefoy 2 translated by Ian Brinton and Michael Grant is the second collection of poems in the Bonnefoy series published by Oystercatcher Press. The second collection builds upon the success of the first; re-capturing Bonnefoy’s delicate, apocalyptic environments in a minimal style with a greater sense of tension, emphasis and intensity. Brinton and Grant’s translations are more confident and sure-footed in this collection than the last, the poems more varied in subject and tone, showing further understanding of Bonnefoy’s poetical approach and his characteristic use of language.

The opening poem ‘The Garden’ reintroduces us to images explored in the first collection; we see the resurrection of ‘stone’, ‘death’ and ‘a prow’s shadow’, these images of darkness juxtaposed with the optimism of ‘stars vault[ing] high garden walls’ and ‘pure wood’ jostles the mind between comfort and unease. Suddenly, ‘every road of the star-filled sky / Casts shadow’ throwing us not only into emotional doubt, but also physical insecurity – the landscape of the garden shifting before our eyes into seascapes and oceans, the trees ‘foam’ as the earth beneath us is ‘swept away’. ‘The magnet, you said’ teases us with complex and exotic images rendered in fragile lines; ‘their word begins at the trembling of our voices’, though the closing line of the first and last stanza edge into cliché with ‘eternal’ and ‘mankind’s own darkness’.

We move then to ‘Some Stones’, the first of a number of lengthier poems included in this volume, in which we are privy to the narrators mental anguish over the loss of a loved one. Beginning with a Bonnefoy-ian melancholy (‘traced lines of wind and disappointment […] my hair spread wider than a world’), the poem swells into self-reflexivity as the narrator probes the depths of his emotions; ‘What shall I have loved? […] Will the day keep the few words we had together / Safe in the day’s depths?’ though these angst-ridden passages can drift into sentimental cliché, ‘I loved the trust of those days so much / I watch over the charred words on the hearth of our hearts.’ Love, though, is a particularly difficult emotion for contemporary poets to engage with due its rich presence in traditional and romantic poetry, though this does not necessarily excuse the difficult sentimentalism. Nevertheless, ‘Some Stones’ is a rare poem in which the narrator is actively present within the text, and this presence adds an interesting dimension to the concepts largely kept at a distance in the other poems. These concepts that had begun to feel so alien through Brinton, Grant and Bonnefoy’s explorations/deconstructions suddenly co-exist with the voice of the narrator, giving the concepts a larger presence through association. The meditative, considered tone of the other poems is shaken by ‘Some Stones’, creating an unsettling (though welcome) effect on readers that have been following the Bonnefoy series from the first volume.

We return to the shorter poems; ‘The darkest face’, ‘Evening Word’ and ‘The Book, for Growing Old’ are particularly good examples of Brinton and Grant’s ability to translate Bonnefoy into minimal, fragile, yet deeply moving poems though I consider ‘I dislodge with my foot’ to be the stand-out poem of the collection; by drawing attention to the relationship between stones and ‘hidden lives […] scatter[ing] quickly, / Redeemed by the grass’. The other longer poems in Poems of Yves Bonnefoy 2, ‘The Dialogue between Anguish and Desire’ and ‘May This World Last’ feel a little unsteady in places, the messages of the poems being too clear in places – leaving little mystery for the reader. Whilst ‘The Dialogue between Anguish and Desire’ moves beyond the immediacy of its message into striking descriptions of ‘obscure gardens […] the afternoon / Was crimson’ ‘May This World Last’ seems to struggle to escape the message made clear in its title, though develops strength in its closing stanzas ‘summer / Will last no more than an hour / But may the hour we have be long / Like the river.’

Poems of Yves Bonnefoy 2 is a collection of vivid philosophical poems that investigate the complexity within the miniature and the minimal and how these impact and influence our being and sense of self. This comes across clearer in the shorter poems where the delicate language employed by Brinton and Grant is allowed to breathe, whereas, in the longer poems, the fragility of the language used often feels suffocated by the mass of the poem itself.

 

Above The Parapet by Alison Lock

In Pamphlets, Short Stories on September 23, 2013 at 10:30 am

-Reviewed by David Sheridan-

‘Only a moment ago she had been enjoying the twist of her spoon in the syrup jar and watching the golden slick drizzle onto her waffle.’

So opens Above the Parapet, a collection of short stories from Alison Lock. It’s a telling sentence, and perhaps more so than the author intends.

Above the Parapet Alison Lock

It took me a lot of effort to get into Above the Parapet. I started reading it, which was fun, because it’s a series of evocative, emotional vignettes about a variety of (mostly) interesting characters, told with painstaking, utterly engaging attention to detail. But then I kept right on reading it, which was a mistake. Don’t get angry yet – you’ll see what I mean.

In ‘Ashes for Roses’, a woman and her brother cultivate roses for a garden show with a spectacularly passive-aggressive unspoken rivalry, while in the background, the memory of Eyjafjallajökull’s ash-cloud rises ominously. When freak weather conditions aim the debris-cloud at that same garden show, an Act of God of such startling precision and non sequitur as to more properly belong to Left Behind, we are first introduced to the surreal character of these stories.

‘The Mission’ introduces an improbably virtuous young man named Gabriel, who’s about to be let fly into the sky beneath nine hundred helium balloons. The angel imagery isn’t subtle, but then it’s not meant to be: as he descends, wings sprout from his shoulders and he flies back to the town, invigorated and empowered. The story’s bizarrely parochial idea of virtue also offers some sharp comments on English life.

These two stories ground surreal elements in the real world. That’s cool. I can get behind that. The next, ‘The Inventions of Mr. Pitikus’, tells a surreal story in a (kinda) realistic rendering of a surreal world – and within a sentence or two, Lock has established that her collection, while anchored in reality, will roam far across the multidimensional possibility-spaces of the surreal.

But that’s not Lock’s strength. She never seems sure if the dystopian surrealism is a means to an end, or the end in itself. In ‘… Mr. Pitikus’ the world itself is surreal, providing a safely pseudo-mythological backdrop for a climate-change fable. In ‘Tweed’ and ‘The Drowning’, two evocative second-person experiences, exegetic surrealism is used to illustrate the mercurial nature of memory, and it works far too well (before Above the Parapet, I’d never seen this kind of hypnagogic experience done well, and was sceptical about the possibility; Lock’s attempt is valiant, but my scepticism remains).

The strongest pieces are the purely sensory, the experiential vignettes painted in exquisite detail. ‘The Hanging Tree’, probably my favourite piece in the book, tells the last story of a hangman who, having performed his last duty, takes a short walk through a broken world before making the leap from the gallows to join his victims. This is a syrup moment, and I find myself rereading it – not, as with ‘The Drowning’, in bafflement, but because each re-reading is another spoonful on my waffle. Watch it drip, watch it gleam.

This is a good time to talk about dystopia. Lock’s blurb calls her characters’ world ‘dystopian’, but I don’t see that. Very few of her characters are happy to be living in their world, and it’s clear that something awful has happened offscreen that’s left many of her protagonists struggling in various states of post-civilised subsistence. But those various states – some, like ‘Seraph’ and ‘Erthenta’, envision vast ecological catastrophe and the collapse of civilisation, while others, like ‘Bugs’, portray a changing climate that’s little more than a nuisance – occur at different times, or in different worlds, or something. The difference is great enough to leave the reader a little adrift. Dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature have been so codified that it’s possible to portray them with shared reference, using very little explicit storytelling. Lock mostly tries this, but the trouble with shared-reference backgrounds is that you can’t keep changing them from story to story, then put the stories in anachronic order and expect a reader to keep ploughing on through. It’s disconcerting, and maybe that’s alright – but worse, it’s disengaging. I find myself, a life-long Asimov fan, missing his warm fireside-chat introductions. They would do this collection a world of good.

Of course, shared-reference storytelling allows an author to evoke powerful memes with a whisper – and Lock does so, repeatedly, with themes of death and heaven. Her characters’ deaths, when they come, are not always clear. Some of them just drift off, and their friends and surroundings with them, up into the sky where it’s bright and peaceful. In ‘Eggshell’, the most coherent of the several stories to feature dreamlike scenarios, a dead village presents itself as it was. The church with the crooked steeple stands as tall as it once did, and the ancestors of its present inhabitants go about their lives as if nothing ever changed for them. It’s beautiful, and when the story snaps back to the mortal realm, I don’t want it to. The same post-mortal experience occurs again and again, and these moments are some of the strongest in the entire collection.

This is Lock’s real strength: the experiential quality of her vignettes leaves a mental after-image which takes time to fade. That’s why it’s difficult, even jarring, to jump from one apocalypse to another, but it’s not a fatal flaw for the book: it just necessitates a different reading strategy. If you’re reading this book, don’t go at it one-story-after-another. Leave a gap. Read one a day, though perhaps not right before bedtime. These stories deserve the time it takes to consider them: the time it takes to watch the syrup drizzle. Give them time to digest, and when you’re hungry for more, go back without preconceptions. When you do, you’ll like what you get.

‘Mammal’ by Jared Joseph

In Pamphlets, Poetry on September 11, 2013 at 9:58 am

 -Reviewed by Rosie Breese

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Jared Joseph’s collection Mammal begins with a wall of sound – a riotous rattling-off of terms from the animal, human, and physical worlds; a litany that mixes all three into a kind of primordial soup laid thick over the page. It’s insistent, persistent. There’s no scanning, no skipping. There are rhythmic patterns of substitution and conflation, the animal for the human, the physical for the animal, and all permutations in between:

‘Animal-drowning noise, give me animal falling from sky, wax instead of wings,   glue-char instead of wax, hoof of horse instead of burnt, burnt umbra instead of half of anything …’

And there’s the recitation of a kind of idiosyncratic etymological genealogy:

‘like Christian comes from Christ, like Lazarus comes from rest, from lessness, like Islam comes from is lamb, like lamp comes from oil comes from holy-lubed revealed word, like the shower curtain…’

Here, we see what’s to come in the rest of the collection: the physical/animal world is brought up against the world of human concepts with a wonderful, boundless freedom – sonic links substitute for semantic ones, the visual for the conceptual.

The wall of sound soon gives way to a series of sections, each taking a different animal as a starting point, musing on its physicality, riffing outwards from the animal to the human, to the world of objects and back again, inhabiting all and collapsing the distances between them. The poems, or sections of the wider poem that is Mammal, seem to be drawn endlessly forward through a sheer joy in sound association, as demonstrated here, in the section beginning ‘Now I am a mule’:

‘We’re hot to trot on rasping coughs
The floor is hot.
The limestone floor is hot to trot.
The sock hop is an out of body experience’

There is a jangling percussiveness to this writing, as hypnotic as listening to a drummer jamming. There are lines that surprise, there are unexpected fills. There is something transcendent about the frenzied rhythms and repetitions and the hypnotic quality of these, together with the evocation and inhabitation of animal bodies and voices. A shamanic dance would be an apt way to describe it. It is indeed an ‘out of body experience’.

As such, these poems could be seen as places of metaphysical enquiry and contemplation, the themes of birth, sex and death frequently surfacing through their twists, turns and rhythms:

‘Cheryl’s death is all about.
The end line lies about the table with vermouth
the table is sopping with vermouth
the end is vermouth
drink death down the gullet!
death to vermouth’

These moments of physical transformation are ever-present, and the objects and sounds that surround them are repeated almost obsessively, mutated, turned this way and that, and incorporated into sonic-semantic fantasias that draw you in through curiosity and a desire to link theme with object with being. You’re then yanked through a set of steps so unexpected that you forget what you started with and realise that perhaps you’re just there to join the dance, along for a jolting and magnificent ride and that that is a joy in itself.

Even so, this constant riffing makes space for some wonderful moments of quiet drama:

‘..just load a gun & love
like a crushed bird too tired’

‘I’m son.
I’ve laid with everyone.
I’ve been the light weighed on their skin.’

And then there’s the moment something dazzles and distracts the drummer, who gets stuck beating a shining cymbal:

‘diamonds
diamonds diamonds
diamonds diamonds diamonds’

There are a zillion other treasures within this collection; enough for me to bang on for several more pages, but I want to leave some for you to discover for yourself when you go and download it and spend some good, long afternoons in its gloriously unpredictable company. It’s free, by the way.

The one thing that could be improved upon (and I’m really nitpicking here, but if you’re shallow like me, you do indeed judge a book by its cover) is the look of the physical copy that came bounding through my letterbox. The shiny black cover, the vaguely bondagey artwork and the translucent paper all combine to give this collection the look of something less professional than it is. That said, it *is* primarily available as an ebook, so who the hell cares. It’s what’s inside that matters, right? And what’s inside is really, truly exciting.

Jared Joseph’s irreverently dazzling collection forms part of 79 Rat Press’s  ‘NOTHING TO SAY’ series, which showcases the work of six uniquely inventive writers. 79 Rat Press is a publisher of conceptual ebooks, established, as their website states, with the worthy intention of ‘creating moments in contemporary literature that bring an awareness of the glorious, spectacular possibilities of words’. This is something that this collection achieves in showstopping style. I certainly look forward to reading more from this series.

 

Mammal is available to download for free at http://79ratpress.wordpress.com/ along with 5 other collections by Paul Askew, Sian S. Rathore, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Emily Harrison and Andy Harrod.

‘Poems of Yves Bonnefoy 1’ (trans. by Ian Brinton & Michael Grant)

In Collaboration, Pamphlets, Translation on September 9, 2013 at 9:30 am

 

-Reviewed by Hayden Westfield-Bell

 

Ian Brinton and Michael Grant team up to translate the poems of Yves Bonnefoy in the aptly named Poems of Yves Bonnefoy 1, a new chapbook published by Oystercatcher Press. The authors capture Bonnefoy’s delicate, stark environments and present them through a characteristically minimal style; mimicking Bonnefoy’s efficient yet powerfully effective use of vocabulary and accentuating the sensual nature of his poems. Though unsteady in places, Poems of Yves Bonnefoy 1 is a finely crafted collection of probing poetry.

In an article on Arcadia Review, Hoyt Rogers describes the difficult process of translating Bonnefoy’s poems, he begins with the word ‘boat’, which Bonnefoy describes as ‘“a fundamental metaphor” of his work’. Yet Bonnefoy rejects the French word bateau, the generic word for boat, opting instead for barque, which indicates a smaller or rowing boat. Hoyt examines barque; ‘it parallels bateau; the problem lies in the subtler realm of tone, of connotation’, but, unable to find an alternative in English he turns to Bonnefoy for clarification, who argues that barque is particularly evocative because “between the consonants the vowel forms the same dark hollow we see in a boat between the curved planks of the prow and stern”. Nevertheless, ‘lacking an identical twin for barque, [Hoyt has] to settle for boat’. The difficulty of translating Bonnefoy is thus made apparent; every word must be felt, sounded, considered, tasted and tested before an adequate replacement can even be considered, yet also (in Bonnefoy’s own words); ‘while language is a system, the speech of poetry is presence […] the ontological rightness of our [the translator’s] new-found images matters more much more than whether they match term by term, in skin-deep resemblance, those of the original’. The act of translating is ‘an onerous task’, one that I don’t envy…

Poems of Yves Bonnefoy 1 opens with ‘The Lizard in Place’; where a startled lizard ‘freezes / And feigns death’ whilst the observing narrator muses on its paralysis. The reptiles’ defensive inaction is ‘the first step of consciousness in stone […] A great fire infused’ that excites the observer; ‘I love its grip on silence […] its pause before the hour of victory’. The poem as a whole is a valuable introduction to Bonnefoy’s work: while deconstructing the lizard’s action the narrator uncovers a number of core concepts, that of the spirit, of the eternal, and of silence. The relationships between these concepts are then explored, enjoyed, and finally understood as a whole, emphasised by the closing line ‘holding its grip on the earth’. We find solidity, definition, we fully understand the lizard and its action. We will see similar movements in later poems, though their shifts occur rapidly and with greater complexity.

‘Siren Song’ marks the beginning of the more melancholic poems, ‘You are alone, enclosed by dark boats’ with ‘grey water’ and ‘fatal shores’. We find another ‘heart’ in the poem, and are introduced to a number of objects that make an appearance later. The long lines and large amount of commas add to the melancholic tone, softening the poem into a dark stillness which resurfaces in ‘Medusa’, ‘The Iron Bridge’ and ‘The Ordeal’. Though a powerful poem, ‘Siren Song’ is dwarfed by the intense lines ‘shrouds itself in the nights wound’ and ‘its sliced throat an absence that the blood devours’ of ‘Shore of another Death’ on the opposing page. Gripping again at the core items of ‘heart’, ‘oil’, ‘death’ and ‘sword’, ‘Shore of another Death’ grapples with a bird’s mortality through minimal surreal imagery. Each line bristles with connotations; ‘the boat, pulled back riding the movement of the tide’ and the suggestion of an ‘other shore of darkness’ summons visions of the Styx, whereas ‘to die in the severed light’ appears religious, suggesting sanctity. Though dense with visions and description, the poem reads well and can be enjoyed quickly, though the thick nature of the lines rewards the more persistent reader. Nevertheless, I found the lack of question marks at the end of some lines a little disorientating, we see this in ‘Siren Song’ (‘Are you walking upon this earth that moves’), and in ‘Shore of another Death’ (‘What was it more than a voice that desires not to lie’).

There are several odd moments in the chapbook where the syntax appears unsettled, such as the opening to ‘The Ordeal’ (‘I was the one who walks / With care for a last muddied water’) and from ‘Shore of another Death’, (‘As the boat, pulled back riding’). The poems continue as if the lines slotted in perfectly with the others, though they stand out awkwardly. These oddities are, however, few and are easily forgotten when reading the more intricately carved poems, ‘I often hear’, ‘You will make your bed’, ‘To the Voice of Kathleen Ferrier’ and the poems towards the rear of the book, such as ‘The Ravine’, ‘The Eternity of Fire’ et al. In these later poems – reading them with the knowledge of the items and concepts explored in the earlier poems – we become aware of the bold strokes of the authors, the sure-but-not-certain approach to his subject that gradually becomes apparent as they plays with his pieces from poem to poem. ‘The Iron Bridge’ is particularly skilful.

Poems of Yves Bonnefoy 1 is an accomplished collection of translations that touches on the delicate nature of existence through mystical, spiritual landscapes, probing the philosophy of language and pulling the reader into the desperate depths of Bonnefoy’s poetry.

 

 

‘The Only Reason for Time’ by Fiona Moore

In Pamphlets on August 28, 2013 at 9:12 am

-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

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After the premature death of a lover, it would be easy to succumb to a tidal wave of bitterness and anguish.  But, unlike Auden’s famous ‘Funeral Blues’ poem, where, in a rapture of grief, he exhorts the world to ‘stop all the clocks,  cut off the telephone’, Moore is more private in this chapbook, addressing not the world, but her absent lover: ‘Your death kills me a thousand times, / the tyranny of repetition’ (‘1010101010…’). Like Auden, however, her world has slammed to a halt.

The radiance and gravity of the poems grow out of volcanic emotion, channeled into strict forms, creating a poetic experience of grief. Everything is pervaded by her partner’s absence, poignantly symbolized by his Aran jersey, which she wears, but ‘which holds me differently’. The shirt, which a medical team had to cut off him, and which she found bundled in a wardrobe months later, is another symbol: ‘a shirt for a gentle hug’, now ‘slashed through’.

In both tone and content, Moore’s poems are layered with sub-texts and juxtapositions. Her attention alights at times on the cosmos, infinity, and also on mundane objects that have gained a resonance – the grey metal latch of a gate, a padlock, the clatter of change in a pocket, the stainless steel of a kitchen sink.

While her palette is muted for the most part, we see a flash of colour in ‘the white/purple bleed of petals in ‘Eden’, and in ‘the flaming/ orange, purple and fuchsia red of an Irish hedge’ in ‘Third day of fog’, suggesting natural erotic instincts that have been repressed through grief, leaving not only the landscape, but the speaker herself, ‘leached of colour’ (‘The distal point’).

The poems are imbued with an elemental grace: ‘O of the eye, the sun, the ocean, stopped by doors and windows and ceilings of earth’. Her soundscape is unobtrusive at first, but there is subtle internal rhyme, assonance and dissonance at work:

‘The water’s embrace jolts,
heaves, lulls me…I kick hard, breathing for you

through strands of hair…The drab land calls, the sea
spits me out – numb, dripping salt, living for you.’

(‘On Dunwich Beach’)

The moon is a recurring motif.  In one poem she describes it as ‘a white-gowned eroticist’ and confesses: ‘I want to bare all for you.’ It’s probably no accident that the three moon poems are all written in  three-line stanzas and hint at frustrated erotic desires: ‘my usual despair, worn out by night after // long night of nothing.’

Moore’s grief is solitary, with only the moon and the ghost of her lover for company. Even the cold, implacable sea, into which she plunges, ‘swimming for you’ spits her out again. She sees her partner in the leafless trees ‘whose outlines are all gesture’ (‘Overwinter’). The skeleton of the fish on her plate reminds her ‘of the last time we ate mackerel together.’ Poem after subtle poem reveals the significance of small events, set against the shadow of death.

In  the title poem, she gives in to a fantasy that time might not be linear  but looped, so that her partner who ‘went out/ through it like a door … will come back in /before you left, and intact.’ Several poems touch on philosophical, though not spiritual, observations. She is earthed in the natural world, and her departed lover is simply a ghost lingering here, not in some other eternal realm.

There are a few moments of light relief, such as the glimpse of a cluster of nuns ‘like five pints of stout /just poured’ in conversation with a man, ‘mud on his boots’ on a country lane in Ireland (‘Truly’). Another is the leap of joy experienced at the sight of ‘Bullocks –’

…‘at a gallop–
all bunched up
shouldering each other
muddy rumps rocking
up/down, hooves
thundering, rope-tails
flying…oh, the rain
roars for them’

This energy and momentum contrasts with the otherwise stopped-time sense of her emotional state. But it also suggests that the speaker is not yet finished with living.

Moore’s strength lies in her close, concrete observation of happening events, and in her perspectives. In the most dramatic poem, ‘What kind of sound crowds make’, when a child’s head is trapped between the doors of an underground tube, she forensically compares the collective ‘oh!’ gasps of the crowd to ‘the kind of sound crowds make / at executions of the surely innocent’.

There is a feeling of detachment and disconnection with the world, so when, in the last poem, she addresses the reader directly, it’s a jolt.  Again, she layers the impact. We are made aware not only that we have been voyeurs to her grief, but that we too, have our own ghosts. Or, in fact, our ghosts have us: ‘You are the fire around which your ghosts are talking.’

But, as she writes wittily in ‘Hunger’: ‘One way to dispose of a corpse is to eat it.’

I am reminded of a beautiful poem by Matthew Dickman called ‘Slow Dance’ in which he says of his twin brother: ‘I know that one of us will die first and the other will suffer.’ This is something we all face. But even with this fear of impending loss, we wouldn’t do without love. This collection is not just a lament, but an ode – to the fact that the intensity of grief has been balanced by the joy of an earlier, equivalent love.

A profoundly heart-wrenching, spare and beautiful chapbook.

‘Clause in a Noise’ by Mark Goodwin

In Pamphlets on August 27, 2013 at 12:30 pm

-Reviewed by Hayden Westfield-Bell

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Opening with a dedication to ‘Tony Frazer, and his faith in play’, Mark Goodwin begins his new chapbook, Clause in a Noise published by Knives Forks and Spoons Press with a hint; that these poems may be more than they appear. Heavily engaged with the concept of play, Goodwin’s poems challenge syntax and test the boundaries of traditional poetic forms whilst exciting the casual reader with sound-infused lines that electrify the tongue.

Read them aloud, hold them in your mouth, taste them and feel the words as they form at the jaw because Goodwin’s poems benefit greatly when given voice. A rolling of the r’s or a tumble of t’s’ snag in thorny staccatos (‘asymmetrical beasts receive electrical signals’) or blend seamlessly into smoother rhythms (‘enjoying erosion; a pestling’) and the words on the page seem to fade, transferring onto your tongue. The poems become your own as you’re forced to navigate a rocky terrain rich with jumbled tenses and pause to stroke the petals of a line struggling through a crack in the earth, like ‘a belch of roots’, ‘some local cruelty on a floor’ or the line ‘she messes her mouth’.

Perhaps you stumble a little over ‘but some two couldn’t stay this’ and bruise your knee ‘under generalisations that / I without will read & shout’ but the hard-going nature of the text serves to emphasise the more distilled lines that can be found within the poems. Structurally, the poems are written in free verse and feature rare cases of rhyme, ‘Chemicals of a Dog’ and ‘A Contiguous Body’ are particularly effective at exploring the page adding a visual dimension to the poems and affecting their reading.

Here’s where the ‘spoilers’ begin: Goodwin claims that ‘Facts of a Teleology of Utterance’ is a translation of Giles Goodland’s Myths of The Origins of Language, ‘A Contiguous Body’ is a translation of The Separable Soul by Elisabeth Bletsoe and, perhaps the most telling translation is that of Peter Redgrove’s Electricities of The Cat, which becomes ‘Chemicals of a Dog’. From origin to teleology, soul to body, electricity to chemicals, Goodwin’s ‘translations’ are really not translations at all…

The poems begin to unfold in front of your eyes. ‘An incomplete desert is declined’ from ‘ Facts of a Teleology of Utterance’ makes sense when understood as a mirror image of Bletsoe’s ‘the whole forest is named,’ but it’s important to refrain from cataloguing the lines as simply creative opposites, or of considered and constructed mistranslations. ‘A weight of absence’ becomes (in ‘Contiguous Body’) the ever beautiful ‘a lightness of presence’ and ‘he clears his throat’ from Myths of The Origin of Language translates into the feral ‘she messes her mouth’ in Teleology, through inversion these lines enter into a kind of parallel poetic universe – remaining as powerful as they were in the original, albeit, with an altered message.

Not all lines are beautiful, however, and the nature of translating every word into its opposite often results in conflicting dangerous lines. Tenses distort, the syntax breaks, and though Goodwin is often quick to pull in the slack and pull the language together with alliteration or assonance some areas of the poems can appear dense and unrewarding. ‘Chance for a Large Dark’ was particularly intimidating, though perseverance is often rewarded; ‘smoking / in the day it was to be the very hamlet of life / listless around its inertia emailing’. These distortions and destructions raise interesting questions as to the nature of language and the way we use oppositional dyads; conjuring up visions of Saussure-ean semiotics and Wittgenstein-ian wordplay, but come across aggressively when judged poetically.

A ballsy pamphlet of considered ‘mistranslations’, Mark Goodwin’s Clause in a Noise is a collection of reinventions; grasping beautiful lines from the likes of Giles Goodland, Elisabeth Bletsoe and Peter Riley and pull them into a playful parallel universe rich in staccato and sound. Poetry miners and puzzle solvers will find the collection rich in poetic treasures but the more casual reader might hesitate on the fringes; uncertain of the contents within Goodwin’s swirling poetics.

‘Bike, Rain’ by Cliff Yates

In Pamphlets on August 27, 2013 at 10:11 am

-Reviewed by Fiona Moore

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Some of the poems in Bike, Rain start ordinary and turn strange. A few are surreal all through: a colt climbs a tree, a chicken roosts on someone’s head, “She broods, lays eggs on my head. They roll down my face, / smash at my feet.” ‘Chicken’ can stand for whatever you want; things get worse and the poem is frightening. Other poems hang around on the fringes of strangeness, and some don’t seem strange at all, which may make the reader think, What have I missed?

The language is plain, often deliberately flat, but full of distinctive turns of phrase and syntax. It is descriptive in a quirkily factual sort of way, whether or not the material is fanciful. That combination gives Yates his most memorable phrases, such as the final couplet from ‘Just Before You Taste It’.

‘Something’s going off in the fridge, making
very little noise, making almost no noise at all.’

I hadn’t read anything by Yates before. I started with the first poem, ‘Life Studies’, whose opening lines couldn’t be more anecdotal and, along with the aftertaste of the Robert Lowell title, made me wonder where I was being taken. But then – “Someone said the best moments are moments / of realisation” – it turns into a sort of manifesto. Lowell and O’Hara are named, and there’s even a reference to the poet’s signature. It’s easy to see why Yates says he loves O’Hara, who (he says) hated Lowell. Those easy opening lunchtime lines are a Lunch Poems take-off. “There’s something in Lowell that I recognise,” he adds, but doesn’t say what. (He’s not deeply confessional.) There’s probably a Lowell take-off in there too.  Maybe there’s a link in the delight taken in oddness:

‘I sit next to a girl who smells like a bag
of crisps or maybe I can just smell crisps.’

That’s on the tube in London; around half the poems involve journeys, mostly by train. Odd things can happen in the context of trains – see the fridge quote above. See also the title poem, though that appears not to be odd at all, except in the stand-up comedy absurdity of the micro choices we make.

After reading the book several times over weeks, I’ve found the poems that have lasted best are mostly the ones in between the extremes of surreal and ordinary; they are the most surprising. My favourite is the beautiful ‘Alt St Johann’, which conjures up a fairy tale-like family holiday.

‘The cherries are finished on the tree,
the redcurrants ripe on the bush.
We sleep at the top of the house in the room
full of musical instruments. The music
enters our dreams and leaves by the gate
leaving it open.

This, I decide, is paradise
where they lend you their shoes and they fit.’

Opposite is a balancing poem, ‘Easter’, about a later, grown-ups-only visit to the same place, changed of course; with an unusually explicit emotional statement, “So much guilt today you can hardly bear it / but you do and carry on”. Each poem enhances the other, but also stands on its own.

Overall, the effect of reading these poems repeatedly is restful – like being with a companion who is friendly, humorous, questioning, existentially anxious in a daily sort of way. Knives Forks and Spoons Press mostly publishes experimental and ‘outsider’ poetry. Bike, Rain doesn’t fit that profile. But Yates’ use of language makes these poems original, and lifts the best of them into being very striking.