As Big as Crow

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This is the blog that almost stopped me blogging.  I started blogging in November with the idea of sharing my interest in poetry and responding to my poetic life as it happened. A big part of this would be short reviews, to be called appreciations.  It would a sideline, notes written in margin, or typed into my iPad as I got on with the main business of reading and writing poetry.  In practice it took too much time, the appreciations became full reviews, drafted and re-drafted driven by the concern of being accurate and fair. The thing that finally stopped me was an attempt to analysis the state of Ted Hughes’ reputation and to pin it on his charisma. That his high profile as a public poet and his well known anthology pieces gave him a status that hid the truth he was a something of a poetic dead end. In particular the blend of tweedy counterculture and mysticism that was at the heart of his thinking.

There was a television documentary broadcast during the last Christmas period, which put me off TH somewhat. I have always been a great admirer of TH in particular his early collections and Crow. Watching the programme I was struck by the oddity of his world view, in particular his use of horoscopes and belief in portents, like the fox that appears in his dreams or on a north London street.  Also thinking about the formal character of his poems, I became aware that I could not seperate his poetic voice from his actual physical voice, in that now/ and again now and many other fragments I can hear his vowels.  It occurred to me that this Heathcliff from central casting had in part used his charisma to sell his verse, and it was now difficult to seperare author and work.

Charisma has always played an important part in literature, but how do the attached literature and personality survive apart. From the start, the bardic origins of poetry, oral traditions meant that no exact version survived its author; the practicalities of publishing in small early modern cities would forced some writes to stay within walking, and talking, distance of their readers; the fame of Lord Byron; Dickens’s stagecoach and railway tours; the massive resources of modern media. It seems a writer’s personal reputation is undeniably tied to the reputation of their work.

In the case of pre-twentieth century writers most of this has now faded, we are left wondering how writers spoke, and guessing exactly how their work gained its reputation. To an extent writers’ work often has to fight against the received opinion of the writer, the suffering romantic poet, or an over theatrical Dickens. For more modern writers the link between a writer’s personality and their work is likely to remain.

The question that interests me is what is TH’s poetry like without his received poetic persona. And the answer is Crow. For me anyway, this energetic surreal sequence of poems that is removed from the immediate natural world, is hard to link with my image  of TH.   I suspect that TH would not have agreed with my description of Crow, probably seeing Crow as an extension of one of his other animal avatars – fox, hawk for instance.  I find similar eccentricity in Tales from Ovid,  thinking of King Midas’s asses ears in particular. So without much thought I have my answer. With the trickster Crow and with Ovid TH attached himself to something larger than himself, which speaks to his courage as a writer and of some humility. Not only do have my answer but I also have a key to his work. Many of the subjects of his work are bigger than him.  That his other interests certainly affected his poetry, but are not his poetry.

At the risk of making something of a segway. The artist who’s inspiration struck me as ma in the greatest distance from his work was Piet Mondrian. It was many decades after I first saw his austere arrangement of lines, white space and primary colours, that I learnt that his paintings were expressions of his interes in Theosophy. I do not know if a fellow Theosphist would be able to read them. None of rhe substance of  Theosophy made it into his work, while his aesthetic sense certainly did. While other interests may have helped him develop this sense, it is his aesthetic choices we are left with. And his late Broadway Boogie Woogie does make me wonder how pure and consistent his interest were.

From a blogging point of view I think this speculation is too vague and wide ranging to make a efficient easily realised blog. The nut of it is to be careful of paying too much attention to a poet’s biography or a particular version of a poet’s biography. Though there is some truth in my doubts. I do think poetry can be weakened when a poet’s other interests become too explicit. They may be brilliant in there own right but they might not be poetry.

Josh Ekroy: Ways To Build a Roadblock

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I remember during the time of first Gulf War a short radio piece in which the correspondent reported a conversation with someone from a country more use to wars than our own, or our own was at that time. The phrase that stuck with me was how will you live now your country is at war and the correspondent’s inability to respond. While he took the possibility of war seriously it had not occurred to him that it would change the way he lived. And in many was it has not, but our political discourse has changed, become weaponised or militarised. In his book Ways To Build a Roadblock from Nine Arches Press Josh Ekroy navigates the language of war, and the language used by those who find themselves, one way or another, at war, in short, the language required to build a roadblock.

I have known Josh Ekroy’s poetry for over ten years, at its heart is a trust in metaphor and the reader, an interest in juxtaposition and rhetoric, and a strong sense of justice. He is a very dry poet who gives the reader time to catch on to what he is up to, and expects them to place a poem in a larger context. Along the way there is some gleeful vengeance, cool images, an interest in found phrases, percussive language, empathy and an eye for the absurd.

The book is divided into three numbered sections. The first, from which the title poem is taken, deals directly with the politics and experience of our recent and continuing  wars. The second is more personal dealing with family and JE’s literary interests while keeping contact with the political including my personal favourite Kafka’s Recipe for Boiled Cabbage.  The third section returns to the political, reminding us that we have been here before, and putting our shared experience and the poet’s own response into context.

The opening poems of the first section sets the register for the collection.  In the poem Ways To Build a Roadblock JE engages with the formal language of instruction, but introduces a surprising detail in the middle of the poem. If what the poem’s certain voice says is true or not we cannot tell. It pulls a reader up short and makes them think, and brings the idea of having to build a roadblock home. It also includes the evocative phrase Passing the code word back and forth like a grenade.  The first poem of this first section From the golfcart shows JE’s interest in juxtaposition.  A description of the gruesome mating habits of the Empid fly and a gleeful account of the meeting of George Bush and Tony Blaire in 2003.  The two scenes set side by side without comment for the reader to make their own comparison.  The section ends with Pause a description of a soldier finding silence in the midst of the noise battle, the poem creating a real sense of silence and pause as it does so.

The second section moves into the more expected territory of contemporary poetry with Woodpecker recreating the strangeness of a boy being introduced to alcohol, though JE finds his own way into this subject matter with Goldfinches where the birds form a mysterious centre of family ritual and business; and in Gothic Aunt Revival a funny and nostalgic take on family.  It also includes the wonderful Kafka’s Recipe for Boiled Cabbage which has a truly absurd logic which is absurd and nevertheless still logical.  I find it a joy to read.  I can see what is coming and it is a further joy to read it as it comes. Lord Hutton Reports comes close, with the Peer giving his definitive account of the plight of Humpty Dumpty.

In the third section JE’s poetic interests really come to the surface.  The subject matter is mainly political bringing material from ancient Greece, the Raj, and Cavafy.  In Tourist Bus Halt an exotic tourist scene becomes a stage set, in the context of the book this poem seems to me to cast doubt on the possibility of ever understanding another culture, and on our motives for doing so.  The poem Medical Advances describes some new medical knowledge that has been gained as a result of using torture, and brings to mind the spurious science of the concentration camps without ever saying so. This section includes Some Useful Phrases another of my favourites, the poem is a short collage made up from phrases taken from a Short Walk In the Hindu Kush, each phrase suggesting the following phrase, resulting in a map of the consciousness of a westerner in Afghanistan.  The section ends with Leader in which JE occupies his enemy’s language, writing an invective against peace, peace being a room in which it is safe to eat muffins.

In many of his poems JE builds tottering monuments.  His intention is defiantly satirical, delivered in regular stanzas or controlled verse paragraphs.  There is a strong interest in the thump, lope and rumble of language; luminous images as in SAMS a dusty river bed grins back;  juxtaposition not only with metaphor and images but of language where uncomfortable words like excremental, toxin,  and penis are used.

I think this collection is a unique and surprising cocktail, where even the acknowledgements gave me a surprise.  There is only one true epigraph in collection, but from the acknowledgements we learn that many of the poems include found elements.  The only surprise perhaps being that we think anything has changed at all.

 

 

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Poem

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This is just to say/I have eaten the plums/you were saving in the icebox/they were so cold and so sweet – is the way I remember William Carlos Williams’ famous poem. I have not tried to learn the poem, and my remembered version is quite far of the mark.  It is probably the only short poem I would be capable of reconstructing from memory in this way, with the possible exception of  Ireland by Paul Muldoon and one or two Haiku. Really I do not know the poem at all, but have constructed a version from my concept of the poem: plums, saving, icebox – not fridge, apology – a kind of apology, cold, sweet and short.

My first encounter with this poem was to hear it read on the television, probably accompanied by animation and probably as part of a BBC poetry season in the early nineties. I had not heard of WCW, and it was some years before I encountered the poem again. Though I did remember it, or retained an idea of it. I think it arrested me firstly because of its clarity, the action at least is very clear and takes place in a recognisable modern setting, then its coldness and sweetness, and finally  the poems ambiguity: what kind of relationship does it suggest?

The fact that I heard it first is strange, because I have always thought of the poem as a note written by a man to his wife.  As such it is an example of an found poem, a pseudo found poem possibly, where the poem could exist as a whole as part of some real world action. The actual poem is nothing of the kind as can be seen at The Academy of American Poets, it has a very conventional layout. And its phrasing suggests written rather spoken communication. If this were an apology in person, it would probably be more direct and less complete with some room for the apology’s recipient to make a contribution. Unless the speaker expected to be listened to at length without interruption.

I think my interpretation is the common one. It has become the fridge-magnet poem with versions of it appearing in photographs on social media, often written on post-its or other scraps of paper and pinned to fridges with another foodstuff substituted for plums and any hint of an apology removed. Although this is not the world the poem was delivered into in 1934. The icebox might have been literally that: a cabinet with one compartment for food, and another compartment for ice to cool the food. The ice being made industrially and delivered by the iceman. The poem is written around the time when modern refrigerators were starting to become common in US homes.

It seems like recognisable modern domesticity, where the plumb eater and plumb saver are in control of their own food supply and the kitchen or pantry are considered part of the body of the house. WCW was a doctor and so a member of the upper-middle class, at this time he might have employed domestic help, as might many of his beugoire readership. Of course this was also a time when wives kept house, and many men would not know what was in the larder. To its initial readership this poem might have suggested there was something special about the plumbs, perhaps they had been gathered from the garden; or that this exchange was emblematic of a simple country way of life.

To look at the poem itself it is clearly better than I remembered it. WCW has a great deal of control, he delivers the few details in carful stages.  There is no regular metrically or rhyme.  It looks like a poem, with four line stanzas, and there is some evidence that this is deliberate, the first and second stanzas seem wordy: that were and and which could go.  Though the poem would lose its calculating character.

For me the key word is probably, the eater knows the saver’s habits and character, I think the eater really knows the saver is keeping the plumbs, probably is a lie. The word Just is often seen as an example of submissive language, but is the supplication genuine? The poem’s last stanzas feels the most genuinely poetic, the word delicious is almost a poem in its self and is reinforced with cold and sweet.  It is almost as if the eater is taunting the saver, metaphorically eating the plumbs in front of the note’s reader.

So what is the eater up to?  My take on the action is that is based on an event in WCW’s life.  He has come in late or is going out early, possibly because of his work, and he could not resist the treat, but he does his wife the small courtesy of telling her, and the further courtesy of phrasing his message as an apology, all be it a not very believable one.  He does not take her for granted.  He does not think he is causing her terrible suffering, they live in an age of plenty.  I used to think there was something mildly sadistic in the final stanza, especially the use of the word cold, but the plumbs are just not that big a deal. Really it is a kind of love poem, that is a poem is an artefact created as a product of lives of a married couple who know and trust each other.

The poem has so few details a reader has to make assumptions.  The meaning would change drastically if this was written at a time of food shortages, or if the eater had already eaten a half-share of the plumbs and was now going to eat the second half. Would it change if it was to assume to written from a woman to a man? I do not think it would.  What it does have is an extra literary context, there is a poem called simply Reply from WCW’s papers, available at  University of Pennsylvania and other sites.  This is claimed to be a typed up version of a note that Florence Williams wrote in reply, but then crumpled up.  It shows a certain bemusement at WCW’s actions,  listing all the food that was a available, but not showing any great offence, and asking him to turn off the telephone, presumably part of the couple’s domestic routine.  Even if this was not originally written by Florence Williams the fact WCS included it sheds light on his view of the poem.

Though the details of the poem’s conception and of the Williams’ marriage  might reveal the poet’s original intention they do not necessarily explain the poem’s appeal.  I think one of the reasons for the poem’s popularity is that it fits modern life like a glove.  As has already been mentioned this a house where the kitchen is at the centre, also there is the control operated within families with regard to food.  Anything from hand washing, through clearing your plate, to keeping leftovers, and a million more particular situations relating to food ranging from dieting to food in shared flats and houses, or workplace kitchens.  The poem can be adapted to comment on any of these situations.

It also has a recognisable structure, almost a form in its own right.  Like the many internet incarnations of the poem mentioned above it is easy to achieve a recognisable version of the poem by substituting a few words: leave the title whole, substitute something for plumbs, make an qualified assumption about the saver in the second stanza, make a general statement about the thing consumed and two more specific statements at the end.  Stick with the sparse four line stanzas and you have a recognisable parody.  This form invented for a single poem also makes it a modernist poem.

 

Ellie Evans: The Ivy Hides the Fig-Ripe Duchess

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I recently wrote a blog about the collection published for the late Linda Lamus, which made me think to go back and look at Ellie Evan’s first and only collection.  A more complete work published a year or two before its author’s death.  The work is now set in time, like many first collections praised fro its promise, it still has much of value when detected from its author’s possible future.

My first contact with Ellie Evan was by telephone. We were both going to a course at the welsh writers’ centre in Ty Newydd and Ellie wanted to know if I could give her a lift, she recently having had an operation and being unable to drive. I remember the unassuming manner of asking, and her bright open character that was apparent even in a short telephone conversation. Ellie was a person of considerable experience and accomplishment who came to writing poetry late in life, her writing life probably lasted no more than ten years, cut short by her death in 2012 at the age of seventy. Late to writing but not late to literature, she gained a degree in English Literature from Oxford in the sixties, and taught English for many years.

I only know Ellie through her poetry, through courses at Ty Newydd and at the Poetry School in Bath. I Remember the clarity and craft of the work she presented.  I was sometimes inclined to think of her as the school teacher setting a good example by doing her homework, which is not fair at any level at all.  Craft is certainly part of her work, especially her control of metre, subtle use of rhyme and well chosen poetic forms.  Above all of this there is joy in her work, the backbone of The Ivy Hides the Fig Ripe Duchess are quick moving fantasies, poems like Cuttlefish and Candelabra and Artist of the Morning Dew found towards the middle of the collection.

If I were to stereotype EE as a poet, which is obviously to say more about me than is about EE, I do find the poems that I might have expected to find: treatment of exotic places, of family history, and art history; all of which is done well, with the control and craft I have already mentioned, I found Edna a tribute to one of her aunts particularly touching, but there is more.  The collection’s opening poem Skin gives the clue, it is a fantasy about being uncomfortable, and even losing one’s skin.

There is something edgy, hard and critical in the best of EE’s poetry. She gives us the end of the world and the truths behind apparent domestic certainties.  The collection’s title poem uses hard flat language to create an image of the apocalypse, that speculates how poorly our current values would stand up to such a test.  EE uses her classical poetic skills partly by holding them back to allow crystal images to come through. The image of corpses nails curling into the earth like sickles is particularly memorable.

The end of days is not always on EE’s mind, the poem Lilac creates a similar feel, though this time in a cold war context. Domesticity and containment are the most commonly reoccurring themes.  These are first encountered in Crazy House at the Fairground and IKEA Room Set.  In the first a hall of mirrors is the setting for a domestic bliss and comfort, where everything is changeable but walls and ceilings seem so straight.  The second is one of several poems that imagine the domestic scene as a film set with obvious artifice and undeniable truth.

EE was a great admirer of Pascale Petit, and the influence is clearly present in this collection.  The poem Weaver Bird is credited as being after Pascale Petit and it shares that poets technique of brining a metaphor to life, so it is a once a thing in its self and a cypher.  In this case the Weaver Bird builds a nest that is also a prison to punish someone who has lied about writing some love letters.  Though this technique is used elsewhere in the poems Ant in Vaseline and Batbridge.

Ant in Vaseline along with Kalypso are probably my favourite poems in the collection.  The first shares something of the metaphorical approach of Weaver Bird, though this time it is a family environment and the environment is stranger, a family who’s father is a natural scientist the other family members his insect specimens.  Kalypso is a beautifully phrased villanelle, in which Homer’s character laments the loss of Odysseus, the use of landscape as a focus for her morning is particularly touching.  There is something in the richness of her longing, which makes me think she might have overcome her loss, even if she does nor realise it yet.   

What Ellie might have done with another decade, we will never know.  What is here is a book of well crafted poems on a wide range of interesting topics, set in fascinating locations, much captivating energy, and a vein of disturbing surrealism delivered in a clear light..

The Ivy Hides the Fig-Ripe Duchess is still available from Seren Books, and you can see Ellie read it on YouTube.  A full obituary is also available from The Guardian, if you go here you will find Ellie wrote under light cover, her real name was Anne Evans.

 

J Brookes: Book

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Book the second full collection from J Brookes published by Square Books in Cardiff, following The Dresden Cantata of 2008, and many self published and self distributed pamphlets before that going back to 1990.  He was for ten years the editor of the poetry magazine The Yellow Crane, a poetry fanzine really.  Probably amongst the last of its kind: typed, photocopied, and stapled, with a simple but arresting linocut cover, distributed by its editor walking it door to bookshop door.

He was one of those editors who wrote back, a few notes with the returned typescript.  I can remember a few discussions with aspiring poets, turning to fond memories of the magazine and its editor.  Simple in construction it might have been but its quality was recognised by the Poetry Library on the South Bank among others, a few examples can be seen at Yellow Crane.  I remember when I first became interested in contemporary poetry in the early 2000s finding a copy in the Cardiff Central library.  It seemed to offer a slant and accessible alternative to the more established magazines that shared its shelves with.

JB’s own poems continue his poetic credo as an editor, he his very much a poet of walking distance, of local streets and local characters, his work captures and celebrates the minor detail of most urban people’s daily lives: small arguments, trips to the takeaway, incidents while queuing for a cashpoint.  Most of JB’s poems have the feel of an anecdote, something you might tell to a friend or overhear told in a pub.  Sometimes the stories come from far and further away, from Sudan, Spain and Belfast, but there is always a freshness to their telling.  As a reader I feel the poems have been passed to JB and now he is passing them on to me.

JB has a developed and distinctive poetic voice, which he subtly adjusts to create a range of registers. Which ranges from delivering shocking detail as in Rum that includes detail of a miscarriage, through the humorous speculative fantasy of poems like Clouds where cloud watching turns to a humorous drama involving Greek gods, to the more substantial works like The Crescent, a song for the inhabitants of a rooming house that has seen better days.  The uniting formal feature of the collection is metre, easily used, aided by unasuming rhyme and regular stanzas. It is with fine adjustments of these resources that JB adjusts his voice to suit the different subjects.

Many of the shorter poems felt too abrupt on first reading.  I first thought that poems like A Loaf of Bread, The Cut, or Bobby Sands were fragments, perhaps a third of a poem that needs further development.  Although on reflection I think JB had said enough, what I wanted added were the phantom limbs of the poem, in a way something already part of the poems.  The abruptness a deliberate choice. 

There is a lot worth reading in Book: some shocking detail of crime and drug use taking place alongside the everyday, playful surrealism, fry humour and song like metre.  Amongst my favourites are CSCS a poem about finding casual work in construction; Franco a poem about the political importance of one particular Eurovision Song contest, where Cliff Richard acquires a surprising political significance; and my favourite Armchair a lightly handled fable, which trusts its reader to get the joke.

 

Four of JB’s poems from this collection, along with further biographical notes, can be seen at Square Magazine.

Books for the Dead

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Do the verses that poets write truly live after them, or do they start to fade with the poet’s last breath, persisting only as memories, echoes, or marks on paper. Once the author, the poem’s final arbiter, has gone do they exist like the text of Gilgamesh waiting for future translators to decode them, give them a proxy afterlife.  Reading the recently published collection A Crater the Size of Calcutta by Linda Lamus and The Ivy Hides the Fig-Ripe Duchess the 2011 collection by Ellie Evans who died in 2012, made me consider if there a fundamental difference between a poem written by a living poet and one written by a poet who has since died.

Single poems can probably survive more easily than bodies of work. That is to say the poems life and afterlife are similar.  A poet’s one or two best poems, anthology pieces possibly, or poems that fit their time or fashion well. The body of work raises more questions, possible contradictions, which there is no one left to answer. This points to where a poem’s meaning resides, the poet has one view, the reader or listener another, a translator a third, an editor a fourth, and so on. These meanings overlap, diverge, and any of those involved can choose to change their mind at any time. Except, of course, the dead.

Reputations come and go.  The going, usually by neglect, goes gradually and unannounced.  The coming, by definition, a more public event. Two poets that have recently come back are Lynette Roberts and Rosemary Tonks. Both had substantial reputations for part of their lifetimes, and faded at least in part because they moved away from poetry.  In their cases their deaths cleared access to major work that the poets themselves had made difficult in one way or another. In the case of Linda Lamus and Ellie Evans death was an obstacle, both writers had the conventional desire that their work should be known, but could not be there to see it through.

In the case of Lynette Roberts and Rosemary Tonks their poetry has gone through, or is going through, the purgatory that select few writers’ work endures, on the way to come out as literature.  There are many established literary pigeonholes for them to be popped into.  In the case of more recently dead writers their literary timeline is still uncharted.  What a reader is left with is ordinary grief, either because the reader knew them or has come to join those who know them trough their work. It is the kind of grief made up of one sided conversations and of an awareness of what might have been.

So I feel there is a difference between reading the word of a living writer, an established writer dead for a generation, and one who has recently died.  If a reader chooses to immerse themselves in such work they will find a challenging solitude, like sitting at the end of a play waiting for someone to applaud.

They Shall Take Up Serpents Smiling

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Probably the most notable fact about Linda Lamus’s collection A Crater the Size of Calcutta is that it has made it to publication at all.  The poet Linda Lamus died in 2008 leaving a folder of drafts and the expressed wish that these should be published as a collection. It is a great credit to Carrie Etter, the book’s editor, and Mulfran Press, the book’s publisher, not only that they have fulfilled LL’s wish, but also made this interesting collection available.  Which to say the very least contains a more than a few compelling poems.  (The title of my blog refers to a photograph on the back of the book, showing the author holding snakes and smiling.  The image is not as far as I can tell available on-line.)

At its best LL’s poetry works at the border of fable and reality, in the quick world seen from the corner of the eye rather than weighty myth. The title poem is truly the best poem in the collection, creating a fantastic world that is tangible and linked to reality. There is longing and tension in the poem, that is beautifully hinged on a couple of evocative phrases: a crater the size of Calcutta and Black as Newgate’s Knocker.

Most of the poems are sketches of one sort or another, either of characters or places, in particular Asia and Eastern Europe. In these poems LL manages to inject some of the energy and mystery of fables into the everyday. In Tafan and Line-Painting Man humble characters are transformed by the distances and mysteries of their lives. Probably only in Madame Emilia and the Crocodile does LL move into the purely fantastical. It is a poem written in response to a linocut by Chris Pig, reproduced in the collection. Here the writing is compelling with a light erotic touch.

Many of the poems mix mystery and narrative tension to hold a reader, The Consul’s Dog and The Ice Pond are particular favourites of mine. There is a well realised villanelle Circus Days which is more reflective in tone than most of its kind. Walking to the College of Criminal Justice stands out for its energy and love of life. Towards the end of the book are the poems wrote in response to her final illness. These poems are simpler and more direct than the rest of the collection. LL manages to find some of the same characters on the ward that she has found in other places, and provides a disturbing account of some of the careless treatment she received. In the last four poems Bloodsuckers, My Shadow Is Full of Roses, Morphine Queen, and Pacakage I think I can feel the poet bringing her sensibility to her new situation. Pacakage the final poem is mysterious, compelling and touching, and can stand up against any of the other poems in the collection.