Words at the Workhouse

Paul Henry – The Glass Aisle (Seren, 2018)

I have not been back to the countryside for quite some time. Yet I live there. My imagination dwells in the woodlands. I wonder if this is an English condition.

Paul Henry’s new collection of poems, The Glass Aisle, displays a similar, landscape-bound, Welsh condition. They are poems about music and family and time which always pull back to the land, the trees and the rocky beaches. A veteran poet, Henry’s crisp verse feels like a monument. It is a solid thing, an achievement in itself, which marks still greater things gone quiet.

Henry combines the modernist image with a ruminative range of tones. Poems which leap to mind are ‘Brown Helen Reclining’, ‘Not Stopping’ and ‘Craiglais’. Each in their own way locate that magical space between vision and language that defines great Western poetry. Subject and object combine to create symbol.

The greatest poem of the collection is undoubtedly ‘The Glass Aisle’ itself. The titular image is of a canal in mid-winter. The frozen strip runs beside an old workhouse where the tenant’s names still hang in the air;

Will Solsbury, Miner, Somerset

Lizzie Lewis, Pauper, Llanelli…

From the start we find this old building caught up, tangled between modernity, history and the natural world. Our symbol is the stuck technician:

The line to the old workhouse is down.

The telegraph pole is caged in a tree,

The engineer wedged like a sacrifice

Inside the branch’s lattice-work.

From his height he can only hear the names of the dead, whispering from the workhouse, as the telephone line, dead also, refuses to speak.

There is an opacity to these set of images that keep them from becoming metaphor. To explain the poetry away you would have to bend and break it, or else you too will end up tangled in its tight-woven branches. Instead, the lines resonate. The words are loaded with a weight of symbolism that draws us down and away from clear explanations.

‘John Moonlight,’ the speaker later calls, ‘your name is fading from its bench’. Throughout the collection Henry calls out in direct address, sometimes to friends and sometimes, as here, to once living people he never knew. This is perhaps the bardic tradition speaking through Henry. The poet calls out to his community, weaving their names and words into the lattice of history…

John, if I may, whose laughter

Was writ in air,

Whose moment the sun engraves,

Who loved this view,

Something of your ecstasy survives.

The injection of words Henry has found in the world to the flow of words he conjures from the imagination adds life, also, to his reflections. The real world keeps him moving, stirs his energies. Again, this is a modernist lesson grafted on an older stem: the paths that Wordsworth reflected upon in tranquillity are walked by Henry in a flaneuriste mode.

Yet the lessons are maybe the same…

I cannot tell an owl

From a name on the wind,

The voices in the wire

From the voices in the leaves.

If poetry has a purpose, it is perhaps to show us once again those things we know so intimately. Our woods, our past, they keep speaking. The poet makes us new words for old music, or new music for old words. I feel like Paul Henry has achieved that here. These poems are a reconciliation.

– Joe Darlington

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The Folk folk

Peggy Seeger – First Time Ever: A Memoir (Faber & Faber)

A doe-eyed child holds a harmonica to their lips with two pudgy hands. A sombre looking man sits stiffly on a chair situated behind the child. He appears to be mid-strum of the guitar that he grasps. A lady clutching a dulcimer reclines on a couch positioned to the left of the man. The final figure in the black and white photograph is a mischievous looking boy wearing a beret. He is perched atop a wooden cabinet set at the centre-back of the gathering. His fingers are pressed to his lips. Perhaps they conceal a tiny instrument. Or perhaps he is biting his nails.

The doe-eyed child depicted in the image is celebrated folk singer and songwriter Peggy Seeger, aged two years old. The photograph, dated circa 1937, is the first photograph on the inserts of Seeger’s memoir First Time Ever.

Seeger’s childhood, she writes, was ‘steeped in music’.

The lady reclining in the image is Seeger’s mother, the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. The sombre looking man is Seeger’s father, the ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger. The little boy is Mike Seeger who will grow up to be a folk musician.

Section one of First Time Ever consists of Seeger’s whimsical, entertaining reminiscences of her early years in Chevy Chase, New York.

She describes one spring afternoon during which she was instructed by visitor Jackson Pollock to run across a canvas laid out on her front lawn. Her bare feet were first dipped in paint.

The canvas, Seeger believes, was later discarded.

Seeger writes in the foreword to ‘First Time Ever’ that her memoir is intended as a record of ‘what I think I was, what I believe I am’. Are such musings of interest to the reader?

Indeed they are.

Seeger, labelled ‘voice of experience’ in a profile by The Guardian writer Colin Irwin, is an excellent raconteur.

She recalls, for instance, her seasickness on a steamship voyage across the Atlantic, ‘There was a symphony of misery: tuba squawks of wood scraping wood, drum-drone of the engine, cello pizzicatos as dropped water bottles hit walls…’

Seeger describes milling about a theatre backroom shortly after moving to London in 1956. She spies, for the first time, her future musical and romantic partner the folk singer and songwriter Ewan Macoll. She remembers ‘his hairy, fat, naked belly poking out… The filthy lid of a stovepipe hat aslant like a garbage can’.

Seeger and Macoll’s romantic partnership is the source of much emotional turmoil detailed by Seeger in the memoir.

Their musical partnership was very productive. They wrote and recorded music prodigiously. Together with producer Charles Parker they created the acclaimed BBC radio series The Radio Ballads in the late 1950s.

Through the late 1950s and early 1960s they were regular players at The Ballad and Blues Club in London. Partly at the behest of an exasperated Seeger, a musical policy named The Policy was instituted at the venue. Performers were only permitted to play songs which came from their own cultural background.

Writer Rob Young refers to the Club as a ‘petty dictatorship, a microcosm of imagined musical purity and authenticity’’ in an article on English folk clubs published on The Guardian website.

Seeger makes an impassioned and heavily italicised defence of The Policy against accusations of snobbery in ‘First Time Ever’. She begins, ‘East London vowels don’t really fit with Lead Belly’.

Seeger was aged 83 the year the memoir was published. In a string of ominously titled closing chapters (‘Slow Express to Eternity’, ‘Last Time Ever’) she describes in a jovial tone the illnesses that have beset her in recent years.

‘Frequent, lengthy, audible, malodorous and dense beyond belief,’ she writes of her ‘gaseous emanations’.

Seeger presently lives in Oxford. She is married to folk singer Irene Pyper-Scott. She continues to perform music and she is a passionate social activist.

The most recently dated video of Seeger on Youtube is a clip from the January 2017 edition of the current affairs television programme ‘That’s Oxfordshire’.

Under stark studio lighting Seeger does battle with Oxford City Councillor Bob Price on the subject of a recently demolished Oxford swimming pool.

Seeger gives a formidable performance.

– Abby Kearney

Mapping the Conjuncture

Various – Stuart Hall, Conversations, Projects and Legacies (Goldsmiths Press)

John Akomfrah’s wonderful Stuart Hall Project endearingly shows how in love with the music of Miles Davis Stuart Hall was.

It isn’t a facile part of Hall’s biography, this. Think about it: Miles Davis is always identifiably ‘Miles’, during The Birth of the Cool period, in the fusion cauldron of Bitches Brew and Get Up With It, and playing ‘Time After Time’ in the 1980s. Miles Davis both reacted to and shaped the music of each period he lived through.

Similarly, Stuart Hall both reacted to and shaped the discourses of the times he lived through. In Britain, yes – although a diasporic Britain few could even see at the start of the New Left project – and via journal articles, books and teaching, rather than through music.

Equally, the archive Hall leaves us is as essential to take forward as that of Miles Davis, and as difficult to match, let alone better. The purpose of this book is a retrospective celebration of Hall’s work, coming out of the proceedings of the celebratory conference at Goldsmiths after Stuart Hall’s death.

Some of these articles were written to be spoken at that event, and that purpose juts out of the text a little. Some of the material has also been well-covered elsewhere, Hall’s relationship with the British new left for instance, but the best material here explains how the written work of Stuart Hall can be used in the moment we are in to allow us to diagnose it and try to do something about it. For that alone this book is essential.

This book is organised into sections: Part One, Cultural Studies, Multiple Legacies; Part Two, the Politics of Conjuncture; Part Three, Identities and the Redefinition of Politics; Part Four, Policy, Practice and Creativity; Part Five, the International Expansion and Extension of Cultural Studies and Part Six, the Intellectual Legacies of Policing the Crisis.

Paul’s widow Catherine provides the Afterword and there is an engaging set of introductions.

The first set of essays frame the context to an extent. James Curran, the great media theorist, explores Stuart Hall’s early work and shows how wilfully neglected it has been, as though all writers have to have some kind of initial period of development, which is always a priori to be dismissed, before we get round to the ‘serious later work’, it is not the case with Stuart Hall. Like Miles Davis, Hall was on it all the way through.

Part Two is the richest section in terms of the immediate present and future. The politics of conjuncture are precisely the things we need to revisit now, in 2018. John Clark’s analysis of Hall’s conjunctural methods contains precisely the suggestion that we turn back to them now.

But now we have an academic milieu which has drifted very far from this kind of work. We have, on the one hand, macro big data surveys grounded in a kind of neo-Kantianism, often instrumentalised work, and on the other hand the frayed remains of the erroneously named ‘post-structuralism’; the infra-analysis of cultural texts which seem to be sealed, which seem not to emerge from the real world, and I use the term ‘real’ in a general sociological sense here.

For Clarke and others, conjunctural analysis is difficult and requires collaboration, it depends ‘on the building and sustenance of various forms of collaboration’, which ‘were at the heart of the CCCS project’. It is, then, completely at odds with the individualistic and careerist trajectory of the neoliberal university and in it we might find a negation and way out of that impasse too.

Conjunctural analysis contains the need to ‘resist the temptations of various forms of lazy theoretical reductionism’, whether ‘in the modes of fundamentalist Marxism or technological determinism’, and to avoid falling ‘into the trap of believing that everything is necessarily predetermined’ and ‘recognise that our task is also to identify and pursue the specific forms of marginal, residual and emergent cultures’.

This last need of course emerges from Stuart’s friend the late Raymond Williams. Conjunctural analysis also tallies with some things in Jameson – cognitive mapping for instance – and in Neil Smith, David Harvey et al.

But this is Marxist analysis without the blinkers, as much as that is ever possible. It doesn’t contain the religious belief, nor the comfort of finding ‘out there’ the signs we are looking for, but it can show us what is assembled and where the tensions and contradictions lie.

Clarke argues that conjunctural analysis presents ‘the exact opposite of the dominant modalities produced by the contemporary pressures of academic institutional life.’ Pressures that ‘continually induce competitive forms of academic careerism, characteristically involving forms of self-promotion’, via which people maintain positions and progress.

Therefore ‘individuals must claim to have made ever more exciting and definitive intellectual breakthroughs’. We can see the arrogant new orthodoxies being hastily pushed through conferences now, ‘Metamodernism’, ‘the new depthiness’, both of which are not just ‘meta’ but entirely orbital. There is no new depth here, only the old thinness of postmodernity rebranded.

Stuart Hall’s project of conjunctural analysis outlines that macro research should be rooted in the multiple realities of the nationstate, in politics, in capitalism, in the masses, in the movement of people across borders, and of course now in the resistance of the movement of people across borders. Here also lies the crucial importance of this book to the future.

Tony Jefferson’s contribution, ‘Race, Immigration and the Present Conjuncture’ sutures those conjunctural methods to Britain’s contemporary moment of Brexit via a great reading of Shane Meadows’ film This is England. Jefferson describes how racism shapeshifts into different forms, how we can never find the pure racist anymore than we can find the pure outsider or the pure alien.

Part Six, then, The Intellectual Legacies of Policing the Crisis, is one sole essay – by Angela Davis no less – who argues that Hall’s book Policing the Crisis should be applied to America. I tend to think that America’s race situation and its policing is in fact much more pronounced and severe than in Britain – even with the vile racist nicks in London and elsewhere proceeding relatively unchallenged – and therefore it might be the other way around. This demonstrates just how powerful and influential Hall’s work has been. It was often rooted in a hybrid sense of Britain, but it has projected out, way beyond its own original context.

Again, Stuart Hall both reacted to and shaped the discourses of the times he lived through, but his work will also continue to shape those discourses into the future, and in that we can find some much-needed sustenance and purpose.

– Steve Hanson

Of Means and Endings

Megan Hunter – The End We Start From (Picador, 2017)

I want to tell you about a book. I liked reading it and I think that you, too, would like reading it. Where do I start? I tell you its genre: it’s about an apocalypse. What type? A flood. And who’s the protagonist? A mother of a newborn son… so I suppose you could say it’s about motherhood too.

But already I feel worried, and guilty. A book recommendation is a dangerous thing. I am asking to take hours of your life from you, asking you to spend them reading sentence after sentence. There are some great lines, I clarify. It is short, I add. But there are so many other things you might be doing. So many things that don’t involve reading.

The book I am describing is The End We Start From; the 2017 debut of author and poet Megan Hunter. It is, as I say, a novel about a new mother navigating Britain after an apocalyptic flood. Society has collapsed, refugee camps abound and our hero, with her son ‘Z’, must entrust themselves to a shifting array of men, women and officials as they wait for a new normality to return.

The most fascinating aspect of Hunter’s work, however, is not so much the story as the way it is constructed. The narrative is communicated through tiny paragraphs, mostly between one or two sentences in length. The characters’ names are single letters: S, J, N, R, G. There is very little by way of description and no speech. There is, nevertheless, a full plot and, within those tiny paragraphs, many moments of pure, sweet imagery.

It is the reading equivalent of Ian Simpson’s architecture: the structure is there, you can see its shape, but instead of bricks and mortar there is a wall of glass.

And, as with glass and steel, Hunter’s prose represents a response to twenty-first century technology; a kind of minimalist ornament. The novel might be a quick read (I got through it in a single afternoon) but it is not a fast read. One lingers on the imagery. All that white space on the page is there to promote reverie and reflection. Faced with the impatience of the modern reader, Hunter has bartered a small wordcount for high rate of impact-per-word. This promises a new route for the stylist. A baroque in miniature.

What we lose in Hunter’s writing is the rhythmical journey. For characters defined by their wandering, our protagonists nevertheless seem to exist in an eternal present. There is no space in the narrative for their hopes or their regrets, for mundane conversations or the details of setting. Perhaps these elements have been usurped by visual mediums? What is left for literature, Hunter’s writing seems to suggest, is the allusive detail and the perfect sentence… the stylistics which have become our substance. But then, the story tells itself in a moving way – so perhaps these hesitancies are unwarranted.

The End We Start From is an intriguing prospect. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in contemporary writing. To writers I’d recommend it for its innovations, for readers I’d recommend it for its pace. More than anything I’d recommend it because it’s easy to recommend. It is a fundamentally recommendable book.

– Joe Darlington

Go northern global…

Various – Poets and the Algerian War (edited by Francis Combes, translated by Alan Dent)
Francis Combes – If The Symptoms Persist
Ishaq Imruh Bakari – Without Passport or Apology (all Smokestack Books)

Smokestack Books have been quietly putting out a roster of writers for some time now which can easily face those of more well-known poetry publishers such as Bloodaxe and Carcanet. But Smokestack are little known and there is an injustice in that.

I didn’t know about them until I took a trip to Mima in the northeast, one of the most exciting galleries in the country right now, and one which stocks their titles.

One thing I love about Smokestack editions is that they come out of the north of England, but are determinedly international in their interests. Francis Combes edits Poets and the Algerian War, which includes Louis Aragon, Jacques Guacheron and others. It is a ragingly eloquent collection, historical, yes, but just as applicable to Syria and the post-Arab Spring conflict zones now as the poems were to France’s war in Algeria.

For someone who has published a book of conversations with Henri Lefebvre, Francis Combes’ own anthology is very accessible. If The Symptoms Persist bears a cover photograph of a homeless man on his knees, hungry, half a paper cup put out for spare change. The rucksack and modern clothing can no longer disguise the fact that the same situation that was present in the 18th and 19th century is with us again, and that this is where liberalism – the great dream of that age – leads.

The poems themselves are humorous, straightforward, engaging, entertaining even, although the homeless flash up within them time and time again. The lady cleaning herself by the side of the road – there are glimpses all over Paris – the intimate details humanise these victims of laissez faire and a blasé state, they show you that they are us and we are them. The poems fizz with anti-capitalist sentiment too, but always with a sense of humour, a spirit that we can crack this blank grey wall of indifference with language, and with simple language.

Without Passport or Apology is an excellent new anthology of poems by Ishaq Imruh Bakari. This volume contains poems for Stuart Hall, Marcus Garvey, Louis Farrakhan, Shake Keane and Courtney Pine. The story of African and Carribean migration is never far away, but there are also meditations on London in 2011, riots and trouble, vignettes.

This is just a slice of the publisher’s catalogue, there is much more great work being put out: Smokestack Books deserve our interest and support.

– Steve Hanson

http://www.smokestack-books.co.uk