Here it Comes

Alan Halsey and Kelvin Corcoran – Winterreisen (Knives, Forks and Spoons, 2019)

Last week a friend on Facebook was asking for definitions of the concept of ‘crisis’, for a piece of research.

She wanted the sociological roots, but I asked my go-to classicist and Deleuze translator – Robert Galeta – as I was suddenly interested to know the roots of the word crisis as well.

He said:

‘Crisis is from krinein, to separate, from two possible sanskrit roots meaning that.’

‘Occurs in Herodotus and the tragedians eg. a lost Sophocles play the judgement – krisis – of Paris. It is used about 150 years later by Hippocrates to mean a crisis or turning-point in a disease.’

Crisis as split is all over this book.

Crisis as split is coming out of a split personality. A 1-for-2 poetical bargain.

Would you strike a bargain with these two? Answer carefully now.

Halsey and Corcoran are two splitting into one. The weird, Hegelian, laughing gas logic of that could act as a key to this book.

They riff off each other, call-and-response style: …this is my mouth behind my mouth Corsey and/or Halcoran states.

But it isn’t some experimental indulgence. Halsey and Corcoran have form in yet another doubling way.

I can’t remember when or where I first read Halsey. But Corcoran I came across in Angel Exhaust. Number ten, I think.

I read the poem. It knocked me over.

These two are not messing around. Well, they kind of are, but… this kind of messing around isn’t messing around.

The strength of experienced poets can be seen in the fact that Halsey and Corcoran don’t need to raise a flag about the crisis.

Nothing is on their sleeve, not a button.

The crisis is in the structure of this book, the dates they use as sections do the work, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, now. Just using those numbers pins us all in like a moth in a case straight away.

They act as containers for words that are often so dangerously un-contained.

Up their sleeves be monsters.

Halsey and Corcoran do the only thing poets of genius – they really are – can do in the face of the new ‘geist’ and that is come on like some bad stand-up double act vomiting out ancient myths in the shape of contemporary news feeds:

‘Come on, get it all up now, you’ll feel a whole lot better.’

Morecambe and Wise start babbling and indulging in cannibalism. Ern eats Eric and becomes self-contemplating Zeus. It works as a joke and as a riddling course of education that could lead you to understand all sorts of arcana you might regret ever having put in your head.

You could take it as that, actually, look up all the references – lots of them I had to look up – and learn.

In fact you could live in this book. I am certainly going to live through the crisis in it.

Galeta has his own guidebook, Liddell and Scott. I started to see Halsey and Corcoran in some golfwear, sicking up a bit more of it all on the unfairway.

If this is a guide, then it is a kind of mad anti-guidebook to the chaotic swirl that is starting to pull us all off the floor.

All of us. If you don’t agree with me when I say that this work is completely in-geist then you haven’t been paying attention to what’s outside.

When you ingeist sometime you gotta just bring it all straight back up again.

Iain Duncan Smith becomes Guido Smith, becomes Guy Fawkes via the rightwing agent of chaos Paul Staines. Staines never appears, but does. Here be conjurors.

Similarly, as Ern eats Eric, one arm and head off, the other going in the bloody gob, Goya’s Saturn flashes up like a TV re-run. They don’t even have to mention it, there it is, and that’s the difference between really good poetry and a magical act.

This is a magical act.

It is also a musical act. Winterreise is of course a song-cycle by Schubert.

Its narrative slots right in, just through using its title. A wanderer, his love goes for someone else, he follows the river and finds the coal-burners, the crossroads, the cemetery, even death will not release him. The real wanderers are Halsey and Corcoran, drifting through war zones, a shattered London, to the moon and back.

Death will not release them.

Back in Winterreise a wrecked street musician appears, the ending is open. Later, Hendrix appears, on an ordinary bus. A warlock, make no mistake. Under all of that is all of the versions of all of those stories going back to Homer. Depth signification, sheer vertical parole.

But ‘winter’ signifies much more straightforwardly along the horizontal axis: I saw my first conker out of its shell today; here it comes.

‘Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer.’

And this book is just out.

Winter as winter 2019 and winter as end times.

This is not a King lamenting that he is loathed. It is the alchemical transmutation of the deep shit ordinary people have been cast into made gold.

The gold is the story fire made by the powder kegs of language they are all terrified of, those finks who are named here. Him, and that other one.

This is one of those rare books that makes you realise that your bestest most published poetry isn’t worth a single signifier inside the landscape of this work. You can’t trade it in for a comma.

You can’t even trade it in for one of their spaces.

You know that their spaces are different to ours, don’t you? They are not made by space bars. They can swallow you whole.

I tried to sneak my bestest most publishedest poetry in between ‘ceiling’ and ‘window’ at the bottom of page 33, but it just winked out of existence.

It seemed like a quiet moment, I thought I could get away with it.

There wasn’t even a tiny fart of posterity as it unbecame. Just gone.

It is vast.

One could get depressed. But these people are in the world doing the thing itself, so I don’t have to.

I get the book, I open it. It tells me about now and forever at the same time and it riddles how I might try to survive with mad practices. It makes me reach for resources I didn’t know I had, in books that I did.

But poets and their classical references. Sometimes, you know, it is ridiculous.

Around 2003 I worked on a new edition of a journal for someone. There had been a discussion about the name of it.

‘Classical’ names had been offered in the meeting at the university.

One working class academic scornfully objected.

‘Call it “Tossos”, Steve’, he said.

It was funny. I was just the layout boy. I said nothing. I laughed.

Poets sometimes drop in a thin classical reference, an ‘omphalos’ here, a poiein there.

You know when it’s a facile inclusion. You know it in your marrow. It makes you wince with embarrassment on someone else’s behalf.

But not here. Never here.

They trade these references like a game of crazy poker played with tarot, but they are standing in it as they do that, and they make you stand in it anew, in your existence in the world and the existence of all that human culture for three thousand years.

They are in it up to their crisping, singing eyebrows, because they smashed the pavement with each other’s hard skulls, but they didn’t find any sand under there. No no no.

None of that, not here, now’s not the time, it just isn’t…

They unleashed the word hoard under the concrete and it has ripped through them, and it will rip through you.

Halsey and Corcoran, in some parallel dimension, actually call it all ‘tossos’ and make the ancient world more serious, present and dangerous by doing so, rather than less.

But this doing isn’t phenomenological, it is epistemological. This is craft, they are monteurs. They are also witches, there is no difference.

Gove and Putin fry in this overheating pool. Hecate pulls them down. The cosmos begins to radiate new colours.

Universal and right now. Forever and today. Essential. You’re going to need this.

Just get it. It isn’t much money.

– Steve Hanson

Tapping on the Glass

Laura Scott – So Many Rooms (Carcanet, 2019)

There are moments in a poetry reader’s life when you wonder if what you are reading resembles in any way the readings other readers. Things that you are told are exceptional seem to hold little meaning for you. Meanwhile, things that truly astound you are met with puzzlement by others.

It’s easy to fall back on the platitude that “it’s all subjective”.

That’s why, when collections like Laura Scott’s So Many Rooms come along, we have cause to celebrate. For there can be no doubt at all that this is an exceptional piece of work.

Scott’s poem “If I Could Write Like Tolstoy” was the highlight of Michael Schmidt’s New Poetries VII. Here, it opens the collection, and is followed by a series of Tolstoy-inspired short pieces; each one capturing in miniature some facet of Tolstoy’s epic scale reflections.

Scott has the capacity to capture drama in a small number of words, neatly arranged. Her poetry, in this way, is the quintessence of poetry. Her clarity, concision and quiet ambiguity are yardsticks against which I find myself measuring other poets.

Highlights of the collection include “Mulberry Tree”, “Pigeon”, and “Espalier”; three minimal pieces that each use crystal clear description to open a moment to thought.

The longer poems – “The Thorn and the Grass”, “Cows”, and “Turner” especially – develop Scott’s clarity into more narrative modes. Admittedly, the word choices grow looser, but this gives the content more room to breathe, and also brings it closer to what we expect of sophisticated poetry.

This is Scott’s second pamphlet, after 2014’s What I Saw. It nevertheless has the feel of a debut collection. Its confidence and its consistency both suggest a poet who has arrived. She offers a comprehensive vision. We are watching a poet composing at the height of her powers.

Importantly, it is Scott’s style that differentiates her and defines her voice. Her themes are manifold and her subject matters move from the historical to the fantastic, from the folksy to the quotidian. Nature makes consistent appearances, but then this is poetry after all – and English poetry at that –so this should be no surprise. Her uses of nature are many. No simple pastorals, these.

Although Scott’s collection is short, 60 pages, it displays a tremendous range of poems. After reading it, you’ll feel like you’ve engaged with a major work. The shortness of her average poem’s length explains this in part. And yet, it is, in part, also her mastery of scale.

Scott manages, like Basho, to put big thoughts into small, very tidy boxes, then polish them off with a neat ribbon.

Kudos for this book seems to be rolling in already, so whether our recommendation here at the MRB counts for much I don’t know. Either way, if you like contemporary poetry, Laura Scott’s new collection is an absolute must-read. It’s not even September yet, but I suspect it might be my poetry book of the year.

– Joe Darlington