Words in White

James Harpur – The White Silhouette (Carcanet, 2018)

In the beginning was the Word; presumably a totality, and indivisible. Somewhere along the way it grew plural, and there’s been trouble ever since.

To the poets we have left the job of guiding us back to the One Big Word, although they have only its shattered remnants, the plural mess of verbiage, to work with. These little wordy things that point at objects and ideas can, if properly arranged, also point us beyond the material. It’s the job of all poetry, but spiritual poetry in particular.

James Harpur’s new collection, The White Silhouette, is a triumph of spiritual word-wielding. It is a mix of shorter, stand-alone pieces and two longer thematically-grouped suites: one about iconoclasm, one responding to the Book of Kells. All of them feature a delicacy of expression suited to the description of sensations ineffable;

Each poem is a coloured flare

A distress signal, an outflowing

Of myself, a camouflaged prayer

Dispatched towards the Cloud of Unknowing

The reference to the classic work of Middle English mysticism is particularly suitable. Just as the author of the Cloud was deeply skeptical of the blabrying fleshly tonge and its ability to talk of God, so Harpur seems to doubt humanity’s capacity for expressing things divine.

His narrative poem in response to the Book of Kells is obsessed with interpretation. The speaker travels to the place of its writing, to museums and finally to the British Library, all in hope of a divine encounter. Instead he finds the “bifurcated Kells / exhibited like musty lung / beneath glass – for glazed eyes”. A thing lacking immediacy. An object he must seek out, even as it sits before him.

We see the monks who first illuminated the Kells; their “vision opened by prayer”, expressing God in “each circle, arc and interlace”. The monks seem capable of clearer vision, of a simpler, perhaps more direct relationship to language. “Imagination is nothing but the recollection of the holy,” we are told. The aphorism puncturing ambiguous imagery like a sharp shock.

The same can be said of place names. Monaco, its “apartment blocks surg[ing] seaward / in a permanent standing ovation,” is a solid place to which the speaker of the Kells cycle can return. The masterpiece that opens the collection, “The Journey East”, is a pilgrimage through such solid place names. The landscape transformed by metaphor as the towns within are fixed in place.

The rhythm of Harpur’s lines are so masterfully controlled, one is borne along on his voice; calm, careful, and always drifting. Within this voice are variations. The Kells poems are suitably ornate. The poems about iconoclasm are suitably austere. The whole is tied together by a grace and humility that invites the reader to contemplate the space between words. Holy or not, these are poems for the spirit.

– Joe Darlington

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The dog-house of language

Gareth Twose – Psychodography (Leafe Press)

What’s the deal with language Gareth Twose asks in his new poetry collection from Leafe Press Psychodography. What can words do? What can’t they do? How is language changing? What are the forces effecting that change? Questions put by Twose to, not just the reader, but – as well – to an assortment of political leaders and pop-cultural figures and, with greatest frequency, the unnamed pet dog who accompanies Twose on his twisting and turning route through language across the pages of this new book.

Words are all we have to interpret and make sense of the world Twose understands, a physical world, in this case, of woods and fields that he and his four-legged companion freewheel through at often verging on the delirious speeds: who’s leading who here, though, the reader wonders – is owner leading dog or vice versa? And where, exactly, are we the reader being led in such haste? What will our eventual destination be and will we recognise ourselves when we get there?

Pace is key: the manner in which the book dashes by put me in mind of the small dog at the heart of things bounding off, following some mysterious scent or other. Frequently, as well, the text that I was reading – in as much as how words blur into other words, get tangled up so that they become semi, but not quite, incoherent, or else become new words altogether – seemed to me like some kind of objectification of thought: Twose’s language racing to keep up with, not just his dog, but, as well, the speed of his own mind. So faithful to the movement and rhythms of thought in the abstract do these pages seem that, at times, I’d find myself wondering if Twose had succeeded in achieving this affect by flipping the top of his head open to take an imprint upon the page of all that was going on inside rather than by the perhaps more traditional route of simply trying to transcribe his thoughts and ideas.

A head populated by, amongst others, Donald Trump – who repeatedly crops up in these pages – Theresa May and ‘angular merkleness’; each dancing/facing off to the strains of Nancy Sinatra and Siouxsie Soux tunes while the opening lines to old Boney M songs get misremembered by everyone present to become ‘by the rivers of Medlock’ continuing on to usher in a very funny and original Elizabeth Smart allusion.

Smart being not, though, by any means, the last of the literary references contained in Psychodography as, later, the opening to Part 4 with its ‘rriver shearned and malearned in front of you . . . yes there was a gurn in the riveroo, but a re-furn in another parallel flivver’ seemed to me to be something more than a mere nod to the Joyce of Finnegan’s Wake. Though, re-reading those lines I’m wondering now if perhaps Twose was maybe just pulled by his walking companion into the path of an out of control Deliveroo courier and decided to reference the incident in his poetry?

A poetry thrilled by the possibilities for growth and development that the online world and social media represents for language – reading, I couldn’t help but find myself imagining excitedly James Joyce’s Tweets and Facebook updates. Twose understands only too well how language must morph and change in order to survive, indeed, a case could quite easily be made that it’s Twose and his peers who are at the fore-front of taking language where it needs to go. Not for him any grey-faced concern with preserving language as it’s meant to be used or whatever.

Understood as well by Twose is just how fascinating are the possibilities of language to make and then remake the world. In these pages, as well, though, we see Twose wondering how the world must seem to a being without words: to his dog. What do we gain from language? What do we lose by our reliance on words? Towards the end of this collection we come to feel that Twose is slowly beginning to conceptualise for himself a new way of being in the world, a perhaps freer, more unconstrained way of existing. The journey into and around language that he and his companion have undertaken seems to have changed him somehow. How will we, as readers, be changed ourselves by the reading of this fantastic collection?

– Richard Barrett 

Should a stranger arrive

Various – Wretched Strangers (eds. J.T. Welsch and Agnes Lehoczky, Boiler House Press)

‘Should a stranger arrive, who speaks in a language sounding a bit like a whinnying mare, or a chirruping blackbird, or even a grinding saw that threatens to slice whatever comes near… Should a stranger arrive disturbing the dog and maybe also the rats and it’s winter – give him warm clothes. It could be that his feet are on fire underneath. Say he’s been riding a comet. Therefore don’t blame him if then your poor carpet complains. A refugee carries his home in his arms like an orphan for whom he perhaps needs no more than a grave…’

– Nelly Sachs, translated by Andrew Shanks

This poetry collection, published by UEAs Boiler House Press, is an outstanding contribution to the literature of our time. By ‘our time’ I mean the early millennial period of upheaval, middle eastern war and migration, and our current hideous swing towards populist rightwing demagogues. In Britain, the island has been very seriously torn down the middle by something with a comical name, ‘Brexit’.

One of the key debates following the EU referendum results centred on whether or not Brexit was the ‘revolt of the dispossessed’, a post-industrial rebellion against mainstream politics, bound up with whiteness and identity, racism and resentment, whether Brexit was a generational schism, or a rural revolt against urban cosmopolitanism viewed to operate with disproportionate powers to the small-scale, the regional and the local.

However, the way the referendum results map onto English-identifying citizens suggests that xenophobia was and is present. The spike in hate crimes after the results say it plain. Unfortunately, racism is part of this picture and some of that is definitely coming out of disenfranchised post-industrial places.

Yasmin Gunaratnam et al (2017) began a collaborative analysis of the ‘Go Home vans’ which – as Mark Rainey explains-  ‘were driven around six London boroughs carrying billboards that read, “In the UK Illegally? Go Home or Face Arrest.”‘ The text ‘was accompanied by an image of handcuffs.’

‘The moment of the Go Home van seemed to us to be a turning point in the climate of immigration debates – a ratcheting up of anti-migrant feeling to the point where it was possible for a government-sponsored advertisement to use the same hate speech rhetoric as far-right racists.’ (Gunaratnam et al 2017).

Rainey explains that tabloidesque phrases such as ‘Go Home’ are not just ‘located on government-sponsored billboards’ but ‘are part and parcel of a historic and ongoing racist discourse.’ Here there is ‘no clear separation between official discourse and everyday racism.’

Rainey’s own work with stateless migrants underscores any request for the full complexity of any situation to be at the surface. Rainey found in his own research that:

‘The destitute men I was spending time with in Manchester sometimes spoke out against benefits claimants who were seen as lazy and spending their money on drugs and alcohol, while also occasionally complaining about other refugees, who were seen as liars who falsified their claims and took the place of those who had been wrongfully rejected. The deserving and underserving distinction is seemingly all pervasive.’

For him, all of this ‘is the product of long-standing anti-immigrant rhetoric and a neoliberal economic and social frame that holds individuals responsible for poverty and inequality rather than institutions and structures.’ The best work in this volume, Wretched Strangers, speaks to that messy, unclear place, where the truth bends like light through a prism because the subject is caught in it, is unable to stand outside it.

In Wretched Strangers, Rachel Blu Dupleiss’s Draft 112: Verge is an extremely powerful polemic regarding – among many other things – the lack of meaningful communication in a world saturated by communication devices. Spivak’s subaltern other is here.

But there are the places in this book where it also becomes clear how poetry can cut to the chase in a way that prose or a research file cannot. It can bring you closer to the real, how it feels, its sweaty, compromised, bleak grey intensities, by making things feel less real. For Derrida – whom Spivak translated – language was the place where things could happen.

The greatest example of this is perhaps Ghazal Mosadeq’s ‘Time Is Of the Essence’, which really gets into the migrant soul – or psyche – the helicopter airlift in the living room, the sea in the living room, nothing is walled off from the experience of total uprooting, nobody and nothing is stable, even in the places where stability is temporarily offered.

James Byrne and Sandeep Parmar’s ‘Myth of the Savage Tribes, Myth of Civilised Nations’ really fuses the history of imperialism and racism with the up-to-date and the near: A visceral raging series of blocks of verse; Prince Phillip watching a native dance, torture, everyday racist commentary on television, Uncle Tom songs, they all build into an utterly damning image of the white western world over hundreds of years.

Fawzi Karim’s excerpt from the Empty Quarter shows the joys and the pains of the migrant city, and the migrant voice – a familiar place rendered unfamiliar to the reader. Khairani Barokka writes of ‘doctors inspecting our bodies as curios’ and ‘laws stamping ancient wisdom as buffoonery’, of ‘languages earmarked for oral extinction’ and ‘ships bearing rape marks on the stern…’

Barokka writes out:

‘bruised boys, labour that made your
sheeted beds, laid down your cobblestones…’

And then:

‘re-taxonomised and thefted ojects de vertue…’

Between these lines lie the sheer abrasive tensions between the collectors of ‘curios’ and their market values and the simultaneous denigration of ‘the primitive’. Don’t forget that one of the centres of Nazi power in Berlin was very close to the museum of ethnography. Not only did its existence not stop anything, but its bad epistemologies aided racism and then genocide. The great power of the work in this volume is often due to the conjunction of the history of imperialism – and its horrors – alongside contemporary migration. Barokka again:

‘incineration of communal safety; a quietude now
when the boats come in with their last-hour eyes
for whom this beacon continent disappears with
raging engulfment, above the waves that built it.’

However, Monika Genova shows the other side we must not forget and that is how hope is always tangled up with the messiness and sinister forces:

‘Beyond the fear and the exhaustion
my dream is right there, waiting…’

How the fragility of the human body is overcome by a robust tenacity:

‘There is really no other way to find out
How much weight my bones can carry
I only have this fragile human body
To make my mortal life extraordinary…’

Kapka Kassabova’s piece is extremely moving. The details shift the emotions somehow, an elastic band around a wad is all that is required to make the place come alive:

‘I pretended it was no big deal to see smugglers sealing deadly deals with the already-robbed of this world by robbing them further. The money came in bundles tied with elastic bands, in exchange for the promise of a lorry ride across the border…’

Ethel Maqueda’s piece ‘Mushrooms for my Mother’ is similarly potent. These two pieces are prose-poems and suggest that form as a very apt vehicle for this subject. But taken as a whole this book should act as a wake-up call for those still slumbering, that the rise of fascism is real and the dangers clear.

More recently, Les Back and Shamser Sinha have described how until recently ‘the question of the “Windrush Generation” was considered resolved.’ The people:

‘…who sailed from the Caribbean to Britain 70 years ago were not migrants. Rather, they were citizens returning to the Empire’s motherland. As the UK cut its ties with former colonies, they were made first into “immigrants”, and then “ethnic minorities”’

This scandal, they say, is ‘indicative of a long-term trend to stem postcolonial movement.’

The thing is, racism is everyday and the power that polices the ‘alien’ body has seeped into all layers of society:

‘Checks no longer only happen at Heathrow or Calais when we fumble for the passport in our bags. Rather, border control is being in-sourced. Landlords, doctors, health visitors, teachers, university lecturers and more are all being asked to pass on information, through monitoring student attendance or documenting home visits. Willingly or not, they are enlisted as affiliates of border control, which is is moving into the heart of our social and professional life.’

Poetry – so often dismissed as fluff in an ani-intellectual and utilitarian England – can get to this place where everyone is complicit, although only those considered ‘alien’ are implicit.

This book, then, is essential, because it gives a series of views from outside this emerging ‘natural, naturalised and not’ taxonomy. You already know it, you already feel it; how many times do you produce your passport now? When going for jobs it is often routine to copy the passports of all the interviewees. I have mine in my bag a lot these days, I never used to.

Here, Aodan McCardle makes good use of that world of filing and stamping. He employs the redaction in his contribution, the black line through an official document, and Stephen Mooney uses the official form answer box. These pieces sing of censorship and the reduction of a complex needful human being to the brute grids of officialdom they are forced down, just by including these ciphers. They have taken form literally as in ‘forms’.

There is beauty here, though, even if it is properly sublime. Luna Montenegro’s ‘Everything in the universe is moving in this (in)exact second’, a poem for several voices, using just that text, shows the bigger truth, that we live in a massive explosion and it isn’t going to stop for anyone. An essential book.

– Steve Hanson

The Boy From Hell

Rimbaud – Illuminations (Carcanet, 2018, trans., John Ashbery)

Seth Whidden – Arthur Rimbaud (Reaktion, 2018)

Rimbaud’s Illuminations crashes through the dead wood of its epoch as Baudelaire’s work did, a figure the young poet Rimbaud worshipped as the great seer of modern poetry.

And Rimbaud will only ever be young, he has become a cipher for the beautiful damned youth, too fast to live, too young to die, burning out before fulfilling.

But Seth Whidden’s biography of Rimbaud also impressively chops away some of the myths and clichés that have grown up around Rimbaud’s life like strangling ivy. Rimbaud, who wrote of new urban heavens and hells, sounds like an absolute bloody nightmare.

He was utterly brilliant too, of course, mastering the history of poetry as a schoolboy and then rejecting its slow, traditional and bourgeois forms.

Etienne Carjat destroyed the negatives and remaining prints of the now-iconic portrait of Rimbaud after an altercation with the maniacal youth one evening in Paris. Lucky for us, prints survived elsewhere. The Henri Fantin-Latour painting Un Coin de Table (A Corner of the Table) observes Rimbaud on the very same evening of the spat with Carjat and others.

I was fairly familiar with this painting, but after reading Whidden’s biography, I can now only see an evil brat where I once saw a slightly aloof cherub.

Verlaine too, Rimbaud’s lover, gripped by absinthe mania, is rumoured to have thrown his child against the wall and attacked his wife, eventually imploding into piousness. Before seeking redemption, Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist during a heated argument.

Eventually, nobody would speak to Rimbaud. He kept leaving his stuffy rural home for Paris, only to fly back there as it spat him out yet again.

The account of Rimbaud and Verlaine in London is fascinating, drinking in Soho, followed by the secret police, getting to know the routes and leylines of London we still experience: ‘Monstrous city, endless night!’

Rimbaud stopped writing poetry and headed off to sell in the European Imperial adventure. This may or may not have included guns, and if you want the picture under the clichés – ‘gun runner’ flashes up elsewhere as though it’s a solid fact – Whidden’s biography is the place to go. It’s an impressive piece of work, it manages to be scholarly, thrilling and sober in one. Not easy.

The late great poet John Ashbery learned French precisely to read Rimbaud’s Illuminations after reading it first in English in the 1940s. He then translated it again and Carcanet have put his edition out for some time, only now they have re-issued it with a smart new cover as part of their brilliant classics range.

It takes a little immersion to really get Illuminations, you need some context to understand just how radical the work is. What is explained as utterly modern, can in fact seem very old to us now, particularly if you are new to nineteenth century modernism. The same goes for Manet’s painting and Baudelaire himself.

Certainly, there would be no Bob Dylan without Rimbaud, that bizarre burlesque of an environment where reality seems to have been turned off – the first full experience of the modern city – is originally present in Illuminations.

But this little volume is the best way to take it on, and paired with Whidden’s biography, also released this year, it’s possible to really feel the spirit of the Rimbaud carnival. The alienation and togetherness of the city, its pleasures and hells, are one for the first time in a dreamlike scalding of the senses.

Ashbery’s translation comes in the French with the English translation opposite, to allow us to shuttle between the two. MRB recommends a double purchase here: Read these books simultaneously, but stay off the Absinthe, eh?

– Steve Hanson

Cadenza

Scott Thurston, We Must Betray Our Potential (Red Ceilings Press, 2018)

Where exactly does poetry happen? On the page, stamped in with the ink? Maybe it lives in the wrists, or somewhere in the fingertips where notes are also stored to be released by guitar or flute. Maybe it’s “all subjective”… whatever that means.

Scott Thurston’s latest collection, We Must Betray Our Potential, is the product of a long exploration of poetry and movement. In particular, the art of modern dance. That gestural, ephemeral, suggestive form that can signify everything or nothing, depending on the viewer seems a natural partner for poetry, and yet work in this area is still rare, or undeveloped.

Poetry and dance both seem to emanate from somewhere deeply internal. Yet they both also depend upon a conscious cultivation of skill through long and rigorous training. Both embody art’s great contradiction. Natured nurture, nurtured nature.

Thurston’s poetry realises this. It holds a residue of movement in its eminently careful poetics:

the way you hold

in the biceps

that idea in your

spine letter number

head turns your

left achilles tendon

can’t look at

the sore city

without seeing ghosts

sunlit patch in the

wood with mazy

points

There is something reminiscent of Japanese calligraphic poetry in these brittle little columns of words. The kind of poetry in which the inscription is itself part of the form. Writing is cultivated as a movement as well as a semantic declaration. Both the written and its writing signify together.

These narrow columns are separated by justified blocks of prose-poetry. More descriptive; the solid blocks of text let us into the reflective process of dancing poetry. Muscles and bone are felt, as solid as practice rooms and views of the city. Politics too incurs, impressing on the world that impresses on the body. The collection’s title is one such reflection.

There then follows a second section that reminds me of cut-up poetry. The interplay of prose-poetry blocks and poetic columns is replaced by small bars of wordflow. They sit in the middle of each page like square stamps.

trade didn’t land setting mimesis

working blocked from circles in

alignment the small medicine body

My word processor won’t allow me to justify the text as neatly as it appears in the book itself. Imagine a rectangle of words. They seem to have landed in a perfect alignment, fresh from some movement invisible now to the reader. We aren’t present for the dance itself, but these are undeniably traces of a critical impact.

As with a carefully choreographed but experimental dance piece, there are moments in Thurston’s collection which strike the reader as opaque. I, for one, desired at times an explanation. But then I’d encounter a perfect little fragment – “I have hurt my arm; torn-open throat, lingua unfolded” – and be reminded that the pleasure here is in the impalpable spaces. The discernible moments within the indiscernible. Flickers of sublimity.

It’s a book that provokes, and rewards numerous readings. Red Ceilings Press have done an excellent job of presenting the work. As an object it is a perfect-bound little pocket-sized enigma that I found myself carrying around in a jacket pocket and bringing out in a snatched moment. New parts leapt out every time.

This collection feels like it’s something alive and, although the end of a long journey for the writer, it also seems like a changing thing for the reader. A thing of movement. I find it moves me. I find I am moving now, and I like it.

– Joe Darlington

Not the Same Old Old

Gaius Valerius Catullus – The Book of Catullus (Carcanet, trans., Simon Smith)
Sextus Propertius – Poems (Carcanet, trans., Patrick Worsnip)

This Catullus translation, by Simon Smith, is incredible. It moves the material right out of the romanticised eroticism of the Roman love poets and into the real, colourful but dirty world of the Romans.

Catullus bangs on about who he’s fucking, animal, vegetable, mineral. It is very direct and the translation amplifies that directness by making it scan for our own time.

Here we have a world where for some the post- of gender was never a question, as long as they could get up it like a rat in a lead Roman bath house pipe.

But the raw sex is often a metaphor for swindling, monetarily, or in terms of reputation:

Oh Memmius, you really fucked me over,
buggered me completely and without concern.
So, the pair of you are stuck, as I see it,
long suffering a similar giant prick,
shafted.

Propertius rubbed up against Octavian – later Caesar Augustus – for rejecting marriage in verse. Ovid would be exiled by Augustus later.

Augustus switched to the old ‘family values’ rhetoric to try to make Rome respectable again. Propertius celebrated Cleopatra, where Augustus wanted that episode to be as over as Anthony: The Tories are much older than the Tories, you know.

A band I admire greatly, Bablicon, recorded a track called ‘Augustus Syphilis’, it plays in my head now.

I have no idea why I feel the need to leave that incidental thought in this review, but I do. And there it is. You could translate it as ‘AIDS to Family Values’.

The Catullus in this translation comes on as just as punk as that:

Nob of Knobs fucks. Fucking nob of knobs? That’s for sure
  the saying goes: If the roof fits, pot it.

Congratulations are due to Simon Smith. But despite surface similarities and a shared epoch, Catullus and Propertius are like oil and vinegar. The former accessible, the latter completely hidden under multiple masks.

Propertius provided a surface that has a very strange relationship with the self of the poet, and the audience – in any time – and rhetoric. It is now viewed as an almost ironic postmodern discourse, but that’s far too facile a reading.

Most people will know the name of Propertius via Ezra Pound’s ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’, after which come a thousand thoroughly overcooked debates.

I’m not going to get into whether Pound’s translation is sloppy or modernist genius again, but this volume of Propertius shows how appropriate it was for Pound to pick Propertius, and not, say, Catullus.

The ‘I’ in Propertius is already completely unstable, it only takes a little push for it to crumble and slide down the hill. Pound was not just freely daubing the substance of an old masterpiece, he targeted that substance – honed in on it – and amplified it.

I would recommend getting both these books and reading them simultaneously. Together they provide a great lesson in different modes of poetical discourse, different approaches to translation, and a rich meditation on what it is to be – or not to be – contemporary.

But I have long held the opinion that today’s polite littérateurs are so inappropriate in their mode of discourse that they could be considered mentally unstable.

In these two poets – and in Smith’s translation – we might find two opposing rhetorical strategies via which we might begin all over again, in 2018. I believe it is possible to fuse them together proceed.

– Steve Hanson

Some Old Modern (part one)

William Carlos Williams – Collected Poems Volume 1: 1909-1939 (Carcanet)

William C. Williams. It’s a name to ponder. There’s a Sociologist called Mike Michael. Either he was named Michael Michael, or he changed it by deed poll.

Both explanations seem equally strange, but in a time when the lid of naming has blown off to the skies, just mentioning this feels old-fashioned.

It is the name of a poet though, William Carlos Williams, it is already formal, W-C-Ws.

Mirrored, singular in the first instance, plural in the second. This is appropriate, as Williams worked steadily up to 1939, at which point he broke through into a different version of the same poet.

There are two Williams’ existing at either side of the break, although this book gives the lie to that story somewhat, a story that clusters around the publication of Paterson after the war.

The key dimension of this book then is not the content – although the importance of that content for poetry cannot be understated – but the linear development of Williams’ craft.

If even mentioning the double Williams feels old-fashioned, prepare yourself for his very first published poems. Here is a taste:

O, prayers in the dark!
O, incense to Poseidon!
Calm in Atlantis.

Hmm. But Williams’ trajectory goes upwards quite steadily. Unlike, say Ginsberg, who admired Williams greatly, the development seems gradual for much of the climb.

Ginsberg’s Collected Poems tick over for a short while, then explode into time and space.

These poems move across thirty years of intensive testing and experiment, the development of craft, to a form that will displace Poseidon’s fishy vapour forever.

At the end of this phase the ground is then cleared for Ginsberg – whom he mentored – and other American poets to follow.

When the grand romantic themes are gone, imagism falls into place: Words deployed as a painter might. His second book was published in London, with assistance from Ezra Pound.

Across the many pages (579+) the evidence for Williams’ questing, testing, consolidating and rejecting intelligence is laid out and proven. Carcanet put the poems and books back in order of publication for this volume, rejecting Williams’ own revised 1951 collected early poems, in order to place the emphasis on his development as an artist.

It might be tempting to play down this volume, focusing on the Williams that comes after the break, like Coltrane after Love Supreme. But there is a very rich seam of poetry in this period, although I do gravitate to the latter stages of this volume.

The Descent of Winter, 1928, is worth the price of the volume alone. It is still unexploded, a powerful seam of poetic energy and form. It switches between prose and verse, the critical, poetic and fiction voices mesh.

The numbering alone is genius. A simultaneously short and vast masterpiece, like modernity itself, a painterly work full of dazzling grey light. It is under-explored and exemplary.

A section switches, like a rail, to ‘freight cars in the air’. In the air?! Those heavy things? But modernity was experienced on many levels, below your feet, above your head, and as light, a giddy gas high.

It calls in all the other work pushing at the edges from the decade before it, Cendrars, with his Profound Today from just five years before it, teeth replaced with the clacking typewriter, the roads and rails leave the ground and head into space.

I have no idea if Williams’ read Cendrars’ Profound Today, a Williams scholar might know, but they are in the same zone, and of Zone by Apollinaire, and those who know those pieces will know that is high praise.

Williams’ Introduction to The Descent of Winter comes in the middle. Like a cubist painting, it takes all the angles and recombines them in a kind of Rorschach blot.

Then at the end he proclaims that ‘There are no sagas now – only animals, engines: There’s that.’ Note the lack of trees.

This section seems like a final rejection of the conjuring of the gods in his first published work too, and that should give hope to all budding poets, although in its time it might be seen as a harbinger of the horror to come.

Read, look and learn. This is an essential book for anyone who is serious about poetry.

– Steve Hanson

A Christian Mingle

Patricia Lockwood – Priestdaddy (Penguin, 2018)

I must begin this review with an admission of bias. I believe in the gospel of Lockwood. I have accepted her as my personal Lord and rhymester.

Reading her first collection, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black (2012), was what first allowed me to write proper poems, and to judge what good modern poetry was. Before then, my literature degree had me peering up a high mountain with Milton waving down from the top. Those poems span me around and showed me how the rest of the world is poetry too.

Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (2014) was when Lockwood really arrived. It was the breakthrough album, complete with a hit single, “Rape Joke”, which went viral in the summer of 2017. I became a minor Patricia Lockwood lending library that summer, trying to gain converts by butting into every conversation and waving pamphlets.

Thanks to amazon-related bungling I missed the opportunity to review Lockwood’s 2017 memoir, Priestdaddy, before its release. Now that a new paperback edition has just been released by Penguin I finally have my chance to pass off a glowing review as objective reportage. (Perhaps I’ve already blown my cover…)

Priestdaddy is a memoir dealing with Lockwood’s eccentric family, her love of language, and her relationship with the Catholic Church. Her father, she tells us, watched The Exorcist one too many times while on a submarine patrol in the Navy, fell down some stairs and saw God. First becoming a Lutheran minister, he would marry and have five children before converting to Catholicism. For those curious, that’s how you end up having a Father for a father.

The way Lockwood describes her father is in keeping with her poetic style. She exaggerates for comic effect, emphasising his guitar noodling and penchant for clotheslessness to a cartoonish extent, only for her then to surprise the reader with touching moments of parental care and his dedication to the priesthood. Waking at 3am to help people in trouble, supporting his family through their various trials, having the Last Rights Kit hanging by the door, always ready; you get the sense of her father being a good man, albeit one who is an enemy to trousers.

The supporting cast overall is strong. You grow to love her paranoiac mother with pro-life coathangers in her dresser (“The Midwest, contrary to popular opinion, does not lack a sense of irony. It might have too much of one”). Jason, her husband, plays the role of baffled outsider well, although there’s not a huge amount of their story in the book. Lockwood is much happier telling the story of how she lost her virginity to a swimming pool than she is in dealing with her own romances. One could be forgiven for thinking she only married him because he wrote the line “the milk bottles burst like scared chickens” in a poem once. Though it is a good line.

The memoirs travel loosely between the present of their writing and memories. It feels digressive in a personal way, like a long conversation between friends. If there is arrangement, it is through symbol. Swimming, submarines, cheap wine, asses; a shifting, personal iconography develops to parallel that of the immovable Church.

Which brings us to language. Lockwood’s poetry depends on the capacity of simile to outstretch metaphor. The terrifying beast that Christine Brooke-Rose always capitalised, “The Copula”, should technically only compare and not replace. A metaphor says something is something else, while Lockwood usually only says that it is like. Her genius is in the excesses to which she can then take her imagery thanks to them only being likenesses.

Describing the moment of religious calling when a man knows he is destined for the Church, Lockwood writes, “I think of that Buster Keaton stunt where the wall collapses and he finds himself standing in the open window of the upper room, not merely unharmed but chosen. After that, you must live the rest of your life differently, carrying that open window around with you always”. I find that image captivating. The thing that being chosen is like seems so much more real than the thing itself; not just more apt, or easier to understand, but more palpable.

Maybe these images are lapsed-Catholic in origin? Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism showed itself in his emphatic symbols; big, heavy red rocks and hollow men that are hollow men. He declares his images. Booms them with Gospel certainty. Lockwood, by contrast, has let The Copula into her heart. The wine isn’t blood, but if you want to really understand it, then it is. Poetry is the magical process by which things are compared with other things with such passionate intensity that, for the reader, they actually transform.

The most exciting moment of the book for me came with Lockwood’s description of linguistic synaesthesia, the “plasma” spilling out of words. We are told that “’sunshine’ had a washed look, with the sweep of a rag in the middle of it. The world ‘violinist’ was a fig cut in half. ‘String quartet’ was a cat’s cradle held between two hands”. I don’t really understand this bit, but that’s only because “sunshine” is so obviously a low buzz, “violinist” the sound of a knife and “string quartet” is like a bag full of nuts and bolts shaking around. Or I guess I do understand it. Too well.

More than anything, Priestdaddy is a touching read. It is a hymn to American kookiness and a rejoinder to Tolstoy’s claim that all families have to be happy in the same way. I hope that it does well, but not so well that Lockwood gives up poetry for prose. She is a unique voice.

– Joe Darlington 

Suspect Language

Evelyn Schlag – All Under One Roof, translated by Karen Leeder (Carcanet, 2018)

A pig in a poke.

Some sayings have lost their original reference points. They are carried in our speech like dead bodies, lifted along by the living words that crowd around them, their feet dragging on the floor.

Now imagine a translator. They are tasked with changing words and phrases for their closest foreign relation. How do they react when they find one of these corpses being carried along? Or perhaps, not corpses, but living dead. Phrases no longer signifying but still working, moving, and evoking responses from others…

I put it to you that once infected with poetry, all language takes on this zombielike appearance. It seems at once itself and other, but soon that otherness takes it over, consumes its original meaning. The rose that is sick ceases to be a rose at all. Words have become suspect.

I offer these observations as a result of reading Karen Leeder’s new translation of Evelyn Schlag’s poetry. The poems are in some ways difficult, but by the same measure they are deeply engaging. Especially if, like me, you enjoy ambiguity and enigma. The poems are set in the concrete world, but their language turns our minds away from it.

Interior lighting in a globogod. Tongulator

to the first floor. Not looking no one in the

eye. Sinking faces long since swilled way. Not

in the market for friends. Nameless plankton the

lot of them shopperplankton drifting. The season’s

innocent colours have arrived like never before.

Neologisms and a disregard for punctuation are typical of Schlag’s writing. She sometimes lets sentences drift too long, sometimes – as in the shopperplankton lines above – she joins a series of unfinished subclauses to make new, short units of sentencelike meaning. This effect, described by Leeder in her introduction, has been carried over into English. Our loose English grammar can incorporate such devices, however, and so I find myself overcompensating in my grammatical expectations. I’m trying to be German about it all.

The question, I suppose, is whether you can translate a broken grammar. If so, can you translate it so that it reads in the same way? I don’t expect that you can. I suspect that there’s something else here going on.

So too with Schlag’s imagery. We are promised the concrete, shown the fantastic, and left to decide our own level of literality:

                  Sufi and Versailles. Gateway to fresh-squeezed apple juice.

                  Police direct the traffic somewhat with a scarf and cigarette.

                  At night little sledges career across the roofs.

I find the words compelling, the poetry addictive. But I am filled with suspicions. Am I bringing too much of myself to the images? Have I replaced reading with presuming? Is “direct the traffic somewhat” an inelegant translation of elegant German, or inelegant German translated elegantly?

Maybe this is why I avoid poetry in translation.

Yet it is Evelyn Schlag’s poetic style itself that exploits language’s haunted qualities. Its ultimate inability to differentiate physical objects from metaphors, or metaphorical objects from physical presences.

                  In the Euro tunnel on the great west track

                  the glasses tremble on the table. I think of bats

                  and their tiny spit. For sticking speech marks

                                    back when they’ve fallen off

                  quotations. It’s fine it’s fine. The little witches…

For language clear and uncluttered, Schlag’s poetry still asks you to double back often, to re-read and then perhaps to read on with the sense still partially unfixed. You must read it with a clear head, the better to appreciate the poetic fuzz that covers its words.

Sometimes the best pigs are purchased in pokes. One must trust that what’s in the bag is really there, and that it is what it says it is. Poetic language, especially in translation, is a suspicious thing; shifting and circumspect. Schlag’s poetry is captivating for its very embrace of the unfixed and the slippery. Leeder’s translation does tremendous work carrying this through to English.

As these translated poems show, there are no frictionless borders in language. We must come to love our friction.

– Joe Darlington

New Old Sincerity, Real Depth

Sally Barrett – A Life’s Work (Red Ceilings Press)

Apparently sincerity is back. The icy ironic sheen of postmodernity is thawing. A group of academics are feverishly putting titles to this – little flags planted on this spring landscape with their names on them – the titles include ‘the New Depthiness’ and ‘Metamodernism’.

Tim Vermeulen describes how he envisions what he calls the ‘New Depthiness’ by saying ‘I am thinking of a snorkeler intuiting depth, imagining it — perceiving it without encountering it.’ He bases this on a viewing of Season 3 of Girls in which ‘just because I feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there’, a Radiohead song lyric, was suddenly inverted for him into ‘just because it isn’t real doesn’t mean I don’t feel it.’

Via this remote control epiphany Vermeulen launched a new movement within arm’s reach of the roasted peanuts. Adam Kelly of the University of York has called it ‘the New Sincerity’ via David Foster Wallace trying to break out of the alienated postmodern condition into a kind of authentic being.

That these ‘paradigms’ emerge from reading Foster Wallace, watching Season 3 of Girls or listening to Radiohead hasn’t stopped the more excitable academics from taking Metamodernism on as if it were a solid object.

Academic papers are already being produced and passing muster: For instance, ‘Metamodernism as we perceive it’ by Dali Kadagishvili (2013) begins ‘Metamodernism is a new moment in philosophy, art, literature, fashion, photography, economics, politics and other spheres of human activities…’

Lauren Gardner (2016) then launches ‘Metamodernism’ as a ‘A New Philosophical Approach to Counseling’ and Michel Clasquin-Johnson depressingly aims us (2017) ‘Towards a metamodern academic study of religion and a more religiously informed metamodernism’.

Rasa Vasinauskaitė (2015) claims that the paradigm alters ‘cultural contexts, concepts of the perception of the world and its reality’ that the paradigm ‘of postmodernism is being changed by the theories of post-postmodernism, metamodernism, or new realism…’

Personally I think they are all struggling. Ordinary people have been sincere forever. Yes, that sincerity is cracked with contradiction, and always has been – long before postmodernity was announced – but ordinary people have been sincere forever.

Sincerity is not an objective place, it is a subjective one, a place of feeling. Black music – modern R&B for instance – has always been sincere. It’s why Flight of the Conchords find it so funny, because it jars with the default world of irony. Therefore in the north of England black music and the white working class came together in northern soul. It was partly about feeling in a brutalised place.

Richard and Sally Barrett are both northern and I admire their writing so much because they unpretentiously tell us how they feel to an extent that might make some squirm. Indeed, on the back blurb here, Sarah Faith worries that Sally Barrett’s sheer honesty might destabilise her, make her more vulnerable. I think the opposite is the case.

In these poems, in this collection by Sally Barrett, everyday anxieties are mined, those voices in the head are translated to the page so faithfully that they almost become universal. They are not universal anxieties, but the way simple worries tend to inflate must be recognisable to anyone who is fully human:

I WISH RICHARD WOULD GO TO THE OPTICIANS
What if his eyes get worse and then
He can’t see to read and kills himself
He once told me if he was blind
He would top himself
I hope he doesn’t

These poems stay in your head and expand as the days roll on, they illuminate the whole landscape we live in, how the crappy flats we inhabit and the rubbish food we eat are all part of the impossibility of full lives and untroubled relationships. How the past eats us. They are direct and real and they investigate what it is to exist in a compromised and troubling place without any recourse to Derrida.

That there is an expensive AHRC investigation into Metamodernism and the ‘New Sincerity’ for two years is hilarious when these two are working right under their noses.

I am not being anti-intellectual – and I take the core of Derrida’s work seriously too – I am just pointing out bad intellectual endeavour. All you have to do is leave the theoretical slum, just get out more. You might want to buy this book too.

– Steve Hanson