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

Advertisements

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

Candles and Cabbage

Martina Evans – Now We Can Talk Openly About Men (Carcanet, 2018) 

Martina Evans’ latest poetry collection takes the form of two dramatic monologues. Set in Mallow, County Cork, 1919 and Dublin, 1924, they mark the two foundational conflicts of the Irish Republic: the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. They also tell a tale of women’s experiences across two turbulent generations.

Both speakers are sceptical of political causes. The first, Kitty Donavan, is made so by necessity. Her dressmaking business is being shunned by the locals for taking business from the British Army. Her daughter too is in love with the young, one-armed socialist, Captain Galway. Kitty is cursed with migraines and relies on the doctor’s laudanum “tonics”. The opiates alternately cushion her from the violence and, caught between doses, emphasise her need.

Kitty’s work provides a language for her suppressed anxieties. Working, her “scissors swim like a dolphin with relief”. They trace “the crown & the letters of Royal Red”, all the while listening to the young rebel Eileen Murphy talk of the future Irish State. No more Royal Red, she says, the post boxes and the uniforms will all soon by green.

I’d imagined something magnificent like

A pure Peacock hue until she showed me

The colour on a bachelor’s gate

On the road to Quartertown. Pure disgusting.

A horrible dark green like an old leaf

Of cabbage you’d see a snail on top of.

Evans’ verse is tightly packed with images, but loose enough in its metre to read naturally. One can take the book at a running pace and enjoy a story with deep emotional beats, or slow the pace and reflect on the careful choice of wording. It’s not a symbolic poem, but its images – a peacock hue, a bachelor’s gate – are not chosen by accident.

Violence is always around the corner in Kitty’s Mallow. Soldiers shot in the guts, the Tans beating innocents on the street corner. As it builds to a terrible climax, Kitty barricades herself in. It is Eileen Murphy, the young rebel, who escapes the first poem. Her sewing skills, taught by kitty, make her the fastest sock darner in the IRA.

The second voice, Miss Babe Cronin’s, is more direct than Kitty’s. She is less evasive about her evasion. A stenographer; Babe’s language is clean, but she can’t help but listen. The “open tap of propaganda” from Eileen Murphy’s mouth, “nice looking in spite of the man’s black cap”, eventually turns her head. She starts running packages for the pretty young rebel girl.

Once again Evans’ turns an arresting image to great descriptive purpose:

…A fair haired girl with

Plaits down to her waist handed it over

But when she smiled at me, weren’t her two

Front teeth missing? In that church with the girl

Dressed all in white among the white candles,

It was an awful shock to see her gums.

As if the door of hell opened, I knew

Full well it was a firearm…

The bitter ironies of the civil war carry through the second poem, contrasting the Independence conflict in the first. The armies of the Irish Free State hold British guns, while the rebels speak Gaelic and carry the crucifix. Both sides are buried in their respective traditions. Both carry dogma.

For the women caught between the sides there are the old certainties of men and men’s folly. Men bring danger and adventure, fire and fear. This is perhaps why Evans picked the counterintuitive title; “Now We Can Talk Openly About Men”. The cover, pink and rather twee, seems to have been designed based upon this title alone. I can’t help but feel there are more appropriate colours out there – perhaps dark green and pure disgusting?

Overall, it’s a gripping read. The poetry is both pacey and touching by turns. The personal voices carry you along with them. Reading, you are inside the conflict, scurrying between brief moments of reflection. I will be surprised if awards aren’t won for what Evans has achieved here. A smart concept brilliantly realised.

– Joe Darlington

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

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

Dadsong

Tim Atkins – On Fathers < On Daughtyrs (Boiler House Press, 2017)

There’s no shortage of fathers in poetry; men in black with Meinkampf looks, fucking you up, maybe even, if you’re lucky, working a horse-plough with shoulders globed. But where are the father-poets?

Tim Atkins’ latest book, On Fathers < On Daughtyrs, offers us a glimpse into the father-poet world. It’s a hurried one. A stream of images, funny and tiring, build in one direction only to veer off in another. In a pacey 120 pages Atkins immerses us in a flow of dad consciousness.

“This is my song of Thing 1 and Thing 2” he writes. His daughters, naughty and curious, puncture the text with their own Dadaesque voices – “Daddy, do planes go to the toilet?” – while our narrator scrambles through a landscape of everyday responsibility, barely keeping up, his “wrists covered with monster munch dust”.

The poetry is fragmented, experimental. It offers brief glimpses and flashes of recognizable scenes before snatching them away. It can be frustrating at times, but the results are memorable. As soon as I reached the final page I began to turn the pages back, picking through the scenery in reverse. It reads almost as effectively.

By fracturing the panorama of dad-places, Atkins welcomes us too into the flux of dad-time. To be a father of daughters is to be always looking ahead. How should I raise them? Where will they end up? And with this come the social questions. What world that they will inherit? Protest is a recurring image in the text: “protesting – inside or outside the fence”, “slogans on cardboard signs”, “on the picket line again”, “on the picket line again”, “on the picket line again”…

…but then, of a sudden, our dream of the future is punctured by a “green banana hurled at the wall”. We’re back in the mucky present, with “snot [on] the ceiling”. These most momentary of moments (“amazed in the middle of cows” is my favourite line) challenge us to think of remembering even as we are alive in the present. Perhaps these moments will stay with us forever? Perhaps we’d only like them too.

On Fathers < On Daughtyrs is not so much a poem as a reading experience. I, for one, would struggle to locate a structure in it. But as a form to express fatherhood, Atkins has created something evocative, provoking, and at times deeply poignant. The book won’t reveal everything on your first time navigating it. It’s a good read while commuting, but you might enjoy it more on the return journey.

An exciting and challenging work on an underexplored theme. May it father many more like it.

– Joe Darlington

Footprints in the Snow

Han Kang – The White Book (Portobello Books, 2017)

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Nonsense! Books are physical objects. Things to be experienced. That a writer should leave a book’s design to chance, or worse, a half-conscious set of inherited expectations, strikes me as carelessness.

That isn’t to say that every writer should be considering presentation from the moment of conception, but when a book comes along to which this level of thought has been put, one can’t help but take a moment to appreciate it.

Han Kang’s The White Book is the novel to which I’m alluding. It is a novel about a woman reflecting on life’s poignant moments and its presentation – stark white with short paragraphs like footprints through snow – invites a mood of reflection before one has even read the first page. We are addressed by the narrator, who begins her story by listing white things: ‘swaddling bands, newborn gown, salt, snow, ice…’.

We find she has moved from Korea to a ‘town with white walls’ in the Mediterranean. From here she imagines her mother who, lost in a snowstorm deep in their rural homeland, gave birth to a stillborn child.

Her mother told her the baby was as white as a ricecake. From here the colour white enters, and then recurs, recurs, recurs, at times clever, at times surprising, at times heartbreaking, until the close of the book. As the book moves forward in short, self-contained sections it is tempting to compare it to poetry. The use of the poetic moment, deep but without obvious metaphor, is most closely associated with haiku (particularly Basho).

But this is nevertheless a rigidly structured novel. Each step forward in the narrative is subtly announced beforehand, a catalogue of white imagery interlaces disparate sections, tying together moments across time. The recurrence itself is accounted for, becoming a metaphor for memories whose emotion fades more with each remembering. The translation by Deborah Smith is itself a thing of subtle beauty.

Some Korean words appear, couched naturally in context, as do some translated phrases – ‘laughing whitely’, for example – which draw attention to themselves as curiosities of language to be commented on. The unjustified text and short sentences complement the sense of the writing as a fragile thing. Small marks stamped black on a white page, the whiteness threatening to swallow it all up.

White is not a colour, it is an absence of colour, and The White Book is made, in a similar paradox, of words defined by their silences. The sparing black on the tundra of white pages, the scattering of moments which rely on white images to connect them together; all of it seems to suggest our continued desire for language to communicate in the face of its impossibility.

The use of traditional imagery reinforces this; snow, the sea, birdsong, all carefully deployed to invoke the poetic while avoiding cliché. Trying to say something about the unsayable, again.

We are wandering on, leaving footprints in snow, as more and more snow seems to fall. It’s difficult to review a book like this other than to admire its power and the wholeness of its vision.

The White Book represents a significant achievement in the area of book-as-experience. Everyone who picks up this book will get something out of it, but people who read a lot of novels will, I think, adore it. There is nothing careless about this book. It commands the whole attention. It is a book which realises that reading too is an art form.

– Joe Darlington

Map Ref. 418-419

Neil Astley (ed.) – Land of Three Rivers, the poetry of north-east England (Bloodaxe, 2017)

Vin Garbutt is first up in this collection. Just that fact alone makes me love this anthology. I am a sucker for books it is possible to live one’s life in and here is another one. The surface of this collection covers the territories of the northeast. It carves it up by area, its contents are a kind of metapoem of the northeast: County Durham, Teesdale, Middlesborough, Cleveland, Farewell… 

Take a moment to leaf through. Open it randomly, as I did, to find the double page spread formed by 418 and 419. Geographical co-ordinates with a deep valley between them. 418 is a hymn to the A184 by Jake Campbell – there is poetry in the numbers alone – it was written in 2017, and 419 contains a twelfth century description of Durham in verse. A thousand years falls into the fold between the pages…

This book is a map, but don’t mention the ‘p’ word. There is no need to be so pretentious as to pull that word ‘psychogeography’ in here. It has been dragged about until it looks like a filthy rag. Throw it out and leave it there. But something must be said about the curating, editing, selection, production – call it what you will – of this book. It runs across pages, down columns, along roads, down rivers and into parallel centuries. It runs through biographies, Auden, Basil Bunting, Garbutt. Did I mention Vin Garbutt?

Tom Pickard is here. Tony Harrison is here too. Jimmy Nail is here! And Mark Knopfler, with the lyrics from ‘Tunnel of Love’, which is not just a picture of a place, but of time in that place, of a whole generation’s experiences, of a particular class, in the north.

What’s the matter with you? Have you heard the soundtrack to Local Hero? Forget your prejudices and open your heart to this book. Its contents pages crack the horrible slablike thingness of ‘the northeast’, a term that takes so much difference and richness and seals it into a cold fossil of prejudice. This book then explodes the term completely. Taking us to the Roman Empire via Hadrian’s Wall. Housesteads, Vindolanda. The Roman goddess Diana, of the hunt, of the moon, of nature, who freezes her features off in a poem by Gareth Reeves from 1984.

But this book is warm, body temperature to be exact, it is about life. There is ‘donner meat and chips’ and Jarrow, but this book never rests in the clichéd afterimage of the northeast. The cold shoots right through, to be sure, but the warmth always wins. Visitor Fred D’Aguiar’s ‘Sonnets From Whitley Bay’ wakes up, shakes up, we ‘hot up instantly like a four bar blues’, by B.B. King or Muddy Waters.

If you have any interest in this island of Britain, in its politics, its idiotic bloody class nonsense, its stupidly tolerant people, still tolerant of even worse idiocy, of the machinations of lazy fat Lotharios straight out of a Gillray, buy this book and learn to love again.

If you are going there, don’t buy a guide, buy this. If you never intend to go there, buy only this. You can’t get farther on just short of fifteen quid any other way.

– Steve Hanson