Singing for Robbers
Wednesday, 30 September 2020 at 13:12
SINGING BEFORE ROBBERS
NORM SIBUM: GARDENS OF THE INTERREGNUM – Biblioasis, Ontario, Canada $16.95
Twenty-first century Anglophone poetry’s only artistic purpose is a defence of language and Norm Sibum’s latest collection is a vigorous example of what a poet with great skill and an active intelligence can write without any concession to current notions of poetry as an expression of identity or challenge to modes of humancommunication. Hovering behind his work are the acerbic ghosts of Latin elegists and satirists and a sense of the world as complex as Ronald Syme’s "The Roman Revolution." History is neither the expression of ideas nor great men, but a matter of people with desires and interests. As Juvenal wrote:
quidquid agunt homines, votum, timor, ira, voluptas,
gaudia, discursus, nostri farrago libelli est
(Whatever drives people, wants, fear, anger, pleasure,
joys, discourse, is in the mix of our little book.)
The condition of America is his underlying theme ranging from the Eisenhower era when material prosperity was felt to be innocent and high culture was an aspiration of the educated to the present times of a real estate developer president who once declared he loved the uneducated and gives the impression that, like the emperor Caligula, he wished the American people had one neck. Sibum is primarily a satirist although he can write a moving elegy as this book demonstrates. His satire derives directly from the original form Latin "Satura" rather than modern media versions which can be more accurately described as lampoons and low comedy. Sibum can be as morbidly savage as Jonathan Swift but not as ad hominem as John Dryden. Nor does his work have the cultural misogyny of the Roman poets. His work has the philosophical and elegiac tone of Samuel Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes, but is often very funny as in "The Angels of Rectitude" which is a poem not only about about failing to pick up a girl, but not even succeeding in managing an approach. The opening four lines are masterly in their mock-gravity. The Rape of the Lock comes to mind.
With virtue comes the ordered life.
With virtue comes book-jacket blurbs.
With virtue –but never mind.
I mean to speak of a young woman.
As the condition of America exercises him, so does the matter of power. "Intimacies" is as pessimistic as anything by Swift and explores power’s dystopian potential where Mrs Orlow, a character familiar from other poems, has been packed off to"a facility where, her wits confounded, / She’ll die perplexed, the world not the world / Into which she was born." The individual can smoke on his balcony and contemplate "The sweet darkness of the twilight rain", but such moments are disrupted by Gordon a "slack-jawed, gummy Endymion" in the next building engaging in a noisy act of sex followed by a ghostly figure in white defecating against a fence. Gordon after his moment of bliss bellows threats into a cell phone:
"Pay up or he’d unleash the pit bulls."
The last section is Augustan in its apophthegmatic rhythms and Swiftian in its imagery:
Consolations are illusory and so, merciful.
Every heaven is carved from desire’s jade.
Every enclave is subject to the lurid effects
Of naked light bulbs, of commodes malodorous or not.
Earlier in the collection "What Goes Amiss" explores the ‘golden age’ of the Eisenhower presidency which is now subject to the nostalgic distortions familiar to the audience (if they can perceive the lie) of sentimental Anglophone media fictions set in the first half of the twentieth century. "Never such innocence" Larkin wrote in MCMXIV when he should have written "Never such ignorance." Sibum’s republic, that its inhabitants "were asked to cherish," is embodied in the person of Mrs Niedermann "at rest in the shade of the elm / like a figure in a Manet" with "The pleasing smile-lines that led from her eyes / To a place that just might’ve been my soul" and "who read a thousand books and pondered much." It’s almost impossible to resist amplifying the personification as she "was consumed,was digested by a sickness" and seeing this as emblematic of the bind America finds itself in at present. The passage with Mrs Niedermann concludes with two lines that Robert Frost might have given his eye teeth for or exercised his ungenerous genius to damn with faint praise:
There’s always death to take the place
Of what goes amiss –
Mrs Niedermann dies and the task of keeping the poem’s narrator passes to his more hard-nosed mother "Stop your whining, Run along. Play / No one and nothing lives forever," a version of the American individual that gets the job done as opposed to reading books and sensing that matters are not quite right. She wins back her son’s love and lives on to a great age although "the republic …Got to be careworn."
The poem is an elegy as good as the fancy-dan efforts of Allen Tate and Robert Lowell rooted as it is in middle America not the rarefied atmosphere of early twentieth century Ivy League colleges. Sibum’s style is characterised by virtuoso long sentences, the opening passage in "Passacaglia" being a wonderful example, a description of the sea worthy of Montale. His use of consonance and assonance rhyme to intensify certain moments in his poems is judicious as from "3 Fourteeners:"
Indicating tenure: love, sex, money, honor,
All systems go for nailing down power
And sparrows carve boulevards in the air.
The title poem and the sequence "Rome Poems" deserve separate essays and the book is one I will put on my shelf for books that I read until they fall apart. It is a superb collection of comminatory poems on how the corruptions of power seep down into all human perceptions and interactions in our moribund democracies.
Balancing Over the Void
Wednesday, 13 May 2020 at 12:20
BALANCING OVER THE VOID
Aristea Papalexandrou - It’s Overtaking Us, translated by Philip Ramp, Fomite Press,USA
If there is a language that our reflections in the mirror speak to us or our shadows following behind or going on ahead, depending on the time of day or the direction we’re taking, or if there is a language spoken by a self on another plane of being entirely which comes across to us in fragments, then this must be the language that Aristea Papalexandrou uses in her poetry. “It’s Overtaking Us” is a translation of her sixth collection by Philip Ramp a long-time resident in Greece and a poet himself.
Papalexandrou alludes to Pessoa, Seferis, Sachtouris and Beckett all essential artists in European literary modernism, although Sachtouris is less well-known internationally, and one of her poems has an epigraph from Sappho, another a phrase from Pindar. Papalexandrou in an interview has hinted that her work was one continuous poem and this current collection is a continuation of previous books. The first poem quotes from Pessoa, the poet of multiple selves and yet in the poems he attributed to himself and in The Book of Disquiet he is a poet of the “abstract chasm that lies in the depth of things.” The commercial and legal vocabulary, “memorandums,” “falls due,” “deadline,” “profit,” “voucher” evokes the life and work of Pessoa as an assistant book-keeper and explorer of consciousness. This is followed by two poems entitled “The Fugitive” which introduces a female persona perhaps a doppelganger of the poet who is hardly present, “fleshless” is the description and in a black dress which paradoxically spreads light. This is a poetry which uses a minimum of imagery and expressive vocabulary to maximum effect, so much so that when one reads“Dream Unbeheld” the sudden impact of sensuality is extraordinary: “Bathed in night’s silver / two souls a world entire / lustrous sculpture / Him and her.”
Further figures or apparitions appear, for example a man with a black revolver “shooting into the air / forcing the clouds / to snow” and the economy of Papalexandrou’s means is illustrated by the almost complete absence of colour words with “pink” only in the title of the poem “The Pink Hues of a Lady in Perpetual Motion.”The collection moves from an unstated urban hinterland, “the unlit city” to a depopulated countryside (Pelion is mentioned in a subtitle) perhaps too close to the mood of “The Wasteland” for comfort.
The verse forms are fragmentary perhaps mimicking what little survives of Sappho’s work and suggesting a great volume of unspoken feeling behind the fleeting interactions with the reader. I’m not sure, having no Greek, how much of this latency can be translated except to observe that her translator has managed to communicate that it lies behind Papalexandrou’s work.
One or two local points trouble me. “awhile” in the line “die after awhile” is either a misprint or a grammatical solecism. The line should be “die after awhile” as ‘awhile’ is an adverb as in “wait awhile,” not a noun. Secondly, it peeves me to read yet another poet lamely using the Paul Simon paradox, “the sound of (my) silence” which has only ever worked as rhetorical image within the context of the original song. Finally, the translator’s ear should not have allowed him to perpetrate the line “And when wan you come.” The vowel in “wan” is less distinct than when Keats wrote “so wan and palely loitering” and for many native speakers of English is indistinguishable from the vowel in “one.”
Despite this minor nitpicking “It’s Overtaking Us’ is a stimulating balancing act of language over the void that poets sense when they combine words in new ways.
Held Firmly in Her Sights
Monday, 2 March 2020 at 09:23
HELD FIRMLY IN HER SIGHTS
Janet Sutherland: Home Farm, Shearsman Books ₤9:95
Janet Sutherland and John Welch launched their most recent collections together a year ago at a reading in the Swedenborg Rooms, an occasion which made me regret my expatriate life. Home Farm is an expansive collection organized in six groups and an epilogue which expand their range of location and reference from the dairy farm in Wiltshire where Janet Sutherland grew up.The collection gradually works through memories of childhood on the farm as part of the landscape and as a place of serious work with hard-won meagre rewards towards poems on the death of her parents from dementia and cancer.However, this personal progress is continuously disrupted by poems based on history and other parts of the world ending with three stark meditations in the epilogue on the massacre in Fallujah in Iraq by American forces in 2003.
The first group, ‘Water Meadows’ might be termed the historical section. The opening poem from a childhood memory is a beautiful pastoral with the serpentine curves of the river Avon counterpointed by a swimming snake and a concluding image which might have come from a landscape painting of the eighteenth or nineteenth century:
Heifers stand in the shallows
Snorting and shaking off flies before they drink.
Four poems from local history follow, “The Drowner” from the seventeenth century practice of flooding, then draining water meadows to improve the quality of the soil, an elegy for a young girl drowned at the beginning of the twentieth century, the superb “The Eel House” and its companion piece, a visual poem, “View of a Water Mill and its Eel House” organized in the shape of the mill with different typefaces to illustrate irregularities and/or different materials visible in the walls of the mill, and are concluded with “Gifts for Lethe” a poem of multiple voices; a great-great grandfather, a grandfather, a dying father, the presence of a lover and her mother, and multiple locations; the water meadows by the Avon,Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), Greece, nineteenth century Serbia, Mallorca and East London. This beautiful poem is built up in three line stanzas punctuated by ‘refrains’ all of which contain images of rivers or watery places beside rivers. Pastoral images are set against harsher circumstances:
“You’ll be the death of me” he cried out to the doctor
when he was dying and his shit was black and foul
to us he hissed “Don’t be so bloody silly.”
Alderbury, and the goldfish pond we dug together.
I can’t praise this poem highly enough. Its multiplicity of motifs and imagistic technique are what Ezra Pound might have achieved had he not lost much of his poetic judgement in the Cantos.
The next four sections in the collection have different focuses. ‘Stocktake’ echoes the ancient practicalities of Hesiod’s “Work and Days.” There is a hint of a didactic element as we learn that livestock can contract some unpleasant illnesses and a military element appears in “On Pepperbox Hill” with the poet’s thirteen-year old self frightened by soldiers on exercise:
squaddies circling and manoeuvring
holding her in their sights
to keep her still.
‘Home Ground’ has some marvellous landscapes of which “Cows in Fog” is an outstanding lyric:
Fastened to the earth
and to the dawn through which this fog has settled
they breathe out gusts of steam
Yet the reader is brought down to earth humorously with “Scraping the Yard”, a job I would in similar circumstances probably try to absent myself from, and the more ambitious “You hold in your head a notion of the land” almost an autobiography in miniature from childhood to the mental disintegration of her mother in old age. This harrowing exploration is continued in the fourth section ‘Evenings on a farm Near Alderbury’ with poems on both parents aging and the eventual sale of the farm. An elegiac note is struck at the end of the “Dilapidations” quartet of poems following the sale of the farm:
You lean against the oak, the midges
rise from water trapped in crevices.
You see a land that is, that may not be.
‘Birds and Beasts’ is a group of poems recalling the history and a personal past, seemingly a lyrical respite from the previous section of grief. However, the final section and the epilogue firmly put the natural world behind us leaving them at the mercy of artificial intelligence (AI) and military forces. The reference to a grandfather in the First World War mistaking a pool in Mesopotamia for fresh water with a dead Turkish soldier is thrown into relief with the use in the Fallujah massacre of phosphorus explosives, possibly depleted uranium and the bland almost AI justification of the action by a British Major-General:
One could say in retrospect
the political decision vis-à-vis Fallujah
was the correct one.
Home Farm is an immensely rich and complex collection with wide range of emotion, style and form. Memory, history and their connection to this contemporary perhaps disintegrating world are held firmly in the sights of Sutherland’s poetic gift.Some of the poems are among the best in British Anglophone poetry of this century.
HIKES AND STROLLS
Friday, 14 February 2020 at 17:48
HIKES AND STROLLS
John Welch: In Folly’s Shade, Shearsman Books, ₤9:95
In this third collection following his Collected Poems and six years after “Its Halting Measure”, a marvellous book, John Welch moves beyond his previous work.I was tempted to employ the hand-me-down phrase ‘renewed power’, but that connotes too much. ‘Vigour’ sounds far too like advertising copy for a tonic beverage for elderly people, so perhaps ‘strength’ is the most suitable, yet hardly adequate, descriptive quality of his work.
In Folly’s Shade there are a number of poems written after extended walks of which two hark back to Out Walking, a selected poems published by Anvil in 1984, ‘Out Walking: Wanstead Flats’ and ‘Out Walking: Walthamstow Marsh.’ He even echoes the imagery and rhythms of the earlier poems and even administers the same sort of shock of juxtaposition:
Preparing this meat
To music of Bach, I trim off the gristle.
The liver falls raggedly apart.
(from ‘Poem’ in ‘Out Walking’)
Went out later to market.
Cowheel, innards in a tub
Were such soft plethora
Near the bookshop named Arcady.
(from the title poem ‘In Folly’s Shade’)
Early on in his writing life Welch established a set of rhythms and a range of imagery which continues provide him a focused characteristic line and material behind which is a landscape often in a setting at the edge of where urban lies alongside the remains of a rural world, for example, from the eastern end of London which leads into Essex, a region diverse in both culture and topography.
The present book is organised into four sections, At Ranters Lodge, In Folly’s Shade, Inside the Panopticon and An Interzone. Two of the poems in the first section, ‘Out Walking: Wanstead Flats’ and ‘Out Walking: Walthamstow Marsh’, return to this East London locale. Here Welch’s poetry inhabits boundaries of image and language where the process of making sense of objects and thoughts is questioned:
It’s the sum of its parts.
But pulling in different directions
It came to pieces in my hands!
(from Out Walking: Walthamstow Marsh)
There is a tentativeness with regard to asserting a meaning. We walk with Welch and his perceptions watching a process of deciding if meaning can be given to them:
Meanwhile the convenience of this breeze
In the way it turns those rows of leaves
Upward to an attractive paleness
Like watching the underside of a language.
The title poem, In Folly’s Shade, takes this stately dance round signification further. A number of familiar motifs surface with the notion of eating and a devouring presence behind consciousness:
Palaeolithic? To use
Being to eat in that language
As it moved through the world
Ingested the sky
The poem builds up suggestive fragments and images from childhood and personal love all the time with understanding of being part of the earth. At times there is great subtlety in Welch’s language with a great intensity surfacing in places:
No tenderness without anger
Yes partner me in this
As if you pricked me out
And drew me in.
Quick is our hurt
And words to cover the place.
In Folly’s Shade is an extensive collection and repays repeated reading. It would be remiss not to mention the section Inside the Panopticon. Jeremy Bentham’s design for a prison where total observation of prisoners might be possible informs with the title poem of the section has provided an overarching image playing on notions of continuous surveillance created by CCTV cameras. The humorous poem, ‘Centre and Retreat’, set in a dilapidated country house turned into a holiday retreat for could be a satire on contemporary England:
The kitchen is filled with puzzling equipment and high up on a shelf there’s a notice that reads Nothing On This Shelf Works.
Read as a comment on contemporary England, as opposed to the rest of the United Kingdom, the prognosis is not good.
John Welch’s poetry continues to address the dilemma of language and how far language can express meaning adequately. To return to the central motif of walking and observing it contains both hikes and strolls well worth taking.
Mike McNamara A Hard Act to Follow
Wednesday, 22 January 2020 at 11:51
HARD ACT TO FOLLOW
Mike McNamara -This Transmission. Free download. Argotist on-line
Mike McNamara –Dialling a Starless Past. ₤5.99 Arenig Books
Mike McNamara, poet and lead singer in Big Mac’s Wholly Soul Band, published two slim volumes in 2019, This Transmission, (Argotist Books), and Dialling a Starless Past (Arenig Books). They are different in content, but not in style, packed with and sometimes bursting at the seams with energy, images, references and feeling. McNamara was born in 1955 of Welsh and Irish parentage. His early childhood was spent in Larne in the north of Ireland, but then his family moved to South Wales. He joined the army at the age of seventeen, but was uncomfortable with military life ending up in military gaol. He earned a living as a lorry driver, but it’s clear that he is an avid reader and has a life-long love affair with music.
His poetry harks back to neo-romanticism of the 1940s a style and way of looking at the world which was almost killed off by the rational neat compositions of the Movement, but re-emerged in the popular music of the 1960s and regional poetries of Liverpool, the North-East and Northern Ireland. The shorter poems have more than a tang of early Barry MacSweeney; McNamara and MacSweeney seem to have had similar demons, but McNamara seems to have put his aside without much visible effect if the clips on You Tube are anything to go by. “This Transmission” displays a word-spinning gift that begs to be heard live. In the cutthroat world of professional poetry in Britain, purists might cavil at the use of words such as “shard” and “darkling.” The longish poem Crab Apple Jack is perhaps too much of a good thing, but is still a compelling read if only for the great waves of language, personal memory and reference that wash over the reader. Elsewhere he has greater discipline. In The Hotel of Thoughts there is this magical passage:
“A thin woman with cracked cigarette lips
And tattoos is singing.
And I hear a wonderful endlessness in your breathing.
Who are you in your black diesel proof shoes
Smelling of pipe tobacco?
The only movement is the curtains.”
There are other I-wish-I’d-written-that passages in this collection. McNamara ranges from the Druids to Paul Celan, but also demonstrates a control of form using rhyme to enhance an emotional effect as in ‘The Windows Are Such’
Ongoing loss without words. No regret.
Let us be done now with the tears that two must cry,
remembering that those who have never truly met –
should never have to say goodbye.
Probably the best poem in the collection is ‘Hinterland’ where a short line and seemingly disconnected images are put together to create an atmosphere of enormous tension.
Dialling a Starless Past draws directly on autobiographical material often using a characteristic crafted long line. One of the pleasures of reading his poetry isthat he doesn’t chop his lines up to fit some nervous obeisance to the standard poetrybiz line with all its enjambments and absence of memorable strong lines.There are a number of memorable portraits as in ‘Skinhead Girls’
Skinhead girls, their fleeting moment of pride played out
in loafered feet and Pretty Polly tights,
short skirted mohair suits,
hitching rides to romance from scooter knights.
and The Hard Man’s Grave Revisited with its deadly ironies
They liked those lines about you; sharp
tutors talked of sympathy, underdogs, destiny.
They’d have felt the same, of course,
if they’d crossed you, drunk and bloodied
on some misspent giro night.
There is a concentration on a misspent youth and early manhood. Why not? Unlike Larkin McNamara has truly said “Stuff your pension,” gone ahead and lived to tell the tale. There are some shorter vignettes. ‘I Lean on the Door Jamb’ could have been written by the late Ken Smith and the sparseness of ‘On the Brow of the George Street Bridge’ is heartbreaking.
She always had that little princess smile
but no king to cherish her.
Heroin was the only thing
to love her.
On the brow of The George Street Bridge.
Mike McNamara is poet whose poems should be read as possessing wit, passion and immense skill with language reminding us that poetry does start and remains to its advantage in the rag and bone shop of the heart.