Books under Review
Louis de Paor (editor): Leabhar na hAthghabhála: Poems of Repossession, 20th Century Poetry in Irish • Clive James • Gate of Lilacs, a Verse Commentary on Proust • Keith Hutson: Routines • David Gascoyne: Pensées nocturnes / Night Thoughts
Catherine Graham: Like a Fish Out of Batter • Alan Price: Angels at the Edge
Patrick Lodge • David Cooke • Michael Crowley • Anthony Howell •
Emma Lee • Claire Booker
Leabhar na hAthghabhála: Poems of Repossession, 20th Century Poetry in Irish reviewed by Patrick Lodge
Leabhar na hAthghabhála: Poems of Repossession, 20th Century Poetry in Irish edited by Louis De Paor. Bloodaxe Books. £15. ISBN: 9781780372990.
This is a monumental and timely collection which – though there are many issues with it – should be considered a “must-have” by anyone interested in poetry written in Irish. The book – edited by Louis de Paor who is represented as poet and translator also – surveys the Twentieth Century with over 160 poems from 25 poets (born between 1871 and 1966) in over 500 pages. The worthiness of the enterprise is enhanced by over 50 pages of accompanying information – chronology of publication, biographies of the translators, indices of place names, Irish titles, English titles, poets, references, acknowledgements and a very illuminating section of translators’ notes. Putting together this varied and weighty collection must have been an exhausting but worthwhile task – as is reading it.
It is a timely collection in several ways. Clearly it leads out of previous efforts, notably Seán Ó Tuama’s (to whom the book is part dedicated) and Thomas Kinsella’s 1981 collection, An Duanaire: Poems of the Dispossessed 1600-1900. De Paor’s book presumably reflects a more confident Ireland following the Uprising and eventual decolonisation – albeit partial – and represents a repossession of an indigenous poetic dynamic in the national language.
However, this is another way in which the book is timely inasmuch as in 2016 the Irish language itself is considered under threat. This summer I travelled from Wales for a series of readings across Munster and the same comment came up repeatedly – that the Welsh had got it right in regard to language preservation, while Irish was a fast disappearing language. Dr. Conchúr Ó Giollagáin, in a recent report, argued that the decline of the language as a living and spoken tongue was much worse than many had thought – even in the Gaeltacht areas. It wasn’t long ago that the Irish Examiner argued the best way to rejuvenate the dying language would be to ask the Brits to recolonise!
In this context, where the Irish language is seen as somewhere between a sacred cow and a white elephant, Poems of Repossession might seem as much a desperate polemic as a collection of poetry. Indeed, de Paor’s excellent introduction writes of whether writing in Irish can ‘survive Ireland’s neglect of its own language’ in the face of globalization and the power of English. He points out that part of the repossession proclaimed in the title is that of Irish poets ‘motivated by aesthetic or cultural political reasons’ choosing to write in their second language, in effect swimming against the tide of a dominating English language aesthetic. Swimming too, maybe, against a tide of disinterest in ‘the knowledge gained in the cabin’ (Máirtín Ó Direáin)
I am reviewing the book as a poet who considers himself in important ways as Irish but who writes and speaks in English, but has no Irish language – though, to quote, Mícheál Ó hAirtnéide, ‘the Gaelic marrowbone is still there’ (p256). The book is not intended to exclude such as me since it is aimed also at ‘readers of English who do not otherwise have access to material in Irish’ and Bloodaxe is, of course, an English imprint. However, while I enjoyed the book and recognize its importance and value, without fluency in Irish, there remain many obstacles in the way of its fullest appreciation. There is a danger, as one of the poets, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, put it, of displaying, “mo chuid fílióchta Gaeilge/nár thuig Éinne”/ “my ‘Irish’ poetry/that no one understands”. (Aistriúcháin/Translations).
Part of the issue is the sheer variety of the Irish language which, I suspect, might challenge someone with only book-learned Irish. The oral tradition is very diverse and, quite rightly the collection delights in the huge and vibrant complexity of spoken Irish. It would, indeed, be difficult, in de Paor’s words, ‘to overstate the importance of dialect in modern and contemporary poetry in Irish’. While an Irish language reader may well need no explanation of the regional origins of the poets and would recognize immediately Donegal Irish from Connemara Irish from Munster Irish from the vernacular of West Belfast, many others might not and would lose something if only reading the English. I longed for a CD of the Irish poetry which would have least given the sound. Additionally, for an act of cultural repossession there are some oddities. The English translation normally occupies the favoured right hand page to which the eye tends to gravitate first and the copious notes and introductions are in English only which suggests the book is actually aimed at English-speakers or that space became an issue after the first 500 pages.
Of course much depends on the translation if this is to work and a great effort has been made, though de Paor recognizes that the varieties of Irish – essentially a spoken dialect rather than a written corpus – presents ‘insuperable difficulties for a translator’. Many of the translations have been specially commissioned and each poet’s work is frequently translated by several different translators. Again there are oddities – as Sean Haldane has pointed out the title translates as ‘Book of Repossession’ not ‘Poetry of Repossession’ and it is unclear why this should be so.
Certainly, there needs to be some looseness in translation if the new work is to live. De Paor suggests that translators have remained as close to the Irish as possible so that a ‘diligent reader’ can skip between them more effectively and that different approaches have been encouraged where a literal translation might ‘occlude rather than clarify the original. Such flexibility is necessary and commendable but does tend to focus attention on the English poem as a unique work – particularly if one does not read Irish well or at all – rather than the original, and essential, Irish poem. Too often, even without Irish, what is translated seems to bear a tangential relationship to the flow, craft, structures and poetics of the original and one wonders what has been lost. We all know Robert Frost’s dictum that poetry is what gets lost in translation but Thomas Kinsella – who translated from the Irish in Poems of the Dispossessed – did seek to capture the sense as well as rhythms and patterns of the original Irish.
Of course the issues are most obvious with the work of Biddy Jenkinson who is notorious in her aversion to being translated into English – a small rude gesture to those who think that everything can be harvested and stored without loss in an English-speaking Ireland. Here she has given permission for prose translations of poems not previously available in English. The result is to juxtapose the fluent and structurally dynamic Irish poems with lumps of poor English prose. Given that it might be considered impossible not to include Jenkinson in an anthology like this it looks like her giving permission was intended as a joke, another “small rude gesture” demonstrating precisely the loss in the harvest.
Without fluent Irish, one is tempted to spend far too long as a reviewer on the issues of translation and cultural politics. In the end it is probably a mug’s game – Alan Titley, in his translator’s notes makes the point that ‘translation is a game of chance and the dice of words is loaded against you’. Nevertheless, no other collection will capture as well the profligate variety of Irish poetry (or poetry in Irish as, of course, there is no Yeats, Heaney, Muldoon, Morrissey, Longley, Meehan, Carson et al…Irish poets writing in English to misquote Eoghan Ó Tuairisc ).
Here, there is a slow start – an amuse bouche of poets with one or two poems represented – and a full main course with heavy representation from Seán Ó Ríordáin , Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Liam Ó Muirthile (though oddly, given the collection is part dedicated to him, Seán Ó Tuama is represented by a few poems). More than half of the poems come from the last two decades of the century – which may give the lie to fears of decline – but the earlier material from Pádraig Ó Héigeartaigh and Pádraig Mac Piarais is very welcome – the translations of the latter seem particularly good to one who knows the poems in English well. Indeed where the translations works well they work very well – Tomás Mac Síomóin’s from Thomas’s bestiary is a tour de force. A particular challenge – and one I enjoyed very much in its resolution, was to work with the “hybrid bilingualism” (De Paor) of the Belfast poet Gearóid Mac Lochlainn whose poems collected here are very dexterous and amusing in both languages.
The themes covered are as diverse as might be expected – love poems, poems influenced by external European influences, poems of loss and nostalgia, poems exploring the nature of an Irish poetic, poems influenced by the 60s counterculture, Vietnam, the Beats and the marvelous hymn to the dead of Hiroshima, Mass of the Dead by Eoghan Ó Tuairisc. A particular – and not at all unexpected element – is the close and emotional attachment to place (generally small): again to quote Ó Tuairisc, the ‘blindly cultivating my own square mile of territory’. Linked to this are some powerful poems about dislocation – hardly surprising given the emigrationist history of Ireland. Cathal Ó Searcaigh’s explorations of alienation stand out here – especially the beautiful High Street Kensington 6pm with its evocation of the pull of homeland in an alien environment: ‘Sometimes I taste/in the churning street / a bowl of buttermilk / disguised as a poem’. English or Irish this is brilliant – though I did wonder if the poem worked as well in Irish.
This is a comprehensive book that anyone interested in Irish – in the widest of senses – poetry will want to have. Whether as a valedictory collection or an example of the dynamism and strong potential of poetry written in Irish only time will tell. De Paor’s introduction opines that if the language further declines or become moribund then this remarkable collection might well stand as an epitaph describing ‘what we stand to lose if apathy remains the most common response to cultural homogenisation and language death’. One hopes this is not the case – as an Irish man and a poet. Maybe now is the time for all, as Seán Ó Ríordáin puts it in Fill Arís, to ‘Go back again to what is yours / Rinse your mind and your tongue’. This book is an excellent prompt and scour.
Patrick Lodge retired from an academic career teaching American History several years ago and now writes full time. He lives in Yorkshire and is from an Irish/Welsh heritage. His work has been published in many countries and he has been successful in several prestigious poetry competitions. His first collection, An Anniversary of Flight, was published by Valley Press in 2013. His second, provisionally titled Shenanigans, is due out in 2016.
Clive James’s Gate of Lilacs, a Verse Commentary on Proust, reviewed by David Cooke
Gate of Lilacs, a Verse Commentary on Proust, by Clive James. Picador £9.99. ISBN: 9781509812356
Clive James’s high profile as a media pundit and the dazzling variety of his literary and journalistic output over more than four decades have frequently eclipsed his status as a poet. However, the three collections he has published in the last decade, culminating in Sentenced to Life, leave one in little doubt as to his poetic credentials. His meditations on his own mortality are as powerful, if far less lugubrious, than anything in Larkin, while his intellectual playfulness and the sheer range of his interests are reminiscent of his compatriot Peter Porter or, another of his masters, W.H. Auden. Gate of Lilacs, his latest book of verse, is a self-avowed attempt to amalgamate his two great predilections: poetry and the critical essay. It is, indeed, a labour of love inspired by the poet’s herculean efforts, over a period of fifteen years, to teach himself French in order to read Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. It would seem that James is nothing if not ambitious, since he pursued this goal whilst at the same time producing his monumental translation of Dante and a stream of critical prose.
Over the years, Proust’s novel has spawned several idiosyncratic books in addition to the huge volume of literary criticism it has also engendered. Acknowledged as a classic, but largely neglected by the common reader, it inspired Beckett to write his first published work: a quirky and well-nigh unreadable essay. In 1978, Pinter reduced its 3,000 pages to a 160-page film script, which has yet to be produced; while Alain de Botton used it as the basis of his best-selling self-help book, How Proust Can Save your Life. The sheer bulk and complexity of Proust’s novel, not to mention its meditative slowness, make demands upon a reader that seem incompatible with an age of tweets and perfunctory soundbites. Moreover, at a time when poetry is at best a minority interest, there is something quixotic about writing a critical essay in verse. What may have been appropriate in the age of Horace, or still fashionable in that of Dryden and Pope, hardly seems so today; and perhaps James realizes this when, in his introduction, he draws a moving parallel between himself and Proust trying to complete their work before they die and, in his own case, ‘keen not to give my last gasp to a foolish notion.’
In fact, turning to ‘1: The Origami of the Madeleine’, the first of the poem’s fifteen sections, one is scarcely reassured. After its promising title, which conflates two memorable images from early on in the novel, the poem opens with a thirteen-line sentence which is as convoluted as anything in Proust:
From the taste of the scallop-shell of cake
Made moist by the decoction of lime-blossom
It all unfolds inexorably, the vast
Structure of recollection – in his tongue
L’édifice immense des souvenirs –
Though it’s a structure only in the sense
That Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona
And the weird Watts Towers in Los Angeles –
Eclectic stalagmites of junk – are structures,
Or the sandcastle you helped your daughters build
Before you sat with them to watch the sea
Dismantle it and smooth it out and take it
Back down to where it came from.
Nothing has been gained here by the use of verse. From the outset, the phrase ‘the decoction of lime-blossom’ is clunking. Nothing flows smoothly and the various comparisons, interesting as they are, could have been incorporated less awkwardly into a prose paragraph, thus avoiding the constraints of metre. The most convincing line of verse here is the slightly incorrect quote from Proust’s novel. Although ‘eclectic stalagmites of junk’ is a typically clever and quite effective image, James’s opening period reads like an unintended parody, or a draft where the poet has not yet got into his stride. Thereafter, things do improve as he evokes the character of Proust and his hero Marcel:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxWe can regret his wetness –
‘My poor, poor little hawthorns!’ he would cry,
Clutching them to him as he vowed his grief,
Astounding you that such a total weed
Could ever have become the wise and brave
Soldier for Dreyfus …
In one memorable image James evokes the fetid atmosphere of the cork-lined room in which the novelist ’brought his great book / to full bloom in the hot-house of his dying …’ He also captures the decadent atmosphere of the Second Empire and the notorious reign of les jolies femmes de Paris: ‘The web that tied the Faubourg to the brothel.’ Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine that much of this section, and many of those that follow, will appeal to anyone who is not already an aficionado of Proust or has some pre-existing interest in the period. Elsewhere, James frequently quotes from French classics such as Madame de Sévigné, Saint-Simon, de la Bruyère, de Tocqueville, Saint-Beuve, none of whom will mean much to any but the most assiduous student of French literature. Beyond its thumbnail sketches and potted history much of the text is little more than a plot summary, which may serve as a useful quick guide for those intending to take on the full text.
However, more impressive are those passages where the poet moves on from Proust and his novel to a more personal examination of themes that are important to him or where he finds parallels between Proust’s circumstances and his own. In ‘8; Excursus on Prose style’ he gets to the heart of Proust’s art in verse that is musical and uncluttered:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxSuch treasure troves
Of observation wed to poetry
Were there for Proust to bend to a new use:
The work of fiction that flows like the facts
Of life, an ocean going through your hands
Into the future, and whose movement is
The actual subject, which is hard to grasp
Only because the instant is.
Art and the way it relates to memory is the great theme of Proust’s novel and one that is particularly poignant for a man who is approaching the end of his days: ‘The past is real but marbled by beliefs / that turned to myth as time eroded them.’ Many of the best passages in Gate of Lilacs are informed not only by James’s illness and his sense of time passing, but also by the breakdown of his marriage and his own responsibility for it. This is specifically alluded to in the quotation from Louise Labé that follows his dedication to the wife he betrayed: ‘Et si jamais ma pauvre âme amoureuse / ne doit avoir de bien en vérité, / Faites au moins qu’elle en ait en mensonge.’* In ’10: Adventures of the Aerosol Elixir’ he praises Proust for his ability to write about desire:
The same way molten rock
Makes possible the earth on which we walk,
The way he writes about desire reminds us
Of what it was when we were still too young
To know about its power, but everywhere
We felt it, and in everything. The World
Was soaked in it.
In ’14: We’ll Always Have Paris’ he examines Proust’s views on marriage and enters into a posthumous debate with him. From the evidence of the central relationships in À la recherche du temps perdu – that of Odette and Swann and that of Marcel and Albertine – it would seem that: ’love consumes itself in jealousy / And can’t survive marriage’. ‘How could he / know such a thing?’ enquires James and suggests that ‘A marriage is what civilisation makes / out of an urgency.’ In a way, Gate of Lilacs might be seen as an extension of the ‘fan-mail’ genre that James was such a master of in his earlier poetic career. For all its longueurs and its shaky start, Gate of Lilacs has much to offer admirers of James’s poetry and its concluding section, ‘15: I’ll drown my books’, is as poignant as anything else he has written:
All that I love will leave me, as I go
First into silence, then the fire, and then
The harbour water, in which there will be
At last no room to breathe, no time to think:
No time to even think of you, Marcel.
*‘And if my poor loving soul / is not to know true happiness / then let it at least be allowed the illusion.’
David Cooke co-edits The High Window. He has won a Gregory Award and has published four collections of his poetry, the latest of which is A Murmuration (Two Rivers Press, 2015). A Slow Blues, New and Selected Poems, was also published in 2015 and is available on the High Window Press page: here
Keith Hutson’s Routines reviewed by Michael Crowley
Routines by Keith Hutson. £5.00. Poetry Salzburg. ISBN 9783901993572
Routines is a pamphlet of thirty one sonnets dedicated to long lost music hall acts. This is a celebration not just of the acts themselves but of their era and each sonnet is a gag of sorts, an affectionate comic tale told in subtlety heightened verse. Routines is a turn in itself and well worth the entrance fee.
The subjects for the most part are not regular song and dance routines, I say I say I say comedians; there is an emphasis on performers from the more eccentric wing of variety:
In time to a drumbeat, Georgie Doonan
kicked his own backside…
Forty days without, ‘The Fasting Man’
appeared at the Alhambra, Bradford, fresh
from filling halls in Florence and Milan …
A contortionist, Zazel, The Shooting Star! The Fish Fryer, slow motion wrestling etc are all introduced to us for fourteen lines of limelight, but what often accompanies them are little dramas about love, loneliness, fame and defeat. In the best of the poems Hutson does for me what successful poetry often does; it doesn’t overtly set out to address big questions, but in portraying particular individuals the poems find specific moments that are highly poignant and handle them delicately. In Self Help masked funnyman Joseph Grimaldi, suffering from the occupational hazard depression, is advised by a doctor to go see…his own act by way of a cure.
Joe turned and sighed, ‘the trouble is, that’s me.’
So this joy-bringer to the Regency,
who tickled even Byron, was told to cure
himself by visiting himself. I see…
In ‘Without a Net‘, tightrope artiste and mother of six Selina Hunt walked her last wire whilst pregnant.
The day the rope snapped at Aston fete,
she and her foetus fell for thirty feet.
Bad fortune was blamed, but a panel gave
her eldest boy ten guineas for a grave.
The priest beside it set the record straight:
Selina Hunt carried too much weight.
Whilst there are one or two cutting lines, what really comes across is a compassion for the characters. Acts are laughed at for their silliness, as they were at the time no doubt, but no one is really denigrated. Music Hall or variety is derided by some these days as lame, deserving of its demise, but it encompassed the genuinely alternative and the highly talented and both are lauded here. Through these portraits Keith Hutson is exploring a popular culture now lost to us; a culture that arguably included an audience bound by a collectivist personality greater than our own.
Hutson comperes a bill for us that spans the early nineteenth century to the age of television yet he is always present in the middle of a row, backstage or in a dressing room after the turn. His delivery is understated, he doesn’t self-consciously poeticise; the sonnets are aptly unassuming in contrast to the vulgarity of some of the acts. He is talking to us in a snug, somewhere in the north and whilst his language is plain there are no flat lines, everything is gently heightened, nudged towards iambic pentameter or even its ghost: ‘Seven months gone and still walking the wire.‘
His comic tools are pathos and the punchline best exemplified in the last four lines of ‘The Art of Hunger about The Fasting Man’:
His photograph, all fade and gaze, still
holds the absent presence of an aunt of mine,
less lionised, who starved herself to death –
but she was no phenomenon, ‘just vain’.
He prefers the half rhyme to the full and there are no obvious compromises between form and content; he tells a narrative within the fourteen lines without having to cram. This may have something to do with his previous scriptwriting career, for he employs the adage of ‘coming in late and getting out early’. Occasionally, there are glimpses of the author in the audience or the company of the subject but again it’s well handled, he is unobtrusive and, if anything, leaves us wanting more. For me the strongest poems are those that are visually alive, the ones that show rather than tell.
Propped up by doctors, lost inside a suit
stagehands would strip away to show the lack
of him – translucent under lights.
Not everyone shares a fondness or a curiosity for music hall that Keith Hutson and I do. And some purists might object to the elasticity in some of these sonnets, but Routines is an achievement. It has charm and wit, is beautifully presented by Poetry Salzburg and I suspect, quite a warm-up act for even better things to come.
Michael Crowley is a poet and playwright. His pamphlet Close to Home was published by Prole Books (2012). His first full collection, First Fleet (2016) is published by Smokestack Books.
David Gascoyne’s Night Thoughts reviewed by Anthony Howell
Pensées nocturnes / Night Thoughts by David Gascoyne. 16 €. Black Herald Press. ISBN 978-2-919582-15-0. Available here.
David Gascoyne is a writer who may irritate readers as much as he may intrigue them. In Poetic Artifice, Veronica Forrest-Thomson complains about his “irrational obscurity”. Whereas many poets write in complicity with the process of realistic limitation/expansion and thus invite bad Naturalisation, Gascoyne is determined not to be naturalised, determined to stress his discontinuity:
xxxxxxA cluster of insane massacres turns green upon the highroad
xxxxxxGreen as the nadir of a mystery in the closet of a dream
xxxxxxAnd wild growth of lascivious pamphlets became a beehive
xxxxxxThe afternoon scrambles like an asylum out of its hovel
xxxxxxThe afternoon swallows a bucketful of chemical sorrows
xxxxxxAnd the owners of rubber pitchforks bake all their illusions
xxxxxxIn an oven of dirty globes and weedgrown stupors.
xxxxxxThe Rites of Hysteria, David Gascoyne, Collected Poems, Oxford 1965
xxxIn his introduction to Gascoyne’s poems, Robin Skelton says
xxxthat this passage ‘uses a rhetorical tone and, by means of
xxxbizarre and near-nonsensical imagery, produces a powerful
xxxeffect of social and moral dislocation. It is as much a poem
xxxabout the state of society as many of the more explicitly
xxxdidactic poems of Auden.’ We see here an interpretation
xxxof irrational obscurity which immediately naturalises it
xxxand translates it into the language of ordinary statement,
xxxalbeit at a very abstract level. The fact that on the formal
xxx plane the poem appears disconnected – a series of isolated
xxx lines – and on the semantic plane appears to make no overt
xxxstatements is immediately transferred to an external context.
xxxThe technique means disorder, mirrors social and moral
xxxdislocation. No doubt Gascoyne himself was relying on
xxxsuch an interpretation to give meaning to his incoherence,
xxxbut it is very much an instance of what Yvor Winters calls
xxx ‘the fallacy of imitative form’.
xxxPoetic Artifice, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Shearsman, 2016, p. 83
A note below this passage quotes Winters: ‘to say that a poet is justified in employing form in order to express a feeling of disintegration in merely a sophistical justification of bad poetry.’ Forrest-Thomson goes on to say: ‘Form does not directly mirror a world; the connection can only be made through the other levels of poetic discourse.’ She then analyses the poem in terms of artifice (play with vowel sounds, the vestiges of some formal pattern, metre or rhythm) and she draws a blank.
xxxThe same dead-end is reached when the reader tries to get
xxxa clue from the image-complexes. Once more there is a
xxxcluster (forgive the metaphor) of ideas about mysteries,
xxxdestruction, insanity, dreams which smother the level
xxxof meaning, but these clusters are not worked out through
xxxa gradual build-up of selection and restriction of
xxxconnotations….. and it is difficult to see how the process
xxxcould take place when the other non-semantic levels
xxxare frozen. Such being the case, it is impossible for a
xxxthematic synthesis to take place in the area of continuity
xxxand artificial limitation/expansion.
xxxOf course, Gascoyne may ignore these requirements and
xxxwrite as he pleases to stress his discontinuity, but the price,
xxxas I have suggested, is complete unintelligibility and loss
xxxof any incentive for the reader to continue.
xxxIbid p 84
This is too harsh. A pioneer of surrealism in Britain, Gascoyne was indeed interested in “stressing his discontinuity” – just as a dream may assail the sleeper with discontinuous images. Dreams are both unintelligible and weighty – with a sense of meaning which may elude us. I find a weightiness to the imagery even if I cannot decipher its concatenations.
In 1955, his radiophonic poem Night Thoughts was broadcast on the Third Programme, with music composed by Humphrey Searle. It was then published by Andre Deutsch in 1956, and it has now been republished by the Paris-based Black Herald Press, which specialises in bilingual editions of somewhat marginalised modernist poets writing in English – including W. S. Graham and Gregory Corso. Gascoyne’s poem is as much a meditation on the urban condition as on the night, and his text is accompanied by an essay entitled The Poet and the City by Gascoyne himself as well as an informative afterword by Roger Scott that examines Gascoyne’s vision of the city – a vision that in many ways anticipates the critique of Lefebvre in The Production of Space.
Initially my irritation was aroused by the text of this play, but not because of it’s unintelligibility. It is not that tough a read. The piece is an extended nocturne. Fair enough, but what got my wick was the maudlin reiteration of an existential gloom:
Let those who hear my voice become aware
That Night has fallen. We are in the dark.
I do not see you, but in my mind’s eye
You sit in lighted rooms marooned by darkness.
My message is sent out upon the waves
Of a black boundless sea to where you drift,
Each in a separate lit room, as though on rafts,
Survivors of the great lost ship, The Day.
There is plenty more in this vein, and it inevitably becomes oppressive. Another source of irritation is that the language partakes of the writer’s Georgian origins. Poets of the twenties and thirties had a struggle to free themselves from the “poetic diction” that was generally espoused by the Victorians. Kandinsky said that in any age certain doors open for the artist, while some doors that have been open swing shut and from then on remain closed. Such is the case with poetic diction. I would find it difficult to write, “And wish, and wish – ah, what?” or to use “Alas” or a phrase such as “my heart grieves.” “The cry of mortal anguish from the soul’s dark night” fails to reach me. I’m sorry. I am more likely to say “I’m fucked” when I’ve fucked up.
As a reader, I perk up when Gascoyne starts to enjoy himself. The second section of Night Thoughts – the Megalometropolitan Carnival – proves to be much more fun. Here his modernist sense of discontinuity and collage stands him in good stead, as in the Publicity Chorus:
STRAPLESS BREASTAPPEAL BRA MAKES YOU HARDER TO GET
NEW LYNX LIMOUSINE WITH LOW FAMILY EYELINE
DON’T LET THEM DESCRIBE YOU AS DIRTY! GET ‘WET’
HOW’S YOUR COLON LOOK? TREAT IT TO LIQUORICE SOAP
WATCH APPROACH OF PHENOMENAL NEW STAR ON
VAN WORMWOOD EXCLUSIVELY FEATURED IN ‘DOPE’
DRINK MORE DRINK! WEAR MORE CLOTHES! DON’T LOSE
xxxHOPE! DON’T FORGET!
Changing the dynamic of the poem from the lugubrious to the satirical allows Gascoyne to revel in his flair for bizarre juxtapositions and over-the-top expression:
Have no anxiety at all. You’d look a million dollars at your worst.
Never let laughter falter lest its note sound forced, nor let your feet
Trip the less lightly over foolish fear; no one looks quaint
By being opulently over-lightly clad. Dance in the street!
Let the rare joy of true extravagance in dress carry you on
From whirl to whirl, and through hall after hall
Of topflight fashion, as from square to square dance floor!
May I remind you that there are none so mad
Among these streetwalkers that the red carpets spread
For your fleet crystal-slippered toes alone to tread
Will not inspire in them a rapt respect while you are revelling; not
one Who following your least step close as facsimile permit
Will not wish that she might be at once flash-photo’d dead
Were she but gowned with the unerring taste shown in your very shroud!
So fling yourselves headlong into our Carnival, and let our joy in it
Be long as night, and very, very loud!
The final section, Encounter with Silence, is a prose poem for several voices. It is the most elusive part of the work, and supplies me with a clue as to why Michèle Duclos chose to translate this obscure radiophonic endeavour. I can quite see that it works very well as a Gallic poème en prose. It is almost as if the author had this translation in mind when he wrote Night Thoughts. It has just that flow of syntax with a mélange of abstract nouns and atmosphere that frankly sounds better in French.
Anthony Howell is a poet and novelist whose first collection of poems, Inside the Castle was brought out in 1969. His poems have appeared in The New Statesman, The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. A former dancer with the Royal Ballet, and now a respected teacher of the tango, he is currently curating The Room, a space for dance, poetry and visual art in Tottenham.
Like a Fish Out of Batter by Catherine Graham. £6. Indigo Dreams. ISBN 9781910834305
This pamphlet consists of a series of poems inspired by L S Lowry’s paintings. Where the painting and poem do not share the same title, the painting’s title is given as an epigram so readers can track down the painting if they wish. Although there is a strong relationship between poem and painting, it’s not necessary for the reader to be familiar with the paintings. The poems mostly take a character from the painting and give them a voice, for example in the opening poem, ‘Factory Outing’ inspired by ‘Yachts, 1959’:
My ex was at the back of the bus, sat
next to her from Packaging. God she was
packed into that dress. Maybe I’ll just
stand here a bit longer, imagine life
beyond that horizon, but what the hell
do I know about life beyond any horizon,
standing here looking at yachts, feeling
lost, like a fish out of batter, praying
my period will come, either that or
with the next kind wave I drown.
As the phrase “like a fish out of batter”, which also gives the collection its title, suggests these are lives regulated not just by factory shifts but also society’s expectations that the working class know their place and only respectable married women become mothers. In a close-knit community, fear of being stigmatised and ostracised is greater, particularly when you lack the means to start afresh elsewhere. The painting is one of Lowry’s rare watercolours. He preferred to work in oils, which he felt offered more flexibility. His discomfort in the medium he was working in is reflected in the discomfort of the speaker.
Throughout the poems we meet Maureen and Ray, seeing their romance blossom, in
‘Girl with Bouffant Hair’:
My mother sits at the end of my bed,
watching me get ready to meet Ray.
‘I wish you wouldn’t backcomb your hair like that,
it makes you look common.’
It’s never worth answering my mother,
she loves me too much to listen.
Lowry’s ‘Girl with Bouffant Hair’, is a pencil drawing of a young woman who seems composed but thinking suggestive of a rich inner life. The poem suggests the mother is trying to draw her daughter, Maureen, to take care of her own image: the message is to look like a nice girl, even if you aren’t. The last line of the quote, “she loves me too much to listen” shows that the understands her mother’s motives but also knows it’s her place to defer to her mother and bow to her mother’s regulations. The nice girl on cinema dates with Ray is only the surface. Romance turns into a shot gun wedding because he’s reluctant to use contraception but prepared to stand by her. ‘A Doctor’s Waiting Room’ starts with the suggestion, “I always thought it would be// like in the movies, soft lights, music.” but it becomes:
I read somewhere, we remember
things in a certain way, that memories
survive sleep, coma, cold and heat.
I remember coming out of the Odeon,
how he pulled me into a doorway
to escape the rain. I remember
his fingers cold and wet, crawling
like caterpillars between my legs.”
The marriage endures, in the last poem, “Two People”,
“but we don’t do too badly for two people
who’ve been through life’s mill.
We may look odd against the white background
but at the end of the day we had the last laugh:
Grateful that the chemist’s shop was closed that morning
and after all these years plus eleven grandchildren,
we’re that devoted little couple, painted
on what might well have been a discarded cigar box.
The painting shows two stooped people, in sombre clothes, on a white background looking at something beyond the edge of the picture. Lowry did sometimes paint on cigar box lids which friends would save for him. Interspersing the poems with Ray and Maureen’s story gives the collection a sense of cohesion.
There is one poem that focuses on the artist, ‘Mother’ inspired by ‘The Bedroom, Pendlebury’:
In time, I shall paint the scene; capture
the emptiness when she is gone:
the dead white sheets
and the old blanket-box,
the solitary chair against the wall.
For now, a bloodshot portrait
as knuckles of coal fall to the hearth.
Lowry’s mother became bedridden after his father’s death and insisted that only Lowry could care for her, leaving him to paint into the small hours while she slept. The painting shows a bland bedroom with non-descript paintings on the beige walls dominated by a large iron bed with clean white sheets and a dark quilt. It’s the bedroom of someone who regulated her life to society’s expectations and buried her individuality; a housewife who lost her role when her husband died.
‘Like a fish out of batter’ could apply as much to the artist as the people in his artworks who inspired these poems. As with the best ekphrastic poems, Catherine Graham’s encourage readers to look at the original art with fresh eyes.
Emma Lee‘s most recent collection is Ghosts in the Desert (IDP, 2015). She was co-editor for Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves, 2015) and Welcome to Leicester (Dahlia Publishing, 2016). She blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com
Angels at the Edge by Alan Price. £3. Tuba Press. ISBN 9780907155690
Poetry has a fine tradition of connecting across and within art forms. Alan Price’s Angels at the Edge traces its provenance to Paul Klee’s ‘Angelus Novus’ which inspired German-Jewish writer Walter Benjamin to pen his prophetic poem ‘The Angel of History’. Klee’s painting depicts an angel being hit by the accumulated wreckage of human history. Tragically, Benjamin fell victim to one of history’s nastiest pieces of schrapnel and committed suicide rather than face capture by the Nazis in 1940. His work survived, however, and informs Price’s pamphlet.
In an homage born out of true admiration, Price uses Benjamin’s poem as a spring-board for his own pamphlet of 19 new poems. This is borrowing, not stealing – reimagining, not recycling. Price takes a succession of lines from Benjamin’s poem and creates new, historically linked pieces that not only connect to the core poem, but also with each other.
The poems share the same form (prose poems in blocks of between 15 and 20 lines). They offer thought-provoking insights into major historical events of the last 70 years, sometimes from a personal perspective, at times surreal or dialectical, and always fascinating.
Price’s language is muscular, clear and unafraid. ‘Be careful for there/ still exists a strange conniving to cast the new things/ back into diabolical shapes and forces.’ His angels are deliciously ambiguous, representing history itself perhaps, scapegoats for man’s own inhumanity, or simply bit-players in the tragedy of life. They are neither religious icons, nor the fluffy beings of angel therapy.
For example, ‘Angel 3’ deals with the Vietnam war: ‘Black angel bombers so becoming in their/ daylight makeup. Sticky with napalm jelly made hotter by the scald of holy water.’ ‘Angel 6’ offers up Margaret Thatcher as a Satana with a male erection, whilst ‘Angel 8’ tackles the Kings Cross fire: ‘I’m just your average working/man’s devil, democratic with my brimstone and sulphur, exhaling a woman of the cindered/ crowd (not to be awakened) then inhaling your mortal pleasure at staying alive.’ The bitter truth of that final phrase. Price has a dangerous honesty that won’t be silenced.
How far down our imaginations the role of angel has fallen is nicely pointed up in ‘Angel 14: ‘A lovely order has been trashed and/ the angel’s kept waiting at the door as we check/ its credentials. Now it approaches anyone not/ requiring its papers to be in perfect supernatural/ order. The official stamp’s been lost. The barcode’s/ reluctantly scanned, though the photograph’s out of focus and there is no date of birth. Only its home/ comes up, contained on a screen and ridiculed. One/ day we may need to ask it back in. Careful, it has/ a habit of vanishing!’
Alan Price’s poetic talent is rich in reference, but never at the expense of a deep pulse of humanity which informs so much of his work. He relishes intellectual challenge and philosophical debate. These nineteen poems contain so many historical moments to consider in the light of good and evil, of whether good and evil are still concepts with relevance. From Dürer’s etchings, Lech Walesa and electro-shock treatment, to the Holocaust, the id and super-ego and the IRA, Price has woven a deeply moving, thought-expanding tapestry of words to read and read again, and keep enjoying new meaning as it arises.
Claire Booker’s debut poetry pamphlet Later there will be Postcards is published by Green Bottle Press (www.greenbottlepress.com/our-books). Her poems have appeared in Ambit, Magma, The Morning Star, The Rialto and the Spectator among others. More at http://www.bookerplays.co.uk